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  • Writer's pictureDr. Roger D Duke

A Theological Reflection: The Self-Emptying of Christ Jesus



Roy O. Beaman, Th. D.

(This paper is posted in honor of one of my beloved professors Dr. Roy Beaman. It is my hope that you enjoy it.)


Text — “He emptied Himself” (Phil. 2:7)


Generally, the great theological passages of the New Testament were not framed as theological statements. They arose, rather, out of efforts to drive home some practical truth. A living situation of need called them forth of a life-situation of what the gospel was doing.

Two general illustrations must suffice. Luke 19:10 admirably illustrates the latter. The crowd murmured against Jesus when He planned to visit the house of Zaccheus. Jesus showed that the chief of the tax-collectors was a son of Abraham and entitled to receive His saving mercy. He buttressed this opinion by introducing the central purpose of His incarnation — “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save that which was lost.”

Mark 10:45 forcefully illustrates the former. The sons of Zebedee sought a place of honor for themselves. The ten were enviously “much displeased.” “You are acting like the Gentiles,” remarked Jesus; to the world greatness consists in one's exalted position over others. Jesus would have it just the opposite among His own. Greatness for them should consist in being a servant of all. To set forth the supreme example and argument for such unselfish conduct, Jesus introduced another phrasing of the central purpose of His incarnation — “For the Son of Man also came not to be ministered to but to minister and to give His life a ransom for many.”


After Paul sought to enforce humility upon the Philippians by earnest exhortation, by forceful logic, and by appeal to social obligations, he climaxed the practical plea by referring to the supreme example of humility, the voluntary humiliation of Christ Jesus in His incarnation. Thus the person and work of Christ became the acme of appeal for practical living. This is the proper use of profound theological postulates. Orthodoxy and orthopraxy are conjoined, as root and fruit, as teaching and living, as argument and response. Sound doctrine that does not result in sound living and healthy attitudes fails of its grand purpose.

Now hear the words — “Have this attitude among yourselves which was in Christ Jesus also; Who, though He was existing in the form of God, regarded not the being on an equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied Himself, in that He took the form of a slave so as to become in the likeness of men; and since He was found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself in that He became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).

Shortly, I shall center our thoughts around the words “He emptied Himself,” translated in the AV as “made Himself of no reputation.” For a moment, however, let us see the words in their full context. Start with the climax Paul reaches — rather the depths of humiliation to which Christ Jesus emptied Himself, that is, emptied Himself of glory.

“The death of the cross” to which He became obedient to His Father’s redemptive will up to the point of death speaks more of its shame than of its suffering. The Lord of glory stooped to the most foul, most cruel, and most shameful way of dying yet devised by the customs of the Greco-Roman world.

“Fashion as a man” is in striking contrast with the two instances of “form” in preceding statements. The word “form” speaks of that inner reality which shows itself outwardly. The word “fashion” (Greek schema, from which our “scheme” comes) emphasizes what men saw. It is equivalent to saying that in outward appearance He seemed to be a mere man and nothing else.


The Apostle did not follow out the full ramifications of what he meant by “emptied Himself,” but three specific explications of what he meant mark out the lines of his meaning. My task will be to pursue these hints further in Paul’s writings and in the life-experiences of Jesus. Now ponder closely Paul’s three specifications.

First, His self-emptying resulted in His becoming in the likeness of men. This includes His becoming a man, the central event in His incarnation or “en-flesh-ment;” but it gives a significant turn to this momentous event. It leads our thoughts up to the problem of discovering wherein He resembled other men and wherein He was unlike other men. This is one of the chief undertakings of my paper.

Second, His self-emptying consisted of or resulted in his taking the form of a slave. The word “form” indicates that this was no mere seeming humiliation as the Docetics held. His humiliation was real, deep, and abiding. This, too, will form the topic of the investigations and correlations of truth attempted in this hour.

Third, the strong adversative conjunction “but” sets His emptying Himself in opposition to what has just been mentioned. He did not do a certain way but did another thing; that is, the self-emptying. He could have held on to His equality with God in every sense; He possessed this in the inner depths of His person.

He was existing in the form of essential essence of God. He did not have to grasp this equality; He inherently,spontaneously, underivedly, and eternally existed as such. No stronger statement of the essential and absolute deity of Christ Jesus appears in the Bible, nor can I imagine how words could convey such more explicitly than these do.

