4. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Took the Form of a Servant

What does Paul mean that Jesus “emptied himself” by taking the form of a servant and was found in the likeness of men and appearance as a man (Phil. 2:6-8)? Did some attributes get trimmed off (e.g. omniscience, omnipresence, and invisibility) to become a semi-deity, a lesser god (of sorts), or did he keep all of them? Let’s explore this doctrine further.

As we saw in part three, kenosis means Christ “emptied” himself when he was incarnated to be a man. But he emptied himself of what exactly?

3. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Was God Incarnate

Here is the States of Christ figure, adapted for this post.

For a quick explanation of the entire image, click here:

1. Do I Really Know Jesus? His Entire Existence in One Image

Note Kenosis appearing at the top left, above the start of the sweeping arrow. The whole downward process is called Servanthood. Sometimes theologians call it Humiliation, after the words, “made himself nothing” or as other translations say, “he humbled himself.”

1.. Translation of Philippians 2:6-8

Here are the key verses referring to Christ Jesus; the Greek words discussed below  are put in bold font:

Philippians 2:6-8

ὃς ἐν μορφῇ θεοῦ ὑπάρχων οὐχ ἁρπαγμὸν ἡγήσατο τὸ εἶναι ἴσα θεῷ,

ἀλλὰ ἑαυτὸν ἐκένωσεν μορφὴν δούλου λαβών, ἐν ὁμοιώματι ἀνθρώπων γενόμενος, καὶ σχήματι εὑρεθεὶς ὡς ἄνθρωπος

ἐταπείνωσεν ἑαυτὸν γενόμενος ὑπήκοος μέχρι θανάτου, θανάτου δὲ σταυροῦ·

[Christ Jesus] who, though being in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,

7 but emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, coming into existence in the likeness of men; and when he was found in the appearance as a man,

8 he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, that is, death on a cross.

That is my translation. HT: Lidija Novakovic, Philippians: A Handbook of the Greek Text [Baylor UP, 2020]. If you would like to see the verses in many translations and in context, please go to biblegateway.com.

Incidentally, v. 6b can be translated as “did not consider being equal with God robbery”; or “did not consider it robbery to be equal with God.” In other words, it was natural or fitting him to be equal with or equal to God. He did not rob anything or anyone to be equal with or equal to God. His being equal with God was no robbery or seizing of status and being. This is very high Christology, indeed.

By good Greek, we could translate “men” and “man” as “humans” and a “human,” but I kept the gender distinction because Jesus was a man.

As to the missing articles before morphē (form, and pronounced mor-fay), caution is needed before anyone says “a” form. Maybe, maybe not. Professional grammarians teach us that missing articles can be tricky. As always, context is the guide. And all the major translations says “the.”

2.. Abridged Exegesis

The verb “emptied” (kenaō, pronounced keh-nah-oh) is related to the noun kenōsis, and the accusative (direct object) is “himself.” But what does it mean to “empty himself”? What does “himself” look like in his pre-incarnate state?

One explanation is that verb “emptied” and the accusative pronoun “himself,” in context, may mean that he poured himself out (Novakovic, pp. 50-51, referencing Gordon D. Fee and his Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. NICNT, [Eerdmans, 1995]).

Fee is right to point to Gal. 5:13, which says that the Galatians are to serve one another (the verb form of slave or servant is used), so it means “perform the duties of a slave” (p. 211). Jesus performed the duties of s servant, humbling himself and being obedient, to the point of death on a cross, the ultimate example of servanthood.

They seem to say that emptying himself does not mean that he lost anything essential, but simply poured himself out. Jesus went from from “being” in the morphē (form) of God to “taking” the morphē (form) of a servant, indicating how he emptied himself. “‘[B]y taking the form of a servant’ is coincident with emptying and explains the emptying” (Fee, p. 210). Fee is adamant that this emptying is a metaphor and does not need the genitive  “of something” (p. 210). So Jesus kept his “very nature of God” when he emptied himself, as the NIV translates morphē, which Fee endorses (p. 205). “The concern is with divine selflessness. God is not an acquisitive being, grasping and seizing, but self-giving for the sake of others” (Fee, p. 211).

