“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power,
and that he had come from God and was returning to God;
so he got up from the meal. . .”
Jesus’ self-understanding is in tandem with his self-sacrifice. Compressed into a single sentence we have the heights and depths of the New Testament understanding of Christ. We resist identifying Jesus’ divine nature with verse three and his human nature with verse four. “So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet. . .” There is no justification for dividing his nature up this way. He is fully God and fully human in a single being who is one with the Father.
In his exposition of 1 Corinthians 13 on love and humility, early American theologian Jonathan Edwards offered remarkable insights into the nature of Christ-like humility. But he was emphatic on one point that I wish he had reconsidered. Edwards argued that “humility is not, and cannot be, an attribute of the divine nature.” He reasoned as follows:
“God’s nature is indeed infinitely opposite to pride, and yet humility cannot properly be predicted of him; for if it could, this would argue imperfection, which is impossible in God. God, who is infinite in excellence and glory, and infinitely above all things, cannot have any comparative meanness, and of course cannot have any such comparative meanness to be sensible of, and therefore cannot be humble. But humility is an excellence proper to all created intelligent beings, for they are all infinitely little and mean before God, and most of them are in some way mean and low in comparison with some of their fellow-creatures.”
Edwards defined humility as “a habit of mind and heart corresponding to our comparative unworthiness and vileness before God.” This definition is true but not complete. Humility belongs not only to our sinfulness, but to our exalted status in Christ. Humility is defined not only negatively, but positively. Jesus humbled himself, knowing that the Father had put all things under his power. On bended knee, God preaches humility, a humility based on the righteousness, security and self-esteem found in communion with the triune God. This grace-filled humility is inherent in the divine nature of Christ and belongs to us in Christ. If humility were an attribute derived only from the disciple’s sinfulness, insecurities, and inadequacies, then humility would be rooted in our humiliation. But true humility corresponds to the confidence, authority, well-being, and self-esteem we have in Christ. The followers of Jesus are empowered to be humble. We have two good reasons to be humble. First, we are miserable sinners in need of God’s grace. That reason is obvious. Second, we belong to God. We share in his glory, a more than sufficient reason for humility. Humility is rooted in our fallen condition and in our exalted status in Christ.
In the Bible, humility and glory are richly textured words. Their multi-faceted meaning fits the proverbial two sides of the same coin. In Christian theology we cannot have one without the other. There never has been a time that the glory of the triune God has existed apart from the humility of God. The fact that the Lamb was slain from the creation of the world affirms this truth (Revelation 13:8). When Jesus laid aside his outer clothing, he knew he was “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15). He was conscious of his glorious destiny and his ignominious death. He understood his universal sovereignty and his path to the cross. He knew who he was and he knew the burden of our iniquity. He who made human feet was willing to stoop to wash them!
When Jesus deliberately dressed down, he dramatically portrayed his descent into humble service and sacrifice. The Creator on bended knee humbly served the creature and the caption under John’s picture reads, “He now showed them the full extent of his love.” This unique act, Divine foot-washing, is not out-of-character, but absolutely consistent with the Divine Love that serves and sustains us every single moment. The God who kneels is an apt description of God’s saving grace.
There is a far greater danger of reading too little into this picture than reading too much. Missionary Leslie Newbigin writes,
“The foot-washing is a sign of that ultimate subversion of all human power and authority which took place when Jesus was crucified by the decision of the ‘powers’ that rule this present age.”
John’s word choice syncs the gospel narrative with this single act. When Jesus laid aside his outer clothing we are led back to the description of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep. John draws a deliberate parallel, between his high Christology and Jesus’ path to the cross.
“The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. . . .Just as the Father knows me and I know the Father– and I lay down my life for the sheep. . . . The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:11, 15, 17, 18).
These two acts, laying aside and laying down, form one consistent testimony to Divine Humility. Jesus laid aside his divine nature and his outer garment, in order to lay down his life for us. This is the humility that inspires our discipleship: the humility rooted in our exalted status in Christ; the humility based not on our fallen human condition but on God’s redemptive provision. Christ in us, the hope of glory; Christ in us, the hope of humility. This is the compelling, compassionate humility that unites self-understanding and self-sacrifice. A disciple, wrote Dallas Willard, “is anyone whose ultimate goal is to live as Jesus would live if he were in their place.”
Upper Room Reflection
Why is humility a divine attribute?
If you think your Lord and Savior humbled himself, what impact does that have on you?
In what sense is humility the evidence of daily cross-bearing?
How does laying aside and laying down form one continuous act of discipleship?
 Jonathan Edwards, Charity and its Fruits (Carlisle, Penn: 2005), p.131.
 Leslie Newbigin, John, 168.