Jesus washing feet


1 PETER 5:5.—“Be clothed with humility.”

HUMILITY is a grace that pertains exclusively to the Christian religion. The better codes of pagan morality recommend some of the virtues of our religion—such as benevolence, justice, truthfulness, and the like—but this quality of meekness, which is so prominent in the Scriptures, and with which we are commanded to be “clothed” as with a garment, escaped the notice of the heathen sages. They do not appear to have distinguished between a reverential and proper prostration of soul, and a cringing, cowardly meanness of temper. Hence the Greek word (ταπεινοφροσύνη) employed by the New Testament writers to denote this grace, which is one of the fairest fruits and distinctive marks of the religion of the gospel, in its original classical meaning signified a servile pusillanimity.

The man who possessed this quality, in the opinion of the proud Greek, was a man of small soul. So that in this instance, as in many others, a single word, by being brought into the service of Christian doctrine, and employed as the vehicle of Christian truth, is thereby ennobled, and becomes the exponent of a higher and better idea; a specimen of what Christianity does for everything that comes to be in any way connected with it. Man, when he has become a Christian, is a higher style of man than he was before. Nature, when viewed by a Christian eye, and mused upon with a Christian contemplation, is transfigured, and sounds forth a deeper music, and shows a richer bloom than meet the ear and eye of the worldling. So true is it, that “godliness is profitable for all things.”

In looking for a moment into the nature of humility, we discover, as has been remarked, that it does not involve meanness or servility. It is not pusillanimity. It contains no element that degrades human nature, or exposes it to legitimate contempt. It is not the quality of a slave, but of kings and priests unto God. It is a necessary trait in all finite character, and therefore it is perfectly consistent with an inviolable dignity and self-respect. Look at it as it appears in living beauty in the pattern-man, the model of humanity—in Him who was “meek and lowly of heart.” Christ was the ideal of man. Our nature reached its acme of perfection in him. But throughout his entire human life upon earth, he was a lowly and condescending being. Not a scintilla of pride or arrogance ever flashed in his actions. The sweetest and most gentle meekness pervades the whole appearance which he presents in the Gospels. It casts its silver, softening light over all his life; it is the serene element in which he lived, moved, and had his being.

And yet, how dignified was the Son of man. The potentates of the world are fond of arrogating to themselves the title of “serene highness.” By it, they would indicate that their exaltation is so lofty, that it is unaffected by the contests and turmoil of the lower region in which the common mass of men live. Their position is wholly inaccessible, and therefore their temper is perfectly calm. But what a “serene highness” envelops the character of Christ, like a halo. What greatness accompanies the gentleness. Even Rousseau, who had no meekness, and no love for the trait, acknowledged that the character of Christ is the most lofty one in history. He thought it so sublime as to say, that if it had been the mere idealizing and invention of the unlettered evangelists, they would have performed a greater miracle than even the character itself was.

And do we, in contemplating the character of Jesus, find that the humility which he exhibited lowers it in the least in our estimation? Look at that scene in which this trait appears in a very striking manner—the washing of his disciples’ feet. “Jesus [though] knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God”—this Divine Being, while holding all things in his power, and issuing from Eternity, and returning to it when he chose—yet “riseth from supper and laid aside his garments, and took a towel, and girded himself. After that, he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” Connected with this in itself menial act, is there even the slightest thought of self-degradation? We may be astonished at the condescension, as Peter was when he cried: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” But the idea that Christ forfeited his personal dignity; that he forgot his human position, and did an improper act, out of keeping with it; never for an instant enters our minds, as we read this narrative and ponder upon it. Does not this menial office, which would excite pity if performed by a slave from fear or compulsion, cause us involuntarily to bow in reverence?

When the Roman pontiff, surrounded by his cardinals and announced by a salvo of artillery, with great pomp and external show apes this beautiful and dignified condescension of the Son of man, and washes the feet of a Roman beggar, the spectator looks on with scorn, or turns away in pity. But not so with the original, of which this is the poor and blasphemous mimicry. The blending, in the God-man, of a divine dignity and majesty, with a human and affectionate condescension towards his disciples and his brethren, will ever waken admiration in him who is possessed merely of a cultivated taste, like Rousseau; much more must it waken revering love, and a desire really to imitate it, in the believer who feels his own unworthiness, and beholds in Christ the “brightness of the Father’s glory, and the express image of his person.”

