Servant leadership. It’s talked about a lot in books, conferences, and social media by church leaders and business leaders too. But it’s not so common.
Talking about it and living it out are two entirely different things, as we all know. Sadly, the chasm between talk and action can be pretty wide.
Chapter 13 in the gospel of John opens with Jesus knowing His hour had come. It was the time of the Passover, a national festival and memorial.
It would be the last Passover Jesus would eat with His disciples but one He would fulfill prophetically to provide redemption for all humanity (Luke 22:15-16).
John’s narrative makes clear what is meant by His hour had come (John 13:1-3), which prefaces an unexpected and still misunderstood event—Jesus washing the disciples feet.
The first five verses paint a paradoxical picture—the Son of God—sent from heaven—stoops down to wash the feet of His closest followers.
A paradoxical picture
Picture this in your mind. They weren’t sitting at a table with chairs as we would today with separate place settings and silverware, they reclined around a low table and ate out of a common dish of food with their hands.
They were gathered in somewhat of a circle with their feet extended out and reclined on one side with one hand free for eating.
I’m sure there was some jockeying for position to sit closest to the Lord, as indicated from other insights in the gospels (Matt 20:20-28; Luke 22:24-27). Later in this story we find out John is next to Jesus and Peter is near John and Judas was also with them.
There was no question Jesus was the leader—their Rabbi and the hoped for Messiah. He addressed the issue of authority and the concept of servant leadership at other times, especially when He knew they argued about who was the greatest and most important as His followers.
Then He does something unexpected and mystifying. He gets up, strips off His outer garments, wraps a towel around His waist, pours water into a basin, begins to wash the feet of His disciples one by one, and dries their feet with the towel wrapped around His waist.
Have you ever pictured and thought about how this took place?
A protest and a gentle rebuke
What Jesus did was contrary to all the disciples were familiar with and knew about leadership. Their concept of leadership is what most people have in mind—authority, status, privilege, respect, and a host of other expectations. Pretty much how most of us think of leadership.
One thing that was not a mystery is what Jesus did.
Every one of the disciples knew the lowest of servants got the job of washing the feet of guests. And Jesus played the part well.
When He stripped down to His under garments, He looked like a lowly servant and gave them a prophetic preview of His appearance on the cross.
I imagine the disciples had a look of shock and felt mortified that their master stooped to such a lowly position as He washed their feet.
Finally, Peter couldn’t stand it any longer. When Jesus came to wash his feet Peter protests and refuses to allow the Lord to do so.
This was not unusual for Peter (Matt 16:22) and Jesus understood this. Jesus tried to gently push past Peter’s protest—
Jesus answered him, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand." (John 13:7 ESV)
When Peter escalates his protest Jesus gently rebukes him—
Peter said to him, "You shall never wash my feet." Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no share with me." (John 13:8 ESV)
Peter quickly capitulates to Jesus. He realizes he would be excluded from relationship with Jesus and possibly the Kingdom of God.
But there’s far more going on here than that. This was a time of instruction for all of His disciples.
But what have we learned from it? More importantly, how have we put what we learned into practice?
What have we really learned from Jesus washing the disciples feet?
We tend to categorize and limit people according to how we see them—their roles, positions, possessions, appearance, even their words. Then we exalt or belittle them based on surface observations. It’s so natural we don’t realize it.
It’s so natural for us to exalt or belittle people based on surface observations and not realize it
I see this too often in how people treat or just ignore servers in a restaurant or sales people in a store, or talk to call center representatives. Sadly, I’ve also seen this in churches. Too many of us pastors take volunteers for granted and treat staff as if we’re a CEO in charge of a company.
People coming to church are often quick to exalt pastors and leaders while ignoring the volunteers that care for their children or keep the building and grounds clean and in order. None of this reflects the example and life of our Lord Jesus.
So, it’s no mystery why Jesus chose this approach to teach the disciples. He wanted to shatter the typical stereotypes we all have about leadership and service and who is or isn’t important.
One simple thing Jesus demonstrated by washing the disciples’ feet was servant leadership. Though He was the Messiah—their Rabbi and Master—He took on the appearance of a lowly servant as an example of the leadership He expected of them.
I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. (John 13:15 ESV)
What’s your takeaway from all of this for yourself?