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Did Jesus Give Up Some of His Divine Attributes While on Earth? (The Kenosis Theory)
Now there are many instances in the New Testament where 'Lord' is used of Christ in what can only be understood as this strong Old Testament sense, 'the Lord' who is 'Yahweh' or God himself. This use of the word 'Lord' is quite striking in the word of the angel to the shepherds of Bethlehem: 'For to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord' (Luke 2:11). Though these words are familiar to us from frequent reading of the Christmas story, we should realize how surprising it would be to any first-century Jew to hear that someone born as a baby was the 'Christ' (or 'Messiah'), and, moreover, that this one who was the Messiah was also 'the Lord' - that is, the Lord God himself ! The amazing force of the angel's statement, which the shepherds could hardly believe, was to say, essentially, 'Today in Bethlehem a baby has been born who is your Saviour and your Messiah, and who is also God himself.' It is not surprising that 'all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them' (Luke 2:18).
When Mary comes to visit Elizabeth several months before Jesus is to be born, Elizabeth says, 'Why is this granted me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?' (Luke 1:43). Because Jesus was not even born, Elizabeth could not be using the word 'Lord' to mean something like human 'master.' She must rather be using it in the strong Old Testament sense, giving an amazing sense to the sentence: 'Why is this granted me, that the mother of the Lord God himself should come to me?' Though this is a very strong statement, it is difficult to understand the word 'Lord' in this context in any weaker sense.
We see another example when Matthew says that John the Baptist is the one who cries out in the wilderness, 'Prepare the way of the Lord ('Jehovah') make his paths straight' (Matthew 3:3). In doing this John is quoting Isaiah 40:3, which speaks about the Lord God ('Jehovah') Himself coming among his people. But the context applies this passage to John's role of preparing the way for Jesus to come. The implication is that when Jesus comes, the Lord himself will come.
Jesus also identifies himself as the sovereign Lord of the Old Testament when he asks the Pharisees about Psalm 110:1, 'The Lord said to my Lord Sit at my right hand, till I put your enemies under your feet' (Matthew 22:44). The force of this statement is that 'God the Father said to God the Son [David's Lord], 'Sit at my right hand....''. The Pharisees know he is talking about Himself and identifying himself as one worthy of the Old Testament title kyrios 'Lord' ('Jehovah').
Such usage is seen frequently in the Epistles, where 'the Lord' is a common name to refer to Christ. Paul says 'there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist' (1 Corinthians 8:6; cf. 12:3, and many other passages in the Pauline epistles).
A particularly clear passage is found in Hebrews 1, where the author quotes Psalm 102 (v25-27), which speaks about the work of the Lord ('Jehovah') in creation and applies it to Christ:
You, Lord, founded the earth in the beginning, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all grow old like a garment, like a mantle you will roll them up, and they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end. (Hebrews 1:10-12)
Here Christ is explicitly spoken of as the eternal Lord of heaven and earth who created all things and will remain the same forever. Such strong usage of the term 'Lord' to refer to Christ culminates in Revelation 19:16, where we see Christ returning as conquering King, and 'On his robe and on his thigh he has a name inscribed, King of kings and Lord of lords.'
Other Strong Claims to Deity: In addition to the uses of the word God and Lord to refer to Christ, we have other passages that strongly claim deity for Christ. When Jesus told his Jewish opponents that Abraham had seen his (Christ's) day, they challenged him, 'You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?' (John 8:57). Here a sufficient response to prove Jesus' eternity would have been, 'Before Abraham was, I was.' But Jesus did not say this. Instead, he made a much more startling assertion: 'Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am' (John 8:58). Jesus combined two assertions whose sequence seemed to make no sense: 'Before something in the past happened [Abraham was], something in the present happened [I am].' The Jewish leaders recognized at once that he was not speaking in riddles or uttering nonsense: when he said, 'I am,' he was repeating the very words God used when he identified himself to Moses as 'I AM WHO I AM' (Exodus. 3:14). Jesus was claiming for himself the title 'I AM,' by which God designates himself as the eternal existing One, the God who is the source of his own existence and who always has been and always will be. When the Jews heard this unusual, emphatic, solemn statement, they knew that he was claiming to be God. 'So they took up stones to throw at him; but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple' (John 8:59). We will examine this fact - and the WBTS attempts to conceal this truth - in more detail, later.