The definiteness and the explicitness of this utterance portray forcefully the depths of His humiliation in His emptying Himself in any sense. The more extensive and intensive His self-emptying, the more forceful Paul’s appeal to this unsurpassed example for teaching saved people genuine Christian humility toward self, toward others, and toward the Lord.

Threefoldly, thus, the great theologian indicates the specifications and limitations of Jesus’ emptying Himself. Whatever one seeks to make the words mean must be consistent with these three qualifications. No better clues as to his meaning are available than these indications. The remainder of this paper, therefore, will seek to follow these delineations into the broad ramifications of Biblical truth.


Can we discover some phases of His emptying Himself? Can we discover some phases of His not emptying Himself? Can these be related to certain major attributes of His person? Can these limitations of His emptying Himself be traced through living situations during His incarnation and on into His present exaltation and intercession at the right hand of the Father? My conviction of the broad implications of this event in His life — He emptied Himself — alone justify my choice of this topic for your consideration.


Of two things Christ Jesus could and did empty Himself without any moral disqualification.


The specific thing in the mind of Paul in Philippians 2 is that Christ Jesus laid aside the outward glory of deity and so veiled it in His humanity that it was hardly discerned by the onlooker. This should have killed any remaining self-glorification in the minds of his readers.

Isaiah 53 develops this phase of His humiliation quite at length. “His visage was so marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men” (Isaiah 52:14). The word “visage” refers to more than the countenance, though that is included. It speaks of the entire appearance of the Servant of Jehovah. The outward insignia of deity were laid aside. Men did not see this effulgence of brightness which was His.

“For He shall grow up before Him as a tender plant and as a root out of a dry ground; He has no form nor comeliness; and when we shall see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. He is despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief; and we hid as it were our faces from Him; He was despised and we esteemed Him not” (Isaiah 53:2-3).

His beginnings were not with outward show. His birth was not heralded with earthly pomp. He resembled the plant growing out of ground poorly watered and tender because of lack of rich soil and moisture. Outward charm to appeal to the eye of man He did not have. His personality was not colorless, but no outward beauty reminded people that He was the Glorious Son of God.

His grief and sorrow were written deep into all that He did. That does not mean that He never smiled, but beneath His outward appearance as a bringer of joy was a deep sense of the fact that He was born to die. Men, even the prophet Isaiah when he first looked down through the centuries, turned their faces away from Him. Until the truth of who He really was dawned on them, they did not regard His real worth and identity.

“For ye know the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, that, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, that ye by means of His poverty might be made rich” (II Corinthians 8:9). The abject poverty of His earthly life is set in contrast with His glory with the Father before the world was. From riches to poverty, from glory to shame, from the fellowship of His Father to the loneliness He often felt among men — these steps into the abyss of humiliation He gladly took that He might lift us out of poverty, shame, and weakness into boundless riches in Christ Jesus. No work can fully express the depths of His humiliation from glory to shame that we might know His name and dwell with Him in glory evermore.


While He lived in glory in eternity past, He exercised the full rights of deity. No limitation in the full exercise of these attributes did He ever experience. If, however, He had become as a man and still have exercised the full powers of deity, the very purpose of His incarnation would have been defeated. Incarnation meant laying aside the constant use of what He possessed and had through all eternity employed. The contrast is higher than the heavens; the humiliation is as deep as the weaknesses of mortal man.

This laying aside of the exercise of the prerogatives of deity and His dependence upon the power of the Holy Spirit were so complete that, in reading through the Gospels, one may err in his efforts to discern whether a specific activity of Jesus is to be traced to His humanity or to His deity. The actions of Jesus Incarnate fall into three classes. Many actions are clearly human actions; some are clearly actions of His deity; some are hard to categorize.

His incarnation means that deity and humanity became one in His person. His nature was twofold — divine and human. His personality was single. The two natures acted through one center of consciousness. Evidently, He controlled the degree or amount of His activities from each nature. His consciousness could allow the divine nature to be dominant or this seat of consciousness could limit Himself to the inflow of purely human powers.

Our inability to categorize every action of the God-Man as divine or human must not negative either of the qualities or sources of His actions. To insist that we must be able to understand and classify each and every action is to reduce the God-Man to the level of a mere man. The fact that two natures united in one person means a certain mysteriousness inheres in what He did and what He was. This blending of His activity, however, was such that He truly became a man and took our place and faced our problems so as to die for our sins and to be able to sympathize with us in our infirmities.

