The God Who Kneels – Day 13

No Reputation

“He made himself a man of no reputation, taking on the very nature of a servant.”

   Philippians 2:7, KJV


There is a remarkable parallel between Jesus’ deliberate action in John 13 and Christ’s self-emptying in Philippians 2. Although there are few verbal parallels, “the parallels in thought and in the progression of action are startling.”[1]  Philippians 2 is Paul’s commentary on John’s understanding of Christ and they are in perfect harmony.

John 13                                                                Philippians 2

1. Lays aside his outer clothes.                                    1. Lays aside his divine nature.

2. Takes a towel and wraps it around himself.            2. Takes the form of a slave.

3. He humbled himself & washed the disciples feet.    3. He humbled himself and became obedient to death.

4. When he finished, he returned to his place.          4. When he finished, God exalted him to the highest place.

5. You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so.    5. Every tongue confesses Jesus Christ is Lord.


The theological continuum stretches from the self-emptying of Christ in the Incarnation to Jesus’ self-less act of washing the disciples’ feet. It is all of one truth. The reality of the Incarnation and the Atonement converge in an everyday act of true discipleship. The apostle Paul explains the motivation for embracing this humility in entirely positive terms.

“. . .If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same attitude of mind Christ Jesus had. . .” (Philippians 2:1-5).

Jesus’ self-awareness and self-sacrifice are the foundation for the believer’s self-understanding and self-sacrifice. Since we know who we are in Christ, we can experience the freedom and liberty to give ourselves in Christ-like service. When Scott Rodin stepped down from the presidency of Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary in 2001, he had a confession to make. “I was wrong,” he admitted. “I was wrong in my understanding and preconceived notions of leadership in Christian ministry. I was wrong in my expectations of others and myself. And I was wrong in my motivations, which may be the hardest thing to admit.” When he became president he sensed that he was well-prepared, strongly motivated, and truly called. The biblical verse that epitomized his leadership ideal was the prophet Nathan’s directive to King David, “Whatever you have in mind, go ahead and do it, for the Lord is with you” (2 Samuel 7:3). Now a different verse epitomizes his understanding of leadership. He quotes Paul’s description of the Incarnate Son of God. Paul says of Jesus, “he made himself a man of no reputation, taking on the very nature of a servant” (Philippians 2:7, KJV).

Rodin explains: “The verse does not say that Jesus became a man of bad reputation, or questionable reputation, but simply of ‘no’ reputation. That is, reputation, image, prestige, prominence, power, and other trappings of leadership were not only devalued, they were purposefully dismissed. . . .In reflecting on these past five years, I have come to believe that true Christian leadership is an ongoing, disciplined practice of becoming a person of no reputation, and thus, becoming more like Christ in this unique way.”

“I have left my years in the presidency with a dramatically transformed understanding of godly leadership,” concludes Rodin. “In the end, our work as leaders is all about Lordship. Before it is about vision-casting or risk-taking or motivating others or building teams or communicating or strategic planning, it is about Lordship. Where Jesus is singularly and absolutely Lord of our life, we will seek to be like him and him only. . . .And as we do, we will be transformed into the likeness of Christ, becoming leaders of no reputation.”[2]

John’s description of foot-washing humility and Eucharistic intimacy stand in iconic opposition to the human propensity for recognition and honor. If our Lord and Savior emptied himself and laid aside his outer garment and wrapped a towel around his waist to wash the disciples feet, maybe the church has lost something when the archbishop dresses in elaborate vestments or when the trendy pastor shows off his tattoos. The archbishop wears a purple ring on his finger and a heavy gold cross around his neck and the street-cool MTV generation pastor wears his skinny jeans and bicep-revealing t-shirt. Neither seem to grasp the Jesus way. High-church leaders wear garments inherited from pagan priests and cool dude pastors mimic rappers and models. Appearance is everything.

Now picture the eloquent archbishop and the hipster pastor sitting in the upper room. Their feet washed by Jesus. Their egos deflated; their souls humbled. Neither liturgical fastidiousness nor laid-back spirituality is on their minds. All protocol and performance ceased when they walked into the upper room. But that’s not only true for them, it’s true for me. No one can “fake it to make it” in the upper room. All of our silly self-centeredness is uncovered. My pale blue button-down ego is exposed.

The “open secret” for true reverence and real authenticity lies right before our eyes in the deeply personal and down-to-earth practical example of Jesus. God on bended knee strips down and washes the dirty feet of his disciples as a precursor to his death on the cross for our atonement. Yet for some reason this is not the kind of seriousness and intimacy we have come to embrace. Sadly, we expect something different. We pull back from the Jesus way.

In The Outpost, An Untold Story of American Valor, Jake Tapper of CNN traces First Lieutenant Ben Keating’s self-sacrificing philosophy of leadership to Jesus. As a kid, Keating spent hours reading his David C. Cook Picture Bible, a 766-page comic-book version of the entire Bible. Keating was particularly impressed with Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. Tapper quotes the passage verbatim:

Peter: “No, Lord, I’m not good enough to have you wait on me!”

Jesus: “If you do not let me serve you, Peter, you will have no place in my kingdom.”

After Jesus has washed all the disciples’ feet, he sits down at the table again.

Jesus: “If I, your lord and master, have served you, you should do the same for one another. The servant is not greater than his master.”

Tapper concludes, “And that was Ben Keating. ‘You don’t ever ask your soldiers to do anything you wouldn’t do,’ he would say. ‘You have to serve them to get the best leadership out of them.’ Other soldiers might have come to the same conclusion in their own ways, but it was a safe bet that Keating was the only member of the 10th Mountain Division who’d brought with him to Afghanistan a copy of The Confessions of Saint Augustine — in Latin.”[3]  When Keating received orders at Combat Outpost Kamdesh to send back to the main base an eight ton light medium tactical vehicle (LMTV) he took it upon himself to drive the truck. In spite of a standing order that officers were not to drive vehicles, Keating deemed the operation too risky and foolish to ask anyone else to drive the truck. The only way back to the main base was along a dangerous mountain road running along a steep ravine. Although headquarters was advised repeatedly that the road had deteriorated to the point that even a much lighter seven-foot wide humvee could not safely make it on the road, the orders stood. Since convoys were repeatedly ambushed along this road, the trip took place under the cover of darkness.  “‘It is stupid,’ Keating agreed. ‘And it’s dangerous. So I’m going to drive.’”

On a sharp curve the weight of the eight ton vehicle was too much for the road and it gave way. The LMTV slid over the edge and began crashing and tumbling down the mountain until it came to stop on the rocks in the river below. Keating was thrown from the vehicle and suffered massive injuries. In the end, First Lieutenant Keating’s decision to drive the LMTV proved fatal, but it was a decision that also proved his faithfulness. He made the sacrifice because of his commitment to Christ and the Jesus way. This American soldier died in eastern Afghanistan, a true servant of Jesus Christ. He never got over the example of Jesus that he first learned as kid reading the David C. Cook Picture Bible.


Upper Room Reflection

How significant is the parallel between John 13 and Philippians 2 for shaping the Christian life?

What can we do to curve our appetite for self-recognition?

What makes self-emptying discipleship difficult to learn and practice?  

How did Ben Keating follow his Lord?

[1] O’Brien, p.78.

[2] Scott Rodin, “Becoming a Leader of No Reputation.”

[3] Jake Tapper, The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor (New York: Little, Brown and Company, 2012), 64-65.