Yesterday we took a look at Jesus at His most “regal.” He marched into Jerusalem like a conquering King.
John 13 gives us a very different look at the Lord. This account offers us powerful imagery as Jesus is recorded doing something for His disciples that, seemingly, no Rabbi should ever do to His students.
Let’s consider a little of the chapter and study the significance of this, Jesus’ final lesson to His class…
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God;
He 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.
Verse three in this chapter serves as a commentary on the thought-process of Jesus, just before He does one of His most remarkable acts. The Man who fed the hungry, healed the blind and raised the dead saved His most stunning act for the intimacy of this upper room: He is going to wash His disciples feet. He—the Master, the Rabbi, the Son of God Himself—will humble Himself to do the lowliest task done typically by the lowliest servant.
Why does He do it? John tells us that He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands. He knew He was come from God. And He knew that He was going back to God. In other words, the Lord was so secure in who He was, both personally and spiritually, that He had no ego to be bruised by washing feet. He had no pride to be wounded by humbling Himself in such a way.
The Bible does not teach us to have high “self esteem.” It teaches us to esteem others greater than ourselves (Philippians 2:3). Jesus perfectly demonstrated that here and John tells us that Jesus’ self-respect was tempered by humility and a desire to serve. He was not insecure as a person. He was secure and humble; being the perfect object for us to emulate.
John does not record it, but Matthew and Luke tell of an argument amongst the disciples that happened around this time. It focused on who among them would be the greatest in Jesus’ kingdom (Luke 22:24). It was an argument that began with the mother of James and John asking (on behalf of her sons) if Jesus would grant them the honor of sitting at His side on His throne, one at each hand (Matthew 20:20-24). The other ten Apostles grew jealous and bitter and the strife broke out amongst them.
Jesus taught them that the greatest in a group was the one most willing to serve (Matthew 20:27). He taught them that even He—God in the Flesh—came to be a servant, rather than to be served (Mark 10:45). In fact, when He said that, He described Himself as the “Son of Man,” a term often used to emphasize His humanity. How does God see the proper person? He sees him as a person willing to serve others.
Jesus did more than teach it, however: Here he puts it into practice. The Master rose from the dinner table, laid aside His garments (His outer robes, so as not to get them wet) and girded Himself with a towel. It was customary for the servant of the house to wash the feet of the guests, but apparently this had not been done. Perhaps there was no servant to attend to this matter, or perhaps the servant was gone. Perhaps the master of the house simply did not bother to see to it that it would be done. Whatever the reason, the feet of the disciples were dirty and needed to be washed.
Who should wash them? Possibly some of the disciples forgot about the custom as easily as we sometimes forget to wash our hands before dinner. Possibly others realized it had not been done, but decided that they weren’t going to do it. Once the Lord stood up, it no doubt drew the attention of the whole room. The twelve likely watched in curious silence as He girded Himself with the towel, not knowing at first what He was doing. The dawning realization that their Master was about to perform such a menial task must have sparked equal parts of shame and honor in their hearts.
This event is one of the most famous in Jesus’ very famous life. As such it can be hard to appreciate it because knowing it has become so cliché. God is washing feet. That’s remarkable. John tells it very matter of factly: He poured water into a basin, washed His disciples’ feet, and wiped them with the towel He had girded Himself with. It all seems to ordinary, but the circumstances are entirely extra-ordinary.
The God who commands the angelic army, who made all things, who flooded the earth, leveled Sodom, parted the Red Sea, tumbled the Walls of Jericho, stopped the mouths of lions, turned the sun back, put men to death and raised them from the grave did this. The God who is above all, infinite in power, wisdom and scope did this. The God who is everlasting, alpha and omega, the great I AM did this. He who is God and who took on flesh to dwell among us, stooped down to scrub the dirty, sand-caked feet of lowly fisherman, tax-collectors and other men of ill-repute.
So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.
For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
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.
If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
With the washing over, and the lesson finished, Jesus put His garments back on and sat back down at the table. He spoke first, not the disciples. This was a lesson and the teacher was ready to teach. Upon returning to the table, He asked them “Do you know what I have done to you?” The question is obviously rhetorical; He means more than just foot-washing. He questions if they understand the meaning behind the object lesson. The disciples do not speak; they know they don’t understand. If they did, the Lord wouldn’t be asking them the question! God never asks a question for His benefit, only for ours, after all. They await the teaching from their Rabbi.
Jesus points out that the disciples typically referred to Him as “Master.” Though the word is often used today to refer to the ruler of a servant, the word is used in the New Testament to mean “teacher” (incidentally, the word “rabbi” means “master-teacher” which is also an appropriate title for the Christ—ch1:38). He was their source for understanding; they forsook all to follow Him, sit at His feet and listen to His teachings.
They also called Him “Lord.” This word is the one commonly used the way “master” is today. It refers to the ruler of a servant. By calling Him “Lord,” the disciples acknowledged that they would serve no other and, if necessary, give their lives for Him. Jesus notes that they call Him “Master” and Lord” and then adds “ye say well; for so I am.”
His washing of their feet did not negate His authority over them, nor did it diminish His Divine sovereignty. He was not lowering Himself to the role of a student and forsaking His role as their teacher. On the contrary, He magnified His standing by showing His humility in serving them. It takes a great leader to be a servant and a great servant to be a leader. Jesus exhibited both traits perfectly.
If even the lowest act of a servant (to wash feet) is done by the Master and Lord, then all forms of service should be done by the Master’s disciples. If He was willing to wash the feet of Peter, John, Andrew, and even Judas, how can I ever refuse to serve another? How insulting would it be to refuse to “lower” myself to a station that my Master “lowered” Himself to?
The Lord’s act is not just an example of humility; it is a template for me to follow, in order to be humble as well. Likewise just knowing that He did such a lowly act shames and humbles me when I reflect on all the times I refused to serve as He called me to. If He served, how can I not?
The servant is not greater than his lord. Jesus states that as an axiom. It is the basis around which His object lesson is taught. Just as the Apostles are not greater than Jesus, neither is Jesus greater than God (“He that is sent is not greater than He that sent Him” He says). In like manner, Jesus is soon to send out the Apostles into the world. They are not greater than the One who sent them; they must be willing to serve as He did. Likewise, if I–a member of His church–were to refuse to serve another I would be saying that such an action was “above me” and that I was “too good” to lower myself in such a way. Essentially, I would be telling my Master that I am greater than He is. Shame on me or any Christian with such a holier-than-thou attitude!
Many are aware of Jesus’ act of service here. His call to us to be servants like He was is also widely known. And yet far fewer people are there that have actually put it into practice. The Lord doesn’t just command us to be servants in this text; He motivates us by reminding us of the blessing that comes with serving others. As He says, If we serve we are “happy.”
The word “happy” in this text, literally means “blessed.” In this case, it describes a feeling of reward that is inherent in the deed done. We feel happy for doing the deed because we did the deed. As the saying goes “A good deed is its own reward.” That’s the Lord’s point here. Instead of asking “what’s in it for me” (which is far from a servant’s attitude) we should be asking “What can I do for you?” When we have opportunity to do good, and we take it (as Jesus says “if you know these things…do them”) a satisfied, contented, blessed and “happy” feeling will always follow.
That was His final lesson. After teaching it, He demonstrated it…not with foot-washing, but with a crucifixion.