The depiction of the twelve disciples in the Gospels is nothing if not human. In scene after scene we see men slow to comprehend the teachings of Jesus. Sometimes they have trouble understanding his parables. At other times, they fail to comprehend just how radically His message differed from that of other teachers, especially when it came to the nature of greatness and the importance of service. Perhaps we cannot fault them too much. They had never seen a teacher like Jesus before. Neither had anyone else.
Jesus stressed the importance of putting others first. His followers were slow to accept this. It is not hard to see why they struggled. Even today in a society traditionally governed by a Christian worldview, serving sounds like a menial and thankless task. It seems as if most think of it as the duty of the less important. The world teaches that those who rule are rich and powerful; those who serve are not. The disciples seemed to think along similar lines.
When the mother of James and John petitions Jesus to grant her sons prime places of importance in His kingdom, the other ten disciples become indignant (Matt. 20:20-24). Jesus sees this as a teaching moment. The sons of Zebedee and their mother needed to understand that true power in the kingdom of God comes not from ruling, but serving. The other ten disciples needed to hear it as well. Jesus says that the Gentiles view power and service in predictable ways. God designed things to work differently among His people. He says, “whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and give his life as a ransom for many” (Matt. 20:26b-28, ESV). The disciples seemed to have been keeping their eyes on positions of influence and power in Christ's kingdom. But they are not the only ones, are they? The same thing happens in churches all over the globe, whether in the first century or the twenty-first.
The world stands in diametric opposition to the gospel of Christ, including when it comes to understanding the nature of service. It is about meeting the needs of another without expectation of reward or recognition. Perhaps this should come as no surprise – the gospel of Christ is nothing if not counter-intuitive. In Gospel Christianity, Timothy Keller says, “Christ wins our salvation through losing, achieves power through weakness and service, comes to wealth via giving all away. And those who receive his salvation are not the strong and accomplished but those who admit they are weak and lost.”
No one wants to be given treatment less than what they think they deserve. They may even like the idea of being a servant, but not want to be treated like one. Nevertheless, the apostle Paul instructed the Christians in Philippi to count others as more important than themselves, and look to the interests of others (Phil. 2:3-4). The fourth century church father John Chrysostom also remarked, “Loving the first place is not fitting to us, even though it may be among the nations. Such a passion becomes a tyrant” (Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, 65.4).
The greatest example of service comes from Christ Himself. Emptying himself of his glory (Philippians 2:5-8), He trades a throne for a cross and substitutes the worship of angels for jeers from His opponents. Among the heavenly host, His word is law; on earth, it is considered the ravings of a lunatic. Despite the insults, rejection, and betrayal He would suffer, His love for his creation compelled Him to accept a fate worse than death. Humanity could never be saved without the substitutionary atonement He alone could provide. His love could never allow Him to leave His creation unredeemed.
With His time on earth drawing swiftly to a close, Jesus gathered His disciples together to eat a meal (John 13:1-17). Having come from the town of Bethany, they were no doubt weary. Their feet were dusty and dirty from travelling. Normally, a household servant would have performed the task of washing the men's feet. Since no servant seemed to be available, this duty would have fallen to one of the disciples. It was a service none was willing to perform. The disciples frequently argued about which would be the greatest (cf. Matthew 20:20-24; Luke 22:24-30) – washing dirty feet was beneath them. The disciples had failed to understand that greatness in God's kingdom is not measured by control or power; it is demonstrated by willingness to serve.
The towel, washbasin, and pitcher sat in the room, waiting for use. Each of the disciples looked around at the others, hoping that someone else would make a move, but all refusing to do anything. The food comes, and they begin to eat. None of the twelve has made the slightest attempt to stand. Jesus gets up during the course of the meal to do what His disciples would not (John 13:3-4). So what does the most powerful man in the universe do? He gets a towel and a bowl of water, and starts washing feet.
Jesus cleans the dirt and grime of the disciples' feet one by one, including a pair that belonged to the man who had already sold Him out to the authorities for thirty pieces of silver. The reactions of eleven of the men are not recorded. We can only hope that they felt shame for thinking so highly of themselves.
In time, the disciples would understand that the kingdom of God is like no earthly kingdom. It is a place where humility is a primary virtue of the noble, not a by-product of conditions suffered by the downtrodden and oppressed. Grace and love are the currency of the redeemed, and “might makes right” is the creed of the condemned. This world would benefit immeasurably if more of us stopped looking for seats of power and started looking for towels and pitchers.