Did Jesus empty himself of his Divine Powers?

“Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” (John 14:11)

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. (John 1:14)

 

No one likes to be misrepresented; it hurts and offends. We don’t appreciate it when people attribute to us characteristics, words or actions that are false. If faithful representation matters to us, how much more important it is when we are speaking about God.

“The study is arduous, for we are dealing with matters too great for us, which we must bow in worship, recognising, our utter inadequacy.” (Calvin)

Bethel Church, Redding, and their Senior Pastor, Bill Johnson, have received significant attention in recent days, with two important articles being published: one by Stephen Tan (who formerly attended a Bethel connected Church) and the other by Joe Carter. Their commentary includes serious charges, and I trust that the leadership of Bethel and ‘Awakening Australia’ will soon offer a considered response. Among the more weighty concerns is Johnson’s view of Jesus’ Divinity.

Throughout the history of the Church, there have been many attempts to explain the Divinity of Christ and the humanity of Christ. Many different formulations have strayed from the Biblical testimony, either undermining the humanity or the Divinity of Christ or fusing the two natures together in compositions that once again err. These errors are sometimes referred to as heresy, for they misrepresent the person who is Jesus Christ, which unavoidably impacts our understanding of God, and which leads to confusing and even denying a corollary of important Christian doctrines.

One of the more modern Christological heresies is known as the kenosis heresy, which speaks of an emptying, and it argues that the incarnate Christ gave up or lessened his Divinity during his earthly ministry. There are variations within this view, from Jesus ceasing to be God while on earth to Jesus laying aside certain Divine attributes, in particular, the omnis (ie. omnipotence, omniscience).  To put it simply, was the Lord Jesus on earth, in any way, less than fully God? It is this issue that is being asked of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church.

The question is being asked (and has been raised for some years now) because Bill Johnson has made several comments in which he appears to deny the Divinity of Christ on earth.

 

For example, writing for Charisma Magazine Bill Johnson explains,

“While Jesus is eternally God, He emptied Himself of His divine powers and became a man (see Phil. 2:7). It’s vital to note that He did all His miracles as a man, not as God. 

If He did them as God, I would still be impressed. But because He did them as a man yielded to God, I am now unsatisfied with my life, being compelled to follow the example He has given us. Jesus is the only model for us to follow.”

According to Bill Johnson (Tan cites other references where Johnson makes a similar point), we should expect to see and even do miracles because Jesus did so and he performed his miracles not as God, but as a man. Apparently, if Jesus had performed miracles as God, we shouldn’t expect miracles by Christians today. This is problematic for at least two reasons. In the first place, while Jesus’ miracles were loving acts of compassion and mercy, they were designed to point to his Divinity. Second, Johnson has misinterpreted Phil 2:7 in a very significant way.

To begin with, Bill Johnson cites Philippians 2:7 as evidence of Jesus giving up his “divine powers”. Does this verse teach what Johnson is claiming? Let’s take a look,

In Philippians ch.2 the Apostle Paul writes,

“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!”

A number of important points need to made here:

  • Verse 7, ‘he made himself nothing’, can also read, ‘he emptied himself’ (kenosis). This family of words appears rarely in the New Testament, and when it does, it is most often used metaphorically rather than literally.
  • Far from Jesus losing his Divinity or giving up Divine attributes, in verse 6 Paul indicates that Jesus’ Divinity continues (he uses the present participle, ’being in very nature God’).
  • In verse 7, the emptying is given particular expression: taking the form of a slave and being found in human form. In other words, as Robert Letham explains, “He empties himself by addition, not subtraction, by adding his human nature with all that that entails, not by abandoning his deity.”[1]

Mike Bird concurs, “The emptying occurred not by what he left behind but through what he took on, humanity – humanity in humiliation no less.” [2][3]

This is precisely what we find when reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ earthly life and ministry. Jesus repeatedly identifies himself as God and his actions reveal that he is God.

Firstly, the incarnate Christ identified himself as God, not as somehow less than God or partially God, but God. He didn’t deny his humanity nor his Divinity but expressly affirmed both.

