Good Friday approaches in a few weeks, and Christians around the world will pause their daily routines to commemorate the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, and how his inglorious and painful death won salvation for the world. What some may not remember is another humiliation that Jesus underwent—one less public, but every bit as significant.
The gospel of John tells us that just before Jesus’ death, he shared a meal with his disciples. During the meal he got up and took up a basin of water and towel to wash his disciples’ feet. The God of heaven and earth not only set aside the glory of his divinity and took on human form, but he got down on his knees to wash the filthy, callused, stinking feet of his disciples.
Peter, one of his closest disciples, initially resisted this washing, but Jesus told him, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” He didn’t mean that foot-washing itself was necessary in order to spend time with Jesus, but used this analogy to show Peter that unless he was cleansed by the blood of Christ’s sacrifice, he could not be declared righteous before God the Father. He was pointing to the salvation that Peter (and all of us) need spiritually; the need to have our lives cleansed before we can be reconciled to God. Jesus’ lowly act of foot-washing foreshadowed the humiliation of the cross, where he would wash our hearts by the shedding of his blood, so that we, like Peter, might be cleansed and made righteous.
The second purpose of Jesus’ washing was to give his people an example to follow. Jesus shows us that true Christian leadership is marked by service to others. “ If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (v. 14)
The rule of the Christian is sacrificial love, not self-exaltation. If we don’t recognize our own need for God’s gracious cleansing, then the ultimate reason for our service becomes our good deeds, not God’s glory and the love of our neighbour. As we more clearly see our own pitiful brokenness and fragility, and bring that weakness and sin before the Father who sacrificed his own Son for our sakes, we’re better able to go out and truly serve our neighbour.