When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he exploded our normal ideas about what God does. Creating, judging, and rewarding are things that sound like divine activities—not eating dinner with prostitutes, going to parties with tax collectors, and cleaning dirt off of people:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3–5)
Jesus’ lowly service is a practical picture of how Jesus inverts our normal view of authority, dignity, and power. Jesus’ unselfconscious act of service was a picture of God’s upside-down approach to our world and to us. The ultimate picture of this is Jesus’ humbling himself to endure the death of the cross and bring us cleansing through his substitution in our place (Phil. 2:8).
Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky gives us a picture of this upside-down approach in his novel The Idiot. It’s about young Prince Myshkin of Russia, who returns home to society after a long stay abroad. He finds himself surrounded by people who are rage-filled, backbiting, power-hungry, and envious. They struggle for accolades and live like beasts.
As Prince Myshkin is dropped into the middle of this depravity and forced to struggle with the reality of people’s sin, his interaction with this corrupt and immoral group is astounding! Prince Myshkin is frail and simple. He speaks clearly and without lies. He loves anyone he comes into contact with, especially the peasants and the servants. He is not self-aggrandizing, and he embodies grace and peace. And for all of his love and kindness, his meekness and his tenderness, the world around him dismisses him as an idiot.
Jesus Christ is like Prince Myshkin. Our world—in all its “wisdom”—finds him and his cross foolish. He is the prince who came penniless and powerless to serve: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:28; Mark 10:45). In coming as a humble servant, full of grace and truth, Jesus reveals our sovereign God’s paradoxical approach to the world.
Justin Holcomb is an Episcopal minister (serving as the Canon for Vocations in the Diocese of Central Florida) and teaches theology at Gordon-Cowell-Theological Seminary and Reformed Theological Seminary. You can find Justin on Facebook, Twitter, and at justinholcomb.com.