“My feet aren’t going to know what to do with someone handling them so gently. Usually the aides are in such a hurry, they just shove the shoes and socks on my feet.” As I slid knee-highs on Doris, an elderly woman who lived at the same retirement center I lived and worked at for free rent as a seminary student, I was overwhelmed that she’d allow me to look at her feet and get so close to them. They smelled awful and her toenails were a dark yellow from age, but she wasn’t embarrassed. As I cared for her, I couldn’t help but think of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet in John 13.
“When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, 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 to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:12-17).
Washing feet was a job for servants, not the Savior. The disciples’ feet would have been dirty after walking in sandals all day. But Jesus wanted them to understand that if He washed their feet, then they certainly needed to wash one another’s feet. He gave them an example of what it means to live the cross-centered life, and then gave them the means to do so by accomplishing the redemption of God’s people on the cross.
John 13 teaches us many things. It teaches us about God’s love. Jesus loves His own to the end (even Peter who denied Him), and Jesus loves His enemies (even Judas who betrayed Him). His love is tangibly expressed by humbly washing His disciples’ feet, which was a foreshadowing of what He was about to do on the cross—cleanse them of their sins.
This passage also teaches us about our loves. Apart from God’s grace, we will love the things of this world, and deny our need for Christ’s cleansing. As Peter learned, if Jesus doesn’t wash us, we aren’t saved. But if we believe in Jesus, then we are united to Christ. We have been given new hearts that can recognize and rejoice that Jesus loves us and saves us. In response, we can lean into Him with affection, like John, whom Jesus loved. Yet, on this side of glory, we won’t live the cross-centered life perfectly. Even after we’re saved, we will underestimate the power of sin and our desperate need for Christ’s intercession—like Peter who denied Christ three times.
Finally, John 13 teaches us how we are to love God and others. Because Jesus loves us, and because He gave Himself up for us, we should love our brothers and sisters in Christ by humbly helping them. Christ’s love, most fully displayed on the cross, deepens the meaning of what it means to love our family, friends, brothers and sisters in Christ, as well as our enemies. Our loving service must flow from His sacrifice. He is far more than our example; He is exalted far above every other name. We should help others recognize how prone we are to wander from Christ’s salvation, saying with Peter, “You’ll never wash me,” as well as from His lordship, betraying Him like Judas. We should pray for those we know who are in darkness, asking the Lord to save them. Outward rites don’t guarantee inward regeneration. There are many in our churches today who are not saved.
As you reflect on Christ’s life, death and resurrection during this season, remember the four postures in John 13—the posture of Jesus, bent over in service, washing His disciples’ feet; the posture of Peter, at first resisting Jesus’s offer to wash Him and then embracing it; the posture of John, embracing Christ and leaning into Him with great affection; and the posture of Judas, rejecting Christ altogether. As believers, we are to serve others because Christ first served us, and we need to lean into Jesus, learning more about Him as we spend time with Him in prayer and the Word in the midst of His people.
The cross-centered life is always thinking about what Christ has done, is doing and will do, and serving others from those truths. He has lived a life of perfect obedience on our behalf, and suffered God’s wrath in our place. He is interceding for us and reigning over us as King. And He is coming again to save those who are eagerly waiting for Him, as well as to judge those who refuse to bow their knee to Him. Indeed, He is coming again to make all things new. Whether we have the opportunity to tenderly slide shoes and socks on the elderly’s feet, take a meal to someone in need, serve our covenant children by teaching Sunday school, disciple a younger woman in our church, weep with a woman who has just lost a child, or rejoice with a young lady who just got engaged, our love for Christ is seen in how we love and serve each other, and it is this loving service that causes the world to know we are His.