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Word Study: “Emptied Himself” in Philippians 2:7

Word Study: “Emptied Himself” in Philippians 2:7

by Mike Prah on December 22, 2019

“5 Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” Philippians 2:5-7 (NASB)

 

The Greek word ἐκένωσεν, transliterated into English as ekenōsen, appears in the passage once. The range of meaning is “to abase, neutralize, make void, make of none effect, make of no reputation, be in vain” (Strong’s 2758). Considering its classical Greek background, Liddell and Scott online database (1940) did not return a response for ἐκένωσεν; neither did the Analytical Lexicon of the New Testament

 In assessing it’s New Testament usage, the root word (verb) κενόω is used by Paul elsewhere to mean “to become powerless,” or “to be emptied of significance” (Fee, 211: cf, Rom 4:14; 1 Cor 1:17; 9:15; 2 Cor 9:3). It is in synonymous parallelism with 2:8, “he humbled himself” (Garland, 220). The phrase Jesus “emptied himself” can be somewhat confusing to the contemporary reader of Scripture. The broader linguistic consideration is useful where the meaning of a word is discernible by considering the context the word consists of within a sentence or even better, a discourse (Blomberg, 122). According to Thornhill, “words derive their meaning primarily from the context in which they are used” (Thornhill, 181).  Therefore, it is necessary to examine the word in the context of the passage.

The NIV rendition of “Jesus emptied himself” (Phil 2:7’; ἐκένωσεν; NIV “made himself nothing”) clarifies what being “in the form of God,” and “equality with God” (Phil 2:7) entails, but it raises further questions, Of what did Jesus empty himself? How does one lay aside one’s nature?  Garland notes that Paul is not suggesting that Christ temporarily put aside his divine attributes with a view of winning them back again. “Emptying himself means that he made himself null and void and renounced his privileges and rights. He exhibited the opposite of “vain conceit” (κενοδοξία; Transliterated: kenodoxian, Strong’s 2754; vs.3), which ascribes false honor to oneself and asserts one’s pride of place over others (Garland, 220). The KJV translation, “made himself of no reputation,” captures Paul’s intent in Phil 2:7.

Incorporating non-biblical Greek usage of the phrase “humbled himself,” Dio Chrysostom (Discourses 14:3) suggests that Paul must have been influenced by the prevailing notion that “whoever is permitted to do whatever he wishes is a free man, and who is not, is a slave” (bond-servant). Christ was free to do what he wanted but chose to take the form of a slave (δοῦλος; Transliterated: doulou, Strong's: 1401; vs. 7).

In sum, the meaning of “Jesus emptied himself” (Phil 2:7) in the context of Philippians 2:1-9 is, Jesus refused to exploit his divine status or use it as an opportunity for self-glorification. He took up the cross not the crown. “For him, equality with God meant giving up privileges, emptying himself, serving as a slave, spending himself, obeying God, and dying a slave’s death on a cross” (Garland, 220).

 

Bibliography

Blomberg, Craig L. A Handbook of New Testament Exegesis. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2010.

Fee, Gordon, D. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. New International Commentary in the New Testament. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995.

Garland, David. “Philippians.” In the Expositors Bible Commentary, ed. by Tremper Longman, III, and David E. Garland, pages 177-261. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

Strong, James. The New Strong's Expanded Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Red Letter Edition. Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2010.

Thornhill, Chadwick, A. Greek for Everyone: Introductory Greek for Bible Study and Application, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016.

Tags: word study, phil 2:7, exegesis ; emptied himself

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