“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, 4got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter,” (John 13:1-7).
In John 13 one of the greatest dichotomies in Scripture takes place. The God who appeared atop Mt. Sinai in a furnace of blazing thunderous glory kneels on the earth in His human frame and cleans the dirty feet of men. The event is enough to meditate upon for hours and bring us to our knees again and again at the servility of Jesus – God in the flesh, yet tragically, this glorious paradox rarely affects us enough. Often times it is not the misunderstanding of what is happening in this extraordinary story that leads to a lack of praxis, but rather a failure to ground this story to the electrical lines of our theology as their primary energy source. With such demonstration from God in the flesh, the power plant of John 13 ought to electrify our theological drive with the true power of weakness, and show us the course of God’s own wiring. Yet, somewhere along the way it seems the wrong line has been snipped by the church, and its subsequent explosion has resulted in the leaders of the body of Christ taking the place of the Pharisee standing in the temple a mile away, confident in his ministry, while the Lord of glory continues to model His methodology on His knees in the lowest part of Jerusalem. A rewiring must therefore take place to reroute our electricity back to the source of life.
The command to deny ourselves is not one that the human sympathizes with so easily. It strikes a chord within us that is not indigenous of the flesh, nor does it occur naturally, but is one that must be tilled into our soil with ox and cart until it produces the fruit God desires–– complete and utter surrender. It is timely, and it hurts, and it could be thought of as a miniature ox dragging a plow across our skin and through our hearts with the unceasing intent of breaking up the fallow ground, so that fruit might eventually be born. When we look through the veil behind our eyes and into our own minds we must admit that in the core of our beings we despise the pain of this reality. This is precisely why it must be the work of the Holy Spirit that accomplishes such things. Needless to say, the continual “Yes” in our hearts is what allows him to kill the poisonous seeds of self-righteousness and give way to the seedlings of humility.
There is nothing within a man that rises up in joy at the words from our Saviour’s mouth. “Deny yourself,” seems to be more of a curse than a blessing––yet properly so. We might call it: the ‘curse’ of the kingdom. In the world’s eyes throughout this age we are quite literally to be perceived as the cursed ones. They look upon you in last place and despise you. There, the least honored in the room of achievers, you sit facedown, the one who has lost all things in this life to gain Christ and yet to them you seem a total failure. Sadly, this is also the case with many Christians and their theology today. But it is in the sacrifice of living as one who is ‘cursed’ in this age, that is, in the intentional placing of yourself last and least of all, that a great retaliation of this formula takes place in the age to come with the ultimate reward that has only been earned from self denial: entrance into the kingdom of God! Indeed, we cannot move on from this “deny ourselves” for this is the very essence of the salvation we see Jesus embody in His life which apexes in His death on the Cross. In fact, self-denial is a sort of precursor to taking up our Cross. If taking up the Cross is the mountain that must be climbed by Christians, then denying ourselves is the base camp before the climb. The longer we camp there, the bigger the mountain may look, but the more acclimated we become to the challenge ahead. Tragically, we will never summit if we do not first make base-camp.
Let us consider the Sermon on the Mount – Jesus’ main exhortation on the denial of self. If the Sermon on the Mount is a sort of base camp, it may well be the place where the most careful predictions about the journey ahead are calculated, and where who is able to continue the climb is determined. I continually find the nine verses of the Beatitudes specifically to be the darnedest verses because of their efficacy in revealing my lack of self denial. Nevertheless, I want my life to be in agreement with Jesus’ own exhortation in Luke 14:27-32:
“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after Me cannot be My disciple. 28“For which one of you, when he wants to build a tower, does not first sit down and calculate the cost to see if he has enough to complete it? 29“Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who observe it begin to ridicule him, 30saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish.’ 31“Or what king, when he sets out to meet another king in battle, will not first sit down and consider whether he is strong enough with ten thousand men to encounter the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32“Or else, while the other is still far away, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace.
In this case, the Everest before us is the Sermon on the Mount. It is the summit we aim for. It is the war we prepare for, and the tower we are seeking to build. The person who is unwilling to accept these chapters as the aim for his life is unfit to be a disciple of Jesus. Saying yes to Jesus as our Lord and Savior inadvertently means saying yes to the Sermon on the Mount. Those few chapters are the very practical essence of what self-denial is, and the how to of laying down our lives. We are not believing we will perfect these chapters in our lifetime – for we only make it to the summit in the resurrection by His Holy Spirit! But we ache for them to be walked out daily by His grace, and each step uphill towards the summit reveals our hardened hearts that are desperate for that day. We must allow that ox and cart to keep plowing that hardened soil. We hate it, but our skin and hearts become fertile in the process and the seed of the inspired Word falls into them producing the fruit of the vessel that is meek and the life that seeks to be laid down.
Oddly enough, I seem to mostly find myself beneath this base-camp, wondering about the forest of my own issues. I will gladly lay down my life for myself in this forest, but I might never see the needs of others nearby. Indeed, I am the focus of the journey there, and I have no concept of base-camp, nor the peak that I should be climbing. Either this, or I have deceived myself into thinking I have already climbed that peak, and that the forest is prettier anyway. It’s a deception of the strangest kind, like the man who looks at himself in the mirror, turns around, and immediately forgets what he looked like.
My best friend used to have John the Baptist’s declaration written in green marker upon a cardboard sign that hung over the doorway to his room. Though it was such a simple reminder, he passed under its words every day so as to state, “I will submit to this reality!” That affected me so deeply that when he incidentally left the sign with me when he joined his wife in marriage I also put it over my door. I still have that piece of cardboard today and its words resound in my ears regarding a man’s simple mission in this life. He must become greater and I must become less.
Let us not over-complicate such matters, but let us rather submit to them and join Jesus there in the grit of servanthood, in the dust of self-denial, girding ourselves with the power of weakness, anchored to the truth of Christ Crucified. Let the world be stupefied that we would choose such lowly decor as the hallmark of our lives in this age.