Because of the limits of our understanding of the mystery of His self-emptying, faith rejoices in the fact and leaves to divine wisdom the balance of the operation of the two natures in Christ Jesus. Both are there; that is glorious. Both are evident; that is reassuring. Not all can be discerned about them by human intelligence, even the intelligence of redeemed sinners; that calls for the operation of faith and trust on our part.


Consistent with His moral perfection, His self-emptying had two limitations. The limitations were not externally imposed by an opposing force nor by an esoteric influence nor by a destructive fate. The limitations arose out of the spontaneous nature of what He was and must ever remain so or cease to be God the Son. Thus these limitations are not imperfections but the essential insignia and intrinsic qualities of the highest perfection.


He could not empty Himself of or lay aside the actual possession of the rights of deity. The prerogatives or attributes of deity are the very stuff of which God consists. Of these He subsists and exists. To renounce the possession of the prerogatives of deity would be for deity to pass into non-existence. That is a philosophical and logical impossibility. That Christ Jesus could not do and remain Himself.

In becoming a man, His self-emptying process must not go to the extremes of disqualifying Him for the very purpose intended in His humiliation, That would be self-defeating. To lay aside His equality with God is one thing; to lay aside the constant use of that equality is an entirely different thing. The second He gloriously and self-forgetfully did; the first He could not do and remain the Lord from Glory.


He could not become a sinner in His humiliation. Two things would show the necessity of our accepting this limitation in all its ramifications. From the viewpoint of His mortal perfection, the Holy One could not become unholy, the Sinless One could not become an actual sinner, the Eternal Lawgiver could not break the laws which are the expression and embodiment of His perfect nature and mind.

From the viewpoint of the mission which He came to perform, He could not become that which He came to eradicate. If He had been conquered by sin in nature, in thought, in word, or in deed, then such would have wholly incapacitated Him as redeemer of sinners from their sins. If He had broken in any wise the law from whose penalty He came to deliver us, then that law would have exacted His death unless someone could have been found to rescue Him. Not only is such logic impossible; such a fact or event in the life of the spotless Son of God is both unthinkable and impossible.


For the sake of clarity, this self-emptying of Christ Jesus may be related to three major attributes of His deity. An attribute is here understood to mean an essential trait of His being or very existence. Without these, He would not be God. Without the full exercise of these, He could be the God-Man, our Redeemer.


There is no place where God is not. His being fills all conceivable space. The human mind can no more conceive of how this attribute became limited in His becoming man than it can fathom the depths of the mystery of God himself or the mystery of the event of incarnation itself. The grace in the transaction, however, is couched for us in that Glorious name Immanuel, “God with us.” When He became a man, He could be in only one place at a time and had to move to other places as an ordinary man.

He does, after His glorification and until His second coming, dwell personally in heaven. His omnipresence in indwelling believers is now made realistic within us through the Paraclete, His other self, the indwelling Holy Spirit. It was profitable for Jesus to go away so that the Comforter could come to take up the work Jesus in dying and ascending to the Father left.

His movements in His resurrection body do not negative this limitation set by Himself in His incarnation or self-emptying. There was, however, something beyond the power of the human mind to perceive which enabled Him to be present with the disciples behind closed doors and to vanish immediately upon the recognition of His identity when He broke the bread and gave thanks in the Emmaus home. Our limited perceptive powers must bow humbly before the magnitude of what He was and became and will ever remain for our redemption and transformation.


From eternity, He was the all-powerful One. He could choose to create or not to create. He could choose to use His power or to desist from using it. Intrinsically and objectively, no limitation can be set upon omnipotence. When omnipotence defines a course within which it will operate, then omnipotence per se is not limited. Only the range and degree of the operation of omnipotence is limited.

Within the perfection of deity, one limitation inheres. His power cannot be exercised except consistently with His holiness. The attributes of deity are not separate entities. We must not atomistically view them; we must correlate them and allow them to operate as various sides of the one perfect Being that God is. The power of the God-Man could not operate immorally in the slightest degree, but the failure to use power for His personal advantage could bring many privations and sufferings.

The fact that this omnipotence was latent there in His glorious person for use whenever and to whatever degree He might wish to employ it argues so much the more for the boundlessness of His love that denied Himself the use of such power with the solitary purpose of redeeming sinful man. His self-emptying of the constant use of His omnipotence constitutes the most resplendent feature of His humiliation and signilizes the depths of His matchless love.

The All-Powerful One became weak. The Creator of the universe lived with the weakness of the creature. He even allowed His crucifiers to taunt Him that He had not the power to save Himself out of their cruel hands.