Right. Let’s not over-analyze the verb and its object. Keep it simple. I like simplicity.

However, I must look deeper into these things.

3.. Deeper Exegetical Dive

Normally, the exegesis up to this point is enough to answer the question (for me, at least).

So you can skip down to the next major section, if you like.

However, let’s explore this doctrine of kenosis more fully because the debate goes in a different direction. Did he empty himself of some or all of his divine attributes or did something else occur? (I diverge from what Fee and Novakovic say, in these questions but only because of the debates.) Does taking the form of a servant necessarily mean losing divine attributes? We’re heading toward that answer (or so I hope).

“coming into existence” (or more literally “becoming”): corresponds to “being in the form of God”; he was “being” in the form of God, and now he was coming into existence or becoming in the appearance or form as a man. Those two phrases stand in contrast.

So what does it mean to be in the “form of God” and take on the “form of a servant” (or even a slave, in Greek)? We will need to define the noun “form” before we can attempt an answer, which I do, below (or make an attempt at it).

Right now, I am laying out the problems to be solved.

My impression so far of Phil. 2:6-8: Paul, writing infallibly and by inspiration, was struggling to describe Christ Jesus in his pre-incarnate and incarnate states: “being” in the “form” of God; “taking” the “form” of a “servant”; “becoming” in the “likeness” of men; he was “found” in “appearance as” a man. Paul’s struggle, if there is one, makes sense because he was an ex-Pharisee, and he studied the Torah and came across passages about God manifesting himself (e.g. Exod.33:18-23), and so Paul also says that Jesus was the manifestation of God (1 Tim. 3:16).

All of these corresponding phrases and hesitant words are interesting for professional grammarians and exegetes because the phrases and words present a contrast between his state before the incarnation and after the incarnation, but the question remains: what does it mean to empty himself?

Let’s circle back around to Novakovic and Fee. Maybe they are right. It describes only a “pouring himself out” in the ultimate self-sacrifice of coming into existence (or more literally “becoming”) by taking the form of a servant, in the likeness of men, in “appearance as” a man and then dying on the cross. Maybe pouring “himself” out simply means his pre-incarnate divine nature (“himself”) was poured out into an incarnate human body–in the “appearance” of “likeness” of men / man (I differ from Fee and Novakovic and add “into”). So maybe they are right and we have been over-reading the one Greek verb, kenaō, translated as “empty.”

It is almost as if Paul was reluctant to see Jesus giving up his being (huparchō, pronounced hoo-par-khoh or hee-par-khoh, and is a stronger version of eimi, pronounced ay-mee and is the standard verb “to be,” though Paul uses the infinitive form of the standard verb in v. 6: einai, pronounced ay-nay) in the form of God when he took or assumed (lambanō, pronounced lahm-bah-noh) the form of a servant / slave, becoming in appearance as a man.

One more time, without the parenthetical interruptions: It is almost as if Paul was reluctant to see Jesus giving up his being in the form of God when he took or assumed the form of a servant / slave, becoming in appearance as a man and in the likeness of men.

For me, a picture is taking shape, but it is still a little out of focus.

So let’s see if we can focus it more clearly with BDAG and its definitions. (BDAG, abbreviated for the main editors’ last names, is a thick Greek lexicon of the NT, considered by many to be authoritative. It is a remarkable human achievement in any case.) But, as we shall see, the context of Phil. 2:6-8 must also interpret the next key words. Formal definitions may be inadequate in describing God’s nature without a context.

BDAG says of the noun morphē that it means “form, outward appearance, shape”; therefore he “emptied himself”  means that “he emptied himself, divested himself of his prestige or privilege” (emphasis original).

But how can the editors limit the emptying just to his prestige and privilege?

