In Philippians chapter 2, Paul exhorts his readers to imitate Christ in his humility, just as Christ imitates God. This is one Paul’s most beautiful, poetic descriptions of Christ and is known to the early church as the Kenosis Hymn (kenosis is the Greek word for “emptying”).
Adopt the attitude that was in Christ Jesus:
Though he was in the form of God,
he did not consider being equal with God something to exploit.
But he emptied himself
by taking the form of a slave
and by becoming like human beings.
When he found himself in the form of a human,
he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death,
even death on a cross.
Therefore, God highly honored him
and gave him a name above all names,
so that at the name of Jesus everyone
in heaven, on earth, and under the earth might bow
and every tongue confess that
Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, CEB)
This hymn is a beautiful, poetic thesis showing that God is humble just like Jesus, not that Jesus is humble unlike God. If that surprises you, it should. It was a major revelation to the early church, as well, and is the reason this passage became one of the earliest hymns and creeds in Christianity. Paul is proclaiming that Jesus is the manifestation of God’s humility. To imitate Jesus is to imitate God himself. Jesus is the proof that to act like a servant is godlikeness (just like God would do).
So how did we get the traditional message from this passage? It depends on just a few words. The first word that lends itself to contrasting Jesus and God is the word “though” in the first line (verse 6). When Paul says, “Though he was in the form of God…” it's easy to take that to mean, “Although Jesus was God…he decided to not act like God (by being humble).” I suspect many of us have read it this way. And this is unfortunate, because Paul’s point is quite the opposite. Taking a look at this same passage in the ESV, NIV and KJV translations, we find they all use the word “Who” instead of “Though.” So, verse 6 is meant to define Jesus (“who was in the form of God”) not to set him out as different from God. Continuing in verse 6, some translations give the impression that Jesus held equality with God lightly or that he decided to leave behind his God-like superpowers during his earthly tour of duty. Or to continue with the military metaphor, that Jesus decided to go to the battlefield without his weapons (like the main character in Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge).
The following verse (7) appears to validate this understanding: “But he emptied himself…” (The phrase “he emptied himself” is the Greek word keno, meaning “to empty,” which is where the title of this hymn comes from.) If we read the “But” at the beginning of verse 7 as contrasting what God (or Jesus) did with who God is, then the verse amplifies the Jesus vs. God contrast. But if we read the “But” as contrasting with the phrase “thought it not robbery” in verse 6 (as the KJV renders it), then it highlights the contrast between thought and reality. In other words, how we thought of God and what God actually did were different. We thought he’d do what our conception of a god should do (punish, get angry, control, decree, slam his fist down, etc.), but what he actually did was empty himself and become a servant.
Jesus is not an exception to God. He is perfectly in keeping with God. Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Jesus is the “exact representation of God” (NIV). Therefore, every time the New Testament writers describe Jesus, they are not contrasting Jesus to God, as if to say “We know God would normally do X, but Jesus did Z,” rather, they use comparisons or make them equal. Now try this remix of the Kenosis Hymn (paraphrase mine):
Adopt the same attitude that you saw in Jesus:
He was the exact form of God.
Don’t think this claim of equality maligns God or steals from his God-likeness.
It was God himself who became nothing
Just like a slave!
He became a human just like you and me.
And after he became a human, he went even lower:
he submitted himself and accepted a painful, humiliating criminal’s death—
death on a cross!
And—this is the craziest part—by doing this, God became
the most famous hero ever.
He won a name for himself that we now honor above all names.
And at this name Jesus, everyone
who has ever lived and who ever will live
Will understand, bow in wonder, and confess that
Jesus Christ is actually Jehovah God. He is the glory (perfect representation) of God the Father.
We all think one way about God until the physical, tangible, God-incarnate Jesus sweeps away all of our cartoonish ideas. In the gospels, we see over and over the disciples surprise at this person, Jesus. It’s like we get to see them slowly (very slowly) wake up to the realization of just who he is (God). Jesus says to Phillip, “don’t you know me…after all this time?” (Jn 14:9). We, too, are slowly waking up to who Jesus is, and concurrently, are realizing that this is who God was all along. Our eyes are coming into focus alongside the characters in the New Testament. With one accepting look from his face, as we see him through the prostitute Mary’s eyes, our shame disappears. With the sound of his voice, as heard through the ears of the demoniac man in the caves, all the demons, shadows, and fears run away with the pigs and drown in the lake. With one touch of his side, as felt through the hands of doubting Thomas, we declare, “My God. It is you.”
Jesus is God. God is Jesus. We have this beautiful poem in the New Testament—the Kenosis Hymn—to invite us into the same “Aha moment” that the early church celebrated and commemorated. This “Aha” will change the way you see everything. It will redefine strength and godlikeness. It will become a flaming example of humility that burns away all pride and fear of smallness. God became a human. And not just that. He became a servant. And not just that. He willingly died a criminal’s death. Naked. On a cross. Stay here for a moment,…until this picture cuts through all of the fog and distraction of pride and fills you with renewed purpose and focus. And with sails filled with a clear revelation of who God is, Go...and be like God.