Perhaps you’ve heard a new teaching about Jesus from today’s so-called apostles and prophets. According to this teaching, when Jesus was on earth–though He was fully God—He voluntarily gave up the use of His divine powers and did all His miracles as a mere human being through the power of the Holy Spirit. The implication of this teaching is that there was nothing unique about Jesus’ ability to do miracles. Rather, He served as a pattern for all his followers to do miracles as He did.
In other words, you and I–in our day-to-day Christian lives–should be calming storms, healing the sick and raising the dead.
The teaching that Jesus temporarily gave up His divine powers was promoted recently in Charisma magazine. In the March cover article article, titled “You’ve Got the Power!“, Bill Johnson, the senior pastor of Bethel Church in Redding, California, wrote:
“While Jesus is eternally God, He emptied Himself of His divinity 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.”
Other influential promoters of this teaching include C. Peter Wagner (former professor at Fuller Theological Seminary and presiding apostle emeritus of the International Coalition of Apostles) and Jack Deere (former professor at Dallas Theological Seminary and founder of Wellspring Church in North Richland Hills, Texas).
C. Peter Wagner explained the teaching in his 2008 book titled Dominion!:
“Reread the gospels in light of this [that is, in light of Jesus’ temptations by Satan], and you will see that all of Jesus’ mighty works—His miracles, His signs and wonders, His prophecies, His deliverance ministry and the rest—can be explained adequately by the supernatural working of the power of the Holy Spirit through Jesus as a human being. … This should dissipate any doubts as to how Jesus could tell us, as mere human beings, that we would do the same works He did and even greater works. The same Holy Spirit who did miracles through Jesus is available to do them through us today.”
Similarly, Jack Deere wrote:
“Thus the Old Testament prophets, Jesus himself, and his apostles all attribute the divine power in his [Jesus’] ministry not to the uniqueness of his deity, but rather to the ministry of the Holy Spirit through him.” (Surprised by the Voice of God, page 45).
The teaching that Jesus temporarily gave up His divine powers has a number of problems, which I plan to address in upcoming posts. In this post, I will address one of those problems. But, first, I must be clear: I am not addressing the issue of whether miracles occur today. What I’m addressing here is a very specific claim– that is, the claim that Jesus gave up His divine powers when he came to earth.
This claim is based, in large part, on a misreading of Philippians 2:7. This verse—according to some translations of the Bible such as the New American Standard Bible—says that Jesus “emptied Himself.” What did Jesus empty himself of? A mistaken assumption is that He “emptied” himself of his divine attributes or at least the use of them. Recall that this is how Johnson interpreted this verse in the Charisma article cited above, stating that Jesus “emptied Himself of His divinity.”
But Philippians does not teach that Jesus emptied himself of his divinity or any of his divine attributes. Rather it teaches that he gave up His divine status and privileges to be born and suffer as a human. As commentator Sean M. McDonough says:
“Greek kenoō can mean “empty, pour out” or also (metaphorically) “give up status and privilege.” Does this mean that Christ temporarily relinquished his divine attributes during his earthly ministry? This theory of Christ’s kenosis or “self-emptying” is not in accord with the context of Philippians or with early Christian theology. Paul is not saying that Christ became less than God or “gave up” some divine attributes; he is not even commenting directly on the question of whether Jesus was fully omnipotent or omniscient during his time on earth. Nor is he saying that Christ ever gave up being “in the form of God.” Rather, Paul is stressing that Christ, who had all the privileges that were rightly his as king of the universe, gave them up to become an ordinary Jewish baby bound for the cross. Christ “made himself nothing” by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men (roughly equivalent phrases). While he had every right to stay comfortably where he was, in a position of power, his love drove him to a position of weakness for the sake of sinful mankind (cf. 2 Cor. 8:9, “though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich”). The “emptying” consisted of his becoming human, not of his giving up any part of his true deity.” [see McDonough's commentary on Philippians 2:7 in the notes of the ESV Study Bible (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2008), 2283]
Thus, the true meaning of Philippians 2:7 is better captured in the translation given by the English Standard Version. Rather than “emptied Himself,” it says that Christ “made himself nothing.”
So, this verse cannot be properly used to support the teaching that Jesus gave up His divine powers and did all his miracles as a mere human being.