These considerations are sufficient to indicate the true nature of humility, in contradiction to the pagan conception of it. We are certain that there is nothing in it kindred to servility, or pusillanimity when we see it lending a charm to the most perfect and symmetrical life that was ever lived upon earth. We can form a very safe estimate of any quality or trait, by looking at it in actual daily life; by seeing it as it weaves itself into the web of human actions and relations. If it look lovely and admirable there; if we find it, in Wordsworth’s phrase,

“not too good
For human nature’s daily food,
And yet a spirit still and bright,
With something of an angel light,”

then it must be so in its abstract, intrinsic nature. Humility, therefore, must be a worthy and noble trait; for it was an attribute of the noblest of beings; it runs like a bright silken thread through the holiest and most beautiful life. We are commanded, in the text, to be “clothed” with this grace; to wear it as a garment that wraps the wearer all over like a cloak; to appear in it as a habit or dress wherever we go.

Let us notice some of the reasons for this command.

And inasmuch as the light of the gospel first disclosed this grace, which had escaped the notice of the wisdom of this world, let us view it in this light. Let us take our stand upon Christianity, and from what it teaches concerning the nature of God and the nature of man, and their mutual relations, let us see that there are conclusive reasons why every man, without exception, should be humble.

I. In the first place, humility is becoming to man, because he is a creature.

There is no difference so great as that between the Creator and the creature. The distance between man and the house which he builds, or the cloth which he manufactures, is very great, but it is not equal to that between God and man. The house and the cloth are made out of existing materials; but God made man out of the dust of the earth, and the dust of the earth he made out of nothing. In this creaturely relation, therefore, there is not the slightest opportunity or ground for pride. Shall a being who was originated from nonentity by almighty power, and who can be reduced again to nonentity by that same power—shall a being who a little while ago had no existence, and in an instant might vanish into non-existence, swell with haughtiness? Surely, humility is the fitting emotion for a created being. “Talk no more so exceeding proudly: let not arrogancy come out of your mouth; for the Lord is a God of knowledge, and by him actions are weighed” (1 Sam. 2:3).

The distance between man and his Maker is so great, that the instinctive feeling which is elicited is that of dread. If we examine the pagan religions, we discover that a vague and oppressing terror before the Deity is the predominating emotion in them all. They denominate him the “Unknown God,” and Paul found even the cultivated Greek bowing down in abject fear. But such an emotion as this is destructive of true humility. It is too tumultuous and terrifying, to allow of such a gentle, such a quiet, and such an affectionate feeling as the gospel lowliness and meekness. If the human soul be filled with a shadowy and anxious dread before an agnostic God, and it ignorantly worships him under the suffocating influence of this feeling, there can be none of that intelligent and calm self-prostration which the text enjoins. We must have some truthful and definite apprehension of God; he must be something more for us than a dark abyss of being into whose vortex the little atom is swallowed up and lost; in order to bow down before him with filial reverence, and entire submission.

Revelation gives man this clear and intelligent view. It darts a bright beam of light through the infinite distance which separates the creature from the Creator. It reveals him as “the high and lofty One that inhabits eternity;” and also as “dwelling with him that is of an humble and contrite heart, to revive and to bless.” It describes him as the august Being whose name is “I am,” the “Holy Lord God Almighty which was, and is, and is to come;” and also as “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,” through whom we have the forgiveness of sins, and the hope of everlasting life. In combining the infinite majesty with the infinite condescension, the Bible lays the foundation for a genuine humility that is heaven-wide from the servile terror of the pagan devotee. It is a tender and gentle emotion. Well does our Lord say, that he who carries it as a yoke, finds it an “easy” one; that he who bears it as a burden, feels that it is a “light” one. Well does he say, that that soul which learns of him, and becomes meek and lowly of heart, “finds rest.”