They do so by the larger context of Greek literature. They cite references that say, for example, that a messenger from heaven was in the morphē (appearance) of a young man, and another angel’s morphē was changed. In Mark’s longer ending, Jesus was manifested in a different morphē (appearance or form) to two disciples as they walked along (16:12). So what to make of the noun morphē in these contexts? The messenger angels were still angels when they appeared in a human form or changed his appearance. And the same is true of Jesus–he was still the resurrected Lord when he was manifested in a different form. Their essences did not change.

And the BDAG editors also factor in the next noun.

The noun schēma (pronounced skhay-mah) is also used by Paul (v. 7) and looks like a synonym of morphē, for BDAG defines schēma as “outward appearance, form, shape.” The editors summarize what Jewish historian Josephus said of King Hezekiah and the noun schēma: “a king who exchanges his kingly robe for sackcloth and takes on a humble appearance [schēma] ” (the Greek says, which I translate) (Ant. 10.11). So the king does not give up the substance or essence of royalty, but the outward appearance of a king–symbolized by his kingly robe–to put on sackcloth and appear in a state of humility. Hezekiah did this temporarily.

The editors also refer to Lucian of Samosata (c. A.D. 125-180) and his humorous quasi-autobiography (or fake autobiography), “The Dream or Career of Lucian” (13 or type in p. 239, here). (We have to be careful not to over-interpret him because he was a verbose and imprecise mocker and satirist.)

In his brief tale, Lucian is presented with a choice in a dream. Either keep the prestige and privilege and status of an educated young man with all the glorious trappings (a long list of nouns follow, like honor and glory and power and offices), or abandon (aphiēmi) the externals of dignity and become a famous sculptor, a decision which would still involve taking up or assuming (analambanō) the appearance (schēma), even clothing, befitting a slave (douloprepes). Lucian was not a sculptor yet, though he liked to fiddle with objects, so his father thought he might become one. If Lucian had chosen to become a sculptor, he would have to do without his prestige and privilege and status proffered by education. In the end, he chose the prestige and privilege and status flowing out of an education (the path he was already on).

And so, it’s the appearance (schēma) and status and prestige and privilege that would have changed. Nuanced ontology (study of existence) is not the point of the story. The main point is simpler and less nuanced. His choice was to go from refinement and high culture with education or to go into dirt and grime and low-class work, even wearing the clothing and having the reputation befitting a slave, with sculpting. That would have been a huge step down in status and privilege and prestige.

(To speak ontologically for a moment, whichever path Lucian had chosen, he was always going to be essentially a human.)

Further, BDAG says that the second definition of schēma is “the functional aspect of something, way of life (of things).

So what does all of this mean so far? King Hezekiah temporarily emptied or divested himself of the privilege and prestige and status of a king, while he humbled himself in sackcloth. Therefore, a king putting on a sackcloth of humility for an outward appearance ≠ losing true or essential royalty. The external clothing and inner attitude changed (humility), not the man or his royalty. The same goes for Lucian in his verbose and imprecise tale.  

In both definitions and the two stories, the parallels with Phil. 2:6-8 exist.

It is no wonder therefore that BDAG defines “emptied” himself as divesting himself of prestige and privilege. Jesus emptied himself of the form or appearance of God (implied by the context) and, in contrast, took the form or appearance of a servant (clearly stated in Greek). The noun schēma permits us to say that he did not necessarily give up the substance of deity, his divine nature, but its outward appearance, as the example of King Hezekiah demonstrates. He temporarily emptied himself of his privilege and prestige, not his attributes per se. (It’s a sure thing that even while wearing sackcloth, he could have thrown his royal weight around, if necessary.) As for the second definition of schēma, it could be said that Jesus gave up his functional deity (as distinct from his essential deity).

Indeed, in light of the second definition of schēma, theologians J. Rodman Williams and Millard Erickson are about to argue that Jesus surrendered to his Father his function or use of his attributes, but not the attributes themselves (see Point 4).

