The best teachers are always the ones who demonstrate what they teach. In John 13:12-17, Jesus becomes a living example of what He wants His disciples to be. The exchange takes place during the course of a Passover meal. The disciples had gathered around the table and were ready to eat. But first each one of them had to ritually cleanse their hands. A bowl with water would be passed around, hands were dipped into the water to wash off the dirt, and a towel was passed afterwards to dry off the hands. But Jesus, instead of merely sending around a bowl and towel, stands and prepares Himself to wash their feet, a custom usually done when guests entered the home. The foot washing, especially at this point in the meal, was an amazing action. Long a tradition performed by slaves (Gen. 43:24; 1 Sam. 25:41), rabbinic sources tell us it was considered too menial for a Jew to perform. But it wasn’t for Jesus.
The foot washing is one of several instances where Jesus, the Master-Teacher used a visual demonstration to underscore what He was trying to teach. He had said to them many times that a servant was not greater than his master (Jn. 13:16, 20; 15:20; Mt. 10:24; Mk. 10:45; Lk. 6:40; 22:27) and places of honor were highly sought after (Mt. 10:42-45; Js. 2:1-9). That Jesus, the Man whom they understood was like no other man, reversed His teaching and became a servant must have been quite shocking. It should surprise us as well. After all, this event occurs right before Jesus’ final discourse spoken hours before His crucifixion. That means that Jesus washes the feet of the disciples BEFORE Judas leaves to betray Him and subsequently when the rest of the disciples desert Him. Would you behave this way toward someone you knew was about to betray you? Yet, because He knew His time had come (Jn. 12:23) and because He loved His own (Jn. 13:1), Jesus has no status issues (Phil. 2:6). One author wrote, “In this, the foot washing ceremony becomes an acted parable of great theological significance, that is the Incarnation” (Jn. 1:14; Col. 2:9).
While actions may speak louder than words, sometimes explanations help! “Do you know what I’ve done for you?” Jesus asks His disciples. Like many rabbinic teachers of His day whose goal was to transform their students’ way of thinking and living, Jesus wanted this object lesson to have an impact on His disciples, so He explains it. Jesus begins by emphasizing their correct understanding of His role as their teacher (v. 13). Of the 48 times this word appears in the Gospels, 41 times are directed toward Jesus with honor and respect. Jesus is also Lord (v. 13), another title with respect. Jesus tells the disciples He has washed their feet as an example (Jn. 13:15). The Greek word here implies that His example is to be imitated with a similar action. Andreas Kostenberger put it this way, “The understanding of this lesson was not to inaugurate foot washing ceremonies in churches…”washing one another’s feet” should be taken rather as an emblem of lowering oneself to meet another’s needs whatever that need happens to be at a particular moment”. Practicing this lesson involves being aware of what those needs are (Phil. 2:3-4; Js. 2).
It is popular to call Jesus a “Good Teacher” these days. But we tend to define that role as someone who merely imparts knowledge (as in a list of facts). Jesus the Master Teacher is not interested in you knowing a fact or two. He says that if you know of His example, you will follow His example. Are you willing to serve as Jesus did? That is serve those you know will disappoint you and possibly hurt you in spite of their short comings? If Jesus is your Teacher and Lord, you will follow His example and imitate Him. And Jesus says you will be blessed when you do (Jn. 13:17)!
Ann H. LeFevre, M. Div.
Week of 1/31/2016