is a stunning episode. It so clearly shows what Jesus taught about servant
leadership that the best instruction on the subject is found simply in the
passage itself. We shall add what little we can to your understanding, but
first see the lesson presented by the Master:
1It 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.£
2The evening meal was being served, and the devil had
already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and
that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and
wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into
a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that
was wrapped around him.
6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you
going to wash my feet?”
7Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will
8“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with
9“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my
hands and my head as well!”
10Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to
wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one
of you.” 11For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said
not every one was clean.
12When he had finished washing their feet,
he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what
I am. 14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have
washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.
16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater
than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
is said that the secret to comedy is timing. Perhaps that’s the secret to
great drama as well; it just might have something to do with teaching, too.
understand the teaching more completely, we need to know how to take a bath –
in the first century. It was a rare home that had its own bath. Plumbing, as
we know it, had yet to make itself felt in the average home. But you could
take a bath; indeed, the bath houses were often the negotiation rooms of
ancient Roman and Greek culture. A bath house was a public – very public –
place. After cleaning your body by oiling it and scraping it (no soap,
remember?) you then went into a large pool which was built over a fire pit.
Slaves kept the fire going; water flowed through the bath to keep things
clean. So it is that a person could bathe quite nicely.
afterwards there was the walk home. Your feet, so recently cleaned, got dirty
again. Here we run into another ancient custom: washing the feet. When you
got home, the lowest servant in the house was detailed to wash your feet. This
completed the bathing experience, so to speak.
this custom we must now add the Passover – the feast which defines the nation
of Israel. This is the memorial of the night in which the Angel of Death
passed over the nation – and began their voyage to the promised land. All has
been prearranged this Passover night, right down to the meal and menu. So, on
this most memorable night, Jesus begins matters by washing the feet of his
is clear from Peter’s reaction that this is the first time Jesus has done
this. Why did he wait until this night?
“the time had come.” Jesus knows that the Crucifixion is near; following
that will be the establishment of his Church. In that church these men
will have high position and honor. He wants them to know what that means
in the kingdom of God.
because of his great love for his disciples. He would not leave them
without this most important lesson – the same disciples who bickered about
who would be greatest in the kingdom.
there is the matter of Judas Iscariot. Jesus knows what he is going to do
– but he will not let him do it without every chance to repent. Jesus
washes Judas’ feet as well.
might see it as a diminishing of God’s glory; Jesus sees it as fitting to
one who came from God and is now returning. Because of his great power,
he can gently serve his disciples.
that God has placed all things in his hands, Jesus turns those same hands
to the example of service. With authority comes responsibility; with
He washes their feet
What does it all mean? Why does he do this? What’s going
on? It’s pretty obvious that the disciples all assumed someone else would do
this (though they didn’t expect it would be Jesus). There is a symbolic side
to this too.
symbolizes, for the Christian, the repentance after baptism. It’s the
answer to the question, “What do I do if I sin after I’m baptized?” The answer
is found here: your feet must be cleaned. Not in the literal sense, but in
the sense of repentance.
can do this for yourself – which is greatly encouraged (“examine yourself” –
ever heard that in Communion meditations?). You can have someone else help you
with it (“confess your sins one to another”). Either way, the lesson is
clear: by such cleansing you show your repentance – and accept the Lord’s
forgiveness of your sins. “You are clean,” says Jesus, and the meaning still
Authority, Responsibility, Submission
The Servant King
is the clearest portrayal of Christ, the Servant King. The son of man did not
come to be served, but to serve. Here Christ passes on the concept to those
who will be leaders in the church.
shows them the basis of authority – which is responsibility. In this
world we obtain authority and delegate responsibility. In the kingdom of
God, you are given responsibility (the Spirit appoints some to be
teachers, for instance) and from that responsibility you derive your just
authority benefits those under authority. Our Lord has the authority to
forgive sins; we are the beneficiaries.
of all is the lesson on self importance. In our nation, which used to be
a Christian nation, we still refer to our office holders (occasionally) as
“public servants.” There was a time when a President could proclaim that
“a public office is a public trust” – and not be sneered at for saying
it. This idea, that the official is the servant, not the master, of the
people comes directly from the Servant Kingdom of God.
“You call me Lord”
do, in fact, call Jesus “Lord.” I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it in song, less
now than before. Indeed, some of the most stirring of Christian music
proclaims his lordship. Even in our speech we sometimes refer to Jesus as
Lord. But what does “lord” mean to us?
some of us it means that he is so powerful he can solve all my problems.
We like that.
some, it means that we are set right with God. We like that.
does it mean that we are to be obedient to him? We don’t like that.
about it: when did you last hear the word “obey” or “obedience” used with
respect to Jesus? Why? With his apostles, Jesus could humbly recall to them
their own words, calling him “Lord.” Could he say the same for us?
seems that lordship is something important, for Jesus has drawn their attention
to it on this night of nights. To what end? So that he may wash their feet –
that is, provide for their cleansing upon their repentance.
God can have nothing to do with the wicked – except to destroy them. We must
be clean if we are to appear before Almighty God. How can this be done? Only
because Christ intercedes for us, on the basis of his sacrifice at Calvary.
see how effective this is! We are taught that he is “faithful and just” to
forgive us, if we repent. Note that the phrase is not “condescending and
sneering.” His forgiveness is ours based upon his faithfulness and his
justice. His justice, in that the price has already been paid. His
faithfulness, in that he is obedient to his Father – just as we should be obedient
The Humility of Jesus
is a curious fact shown in this passage. The writer, the Apostle John,
stresses the divinity and glory of Christ. His words about him are those of
praise for the God he is. But Jesus’ actions are those of humility. The
episode itself establishes the humility of Jesus. Indeed, we can see the
evidence of this:
until he got to Peter, he did this in silence. Silence, which befits the
lowest of servants, those not counted worthy of being heard.
when he must correct Peter, he does so gently.
see how he says, “You call me Lord,…” It is as if he is reluctant
to take on the title, until they understand what it means.
He washed Judas’ feet
there is any one thing which shows forth the humility of Jesus, it is this: He
washed the feet of Judas. He understood quite clearly what Judas was about to
do (“not all of you are clean”), but he did it for him just the same.
Why didn’t he run the man out of the room? Is it not because he was giving the
man one last chance to repent? He treated him like the rest of the disciples
so that he might remain one of the disciples.
shows us a lesson or two:
is there a sinner so vile that repentance cannot save? The unforgivable
sin is to deny the work of the Spirit – the conviction of sin. All else
can be forgiven.
also shows us that our service to others is not for their worthiness,
however great we may think that is – but it is for love, for God is love.
The Imitation of Christ
cannot leave this passage without thinking of the example set. Christ
explicitly tells us he did this to set an example for us. What may we learn
from that example?
that our attitude should be that of a servant of God, for we are in the
kingdom of the Servant King.
should accept all who come, for we are sinners like them. It seems to be
the only qualification for being a Christian – and also the best of
reasons to become one.
with regard to those close to us, we should always leave the door open to
whenever we experience a moment of glory, remember that we are servants to
God Most High – and act accordingly.