As deity, He knew all things. As man, He learned all that He knew. There is no moral quality in His having to learn. It was a limitation which His love imposed on Himself. It cannot be counted against the perfection of His character.

On the other hand, however, we must not segregate His learning from His moral perfection. He learned as other men, only that His learning, like all other acts of the God-Man, was perfect. He did not have to unlearn because He had learned wrongly. He never taught an untruth. He never perceived truth erroneously. If He had stooped that far, He would not have been “the Truth” (John 14:6).


In this final section of our study, I porpose to consider His self-emptying as it operated in various life-situations during His life on earth and in His present attitude toward His redeeming work.


The grand end of the self-emptying of Christ Jesus was that He was to become man. This was a necessary step in the scheme of redemption. It was the most momentous step in His emptying Himself and led naturally to all the other phases of His gracious humiliation.

In the words “He emptied Himself,” Paul gives no hint as to the avenue through which this was actualized, but the wondrous avenue of a virgin birth alone comported with this process. It is idle for us to speculate that He might have chosen other ways. These He did not choose. His ways are above ours and past our comprehension, but little does it become our feeble understanding to suggest that other ways would have been as good. Did not His wisdom choose the best? If He wisely chose it, how can it be wise for us to speculate otherwise and not gladly believe it?

As suggested already, His emptying Himself “in that He took the form of a slave so as to become in the likeness of men” poses the problem of wherein He resembled other men and to what degree He was unlike other men. Paul made this much more explicit in Romans 8:3. God sent forth His Son “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” In these two contexts, the word “likeness” is the same, but that to which the “likeness” is compared is significantly different. Note the difference — “likeness of men” and “likeness of sinful flesh.” 

Two passages of somewhat similar import to these may help us to grasp the meaning of His emptying Himself to the point of being “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” This is admittedly the crux of all New Testament passages on this mystery of the incarnation. The limits of His humiliation are here reached, and one needs all the clues from other utterances which may be gathered. If at any point in our study, a reverent and cautious spirit is imperative, such is needed here.

“And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14). Ponder the word “became.” He did more than assume human nature; He became an actual man. The humanity of Jesus was not a mere seeming but a reality. He remained what He had been from all eternity — God. He became what He had never been before — man. He will ever remain both God and man — the God-Man.

Upon conversion, we do not become “Godmen,” to borrow the term of Nels Ferre. We remain human and do not become divine. To become God’s man (that is, possessed and controlled by God’s power) is not to become a “Godman.” No incarnation takes place with us. We are naturally “in-fleshed.” We cannot become what we already are. To be indwelt by Christ through the Holy Spirit is not an incarnation. To use such language may arouse interest on the part of some by the novelty of its expression, but such analogies express basic incongruities and adulterates Scripture terminology without clarifying truth.

“And the Word became flesh” (John 1:14), not “the flesh.” The fact that the Greek for “flesh” is anarthrous is significant.

The article would imply full correspondence with the moral qualities of humanity as it now is or “the flesh” (depraved flesh). “Out of the flesh” in 3:6 is arthrous and is equivalent to our saying the unregenerate man. “Flesh” in 3:6 is anarthrous because it is the rule of the Greek not to have the article with the predicate nominative.

Likewise, the absence of the article with “flesh” in I Timothy 3:16 affirms similarity but denies identity. Herein lies clear discrimination about the quality of Jesus’ humanity. It was truly real but lacked a telling point of sameness; namely, sin.

Now, the explicitness of “the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3) catches up all that is said in the other passages and pushes the self-emptying of Christ Jesus a step further. It affirms more than that He became flesh or a human being. That alone is wonderful. It affirms that He was made “in the likeness of sinful flesh.” Three things are implied in this statement —

First, the statement denies sameness with fallen Adam. He could not become “sinful” flesh. His moral perfection could not become moral imperfection. This statement does, however, demonstrate that man possesses a “sinful” nature. It would be useless to discriminate sinful flesh if man is not such. The avenue of the incarnation by the Virgin Birth proves that man is sinful by nature.

Note that there are three differences between Adam in Eden and us in sin —

(1) Adam was never a baby. He and Eve were created full-grown. This point, however, is not crucial here since it is without moral significance.

(2) Adam’s environment in Eden was perfect; there are many features of our environment that allure us to sin. Christ Jesus, like sinful flesh and not like Adam, was born into and lived within a sinful environment.

