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Paul’s Pastoral Kenosis

Paul paints a marvelous picture of Christ’s “kenosis” or humility in his Epistle to the Philippians, where we are told that Christ “emptied himself [ekenosin], taking on the form of a servant…” In Wesley’s words, he “emptied himself of all but love.” In his Epistle to the Thessalonians Paul reveals that he too has become like his Messiah, enabled by faith and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to put his own ambitions to death. All that remains of Paul now is love, the love of a servant. Paul’s longing for his spiritual children has left him emptied of life. “For now we live,” he exclaims, “if you are standing fast in the Lord.” All that remains of Paul is his longing to see the faith of the Thessalonians. Paul recounts that he, Silvanus, and Timothy have born great distress and suffering until they could bear it no longer and sent Timothy to bring back a good report (evangelisamenou), that is, one could say, to bring the Gospel of the Thessalonians back to Paul.

John Calvin offers an encouraging comment on this passage, which is aimed primarily at pastors but applicable to all of the faithful. Calvin notes:

Here it appears still more clearly that Paul almost forgot himself for the sake of the Thessalonians, or, at least, making regard for himself a mere secondary consideration, devoted his first and chief thoughts to them. At the same time he did not do that so much from affection to men as from a desire for the Lord’s glory. For zeal for God and Christ glowed in his holy breast to such a degree that it in a manner swallowed up all other anxieties. “We live,” says he, that is, “we are in good health, if you persevere in the Lord.” And under the adverb now, he repeats what he had formerly stated, that he had been greatly pressed down by affliction and necessity ; yet he declares that whatever evil he endures in his own person does not hinder his joy. “Though in myself I am dead, yet in your welfare I live.” By this all pastors are admonished what sort of connection ought to subsist between them and the Church—that they reckon themselves happy when it goes well with the Church, although they should be in other respects encompassed with many miseries, and, on the other hand, that they pine away with grief and sorrow if they see the building which they have constructed in a state of decay, although matters otherwise should be joyful and prosperous.1

  1. John Calvin. Commentary on the First Epistle to the Thessalonians. Rev. John Pringle, trans. Reprinted in Calvin’s Commentaries, vol. XXI, (Baker: Grand Rapids, 2003), 268.

By Eric Parker

Eric Parker (PhD McGill University) is the editor of the Library of Early English Protestantism (LEEP) at the Davenant Institute. He lives in the deep South with his wife and two children, where he is currently preparing for ordination to the diaconate in the Reformed Episcopal Church.