The greatness in foot-washing

One of the most effective tools of teaching is demonstration. As effective a teacher as Jesus was, everything that He taught to his disciples was summarized in foot-washing. Among the most important lessons that can be adopted from the teachings of Jesus, nothing surpasses foot-washing. Jesus instructed His disciples to wash one another’s feet. But, from the Book of Acts, right up to the Book of Revelation, we cannot find a place where the disciples washed each other’s feet.

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:13-17 NIV)

It is essential to analyze this passage of Scripture, possibly, among those ignored by theologians. Jesus did the unthinkable. God had already conferred authority on Him. Having become the Boss, why did Jesus have to wash the dirty feet of those disciples? I know of some denominations that practice this, as a ceremonial custom. But, making it a ceremonial custom is not what was intended by Jesus. It is in verses 16 and 17 that the significance was highlighted.

“I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (Jon 13:16-17 NIV).

These words came from the Master of our salvation. The doing part that Jesus was referring to, was not the ceremonial aspect. This was a principle to be adopted in their behaviour and conduct. They were not to wash the feet of ordinary people, outside the fellowship, necessarily. Jesus did not do that, but He washed His disciples’ feet. There was no exception.

Apparently, Simon Peter’s mind had been attuned according to the custom of this world. His view was that it ought to have been Peter washing Jesus’ feet not the other way around. “No.” said Peter, “You shall never wash my feet.”  Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” (Verse 8).

This is the same Peter, whose behaviour had attracted a Satanical rebuke by Jesus (Matthew 16:23). Peter had still not understood God’s mind, as manifested in Jesus’ behaviour. Peter’s common understanding was that servants were expected to serve their masters, not the other way around. Jesus knew that; hence, demonstrating the unthinkable. On several occasions, Jesus had taught about this ideology.

This lesson had been given to them, but I suppose Jesus realized that it had not sunk in their heads. This is common to humanity, unused to duplicating things before understanding. Jesus had to demonstrate it by washing their feet, without even considering how dirty those feet were. The greatest among them was to be the one serving others. Greatness is in humility, rather than according to the common behaviour of humanity.

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Matthew 20:25-28 NIV).

The idea of foot-washing was new, as introduced by Jesus. This was a demonstration, intended to help the disciples to understand the principle of humility. This philosophy had never been taught before. The greatest among His disciples would be the one washing other people’s feet.

But in His teaching, as He washed their feet, He did not suggest that the greatest among them should wash their feet, as He had done. They were to wash one another’s feet. Only Jesus performed the duty of the greatest among them.

God had already granted Him authority over them. But as for them, they were to wash one another’s feet. None among themselves would be greater than others.  This was significant, in light of what He had instructed them on another episode of His lecturing.

“But you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father’, for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matthew 23:8-12 NIV).

During His foot-washing demonstration, Jesus emphasized the aspect of humility found in foot-washing. It had to be one another’s business, rather than one of them taking the position of greatness. How can the teaching of Jesus be applicable, among a group of believers, without anyone taking up the position of Christ?

Jesus said He was the only instructor. This is as important as appreciating that as a group of believers, they hold different gifts, but the same Christ works through each of them. This is succinctly given in Romans 12 and 1 Corinthians 12.

It is essential to appreciate that Jesus’ teaching was revolutionary.  This means changing things upside down. The revolutionary struggle intends to make the former slaves become bosses, whereas the slave masters become slaves. That is what any revolutionary struggle intends to achieve.

However, the methodology of Jesus’ revolution is not enforced through the armed struggle. It is voluntary but ruthlessly requiring that His followers enforce transformation upon oneself. It is a revolution that is self-inflicting, rather than inflicting others with pain, that enforces them to change.

A revolution cannot be viewed in simplistic terms. It requires revolving one’s mind so that what would have been viewed as up, becomes down, and what was down becomes up. But this is all to be appreciated in the mind, more than can be ceremonially done. Jesus said none among them should be regarded as greater than others, as to be accorded the rabbinical term.

None among them should be accorded the term “instructor”. This does not necessarily mean there would not be another among them taking the role of an instructor. It is impossible to know what goes on in the minds of those reading this material. Possibly never having been taught by anyone, before?

Others might be questioning: “Who does this fellow think he is? After all, he is not a graduate of any Bible college!” Others might reason, “This is a great Man of God,” wishing they were under my pastoral care. Yet others, appreciating Jesus’ ways of doing things, might not even waste time thinking about the author’s personality; but Jesus.

In one of my previous instalments, I indicated that Christians are each other’s keepers, rather than each other’s bosses. The guiding principle is the teachings of Christ. That has got nothing to do with personalities. Jesus can use anyone. But that does not make that person greater than others. The same person, used by God today, could tomorrow be the instrument of Satan.