Another strong claim to deity is Jesus' statement at the end of Revelation, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end' (Revelation 22:13). When this is combined with the statement of God the Father in Revelation 1:8, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega,' it also constitutes a strong claim to equal deity with God the Father. Sovereign over all of history and all of creation, Jesus is the beginning and the end.
In John 1:1, John not only calls Jesus 'God' but also refers to him as 'the Word' (Gk. logos). John's readers would have recognized in this term logos a dual reference, both to the powerful, creative Word of God in the Old Testament by which the heavens and earth were created (Psalm 33:6) and to the organizing or unifying principle of the universe, the thing that held it together and allowed it to make sense, in Greek thinking. John is identifying Jesus with both of these ideas and saying that he is not only the powerful, creative Word of God and the organizing or unifying force in the universe, but also that he became man: 'The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father' (John 1:14). Here is another strong claim to deity coupled with an explicit statement that Jesus also became man and moved among us as a man. Again, we will examine the WBTS claims later.
Further evidence of claims to deity can be found in the fact that Jesus calls himself 'the Son of man.' This title is used eighty-four times in the four gospels but only by Jesus and only to speak of himself (e.g., Matthew 16:13; Luke 9:18). In the rest of the New Testament, the phrase 'the Son of man' (with the definite article 'the') is used only once, in Acts 7:56, where Stephen refers to Christ as the Son of Man. This unique term has as its background the vision in Daniel 7 where Daniel saw one like a 'Son of Man' who 'came to the Ancient of Days' and was given 'dominion and glory and kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion which shall not pass away' (Daniel 7:13-14). It is striking that this 'son of man' came 'with the clouds of heaven' (Daniel 7:13). This passage clearly speaks of someone who had heavenly origin and who was given eternal rule over the whole world. The high priests did not miss the point of this passage when Jesus said, 'Hereafter you will see the Son of man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven' (Matthew 26:64). The reference to Daniel 7:13-14 was unmistakable, and the high priest and his council knew that Jesus was claiming to be the eternal world ruler of heavenly origin spoken of in Daniel's vision. Immediately they said, 'He has uttered blasphemy.... He deserves death' (Matthew 26:65-66). Here Jesus finally made explicit the strong claims to eternal world rule that were earlier hinted at in his frequent use of the title 'the Son of man' to apply to himself.
Though the title 'Son of God' can sometimes be used simply to refer to Israel (Matthew 2:15; cf. Messianic prophecy), or to man as created by God (Luke 2:38), or to redeemed man generally (Romans. 8:14, 19, 23), there are nevertheless instances in which the phrase 'Son of God' refers to Jesus as the heavenly, eternal Son who is equal to God himself (see Matthew 11:25-30; 17:5; 1 Corinthians 15:28; Hebrews 1:1-3, 5, 8). This is especially true in John's gospel where Jesus is seen as a unique Son from the Father (John 1:14, 18, 34, 49) who fully reveals the Father (John 8:19; 14:9). As Son he is so great that we can trust in him for eternal life (something that could be said of no created being: John 3:16, 36; 20:31 - but an error that the WBTS and many others labour under). He is also the one who has all authority from the Father to give life, pronounce eternal judgment, and rule over all (John 3:36; 5:20-22, 25; 10:17; 16:15). As Son he has been sent by the Father, and therefore he existed before he came into the world (John 3:37; 5:23; 10:36).
The first three verses of Hebrews are emphatic in saying that the Son is the one whom God 'appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world' (Hebrews 1:2). This Son, says the writer, 'reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp [lit., is the 'exact duplicate,' Gk. charakter) of his nature, upholding the universe by his word of power' (Hebrews 1:3). Jesus is the exact duplicate of the 'nature' (or being, Gk. hypostasis) of God, making him exactly equal to God in every attribute. Moreover, he continually upholds the universe 'by his word of power,' something that only God could do.
