An Exhortation to Emptying

It was Jonathan Edwards in his “Religious Affections” who said that, “holy desire, exercised in longings, hungerings, and thirstings after God and holiness, is often mentioned in Scripture as an important part of true religion.” Perhaps it was Paul’s letter to the Philippians that inspired him to such a notion. For college Greek we were required to write a blog and about something that the Greek was illuminating for us and so I chose to have a look at Philippians 2:1-11. Paul is exhorting the reader to “Let the same kind of thinking dominate you as that which is also in Christ” (v5). He wants his readers to aspire to obedience exemplified by Christ (v12) but before he gets there, he gets side-tracked in ecstasy over Jesus’ incarnation and glorification.

To only see Paul’s imperatives in this passage and gloss over the detail would be to look at the night sky and forget about the stars. In this case, the proverbial star that caught my eye was Paul’s word play on “κενόω” (kenoō) and its derivative “κενοδοξία” (kenodoxia). First, Paul uses the noun “κενοδοξία” which means “empty glory” or “self-conceit” when he tells the Philippians not to do anything motivated by rivalry or “empty glory”. Speaking of Christ a few verses on, Paul uses the verb “κενόω” which means “empty” to describe the incarnation and Christ’s humility. The two words are clearly etymologically related and it is likely that Paul intended this link.

But what is the purpose of what Paul is saying in this passage and how does our knowledge of the Greek help us? Paul seems to be exhorting us to humility. As was alluded to in the first paragraph, Paul desires Christians to have a holy desire. If we think of the broader context of the whole letter to the Philippians, we will realise that in chapter one Paul is writing things like, “to live is Christ, and to die is gain. If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me. Yet which I shall choose I cannot tell”. In chapter three he is still singing the same tune, “I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ” and then he continues later “that I may know him” and, “by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead”. This sort of self-denial only comes from a profound humility in the Christian, a humility that, Paul shows, is exemplified by Christ.

Paul tells the Philippians, and by extension, us. Not to be motivated by empty-glory; not to desire it or be mastered by it. He writes in Philippians 2:3, “nothing according to strife nor according to empty glory, but with humility deeming others better than yourselves.” In typical Pauline fashion, he tells the Philippians to take something off. What do they replace it with though, what are we to look to instead as our motivation and inspiration?

It would be uncharacteristic for Paul to tell us something to take off and not to replace it with something to put on. In verse 5 Paul responds to our nakedness; rather than chasing what is ultimately emptiness, Paul says, “Let the same kind of thinking dominate you that which is also in Christ”. What thinking was that? Paul describes it in verse 6 and 7, “who being in the form of God, did not deem being equal with God [a thing to be taken advantage of], but being himself emptied taking the form of a servant, appearing in the likeness of a man, and having been found in fashion like a man,” where “emptied” is the word “κενόω”.

The Greek illuminates an interesting parallel for us; Paul tells the Philippians not to chase after emptiness (not to be motivated by empty glory) but instead, to have the mind of Christ who emptied Himself. Christ, our model, did not hold on to His divine privileges and enforce His rightful claims to glory, he humbled Himself. “Therefore,” Paul writes in verse 9, “God has highly exalted him and bestowed on Him the name that is above every name”. So there is this kind of parabolic curve in which Paul commands to not-seek what the world values which is really emptiness (and he later calls “σκύβαλα” – dung), and instead to esteem Christ’s humility which resulted in His ultimate glorification. In this theological tangent, what Paul really does is that he gives the Philippian church an exhortation to emptying.

What an appropriate call to the church today! We live in an age in which Christians esteem the dung and the emptiness that the world has to offer. The idea of humbling ourselves or ’emptying’ ourselves seems ridiculous and yet that’s Paul’s instruction to us: To humble ourselves and serve. The world would be a different place if the church had the mind of Christ for then, our desires would be holy – not for ourselves but for God – and then, whether in life or in death, we would want Christ – not ourselves – to be glorified.

James Cuénod
Student at Wheaton College
I love Jesus, preach his Gospel, disciple his children, study his word and I am incurably passionate about the glory of God.
Inching my way towards teaching pastors in South Africa. Student at Wheaton College. Excited by Hermeneutics, Old Testament and Biblical Theology.