The Incarnation (Jesus is God in Flesh) is God being what God is like. He was always like what he is like, and in the incarnation he was being the same way as he has always been–now in human flesh.
Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is not God saying, “See, I have shown you what the ideal human is”, but he was saying, “See, I have shown you that it is good for God to be this way — now imitate me.” Foot washing is a revelation of Divinity — it is what God and Jesus are like.
When we read John’s Gospel and see that Jesus washed feet, we are not simply discovering how it is that God wants humans to behave; we are discovering the behavior and acts of the True and Ideal God. God is revealing himself. God washes feet and loses no status (where status is a treasure of men).
Later, after Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, one of them asked to see the Father. Jesus answered, “He who has seen me has seen the Father.” The reason we (or a disciple) might fail to recognize God when God is right in front of him (and therefore ask to see) is because Jesus does not conform to our ideas about God. Washing feet? We have decided ahead of time what God can and cannot be like, so when Jesus comes along and does not conform to our notions of a God-Man, we say to him, “Jesus, show us the Father.”
A Helpful Comparison
When expensive ointment was poured out on Jesus, we (the Christian reader) didn’t stress over the loss of ointment–Judas was the one who fretted–instead we rejoiced in the act of worship. We know that God does not need the money or resources, so we know he is not poorer from a loss of physical goods (Mary’s ointment). If we extrapolate that to foot washing we can say this: When Jesus washes feet, God does not loose what men love: Status, Power and Position. Whatever it means for God to be Divinity, his Divinity is not undone or damaged when Jesus washes feet. Instead, it is good for God to be the way he is. Divinity is on display in foot washing in a similar way that God’s notions of money are on display in his acceptance of Mary’s worship.
Money, status, power and position are the currency of the religious leaders that Jesus opposed, and do not belong to the economy of God. God did not come to accumulate the treasures of men. If we want to know what God values and what he is like, we find out by looking at Jesus. Therefore, when he washes feet, we are discovering God.
God is like this: Jesus washed feet.
The Two Natures of Christ: Fully Human and Fully Divine
Based on instances such as Jesus washing feet, Christian theologians have emphasized the fact that Jesus is Fully Human (other episodes of his life show that he is Fully Divine). Foot washing is sometimes categorized as belonging to the Humanity of Jesus (i.e., not a Divine act, like forgiving sins). Here is where I want to offer some push-back: Why not rather say that Jesus is confronting our notions (Peter’s notions, Judas’ notions, my notions) of what is appropriate or inappropriate to Divinity? Maybe we find in the foot washing of Jesus a chance to freshly orient ourselves to what God is really like. In Jesus, our instinctive ideas of what God can or cannot be like are being undone. Jesus is also the incarnation of this teaching, “God’s ways are not our ways, his thoughts are not our thoughts.”
As Christians, when we discover the character of God in Jesus, we bow to his self revelation. For example, if he heals a blind man, we say things like, “Jesus is calling upon the prerogatives of his Divinity.” When Jesus does things regular humans cannot do, we attribute that to his Divinity (after all, he is the God-Man). Likewise, when we see Jesus do something unfitting to our notions of Deity, we attribute that to the Humanity of Jesus. For example, “Jesus wept”, belongs (according to us) to his Humanity. We say this because weeping is too low a thing for God, and we protect our ideas of divinity by saying that Jesus was acting in his Humanity.
Putting Our Ideas of God at Risk
What if we didn’t do that? Instead, what if we looked at Jesus (weeping, foot washing, dying and all) and concluded that in those events we are seeing the self-disclosure of the nature of Divinity? If we did, here is the risk: we may not understand the end result; we may not fully comprehend the impact Jesus has on our understanding of the nature of Divinity. Our ideas of God may be at risk. Looking at Jesus to understand the nature of Divinity may mean we have our notions turned upside down. There is safety here, however, for when we look at Jesus, we are going to discover God. “Jesus wept” is a revelation from above. It is news. It is good news, indeed, and it is God being God in flesh.
Jesus is what God is like and God is what Jesus is like
Jesus said, “I and the Father are one” and later he washed the feet of his disciples. When Jesus said that he does the works he sees his Father do, he was speaking about the same Father who wandered with a rebellious people in the desert. God is the Exodus God, and Jesus is the same Exodus God who joins his people in the wilderness. Being in the wilderness does not undo who God is. Likewise, washing feet is not a defeating act where God loses face, it is a victorious act where God is shown to be the kind of God who is unlike the humans preparing to kill him. The enemies of God are the ones who despise foot washing and who seek the praises and approval of men (John 12:43). The enemies of God are revealed to be most unlike God when Jesus washes the feet of his disciples (John 13:4). It is good for God to be this way. God has revealed himself in this event; it is who he is and what he is like, and it is good that he is the way he is.