We saw what happened to Peter after God had revealed to Him, the secret that ordinary humans couldn’t see (Matthew 16:17-23). God had pronounced that Peter would be the foundation of God’s Church. But that did not imply that Peter would, in his personality, become the leader. The same great man, called Peter, was susceptible to being used by Satan, as well.

The revolutionary mindset, brought by Jesus was that His followers were not supposed to look at personalities when evaluating the truth. Only Jesus was the expository teacher and instructor. Regardless of how good a pastor would be, when attending to the needs of the flock, the glory belongs to Christ. There is only one reliable Pastor in the Christian faith, which is Jesus.

“I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. The hired hand is not the shepherd and does not own the sheep. So when he sees the wolf coming, he abandons the sheep and runs away. Then the wolf attacks the flock and scatters it. The man runs away because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep.

 “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me—just as the Father knows me and I know the Father—and I lay down my life for the sheep. I have other sheep that are not of this sheep pen. I must bring them also. They too will listen to my voice, and there shall be one flock and one shepherd. The reason my Father loves me is that I lay down my life—only to take it up again” (John 10:11-17 NIV).

Those celebrating elevation to pastoral responsibilities might be ignorant of the above Scripture. Others envy such pastors, again, out of ignorance of the above Scripture. There is nothing envious about the pastoral position. Knowledge in pastoral behaviour portrays the distinction between Jesus and Satan.

When they had finished eating, Jesus said to Simon Peter, “Simon son of John, do you love me more than these?” “Yes, Lord,” he said, “you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Feed my lambs.” Again Jesus said, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” He answered, “Yes, Lord, you know that I love you.” Jesus said, “Take care of my sheep.” The third time he said to him, “Simon son of John, do you love me?” Peter was hurt because Jesus asked him the third time, “Do you love me?” He said, “Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you.”

Jesus said, “Feed my sheep. Very truly I tell you, when you were younger you dressed yourself and went where you wanted, but when you are old you will stretch out your hands, and someone else will dress you and lead you where you do not want to go.” Jesus said this to indicate the kind of death by which Peter would glorify God. Then he said to him, “Follow me!” (John 21:15-19 NIV).

Most of those, celebrating ‘elevation’ to pastoral responsibilities rarely consider the last part of what Jesus said to Peter. Understandably, they consider what is commonly displayed in Christianity. Pastors are the most respected and adored individuals. Peter did not take pastoral responsibility, similar to how people view the package, currently, associated with it.

Peter turned and saw that the disciple whom Jesus loved was following them. (This was the one who had leaned back against Jesus at the supper and had said, “Lord, who is going to betray you?”)  When Peter saw him, he asked, “Lord, what about him?” Jesus answered, “If I want him to remain alive until I return, what is that to you? You must follow me.”  (John 21:20-22 NIV).

The lesson drawn from Peter ought to help believers realize that Christianity is not about attracting admiration to oneself. Whether called to be a Pastor, a teacher or any responsibility, as accorded by the Holy Spirit, nothing makes one great. The pastor’s feet need cleaning, just as others’ feet need cleaning.

The least among the group is entitled to rebuke the Pastor, with ferocity, when perceiving the misapplication of Jesus’ teachings. Christians need not be apologetic about God’s Kingdom. While humility is imperative, this does not mean relenting when Scriptures are violated. Jesus cannot be glorified by cowardice.

Jesus requires the conviction to speak with authority, against anyone misapplying the Scriptures, regardless of political viewpoints. Of course, one can be misconstrued as disrespectful of the Pastor. But that is what Christianity is all about. Some Christian groupings might, actually, excommunicate such critics.

People might hate the controversial person, without knowing they would be hating Christ. This is how Paul persecuted Jesus, unknowingly (Acts 9:4). The willingness to be used by God can be described as catastrophic. When looked at with sober minds, traditional Christianity is the opposite of what is expected of those calling Jesus the Lord. The significance of all this is found in the foot-washing principle.

During the foot-washing demonstration, Jesus pronounced the following to His disciples, representing us: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17 NIV). Ignoring the messenger, used to highlight these things, is as foolish as ignoring the author of Christianity. Christ speaks through anyone, regardless of human considerations.

Andrew Masuku is the author of Dimensions of a New Civilization, laying down standards for uplifting Zimbabwe from the current state of economic depression into a model for other nations worldwide. A decaying tree provides an opportunity for a blossoming sprout. Written from a Christian perspective, the book is a product of inspiration, bringing relief to those having witnessed the strings of unworkable solutions––leading to the current economic and social decay. Most Zimbabweans should find the book as a long-awaited providential oasis of hope, in a simple conversational tone.

The Print copy is now available at for $13.99

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