“You also should wash one another’s feet.”
A mini-course in discipleship follows the foot-washing parable. In a mere six verses, the brevity, breadth and depth of Jesus’ training in discipleship is astonishing. We can draw from this well of truth forever and never run dry. In a single paragraph (John 13:12-17) Jesus offers a step-by-step tutorial in teaching excellence. He guides every believing pastor, parent, professor and person in what it means to follow the Teacher and Lord. The way Jesus was with the disciples is the way we ought to be with one another.
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place.” John’s simple transition invites our meditation on the relationship between humility and authority. “When he had finished. . .” is the prelude to the final word from the cross, when Jesus said, “It is finished.” Foot-washing and the cross form a continuum stretching from one end of discipleship to another. All believers are called to serve as Jesus did along that continuum. This is where we find our place in the grand scheme of things. It is not up to us to brand the gospel with our image, but to teach the gospel “in accordance with the truth that is in Jesus” (Ephesians 4:21). Our strategies of communication follow Jesus’ foot-washing modus operandi.
Foot-washing humility and Word-of-God-authority belong together. This is the combination that Jesus chose, not only for himself, but for all of his followers. The two are inseparable and neither is sufficient apart from the other. This is a distinctive form of humility, not to be confused with conventional niceness and gestures of goodwill. Christian humility, in so far as it is a humility derived from Jesus, is different from any other kind of humility. Foot-washing-humility refuses to bow the knee to Baal or cow-tow to Caesar or give-in to religious pride. H. R. Niebuhr called it a kind of “proud humility and humble pride” because, “the humility of Christ is not the moderation of keeping one’s exact place in the scale of being, but rather that of absolute dependence on God and absolute trust in Him, with the consequent ability to remove mountains. The secret of the meekness and the gentleness of Christ lies in his relation to God.”
Jonathan Edwards warned that “not every show and appearance of humility will stand the test of the gospel.” The examples that “fall short of the reality,” included “an affected humility” that confused an emotional disposition of “natural low-spiritedness” and a character “wanting in manliness” with authentic self-sacrificing humility. “There is a counterfeit kind of humility, wrought by the delusions of Satan,” warned Edwards that is the polar opposite of “the meek and lowly and crucified Jesus.”
The best context for authoritative spiritual direction, whether it be formal preaching or table conversation, is humble hands-on service. After he had finished washing their feet, Jesus assumed his place at the table. He put on his street clothes, not a white chasuble and pastoral stole, but his ordinary attire, the kind worn by fishermen and carpenters. Humility was his vestment. Truth was his authority and persuasion. Character was his platform. In the spirit of Jesus’ humility, the apostle Peter’s spiritual direction comes to mind: “Clothe yourselves in humility toward one another, because ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time” (1 Peter 5:5-6).
Preachers who say the gospel entitles us to live our best life now are mistaken. We cannot say Jesus suffered in our place, so we don’t have to suffer; so we can be successful. We must not confuse the vicarious atonement with vicarious suffering. In Christ, self-identity and self-sacrifice are linked. Divine authority and divine humility are fully integrated. “He put on his clothes and returned to his place” (John 13:12). He assumed his rightful place as Teacher and Lord. Humble service and spiritual authority go together. We have emphasized that Jesus “knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3). Humility and authority are inseparable.
“What we suffer from today,” G. K. Chesterton wrote, “is humility in the wrong place.” Humility has moved from ambition to conviction. “A man was meant to be doubtful about himself, but undoubting about the truth; this has been exactly reversed. Nowadays the part of a man that a man does assert is exactly the part he ought not to assert—himself. The part he doubts is exactly the part he ought not to doubt—the Divine Reason.”
According to William Willimon, all good preachers ask, “Did Jesus have to die to preach this sermon?” If spiritual direction is delivered without the crucified Christ at the center, then it is only moralistic discourse clothed in religious rhetoric. If Jesus didn’t have to die to preach the sermon, the sermon is not Christian preaching. As we have said, Jesus related foot-washing to the soul-cleansing power of the atonement. Now, Jesus relates foot-washing to the praxis of discipleship. The challenge to wash one another’s feet is crucial for the body life of the church and the mission of God. Jesus intended all believers to understand that foot-washing symbolizes both the atonement and the praxis of discipleship. Jesus preached the atonement and the mission of God from his knees and then again at the table.
Upper Room Reflection
How does the convergence of method and message in Jesus’ ministry impact our ministry?
Why was Jonathan Edwards concerned about counterfeit humility?
What did Chesterton mean when he said we suffer from humility in the wrong place?
Is your life an object lesson for the gospel?