Humility, again, is an ennobling emotion, because it brings man into his right position before God. That being belittles himself who gets out of his place, and occupies one that does not belong to him. In our Lord’s parable, the man who took the highest seat in the synagogue disgraced himself in the very act. He went where he was not entitled to go, and he was put back where he properly belonged. But he who took the lowest room, he who did not claim the highest place as his proper position, was rewarded for his humble and just estimate of himself by the invitation to “go up higher.” Precisely so is it with the creature’s relations to God. He who is conscious of his insignificance before his Maker, and in comparison with his Maker, is thereby exalted to a height that can be reached in no other way. We see this in the act of worship. When we adore the Infinite Jehovah, and give him the glory that is due unto his name, our whole mood and temper is lowly. And we are in our right place. We ought to lie low at the footstool of the Eternal. And having done this; having worshipped the King eternal, immortal, and invisible; we are exalted in the very act.

Our feeble, finite, created nature is never clothed with such dignity, as when we are showing reverence to our Sovereign. Why is it that the very posture of worship, the posture of humility, elicits respect from all beholders? No one can look upon the devotions of even an ignorant papist before a crucifix at the corner of the street, or of an ignorant Mohammedan with his face towards Mecca, without a degree of consideration. There is a fellow-creature who, in attitude at least, is bending before the infinite majesty of heaven; and though we know that his worship is blind and superstitious, it would shock our sensibilities should he be insulted, or interrupted in his prayer. There is dignity in worship. “Those thoughts,” says Lichtenberg, “elevate the soul which throw the body upon the knee.” The act of adoration, in which the spirit of humility reaches its height, is the sublimest one of which the creature is capable. And this, because it is that act in which he confesses and feels himself to be a creature—a being who was originated from nothing by the fiat of the Creator, and who possesses nothing that he has not received.

II. In the second place, humility is becoming to man because he is a dependent being.

He who is independent, and does not owe his existence, or the continuance of it, to any other than himself, is not called upon to be humble. Humility would be unbefitting in the Great God. He must of necessity possess the calm consciousness of independence, and self-subsistence. And yet this is not pride. God cannot be proud, any more than he can be humble. For pride supposes a comparison with another being of the same species, and a degree of rivalry with him. But with whom can God compare himself; and towards what other being can he feel the least emotion of emulation? He dwells in the solitude of his own unapproachable excellence, and therefore he can neither be lifted up with haughtiness, nor bowed down in lowliness.

But man is not such a being. All his springs are in God. He is dependent for life, health, and all temporal things. He is dependent, above all, for spiritual life and health, and all the blessed things of eternity. In the strong Scripture phraseology, he “lives, moves, and has his being” in God. He is kept in existence, and watched over by the minute, the microscopic providence of God, with more kindness than the mother guards her infant, and therefore the least that he can do, is to look up with an adoring eye and meekly acknowledge his dependence. Certainly, that creature ought to be very lowly who is finite and helpless, and yet has an eternity depending upon the life he leads here. Standing as man does on the shore of an illimitable sea, upon which he is to embark, with no power in himself to support and guide over its dark expanse, he should be very humble and very trusting. The sound of those “waters rolling evermore” should send far into his heart a feeling of weakness, and dependency. His whole life upon the raging billows of time ought to be one continued act of lowly trust, one continued state of meek reliance.

But this does not exhaust the subject under this head. Man is dependent not only upon his Creator, but also upon his fellow-creature. He is part of a great whole, and is therefore in a state of connection and interdependency. No man can stand up alone, and sustain himself without any assistance from his fellow men. Even he who practically denies his dependence upon God, acknowledges either directly or indirectly his dependence upon man. How many men are humble, nay, are abject, before a fellow worm, because they are in some way dependent upon him, but are proud in the sight of God, by whom both they and their fellow creatures are sustained. Thus does man, even in his sin, confess his own weakness. In a life and world of sin, he clings to his frail fellow-sinner for support. The thought of being cut off from all connection with others alarms him. Were the whole human family to be removed from the planet by death, with the exception of a single individual, and this single person were to be reprobated by God, and thus cut off from all connection and intercourse with any being human or divine, he would be a terror to himself. What fear would settle like a cloud upon him, if having no trust in the Almighty he found no fellow creature to run to, though only for a temporary solace and stay. Standing in such absolute loneliness in the middle of the universe, with neither God nor man to lean upon, methinks he would desire annihilation.

