The Eternal God Puts on Human Form / The Self Emptying of Jesus
1. Jesus, the Representation of God’s Glory
“Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed and all flesh will see it together ” (Isaiah 40:5).
Isaiah said that there is a manifestation of the glory of God coming and all flesh will see it together. It's interesting that he says, “Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed,” as if this had never happened before, as if there is a fulness of glory coming that will outshine everything that has been seen on earth before, a greater disclosure, a fuller, clearer, brighter revelation.
God had revealed His glory in the wilderness at Mount Sinai when Moses went up to commune with God; at the completion of the tabernacle and as the temple was completed, the glory of the Lord came and filled it. But Isaiah said that there is a fulness of glory coming and so it was. The glory of the Lord overshadowed the womb of Mary and conceived in her the life of Jesus. The glory of the Lord enveloped the pastures of Bethlehem and the Child who was born was the radiance of God’s glory:
“God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son, whom He appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the world. And He is the radiance (brightness) of His glory and the exact representation of His nature” (Hebrews 1:1-3).
Jesus was the shining revelation of God’s glory. Every time Jesus taught the truth, every time He healed a lame man or gave sight to the blind, every time He forgave sin, raised the dead or pronounced woe upon His persecutors, God was revealing the radiance of His glory.
Jesus is “the exact representation (or image) of His (God’s) nature.” The word representation or image is charakter from which we derive the English word character. It refers to an engraving, a figure stamped on a coin, an exact copy of something. Just as a coin bears the stamp or impress of something, so Jesus bore the exact stamp of God’s being.
The word nature is hypostasis and can be translated essence, person or substance. Hypostasis is the real essence of something. What God essentially is, was made manifest in Jesus. Jesus is the very image of God’s substance, essence and nature.
2. Jesus, the Fulness of Deity in Bodily Form
Paul says, “For in Him (Christ) all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form,” (Col. 2:9).
How could the fulness of Deity be contained in a human body? No one can explain this but we know what the Bible says: Jesus Christ was the essence of God, the fullness of God revealed in human form. Jesus is God and you see God manifest in Him: His judgment, His mercy, His power, His wisdom. Though incarnate in human flesh, Jesus still possessed the fulness of His divine nature and attributes. Though as we will see, He veiled the glory of His Deity and voluntarily limited the independent exercise of His attributes, He was still perfectly God while perfectly Man.
Son of God became incarnate as Son of Mary. The angel said to Mary, “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. ‘He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David” (Luke 1:31,32). Son of El Elyon and son of David — the God / Man.
How can this be? “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God” (1:35).
Perfect God became Perfect Man, “But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman” (Gal. 4:4). Only perfect God could make a perfectly holy sacrifice for the sins of the world; only perfect Man could offer Himself as the holy Substitute for sinful humanity.
3. Jesus, Great High Priest and Holy Sacrifice
“Therefore, since the children share in flesh and blood, He Himself likewise also partook of the same, that through death He might render powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might free those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives …Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things, so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation (satisfaction, conciliation) for the sins of the people” (Hebrews 2:14,15,17).
Jesus was made like His brethren in all things pertaining to the body, mind and emotions of a human being. He was truly a man, though without sin. He was incarnate as a human being so He could take upon Himself the sins of humanity and the judgement of God which our sins incurred and thereby break the power of the one who had bound humanity (the devil). Jesus, as our great High Priest, offered Himself to God as the Lamb of God, the holy offering and sacrifice for our sins — the Lamb slain for the sins of the world.
4. Jesus, the Father’s Word to us
Jesus was the Father’s Word to us in human form, God’s self-revelation, God’s unveiling of Himself to us: “God, after He spoke long ago to the fathers in the prophets in many portions and in many ways, in these last days has spoken to us in His Son” (Hebrews 1:1,2).
“No one has seen God at any time; the only begotten God who is in the bosom of the Father, He has explained (interpreted) Him,” (John 1:18).
Philip said to Jesus, “‘Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us.’ Jesus said to him, ‘Have I been so long with you, and yet you have not come to know Me, Philip? He who has seen Me has seen the Father’” (John 14:8,9). Jesus did not mean that God has a body — God is Spirit. But Jesus showed us what the Father is like in His nature, His essence.
