The term kenosis refers to the doctrine of Christ’s “self-emptying” in His incarnation. The word comes from the Greek of Philippians 2:7, which says that Jesus “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (ESV). The word translated “emptied” is a form of kenoó, from which we get the word kenosis.
Notice that Philippians 2:7 does not specify what the Son of God “emptied” Himself of. And here we must be careful not to go beyond what Scripture says. Jesus did not empty Himself of His divine attributes—no such attributes are mentioned in the verse, and it is obvious in the gospels that Jesus possessed the power and wisdom of God. Calming the storm is just one display of Jesus’ divine power (Mark 4:39). In coming to earth, the Son of God did not cease to be God, and He did not become a “lesser god.” Whatever the “emptying” entailed, Jesus remained fully God: “in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form” (Colossians 2:9).
It is better to think of Christ’s “emptying” of Himself as a laying aside of the privileges that were His in heaven. Rather than stay on His throne in heaven, Jesus “made himself nothing” (as the NIV translates Philippians 2:7). When He came to earth, “he gave up his divine privileges” (NLT). He veiled His glory, and He chose to occupy the position of a slave.
The kenosis was a self-renunciation, not an emptying Himself of deity. Nor was it an exchange of deity for humanity. Jesus never ceased to be God during any part of His earthly ministry. He did set aside His heavenly glory. He also voluntarily refrained from using His divinity to make His way easier. During His earthly ministry, Christ completely submitted Himself to the will of the Father (John 5:19).
As part of the kenosis, Jesus sometimes operated within the limitations of humanity. God does not get tired or thirsty, but Jesus did (John 4:6; 19:28). God knows all things, but it seems that, at least once, Jesus voluntarily surrendered the use of His omniscience (Matthew 24:36). Other times, Jesus’ omniscience was on full display (Luke 6:8; John 13:11; 18:4).
There are some false teachers who take the concept of kenosis too far, saying that Jesus gave up all or some of His divine nature when He came to earth. This heresy is sometimes referred to as the kenosis theory, but a better term is kenoticism or kenotic theology, to distinguish it from biblical understanding of the kenosis.
When it comes to the kenosis, we often focus too much on what Jesus gave up. The kenosis also deals with what Christ took on. Jesus added to His divine nature a human nature as He humbled Himself for us. Jesus went from being the glory of glories in heaven to being a human being who was put to death on the cross. Philippians 2:7–8 declares, “Taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” In the ultimate act of humility, the God of the universe became a human being and died for His creation.
The kenosis is the act of Christ taking on a human nature with all of its limitations, except with no sin. As one Bible scholar wrote, “At His incarnation He remained ‘in the form of God’ and as such He is Lord and Ruler over all, but He also accepted the nature of a servant as part of His humanity” (J. J. Müller, The Epistles of Paul to the Philippians and to Philemon, p. 82).