(3) Unfallen Adam had no taint of sin; we are born tainted by sin (Ephesians 2:3). If Adam as created had in him any tendency toward sin, then such is chargeable to God. If Adam fell into sin and as the natural and federal head of the human race transmitted a sinful taint to all of his descendants, then such is chargeable to him and to us as his offspring. As created, Adam was in a perfect state of moral poise. He had no inclination toward sin; on the contrary, he had no confirmation in righteousness. He stood with full liberty of choice.

Since Adam’s fall, the human race has had the power to choose right and wrong, as did Adam. Man is not fated to the point of having to choose evil. He chooses freely what He chooses. The will of fallen man or “sinful flesh” is, however, both weak and wicked. We may have difficulties in seeking to define the hairbreath margin between the two, but both are there as facts despite our limitations in perceiving the exact interrelations between them.

Since Adam’s fall, the human race has been responsible for its moral choices. I may not reach clarity in defining the exact line of interaction of weakness and wickedness in unregenerate man; my inability must not be so stated as to blur in my own mind or in the mind of another the sense of responsibility. To fall back on inherited depravity as an excuse for my sin brings against me Ezekiel’s incisive rebuke. He did not deny that the parents had eaten sour grapes; he denied that the teeth of the children were so set on edge as to destroy personal responsibility.

Second, the statement of the likeness of sinful flesh denies sameness with unfallen Adam. 

Third, it affirms likeness to fallen Adam rather than to unfallen Adam. Jesus had the weaknesses incident to the fall of man — as tiredness, sorrow, pain, etc. These limitations incident to the fall, unfallen Adam did not have. These limitations show how near Jesus came to us in His loving condescension without in any wise partaking of the defiling power of sin. Only His holiness could contact sinful man so tangibly, so realistically, and so emphathetically without Himself becoming maculate or stained thereby. That means that His sympathy or His being touched with the feeling of our infirmities is in no wise a sham or make believe. Though we may feel to stand apart from Him because of the distance between our defilement and His immaculacy, His very real humanity reaches across the gulf and draws us to His heart in fullest understanding. His heart beats in unison with our heart woes and throes.

If this definition of what His emptying Himself and becoming in the likeness of men is correct, then the sinlessness of Jesus in act, thought, and word follows. His sinlessness is proven by the testimony of His enemies, by His own moral consciousness, and by the power of His purity to make the impure pure. One cannot influence another to become what he is not; if Jesus had been a sinner, He could not have taken away the impurity of the impure.


At the age of twelve, Jesus was fully conscious that God was His father. Human curiousity seeks to look backward and forward from this point in His experience.

It is idle to speculate as to how much earlier He possessed this consciousness. God did not choose to tell us. One cannot affirm nor deny. One must be content to let the veil hang where Omniscience left it. We can be thankful that He knew and asserted this consciousness at this point in His development.

We can be more certain of the growth of this consciousness from that time onward. As He matured, the consciousness became stronger, and from it He never swerved throughout His entire career. Maturity as a man gave Him a broader insight into the fuller significance of His unique person. If He had allowed the full and instantaneous inflow of the divine side of His nature into the center of consciousness, this would have been the opposite of the self-emptying process.

The crucial point in His consciousness of Messiahship is not its gradualness nor the place of His realization of it. Crucial, however, are the fact of it and the quality of it, and it is this last phase which I wish to emphasize.

In the unfoldment of His consciousness of divine mission, did He make mistakes? Is there a consistency in the development of His consciousness of His deity? Did He, to mention the theory popularized by Albert Schweitzer, expect a quick realization of the outward phases of the Davidic kingdom and then turn from it in disappointment? Did He envision His death only after such a change in expectation or change in Messianic consciousness? These are the crucial problems.

The degree of His self-emptying is determined by who He was. His being on an equality with God sets moral limits to His self-emptying. He could not so empty Himself of omniscience as to misunderstand His mission as Schweitzer claimed.


Adam had no leaning toward sin and yet chose sin freely; Jesus had no leaning toward sin but had the weaknesses incident to the fall. Jesus’ temptation was, therefore, more realistic than was Adam’s. In it all, however, Jesus was able not to sin. From the viewpoint of His deity, He was not able to sin; from the viewpoint of His humanity, He was able not to sin.

Yes, there is a paradox here; but not so keen a paradox as the union of two natures — divine and human — which is the heart of His incarnation, in one person. Why let the smaller paradox drive you to hesitancy about the miracle of Jesus Christ? If you must stumble at the supernatural, take the greatest miracle of all — God-Man, the union of God and man in one person.

