Summary: Jesus demonstrated his humility and love toward his disciples by washing their feet, and we should do likewise.
It has been one of my major goals at our youth group over the past few years to get the kids to be more respectful and selfless in the way they treat other people, particularly their fellow group members. I remember vividly a discussion I had with one particularly guy. He was telling me about this large sum of money (well, a large sum of money to a kid) he had just got for selling his old bike. He was thinking about what he was going to spend the money. I suggested that maybe he might like to spend some of it on other people, or maybe even given some to some sort of charitable work. The look he gave me was priceless. Sometimes he could be rude or obnoxious, but this time he seemed genuinely confused: “Why would I do that?” he asked me, as if the whole concept of doing something for someone else was foreign to him – which it may well have been. “Well, maybe to help someone else, “ I said. Again the quizzical look – “but it’s my money, why would I want to spend it on anyone else?” The conversation left me fairly dejected – and I can’t say that that boy is now a Christian, he’s not. But it did tell me how most people think, and what a revolutionary statement Jesus is making in this passage, and, even more importantly, what a revolutionary action he is taking.
This passage marks the beginning of the end of the book of John, and the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Vs 1 tells us that Jesus knew the time had come to leave this world. You might remember back in chapter 3 at the wedding in Cana, that Jesus told Mary that his time had not yet come – but now, some three years later, it has. Now, we as readers expect, is the time when Jesus will go out with a bang, when he will proclaim himself to be the great king, the mighty God who will reign forever. Our expectation grows as we read in vs. 3 that Jesus knows that the Father has given all authority to him: “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, what does he do? He got up and declared in a thunderous voice that all must kneel before him? He stared down at the Jewish leaders who opposed him and were plotting to kill him, and smote them all? No – he knew that God had given him power over everything, so he changed his clothes: vs. 4 - “so, he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist”. Maybe this towel was some sort of kingly garment, but no – “after that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet.” It is not the act of a king, not what we expect of a king, anyway, but the act of a servant. It’s the act of someone who is so humble as to consider others better than himself, the act of someone who is prepared to lower and debase himself so that others might be raised up and exalted.
It’s not a particularly pleasant task, washing someone else’s feet. The feet would have been caked with the grime of the day’s travelling, the dust of the road. He takes off his clothes and puts on the simple towel of a slave. He was dressed for the sort of menial service that was despised by proper self-respecting Jews. Yet, in humility, the God of the whole universe gets down on his knees and washes feet. It’s an incredibly powerful picture of what is means to be a true servant. And as the passage goes on to say, it’s an example we, as disciples of Christ, are to follow.