These passages combine to indicate that the title 'Son of God' when applied to Christ strongly affirms his deity as the eternal Son in the Trinity, one equal to God the Father in all his attributes.
Evidence That Jesus Possessed Attributes of Deity: In addition to the specific affirmations of Jesus' deity seen in the many passages quoted above, we see many examples of actions in Jesus' lifetime that point to his divine character.
Jesus demonstrated his omnipotence when he stilled the storm at sea with a word (Matthew 8:26-27), multiplied the loaves and fish (Matthew 14:19), and changed water into wine (John 2:1-11). Some might object that these miracles just showed the power of the Holy Spirit working through him, just as the Holy Spirit could work through any other human being, and therefore these do not demonstrate Jesus' own deity. But the contextual explanations of these events often do not point to what they demonstrate about the power of the Holy Spirit, but to what they demonstrate about Jesus Himself. For instance, after Jesus turned water into wine, John tells us, 'This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus did at Cana in Galilee, and manifested his glory; and his disciples believed in him' (John 2:11). It was not the glory of the Holy Spirit that was manifested but the glory of Jesus himself, as his divine power worked to change water into wine. Similarly, after Jesus stilled the storm on the Sea of Galilee, the disciples did not say, 'How great is the power of the Holy Spirit working through this prophet,' but rather, 'What sort of man is this, that even winds and sea obey him?' (Matthew 8:27). It was the authority of Jesus himself to which the winds and the waves were subject, and this could only be the authority of God who rules over the seas and has power to still the waves (cf. Psalm 65:7; 89:9; 107:29).
Jesus asserts his eternity when he says, 'Before Abraham was, I Am' (John 8:58, see discussion above), or, 'I am the Alpha and the Omega' (Revelation 22:13).
The omniscience of Jesus is demonstrated in his knowing people's thoughts (Mark 2:8) and seeing Nathaniel under the fig tree from far away (John 1:48), and knowing 'from the first who those were that did not believe, and who it was that would betray him' (John 6:64). Of course, the revelation of individual, specific events or facts is something that God could give to anyone who had a gift of prophecy in the Old or New Testaments. But Jesus' knowledge was much more extensive than that. He knew 'who those were that did not believe,' thus implying that he knew the belief or unbelief that was in the hearts of all men. In fact, John says explicitly that Jesus 'knew all men and needed no one to bear witness of man' (John 2:25). The disciples could later say to him, 'Now we know that you know all things' (John 16:30). These statements say much more than what could be said of any great prophet or apostle of the Old Testament or New Testament, for they imply omniscience on the part of Jesus.
Finally, after his resurrection, when Jesus asked Peter if he loved him, Peter answered, 'Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you' (John 21:17). Here Peter is saying much more than that Jesus knows his heart and knows that he loves him. He is rather making a general statement ('You know everything') and from it he is drawing a specific conclusion ('You know that I love you'). Peter is confident that Jesus knows what is in the heart of every person, and therefore he is sure that Jesus knows his own heart.
The divine attribute of omnipresence is not directly affirmed to be true of Jesus during his earthly ministry. However, while looking forward to the time that the church would be established, Jesus could say, 'Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Matthew 18:20). Moreover, before he left the earth, he told his disciples, 'I am with you always, to the close of the age' (Matthew 28:20).
That Jesus possessed divine sovereignty a kind of authority possessed by God alone, is seen in the fact that he could forgive sins (Mark 2:5-7). Unlike the Old Testament prophets who declared, 'Thus says the LORD,' he could preface his statements with the phrase, 'But I say to you' (Matthew 5:22, 28, 32, 34, 39, 44) - an amazing claim to his own authority. He could speak with the authority of God himself because he was himself fully God. He had 'all things' delivered into his hands by the Father and the authority to reveal the Father to whomever he chose (Matthew 11:25-27). Such is his authority that the future eternal state of everyone in the universe depends on whether they believe in him or reject him (John 3:36).
