52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #23. Incarnation and Foot washing
by Travis Bookout
Nobody likes a demotion. No player likes to lose their starting status. People don’t generally like to go backwards. To make less money. To get less than they deserve. To work hard for nothing. But sometimes people do. They may be underappreciated. They may work hard and be under-performing. Or maybe, they chose to do less, make less, or “be” less at some job, because their priorities are changing.
I know of people who have willingly taken demotions, taken less pay, taken fewer responsibilities, and worked fewer hours so that they could do more of what they care about: Spend time with their family, travel, read, or just simply enjoy life more. They stop living to work, and begin working to live.
So why mention all of that? Because taking a “demotion” is something virtually nobody wants. Unless they want something else more. If you are going to willingly get less than you deserve, there better be a good reason. It better be for something important. Jesus willingly took less than He deserved. In a way that none of us will ever be able to understand or grasp, He took less than He deserved. But He didn’t do it for nothing. There was something very important to Him that motivated Him to take less than He deserved…
Love motivated Jesus. A level and depth of love that the world has never seen before. After washing the disciple’s feet, Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). This “new commandment” is to love just as Jesus loved. An active, sacrificial, service-oriented love. A love that can change the world.
Incarnation VS Exaltation:
“Christology” is a theological term which describes a field of study focused on the origin, nature, and personhood of Jesus. Christology addresses topics like the Hypostatic Union (the nature of the union of Jesus’ humanity and divinity), Aryanism, Adoptionism, etc. In New Testament scholarship various books are described as having a “High Christology” if Jesus is pictured as divine and equal to God (like John), or as having a “Low Christology” if Jesus is pictured as merely human (Mark and Luke are often said to have a “low Christology.” Richard Hays’ books Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels and Reading Backwards: Figural Christology and the Fourfold Gospel Witness present an excellent case that all four Gospels picture Jesus as divine and the embodiment of the God of Israel).
Adoptionism is a form of “Exaltation Christology” which advocates that Jesus was born simply as a man, but was “adopted” to become divine (usually at His baptism or resurrection). He was “Exalted” to divinity. This is the idea of promotion. Jesus was faithful to God and was promoted because of it. The Gospel of John does not teach an “Exaltation Christology.” John teaches quite the opposite, an “Incarnation Christology.” This is the idea that Jesus was already divine, “the Word was with God and was God” (John 1:1), but came to earth to become human. He became incarnate, enfleshed, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled among us” (John 1:14). This would be a demotion: A willing, self-sacrificial, demotion.
Jesus’ life was about willful demotions for the sake of love. The incarnation itself is a complete act of self-giving love. The cross is the most vivid, heart-wrenching, and powerful picture of self-giving love that has ever been seen. But in-between those two events were 33 years of life. A life spent in selflessness, kindness, service, and sacrifice. Paul, while possibly quoting an early Christian hymn, writes about the incarnation, life, and death of Jesus in this way: “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:5-8).
Demoted to Slavery:
As Jesus was preparing to depart from His disciples, as He was preparing for his impending execution on the Roman cross, He gave them a unique and beautiful display of a willful demotion. He got down on his hands and knees, took a rag, took upon Himself the job of a slave, and with their feet in His hands, began to wash. Jesus washed their feet. The Word who was with God and was God, washed their feet. God washed man’s feet. Dirty man. Sinful man. Man who would soon abandon Him. Man who would soon deny Him. Man who would soon betray Him. God loving took the dirty foot of Judas, a traitor and thief, a son of perdition, and scrubbed it clean.
Jesus is God. Jesus is Lord and Teacher and Master. Yet He was not above becoming the slave who washed men’s feet. Just like the signs of Jesus are meant to teach important and valuable lessons, so is this. When He finished washing their feet, He asked, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher; have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:12-15).
That concluding challenge of Jesus sounds a lot like what He says later in this chapter: “you love one another; just as I have loved you” (John 13:34). Love, serve, and wash one another, because Jesus loves, serves, and washes us. Jesus, as Lord and Teacher, was not above any task. Nothing was too demeaning. Nothing was too lowly or dirty for Him. So, what jobs are beneath you? What are you unwilling to do because, “that’s not my responsibility.” Are you willing to take a demotion? If you ever feel too proud, too educated, too wealthy, too important, too clean, too smart, too busy, to get on your hands and knees and wash a dirty foot, clean a dirty floor, or work on some lowly unglorifying task, perhaps we need to remember the love, service, and humility of Jesus. Remember the incarnation and the cross. Remember the dirty feet in-between.