If one would understand the temptation of Jesus, he must think of Adam in Eden. Jesus came as the Second Adam to undo the fell work of Adam in Eden. His humanity was on trial, not His deity.

The word “be” in “if thou be the Son of God” does not indicate doubt. More modern English follows the Greek if we render it, “If you are the Son of God.”

Satan tempted Jesus to use His deity to turn stones into bread to satisfy the nedes of His human nature. If He had yielded, then He would have negatived in large measure the self-emptying effects of His humiliation. If He had yielded, then He would not have been the perfect man, able to become our Savior.

The issue in Eden was — Can God trust man? Man was found undependable. He desired that which was forbidden, a thing which did not constitute a real need, and took into his own hands means for obtaining that wrongly-desired object. Jesus faced, on the contrary, a real need. He had eaten nothing for forty days. His desire was for something to sustain life, not a fancied fruit to tickle the pride of the flesh; yet He resolutely trusted His case into the hands of His Father for the supply of His need.

Thus He was not tempted to prove His deity but to use His deity to supply His needs contrary to the blueprint of the Father for Him. He emptied Himself of the constant exercise of His omnipotence and would not at all be persuaded to use it on this occasion.

The second effort of Satan takes for granted the victory of Jesus on the point of His perfect humanity. Adam had lost dominion over creation through his disobedience. Christ Jesus assumed the obligation to redeem the world back to God, both natural creation and the world of men. Satan proposed that Jesus worship Satan and thus obtain what He came to redeem. The test here concerned His devotion to His Messiahship. Would He take a proposed shortcut? Would He draw from the sufferings of privation and ultimate death on Calvary? He closed His eye to the glittering offer of the kingdoms of the world and kept His eye on the worship of God alone. Jesus did precisely what Adam in Eden failed to do.

Now that His humility stood the onslaught of Satan and His devotion to His self-chosen role of Messiahship could not be corrupted in any manner, Satan proposed sensationalism as the means of obtaining the acceptance of the people. Again, Satan tempted Christ Jesus to use His deity to impress the multitudes. If He would gradually float down to the expectant multitudes from the high pinnacle of the temple, then His success would be assured.

Christ Jesus had emptied Himself of the constant use of His prerogative of unlimited power and would not take the matter out of the hands of His Father. He would win the hearts of men by the slow process of teaching them, thus wooing and winning them to heart-faith in Him as the Messiah of God. He desired more than the hand-clapping of the populace; He desired to captivate the citadel of the heart.

Here were settled the quality of His humanity, His role as Messiah, and His method of becoming acknowledged as the God-Man. The later steps in His ministry follow consistently this devotion. His consciousness of Messiahship was clear at this stage, and He never swerved therefrom. He had emptied Himself to the point of becoming in the likeness of men and appearing in fashion as a man. He remained true to this initial act.

When one considers that Jesus emptied Himself to the point of being made in the likeness of sinful flesh or partook of the weaknesses incident to fallen man, then His sinless life appears more clearly as an achievement. He was not fenced around; He felt keenly the bite and the power of sin but never yielded to it for a moment. Sin found in Him no peg on which to hang its tinsel garments. His sinlessness, considered in its ultimate outcome, was achieved through struggle with temptation.


Possessed of the omnipotence of deity, He could have wrought His miracles without dependence upon the Holy Spirit. His casting out a demon from a blind and dumb man (Matthew 12:22) had precipitated the charge of league with Beelzebub. The central point in the sin of His accusers was blasphemy against the Holy Spirit in casting out demons — ”But if I in the Holy Spirit am casting out the demons” (Matthew 12:28). His doing this “in the Holy Spirit” means in the sphere of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit furnished the power and direction. This dependence upon the Holy Spirit was a part of His self-emptying.

Scripture does not warrant one to say that never did His deity display itself in His miracling. This story just cited is indisputable proof that He wrought the miracle in the power of the Holy Spirit. One cannot delve into the inner workings of interplay between the divine and human elements in His person. One, however, can cite this instance to show that He emptied Himself of the exercise of the power of deity except under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.


What was the quality of Jesus’ teachings? Some hold that He never taught an error; some hold that He taught several things which moderns know to be untrue. In several areas of the beliefs and teachings of Jesus, this crucial issue could be treated. Most liberals choose to cross swords with evangelicals on His thinking about demons, and the truths may as easily be set forth on this point as on any other.