So firmly and profoundly implanted in human nature is the instinctive longing for social intercourse with a fellow being, and the desire to rest upon some other than self. And ought not this species of dependence, also, though it be a minor one when compared with the creature’s dependence upon God, to minister to a lowly heart? Should not every man esteem others better than himself, be thankful for the benefits which he is constantly receiving either directly or indirectly from others, and, in the end, looking up to the great First Cause, humbly adore him as the Being who sits above all these minor agencies, upholding and controlling as they work and interweave among themselves far beneath him? Since men are all walking together in this state of existence as it were in a starless night, and their feet stumble among the dark mountains, they should mutually recognize their obligations to each other, and there should be no boasting. The sense of their dependence would render them meek and lowly; and this meekness and gentleness would naturally beget that love of their neighbor as themselves, which is the sum of the second table of the law.

III. In the third place, man should be humble because he is a sinful being.

What has been remarked of man as created and dependent will apply to all beings but God. The first two reasons which we have assigned for humility are valid for the angels and the archangels. They are creatures, and they are dependent. And if we would find the deepest humility in the universe, the most profound lowliness of heart, we must seek it in the shining ranks of heaven; in the wing-veiled faces of the seraphim.

But there is another special reason why man should be humble which has no application to the holy angel. Man is a sinner. When Jehovah appeared “sitting upon a throne high and lifted up,” the seraph cried and said, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” But the prophet Isaiah upon seeing the very same vision said, “Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts.” The seraph was humble as a creature merely. The man was humble as a sinner as well as a creature.

The fact that we are transgressors before God should abase us in the dust before him. The heart of a criminal is no place for pride, and he ought to stand afar off, and cry, “God be merciful.” Considering the peculiar attitude in which guilty man stands before God, self-abasement ought to be the main feeling in his heart. For in addition to the infinite difference there is originally between himself and his Maker, he has rendered himself yet more different by apostasy. The first was only a difference in respect to essence; but the last is a difference in respect to character. How strange it is that he should forget this difference, and entering into a comparison of himself with his fellow men should plume himself upon a supposed superiority. The culprits are disputing which shall be the greatest, at the very instant when their sentence of condemnation is issuing from the lips of their Judge! How poor a thing it is, to see a little creature overestimating himself for qualities, the possession of which he owes to the very Being against whom he is in rebellion. How vain and futile a thing it is, for a little atom to attempt to isolate itself from everything else and float alone in immensity, endeavoring, contrary to great laws, to lead a separate existence by itself and for itself, and, in this attitude of rebellion against the Creator and Ruler of all, boasting with exultation and self-complacency. It is absurd, on the very face of it.

“Proud man,
Drest in a little brief authority,
Plays such fantastic tricks before high heaven
As make angels weep.”

There is still another consideration under this head which strengthens the motive for humility.

We have seen that the fact of sin furnishes an additional reason for self abasement, because it increases the distance between man and God; it has also made him still more dependent upon God. There is no helplessness like that of a convicted and imprisoned criminal. He cannot stir hand or foot. He cannot say a word in his own defence, for he has been tried, and proved guilty. He cannot employ force to deliver himself, for he is shut up behind solid walls and iron grates. He is utterly dependent upon the sovereign power which has sentenced and imprisoned him. Such is sinful man in relation to the Divine government. He is the most helpless of the helpless. Nothing but pure and mere mercy can deliver him. But nothing interferes with the exercise of mercy like pride in the criminal. A proud man cannot be forgiven. It involves a self-contradiction. If there be self-asserting haughtiness in the heart, God can neither bestow grace nor man receive it. There can be no forgiveness, unless there be confession of sin, and godly sorrow. Mere remorse furnishes no opportunity for the exercise of clemency. The devils are full of this feeling, and yet are as antagonistic to the Divine mercy as fire is to water.

It is not the “sorrow of the world,” the sorrow of hell, but the “godly sorrow,” which prepares the soul to receive the sweet and blessed absolution of heavenly pity. But this feeling is a humble one. Penitence is very lowly. In fact, the difference between the two sorrows—the sorrow of the world, and the godly sorrow—is due to the presence or the absence of humility. The sense of sin takes its character from the temper of the soul. When it wakes up in a proud and hard heart, it wears and tears it. It becomes remorse—that “sorrow of the world which worketh death,” the main element in eternal death, the “worm” and the “fire.” But when the sense of sin is wakened in a humble and broken heart, there is no laceration. It becomes that “godly sorrow which worketh repentance unto life.” It produces that subdued, tender, chastened tone of feeling which leads man in lowly faith to the foot of the Cross.

