The story of Jesus, John 13:1-17, washing his disciples feet is one of the most memorable and powerful stories in the entire bible and yet it is often overlooked. If you’ve been a christian for awhile, you might be used to reading the bible and hearing the same familiar stories over and over again, but this story shouldn’t be quickly passed by. This passage comes during the last supper Jesus had with his disciples, right before he was crucified. Jesus is about to establish his kingdom and it is at this moment that Jesus wants to teach them one final lesson. He wants them to know who he is, what he came to earth to do and he also wants them to see what a life lived in service of our redeemer should look like.
There is so much in this passage that could be discussed at length, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there wasn’t an entire book written about this chapter, but there are a few things that jump out immediately. First of all, we get to see what was motivating Jesus. His motivation for what he did that night was love. He loved his own. He loved his disciples so much that he got down and cleaned their feet for them. In a time of mani/pedis and easy access to clean water for showers, this might not sound so terrible but, for a culture that walked everywhere, in sandals, this was a big deal. The next thing this passage shows us about Jesus is the most amazing thing about this story. As he washed his disciples feet, they were looking down at the man who God had given all things to; the man who would rule over all of creation seated at the right hand of God himself. God had given him all things, he had come from God and he would be returning to God to rule his kingdom. His disciples knew that Jesus was going to be a king, and, when he got up from the table in the middle of the meal, they were probably expecting something more like an inauguration speech, an event to clearly show what his kingdom was going to be all about. What happened next was unusual. It was odd and it obviously confused some of them. Peter even said, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus surprised them. They were expecting a leader, and they got one, but not the kind of leader they were looking for. The leader they got was a servant leader, a leader who understands what true biblical leadership looks like. Rather than giving orders and accepting praise from his subjects, Jesus shows us the heart of a true servant leader, one who lays aside his own desires to serve those who follow him. The last thing this passage shows us about Jesus is his humiliation, his humbling of himself. Even though he was with God and would return to God to rule over his kingdom, he first stooped down, submitted himself to the will of his father, laid aside his own rights as ruler of the universe, and humbled himself to the place of a servant.
Which brings us to what Christ came to do. Now, Jesus obviously did not come just to wash the smelly feet of a bunch of sweaty, dust covered dudes. What he was doing was giving us a picture of what he ultimately came to do in order to cleanse his people from their sin. Paul, in Philippians 2:6-8, might have had this story in mind when he wrote, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by 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.” Jesus laid aside everything he had, eternal perfect awesomeness with God, and entered into our mess. He laid aside his rights in order to be rejected and executed, so that we may be accepted and have life. Getting up from the joy of a meal with his disciples and getting down to wash their feet is a picture of Christ leaving heaven, coming here and cleansing his people through his blood, shed on the cross for those who are his.
By washing his disciples feet, we have a small image of Christ’s work for us, but it also sets the model for daily life for his followers. Looking again at verses 14 and 15 we see his call to action, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Now don’t forget everything that came before this verse! We have a tendency to go to scripture looking for verses telling us what to do. (Or, more likely, a verse to hit someone over the head with when they’ve made us angry.) Always remember the context of the gospel when you look at commands in the bible. Jesus doesn’t tell his disciples to wash each others feet BEFORE he would clean them. They were already clean, and then he even washed their feet, and then he finally tells them to follow his example. Imperatives in the bible (commands) always depend on the indicatives (the things that are true, what God has already done for us) and this story is no different. Don’t miss the gospel trajectory! Jesus is showing us an example of love for others that is undeserved and unqualified in any way. As it says in Romans 5:8, “but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” So Christ sets an example in love for us. He also sets an example in leadership for us. Those who want to lead need to have the same mind as Christ; putting off the blessings and status we have, lowering ourselves to the level of people who don’t deserve our love and service, and showing them Jesus by our actions. By doing this, you are following the example of the good shepherd who loves and leads his flock. He poured out his entire life for us, and calls us to do the same out of love and thankfulness to him.
The work of service is often difficult and thankless, but, as we can see in this passage, service is at the heart of what Christ came to do and it is at the heart of what he calls each one of us to; laying down our own wants and living for the good of others, all for the glory of God. We do this because this is what God, in Christ has created us to do. We do this because Christ has called us to follow his example and show others the way as well. Let’s all strive to be people who, knowing the gospel of Christ, can say to those around us, “Follow me as I follow Christ.”