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This Humble Slave is the Cosmic King

Jesus Washing Feet

Jesus’s act of washing his disciples’ feet was so extraordinary, that there’s almost no parallel in our culture. This beautiful act of humility is rooted in the socio-cultural context of Jesus’s day. In my own life, I can only think of one humbling instance that in a very limited way offers some kind of modern counterpart. Not that any part of my story was intentional or had an object lesson for others, other than for myself.


From Soaring High to Scrubbing Low

I have always loved aircraft, there is nothing more exhilarating than sitting in a cockpit. Whenever there is a fly-in at the St. Francis Bay airstrip, I take my sons to see the aircraft, I love peaking in the cockpit’s window and running my fingers along the fuselage.


After my schooling my parents sent me to Progress Flight Academy in Greenbushes, Port Elizabeth, to begin my flight training as a pilot. It did not last very long. At a young age, I did not have the aptitude for aviation, and having a severe stutter rendered me useless on the radio. After two or three weeks of flying, the flight academy called my father in and suggested that my flight training be discontinued. I had to find a way to come to terms with my shattered dreams, which I eventually did when I began studying art later that year, and architecture the year after, followed by theology. But before then, I had a few months to spare before my art classes began, so I had to go out and work.


From the glory of aviation, flying a little Cesena 120, I began working as a driver, supervisor, and delivery boy, driving a little 1980 Nissan bakkie supervising two mama’s cleaning dirty toilets in industrial factories, and delivering soap and toilet paper in bulk. It was a humbling! It’s the closest experience I’ve had to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. But the reality is that I was only a kid finding his way in life. And here we have in this biblical passage, the cosmic king who holds the universe in his hands, stooping down with a towel and a bucket washing his disciples’ feet on the eve of his crucifixion.


I don’t know about you but washing anyone’s feet or showing any kind of service to others the night before my execution would be the last thing on my mind.


The King Who Washed Feet

Jesus’s incredible act of humility takes his disciples by surprise, and yet he is fully aware that his arch enemy is at work right there among Jesus and his disciples, scheming a betrayal and a series of denials with not one disciple, but two disciples! Jesus told Peter, “Satan has asked to sift all of you as wheat” (Luke 22:31) and foretells Peter’s denial (John 13:36-38), and as you know, in the passion he denies Jesus three times. The Gospel of John also tells us how Satan entered Judas in order that he may betray Jesus (John 13:27). Now, it’s not clear whether Judas was present when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, there is some ambiguity in the biblical text whether he had left the company of disciples moments before, but be that as it may, just like Jesus washed Peter’s feet, there is no doubt that we would have also washed Judas’s feet too if he were present.


The point is that despite the heightened sense of demonic activity on the eve of Jesus’ crucifixion, and the emotional pain of the impending betrayal, denials, and terror of his coming torture and execution, he still finds it within himself to become like a slave and serve others, despite “having all things under his power.” (John 13:3). The truth is this humble slave is the cosmic king!


Jesus makes his way to Peter, and Peter asks Jesus, “My Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus responds, “Peter, you don’t understand now what I am doing, but in time you will.” Knowing full well who Jesus is, Peter shakes his head, “No, Jesus, you will never wash my feet!” “Peter,” Jesus says, “If I don’t wash your feet, you will have no part with me.” Meaning that Peter would no longer belong to Jesus. Unwilling to depart from his Redeemer, Peter surrenders, “Lord, then wash my hands and head as well!” He could not bear the thought of parting with Jesus. Quite conscious that Peter would deny him, Jesus says that there’s no need to wash the other parts of your body, for Peter was clean, although not all his disciples were clean, he knew that Judas would deny him with evil intent, and he was therefore unclean (John 13:6–10). Although Judas took his life after he had denied Jesus, it seems from scripture that he was deeply remorseful. (Later Christian writings, give a different (fictional) account of Judas’s later life which reads more like a scene taken from the pages of the children’s author Rahl Dahl).


Jesus washing his disciple’s feet serves three purposes:


1.    The Washing Away of Sins

The first purpose we rarely, if ever consider. This foot washing had some kind of cleansing or sanctifying effect upon the disciples, as we saw in Jesus’ short discussion with Peter. It symbolizes the forgiveness of sins and washing them away. If you have ever had your feet cleaned in some kind of religious ritual or ceremony, as I have, it is deeply spiritual and is in some sense sanctifying. And so, Jesus, on the eve before his crucifixion, sanctifies and cleanses his disciples. But ultimately it would be his death on a Roman cross that would cleanse them of their sin. Jesus gave a foretaste of the power of the cross by washing his disciples’s feet.


2.    A Sign of Ultimate Humility

The second purpose of Jesus’s foot-washing ceremony is as you might have guessed, a sign of his humility and service to others. I still can’t get it out of my mind how Jesus is about to suffer denial and abandonment by his close friends, excruciating torture, and a grizzly execution at the hands of the Romans, and yet he chooses what might be the ultimate form of humility in his culture. He stooped down and washed the dirty feet of his disciples. The ancient streets of Jerusalem were by no means as sanitary as they are today. Cleaning the feet of others was only reserved for non-Jewish slaves. This was always done upon arrival at someone’s home, but here Jesus did it halfway through dinner. So there is a sense of Jesus’s intentionality.


If you know you only have a few hours left of your life with your disciples, you know you want to drive home everything you have taught them in one last attempt, and Jesus does this in a powerful action with only a few words—choosing to wash the feet of his disciples. The Apostle Paul picks up on Jesus’ meaning in his letter to the Philippians:


In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by 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! (Philippians 2:5–8)



3.    Follow My Example

Jesus makes the third purpose very clear because he wants us to get it. After he had finished washing his disciples’s feet, he put his clothes back on, sat at his place, and then asked his disciples whether they understood what he had done for them. Of course, they did not fully understand, but they would grasp it after his crucifixion. He acknowledges that he is their teacher and Lord, but then argues that if he is both teacher and Lord and yet has washed their feet, they should follow his example by humbling themselves and doing likewise. Washing people’s dirty feet isn’t the point here. Instead, the focus is to serve and love others in humility.


Okay, I had another very humbling experience. just moments before I was ordained into the diaconate a few months ago. Before receiving the anointing, all ordinands prostrate themselves on the ground before the bishop in service to Christ and his church. A few moments after I was ordained, the bishop handed us a towel with the ordination date on it, a symbol of our call to follow Jesus’s example of humility and service. But the truth is, every single one of us, irrespective of whether we have been ordained or not, is called by Jesus to follow his example of service, love, and humility, and if we do, Jesus says, we will be blessed.


… And Love One Another

We love others by humbling ourselves and serving them. This is wrapped up in Jesus’ command given to us, “Love one another. As I have loved you, … By this, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34b–35).


Jesus not only taught this, but he loved us so much that he gave his life for us, as we read in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” and John 10:11 “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”

*Image of Jesus washes a person's foot By Laci Gibbs.

1 Comment

Apr 01

An excellent article.


Be blessed

Caleb Jacobs

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