Philippians 2:7-8 What do you mean when you say “sovereign”?

Phil 2:7-8
7But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men:
8And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

This passage has been designated the kenosis passage from the phrase “made…of no reputation” translated from the word κενoω (kenoo – to empty). There are strong implications about the sovereignty of God from this idea that God emptied Himself.

Some of the various interpretations include:

  • God the Son emptied Himself from heaven in the incarnation
  • God the Son divested Himself of His divinity in the incarnation
  • God the Son divested Himself of the exercise of His divinity in the incarnation

From the outset, let us consider that there is no happy conclusion to draw from what it means to be emptied. We can be comfortable with this because there are just some things about God that we will never fathom in our finite experience. For example:

  • What happened before time began?
  • What comes after the end of the universe?

God, in His eternal and infinite character is beyond time and space. If we cannot probe beyond the limits of the physical infinite, how can we begin to understand the spiritual infinite?

We reject the first definition of the kenosis because Jesus refers to the Son of man which is in heaven in John 3:13. The second definition is no more satisfying because in the incarnation Jesus is the God-man, both divine and human.

Heb 1:3 Who being the brightness of his glory, and the express image of his person, and upholding all things by the word of his power, when he had by himself purged our sins, sat down on the right hand of the Majesty on high;

John 1:14 And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.

The word person in Hebrews is ὑπ στασις (hypostasis – standing under, essence) from which we get the teaching of the hypostatic union in which Christ’s divinity and humanity are not understood to exist side by side but inseparably mixed.

The third consideration of the kenosis is the most promising: Jesus divested Himself of the exercise of His divinity. I think it unwise to press the limits of the understanding of this, but it certainly would help explain the following Scriptures:

Mark 11:13 And seeing a fig tree afar off having leaves, he came, if haply he might find any thing thereon: and when he came to it, he found nothing but leaves; for the time of figs was not yet.

John 5:19-20
19Then answered Jesus and said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, The Son can do nothing of himself, but what he seeth the Father do: for what things soever he doeth, these also doeth the Son likewise.
20For the Father loveth the Son, and sheweth him all things that himself doeth: and he will shew him greater works than these, that ye may marvel.

Mark 13:32 But of that day and that hour knoweth no man, no, not the angels which are in heaven, neither the Son, but the Father.

John 3:34 For he whom God hath sent speaketh the words of God: for God giveth not the Spirit by measure unto him.

The question now arises, “How sovereign is God?” Are there any limitations to God? Do any limitations diminish His sovereignty (the answer is no)? What does the sovereignty of God mean? How does this affect the understanding of the role of God in salvation?

According to one perspective, Theological Voluntarism, if God were to choose up to be down one day and down to be up the next, then it would be so because God wills it to be so. The opposite of Voluntarism is Intellectualism — God’s will is limited by His character.

According to voluntarism, and in contrast with intellectualism, God’s action is not limited by his knowledge of the good. His will is independent of his intellect so that he need not do what he judges best… are right actions right because God commands them, or does God command them because they’re right? Is it that promise-keeping is right because God commands it, or does God deem promise-keeping right because it is right—God knows that it is right? In the former case, God makes things right—there is no independent standard of rightness, independent of what God wills. This first possibility is the essence of theological voluntarism—moral right is a product of the divine will. In the latter case, there is an independent standard of rightness, a standard that God knows, and which his commands express.
— New World Encyclopedia

Although God “worketh all things after the counsel of his own will” (Ephesians 1:11), He “cannot lie.” (Titus 1:2) This self-limiting concept is what Abraham appealed to God for Lot in Sodom:

Gen 18:25 That be far from thee to do after this manner, to slay the righteous with the wicked: and that the righteous should be as the wicked, that be far from thee: Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?

In God’s sovereignty, although He could be absolutely sovereign and control absolutely everything, He does not. He is self-limiting. By His choice, He limited Himself to being a man while on earth even to the point of dying.

Phil 2:8 And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.

If God limits Himself, then the problem becomes: where does He draw the line?

  • No limitation: He controls all things and is the author of sin
  • Pseudo-limitation: He controls all things except for those things in which He wants man to sin.
  • Partial limitation: He contols the things that He wants to make sure happen in His plan for the ages and we respond independently to Him.
  • Extended limitation: God is surprised how things turn out as time passes (Open Theism)
  • All limitation: Controls nothing. He created the world and left it alone to work itself out. (Deism, also compatible with Materialism where there is no control by God because there is no God to control)

Judging from the fact that man is held so responsible for his choices, He is certainly acting in accord with God’s self limitation. Salvation becomes something that is neither solely God-centered or solely man-centered. It is centered on the interaction of God and man. Man is involved in the act of salvation.

Rom 10:14-17
14How then shall they call on him in whom they have not believed? and how shall they believe in him of whom they have not heard? and how shall they hear without a preacher?
15And how shall they preach, except they be sent? as it is written, How beautiful are the feet of them that preach the gospel of peace, and bring glad tidings of good things!
16But they have not all obeyed the gospel. For Esaias saith, Lord, who hath believed our report?
17So then faith cometh by hearing, and hearing by the word of God.

John 1:9-13
9That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world.
10He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not.
11He came unto his own, and his own received him not.
12But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name:
13Which were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.

The insight we gain upon the fact of the kenosis is that God can and does limit Himself. The act of salvation performed upon man is all God’s work. But, He does not force it upon man. Man’s part is to receive it.

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