In the past two days we have seen that the incarnation of the Son of God was an act necessary to satisfy the wrath of a righteous God, but it was quite equally an act of love to a fallen world. Today we will look at the incarnation as the supreme act of humility.
In Philippians chapter 2 we find Paul’s immortal description of Christ stepping into human mortality:
“Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” (Philippians 2:5-11)
It is believed – at least by some – that the structure of this passage indicates that Paul was quoting from an early Christian hymn, commonly referred to as the Carmen Christi. If so, then this is an excellent example of how early Christians accepted Christ’s human and divine natures long before the Council of Nicea.
Earlier we had mentioned that Christ possessed two natures, and at the time we left it at that. But what do we really mean by “nature?” To speak of nature is to speak of what the early writers called “substance” or “ousia.” To have the substance of something was to possess its properties and characteristics.
So for Christ to have a divine (i.e., Godly) nature, He had to possess God’s characteristics – such as eternality, omnipotence, etc. And to have a human nature meant that He possessed the characteristics of a human – He became mortal, He hungered, He was tempted, etc.
A major point of contention in the Arian controversy was whether Christ was like God or whether He was God. Was He homoiousious – similar substance as the Father, or was He homoousious, the same substance. You can tell that these words are similar, but the ramification made more than one iota’s difference. Ultimately, the early church established that Christ was of the same substance as the Father, which harmonizes well with the whole of scripture (it’s tough to read “I and the Father are one” in John’s gospel and reach a different conclusion).
The union of these two natures came to be known as the hypostatic union, by which these two natures were indivisibly united, yet never diluted by one another. The sole exception was that by virtue of His divine nature, Christ could possess no sin nature.
Back to Philippians 2. Christ was God. King. Warrior. Lord. But in Luke and in Matthew, we find Him arriving as a child. And let’s not miss the obvious – God did not come into the world as a baby. He came into the world as an embryo – a developing mass of human tissue that fully contained His humanity and His divinity in the womb as well as outside it.
Philippians 2 uses a strange Greek word. The word in verse 7 (translated by the ESV as “made himself nothing”) is from the Greek ekenosen, a form of the Greek verb keneo, meaning “to empty” (so NASB). When Christ came to earth, He “emptied” Himself. Because of the Greek language used here, theologians came to call this Christ’s kenosis, His act of self-emptying.
The question that has been asked throughout history has thus been, what did He empty Himself of?
Some German writers claimed that Jesus retained the so-called “moral attributes” of God (i.e., His righteous character) and laid aside His “metaphysical attributes” (omnipotence, omnipresence, etc.). Other suggested that He emptied Himself of these attributes altogether.
But is this a necessary position? Further, how does this square with the very reason Christ came to earth?
Please follow me carefully on this point. Recall earlier that we established that the only way to satisfy the wrath of God was if God Himself could pay the price. Christ had to be fully God to do this. To be fully God meant to possess the nature, substance or attributes of God. To dispossess Himself of even a fraction of these attributes would mean that He was now less than fully God, and therefore unable to pay the penalty.
So what, then, of kenosis?
I suggest the following: too much weight is placed on the rare Greek verb ekenosen, and less emphasis is placed on the context. I suggest that the verse contains the means by which He humbled Himself – that He humbled Himself “by becoming a man” (so NET). That is, the act of self-emptying is a metaphor for the profound way that an infinite God would step out of the privilege of remaining with the Father, and to put on human skin and to walk among His fallen creatures.
This is why some writers refer to the incarnation as God “accommodating us.” God chose to try and relate to us by crossing that distance and living as one of us so that all might be saved.
CRADLE TO THE GRAVE
And it was this ultimate end that the incarnation finally speaks. The child who arrives at Christmas will ultimately be put to death at Easter. Incarnation leads inevitably to execution, and it was for this ultimate purpose that this young child came into the world.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes:
“God lets himself be pushed out of the world on the cross. He is weak and powerless in the world, and that is precisely the way, the only way, in which He is with us and helps us…The Bible directs us to God’s powerlessness and suffering; only the suffering God can help.” (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison)
And so the self-giving act of incarnation is most fully realized in death, as Paul says, “even death on a cross!” We are therefore thankful for a Savior willing not merely to clothe Himself in mortal skin, but to offer up that flesh to be pierced for our transgressions.
It was this subject that was addressed most fully by Athanasius (who we met in an earlier post), who writes against Arius in the fourth century:
“Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.
The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required. Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.” (Athanasius, contra Arianos, III, 33)
The promise of resurrection is the subject to which we will finally turn in tomorrow’s post, for it is worth noting that the Carmen Christi of Philippians 2 does not end with the suffering of the cross, but the glory of eschatological fulfillment.
Tomorrow we shall examine the incarnation for what it speaks of its eschatological implications.