However, BDAG does not have the last word. The related words within the morph- word group (Rom. 2:20; 2 Tim. 3:5; Gal. 4:19; Phil. 3:21) “describes not simply external appearances or behavior but also that which inwardly corresponds (or is expected to correspond) to the outward” (Novakovic, p. 49). There is a significant overlap between the external appearance and internal reality. Louw and Nida, who wrote grammar and translation commentaries for worldwide Bible translators, say that morphē means “the nature or character of something with emphasis upon both the internal and external form–‘nature and character'” (qtd. in Novakovic, p. 49). Then Novakovic refers to other scholars and writes: “Traditionally, the correspondence the external appearance and internal reality has been interpreted in terms of Christ preexistent ontological status, i.e. in terms of his deity but it is probably better to understand it in terms of rank and social status that was publicly displayed by Christ’s preincarnate glory” (p. 49).

In plain English: appearance and substance must not deny or exclude each other. Also, rank and status of the pre-incarnate Christ must be factored into the definition. Substance (internal) and appearance (external) belong together in Christ before the incarnation and after it. He really was God and really was a human servant.

So back to the earlier question, which I use to summarize: What does the morphē of God and the morphē of a servant look like? Whatever a “form” is on a small, temporal, human scale (servant), it is similar to the “form” on a big, eternal, divine scale (God). All of the NT teaches us that Jesus really was a human (servant); therefore Jesus really was God and remained God in the whole incarnation process. He simply poured himself out by taking on the form of a servant. Changing forms is simply to teach humility, which the Philippians should also have.

So morphē, despite BDAG’s meaning of “appearance” or “form,” cannot restrict God’s nature. Form (either morphē or schēma) does not deny substance or the nature of a thing or person. Christ was in the form of God which involves Christ’s sharing the nature or substance of God. Christ taking the form of a servant and appearing as a man means that he really was a human performing the duties of a servant.

He emptied himself into (by taking on) a humble servant. By pouring himself out, God simply showed his sacrificial love. We have to be careful about going further than these complex terms allow in context.

Bottom line for this section:

This conclusion is not based only on BDAG and the two stories about Hezekiah and Lucian; those stories simply illustrate what the Greek terms could mean in Phil. 2:6-8. The Greek terms and their uses in various contexts support the historical interpretation of the biblical verses, over the past 1800 years (see Grudem, Point 4). Jesus emptied himself of his prestige and privilege and status (but not his attributes of deity). Jesus remained essentially deity, which necessarily means he retained his attributes of deity (1 Tim. 3:15-16; John 1:1-4, 14). The Greek terms certainly don’t deny this historic interpretation.

Another way of saying that he emptied himself is that he did not lose anything (divine attributes), but he added something (humanity or human servanthood).

Jesus was both True God and True Man. That’s the best I can do for now with the key Greek terms in context. There is a mystery to the whole process of incarnation. Paul’s hesitant language reflects the mystery (1 Tim. 3:16). The earliest Christians, from my impression, were feeling their way.

16 Beyond all question, the mystery from which true godliness springs is great:

He appeared in the flesh,
    was vindicated by the Spirit,
was seen by angels,
    was preached among the nations,
was believed on in the world,
    was taken up in glory. (1 Tim. 3:16, NIV)

4.. What do theologians say?

Professional theologians correctly and logically interpret Phil. 2:6-8 in light of this one premise:

True God and True Man

Here is the Scriptural foundation of the above premise:

7. Do I Really Know Jesus? Thirty Truths about His Life

The theologians reason (mostly, though not entirely) deductively and (I believe) correctly, that if he gave up any of the attributes, then he was not true God, because God does not give up his nature or essence, and his nature or essence is, in its simplest definition, a “complex of attributes,” indicating that they cannot be splintered off, but kept in unity.

Wayne Grudem says Jesus did not give up any of his divine attributes for these five reasons:

First, for 1800 years of church history, no one thought Jesus gave up any of his divine attributes. It is very risky to go against this long history.

Second, the text does not say he “emptied himself of power or this or that divine attribute.” Let’s not go further than the text’s silence.

