When Christmas Put a War on Hold
Tony Cooke

As Christmas approaches, I have been enjoying Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book, God in the Manger. Bonhoeffer was a leader in Germany’s Confessing Church, believers who stood in opposition to Hitler and his policies. He was eventually imprisoned and was executed mere weeks before the Allied troops overtook and defeated the Nazis to end WWII in Europe.

This German pastor had remarkable insight into the meaning of Advent and the Incarnation. From the Tegel prison in 1943, Bonhoeffer writes:

“Life in a prison cell may well be compared to Advent: one waits, hopes, and does this, that, or the other—things that are really of no consequence—the door is shut, and can only be opened from the outside.”

That is exactly why Jesus came. All of mankind was imprisoned by sin, and someone had to come from the outside to open the door. In order to do this, Jesus had to leave the glory of Heaven and live among fallen men. This brings us to a most powerful word: kenosis. Let’s explore how this word is used.

Philippians 2:7 (NKJV) tells us that Jesus made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men…”

“Made Himself of no reputation” is from the Greek word kenosis which means “empty, or to make empty.” One commentary indicates this means “that Christ left his position, rank, and privilege.”

Other translations of Philippians 2:7 provide rich insights into what Jesus did:

(NLT) “…he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being.”

(NCV) “…But he gave up his place with God and made himself nothing. He was born to be a man and became like a servant.”

(WEY) “…He stripped Himself of His glory, and took on Him the nature of a bondservant by becoming a man like other men.”

(MSG) “…he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!”

(AMPC) “But stripped Himself [of all privileges and rightful dignity], so as to assume the guise of a servant (slave), in that He became like men and was born a human being.”

This verse and this word—kenosis—is so rich in meaning! Greek scholar, Ralph Earle, writes:

“The correct translation is: ‘He emptied himself.” Of what? All orthodox theologians are agreed that it does not mean that He emptied himself of His divine nature. Rather, it was His heavenly glory—‘The glory which I had with thee before the world was’ (John 17:5).”

Another Greek commentary states, “The word [kenosis] does not mean He emptied Himself of His deity, but rather He emptied himself of the display of His deity for personal gain.” The notes in the Faithlife Study Bible simply state, “this seems to imply that Jesus laid aside His rights as God in order to become the world’s servant.”

Right before Paul refers to the kenosis—the self-emptying of Christ—he tells us to have the same attitude that Jesus had (Philippians 2:5). This is part of what Christmas is all about. Unless we humble ourselves, we will never acknowledge our desperate need for who Jesus is and for what Jesus brought. If we are arrogant and prideful, we will never be able to connect with the one who humbled himself, and ultimately gave his life as a sacrifice for our sins.

Bonhoeffer also writes:

“Only the humble believe him and rejoice that God is so free and so marvelous that he does wonders where people despair, that he takes what is little and lowly and makes it marvelous. And that is the wonder of all wonders, that God loves the lowly…. God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings. God marches right in. He chooses people as his instruments and performs his wonders where one would least expect them. God is near to lowliness; he loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”

He further said:

“Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.”

For Christmas to have happened, Christ had to empty himself. No kenosis, no Christmas. And for Christmas to happen in our hearts, we have to surrender our pride and our self-sufficiency. We must acknowledge that we could never have saved ourselves—that he was the only one who could open the prison door from the outside. Thank God he did.

1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Kindle edition, 13.

2 Richard R. Melick, Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, vol. 32, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1991), 103.

3 Ralph Earle, Word Meanings in the New Testament (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1986), 336.

4 Cleon L. Rogers Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988), 451-2.

5 John D. Barry et al., Faithlife Study Bible (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2016), Philippians 2:7.

6 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), Kindle edition, 22.

7 Ibid., Kindle edition, 26.