If you knew you only had one night left on earth, and you’re anything like me, it’s probably fair to say that “foot washing” wouldn’t make the bucket list of how you wanted to use those precious final hours. But on the eve of his crucifixion—the greatest act of sacrificial love the world would ever see—Jesus visibly demonstrates to his disciples what he had earlier taught them:
“Whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43–45).
Humility is the way of the kingdom of Jesus. The greatness that Christians are to aspire to is the greatness of servanthood that Jesus himself embraced. The surprising glory that marked his first night in this world—as he entered humanity via the humility of a dirty manger—would be the same type of glory that would mark his final night, as he washed the dirty feet of eleven disciples and one traitor. It is the glory of stooping.Your ability to serve others around you is directly proportional to your awareness of how greatly Jesus has served you. Click To Tweet
And by the same time the following evening, Jesus would have stooped even lower in sacrificial love. By the same time the next day, his body—whipped and broken and pierced and bloody—would have been carried lifeless down from the cross and laid in a rich man’s tomb. This is what John meant when he said, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
But that’s tomorrow. Tonight, he still has much he wants to teach them. In fact, the next five chapters of John’s Gospel (13–17) are exclusively dedicated to the instruction and prayers of Jesus for his followers. Yet before the Passover meal begins, Jesus rises from the table, strips down to his underwear and ties a towel around his waist. He literally takes the form of a servant. And he makes his way around the room with a basin of water, washing the feet of these men—feet caked with dust and dirt and everything else that a sandal-wearing people in an agrarian culture would have picked up after a day of traveling on foot. The way John tells the story seems to imply that each of these men are stunned into silence.
Everyone, except Peter (no surprise there!). Peter recoils and cries, “Lord, do you wash my feet? You shall never wash my feet!” (John 13:6, 8, emphasis added). His shock at the thought of the Messiah performing such a humiliating act of service for him personally is a commendable theological instinct. That’s not the way this is meant to work Jesus! Humanity serves God, not the other way around. What kind of Messiah—what kind of King—does servant-work? This doesn’t make any sense! Peter was right to think this was all backward and undeserved. But that’s what grace is. The only thing we contribute to our salvation is our outstretched dirty feet in need of washing. Click To Tweet
Jesus looks at Peter and says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). You see, Jesus was giving more than just an example of servanthood that he called his followers to walk in. He was foreshadowing the spiritual cleansing that was about to come through the shedding of his blood, prophesied in Isaiah 1:18: “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.” If Jesus had said, “Unless you prove yourself worthy, unless you show yourself to be a morally impressive person—unless you clean up your act—you have no share with me,” then Christianity would not be good news at all. But Jesus says, in effect, “I must wash you.” How humbling. The only thing we contribute to our salvation is our outstretched dirty feet in need of washing.
Where do we find the power to live lives marked by the greatness of servanthood? Only by looking again and again and again to what we ourselves have received from Jesus. Your ability to extend grace to and serve others around you is directly proportional to your awareness of how greatly Jesus has shown grace to you and served you—and how he continues to do so.
If Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, then none of his disciples are above serving others. And if Jesus washed the feet of his own betrayer, then there is no one you know in this world who is beneath being served. So let’s embrace the glory of stooping, pressing onward to the day when we hear those precious words from our Savior, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).