Chapter 6: The Incarnate Way

The Gospel of John
by William R. Cannon

Chapter 6: The Incarnate Way

What Jesus was as Word, Deed, Light, and Life makes him the perfect example for living as God intends that all people should live. Irenaeus pointed out long ago that humanity had become so corrupted by sin that no one knew how a person created in the image of God was expected to live. Jesus, therefore, as the perfect Person demonstrates the pattern of behavior for all to emulate.

The early Christians were known as followers of the way. That way was the way of salvation. In this section of his Gospel, John presents Jesus as the incarnate Way, the divine intention for life demonstrated in human form.

Indeed, there is a major division in the Fourth Gospel between the material that ends with chapter 11 and that which follows. The first part of the Gospel presents the six miracles or great signs -- the mighty demonstrations of God's power and grace in the person of his own dear son.

But from chapter 12 to the end of the Gospel we see what happens as Jesus closes his public ministry and endures his passion. John represents the passion as an act of God in the drama of our redemption.

In this opening part of the second section, John presents Jesus as the incarnate Way of God that all persons should follow. As the writer does this, he describes important instances in which both individual persons and people in general take Jesus' way as their way, thereby demonstrating some aspect of salvation.

Adoration (12:1-11)

Jesus returned to Bethany only six days before the Passover he was to observe as a faithful Jew. His crucifixion was imminent. He repaired to the home of Martha and Mary and their brother Lazarus, whom only a short time before he had raised from the dead. The two sisters prepared a sumptuous meal for this friend and benefactor. But only one of them. Martha, served the meal. The brother, as head of the house, sat and ate with his guests at the table. The disciples, and perhaps others, were present.

Shortly after the news spread that Jesus had returned to Bethany, large crowds gathered about the house. They used Jesus' coming as an excuse to satisfy their curiosity. They wanted to see a man who had been dead and was alive again. Both Lazarus and Jesus, who had raised him, were subjects of their curiosity. This popularity made the chief priests determined to kill Lazarus along with Jesus. On account of what Jesus had done for Lazarus, many Jews were becoming followers of this strange new Messiah. They had left the traditional way of Judaism for the way of Jesus.

Mary, instead of waiting on the table, rubbed the feet of Jesus with expensive ointment and dried them with her own hair. The jar of ointment weighed one pound. The ointment was pure nard. It was so sweet and the odor of it so strong that it penetrated the whole house with a pleasant and soothing scent. The cost of the ointment was the equivalent of the wages of a laborer for three hundred days, almost a year.

Therefore, Judas, the treasurer of the disciples, feigned indignation over this act of prodigality and waste. He said the ointment should have been sold and the proceeds given to the poor. But the author of the Gospel adds as an aside that Judas really wanted the money for himself. "He was a thief," who all along had kept his hand in the till.

Jesus rebuked Judas. "Do not bother Mary," he said, "let her do what she is doing in anticipation of my burial." That, I think, is a more understandable rendition of the Greek text than what we find in an English translation. It implies, "You would not object to such expense for ointment if I were a corpse." Jesus adds, "You have the poor with you always. There will be many opportunities to help them. But you won't always have me."

What Mary did was unusual and altogether out of the ordinary. The custom in that day was for either the host or a servant to wash the feet of the guests when they came in from a dusty walk. Later, if the host was rich, he anointed the head of the chief guest with oil as an act of courtesy and honor. But Mary anointed Jesus' feet, massaged them with her hands, and wiped them with her hair. For a respectable woman to use her hair as a towel was degrading and frightfully immodest.

What is the explanation of all this? Keep in mind that John, in contrast to the synoptics, is a profound theologian. Everything he describes has theological significance.

I. Mary prostrated herself, literally threw herself, in complete abandon, forsaking all self-attained dignity and honor, before her Savior and God. A towel was not good enough for him. She must use her hair to dry his feet, for her hair represented herself.

2. She anointed his feet as an expression of penitence. She felt unworthy to pour oil on his head.

3. Oil was used by her, because she recognized him already as "the resurrection and the life." He had bestowed life on her brother.

This act of hers is an indication of her adoration of Jesus. By it she worshiped him as God.

