The Strange Math of Jesus: Emptying Himself by Adding Human Nature

Professor of Christian Theology
The Strange Math of Jesus: Emptying Himself by Adding Human Nature

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 emptied himself, by 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.

Whereas the eternal Son of the Father, the second person of the Trinity, had no beginning and will have no end, the incarnate Son—the son of David, the son of Mary, the Messiah—had a beginning in time and space. This Son,1 Jesus the Christ, was brought into being through the power of the Holy Spirit, as the divine nature of the eternal Son was miraculously joined together with a created human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. Luke’s account of this miracle—the grand miracle, as C. S. Lewis rightly called it—is riveting. Luke writes:

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. (Luke 1:26-35)

The conception of Jesus in the Virgin Mary was unique in the history of humankind. Not only did the Holy Spirit supernaturally bring about conception within her apart from the involvement of any human father, but even more remarkable was the uniting of the divine and human natures in Jesus, such that this one would be born the son of Mary (Luke 1:31) and the son of “his father David” (Luke 1:32) while also being “the Son of the Most High” (Luke 1:32), “the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). That is, he would be fully human (son of Mary) while also being fully divine (Son of the Most High). The miracle the Holy Spirit brought to pass, then, was to conceive in Mary none other than the God-man, the theanthropic person, Jesus Christ, son of David and Son of God.

The Nature of the Kenosis (Self-Emptying) of the Eternal Son

Given that the divine nature in Jesus was eternal and infinite while the human nature in Jesus was created and finite, one of the questions we ponder is just how these two natures could coexist in the one person. Could Jesus as both fully divine and fully human be, for example, simultaneously omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent—qualities of his eternal, divine nature—while also possessing a limited and finite human power, a limited yet growing knowledge and wisdom, and a restricted ability to be only one place at one time—qualities of finite, human nature? It seems clear that some qualities of his eternal, divine nature are simply incompatible with his true and genuine human nature, such that it would be impossible for him truly to live as a human if that so-called human life was also one in which he exhibited fully divine qualities such as omnipotence, omniscience, and omnipresence. In other words, would Jesus be truly and genuinely human if in his human experience he had limitless power, knowledge, wisdom, and spatial presence?

The crux of the answer to these questions comes in how Paul in Philippians 2:5-8 expresses the kenosis, the self-emptying, of the eternal Son as he took on human nature. Here Paul writes:

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 emptied himself, by 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.

Notice some crucial features of this important passage.

First, Paul makes clear that Christ Jesus, as the eternal Son of the Father, is fully God. He offers two expressions, each of which conveys the full deity of Christ. Paul writes that Christ existed in the “form of God” (v. 6), using the term morphē, which refers to the inner nature or substance of something, not its external or outward shape. So, while the English word form can convey merely the outward appearance of something (i.e., the shape or contour or facade of some object), not its inner reality, the Greek word morphē conveys just the opposite, as can be seen with Plato's “forms”—i.e., those substances of ultimate realities such as beauty, truth, justice, goodness, etc., that Plato thought existed eternally and apart from any material representation. The Greek morphē, then, is the inner substance or very nature of a thing, not its outer shape or appearance.

That Paul intends this understanding can be seen further in his second use of morphē, when he says that Jesus took the “form [morphēn] of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). Surely it is evident that Paul does not mean that Jesus took on merely the outer appearance of a servant, implying perhaps that though he looked like a servant, he was not in his own heart and life a true servant. Just the opposite: Jesus took on the inner substance and very nature, i.e., the form (morphēn), of what it means to be a servant, and that to its highest expression. As a servant, he served to the utmost, as he was obedient to the point of death, even death on the cross. So again, “form” (morphē, Philippians 2:6, and morphēn, Philippians 2:7) must mean the very nature of something, not merely its outer appearance. Therefore, Paul’s point in Philippians 2:6 is clear: Jesus, being the “form of God,” exists in very nature as God, with the inner divine substance that is God’s alone. He is fully God since he exists “in the form [morphē] of God.”

Paul also refers to Christ as possessing “equality [isa] with God” (Philippians 2:6), which likewise makes clear his full deity. Nothing is equal to God except God! As God declares of himself, through the prophet Isaiah, “I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me” (Isaiah 46:9; cf. Exodus 8:10; Exodus 15:11; Deuteronomy 3:24; 2 Samuel 7:22; 1 Kings 8:23;Psalms 71:19; Micah 7:18). Indeed, there is no god other than the one true and living God—so God is exclusively God—and there is no god who is like the one true and living God—so God is incomparably God. With this background in mind, Paul’s declaration that Christ possesses “equality with God” is stunning. It can mean only one thing: by virtue of the fact that no one can be equal to God but God himself, Christ, who possesses equality with God, must himself be fully God. Of course, as we often find where the deity of Christ is expressed, we see hints or outright declarations that someone other than Christ likewise is God. Since he is equal to God, this means that there is another who is God, in relation to whom Christ is his equal. So, as John puts it, the Word is both “with God” and is “God” (John 1:1), and Hebrews declares that Christ is the “exact imprint” of the nature of God (Hebrews 1:3). Likewise here in Philippians 2, Christ is both other than the one who is God (understood as the Father, no doubt) while he also is equal to this other one who is God and so is himself fully God.

