This was written for the men at my church, but easily applies to all Christians.
Have you ever looked at your feet? I mean really looked at them. Have you sat down and examined them? Are your nails yellow? Are there callouses on the bottom? Do they have a distinct odor? Do you let your toenails get too long? Are your toes spread out or shoved up on top of each other? Does your heel feel like sandpaper? Are there ugly veins all over them? Do they itch? Feet are generally not pleasant to behold, especially men’s feet. But in John 13 those ugly feet provide one of the greatest symbols of Christian service.
The Text: John 13:12-17
Christ was just hours away from being nailed to the cross and bleeding for us when we reach John 13. It was Thursday evening. He was about to spend several hours teaching his disciples about the Holy Spirit, prayer, abiding in Him and how the world will hate them because it hated him (John 14-16). He will end the evening with a long prayer where he prayed for himself, for his disciples, and for us (John 17). Then the guards will come and carry him away to be crucified.
But the night begins with an act that crystallizes who Jesus is. Jesus has already entered Jerusalem on a donkey (12:14). He did not come in on a chariot or with a huge army or entourage. He came on a lowly donkey. Now he again chooses a humble action to show the disciples who he was and how they were supposed to imitate him. After the meal is over, Christ, the Messiah, takes off his robe and puts on a loincloth. He dresses himself like a slave. He then begins to wash the disciples’ feet.
In those days, when men travelled on dusty roads and wore sandals, foot washing was an essential part of hospitality. When you entered someone’s house you took off your sandals and a servant would wash your feet. There are several other examples of foot washing in the Scriptures, including Luke 7:44 and I Timothy 6:10. Foot washing was often done by the lowest member in the household. Christ chose to serve his disciples by washing their feet.
There is a lot more in this text than what I am going to draw your attention to. Verse 3 gives the reason for Christ’s service. He belonged to God and therefore did not need to grasp. Also the exchange between Jesus and Peter (13:6-11) is theologically rich. I would love to discuss how Peter is clean, but still needs his feet washed. But we will focus on verses 12-17. I would encourage you to read John 13:1-17 before reading the rest of the article.
What Kind of Lord?
In these verses, Jesus is smashing down all worldly ideas about power and leadership. He is the Lord. He is their Teacher. He states that emphatically (vs. 13). But he flips leadership on its head. We think leadership means I get to rule over you and tell you what to do and generally boss you around. But Jesus takes a sledge to this picture and in its place puts up a symbol of humble service. We are sons of God. We are citizens in an Empire that will shine for eternity like a million burning suns. We are servants to the greatest King who ever lived. But this does not mean we get to rule over, it means we get to serve under.
Can you imagine our president washing the feet of his cabinet? Can you imagine any great athlete washing their teammates’ feet? What about James Bond? What about at your job, can you picture washing the feet of your fellow employees? Can we imagine our fathers washing the feet of those in our homes?
Men, God has called us to lead in many areas. We will lead in our homes, at Christ Church, in our jobs, and in our communities. But this leadership is not leadership like the world. We are not to imitate the brash, haughty, chest thumping men that parade themselves around, whether they are in sports or movies or politics. We are to imitate the leadership of the King of Kings. We are to wash the feet of those around us.
What this passage means for us is easy to see, but hard to do. It means we do the dirty jobs that no one else wants to do. We change diapers and do dishes and vacuum and run to the store at 9 pm for the eggs that were forgotten. We volunteer at work for the job no one wants. As men, we love doing big things. If someone needs help building a shed, we will be there. Gutting a deer? Count me in. Fixing a car engine? When do I show up? And of course, we should be willing to do the big things. God made us as men to strive for glory. Part of that glory is doing great things for those around us. But this passage teaches us that there is glory in the little things. Our struggle is not fighting off thieves who want to steal our goods. Our struggle is fighting off sleep to listen to our wife at 10 pm. Our struggle is coming home from a long day at work and putting the children to bed or cooking dinner for our roommate. Our struggle is being assigned the lame task at work that no one wants. Men, we cannot faithfully follow our Lord if we only do the great things and refuse to do the little things.
One good way to know if you are growing as a servant-leader is to ask this question: Am I willing to do a job that I will never be thanked for and no one will notice? If you are always looking for praise and only do a job when someone is patting you on the back you are not serving like our Master.
What is He Doing Here?
If you were Jesus would have let Judas eat the Last Supper? Would you have washed his feet? Imagine if you knew that someone was going to betray. In mere hours, this person would seek to destroy you for a few coins. Would you serve this person? Would you sit down and eat with them? Jesus did.
Romans 12:17-21 tells us to be kind to our enemies and to bless those who persecute us. Christ gives us a wonderful picture of this truth. Judas had allowed the Devil some control over him (13:2). He had already agreed to betray Jesus Christ (Matthew 26:14-16). And yet here is the One who set the stars in the heavens and commands legions of angels washing the feet of his betrayer. In just a few hours Judas will kiss the cheek of Christ and seal the fate of both Lord and disciple. Why does Jesus wash his feet?
We must learn to serve those who hate us. Washing the feet of those we love is hard enough. But to wash the feet of our enemies requires grace beyond what we can find in our natural human hearts. Only Christ can give us the grace to love those who stab us in the back. Who is that enemy that you refuse to serve? Is there someone at work that you like to “stick it to?” Is there a family member that you refuse to serve because they slandered you in the past? If we are to be like Christ we must serve, not just those we love, but even those who hate us.
Blessed Are Those Who Do
Finally, notice Jesus’ warning in verse 17. We all tend to believe that because we have read something or studied something that we are doing it. But between knowing and doing there is often a deep chasm. Jesus reminds us here that knowledge is not enough. Memorizing the passage and studying it in depth is not a substitute for obedience. Only those who obey are blessed.
But this is not just a warning. It is a promise. Jesus tells us that when we follow in his footsteps we will be blessed. Indeed, the only road to blessing is to follow after Christ. Men, if we want our homes and churches and communities to be blessed by Christ then we must refuse to glorify ourselves. We must put on the clothing of a slave and serve those around us. We must be willing to do any task, no matter how small or trivial or low, to serve our wives, children, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and even our enemies. I asked earlier if we could imagine any of our heroes washing the feet of those around them. But now we must ask the question of ourselves. Could our family or friends or fellow church members imagine us washing their feet? If not, we should repent and follow after the example of our Master.