The Gospel of John tells us that during the last supper, Jesus excused himself from the meal, clothed himself as a servant boy, found a towel and a basin of water, and scooted around on the floor washing the disciples’ feet. The washing of feet was a common act of hospitality in 1st century homes, yet the task was considered so undignified that, according to rabbinical tradition, it could not be required of Jewish slaves.
Why did Jesus perform such a demeaning task? He explained to his disciples that he washed their feet to provide an example of how we should treat each other. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:13-14). Jesus did not mean that Christians must literally pull off people’s dirty socks and scrub between their toes, but rather that we should humble ourselves to serve others in love. Christ made this clear in verse 34 when he said, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
Serving others in love sounds like a beautiful idea, but it is easier said than done. Such love requires us to hold our tongues when we feel like criticizing, to forgive others when they let us down, to give of our time and resources to assist others in practical ways, and to put the needs and preferences of others ahead of our own. None of these things are easy to do. How can we possibly motivate ourselves to live this way?
Before describing the foot-washing at the last supper, John gives us a glimpse into the mind of Christ that helps to explain why he was able to humble himself as he did. Verses 3-4 say, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” In other words, the confidence Christ had in his identity as God’s Son empowered him to humble himself without feeling threatened by taking a servant’s role. He knew who he was and had no fear that serving others would diminish his dignity and self-worth.
Likewise, knowing our identity in Christ can empower us to serve others. When we are secure in who we are in God’s eyes we have less fear about how others see us. A four-year-old boy might resist playing blocks with a child of two because, “Blocks are for babies.” A sixteen-year-old babysitter, however, would have no problem sitting on the floor with a toddler and building a castle. Why the difference? The babysitter is not worried that someone will mistake her for an infant if she plays with blocks. For the four-year-old, however, this is a real concern.
In a similar way, as we mature in Christ, we become more confident of our standing in the eyes of God. We know who we are. We are God’s beloved children and heirs of his kingdom. We will one day reign with Christ. Being confident of our identity frees us to take a servant role without fretting over what others think. G.K. Chesterton wrote, “It is always the secure who are humble.” Because Christ knew he would soon be crowned in glory, he had no problem wearing a servant’s towel. Christian, you will also be given “a crown that will last forever” (1 Cor. 9:25). Keep that in mind, and don’t be afraid to serve.