If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
It is Thursday evening of the Passion Week, the week of Jesus’ suffering. It is the day before Christ would lay down His life on the cross. The time that the disciples would be with their Master was growing short. Certainly they could sense that things were working toward a climax. Jesus had warned His disciples repeatedly, in one way or another, that He was to suffer and die. We would think that there would have been a very quiet, somber attitude among them all. They had come together in the upper room to partake of the Passover meal with Jesus. We might expect that the disciples would have been very meek, and that a spirit of humility would have been much in evidence. We might suppose that their hearts and minds would have gone out to Jesus with concern at this difficult time, but that was not the case.
Rather, they had been disputing at great length about which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom. It was, it seems, the ambition of each of them to have the highest place. Each one of them thought that he was uniquely suited for special consideration and qualified for some great position. Apparently the idea of power possessed them—to have power over others, to have others bow before them and recognize their worth! They ate, drank, and slept with little else than the grand thought of having dominion and rule. So they pushed themselves to the forefront at every opportunity, tried to surpass one another at every turn, called attention to themselves constantly, and boasted of their abilities and strength. So intense was this competition among them, that the mother of two of them even became the advocate of her sons, asking Jesus if one of her sons could sit on His right hand and the other on His left when He came into His kingdom! Perhaps at this time contention arose in connection with the seating arrangement in the upper room. Each one may have coveted for himself one of the most honorable places at the table.
Pride! Awful pride! Stinking pride! Pride is such a root sin. Who of us does not have to struggle against pride? Yes, by grace we have the life of regeneration in our hearts. But we still carry with us in this life that proud, sinful flesh. Certainly the heart of this narrative of the foot washing is the cross, our need to be washed from our sins by the shed blood of our Savior. But these verses call attention to the powerful example of the Lord Jesus—an example of true humility, an example of servanthood. We too must hear and heed the words of the Savior: “… ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
An Amazing Example
Everything was now ready for the Passover meal to begin. However, custom demanded that their feet had to be washed before they could begin the supper. They wore sandals, and their feet were dusty after a walk of about five miles over the Mount of Olives on the dusty road into Jerusalem. It was unthinkable that they could begin without the feet of each guest being washed. Notice, too, that everything needed for the washing of their feet was there—water in a basin and a towel. The only thing lacking was a servant to perform the lowly task of getting down on his knees before each one, washing the dust from their feet, and then drying them with a towel. There is no denying that it was a very humble task.
Can you not picture the twelve there in the upper room? None of them had volunteered to wash the feet. Apparently each of them had taken a place at the table. No doubt they were fidgeting on their couches, glancing about, waiting—waiting for someone else to do this servant’s task. Did it not enter their minds that one of them should take care of this matter, so that they could get on with the significant things of that evening? I am inclined to think that the situation stared each of them in the face, and that each one refused to humble himself in regard to the others. Their pride and self-esteem would not allow them to stoop that low.
Then we read, “loving his own…unto the end,” and “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God” (vv. 1, 3), without a word Jesus arose from the table, removed His outer cloak, and wrapped a towel around Himself. After that He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, wiping them with the towel. Yes, Jesus, our blessed Lord and Savior, did that! He who is the only begotten Son of God in our flesh! Can you fathom such a thing?! Jesus is doing the servant’s job! Does not the beauty and simplicity of it all overwhelm you? Does it not bring tears to your eyes to behold the Lord Jesus humbled so? Undoubtedly the apostle Peter has this amazing incident in mind, when he writes in his first epistle, “Be ye clothed with humility” (). With that servant’s towel Jesus had literally girded Himself with humility! So great was the humility that He, the Lord and Master, the very Son of God, the King, did the work of a common slave!
The context emphasizes that Jesus did this knowingly. He understood that that very night His sufferings would be intensified, yea, His hour had well nigh come. The next day He would be crucified, crucified for the salvation of those proud disciples. But not only for them—also for many others who are equally proud and haughty—yea, for you and for me. Was it ever made clearer that He came to serve, to minister, and not to be ministered unto? And still Peter gives evidence of foolish pride: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” He means, “How shameful that the others allow you to do this for them; they ought to know better! Don’t you see, Jesus, that I am better than they? You’ll never wash my feet!” But the Lord Jesus patiently explains. And the Master proceeds to wash Peter’s feet and the feet of the remaining disciples. Jesus replaces His robe, takes again His seat, and then asks the penetrating question: “Know ye what I have done to you?” Do we know? Do we understand?