And Jesus accepted it as such and commended her for it. The worship of God takes precedence over everything else. Without worship, work is trivial and ineffective. The poor could not be properly and fully served just by feeding them at the proper time and ministering to their material needs. They must be restored to the dignity of knowing that they are children of God. This cannot happen apart from the worship and love of God on the part of those who try to help the poor. The first obligation of the Christian is his or her worship of God through adoration and praise of Jesus Christ. This is the very beginning of the way of salvation.

Homage (12:12-26)

The adoration of Jesus by Mary at Bethany, an instance of an individual prostrating herself before her Lord, is followed in the Fourth Gospel by two public events in which people in general pay homage to Jesus. One includes large crowds; the other, only a small group of special people.

The first of these is the Savior's triumphal entry into Jerusalem, the very next day after Mary had anointed Jesus's feet with ointment. John's description of this event is different from the synoptics' but does not in any way contradict theirs. John leaves out some of the details they include, but he also adds some observations of his own. It is he who specifies the palm tree as providing the branches that were spread before Jesus on the road. These had been used when Judas Maccabaeus, the cleanser of the Temple and the Jewish hero who had wrested independence for his people from the Seleucid empire, was welcomed as a conqueror into his city (I Maccabees 13:51). He also describes the entry as fulfillment of the prophecy of Zechariah in which the king will "speak peace" and forswear war (Zech. 9:9-10). Yet John tells us that even the disciples did not discern this at the time (12:16). This means that John himself did not until long after the event was past. At the time, they all, no doubt, thought that Jesus, like the others, would restore independence to his people and rule by might as any other king. John alone of the four evangelists gives an explanation for the size and enthusiasm of the crowds. The crowds were made up, on the one hand, of those who entered the city with Jesus and who had seen him raise Lazarus from the dead in Bethany and, on the other hand, of people in Jerusalem who had heard about this miracle and wanted to see the one who had performed it. The crowds were so large that the Pharisees despaired of ever stopping them and opined "the world has gone after him" (12:19, RSV).

The people cried, "Hosanna!", which means, "Save us!" And with it, they acclaimed Jesus, in messianic overtones, as Israel's king. Thus Jesus received homage from his own people, crowds of pilgrims who had come from all over the country to observe the Passover.

But Jesus also received homage from a group of foreigners. Some Greek proselytes to Judaism came to where he was at the time in Jerusalem and accosted Philip with the request. "Sir, we would see Jesus" (12:21). Philip carried this request to Andrew, and the two men together went to Jesus with it. Why did the Greeks contact Philip? Simply because Philip is a Greek name, and maybe they thought he was really one of them.

Jesus' response to the request of the Greeks is amazing. John does not tell us whether he actually saw them or not. All John reports is Jesus' statement to Andrew and Philip. He said that unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it cannot bear fruit. He continued that if one loves his life and timidly holds on to it, that person will lose it. Yet if one hates his life in this world, he will recover it in the world to come. Jesus is pleased that the Greeks have taken the initiative to seek him out. He says the Father will honor all those who honor him and seek to serve him. Presumably, the Greeks did see him after all.

Obedience (12:27-50)

At this point, the author turns aside from others and their response to Jesus and focuses on Jesus himself. Like anyone else, Jesus was troubled over what he knew he must face in the next few days. Yet, at the same time, he realized that it was for this very purpose that he had come into the world. It was only through obedience to his Father that he could glorify him. His obedient suffering would bring glory to the heavenly Father; therefore, he prayed "Father, glorify thy name" (12:28).

And God answered him by saying, "Son, in you I have glorified it, and I will glorify it yet again."

Jesus heard what God said, but the people did not. Some did have enough discernment to think that an angel had spoken, but most of the folk heard only a noise. They thought it was thunder. One's soul must be in tune with the divine in order to hear God speaking.

"I must be lifted up," Jesus said, "if I am to draw all people unto me." By this he meant he must be raised up on his cross in death in order for the people to receive the full benefit of his ministry. Even so, they wouldn't be able to receive these benefits unless they could appreciate and accept him. He is the Light. They must walk in that light while it still shone among them. Otherwise, even the cross would be enveloped in darkness. He was so disappointed at their reaction that he went away and hid himself. He had come to them, his own people, only to be rejected by them.

"When Jesus had said this, he departed and hid himself reaction that he went away and hid himself.

from them" (12:36, RSV). This verse marks the very end of Jesus' ministry to his own people. Jesus did not address himself publicly to them any more. He abandoned them. He left them alone.