Third, the text says Jesus himself did the “emptying,” but not by giving up his attributes, but he “made himself nothing” by taking the “nature of a servant” and coming to earth to live as a man. He humbled himself, even to the death on the cross.

Fourth, the bigger context sees Paul telling his readers, the Philippians, to humble themselves as servants and not to look out for their own interests only, but to look out for the needs of others. Jesus did that in the ultimate way, by becoming a man and dying on the cross. I add: the Philippians in becoming servants and showing humility did not give up the attributes of their humanity; they remained essentially human.

Fifth, the entire Bible covering the attributes of Jesus do not support the claim that he gave up his divine attributes. “If it were true that such a momentous event as this happened, that the eternal Son of God ceased for a time to have all the attributes of God—ceased for a time, to be omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent, for example, then we would expect that such an incredible event would be taught clearly and repeatedly in the New Testament, not found in the very doubtful interpretation of one word in one epistle” (p. 551). Then Grudem continues to say that the New Testament does not teach this.

He concludes:

Therefore the best understanding of this passage is that it talks about Jesus giving up the status and privilege that was his in heaven: he “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped” (or “clung to for his own advantage”), but “emptied himself” or “humbled himself” for our sake, and came to live as a man. Jesus speaks elsewhere of the “glory” he had with the Father “before the world was made” (John 17:5), a glory that he had given up and was going to receive again when he returned to heaven (p. 551, emphasis original).

But then how do we account for the humanity and deity of Jesus in the four Gospels, where the humanity seems to dominate? Surely he gave up something of his omni- attributes, or did he?

My favorite theologian (he’s irenic and thorough), J. Rodman Williams, writes:

In nineteenth-century, so-called Kenotic theology, there were various attempts to define the kenosis of Christ in terms of a surrender of such divine attributes as omnipotence, omniscience,  and omnipresence … However, it seems unlikely that Paul in Philippians 2:7 is speaking of such attributes. It is far more a matter of his eternal glory. Philippians 2:9-11 suggests this also, stressing His exaltation to the glory of God the Father (vol. 1, p. 323, note 103)

He continues:

The self-emptying of Christ, “He emptied Himself,” (Phil. 2:7) … His kenosis should not be understood to mean that Jesus emptied himself of divinity, of such attributes as omnipotence, omniscience, or omnipresence … In regard to these attributes, it would be better to say that there was a limitation in their use by Christ in his humanity. Millard J. Erickson calls such “functional limitations” (vol. 1, p. 342, note 184, emphasis added).

Since Williams referenced Erickson, let’s turn to him.

Jesus did not give up the divine attributes, but he freely surrendered the ability to act on them on his own accord. He exercised them only in dependence on his Father. “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5:19). Whenever he exercised his divine power to perform miracles or reading thoughts, for example, he called on his Father and the power of the Father-directed Spirit. Both his Father’s will and his will were necessary, but his will was submitted to his Father. (p. 705)

Then Erickson uses the illustration of a safe-deposit box. Two keys—the banker’s and the depositor’s—are needed to open it. When Jesus exercised his divine attributes, both wills had to agree to it–the Father’s will and the Son’s will.

So there is divine cooperation between the Father and the Son—and I add the Holy Spirit. Jesus is the Messiah or Anointed One. He was anointed by the Spirit (Acts 10:38). His miracles were done by his divine nature through the power of the Spirit, by the Father’s and the Son’s will. So the Triunity (Trinity) was working together during the Son’s humiliation.

Erickson continues about Christ’s humiliation:

The humiliation entailed all of the conditions of humanity. Thus Jesus was capable of feeling fatigue and weariness, pain and suffering, hunger, even the anguish of betrayal, denial and abandonment by those closest to him. He experienced the disappointment, discouragement, and distress of soul that go with being fully human. His humanity was complete. (p. 705)

Recall that the second definition of schēma is “the functional aspect of something, way of life. Evidently, Williams and Erickson are applying this second definition.

