So he got up from supper, laid aside His robe, took a towel, and tied it around Himself. Next, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him. – John 13:4-5
It’s one of the most striking images the New Testament offers of our Savior: dusty feet, a basin of water on the ground, Jesus kneeling before shocked disciples, rag in hand. It’s a picture with which most Christians are familiar—a perfect demonstration of a true servant leader – Jesus serving instead of being served. The event is often captured in artistic renderings found in Sunday School quarterlies or in dramatic representations as part of an Easter play, but as familiar as the story may be to us, I believe its significance is often lost.
To understand what was going on we need to understand the context in which the account occurs. This scene is found in John’s re-telling of the Passover supper which Jesus shares with His disciples on the night of His betrayal. This supper (as will be demonstrated at our upcoming Christ in the Passover service) was not the same as our “Lord’s Supper” and involved more elements than bread and wine. Passover was a meal with tremendous significance and it was intended to be a mnemonic device for the Jewish people to continually remember God’s miraculous deliverance of His people from slavery in Egypt. As such, the meal was full of ritual and symbolism: herbs dipped in salt water to remind them of the tears which were shed, unleavened bread to remind them of their harried escape, roasted lamb to remind them of the Passover sacrifice—each element was intended to re-tell the story and remind Israel of their Rescuer.
Every Jewish household had someone who would serve as the leader of the Seder service. In addition to guiding everyone through the ceremony, it fell to him to make sure everything was done appropriately and in accordance with tradition. To be the leader was a great honor, and to signify this, the leader, at the beginning of the supper, would don a white robe called a kittel, and would ceremonially wash his hands in a basin of water, setting himself apart for divine service. Some commentators even believe this plain white garment served as a reminder of the white robes wore by the High Priest when he entered the Holy of Holies. Like the High Priest, the Jewish man leading the Passover service was in a position of great honor, duty, and respect.
Jesus, partaking in the Passover Supper with His disciples, would be expected to take on this role and this honor. They saw Him as Israel’s deliverer, the warrior king who would overthrow Rome, and He was their rabbi. Who else among them would be worthy to wear that white robe? He was about to be king and they were His humble servants. Any honor in the room was rightfully His.
Imagine the disciples’ surprise when at the start of the supper Jesus takes off this white robe of honor and replaces it with a servant’s towel, and instead of ceremonially washing His hands, He kneels and begins washing His disciples’ unclean feet. This was a task reserved for house slaves not the head of the household. Feet in those days were not merely dusty, but, due to the surrounding livestock and terrain, were filthy. In the disciples’ eyes, the Messiah, the future king of Israel, in a moment where He should be enjoying privilege, does the one thing that none of them in the room would have wanted to do.
Not until He has washed all of their feet does He again take up the robe and the position of honor, and then, while their mouths were probably still agape in shock, he says, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call Me Teacher and Lord. This is well said, for I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Jesus was taking this moment to explain something very important. In His Kingdom there is no room for those who seek power and privilege. In His Kingdom the most honorable person is the one who sacrifices his own honor for the privilege of serving others—who follows and points to the example set by Jesus. Every time we follow His example and humbly lay down our pride in loving service to another, we are pointing others back to Jesus and what He did in service to the gospel. May we all be willing to take up the servant’s towel in exchange for the robe of honor.
NEWS AND NOTES:
The Rose of Sharon Praise Team is gearing up for a great week of worship leading up to Easter and anyone involved in those services needs to be aware of the following rehearsal dates:
Sunday, March 18th at 4:00
Wednesday, March 21st at 6:30
Wednesday, March 28th at 6:30
We are excited to announce that a representative from Jews for Jesus will be joining us on Sunday, March 25th at 5:00 to show us “Christ in the Passover.” This will be a model Seder service and each participant will not only hear and see how Jesus Christ is foreshadowed in the Passover supper but will also get to sample the various items on the Seder plate. This service is not to be missed. If you are interested in helping to prepare some of the food items for this service see Jonathan or sign up in the Connection Center.
On Good Friday, March 30th, at 7:00pm we will have our third annual Worship at the Cross service. This service utilizes music, Scripture, and striking visuals to remind each of us of the great sacrifice paid by Jesus on the cross. Every Christian attending is invited to join us in the partaking of communion, and we encourage you to invite others to join you for this special night of reflection.
It’s a true pleasure to worship and serve alongside each of you at Rose of Sharon, and I look forward to what God has in store for us in the days ahead!
In His Service,