Why? Because it was futile to make any more overtures to them. Some, even those in authority, had been convinced by him and wanted to accept him, but they dared not. They were afraid of criticism from the Pharisees. They were afraid of losing their positions of prominence among the people. Those poor souls "loved the praise of people more than the praise of God" (12:45, AP).

Brokenhearted, despondent, and grieved over his own people, Jesus said: "I have not spoken on my own but for God. Those who did believe in me really believed in God. I will not judge them in the end. It is God's word that I have spoken to them that will judge and condemn them on the last day. The word I would have given them, had they let me, is the word of eternal life."

The obedience that Jesus gave to his Father he expected the people to give to him, for he had not worked from his own authority but from the authority of God who sent him.

Humble Service (13:1-17)

The synoptic Gospels divide the ministry of Jesus geographically. They deal with his work in Galilee and then describe his last week in Jerusalem. John does not stress the geographical setting for Jesus' work, although he provides more geographical details surrounding each particular event than do the rest. He reports, as we have seen, Jesus, moving back and forth from Judea to Galilee throughout the whole of his ministry, so that where he is in terms of what he does seems of minor significance. It is the meaning of the events that is of supreme importance to the author of the Fourth Gospel.

Therefore, the description of the Last Supper in John is quite different from that in the synoptic Gospels. It does not fall on the night of Passover as it does in the other three Gospels, but comes on the night before. The symbolism of the bread as Jesus' body to be eaten and the wine as his blood to be drunk by his disciples in remembrance of his death and in anticipation of his coming is not crucial to the narrative of the Fourth Gospel as it is to that of the synoptics. Indeed, John does not mention it at all. In its place, he substitutes a beautiful act of humble service, itself symbolic as well as exemplary. Jesus washes his disciples' feet.

The symbolism lies in the fact that Jesus laid aside his garments and wrapped a towel about his loins. This was the manner of the slave in a rich Roman household as he washed the feet of guests who entered for a meal. It is still the custom in Japan and other parts of the Orient to remove one's shoes as one enters a dwelling in order not to spoil the clean, polished floors of the home with dust and dirt from the outside. Since people wore open sandals in Jesus' day, their feet needed washing on entering the house. Had not our Lord divested himself of his divine majesty when he entered the world as a poor baby to reveal God to humanity? Would he not lay aside his life for the redemption of men and women by dying for their sins on the cross? This truth is symbolized for the disciples in his laying aside his garments and assuming the manner of a slave. Crucifixion was the death penalty imposed by Rome only on her conquered subjects and slaves, never on her citizens.

Peter protested that it was not appropriate for the Master to wash the feet of his disciples and that he would not permit him to wash his. Jesus said that if he did not wash Peter's feet, Peter could not become a part of him and receive the benefits of what he had come to bring. Then Peter, impetuous and emotional as he was, requested Jesus to wash him all over, head and hands as well as feet. Jesus said that this was not necessary, since he assumed that Peter had washed before he came to supper. Only his feet needed washing.

The foot bath as such is not important. The importance lay in what was symbolized in the act of him who performed it and of them who received it. Just as the bread and wine in the synoptic accounts represented Jesus' body and blood given for their redemption, so this act of humble service also bespoke Jesus' sacrificial death on the cross for their salvation. Whether they fed on him by faith in their hearts with thanksgiving by eating the bread and drinking the wine with 'him at meal, or whether they gratefully permitted him to wash and dry their feet before the meal in anticipation of being cleansed by his blood on the cross, the meaning of both symbols was the same: We are saved from sin and transformed into new creatures in Christ Jesus only as we freely and gladly receive from him the benefits of his passion and death on the cross for our redemption.

But this act of our Lord in washing his disciples' feet was also exemplary. He did it as an example for them to follow. Humble service to others is expected of all the followers of Jesus Christ. In the face of human need, we must lay aside all rights and privileges, all honors and evidences of attainment and worth and perform the most menial tasks that are necessary to relieve suffering and to assure the welfare of others. God performed the task of a slave for our sakes. "Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him" (13:16).

Defection and Love (13:18-38)

At the very time that Jesus exhorted the disciples to imitate him in the act of humble service to others, he sadly admitted that his words are not applicable to all of them. Not all of them whom he had chosen have, despite the appearance to the contrary, really chosen him. The situation among the disciples confirmed scripture, where it is written: "He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me" (13:18; compare Psalm 41:9). There was a traitor even among the Twelve.

