“but he divested himself of glory, taking the essence of a slave, becoming in the likeness of men, and being found in the state of man he humbled himself, becoming obedient even up to death…even death on a cross.”
While usually I try and offer a pretty literal, word-for-word translation of the text, verse 7 is another passage that has again led many astray in their understanding of Jesus. Literally, the verse begins with the words: “but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave…” Now we have already discussed the word morfh/ (morphe) and its relationship to the essence of something, but here we also need to deal with the term keno/w (keno’o), which literally means, “to empty,” but what is being emptied?
There have been some theological circles who have argued that Jesus emptied himself entirely of his godhead to become man. Yet, to argue in such a way means that God is divisible, separable, and changing…a contrast to the Biblical picture that God is one (Deuteronomy 6:4; 2 Samuel 7:22; Nehemiah 9:6; Isaiah 44:6; Romans 3:30; Galatians 3:20; James 2:19) and that he is unchanging (Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 13:8; James 1:17). Others have taken a more romantic view of this, for example Charles Wesley in his classic hymn, And Can It Be, writing the words that “he emptied himself of all but love…” Surely God is love and Jesus exemplifies that love, but clearly from the scriptures it can be seen that Jesus did not divest himself of Truth, Grace, Mercy, Righteousness, Wrath, Power, etc…
So, of what did Jesus empty himself? In the context of the previous verse it becomes clear that Jesus emptied himself of his glory, and chose to veil that glory in flesh to come and save fallen humans…the elect from all of the nations…every believer throughout the generations. Thus, what is being communicated by Paul is not that Jesus ceased to be God in the incarnation nor that he emptied himself of his Godlike attributes; but instead, while remaining God in essence, he took on the essence of man — and thus everything that is an essential part of God and everything that is an essential part of man (even the lowliest man) is part of his essence. He became man to save men. What of sin? Jesus had none. Furthermore, while sin is part of our common experience as men, it is not an essential part of our nature for Adam and Eve were created free from sin and from a sin nature and they were in many ways, more human than any of us still alive today. Thus, those things that were essential attributes Jesus took to himself, not sin.
And to prove his love and his obedience to the Father, he went to death — even death on a cross — an accursed way to die (Deuteronomy 21:23; Galatians 3:13). He took the curse upon himself so that we do not need to bear it for ourselves. It is the greatest exchange that has ever been made in all of history…the substitutionary atonement of Jesus. And whether here and now by believers or in judgment, he will receive the honor he is due.