The pre-existent, eternal Son of God entered time. God the mighty Creator became a humble creature to show us the heart and mind of the Father. Jesus’ greatest act of revelation was His redeeming death on the cross. There the Father displayed His judgment of sin and His mercy to sinners. On the third day, the Father displayed His love for His Son by raising Him from the dead and forty days later, seating Him at the right hand of the majesty on high.
But what did the Apostle Paul mean when He said that Jesus “emptied Himself” when He became a man? He could not cease being God, for God cannot cease to be. It’s important that we understand what this means because all cults have this in common — they either devalue the Deity of Christ or the humanity of Christ or both. Either is fatal to our understanding of Jesus.
The Self Emptying of Jesus
The Apostle Paul said, “Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men” (Philippians 2:5-7).
What does it mean that Jesus emptied Himself?
Paul says that Jesus existed from eternity “in the form of God” but did not consider equality with God something to be held onto. Rather, He took the form of a servant. The word form, in both uses here, is the Greek word morphe. There are two Greek words that can be translated into the English word form: schema and morphe.
Schema refers to the outward form or appearance which will change from time to time. Morphe refers to the inner, unchanging substance or essence of a person’s being. For example, you are a human being in your morphe and that will not be altered. However, your schema, your outward appearance, has changed throughout your life from a baby to a child to young adult and so on through the years. Whereas your schema, your outward appearance will continue to change throughout your life, your morphe, your humanness, will never change. You will never cease to be human, even in your glorified, perfected, resurrection body.
From eternity Jesus existed in the morphe of God, possessing the true essence and nature of God. It is His unchanging nature. He is and was and always will be God. As God, He is co-equal with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit. They share the same attributes and essence of being.
Jesus also took the morphe of a bond-servant, being made in the likeness of men. Likeness — homoioma — refers to the true reality of something that not only appears to be like something but is of the same reality. Jesus was truly, genuinely human, having all the attributes of a man. This was obviously true because most people did not recognize Him to be anything other than a man and rejected His claim to be the Son of God.
Jesus in His incarnation possessed two natures — He was the God / Man — Son of God, Son of Mary, two natures, one Person. He did not cease being God but while maintaining the morphe of God, He also took on the morphe of a servant and the homoioma, the exact likeness, the true reality of a man.
And Paul says that while Jesus “existed in the form of God”, He “did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” There is a two fold sense to this:
1. He did not grasp at equality with God because it was His possession. He did not need to grasp at who He is.
2. He did not hold on to equality with God so as to deny humanity a Redeemer.
From eternity Jesus existed in the form, the morphe of God, possessing the true essence and nature of God. He did not cease to be God but entered into another manner of existence, taking the morphe of a bond-servant, being made in the exact likeness of a human being so that He could bring salvation to human beings.
Whereas the first Adam grasped at equality with God (Genesis 3:5,6), though made in the image of God (Gen. 1:26), Jesus, though truly God, took the form of man, became the second Adam, born in human form to serve God’s purpose in redeeming a fallen human race.
How could the Creator take on the form of a creature? How could the eternal God enter and live in time? How could the God who is infinite take on human limitations? How could Jesus be perfectly God and perfectly Man? This is a holy mystery. But as a matter of faith we confess what the Bible reveals — that Jesus continued to be truly God while also becoming truly Man. Jesus continued to be the Creator of all, yet existing as a creature. He continued to be the everlasting, eternal, infinite God while entering the limitations of time and space.
Jesus became perfectly human without diminishing or relinquishing any aspect of His Deity. He remained perfectly God while becoming perfect Man, “The fulness of Deity … in bodily form,” (Col. 2:9).
Then what does it mean that Jesus “emptied Himself?” It surely cannot mean that He surrendered any of the qualities or attributes or essence of Deity because God cannot become less than God or more than God. In Malachi 3:6 God said, “For I, the Lord, do not change.” This is the doctrine of divine immutability. God cannot be diminished or extended. God cannot cease to be God.