“Remorse is as the heart in which it grows:
If that be humble, it drops balmy dews
Of true repentance; but if proud and gloomy,
It is a poison-tree that, pierced to the inmost,
Weeps only tears of poison.”

If, therefore, we would have the sense of sin produce any salutary and blessed results within us, we must obtain a meek and lowly spirit—one that does not proudly fight against the convictions of conscience, and thus rouse that faculty to vengeance and despair, but which acknowledges and confesses the justice of its charges, and humbly waits for the mercy of God, who pours the oil of joy into such a heart. If, then, you ever have your attention directed to your transgressions, and the conviction of sin and the feeling of ill-desert is roused, do not proudly try to smother and quench it, for it will prove to be a fire shut up in your bones that will ultimately burn to the lowest hell. On the contrary, be humble; confess the sin with meekness, and look to the blood of Christ for its pardon. Then you will understand how it is that when you are humble then you are exalted, and when you are weak then you are strong. When the sinner’s stout and self-righteous heart yields, and he meekly acknowledges his sin, by this very act he takes hold of the justifying righteousness of the Redeemer, and then he is exalted, and then he is safe.

IV. A fourth, and most powerful reason, why man should be clothed with humility, is found in the vicarious suffering and atonement of Christ in his behalf.

The apostle Paul, directing Titus to enjoin upon his hearers “to speak evil of no man, to be no brawlers, but gentle, showing all meekness unto all men,” assigns as a special reason the fact, that the “kindness and love of God our Saviour has appeared toward man, in the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Ghost through Jesus Christ our Saviour.” The Cross of Christ is the great motive to a meek and lowly temper. He who has a vivid view of those dark scenes in the innocent life of the Blessed Redeemer, and considers the purpose for which he was in an agony and sweat great drops of blood, cannot cherish pride in his heart, unless his heart is the heart of Judas. Feeling himself to be a condemned sinner, and beholding the Lamb of God “made a curse for him,” and bearing his sins in His own body on the tree, all self-confidence and self-righteousness will die out of his soul. Coming down from Calvary, he cannot straightway forget what he has seen, and return as did the malignant Jews to the pomp and vanity of the earthly Jerusalem, and live a proud and sensual life.

On the contrary, he finds in the sufferings and death of Christ a motive both for self abasement, and for hope—a motive for self abasement, because in the bright light around the Cross he sees his sins to be scarlet and crimson; a motive for hope, because of the free and full forgiveness that is offered. Nothing subdues a haughty spirit like the passion and agony of the Saviour for the sin of the world. There is a strangely softening power in the blood of Christ. The fabled Medusa’s head was said to turn everyone who looked upon it into stone; but the Cross and the Holy Sufferer upon it is a sight that converts the beholder from stone into flesh.

Such, then, are the conclusive reasons and motives for Christian humility. We are creatures; we are dependent creatures; we are guilty creatures; and we are creatures for whom the Son of God has suffered and died. It is a grace much insisted upon by our Lord, and very difficult for our proud natures to acquire and cultivate. But it must be acquired. Pride is the inmost substance of sin. Adam desired to be “as gods, knowing good and evil.” Lucifer, the Son of the Morning, aspired to the throne of the Eternal. Both the angel and the man fell by pride. Humility is the opposite grace and virtue. It is the slowest and latest of any to take root again in our apostate nature. Even when we have bowed down in true lowliness of heart, the very first emotion, oftentimes, that springs up after the act, is the emotion of pride. We are proud because we have been humble! So subtle and inveterate in our souls is that “old serpent,” that primitive sin whereby the angels fell, and whereby man transgressed.

We must, therefore, cultivate this particular grace as we would cultivate a choice exotic flower in an unkindly soil and clime. We must toil to “be clothed with humility.” We must habitually feel our entire dependence upon God, and also our secondary dependence upon man. We must cherish a deeper sense of personal unworthiness. And above all, we must behold the suffering Lamb of God, and remember the deserved damnation from which he has saved us. “Put on, therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, bowels of mercies, kindness, humbleness of mind, meekness, long-suffering, forbearing one another, and forgiving one another, if any man have a quarrel against any; even as Christ forgave you, so also do ye.”

William G. T. Shedd, Sermons to the Spiritual Man, (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1884), 256–271.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

7  +  2  =  

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.