Second, when Paul writes that Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (Philippians 2:6), he cannot mean that Christ gave up equality with God or that he ceased being fully God. Since he is fully God, he cannot cease to be fully God. God is eternal, self-existent, immortal, and immutable, and thus he cannot cease to exist as God, nor can he fail to be fully God. Surely what Paul means is this: Christ being fully God, possessing the very nature of God and being fully equal to God in every respect, did not thereby insist on holding onto all the privileges and benefits of his position of equality with God (the Father) and thereby refuse to accept coming as a man. He did not clutch or grasp his place of equality with the Father and all this brought to him in such a way that he would refuse the condescension and humiliation of the servant role he was being called to accept. Just how he could accept his calling to become a man while being (and remaining!) fully God, we’ll explore next. But here it is crucial to see that Christ’s not “grasping” equality with God cannot rightly be taken to mean that Christ gave up being God or became in any way less than fully God when he took on also a fully human nature. No, rather, he did not grasp or clutch onto the privileged position, rights, and prerogatives that his full equality with God, his Father, afforded him, in order to fulfill his calling to become fully a man who would be, amazingly, servant of all.

Third, as one who is fully God, Christ Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). The word that here is translated “emptied himself,” ekenōsen (third aorist indicative of kenoō), means literally just this: that Christ “emptied himself” or “poured out himself.” Note that Paul is not saying that Christ emptied something from himself or poured something out of himself, as if in so doing he became less fully God than he was before (which, as we have seen, is impossible). Rather, he emptied himself; he poured out himself. That is, all of who Christ is as eternal God, all that he is as the one who is in the form of God and is equal with God, is poured out. Christ, then, as God remains fully God. He loses nothing of his divine nature, and no divine qualities are removed from him as he pours himself out. No, Christ remains in his divine nature fully who and what he is in his existence as the eternal second person of the Trinity. He has eternally been fully God, and now in the incarnation he pours out fully who he is as God, remaining fully God as he does so.

The question then becomes just what this means—that Christ, the one who exists in the form of God (morphē) and as equal (isa) to God, pours himself out (ekenōsen). The answer comes, amazingly, in the three participles (particularly the first one) that follow ekenōsen. Christ poured himself out, taking the form of a servant. Yes, he pours out by taking; he empties by adding. Here, then, is a strange sort of math that envisions a subtraction by addition, an emptying by adding. What can this mean?

In brief, what this must mean is this: Christ Jesus, existing and remaining fully who he is as God, accepts his divine calling to come to earth and carry out the mission assigned him from the Father. As the eternal Son of God, who is himself the form (morphē, i.e., very nature) of God, he must come in the form (morphēn, i.e., very nature) of a servant. That is, he must come fully as a man, and as a man he must live his life and give his life as one of us. In so doing, Christ pours himself out (all of who he is) as he takes on, in addition to his full divine nature, a full human nature. Again, it is crucial to see that in the self-emptying (ekenōsen) of the eternal Son, Paul does not say that he poured something “out of” himself. No, absolutely not! Rather, he poured out himself. All of who he is as the eternal Son of the Father, as the one who is the form (morphē) of the Father, is poured out fully. Here, then, is no subtraction, strictly speaking. It is a “subtraction” (i.e., a pouring out, an emptying) by adding human nature to his divine nature. He came, then, to become the God-man—the one whose very divine nature took on fully the existence of a created human nature. He poured himself out by adding to himself the nature of a man, indeed, the nature of a servant par excellence who would give his life in obedience on the cross to fulfill the will of his Father.


1. The appellation “Son” is used of the second person of the Trinity in three distinct yet related senses in Scripture. (1) The eternal Word (John 1:1) is often referred to as “Son,” and in this sense he is the eternal Son of the eternal Father (e.g., John 3:16-17; Galatians 4:4; Hebrews 1:1-2; 1 John 4:9-10). (2) Jesus the Christ, Son of David and Son of Mary, who is the incarnate God-man, is referred to as the “Son” of God, and in this sense he is the incarnate and historic Son of the Father, conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary (e.g., Luke 1:31-35; John 1:33-34, John 1:49; Galatians 2:20). (3) The crucified but risen, ascended, reigning, and exalted Messiah is also referred to in a distinct way as the “Son” of God, and in this sense he is the risen and triumphant Son of the Father (e.g., Acts 13:32-33; Romans 1:3-4; 1 Corinthians 15:27-28; Hebrews 4:14).

The Man Christ Jesus

Taken from The Man Christ Jesus: Theological Reflections on the Humanity of Christ by Bruce A. Ware. Used by permission of Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers, Wheaton, Il 60187,

Liberal attacks on the doctrine of the divinity of Christ have led evangelicals to rightly affirm the centrality of Jesus’s divine nature for his person and work. At times, however, this defense of orthodoxy has led some to neglect Christ’s full humanity. To counteract this oversight, theologian Bruce Ware takes readers back to the biblical text, where we meet a profoundly human Jesus who struggled with many of the same difficulties and limitations we face today.