What did Jesus think about demons? He evidently believed that demons really existed. He evidently thought that He cast them out. No one doubts His keen insight into human nature and frailties. No evangelical would undervalue His keen psychiatric understanding and ability to cope with psychical problems. The only issue is as to whether this exhausts Jesus’ dealing with demons. The terms of the Scripture demand more. The liberals own this much by their theory about Jesus’ belief in the existence of demons.

Rawlinson represents this liberal view that Jesus “shared in the beliefs of His time . . . since it was plainly involved in the fact of the Incarnation that His human mind should be that of a Palestinian Jew of the first century, and that He should not be in possession of miraculous information as to the physical or psychological causes of disease” (A. E. J. Rawlinson, Westminster Commentaries: The Gospel according to St. Mark, p. xlviii). The problem does truly become a Christological problem and strikes deep into the real meaning of His incarnation.

Rawlinson, however, befogs the issue on two counts. He supposes that the “human mind” of Jesus was “that of a Palestinian Jew of the first century.” He was truly a man, but no Scripture statement limits Him to the level of “a Palestinian Jew of the first century.” He often took issue with the Palestinian Jews; He showed no tendency to fall into their narrowness and prejudices. It is manifestly unfair to limit thus the “human mind” of Jesus. He was uniquely the Universal Man, the Perfect Man.

Rawlinson's second error stems from his first error. The quality of Jesus’ knowledge was not dependent upon the “possession of miraculous information as to the physical or psychological causes of disease.” As man, He achieved sinlessness. His humanity must be weighed apart from His possession of “miraculous information.” Did He learn error and teach error? That is the issue.

A trilemma arises. First, Jesus shared the views which He held because He knew no better; this would convict Him of ignorance.

Second, He shared these views because He knew better but passed over denying them because He would not antagonize His hearers since He wanted to teach more important truths; this would, though one may own some truths to be more important for their purpose than others, convict our Lord of insincerity. Both of these horns of the trilemma strike at the moral perfection of our Lord. One other horn of the trilemma remains.

He shared these views and taught them because they are true; this would exonerate His intelligence and sincerity. The evangelical has no option but to accept the moral perfection of his Lord. Only the liberal is content to worship an imperfect Lord Jesus.

Let us face the outcome. If He taught error, then He was sinful and a sinner. If one claims that He taught ignorantly, then His sin of ignorance would need atonement. If He taught insincerely when He knew better, then another would be needed to atone for His insincerity.

Some argue that He could as easily limit His knowing as His doing, His omniscience as His omnipotence. The analogy does not hold. The limitation of the exercise of Jesus’ omnipotence resembles God’s allowing any resistance to His holy will. This is based largely upon God’s choosing to make man a free-acting, destiny-determining creature. But two limits are to be remembered — man cannot overpower God, and man cannot entice God to exercise power in a manner inconsistent with His holy nature.

It is sometimes urged that He volunteered not to know. His deity could not deny that which He spontaneously and underivedly possessed — that is, perfection of knowledge. His humanity progressively came to know. It is not a question of learning or refusing to learn; it is the crucially all-important question of the quality of His knowing.

The quantity of His human knowing, like man’s knowing, is limited in attainment and progressive in its acquisition or growth. The quality of His human knowing, like all the facets of His moral perfection, could not be limited. To limit moral perfection equals moral imperfection. For Him to have misperceived moral truth and to have approved error would have made Him a sinner. It was at this very point that He achieved in all things moral perfection, the Sinless One.

Again, if we admit that Jesus taught one untruth, how shall we argue that He did not teach many untruths? Who is to specify what teachings of Jesus are truth and which are untruth? How are we then to be assured that He was not in error about His claims to Messiahship? By what principle of reasoning are we to deduce that His promise of salvation is not among His possible errors?

The dilemma is simply this — we must give up trusting Him as a reliable Savior or own that His sinlessness and reliability pervade all His knowledge, all His thinking, all His feeling, and all His doing. In all things He is the Sinless One or He is the Sinful One. No one ever made such a claim as did He. If He made mistakes in His knowledge, then He is the Arch Blunderer.


In a sense, the transfiguration of Jesus reversed in part His self-emptying and looked toward His exaltation (Philippians 2:9-11). The word “transfigured” (Matthew 17:2; Mark 9:2) is rich indeed. It must be interpreted along with Philippians 2. It means to change into another form. It refers to the intrinsic and essential, the inner and permanent form. A synonym could have been chosen to indicate a change of form. This word emphasizes the outward, accidental, and transient. Paul used the root of the weaker word for his “conformed to this world” and the stronger word for his “be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind” (Romans 12:2).

