The biblical writers Peter and James joined Paul and Timothy in identifying themselves as servants. They opened their letters proudly bearing the title doulos, a bond servant of Christ.
Peter was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, so he saw firsthand the example of Jesus. He heard Jesus speak passionately about serving others. And he watched as Jesus lived His sermon. Peter learned from Jesus that serving is fundamentally Christian.
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:1–5 NIV)
The context of the story is the Passover so Jerusalem is filled with Jewish people who have come to offer sacrifices and to celebrate. Jesus decides to have a last supper with His disciples. They observe the Passover meal and Jesus introduces a new symbolism to the meal with the cup representing His blood and the bread representing His body.
According to the other Gospel accounts, Jesus is having the meal in a borrowed upper room. All twelve of the disciples are present, including Judas, who has already agreed to betray Jesus. If the room were not borrowed, hosts would have been present, and a servant would have been provided. The servant would have been responsible to wash the feet of the guests. Washing feet was reserved for the lowest slave on the organizational chart, the newbie or the youngest.
Because of the Passover, there were tons of Jewish people in Jerusalem for the celebration. There were no paved roads. With so many people walking through the streets, the roads were filthy. Nike cofounder Phil Knight would not be born for another two thousand years so the disciples did not sport shoes with a swoosh. Or any other shoes. They wore sandals. Thus the feet of the disciples were disgusting. Since they reclined to eat around a low table, the odor must have been rank.
During the meal the disciples argue about who is the greatest (Luke 22:24).
With the argument as background music, Jesus gets up from the meal. He must have been disappointed because He constantly taught the disciples that true greatness comes from serving. Yet none of them stood up to do what needed to be done.
Jesus takes off His outer robe and wraps the servant’s towel around His waist. He kneels before His disciples and washes their feet. The hands that created the world washes feet. The hands that fashioned humanity rubs dirt off grungy and nasty feet. God is on His knees cleaning the feet of His twelve disciples.
Jesus washes the feet of the person who would betray Him in a few hours. And Jesus knew it. Yet Jesus kneels before Judas and rubs the dirt off his toes.
When He finishes washing their feet, He puts on His clothes and returns to His place and says:
Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12–17 NIV, emphasis added)
The apostle John recorded the account of Jesus’ washing the disciples’ feet. John’s Gospel is the only Gospel that does not record any of Jesus’ parables. To John, all of Jesus’ life was a parable, a teachable moment. And God washing feet was the ultimate parable on serving.
As a follower of Christ, you are challenged to wash feet. Not literally, but figuratively. Christ asks you to serve others, to embrace your identity as a servant. He has handed you a towel and has given you a basin.
Servants serve. A non-serving Christian is an oxymoron just like white chocolate, fast turtle, and country music. You are a servant. So serve.
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
Adapted from Identity (2008, B&H Publishing Group)