Do you ever wonder why the Holy Spirit chose to include certain phrases and details in the text of Scripture? For example, why did He pause in John 13:2—just prior to explaining how Jesus humbly washed the feet of His disciples—to mention Judas? John specifies his presence in the upper room: “During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him.”
The contrast between Jesus and Judas is striking. And perhaps that is the very reason the Holy Spirit included verse 2 in this passage. Set against the backdrop of Judas’s hatred, Jesus’ love shines even brighter. We can have a better sense of the magnitude of Christ’s love when we understand that in the heart of Judas was the blackest kind of hatred and rejection. The very same words of love by which Jesus gradually drew the hearts of the other disciples to Himself only pushed Judas further and further away. The teaching by which Jesus encouraged and uplifted the souls of the other disciples just seemed to drive a stake into the heart of Judas. And everything Jesus said about love must have become like chafing shackles to Judas. From his secret greed and his disappointed ambition began to spring jealousy, spite, and hatred—and now he was ready to destroy Christ, if need be.
But the more people hated Jesus and desired to hurt Him, the more it seemed He manifested kindness and mercy to them. From a human standpoint, it would be easy to understand if Jesus had treated Judas with resentment or bitterness. But Jesus met even the greatest injury with vivid expressions of lovingkindness. In a little while He would be kneeling at the feet of Judas, washing them.
Jesus waited until everyone was seated and supper was served. Then, in an unforgettable act of humility that must have stunned the disciples, He
got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (John 13:4-5)
I love the picture John’s description paints—with such an economy of words. With calmness and majesty, in total silence, Jesus stood up, walked over, picked up the pitcher, and poured water into the basin. He then removed His outer robe, His belt, and very likely His inner tunic—leaving Him clothed like a slave. He then put a towel around His waist and knelt to wash the feet of His disciples, one by one.
Can you imagine how that must have stung the disciples’ hearts? What shame, and regret, and sorrow must have shot through them! As noted, any one of them could have had the joy and honor of kneeling and washing the feet of Jesus. But they had now squandered that opportunity. For what? A foolish argument about which of them was the greatest? I’m sure they were dumbfounded and broken-hearted as the one person in their midst who was truly great stooped to wash their feet. What a painful and profound lesson this was for them!
We, too, can learn from this incident. Sadly, the church is full of people who are standing on their dignity or sense of self-importance when they ought to be kneeling at the feet of their brothers and sisters. The desire for prominence is incompatible with love, death to humility, and hostile to genuine ministry. One who is proud and self-centered has no capacity for love, humility, or service. Any service he may imagine he is performing for the Lord is a total waste. If his desire is for honor and celebrity, then he is actually doing what he is doing to be seen by other people, and that was precisely the sin of the Pharisees. Jesus said of them, “Truly I say to you, they have their reward in full” (Matthew 6:2, 5, 16).
When you are tempted to think of your dignity, your prestige, or your personal “rights,” open your Bible to John 13 and get a good look at Jesus—clothed as a slave, kneeling, washing dirt off the feet of sinful men who are utterly indifferent to His impending death. To go from being God in glory (v. 3) to washing the feet of self-centered, inglorious disciples (vv. 4-5) is a very long step.
Think about this: The majestic, glorious God of the universe comes to earth—that’s humility. Then He kneels on the ground to wash the feet of sinful men—that’s indescribable self-abasement. For a fisherman to wash the feet of another fisherman is a relatively small sacrifice of dignity. But that Jesus Christ, in whose heart beat the pulse of eternal deity, would stoop and wash the feet of lowly men—that is an immeasurable sacrifice. And He wasn’t even nearly finished yet. He was about to die for these men.
That is the nature of genuine humility, as well as the proof of genuine love. It is far more than mere words can express. The apostle John wrote. “Let us not love with word or with tongue, but in deed and truth” (1 John 3:18). Authentic love is the polar opposite of swagger and bravado. It is by definition humble. Sometimes it is even silent. But it is always active.
Notice what happened after Jesus finished washing the disciples’ feet:
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:12‑17)
Having inserted a parenthetical lesson on the doctrine of salvation—a sort of theological interlude dealing with the washing of regeneration and the ongoing cleansing He provides for those who trust Him—Jesus returned to the main point He was teaching His disciples: that they needed to stop fighting over who was the greatest and begin to demonstrate the humility of authentic love in their dealings with one another.
He is arguing from the greater to the lesser. If the Lord of Glory was willing to gird Himself with a towel, assume the form of a servant, take the role of the lowest slave, and wash the dirty feet of sinful disciples, it was reasonable that the disciples should be willing to wash each other’s feet. The visual example Jesus taught surely did more good than one more verbal admonition about humility. This was something the disciples never forgot.
Some Christians believe that Jesus was formally instituting an ordinance for the church. Some churches practice footwashing in a ritual manner similar to the way most of us observe baptism and Communion. I have no major quarrel with such a practice, but I do not believe this passage is teaching that view. Jesus was not advocating a formal, ritualistic footwashing service.
Verse 15 says, “I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you”. The word “as” is a translation of the Greek word kathos, which means “according as.” The idea it conveys is, “Do in like manner as I have done.” If He meant to establish footwashing as a formal ordinance to be practiced in the church, He would have used the Greek word ho, which means “that which.” Then He would have been saying, “You should do precisely what I have done to you.”
He is not saying, “Do the same thing I have done.” Rather, He is saying, “Treat one another the way I have treated you.” In other words, the example we are to follow is not the washing of feet per se. It is the humility exemplified in the act. Do not minimize Jesus’ lesson by trying to make a ritual of ceremonial footwashing the focal point and main objective of John 13. Jesus’ humility is the real lesson—and it is a practical humility that governs every area of life, every day of life, in every experience of life.
The result of that kind of humility is always loving service—doing the menial and humiliating tasks for the glory of Jesus Christ. That demolishes some of the most popular ideas about what true spiritual leadership looks like.
Some people seem to think that the nearer you get to God the further you must be from humanity, but that’s not true. Genuine proximity to God is epitomized in the act of serving someone else.
There was never any sacrificial service to others that Jesus was unwilling to perform. Why should we be different? We are not greater than the Lord: “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:16-17).
Do you want to be blessedly fulfilled and happy? Develop a servant’s heart. We are His slaves, bought with His own blood—and a slave is not greater than his master. If Jesus can step down from the glory of heaven and equality with God in order to become a man—then further humble Himself to be a slave who would wash the feet of twelve undeserving sinners—we ought to be willing to suffer any indignity to serve Him. That is true love, and true humility.