The roads were not clean in the first century. Some were cobblestone, but most were dirt roads. People and animals shared the same roads, and animals are not very good at cleaning up after themselves (when you gotta go, you gotta go!).
Open sandals were the footwear of choice. Everybody wore them. So when you walked, the dust from the roads and particles of the animal droppings inadvertently stuck to your feet and ankles. Everywhere you walked, your feet got very, very dirty.
When you entered a house for a meal, a servant would greet you at the door. The job of this lowly servant was to wash the nasty feet of those entering the house. Nobody wanted that job. It was a smelly, dirty job that nobody wanted to do. The lowliest servant in the house would be stuck with the job of washing feet.
It was important to have everyone’s feet washed upon entering the house for a couple of reasons. First, they didn’t want the junk from the road in their house anywhere. Second, the way that people reclined at the table for meals made it a necessity for everyone’s feet to be clean. In the first century, they didn’t sit in chairs around a table for meals. They would recline around a table about the height of a coffee table to eat. Many pillows were used to lean upon. As each person reclined, his feet would be near the head of another person at the dinner party. This may seem strange to you, but it was common practice back then. You see why it was so important to have clean feet. No one wants to smell someone else’s feet while you’re trying to enjoy a meal of roasted lamb.
But on one particular day Jesus did something incredible (he always had a way of doing that). When he and his disciples were entering the room for a meal, he grabbed the towel of the servant and the water basin and he began washing the disciples’ feet. Wow. This was unheard of. The disciples thought this was a job beneath the social status that Jesus had. They thought this was a job beneath the social status that they had. One by one, Jesus washed the feet of the men who were his closest friends, his followers, his traveling companions for the past three years.
Why did he do it?
When Jesus had washed their feet and put on His robe, He reclined again and said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done for you.
“I assure you: A servant is not greater than his master, and a messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. I’m not speaking about all of you; I know those I have chosen. But the Scripture must be fulfilled: The one who eats My bread has raised his heel against Me. I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. I assure you: Whoever receives anyone I send receives Me, and the one who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (John 13:12-20)
Jesus washed their feet as an example they should follow, and so should we. (This doesn’t mean that we should feel compelled to have foot-washing as part of our church ministries. The reason we know this is because there is no evidence in the rest of the New Testament of this practice being done regularly in the early church. If Jesus would have meant for them to literally begin a ministry of foot-washing, then Peter, Paul, James and the others would have done it and taught others to do the same.)
So what example did Jesus set that we should follow?
1. An example of humility. We should each live a life of humility before others. Jesus humbled himself to clean the feet of his followers, doing a job that they thought was beneath them. Don’t live a life of arrogance and pride. The way of Christ is the way of confident humility.
2. An example of serving others. Jesus met a very real need they had. All around us are people in need: there are spiritual needs, relational needs, physical needs, financial needs and more. We should seek the Lord and ask him how we personally and also our church family should continually serve others and help meet their needs. The way of Christ is the way of serving others.
3. An example of love. Jesus humbled himself and served these guys because he loved them. He didn’t do it because he had to; he did it because he wanted to. Jesus demonstrated his love for them by his actions. We should follow his example. The way of Christ is the way of love.
4. An example of following God’s plan. Jesus washed the feet of each of his disciples, including the one who would betray him. Jesus was fully committed to loving Judas, even though Judas’ actions over the next few hours were going to lead to Jesus’ arrest, trials, beatings and crucifixion. The way of Christ is the way of following God’s plan.
A prayer: “Lord, help me today to follow the example of Jesus. Help me to have an attitude of humility and love. Show me ways to serve others. Help me to follow your plan.”