What does it mean that He made himself nothing?
Philippians 2:7 “but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (ESV)
TNIV “he made himself nothing”; NLT “he gave up his divine privileges (footnote: Greek he emptied himself.) “; CSB “He emptied Himself”
Some thoughts on the various translations
Each of these translations give us something to think about, but I think that the ESV and TNIV translated this in the best possible way. The NLT does have in the footnotes “Greek he emptied himself”. However, I think it has the least desirable wording. The phrase “gave up his divine privileges” gives implication that Jesus stop being God either in whole or in part. According to the ESVSB “Greek kenoō can mean “empty, pour out” or also (metaphorically) “give up status and privilege.” Although the ESVSB notes add some clarity here to the meaning, and I understand what the NLT is trying to communicate, I still think that the NLT makes it difficult to understand, rather than providing clarification. I don’t know if it is the words “gave up” or “divine” that bug me. It may be that combination. The NLT first edition had “He made himself nothing” which maybe they just should have left it that way.
The NLT translation raises further questions such as, what divine privileges that he give up? Did he give up all of his divine attributes, or just some of them? I think that the average English reader may find themselves thinking just that. Where as the ESV or the TNIV would not invoke such ideas, rather they allow you to follow the flow of thought that Paul is attempting to stress to us.
Gordon Fee “Pauline Christology”
Gordon Fee’s opening remarks on this verse start off trying to understand what Paul meant by such language.
…we also come to a major crux in the Pauline corpus, as to what Paul intended with this language. At issue is whether the verb ἐκένωσε to be understood literally or metaphorically. Did Paul understand the divine Christ (literally) to have “emptied himself of something” in taking the “form” of a slave? Or is this a strong metaphor, giving pictorial expression to what is otherwise inexpressible and thus meaning something like “he made himself nothing” in becoming human? These questions cannot be answered definitively, but it is at least arguable, on the basis of the parallel structure of the two sentences in vv.6-8 that the participles very likely carry the same sense in both instances (vv.6 and 8). And here, it would seem, one can make more sense of both of them when understood as having a modal relationship to the main verb in each clause. That is, this is the way Christ emptied himself and humbled himself: by “becoming human” and by “becoming obedient”. pg 383
Here the NLTSB correctly says “…(literally he emptied himself): The rest of 2:7-8 explains this ultimate expression of divine self-denial”
I think this is the correct meaning of this verse, that Christ made himself nothing by humbling himself through his self-denial, by “becoming human” and by “becoming obedient”, which is the mind set (self-denial) that Paul is attempting to get us as Christians to have. This affirms my initial thoughts that this verse is best translated as the TNIV and ESV have it. Donlad Macleod also makes the same conclusion:
…it was himself he emptied and, secondly, that the way he emptied himself was by taking the form of a servant…It is what Christ assumes that humbles and impoverishes him: hence the justice of Augustine’s comment that he emptied himself ‘not by changing His own divinity but by assuming our changeableness’ Donald Macleod “The Person of Christ” IVP 1998 pg 215-216
Fee Further says:
The question, then is not what Christ emptied himself of, but how else Paul could possibly have expressed the divine mystery of God incarnate except by this kind of powerful imagery. pg384
That is a great thought that Fee has, how else can Paul explain the divine mystery without using this sort of imagery? Paul has what I think a clear understanding of this divine union, and is doing his best to properly communicate what he knows to be true. This passage exemplifies “the selflessness of God” (Fee) and not only depicts the mind set that we should have (self-denial), but it also demonstrates God’s immense love for humanity. This causes me to have a deeper appreciation for verses like John 15:13 No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends.
Christ did not empty himself of anything: he simply “emptied himself” poured himself out, as it were. Thus, the issue for Paul is the selflessness of God, expressed by the preexistent divine Son, whereby in “becoming human” he took the μορφῇ of a slave – one who expressed his humanity in lowly service to others. Gordon Fee “Pauline Christology” pg384
Jesus, did not empty himself of any divine attributes, but rather he:
did not consider being equal with God as something to be taken selfish advantage of, Rather, he “poured himself out”, with the salvation of humankind as his goal…From Paul’s perspective, this is how divine love manifests itself in its most charateristic and profuse expression…He entered our history not as κύριος (Lord), which name he acquires at his vindication (vv. 9-11), but as (slave), a person without advantages, with no rights or privileges but in servanthood to all” Gordon Fee “Pauline Christology” pg. 385
This understanding causes me to have a deeper appreciation for the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. Jesus made himself nothing by becoming human, and denying himself the divine rights and privileges that he had.
In becoming incarnate God not only accommodates himself to human weakness: he buries his glory under veil after veil so that it is impossible for flesh and blood to recognize him. As he hangs on the cross, bleeding, battered, powerless and forsaken, the last thing he looks like is God. Indeed, he scarcely looks human. He looks like nothing but a hell-bound, hell deserving derelict. Everything about him says ‘An atheist and a blasphemer!’ At last, his identity was obscured even from himself. Donald Macleod “The Person of Christ” IVP 1998 pg. 218