In the Middle East, people don’t like feet. I was in an Egyptian friend’s kitchen drinking tea when he told me that the way I was sitting with my left outside ankle on my right knee showing him the sole of my left foot, was incredibly rude in his culture.
In 1st century Jerusalem they didn’t like feet either. Instead of lorries, goods were carried through the city by animals; thousands more would be led to the temple for sacrifice, so can you imagine how dirty their streets got? Or how dirty your feet got walking through that in sandals all day? Then you can imagine why people needed a foot-wash when they got in and why no-one wanted to do it for anyone else. The rabbis insisted that foot-washing was too humiliating a task to ask a Jewish adult slave to do and it should be reserved for children or foreigners.
In John 13 we read that the disciples had arrived for Passover. None of them felt so degraded that they had washed the others’ feet… apart from Jesus.
The man on his knees, rinsing sweat from Peter’s athlete’s foot and getting between Judas’s toes to wipe away the dung was our Creator, who is before all things and in him all things hold together; the hands that washed those verrucae and blisters would one day be the only ones qualified to break the seals and open the gates to the New Jerusalem.
What would you do?
John 13:3 says: ‘Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God…’ How would you finish that sentence? ‘…So he told them to stop being snobs’? ‘…So he ordered Judas to wash the others’? ‘…Yet despite his divine identity Jesus washed their feet anyway’?
I think the most shocking word in the entire account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet is at the beginning of verse 4:
So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:4-5).
I used to read this as if it said that Jesus did this despite being God; as if he were taking a quick break from being our glorious Creator and Saviour to do something out of character. However, I realised that I was projecting my own snobbery and laziness on to God. I was thinking to myself, ‘Of course, I don’t have to serve gross people, right? Not real sinners though surely?’
Yet, two of the feet Jesus washed were about to walk across town to fetch soldiers and betray him. God has become a real human being and he hasn’t just served humanity in general, but actual blokes with body-hair and odour, annoying habits and treacherous hearts.
No, Jesus does this not in spite of his divinity but because of it:
I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does’ (John 5:19).
This is what the Lord is like.
A humble servant
We can see this character throughout the Bible. Isaiah says that he will have no beauty or majesty (Is. 53:2). The psalmist writes that he raises the poor from the dust and lifts the needy from the ash heap; he seats them with princes, with the princes of his people (Ps. 113:7-8). The shepherds would find him because his makeshift cot was a trough (Luke 2:12) and he was born to peasants, who were too poor to offer a lamb (Luke 2:24).
In fact Jesus’ whole life can be described as ‘taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross! (Phil. 2:7-8).
This is our God and there is salvation in no-one else.
Loving actual people
‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ Jesus asks us in John 13:12. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord”, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.’
Think about the people in church that you find it very difficult to spend time with; the clingy woman who just talks and talks, the depressed guy who rarely washes and stinks, the guy who doesn’t have friends so comes across as creepy, the one with weird politics, the ones you have nothing else in common with and are not likely to enhance your popularity if you introduce them to your friends.
Now think of who we were before Jesus came:
You were dead in your transgressions and sins… gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath (Eph. 2:1,3).
Christ is the uncreated, life-giving holy one, the delight of the Father, the object of worship for innumerable legions of terrifying angels, the rightful recipient of all authority on Heaven and earth, and he looks at us in all our mess, knowing that he is saving us and he is not ashamed to call us his brothers and sisters (Heb. 2:12). He is not ashamed of us! Of us who are ashamed to be seen with mis-behaving family members or fellow church members who show us up in front of our work friends! How can we look down on anyone when Christ loves us so heroically and will one day call our names in front of the massed ranks of Heaven and welcome us sinners as his brothers and sisters?
Worship Christ for loving us while we were still his enemies, for his complete lack of snobbery in becoming human and bearing our sin so that he could make us his adopted brothers and sisters. Then, love those people with that great love that Christ has given you.
I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them (John 13:15-17).