Christ washed the feet of His disciples, illustrating our need for cleansing from sin even after conversion (John 13:1–11). Yet, as we see in today’s passage, His action was also meant to be an example for His disciples to imitate. In the foot washing, we learn something about what it means to be followers of the Savior.
But what do we learn, and how exactly are we to follow Jesus’ example? Jesus said, “You ought to wash one another’s feet” (v. 15), but are we literally to wash other people’s feet? Certainly, Christ commended to His disciples a willingness to do the menial task of washing feet. But it is doubtful that He gave the example of foot washing to us as a literal practice that the church must engage in just as it celebrates the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper. There was no formal institution of the practice as there was for the other sacraments (Matt. 28:18–20; Luke 22:14–20), and elsewhere in Scripture we do not see the church washing feet as part of worship.
Moreover, John 13 as a whole indicates that Jesus had something broader in mind when He said we should wash one another’s feet. The entire discussion is about the nature of Christ’s lordship and the relationship of servants to masters. Jesus affirmed that He was the Lord and Teacher of the disciples, but His actions reveal that His lordship is not the same as the lordship typically envisioned in the world. Our Savior willingly performed the menial task of foot washing, which reveals that He did not consider the vocation of servanthood incompatible with His leadership. In fact, no one has performed a greater service for sinners than our Lord Jesus Christ, for He bore the curse of God against our sin for the sake of our redemption. As Paul puts it, the Son of God did not consider His status as God something to be used for His own advantage at the expense of others; rather, He took on human flesh in order to obey God even unto the cross and purchase our salvation (Phil. 2:5–11).
The basic idea of today’s passage is that disciples of Christ must be willing to do what He was willing to do, including acts of service. As the Master, He is greater than us, His servants, and if a task such as foot washing was not beneath Him, neither should we consider any form of service beneath us. The example of foot washing commends to us a willingness to meet the needs of others, to put others before ourselves, and to not be puffed up with pride. It is a call to humility and to a readiness to serve one another.