If you lived in the days of Jesus, and you entertained guests at your home, you would not fail to have their feet washed before your meal. They’ve walked to your house in their sandals along dusty roads; their feet would need a good bath. Of course you wouldn’t do the dirty and degrading job yourself – that’s why you had servants. And it would be your most lowly servant who would have to kneel down to clean the dirt-caked feet of your guests. There was hardly a more humble task than this.
For that reason, I wish I could have seen the faces of Jesus’ disciples as they watched their Master on the night of his last supper with them, strip down to a slave’s dress, fill a basin with water, and begin to wash their feet one by one. Surely they looked on in stunned disbelief! No Jew of any standing would stoop to wash the feet of others. And it was unthinkable that a rabbi would lower himself to clean the feet of his disciples. Yet here was their master doing just that!
If they wondered why Jesus was washing their feet, their question was answered soon enough: “You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). Jesus served his disciples in this way that they might – after his example – serve one another in the same manner.
And what manner was that? When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he served them in love and with humility.
As sinners, we might serve another begrudgingly, harboring secret bitterness in our hearts even as we serve. Or in a calculating fashion, we may serve others only when doing so serves us. In college I waited tables at restaurants: I served and served, but not because of any particular affection or care for my customers. Rather, I waited on them only for the money they left on the table!
But when Jesus served, his motive was love. John begins his account this way: “Now before the Feast of the Passover… , having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (v.1). Everything Jesus did for his disciples – and for us! – was borne of his immeasurable love for his own. And that infinite, divine love that filled the heart of Christ for his people was about to lead him to the shame and agony of the cross. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he taught them a lesson they would only understand after his death and resurrection (v. 7, cf. 12:16), namely, he was willing to suffer any indignity for their sake – one night washing their feet, the next day dying on the cross – because he loved them.
Jesus also served his disciples in humility. You can only appreciate the extent of Christ’s humility if you know (by faith!) his true identity: Jesus was God in the flesh, the Sovereign Creator and Lord of all, who took to himself a human nature in his incarnation. Thus, everything Jesus did up to his burial was an act of sublime humiliation – his incarnation, his life as a man, his obedience to his Father, his suffering, and his death. As the Scripture says: “… though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant,…” (Philippians 2:6, 7).
The One who stripped down to a slave’s dress, who knelt before his disciples and washed their feet, was the One who, as the Son of God, shared in his Father’s glory from all eternity. And he would stoop to the lowest conceivable place on earth – standing before God as an accursed sinner, bearing the pain and shame of the judgment of God as though he himself was worthy of condemnation. Why did Jesus lower himself so? If you belong to Christ by faith, he did this to take away your sins and give you his righteousness and life. “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Corinthians 8:9).
When Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he was showing them both the depth of his love for them, and how far he was willing to humble himself that they might be saved. So Jesus served in love and with humility. And this is how you are serve others.
But how can you serve others in that way? The answer, of course, is only by the grace of God. Nothing in us naturally wants to serve others, to take the lower place, to seek the good of others’ before our own. But God gives his grace and Spirit to us, to make us more like Christ in our service to others.
But there is another answer to that question, and one that may surprise you. It’s an insight from Martin Luther’s wonderful little book Christian Liberty. And that is, you are enabled and freed to serve others in a Christ-like way only as you comprehend by faith the great status and riches you possess in Christ. As a Christian, God has put all things into the service of your salvation (Romans 8:28). In that sense, you are lord of all! And in Christ, you already possess the riches of God (1 Corinthians 3:21; 2 Corinthians 8:9).
For this reason, you need not labor and strive for prestige and wealth in this life. You don’t have to fear being in the lesser place. If you belong to Christ, God has freely given you the status and riches of royalty. After all, you are the son or daughter of the Sovereign Lord! Since that is so, you can freely, willingly, and joyfully make yourself a servant to others. Even if it means washing dirty feet.