Did Jesus Diminish His Divine Power to Become Human?
On Friday, we ended the week talking about the physical origins of Jesus, and how the “miraculous conception” happened biologically. Today we move to a question about what divine attributes were necessary for Christ to lay down in order to take up his humanity.
The question comes from Matthew in Vienna, the capital of Austria. “Dear Pastor John, thank you for all your work over the years in ministry. My small group recently considered the subject of Jesus’s divinity and humanity. I looked through Desiring God’s resources and found a sermon that you delivered way back in 1981. In that sermon on Luke 2:52 you state, ‘Our text has important implications for understanding the divinity of Christ. It helps us understand what Paul meant when he said, “Though he was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:6–7). One of the things Christ emptied himself of was omniscience.’ Later, regarding the attributes of God, you said, ‘They were his potentially, and thus he was God; but he surrendered their use absolutely, and so he was man.’ My question is, how do you now understand Philippians 2:6–8 and Luke 2:52? Do these texts really necessitate that some attributes of the eternal divine nature of Jesus must have been given up at his incarnation?”
Well I’m glad this question is asked, and I’m glad they quote my old sermon because the first thing I would say is that I would speak today with more precision and care than I did in those sentences. As I read those (I went back and read them in context), I thought, “That was not very careful.”
When we say things about Jesus Christ after the incarnation of the eternal divine Son, we have to be careful not to give the impression that the divine nature of Christ has the same limitations that the human nature of Christ does. And I don’t think I made that distinction clear enough in 1981. I would not want to say, for example, that Christ in his divine nature emptied himself of any essential divine attribute. I think omniscience is an essential divine attribute.
Very God and Very Man
When in Matthew 24:36 Jesus says that not even the Son knows the time of Jesus’s return, I take him to mean that the Son — Jesus Christ, considered in his human nature — operates with a kind of limitation. But not the divine nature. Now, I know that sounds weird; that sounds strange. It is strange because the union of two natures in one person, one divine and one human, is beyond our experience and will always be beyond our personal experience. We’re never going to be God. And we may expect it to sound strange.
“Christ moved from heavenly heights to such shameful degradation on our behalf.”
So how then do I understand Philippians 2:6–7 and the emptying of himself? Let me read the verses so that we all have it in front of us.
Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. (Philippians 2:6–7)
So in verse six, you have the preexistent Christ before incarnation in the form of God, which the next phrase defines as equality with God. Then in verse seven, you have him taking the form of a servant in the likeness of men. I think just as the term “form of God” in verse six does not mean “less than God” — because of the phrase “equality with God” — in the same way, the phrases “form of a servant” and “likeness of man” in verse seven do not mean “less than human,” but rather “equal with all humans.” That is a real human nature. The upshot of it is that Christ is very God and very man.
In between those two statements, you have this famous phrase “he emptied himself.” What does that mean? I don’t think it means that Christ, in his divine nature, became less than fully divine. In other words, he didn’t empty himself of deity.
One of the reasons I don’t believe that is what Paul meant is because he says the very opposite in Colossians 2:9. He said, “For in him” — in Christ — “the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily.” You even wonder whether he used the word fullness there partially to say, “He didn’t empty himself of that. He’s not empty. He’s not only not empty — he’s full. He’s full of deity.” The whole fullness of deity dwells bodily in Jesus. So I don’t think he emptied himself of anything that constitutes the essence of deity.
I think the best clue for how to think about the emptying probably comes from John 17:5. Jesus says, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.” So, John had already said in John 5:18 that the Jews recognized that Jesus was making himself equal with God.
“The fullness of divine glory would have incinerated sinners and blinded everyone.”
So on the one hand, the incarnate Christ in the gospel of John has a divine nature, he’s fully God. On the other hand, there were aspects of his glory which he had laid aside. That’s why he’s praying, “Father, restore to me the glory I had with you before the foundation of the world.”
I think that would include at least the privileges of deity that stand between the divine Christ and the shame and degradation and suffering and death of the cross. That’s the point of Philippians 2:5–8. He moved from such height to such shameful degradation on our behalf. And that’s the mind-set we’re supposed to have as we serve others.
Glory in Our Midst
But then, again I need to qualify and say it would be a mistake to say that he laid aside all of the divine glory in becoming man. John 1:14 says, “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth.”
So there was a divine glory in the incarnate Christ for those who had eyes to see. But the fullness of divine glory, I think, would have incinerated sinners and blinded everyone, and this is what he emptied himself of. Maybe the best way to say it is that whatever stood between the fullness of the divine glory before the incarnation and the suffering and shame and degradation and death of the cross — whatever stood between there, that had to be laid aside so he could do it.
The Savior We Need
The only thing I would say now with regard to Luke 2:52, which was mentioned in the question — that “Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man” — the only thing I’d say there is that Jesus was, in his human nature, fully man. Therefore, he grew up through the stages of childhood like other humans, yet without sin. Paul says in 1 Timothy 2:5, “There is one God, and there is one mediator between God and men, the man” — the human — “Christ Jesus.”
So, in his divine nature, Christ was fully God. In his human nature, he was fully man. In his divine nature, he had all the essential attributes of God during his incarnation, and in his human nature, he was finite and could therefore grow in wisdom and stature.
“In his divine nature, Christ was fully God. In his human nature, he was fully man.”
Just by way of conclusion, no book in the Bible exalts the deity of Christ better than the book of Hebrews: “But of the Son he says, ‘Your throne, O God, is forever and ever’” (Hebrews 1:8). No book stresses the humanity of Christ for the sake of his sympathy with our weaknesses like Hebrews does: “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).
Therefore, in this advent season, let us do exactly what Hebrews 4:16 says: “Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” We have a great divine and human savior.