In this John thirteen, Jesus gives a revolutionary example of authentic leadership by humble service. Why was this revolutionary? The disciples normally served the teacher; here the teacher serves the Disciples.
This also challenged the statuesque of the Jewish leadership who lost their focus. Because this alludes to the relationship between Moses and Joshua. When it was Joshua’s turn to take over the leadership after Moses had died, he was the leader, but still was serving the people and God. Leaders are servants who model servanthood for a greater purpose.
What does this mean for us today? A Christian leader must always remember that first and foremost, he or she is a servant of God’s who then uses us to serve others! We are never to lord it over others with pride, power and control; rather, nurture as a shepherd does, as Christ has modeled for us. A prideful and a “force of will” leader is never from God and should never be in control of His churches.
What did Jesus do that was so radical? He washed his disciples’ feet.
This is the quintessential demonstration of servant ministry! People back then walked everywhere in open toed sandals through dust and dung-filled roads. However, in the city where Jesus was, the streets would have been kept clean. Even though people then were more careful and pedestrians would use a different side of the road than animals, it was a culturally unmentionable item to wash another person’s foot, because, “oh crap,” they were near the dung.
Thus, the feet were dirty and needed to be cleaned before entering a home. This was commonly done when the person first entered the home. A washbasin and a towel were provided, which Jesus wrapped around His waist, usually something one would either do himself, or else the wife or children of that home. Rich people would have their lowest slave or family member to do this. Even the lowest slave would not do this near the dining area; rather it would be done at the threshold of a home before one entered the main living area (Gen. 18:4; 1 Sam. 25:41; Luke 7:44).
This is an act of extreme humility and must have been quite a shock for all to see.
The reaction? The Disciples thought they were already clean. They would have undergone a ceremonial cleansing prior to the Passover festivities and would have been fairly clean physically and presumably spiritually too, but Jesus said the spiritual cleaning has just begun. Peter was very impulsive and dedicated to Jesus, thus, he did not see the deeper implication of the lesson of servanthood and the foreshadowing of the cross. Jesus was also showing us our need to be cleansed of sin, an act that only He can truly and fully do for us and only by His blood that was shed for us, which Peter would fully realize in time. What they were anticipating about the Kingdom and purpose of Jesus was about will drastically change from that of a hopeful warrior or political leader to a suffering Redeemer whom we much greater need (John 11:55; Acts 4:12; 1 Pet. 1:18-19).
Jesus did this not just to show His Role of Servant Leader, but also call us to do and be the same!
The follow through. Wash one another’s feet. Meaning “imitation,” as in doing as you have seen me do and as I have instructed you. This was not to be a foot-washing ordinance; rather, it was an example of humble service. Real, effective leadership, whether meant to lead a person to the faith or to lead a church of the faithful is all about servant leadership. Ministry is not about what I want, it is about following Christ’s example and as a showcase for others to see and follow (Mark 10:35-45; Luke 22:26; John 1:27; 1 Cor. 3 – 4; Eph. 4; 2 Pet. 2:1-3).
We are called to be the Example. This means to show others and influence and shepherd them, not just tell them. Christian leaders are responsible to care for God’s people with faithfulness and honor, and never out of harsh or improper motivations (Matt. 23)!