We see Jesus’ ministry to His people, the final teaching of the most important things they need to learn before He is gone, begin with a powerful illustration. Jesus assumes the role of a lowly servant and He washes their feet. The most menial of tasks, it was something that was too low for certain types of servants. It was surely and embarrassing experience for the disciples, and not one they would ever forget. With it, Jesus taught them (and us) three things:
“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” First, we have no relationship with Jesus if we haven’t been cleansed of our sins. Jesus died on the cross for our sins, but our relationship with Him hangs on more than a simple understanding of that fact. We need to remember the “repent” aspect of “repent and follow.” One of the key factors of the Gospel is the recognition of a need for a Savior, and the willingness to turn away from our own, sinful direction in life and to allow God to wash us clean of our sins. We need to allow the truth of the Gospel story to apply to our lives in a real, effective way.
“The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” What Jesus did on the cross applies to all who receive Him once and for all. All of our sins were future sins in relation to the cross. That said, even though I do not need to be “saved again” if I stumble in my walk with God, I want to keep my feet clean. When I am convicted of sin I confess, repent, and repair my relationship with Him. My justification is complete and secure, but I cooperate with God in growing in sanctification as I attempt to be more and more like my Lord in practice, not theory.
“I have given you an example that you also should do just as I have done to you.” What Jesus did here was not the institution of another ordinance or sacrament. This was not a symbol to be practiced, but was symbolic of an attitude that we should have a followers of Christ. With Him as our master and model, we too should serve one another. No servant is greater than their master, and no “sent out” one is greater than the one who sends. We should humble ourselves and endeavor to serve the needs of others, never seeing ourselves as too good for any task. One of the best training grounds for pastors and leaders is the janitorial duty in the Church restrooms. But this message and command from Christ is not limited to leadership in the church. Everyone who sees themselves as a disciple of Christ needs to see themselves as a servant.