Who, being in very nature God,Philippians 2:6-8
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!
As Christmas approaches, I’ve been thinking a little about the incarnation–God becoming human in the person of Jesus. Nothing can limit or contain God except Himself. When Jesus became human in the incarnation, it was a gigantic act of self-limitation on the part of God. The One who was once omnipresent, self-limited to a time and place in history. The One who never experienced pain, hunger, or thirst, self-limited Himself into a human body that experienced all the basic human needs for food and sleep. He made Himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.
Does this mean that Jesus wasn’t the fullness of God?
No. Colossians 2:9 is clear, “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form.” Imagine a dad playing basketball with his young son. If he is a good dad, he will “self-limit” the amount of force and skill that he exerts. He does this out of love for his son. Does this mean that in this moment he is “less” of a dad? Quite the opposite. In the dad’s loving self-limitation he is fully himself and maybe even the best version of himself because his love is tangibly on display. The same is true of Jesus. “The Son is the image of the invisible God…” (Colossians 1:15).
What about God’s omniscience and power? Did God self-limit those in the incarnation?
I believe He did.
It is true that we see Jesus know things He couldn’t know without supernatural insight. We also see Jesus do incredible miracles that He couldn’t do without divine power. Yet, I believe that what we see in Jesus is a tiny fraction of God’s total omniscience and power. I believe Jesus only did that which is possible to do through the power of the Holy Spirit. He only did that which was possible for a human to do who is completely filled and empowered by the Spirit and perfectly connected to the Father. In other words, I believe Jesus did these things as a perfect human conduit of the power of the Spirit not as God the Son.
Luke 4:1 says that Jesus was “full of the Holy Spirit” after His baptism as He was led into the desert to be tempted. Then, having been victorious over Satan in the desert, Luke 4:14 says that Jesus returned to start His ministry “in the power of the Spirit.” It’s not until this happens that we start to see Jesus do miracles, healings, and deliverances. So I believe that the “supernatural” aspect of Jesus’s ministry was Him acting as a human fully empowered by the Spirit and completely connected to the Father. I don’t believe they are instances of Him flexing is divinity (though He had every right to as God the Son). So even His miracles are an aspect of His self-limitation.
We know that the power He could have displayed could have been so much more overwhelming. Jesus even said, leading up to the cross, “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). There was so much more power that could have been unleashed but wasn’t. Again we see Jesus’s self-limitation.
Though Jesus knew things about people that He couldn’t have known without supernatural help (see John 1:47-48 & 4:16-18, Luke 5:22 & 9:47), I believe this was Him operating in what the apostle Paul would later call gifts of the Spirit like words of knowledge, words of wisdom, and prophecy (1 Corinthians 12:8-10). Yet, we still see that Jesus self-limited His foreknowledge when He talks to His disciples about the end times and says, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father” (Matthew 24:36).
Jesus’s self-limitation in the incarnation was a radical act of love toward us. It also leaves us followers of Jesus without excuse. We can no longer write-off parts of Jesus’s ministry with the statement, “Yeah, well, He was God.” We sometimes like to think Jesus’s divinity gets us off the hook from having to operate like Jesus did in the fullness of the Spirit. But, though He could have operated out of His divinity, I don’t believe He did. Everything He did He did as a human fully surrendered to the Father and fully empowered by the Spirit. And though we will never be the perfect conduit of the Spirit that Jesus was, we are still called to be a conduit just the same.