Bottom line for this section:

Summing up what the three theologians teach us, to claim that Jesus was True God and True Man, yet he lost or set aside or lay aside or gave up these powerful omni- attributes or other ones, does not work. God cannot lose attributes and still remain God. It is best to say, to reason deductively from “True God and True Man,” that Jesus took them with him at his incarnation, but they were hidden behind his humanity–yes, even when he was a baby lying in a manger.

So, for example, if the Father had willed, the divine attribute of omnipotence could have manifested in the baby Jesus and flattened the soldiers whom Herod sent to kill him. Since the baby did not have a fully developed will accompanied by knowledge, the Father alone could have done this through his Son. But the Father wanted Jesus to experience his full humanity and Joseph and Mary to learn how to be good parents and take care of his Son, who was on loan to them. Instead, the Father sent an angel in a dream, who told Joseph to flee to Egypt (Matt. 2:13).

So it seems that the professional theologians interpret Phil. 2:6-8 in light of the Scriptural foundation of True God and True Man. Interpreting Scripture with Scripture is a sound method.

I believe the discussion, in Section 3, about “pouring himself out” (his pre-incarnate divine nature) and “coming into existence” as a man (his incarnate human nature) supports the theologians. Jesus combines both the divine nature and human nature, in one person. We should not over-interpret the verb and object “emptied himself.” Jesus was no (anachronistic) Gnostic demi-god.

Therefore, Jesus did not “lay aside” or “set aside” or “lose” or “give up” his divine attributes when he became a baby in Bethlehem. Rather, a human nature was added to his divine nature. Now what happened to his divine nature and those powerful attributes with the prefix omni- in front of them? They were hidden behind his human nature, not lost or set aside. His use of them or their functions was limited by his Father’s will.

5.. Quick Q & A

Question: Do you mean to tell me that Jesus was omnipresent in a human body?

Reply: The standard answer is that he was omnipresent in his divine nature, but not in his human nature. But given Williams’ thesis of surrendering the use of attributes to the Father and Erickson’s illustration of the two keys, I’m not sure this explanation is the best one. The best I can say, with my limited knowledge, is that his omnipresence was hidden behind his humanity and never activated or expressed as far as I can tell. However, if the Father had willed, Jesus could have expressed the omnipresence attribute in a way that is mysterious to me (and to you). In fact, it’s a mystery to me as to how the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit express this attribute in any case, right now, in heaven. To say that omnipresence means he is “everywhere” or “ubiquitous” is just another word for omnipresence, so that’s not helpful. But as to the how of their omnipresence while they exist in heaven right now, it is beyond my capacity to understand.

Question: How could Jesus be omniscient? Why didn’t he know the day or the hour when he would return (Matt. 24:36 and Mark 13:32)?

I answer this question, here:

Why Didn’t Jesus Know the Day or the Hour of His Return?

The standard answer is that he knew in his divine nature but not in his human nature.  Maybe that is the right answer. However, it meets up with the same problem as the previous question. Again, I like what Williams and Erickson say. The Father did not will that his Son express the attribute of omniscience in this case. But the Son never lost or gave up this attribute when he became a human; he simply surrendered their use to the Father.

Question: But what about the attribute of invisibility? Jesus was visible, so he did not take this attribute with him. This leaves the door open to his not taking other attributes with him when he became a man.

Reply: Even the attribute of invisibility was expressed in his divine nature, which was invisible to onlookers. Plus, the Father was physically manifesting himself in his Son, so the invisibility attribute of God just means that God lives in another realm, invisible to us, but he can manifest himself as he wishes (e.g. as a dove, in a glory cloud or a pillar of fire or a pillar of a cloud or as the Angel of the Lord). The invisibility attribute means that God is Lord over our limited, visible realm because he can break in, so to speak, by visibly manifesting himself in some form. If the Father and Son had willed, Jesus could have become invisible, right before people’s eyes, thus “activating” the invisibility attribute, as he did after his resurrection, when he disappeared (Luke 24:31). But during his earthly ministry he did not play this game because his mission was to be the perfect human representation and revelation of his Father, visible for all to see. That’s greater than a theophany or Christophany; it is the incarnation.