Emptying Himself can mean:
1. Jesus emptied Himself of the privileges of Deity.
He left the riches of heaven to share the poverty of people (2 Corinthians 8:9). He left the glory of heaven to be born into a humble barn and live with humble people in a humble home. He left the worshipful glory of heaven to endure the slander and insults of people. The Creator of water became thirsty. The Almighty was subject to human infirmities — He became weary. The Holy One experienced temptation, though without sin.
2. He veiled His glory.
The writer to the Hebrews reminds us that Jesus is the radiance of God’s glory (Hebr. 1:3). Jesus did not divest or empty Himself of the glory of God — God cannot cease to be glorious. But He certainly shielded or veiled His glory, for who could have looked upon Him in the fulness of His glorious God-likeness? On the Mount of Transfiguration, Peter, James and John beheld the unveiled glory of Christ. But it would have been impossible to exist in the womb of Mary, to grow as a child in a common Jewish home or to preach the Gospel and call people to repentance and faith if the fulness of the shekinah glory of God had emanated from the person of Jesus.
Surely His glory was veiled at the cross as He, the Holy One, took our sin upon Himself; as He, the Just One bore the judgment for our injustice; as He, the Lord of Life, took our death upon Himself. Surely His glory was veiled.
3. But most truly, Jesus emptied Himself as He voluntarily limited the independent exercise of His attributes in humble submission to the Father.
Though Jesus did not relinquish any attributes of Deity, did not cease in any way to be fully divine, He limited the independent exercise of His attributes in humble submission to and dependence on His Heavenly Father and as a way of identifying with humanity. For instance, though as God He is omnipresent, when Jesus ministered among the people, He had to travel by foot or simple conveyance to His destination. Though on occasion it was the Father's good pleasure to grant supernatural conveyance, as when the boat He was in arrived on shore immediately (John 6:21), Jesus was still only present in one place at one time.
Though as God, Christ was omnipotent, possessing all power, it does not appear that He healed people because He was the Son of God but because He was anointed to heal by the Holy Spirit: In Luke’s gospel we read, “And the power of the Lord was present for Him to perform healing” (Luke 5:17). It seems that He was dependent on the Holy Spirit even as we are.
Though as God, Christ is omniscient, all wise, it does not appear that He normally exercised omniscience but rather, He received wisdom and knowledge from His Father, “For I did not speak on My own initiative but the Father Himself who sent Me has given Me commandment, what to say and what to speak" (John 12:49, also John 8:26, 15:15).
It appears that Jesus was dependent on the anointing of the Holy Spirit for the performance of ministry. In that sense, though perfectly God, He had emptied Himself of the independent exercise of divine attributes in submission to God the Father. He did not cease to be God but rather, God became a servant.
There is a sacred mystery here, for Jesus clearly stated, “I and the Father are one,” (John 10:30). Yet He also said, “I can do nothing on My own initiative. As I hear, I judge; and My judgment is just, because I do not seek My own will but the will of Him who sent Me,” (John 5:30).
He said, “Truly, truly I say to you, the Son can do nothing of Himself, unless it is something He sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, these things the Son also does in like manner,” (John 5:19).
His dependence on and submission to the Father surely speaks of the unity of the members of the Trinity. But there is also a sense of self emptying, the giving up of the independent exercise of some of the attributes of Deity in humble submission to the Father. In this He was identifying with ordinary folks like us — we too are dependent on the presence and power of God.
This is of course a mystery — two natures, human and divine, united in one Person. The mighty Creator became a creature. The Ancient of Days was born into time. Son of God became Son of Mary in humble submission to the Father.
The Second Person of the Trinity emptied Himself of the privileges of Deity, veiled His glory, and, “Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth” (Phlp. 2:8-10).
The creeds of the church do not attempt to explain this sacred mystery but do confess it as truth.
“We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God ... of one Being with the Father.
Through Him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation He came down from heaven:
by the power of the Holy Spirit He became incarnate from
the Virgin Mary and was made Man.
For our sake He was crucified ... He suffered death and was buried.
On the third day He rose again.”
(Excerpts from the Nicene Creed, first formulated in 325 AD)
1. What did Paul mean when he said, “For in Him all the fulness of Deity dwells in bodily form”? (Col. 2:9).
2. What did Paul mean when he said that Jesus “emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant and being made in the likeness of men”? (Philippians 2:7).