The disciples were gathered around the table to eat the Passover meal, but there was a problem. Nobody had washed their feet. Now that may sound funny to us today. Probably no one in your house scrubs your feet with a sponge before you eat dinner. But foot washing was a necessary custom in those days. The roads weren’t paved, and humans had to share the roads with animals. You can probably imagine the gross things that covered the roads. Sandals could hardly protect against the dirt and bacteria, and by the end of the day your feet would end up being quite repulsive. And since there were no private showers or baths, you’d go to the village bathhouse to get cleaned up before you went to dinner.
Each of the disciples had already been to the bathhouse that night in preparation for the meal. The problem was that they still had to walk from the bathhouse to the banqueting room, and now their feet were dirty again. How is this problem normally solved? In most homes the job of foot washing was reserved for a lowly servant who was stationed at the door with a bucket of water and a towel. But the disciples were borrowing a room so there wasn’t a host or servant to wash their feet. Why didn’t one of the disciples jump in and do it?
They probably felt like the job was below their pay grade. To be honest, the last thing a guy wants to do is to wash another guy’s feet. It’s not the type of ministry that would rally an overwhelming surge of volunteers. The disciples were aware that someone needed to wash the others’ feet. They just didn’t want to do it for each other, and apparently they didn’t even want to wash their own feet.
The disciples’ minds were far from the place of servanthood. They weren’t busy dreaming up ways to serve one another. Instead of volunteering to serve and wash feet, they had the audacity to argue with one another about which of them was the greatest. It seems obvious that if there’s a disagreement at dinner with Jesus present, and you’re wondering who has the greatest résumé of the group, you’d give Jesus the award. However, they were arguing about their own greatness in front of the one who left his place of glory in heaven to be with them. It’s hard to imagine a greater contradiction.
It was in that context this Jesus redefined humble service. “[Jesus] rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (John 13:4–5). By laying aside his outer garment, Jesus was taking the role of a servant. And like a servant, Jesus got down low to the ground to reach their feet.
Awkwardness and embarrassment surely would have filled the room as he slowly washed their feet . . . one by one. It was such a lowly act that it was actually illegal to have a Jewish servant do it, and so it was absolutely shocking that Jesus did it.
He laid aside his glory and took on the form of a servant to clean the feet of men he created. This is the God who says in Isaiah that he can turn rivers into islands. He’s the one who can turn darkness into light. He is the one who merely spoke and things came into existence. And this same God kneels down to wash John’s feet. And James’s feet. And Andrew’s feet. And even Judas’s feet, his enemy who was ready to turn him over to the authorities that very night.
The act of foot washing pointed to the greatest act of humility and service in the history of the world. There in the upper room we have a glimpse of what Jesus did on the cross. The disciples were expecting a military messiah, and instead they had a suffering servant who would humbly lay down his life in weakness and shame to cleanse his people’s sin. But the incredibly shocking incident didn’t stop there. After the incident Jesus said, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 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. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:12–15).
Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is a picture of his ultimate service on the cross, but it is also a model for how we serve as Christians. Jesus is telling us that our service should be characterized by the humility found in foot washing. As we help those who are hurting, we need to take time to reflect on how astounding this act of service really was and recalibrate our hearts to be ready to serve our friends like Jesus served.
Serve in Lowly Ways
Jesus was ready to do the lowliest of acts for the lowliest of people in the most inconvenient of times. He was about to die and face the wrath of God for our sins, yet he spent the night washing the feet of his enemy. This should be your paradigm as you seek to serve those who are hurting. Some service is rather easy to do. It’s easy to do things for others when we expect to receive something from them. But there is nothing distinctly Christian about serving in order to get acclaim, acknowledgment, or recognition.
When our aim in service is to bring earthly glory to ourselves, Jesus says we have our reward in full (Matt. 6:2). Distinctly Christian love and service is a humble, selfless love that says I want your best even if it costs me. When we serve those who are depressed, disabled, handicapped, and hurting, we’re going to have to serve without need for recognition or thanksgiving. Our giving of service cannot be dependent on the response we get. Distinctly Christian service must be humble and lowly, and we must aim to honor the Lord if we want to look like Jesus.
It’s stunning that Jesus would wash Judas’s feet even though that same man would betray him later that very night. He didn’t wash Peter’s feet and then skip over Judas to get to James. This has many implications for our lives:
- This means we serve the hurting people in our families regardless of division or hurt feelings.
- We serve hurting people cross-culturally. Indians show sacrificial love to Pakistanis. Latin Americans to African Americans. Caucasians to Asians, and so on. No image bearer of any ethnicity is above serving another image bearer of an- other ethnicity. All of us are made in the image of God and have dignity.
- We serve across gender lines. Men serve women. Women serve men. There’s not one gender that’s off the hook from serving the hurting.
- We serve cross-occupational lines. Doctors serve construction workers. Hospitality staff serve lawyers. Engineers serve tennis instructors. We make no distinction based on employment.
- We serve cross-economic lines. The rich serve the poor and the poor serve the rich.
- We serve cross-family-status lines. Grandparents are not greater than parents who are not greater than young married couples who are not greater than singles who are not greater than youth. We serve people in all stages of life.
There is no pecking order in the body of Christ. There is no section for the VIPs—no one is exempt from a certain area of service because of earthly status. According to God, we are equal coheirs in the body of Christ under Jesus, our head. We all serve everybody, including and especially those who are hurting and have nothing to give us. Serving God with this kind of humility shows the world that our God is worthy to be served. We are willing to go so low and wash feet because he is so great.
Excerpt from Being There: How to Love Those Who Are Hurting (Crossway, 2016) by Dave Furman (ThM, 2007). Used with permission.