Bottom line for this section:

Therefore, all of his attributes were retained but surrendered to the Father. As he grew, he became aware of his mission and aware of his attributes.

Therefore, Jesus “imported” his omni- attributes (e.g. omniscience or omnipresence).. He did not lose any of his divine attributes or lay them aside, nor did he lose his “omni-” attributes and still remain God. It’s wrongheaded to say, “I believe Jesus was God, but he lost some of his attributes. His attributes were ‘trimmed down’ or ‘lopped off.'” To follow the logic through to the end, he would then become a semi-divine, a lesser god. That’s Gnosticism before it came around. Sorry, no.

At this point in my study (I’m open to change), I like to think that these omni- attributes were in stasis (opposite of kinetic or in continuous active use) in his divine nature, until they became kinetic or applied or activated by the will of the Father and the cooperation of the Son and the Spirit (Jesus was the Anointed One, after all). But he retained each attribute to remain True God.

Such is the logic coming from the premise of True God and True Man and the Greek words looked at, above, under Point 3.

6.. Jesus’s miracles and the divine attributes

Let’s look at Jesus’s practical ministry on earth. This section is important because the teachers who claim Jesus got some attributes lopped off inductively use his ministry to prove their point.

So how then did Jesus work his miracles? Three options.

First, Jesus was anointed by the Spirit at his baptism, and many Bible teachers say that he worked miracles–even calming the water on the Lake of Galilee or walking on water–by the power of the Spirit and the will of the Father, and of course by Jesus’ will, too, since he wanted to do this. He did not work his miracles by his divine attributes.

Second, on the other side, some theologians believe that he worked his miracles–even all of them–by his divine attributes.

Third, one could say that the miracle of calming the storm (and a few others like walking on water) was his omnipotence at work, since the disciples worshiped him the moment after he did it.

32 And when they climbed into the boat, the wind died down. 33 Then those who were in the boat worshiped him, saying, “Truly you are the Son of God.” (Matt. 14:32-33)

The other miracles were accomplished by the power and anointing of the Spirit. So the third option combines the first and second ones. Erickson favors the combination of his divine attributes and the Spirit.

My interpretation is seen in these verses:

19 Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. (John 5:19-20, NIV)

So in those two verses, the Father and Son cooperate to do the works–the miracles. And the Father anointed the Son with the Spirit. Thus, the Father, Son and Holy Spirit performed the works or miracles in the Gospels. It is the Trinity working together who inaugurated the kingdom of God and confirmed it by the signs and wonders.

Incidentally, we, too, by the Father’s will, and in the name of Jesus, through the power of the Spirit, can do the works of God.

Bottom line for this section:

The balanced approach is to use the deductive method from the premise True God and True Man, alongside the inductive method to exegete the miracle stories in the Gospels. The teachings of the Epistles, particularly Phil. 2:6-8, are equally important. I believe the theologians are right, and Jesus may not have made use of the attributes, but he kept them while he was a human, in his “earth suit.” Thus, sacrificing the theologians’ deductions on the altar of induction is risky, because our interpretation of the miracle stories could be deficient. Alternatively, it could be that Jesus may have indeed used both by his divine nature and the power of the Spirit, by the will of the Father. I don’t believe some theologians would deny this, but in fact would affirm it.

But even if a teacher still insists on believing that the miracles were done only by the power of the Spirit and the Father’s will, then this is not evidence that some attributes were “lopped off.” Over-interpreting silence, without factoring in the theology of John’s Gospels (and the Synoptics) and the Epistles, goes too far. To deny Jesus some attributes based on our interpretation of the miracle stories is indirect and too perilous because we turn him into an anachronistic, Gnostic sub-deity. We skate on thin ice towards heresy.

Two sample pieces of Synoptic evidence of his being equal with God:

The Son of Man Claims God’s Authority to Forgive Sins on Earth

The disciples worshiped him after he walked on water, calling him the “Son of God,” indicating that he worked this miracle by virtue of his divinity (i.e. his divine nature).