“Very truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” (John 5:58).

Following this statement, Jesus’ opponents pick up stones with the intent of killing him? Why? Because they understood that Jesus was claiming to be God.

“I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Once again, people understood Jesus’ meaning and attempted to kill the alleged blasphemer.

Following the resurrection, Thomas exclaimed, “my Lord and my God” (John 20:28)

The phrase used by Jesus in John 5:58, “I am” (γώ εμί), is spoken by Jesus many times during his earthly ministry. It is a peculiar phrase that harkens back to Exodus ch.3 where God appeared by Moses and revealed his name, “I am”.  Jesus would repeatedly identify himself as the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush: “I am the true vine”,  “I am the Good Shepherd”, “I am the bread of life”, and so on.

Not only does Jesus identify himself as God, his deeds also point to this reality.

While many miracles that are recorded in the Bible serve to point people to God, the miracles of Jesus point to the fact that he is God. Jesus’ miracles were acts of compassion and kindness, and they were also identity markers, explaining and revealing both that he is the Christ and is God.

Take, for example, the calming of the storm in Mark ch.4. The question is posed by the disciples, who is this? By a word, Jesus stilled the storm, which for a Jewish reader, would remind them of Genesis 1 and also Psalm 107.

“28 Then they cried out to the Lord in their trouble,
and he brought them out of their distress.

29 He stilled the storm to a whisper;
the waves of the sea were hushed.

30 They were glad when it grew calm,
and he guided them to their desired have” (Psalm 107:28-30)

When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus comforted Martha with words that not only affirmed the promised resurrection but  Jesus signally that he is the great I AM, he is God who raises the dead. As a demonstration of the validity of these words, Jesus moves to the tomb’s entrance, he speaks a word and Lazarus came out of the tomb: living, breathing, walking, no longer dead.

Somewhat ironically, but importantly, far from Johnson’s suggestion that Jesus’ miracles point to him not being Divine, Jesus’ miracles are signs pointing to the fact that he is God.

The testimony of the Gospels don’t support Johnson’s interpretation of Philippians 2:7, and even Philippians ch.2 doesn’t support his thesis.

In no sense should we undermine either the humanity of Christ or the Divinity of Christ. At the incarnation, the eternal Son of God also became man. On earth and at his resurrection and now in heaven, Jesus remains fully man and fully God.

It remains unclear what Bill Johnson and Bethel Church really believe about the Divinity of the incarnate Christ, although what I’ve so far read is concerning. One thing is clear, Bill Johnson’s teaching has been interpreted by some of his followers as advocating the kenosis heresy, and some of Bethel’s critics have also understood Johnson’s words to mean such. Therefore, at the very least, Johnson is communicating unclear and unhelpful words about Jesus and he is using them to build an unbiblical case for miracles today.

It seems as though the crux of the issue for Bill Johnson is that he wants to claim miracles for today and to guarantee the performance of signs and wonder by Christians today. It’s as though Johnson starts with a premise, namely that Christians can and ought to perform miracles today, and in trying to prove his point, he then goes back to the Bible and reconstructs Jesus’ identify in order to fit with his argument. Now, of course, one does not need to do any of this in order to believe that God can perform miracles today. But Johnson wants to push further and to insist that signs and wonder are necessary for authentic Christian experience.

I don’t know Bill Johnson or those organising ‘Awakening Australia’, but I do know people who have been confused by and damaged by the teachings and expectations of Bethel.

As a growing number of stories come to light from past Bethel members, and as more concerns are raised, I trust that Bill Johnson and Bethel’s leadership will take the time to respond and to bring clarity where there is murkiness. The spiritual wellbeing and eternal state of people is too important and the glory of God in Christ Jesus is of such weight that these matters require clarification.

 

 

 

 

 


1. Robert Letham, The Holy Trinity, p41.

2. Michael Bird, Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction

3. Other theologians have suggested that by ‘emptying’, Jesus was limiting or holding back from revealing his full glory. Where the transfiguration was a moment’s unveiling of God’s glory,  This is a possible interpretation, but it is a far cry from how Johnson has interpreted the verse.

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