The Content of the Image of God


‘Have the same disposition in you that was in Christ Jesus who, because he existed in the form of God, did not regard his lofty status of equality with God as something to be used for his own aggrandizement, but rather as a calling to do just the opposite – to empty himself, to take on the form of a slave, to become in the likeness of a human being, to be found in shape as a man, to humble himself, to become obedient to the point of death, even to the point of death on a cross.’
from Philippians 2

How can one person be simultaneously in the form of God and in the form of a slave?

What word could possibly describe such an apparent contradiction?

The apostle Paul gives us such a word: kenao. I’ve translated the word in Philippians 2 as ‘self-emptying.’

Scholars have long debated the content of the term. They have asked: of what exactly did Christ empty himself? And traditionally they have answered: of his noncommunicable attributes.

The word ‘communicable’ is a fancy term describing something that can be passed on to another. Hence the ‘noncommunicable’ attributes of Jesus are simply those that he cannot pass on to us, such as his omnipotence (all-powerful), his omniscience (all-knowing), and his omnipresence (everywhere-present). Presumably, say many traditional scholars, it is these attributes that Jesus had to abandon when he became a man, the attributes of which he emptied himself.

But there is a problem with this interpretation. In Philippians 2, Paul is not teaching that Christ had to forfeit the essence of his being. Rather, he is expounding precisely the opposite – that by self-emptying Christ expresses exactly who he is. Essentially, he is the one who pours his goodness into others. That’s not forfeiting, but revealing himself fully. And not just revealing who he is, but, because he is in the form of God, revealing who God is.

God is consummately the self-emptying one . . . the God who pours himself without end into his creatures for his glory and for their good.

Thus Jesus isn’t divesting himself of anything, but investing himself fully. And quintessentially through Jesus we see what it means to be the image of God. It means to be infinitely self-emptying, endlessly self-giving. That is what Jesus is like. That is what God is like. And, because we, too, are made in the image of God, that is what we are to be like.

We are to have the same disposition in us that was in Christ Jesus.


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