Peter wanted to know who he was. Peter was not in a position to ask without involving the entire group in conversation. So he motioned to another disciple next to Jesus to obtain the information. That other disciple was at Jesus' right, with his head reclining on the Master's chest, for he was "the disciple whom Jesus loved." Even our Lord, in his humanity, was, like us, discriminating in the degree of his affection among his friends and felt closer to one than he did to the others.

At a meal in those days among the Jews, the host's best friend was at the right of him at table, while the place to his left was reserved for the honored guest. Presumably Judas had this place, since he was sopping out of the same bowl as Jesus. Perhaps his position as treasurer of the group entitled him to such recognition. Poor Peter was across the table, probably in the end position. Perhaps Jesus put him there to test his humility. Given Peter's disposition, he might have been one of those examples in Jesus' teaching who invited himself to the chief place at table and had to be asked by his divine host to give way to another. Young John, by tradition, is identified as that "disciple whom Jesus loved." If Peter had been placed last, he would have been too far away to converse privately with Jesus and yet in clear view to signal across the table to John.

Two small pieces of information in John's account of the Last Supper indicate that it was celebrated as the Passover meal, even though it was eaten twenty-four hours or more before the beginning of Passover. Jesus and the disciples were eating in a reclining position, and they were supping together out of bowls where at least two or three would use the same bowl. This was the custom for the eating of Passover, the etiquette of which was different from that of ordinary meals.

Jesus said in response to John's inquiry as to who the traitor was, "He it is, to whom I shall give a sop, when I have dipped it" (13:26). After saying that quietly to John, so that no one else heard, he took a morsel of bread, dipped it into the bowl, and gave it to Judas. Judas knew what it meant, for Satan entered into him and inflamed his treachery. This is the only time John uses the word "Satan," or "adversary," in his Gospel (13:27). Judas also realized that Jesus knew what his intentions were, for when Jesus told him to do what he planned to do quickly, he got up from the table and left the room.

The other disciples thought Jesus had sent him on an errand, probably to buy food for the feast or to make some special donation to the poor. What does "the feast" mean? Were the disciples expecting another Passover observance at the proper time the next night? This is a puzzle. The only reason for celebrating it early would have been an impending emergency which would have prevented their being together at the regular time. The disciples did not know it. The emergency, of course would be the crucifixion.

Speculation is that the upper room Jesus borrowed for the Passover meal with the disciples was the guest room in the home of a prominent Essene. The Essenes celebrated Passover a day ahead of the other Jews, and the traditional site of the upper room is located in what has been discovered to be the Essene district of New Testament Jerusalem. Archaeologists have uncovered the Essene Gate of the City, and it is only a few hundred yards from the upper room.

When Judas left, Jesus spoke of his impending glorifica tion, associating thereby the shame of the cross with divine vindication. Then he gave the disciples the supreme commandment, which really was no commandment at all. How could love be commanded? Love was the gracious gift he had brought to them and which would be bestowed on them through the glory of his crucifixion. They were to love one another even as he had loved them.

Jesus called them "little children" (13:33). This is the only time this appellation is used in the Fourth Gospel. Note that Jesus used it where he told them that he would be with them on earth only a short time. He would go away, and they wouldn't be able to go with him.

Peter couldn't accept this. He protested that he would never let Jesus leave him but that he would follow him even to death. But Jesus smiled and said that the next morning before the cock crows Peter would have denied him three times.

Under stress, one who really loves the person he adores and serves can defect. The immediate result is the same as the defection of a traitor. But true love brings the defector back to his beloved. Peter came back to be the prince of apostles, Jesus' greatest and most effective convert. Judas hanged himself.


Questions For Reflection And Study


I. The acts of homage done by Mary and those in the crowds were a way of recognizing him as Messiah. What acts of homage are meaningful to you as a modern person?

2. Some of those in authority (12:42-43) wanted to listen to Jesus and follow him, but that would have meant political trouble. How does this compare to public officials acknowledging Jesus now? Is Christianity a political asset or a liability? How do you respond to celebrities talking about their faith publicly?

3. Jesus assumed the role of a servant. How do you follow his example of personal service?

4. How do you feel when you hear the story of Peter's denying Jesus? Have you ever failed a friend publicly? How did you feel? How did you go about being reconciled?

5. Have you ever felt betrayed? How can you forgive someone who has deliberately done something to harm you'?