Our Solemn Calling
“If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that ye should do as I have done to you.” It is very clear that we have here not a ceremony or a sacrament of sorts that can be kept on one day of the year, or perhaps periodically. Jesus does not say, “This do ye.” But He says, “Do as I have done to you.” He gives us an example that must be followed carefully and faithfully. It goes far beyond the outward act. It is a matter of the heart and the basic attitude of our lives!
Certainly the fact that He performs the work of a servant symbolizes His great love and amazing humility! There is nothing that Christ will not do for His people! Further, this act was symbolic of the work the Lord Jesus would perform the very next day on the cross. Jesus would lay down His life for His people! The water points to the blood He would willingly shed on the accursed tree. The dust of their feet stands for the awful corruption of sin, of our sins as well. If we are to have a place in His kingdom, we must be washed from our sins by our Lord Jesus Christ.
But what about this example? Plainly there is a calling here that falls to each one of us in the communion of the saints: “Ye ought also to wash one another’s feet”! Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Master do this….” What about it? Is this beneath us? Do we suppose that we are somehow exempt? Or that we are too good, too important, too popular, too talented? Are there some things that Jesus did that are simply beneath our dignity? If this be the case, we are proud! And we show that we have not learned the first thing about the kingdom of heaven. “Be clothed with humility.” That is the heavenly example we must follow! The followers of Christ are to manifest that humility that is in Him so beautifully and wonderfully!
What a struggle it is to count others better than ourselves, to be concerned, first, not with our own welfare and advantage but with the welfare of others! Let us seek not the praise and honor of men, but the approval of the God of our salvation! Our Heidelberg Catechism puts it so beautifully in A. 55: “…that everyone must know it to be his duty, readily and cheerfully to employ his gifts, for the advantage and salvation of other members.” Do you seek the good and spiritual welfare of the brother or sister? That is the implication of washing one another’s feet. Do you help one another in the daily battle of faith? Do you do that as servant, not in haughty pride, not looking down your nose at the erring brother or sister, but in the humility of a servant, loving the brother, seeking the salvation of his soul?
How is that possible? Christ is the power of our humility! Always the humility that characterizes the life of the saints is a humility that is rooted in regeneration. It is a virtue that comes by grace alone. It is worked in us through the power of our Lord Jesus Christ. By His Spirit He works the humility of His own cross within our hearts. Never does this humility come of ourselves! God forbid that we should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ! ().
Thus, we must take Christ as our example. He is our pattern, and His humility is the pattern of our humility. “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” This is the profound truth of Philippians 2:5-8: “Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” By grace, we must walk in the footsteps of Christ. Oh, we fall far short! We will never be able to approximate, except in a very small measure, the depths of His humility. But that is our calling! As servants of God, in humility, we must be servants of one another.
The Rich Blessing
Jesus says, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (v. 17). The beautiful passage in Philippians 2 which speaks of the humiliation of Christ, also goes on to describe His exaltation: “Wherefore God hath also highly exalted him, and given him a name which is above every name…” (v. 9).
We too are exalted in the way of humility, in the way of washing one another’s feet. Oh, in this life we may well be despised and hated, but we are and shall be exalted by our God. And when one day we stand before the judgment seat, we will be exalted to the glory of heaven. By grace we will cry out: “Lord, when have we done anything pleasing in Thy sight? When have we been willing to be a servant to Thee? When have we fed Thee when Thou wast hungry, and clothed Thee when Thou wast naked, and warmed Thee when Thou wast cold? When did we visit Thee in prison? When did we wash Thy feet?” But the Lord will say, “The way of humility is the way to glory! It is the way of the cross! Inasmuch as ye have done it to the least of My brethren, ye have done these things to Me. You have washed the feet of the lowliest of My people— enter thou into the joy of thy Lord.”
Let us pray then for the beautiful grace of humility! May humility more and more characterize all of our lives. Think upon Christ in that upper room! Esteem each other better than yourself! In love serve one another! In that way we truly serve our God.