Did Jesus Die because of Joy or Indifference? Part 1

I came across a book this week that I’ve had in my library since my days in Bible college, Kenneth Wuest’s The Practical Use of the Greek New Testament (Moody, 1982). In a chapter on the practical use of prepositions, Wuest seeks to dispel the notion that Hebrews 12:2 teaches that Jesus went to the cross “because of the joy set before him.” The problem with this interpretation, says Wuest, is that we misread the preposition translated “for” (anti). Wuest says that the idea that Jesus endured the cross because of the joy that was his to claim if he did so, does not fit with Philippians 2:5-8. There we are told that Christ “emptied himself.” Wuest explains:

If Philippians 2:5-8 means anything, it means that the considerations that led our Lord to the cross were utterly devoid of any thought of self. The Greek has it, “He emptied Himself.” The word “Himself” is, in the Greek text, a pronoun in the accusative case. The action of the verb terminates upon the person or thing designated by the word in the accusative. The emptying terminated upon Himself. That is, our Lord emptied himself of self. He set self aside. That means that His going to the cross was an absolutely selfless action. (p. 57)

If Wuest is correct, then Jesus went to the cross not because of any joy he would receive, for he already had maximum joy in his exalted Preincarnate state. Rather, he chose the cross instead of the uninterrupted joy he had experienced for eternity past. He exchanged the joy he already had for the shame of the cross. He did this by emptying himself of what he wanted to do. Once he emptied himself of his will, he was able to die for sinners.

A problem emerges at this point in Wuest’s interpretation of ekenosen, the word he translates as “emptied himself” in Philippians 2:7. The interpretation of this word is not a given, for other possible meanings include, “made himself nothing,” “nullified himself,” or “made himself of no account”.  These meanings are supported by the following participial phrases in Philippians 2:7 that explain how Christ made himself nothing: by taking the very nature of a servant, and by being made in human likeness.

Nevertheless, one could still accept Wuest’s last two sentences above, as long as the selflessness of Christ did not preclude joy. But Wuest doesn’t stop there. He continues, “His attitude towards his work on the cross was not even associated with any thought of joy that might accrue to Him by reason of His sufferings.” (p. 57-8)

Wuest’s argument, that Jesus died “instead of” the joy he already possessed, rides on 1) the correct meaning of the preposition anti, and 2) the supposed necessary connection between unselfishness and disinterest in one’s own joy. One is a syntactical argument, and the other a philosophical/theological one. In Part 2 of this essay, we’ll look at these two issues separately, and see if Wuest’s argument can stand up to scrutiny. The implications of this text are important, for they weigh heavily on our idea, not only of Christ’s love for us, but also on the way in which we should love one another. Wuest’s view of a Savior who endures the cross, emptied of self, seems to promote a view similar to that of 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. But is this really the correct view of Christian love?

About Mark Farnham
Associate Professor and Coordinator of Pastoral and Pre-Seminary Majors at Lancaster Bible College, Lancaster, PA. Founder and Director, Apologetics for the Church (apologeticsforthechurch.org). PhD in Apologetics at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia; ThM in New Testament at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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