Ready to learn some new words?
Are you familiar with the terms “Hypostatic union” and “Kenosis”?
What do these words mean and how do they relate to each other and to daily life?
The truths wrapped-up in these terms should lead us to praise our great Savior. But they should also transform all our relationships!
WARNING – Be prepared to think deeply!
Hypostatic union and kenosis
Scripture presents the inescapable truth that God exists in tri-unity. Yes, there is only one God, but He exists as three eternal persons identified as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
- Genesis 1:26 – “Then God said, “Let us make mankind in our image, in our likeness,…”
- Matthew 28:19 – “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,…”
- II Corinthians 13:14 – “May the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.”
When the second person of the triune God (the Son) took on humanity, he was known as Jesus of Nazareth. This involved a miraculous union of two complete natures — one fully human and one fully divine. The technical term used to explain this miracle is “Hypostatic union.”
Hypostatic union – The greek word for hypostatic appears in Hebrews 1:3 – “The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being,…” The word is translated: “being” (NIV) or “nature” (ESV). In this verse, we learn that Jesus, “… is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature (ὑποστάσεως)…”
- Hypostasis is a compound word: (hypó, “under” hístēmi, “to stand”). It conveys the idea of support, foundation, subsistence, substance, essence, or nature. The term is helpful for explaining the nature of Jesus.
According to the witness of the primary historical account of his life, Jesus of Nazareth cannot be merely human. Unlike other human beings, Jesus is fully human without being merely human (see: Colossians 2:9). A miraculous union of full deity and perfect humanity took place in the person of Jesus Christ when he entered the womb of Mary. Based on the evidence, the Church fathers concluded that:
- “He is not two, but one Christ; one, not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by taking of the manhood into God” (Athanasian Creed).
When one considers what is written about Jesus and what he said, terms like hypostatic union become necessary for explaining him.
Consider these words identifying Jesus as the Word:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” Verse 14 “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” In his prayer to God the Father, Jesus said, “And now, Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began” (John 1:1-4, 14; 17:5).
Thoughts from others:
- “Jesus Christ (born in Bethlehem, reared in Nazareth, and crucified in Jerusalem) was not simply a man in and through whom God uniquely manifested himself. Jesus was fully human but he was not merely human. He was God become God-man” (John R. W. Stott).
- “Had Christ been only man, His death would have meant no more than that of any other martyr who gave himself for others. Had he been only divine, He would have had no real link with humanity, and His death would have been devoid of any redeeming quality” (J. Oswald Sanders).
- “That his fully human nature joined in personal union to his eternally divine nature is permanent proof that Jesus, in perfect harmony with his Father, is undeterrably for us. He has demonstrated his love for us in that while we were still sinners, he took our nature to his one person and died for us” (John Piper).
Kenosis – Kenosis is a word used to describe the self-giving love of Jesus in “emptying himself.” In the act of God that brought about the hypostatic union of Jesus, we begin to understand the kenosis of Jesus. It is translated this way in Philippians 2:7
Consider the context – Philippians 2:5-8
“Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but “emptied Himself” (heauton ekenosen), taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”
Others translate the word “made himself nothing” (NIV) or “gave up his divine privileges” (NLT). This act of Jesus is not about subtracting something from himself but adding something – “taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men.”
In uniting humanity with diety (hypostatic union), Jesus “emptied himself” “made himself nothing” (kenosis) – by “taking of the form of a servant” and “being made in the likeness of men” and “humbling himself by becoming obedient to the point of death.”
Clearly, Jesus did not empty himself of the “form” (morphe) of God (v.6). He did not become something less than God by becoming man. Instead, “he did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped.” He did not leverage his power but served and gave his life for our sins (Mark 10:45).
The kenosis (in the context of Philippians 2) is “intended to encapsulate for the readers the whole descent of Christ from highest glory to lowest depth” (Moisés Silva, Philippians, WEC).
kenosis as sacrifice and servanthood:
- “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (II Corinthians 8:9).
- “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Lk. 22:27; cf. Mk. 10:45).
The purpose for mentioning the way Jesus embraced the humble mission as our redeemer is to save us from the just penalty our sins deserve and to provide an example to transform our relationships.
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death — even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name… (Philippians 2:5-11).
When Jesus Christ humbled himself, he poured himself out for others.
- He left the glory He shared with the Father (Jn. 17:5, 24).
- He received our humanity.
- He embraced the life of servanthood.
- He submitted to a degrading death.
His mission as our redeemer involved his refusal to “grasp hold of” His equality with God in order to serve Himself. He could have easily done this.
When Jesus was arrested and Peter tried to fight, he stopped him and said, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matthew 26:53). He had the power to protect himself from harm and to end his suffering — but he did not use it.
This was part of the kenosis. He willing laid down his life for us and for our sins (John 10:11, 17-18).
He refused to be grasping and look out for himself. He did not consider it to be below him to become a sin bearing Savior. He didn’t “throw his weight around” when finite creatures defied and abused Him. He gave us the example of true humility.
Jesus’ example in sacrificial death is to regulate how believers treat each other (Romans 14:15; 15:1-3; I Corinthians 8:9-13; II Corinthians 5:15; Ephesians 5:25).
“Lord, when I think of what Jesus Christ did for me, I am ashamed of how easily I can be grasping and selfish. I want to be like my Savior and live in the amazing freedom of humble love.”
One of the most powerful ways to authenticate the truth of the gospel and make it tangibly plausible to the world is to let the example of Jesus transform our relationships through humble servanthood (see also, Romans 12:10).
What should we say about Jesus?
“Jesus of Nazareth remains the most important individual who has ever lived. Nobody else has had comparable influence over so many nations for so long. Nobody else has so affected art and literature, music and drama. Nobody else can remotely match his record in the liberation, the healing and the education of mankind. Nobody else has such a multitude not only of followers but of worshippers.”
“Our claim, then, is not just that Jesus was one of the great spiritual leaders of the world. It would be hopelessly incongruous to refer to him as ‘Jesus the Great’, comparable to Alexander the Great, Charles the Great, or Napoleon the Great. Jesus is not ‘the Great’; he is the only. He has no peers, no rivals, and no successors.” Because of his identity as God, Jesus Christ is not to be relegated, like other religious leaders, to history and the history books. He is not dead and gone, finished and fossilized. He is alive and active. He calls us to follow him, and he offers himself to us as our indwelling and transforming Savior” (John R. W. Stott)