Jesus also possessed the divine attribute of immortality the inability to die. We see this indicated near the beginning of John's gospel, when Jesus says to the Jews, 'Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up' (John 2:19). John explains that he was not speaking about the temple made with stones in Jerusalem, 'but he spoke of the temple of his body. When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this; and they believed the scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken' (John 2:21-22). We must insist of course that Jesus really did die: this very passage speaks of the time when 'he was raised from the dead.' But it is also significant that Jesus predicts that he will have an active role in his own resurrection: 'I will raise it up.' Although other Scripture passages tell us that God the Father was active in raising Christ from the dead, here he says that he himself will be active in his resurrection. As we will emphasise later, Jehovah's Witnesses and other cults simply ignore this evidence!
Jesus claims the power to lay down his life and take it up again in another passage in John's gospel: 'For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own accord. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again; this charge I have received from my Father' (John 10:17-18). Here Jesus speaks of a power no other human being has had - the power to lay down his own life and the power to take it up again. Once again, this is an indication that Jesus possessed the divine attribute of immortality. Similarly, the author of Hebrews says that Jesus 'has become a priest, not according to a legal requirement concerning bodily descent but by the power of an indestructible life' (Hebrews 7:16). Immortality is a unique characteristic of God alone, as shown in 1 Timothy 6:16, which speaks of God as the one 'who alone has immortality.'
Another clear attestation to the deity of Christ is the fact that he is counted worthy to be worshipped, something that is true of no creature, including angels (see Rev. 19:10), but only God alone. Yet Scripture says of Christ that 'God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father' (Philippians 2:9-11). Similarly, God commands the angels to worship Christ, for we read, 'When he brings the first-born into the world, he says, 'Let all God's angels worship him'' (Hebrews 1:6).
John is allowed a glimpse of the worship that occurs in heaven, for he sees thousands and thousands of angels and heavenly creatures around God's throne saying, 'Worthy is the Lamb who was slain, to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honour and glory and blessing!' (Revelation 5:12). Then he hears 'every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea, and all therein, saying, 'To him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb be blessing and honour and glory and might for ever and ever!'' (Revelation 5:13). Christ is here called 'the Lamb who was slain,' and he is accorded the universal worship offered to God the Father, thus clearly demonstrating his equality in deity.
Paul writes to the Philippians:
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:5-7)
Beginning with this text, several theologians in Germany (from about 1860-1880) and in England (from about 1890-1910) advocated a view of the incarnation that had not been advocated before in the history of the church. This new view was called the 'kenosis theory,' and the overall position it represented was called 'kenotic theology.' The kenosis theory holds that Christ gave up some of his divine attributes while he was on earth as a man. The word kenosis is taken from the Greek verb kenoo which generally means 'to empty,' and is translated 'emptied himself ' in Philippians 2:7. According to the theory Christ 'emptied himself ' of some of his divine attributes, such as omniscience, omnipresence, and omnipotence, while he was on earth as a man. This was viewed as a voluntary self-limitation on Christ's part, which he carried out in order to fulfil his work of redemption.
But does Philippians 2:7 teach that Christ emptied himself of some of his divine attributes, and does the rest of the New Testament confirm this? The evidence of Scripture points to a negative answer to both questions. We must first realize that no recognized teacher in the first 1,800 years of church history, including those who were native speakers of Greek, thought that 'emptied himself' in Philippians 2:7 meant that the Son of God gave up some of his divine attributes. Second, we must recognize that the text does not say that Christ 'emptied himself of some powers' or 'emptied himself of divine attributes' or anything like that. Third, the text does describe what Jesus did in this 'emptying': he did not do it by giving up any of his attributes but rather by 'taking the form of a servant,' that is, by coming to live as a man, and 'being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross' (Philippians 2:8). Thus, the context itself interprets this 'emptying' as equivalent to 'humbling himself ' and taking on a lowly status and position. Thus, the NIV, instead of translating the phrase, 'He emptied himself,' translates it, 'but made himself nothing' (Philippians 2:7 NIV). The emptying includes change of role and status, not essential attributes or nature.
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