What does it mean that Jesus “emptied” himself? Dr. Josh Malone unpacks the mystery of the Incarnation and explains what it means for Jesus to have emptied himself and taken on a human nature.

So the questions about Jesus considering him in his incarnate state and what it means when he is becomes incarnate, in Philippians 2 and the language there of ekenosen—he “empties himself.” And then secondly, maybe does that relate to when Jesus talks about not knowing the day or the hour of his return? These are giant questions in Christology. And you would guess that Christians have gone around and around. Particularly in modern Christology, there’s been a lot of energy expended toward that first question. Kenotic Christology, sometimes, this is called. So briefly, maybe I can mention a couple of the options.

Addition or Subtraction?

Some people have wondered, do you read a passage like Philippians 2 and that ekenosen term—that Jesus divested or lost something for the incarnation, particularly of his divine nature? There’s difficulty with that answer because it indicates God changes. It would raise, it seems, more questions than it solves. If God could just will away an aspect of his nature, would he still be God? That seems to be a problem. Some have gone for a softer version, a more functional version. Well, maybe what’s happening is God is just choosing not to tap into these attributes and there’s some kind of self-limitation there.It’s humbling for us to hear that by taking on humanity, Jesus is humbling himself and making himself low.Still, this raises actually quite a few questions about other texts and the operation of Jesus’ divine nature. That hasn’t been fully satisfactory, it seems. And there’s maybe a third option, some have wondered, maybe the text is talking about not loss of something, but a veiling, a hiddenness. Jesus hides his glory, perhaps, and there’s aspects of this going on. Now, certainly I think that option, we say, is true. The transfiguration indicates that his glory is veiled in some way, and yet maybe we might ask, is that what Philippians 2 is speaking about? Is there indication in that text that that’s what it’s referring to?

It seems to me that the better answer and one that’s been common in the tradition is if you look at what occurs just after that: that he did this by taking the form of a servant, by becoming in the likeness of man and by humbling himself to death. This is actually talking about the addition of a nature, not the loss of something in his divinity. So it’s humbling for us to hear that by taking on humanity, Jesus is humbling himself and making himself low. But it seems as though that is the logic of the text. That would probably help us, then, make sense that it looks just like Chalcedon in some way, that he’s in the form of God, but he takes on the form of man. And that’s actually a humbling and lowering.

Does Jesus Know the Day or the Hour?

The second question that we could consider is what do we make, then, of the texts in the Gospels, particularly when Jesus in Mark 13 says he doesn’t know the time or the day or the hour? And he goes on to say that the angels don’t know, that the Son doesn’t know, that the Father alone knows that. That’s a perplexing text that’s been perplexing to Christians across the tradition. And you’ve got a range of answers on how to Christianly answer that text, explain what’s going on. One of the answers, maybe the most straightforward answer, is to appeal to Jesus’ two natures and say, “Well, he’s God and he’s man.” And so according to his divine nature and according to his human nature, he can speak. And according to his human nature, he could say, “I don’t know.” And I think certainly that’s plausible. And that’s true. The difficulty, the issue that will be raised with that answer is, well, doesn’t that break, then, the unity in the incarnation of the person of Jesus if he can kind of speak both of these ways.

The Incarnation is the kind of thing that is always going to be shrouded in a bit of mystery because we can’t comprehend it fully.That’s asked and some have sought a second answer and thought, well, maybe Jesus isn’t indicating, “I just don’t know,” but he’s indicating, “I won’t reveal that.” And perhaps Mark 13 now gets read together with a passage that looks similar in some ways, in Acts 1. When Acts 1 indicates when the disciples ask him, “Is this the time you’re going to bring your kingdom?” And his answer there is it is not for him to reveal that, but that is the Father’s authority alone. And maybe that’s a parallel passage that would shed some light. So not knowing means not revealing. That kind of an answer appeals to Trinitarian relations, saying that God always works from the Father, through the Son, and by the Spirit. The first answer appeals to the two natures of Jesus. And again, both are true.

I am probably partial in some ways to the first answer. And let me just say briefly why. Mark 13—it’s emphatic in an interesting way that Jesus says he doesn’t know this, that the angels don’t know this, the Son, and the Father alone knows this. There’s something interesting and emphatic, and it seems maybe less compelling that he’s just saying, “I won’t reveal that.” Instead, it seems possible you read other texts in the Gospels—Luke 2—where Jesus grows in wisdom and stature. And you say, well, according to his humanity, he’s clearly growing in intellectual gifts. And we, I think, want to say the Spirit is actually investing intellectual gifts into Jesus through his development like we would grow in that. So I think that makes it much more plausible—to say something like, “Jesus truly could say, according to his humanity, he didn’t know that.” And that could work pretty well for that text. But he does now, maybe we would say.

These questions are great to think about, I think, because they push us right to the edge of the mystery of the Incarnation. And the Incarnation is the kind of thing that is always going to be shrouded in a bit of mystery because we can’t comprehend it fully because there’s nothing else like it. God becoming man, this happens once for all. And so there’s no other model or thing we can use to try to comprehend this. We can apprehend it, bear witness to it. But there’s some mystery involved.