Philippians 2:7–8 – He Made Himself Nothing

It seems every word in Philippians 2:5-11 is theologically important . That Jesus “emptied himself” is one of the most discussed since it is not immediately clear what it means to become empty when one is “the form of God.”

The meaning of “emptied” is important here. The verb (κενόω) refers to setting the status described in verse 6 in order to be obedient.  While there is a great deal of theological weight placed on this word, it usually focuses on how Jesus (as God) could set aside certain attributes of God while he lived as a human.  I do not want to downplay those discussions, but they do distract from what Paul’s main point is in the cultural context of the Roman world of the first century.

Roman TogaThe phrase is better understood in terms Roman status, especially in the practice of wearing the toga by Roman elite. Jesus set aside his honor and prestige as “form of God” when he became the “form of a servant.” Perhaps the use of the toga in the Roman world illustrates what Paul may have had in mind.  The toga was a sign of elite status in the Roman world. Hellerman makes the point that this would be equivalent to a Roman senator setting aside his toga (his mark of status) and taking on the rags of a slave (also a mark of status). Because of that humble obedience, Jesus is exalted to the highest status imaginable, even above the emperor of Rome! That Jesus is called Lord is counter to a Roman world where Caesar is Lord and worshiped as a god (Embracing Shared Ministry, 167).

So when he “he emptied himself.” Jesus “divested himself of his prestige or privileges” (BDAG). It is as if he voluntarily set aside his toga, the sign he was the highest ranking Lord in the universe.  Rather than divesting himself of divine attributes, the idea Paul has in mind the humility Jesus had in the incarnation, so much so that the God of the universe could set aside that status in order to serve others.

Rather than having the form of God, Jesus took on the form of a servant. The ESV translates this as servant, but it is the same word as “slave,” the lowest possible social class in the Roman world.

Dobby in ragsJesus therefore set aside the toga, and picked up the rags of a slave. By way of analogy, think of the Roman emperor stripping himself of the finest clothing available to a Roman citizen and putting on the stained and flea-infested rags of the lowliest slave. (Think of the the rags of Dobby the House-Elf!) Just as the status of a Roman citizen was evident by what they wore, so too the clothing of a slave signal his status. Even a slave with some social standing would not dress in a toga!

The social status of a servant was always viewed negatively in the Roman world.  In modern western culture, a person at a store might say something like “I am at your service” in order to indicate their willingness to help someone. In the Roman world, this would be a shameful expression; the social status of a servant was not worth considering. Yet Jesus was by nature God and he voluntarily took on the nature of a human.

This idea of a “leader as a servant” or “God as a servant” would be counter-cultural in the first century. A leader would not be humble  nor would they ever consider serving others of a lower social class. The modern church is used to hearing about “servant leadership” and Christians are continually encouraged to serve in their churches and communities. Like the church at Philippi, members of local churches still struggle to serve others with “the mind of Christ.”

6 thoughts on “Philippians 2:7–8 – He Made Himself Nothing

  1. This would have been such a hard thing for people to understand back then, especially in the Roman culture where slaves were seen more as property than as human beings. However, I think that the fact that Jesus came as a slave instead of a king should give us some insight on how we as Christians should live. As Christians, we are constantly being told to follow Jesus’ example, and I think that this is one of the most important ways to do so. Jesus came as a servant, and so we should make ourselves servants to those around us. We should be willing to go out of our way to help others, and to put the needs of others before our own, because that is what Jesus did. I think that this can be really hard for us though, because we live in a culture that tells us we should be living for ourselves, and only doing things that will make us happy, regardless of how that effects our relationships with others. We also live in a world that puts a big emphasis on our status, usually based off of wealth. Almost everyone wants to get a good job and make a lot of money, and if we have those things, it can be hard not to flaunt them and raise ourselves up because of them. As Christians, we need to really make an effort to change our mindsets to that of a servant, and we must be willing to serve others and not show off the material things of this world that we may have.

  2. I may be wrong, but I feel like lessening ourselves to serve others in the church is becoming more and more “popular” if you will. It is becoming a normal concept to humble yourself in order to serve those around you. Just as Christ humbled Himself to the lowest social status despite his divine nature and powers and he completely emptied himself of this status to lift others up. Although this is something often discussed and encouraged in the church today, I feel like we still have not grasped the concept of what it truly means to trade our riches for rags for the benefit of others. We might give a little bit up of our riches (that being money, time, clothing, food, etc) but I feel like we don’t fully practice emptying ourselves as Jesus did. Christians often give just enough so that they are still comfortable, but are still giving SOMETHING up for the needs of others, almost for the appearance of doing good and being servants. We need to remember how drastic it was for Jesus Christ to turn in His glory and riches and status for dirty, filthy, rags. He resorted to shame, mockery, and embarrassment to serve those around him. The Son of God chose rags over riches and that is the least we can do. We do not and never will have the status that He had, but however highly we think of ourselves or others think of us, we must humble ourselves and give up that status to be down in the dirt with the needy, lifting them up.

  3. We have a savior that gave it all for us so we could live forever. I know that our sinful nature is the reason that we struggle to have a servant’s heart, but we need to stop using that as a crutch. We are sinners and we know this, but we continue to beat it like a dead horse. The fact that we know this needs to make us better and push us to have a servant’s heart like Jesus. There is no me in Jesus, but there is an “us” and that is how we are able to make it in this world. We make it by taking care of each other. We stop making excuses and start making friends. Those who have nothing and need shelter are the responsibility of us Christians. Christ was there and washed the feet of his disciples. What a beautiful visual of being humbled to do something that no one would expect the king of kings to do. We are so blessed to have the chance to even be close to how humble Jesus was in that moment. We need to start focusing on the “us” in Jesus because that is who Jesus is always focused on.

  4. I found this blog very important I find many people and even myself struggle with this sometime. We are so focused on materialistic things that we tend to focus on I stead of what truly in reality becomes important because in the end all of that materialistic stuff is coming with us. Jesus put aside his toga what would have labeled him higher class but that wasn’t what he found important so he set it aside. This world is tough that is kind of where we are headed in a way I think like for example when people say it’s not what you know it’s who you know which I think is relatable o this situation because many people are being labeled but no one is really higher than another which is what Jesus is trying to get across with the toga and him putting it aside or just not wanting to stand out.

  5. I like what P long said at the end about a “Leader as a servant” this idea of servant leadership is what I was taught to be most affecting a respectful. This is why we should model ourselves after Jesus.
    Jesus had made himself nothing by being crucified sounds like the ultimate way for a king to humble himself to show his love for us. In a previous blog post, P Long talks about how humiliating crucifixion is, and how it was strange for the messiah to be crucified. Jesus took on the role of a servant or a slave. This to Rome is a low ranking. According to P long, slaves were the workforce, their life wasn’t terrible like we view slaves in America, but they still had no rights. As Jesus took on this role, it was pathetic to the roman empire.
    Jesus humbling himself to be a servant and dying on the cross to me has so much great power. The king of the world humbled himself to take all of our sins and dies with the sin of the world, then to be resurrected leaving our sins behind. The idea of Christianity only makes sense to Christians because of how countercultural the whole idea is.

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