To understand the transfiguration crisis in the life of Jesus, one must look backward and forward. The glory that had been manifest in eternity and veiled in His “in-flesh-ment” shined through the veil. The inner form of reality, His deity, broke through for the time being and made the change in His garments. Luke’s words are literally, “The appearance of His face became different” (A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures, on Luke 9:29).

All three of the Synoptic Gospels exhaust language to convey to us the dazzling whiteness which appeared. It reminded them of the dazzling white of the lightning flash, the downpour of the brilliant Palestinian sun, the whiteness of the snow, and the best efforts of the professional clothes cleaner.

This short encouragement to Jesus anticipated the glory of His resurrection and the eternal glory that is now His, to be manifested in His glorious return for His saints.


Until the last week, Jesus acted freely and only under limitations determined by His own decision. He had escaped being thrown over the brow of the hill at Nazareth. Though He was so tired out that His disciples lifted Him into the boat, yet He arose and rebuked the waves and winds lest He and His group be engulfed in the Sea of Galilee. When the Jews sought to stone Him, He hid Himself and passed safely through the midst of the people to heal the man born blind (John 8:59; 9:1). After the majestic raising of Lazarus and the crystallizing of the opposition against Him into a decree of the Sanhedrin not to let up until this high court of the Jewish nation could destroy Him, He had withdrawn to Ephraim lest He precipitate open conflict before the time.

Up to now, He had been master of events, controller of circumstances, and guide of developments. Now that their hour and the power of darkness had come, He relinquishes all this. He walked forth in the Garden of Gethsemane and yielded Himself to their plots.

The power of deity that made them fall backward for a while shows what the All-Powerful One could have done. He rather used His power only for the safety of His own. He calmly walked forth to declare His identity as Jesus of Nazareth and the Messiah of God. He demonstrated that He had power to lay down His life. No man could take it from Him except by His voluntary choice of the outcome.

He cautioned Peter to sheath His sword. Jesus could have called twelve legions of angels to defend Himself. On the other hand, He had determined not to use angelic power not human power nor even His divine power to rescue Himself from the shame and the suffering of death.

With Paul, the shameful death of the cross climaxed the reach of the self-emptying of Christ Jesus. There His foes taunted Him about His supposed weakness. “He saved others; Himself He cannot save” expressed their contempt of His weakness. He really did save others, but they meant that He had pretended to save others. Since He would and did save others, then He must not save Himself. That is the mystery and the glory of His self-emptying, but to them His not saving Himself was their greatest argument against Him. In unbelief, they challenged Him to come down from the cross if He wished to gain their faith in Him as the Messiah. They perceived not that His self-emptying had all along intended this voluntary giving over of the Omnipotence of Christ Jesus to die on a cross so that men could be saved.

The misunderstanding and the slanders heaped on His highest act of self-emptying show three things —(1) the matchless wonders of His condescending love, (2) the depths of human sin, and (3) the unfathomable depths of the shame to which He stooped to save sinning men.


Earlier I touched upon the marvelous way in which He entered most fully into our infirmities. This is a part of His being made in the likeness of sinful flesh.

The Epistle to the Hebrews more fully develops this idea than any other New Testament book. His sufferings perfected Him to fulfill the role of the captain of salvation (Hebrews 2:10). That does not mean that He had to be purged from moral imperfection. Hebrews 4:15 and 7:26 emphasize His sinlessness.

The trying human experiences through which He passed gave to Him a deeper sympathetic understanding of man’s weaknesses. The Savior must be able to know and to feel the tug of temptation that He might be our Savior and Redeemer. “For in that He Himself has suffered being tempted, He is able to succour them that are tempted” (2:18). “For we have not an high priest who cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities, but was in all points tempted like as we are yet without sin” (4:15).

Not until glory itself can we know the full benefits of His self-emptying. As we tarry at the throne of grace, however, we learn increasingly His tender understanding and earnest heart-concern for us.

I would fain not close these words on the mystery of mysteries in the incarnation of our Lord without quoting the opposite picture as Paul set it over against his delineation of Christ’s emptying Himself. Hear its triumphant and strong-throated tones “Wherefore God also highly exalted Him and gave Him a name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow, of things in heaven and things in earth and things under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”! (Philippians 2:9-11).


Originally published in Mid-America Baptist Theological Journal Vol. 4 (Fall 1980)

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