The Incarnation: God Once Again Gets His Hands Dirty

Andrew J. Miller
Friday, December 24th 2021

Resident Assistant training took an unexpected turn when, a week before my junior year of college began, our RA supervisor took out a large bowl, filled it with water, and washed our feet, one at a time. His name was Randy. Your typical football player type, he was handsome and dated an attractive blonde. He was at the top of the social totem pole, but on that night, he took us to the campus chapel, into the men’s room, and got his hands dirty washing our feet. He was teaching us a leadership lesson, drawn from the best leader of all time—Jesus—that the greatest among us will be a servant (Matt. 23:11). It was unexpected, and, looking back, highly effective as an object lesson. There is something to be said for getting your hands dirty.

When was the last time you got your hands dirty? How about bloody? Doctors and nurses may experience such service daily, but in the affluence of America, many of us can go for quite a long time without getting involved with people in a messy way.

Yet, from the very beginning, God involved himself in the messy world of mankind. Genesis 2 bears this out in striking contrast to the transcendent God of Genesis 1 who creates merely by speaking. Stephen Dempster puts it this way: “In Genesis 2:4ff. there is…a dizzying descent from an extraordinary transcendence in chapter 1 to earthy immanence in chapter 2: God gets his hands muddy with the creation of the Adam, and bloody with the creation of Woman.”[1]

The Transcendent God Dirties His Hands with Mankind

Genesis 2:7, 20-22 reports:

…then the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature…. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him. So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and while he slept took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman and brought her to the man.

God, to whom light is dim, who dwells in inapproachable light filled with glory (1 Tim. 6:16), deigned to create man as a Potter crafts clay (Isa. 29:16; 64:8; Rom. 9:21). The utterly transcendent God, whose ways are immensely higher than our ways, and whose thoughts are supremely beyond our own (Isa. 55:8-9), not only crafted Adam, but breathed life into his nostrils. We can imagine the transcendence of God if we consider how inaccessible the stars look to us here below. Or if we picture looking down into the ocean and wondering how deep it is—these distances are but a fraction of the true difference between the Creator and the creature. Yet, God drew near to create man from the dust, and breathe life into his nostrils. Today we well know that for someone to breathe on us requires an uncomfortable proximity.

Yet, in a creative act unparalleled with the rest of creation, God built the first woman through surgery. The bloody gloves of a surgeon give us an inkling of God getting his anthropomorphic hands bloody in the creation of woman from a rib from Adam.

This amazing picture of God’s immanence hints toward the Christmas then yet to come. It shows us the nature of God: not too proud to involve himself in the world he made, not above simple creatures, but Immanuel—God with us. The portrayal of God of Genesis 2 prepares us for the God of Luke 1, of Matthew 1, of John 1. The incarnation shows us a God who stoops, who condescends, with amazing grace.

The Eternal Son Dirties and Bloodies His Hands

Just when we think God cannot amaze us any more in his condescension (and I mean “condescension” that in the good sense), the incarnation shows us God’s willingness to identity with his fallen creation. The eternal Son of God, rich beyond measure, having everything—and I mean everything—became poor for our sakes, coming “in the likeness of sinful flesh” and enduring life “under the sun” like us (Rom. 8:3; 2 Cor. 8:9; Ecclesiastes). But not only did the Son give himself to a life of headaches, of acne, splinters, and betrayal—he willingly subjected himself to the worst of life in the flesh—the brutal death of crucifixion and the torment of hell. His pierced hands were literally stained with blood.

Philippians 2 gives us a sense of the humbling the second person of the Trinity willingly underwent:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

The Son, in Jesus Christ, took on the form of a servant. Philippians 2 undoubtedly teaches a high Christology—if Jesus didn’t truly have “equality with God,” then taking human form would be unremarkable.

God’s willingness to humble himself in the incarnation starkly contrasts with our unwillingness to lower ourselves. We are too proud to talk to children. Too “mature” to sing “Jesus loves me,” with a happy heart. Too proud to clean toilets. Too wealthy to speak with the homeless. In conflicts, we won’t even admit we were wrong when we know we are wrong! We don’t humble ourselves to end a fight with our loved ones…yet this is not the way of Christ.

Washed Sinners Get Their Hands Dirty

God’s kind condescension, his dramatic humiliation, does not always fit with man’s sense of justice. John 13 tells us that,

During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 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 13:2-5

The rabbi garbed himself as a servant—Almighty God in the flesh wore the garb of a lowly person. What Jesus did was simply stunning! The Jewish sages had said, “A Hebrew slave must not wash the feet of his master, nor put his shoes on him.”[2] Foot-washing was a task given to pagan slaves. Jesus, therefore, has taken on the role of a non-Jewish slave. This was not done: it was unheard of for a superior person to wash the feet on an inferior.

And so, Peter refused: “You shall never wash my feet” (Jn. 13:8). There are some things that just don’t fit, like snow in summer (Prov. 26:1), and this struck Peter as one of those things. But Jesus was showing his disciples their need for greater cleansing—from the sin that clings so closely, from the sin that they cannot wash off themselves. Their hands, feet, and hearts—and ours—are dirty for all the wrong reasons until he cleanses them. Jesus got his hands dirty to show the cleansing from sin he would enact through his suffering servanthood.

Jesus also showed his disciples that those who would be like him, those who are united to him and receive blessings from him, will also get their hands dirty in loving sacrificial service. John tells us,

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.’

John 13:12-14

In other words, those washed by Jesus follow him, getting involved in the messy lives of sinners, caring for them even when helping hurts. However much we humble ourselves, it is less than the Son’s humiliation for our sake. We willingly roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty washing the feet of our neighbors because Christ has washed us from our sins. As John Newton’s hymn thunders, “He has washed us with his blood / He has brought us nigh to God.”

Andrew J. Miller is the pastor of Bethel Reformed Presbyterian Church (O.P.C.) in Fredericksburg, VA.

[1] Stephen G. Dempster, “In Search of the Trinity in the Old Testament: Uncovering a Second Narrative,” Criswell Theological Review 15/1 (Fall 2017), 68.

[2] Clinton E. Arnold, ed. Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 2.131.

Photo of Andrew J. Miller
Andrew J. Miller
Andrew J. Miller is Regional Home Missionary for the O.P.C. in Central Pennsylvania. He served as a local pastor in Virginia for a decade and is coauthor of Glorifying and Enjoying God: 52 Devotionals Through The Westminster Shorter Catechism.
Friday, December 24th 2021

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
Magazine Covers; Embodiment & Technology