Matthew 14 (scroll down to vv. 32-33)

It is perfectly reasonable to believe that Jesus acted on his divine attributes by the will of the Father.

7.. Inadequate Interpretation

If we interpret the verb and its object “emptied himself,” as some teachers intend us to do, without regard to the context and verbal definitions, then we are supposed to believe that he emptied himself only of his omni- attributes, but not his moral attributes, like righteousness and holiness and love (for example). Evidently, they get this conclusion from their interpretation of the miracle stories and other supernatural things  in the Gospels.

However, in reply, let’s take their reasoning to its logical conclusion. Apparently, when Jesus became or took on the form of a servant and came into existence in the outward appearance of a human, he retained or built back up or recovered the moral attributes by his own efforts or by a gift of God, but he did not retain or recover or build back up his omni- attributes, even as a gift of God.

In a further reply, it is difficult to draw such a broad line between those two sets of attributes. Why not retain his omni- attributes? Consider what we discussed above. Jesus simply poured himself out by taking the form of a servant, without giving up his essential divine nature, but only the use of them. Recall King Hezekiah taking off his kingly robe and putting on sackcloth for a little while (the third point). He remained essentially a king and certainly essentially a human.

So something is wrong with this inadequate, schizophrenic definition of “emptied himself.” To give up any attribute would mean that he was a “lopped off” or “trimmed down” to an (anachronistic) Gnostic demi-god. Confused and inconsistent.

The theologians are right, and one’s interpretation of the miracle stories goes too far if one concludes that (seeming) silence about how the miracles happened is evidence of lopped-off attributes. In fact, the miracle stories may not be silent about the divine attributes. He may have acted by the Spirit and his divine attributes, all directed by the will of the Father.

So how do I get to know Jesus more deeply?

We can get to know him better when we realize what Jesus did for us when he left heaven and became a man.

Look at it this way. Jesus gave up the perfect, pristine environment of heaven: the light, the glory, the beauty, the visible angels, the perfect music and praise, the sinless beings, the total purity (absence of pollution and conniving and cheating and lying and degradation, etc.). This is obvious because heaven and earth are very different, and the corresponding yet contrasting phrases in Greek clarify the environmental differences before his incarnation and after it.

Most of all, to come down to the salty, watery dirt clod called earth, he even gave up his session (seating) on his exalted throne, his exalted place of highest honor.

However, he did not give up his divine attributes, but he did give up the independent use of them and cooperated with the Father and Spirit to live a godly, divine and human life of power and miracles and love.


In the incarnation, the Father willed that Jesus’ humanity should appear and be real, so that he and Jesus could fully sympathize with humanity’s daily routine of sleeping, eating and drinking and getting dusty and even suffering a criminal’s death (falsely accused) on the ignominious cross. The Father and his Son loved people—and still love them—that much.

Bottom line: Jesus was True God and True Man (see Part 7, below). The Christology of Phil. 2:6-8 must include that premise, based on a rounded reading of the entire New Testament (e.g. Titus 2:13).

Let’s keep Jesus as True God and True Man, not a lopped-off, trimmed-down sub-deity.


1. Do I Really Know Jesus? His Entire Existence in One Image

2. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Was the Preincarnate God

3. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Was God Incarnate

4. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Took the Form of a Servant

5. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Came Down from Heaven

6. Do I Really Know Jesus? Why Did He Become a Man?

7. Do I Really Know Jesus? Thirty Truths about His Life

8. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Was Sinless

9. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Died for You

10. Do I Really Know Jesus? Did He Descend into Hades to Preach?

11. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Was Resurrected from the Dead

12. Do I Really Know Jesus? What Was His Resurrected Body Like?

13. Do I Really Know Jesus? His Resurrection Changes Everything

14. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Appeared to His Disciples

15. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Ascended into Heaven

16. Do I Really Know Jesus? His Ascension Means Everything

17. Do I Really Know Jesus? He Is Seated at Right Hand of Father


Works Cited

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