John 13:14-15 “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”
We read in John 12 that the world has rejected Jesus despite all of His public signs and miracles. His public ministry to the world is largely over. John 13 introduces a new phase in Jesus' ministry: He now turns His attention to His disciples in a section of John known as the Upper Room Discourse (it is also referred to as His Farewell Discourse, John 13-17). Since He would be leaving them to return to Heaven, they would need to be prepared for His departure. In this section the Lord emphasizes their need to serve and love one another, to trust in God and obey Jesus' commands, and to abide in Him.
The Lord provides them with a vivid illustration of the way they were to relate to one another in this "acted parable" of foot-washing. This practice makes the disciples feel extremely uncomfortable: He got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples' feet, drying them with the towel he had around him (John 13:4-5, NLT). A master does not do this, and so they were caught completely off guard. Peter strongly objects, but the Lord overrules him,” 'No,’ Peter protested, 'you will never ever wash my feet!’ Jesus replied, ‘Unless I wash you, you won't belong to me.' (John 13:8). In this dramatic display, the Lord set the precedent of humble service for His disciples.
Serving others in quiet and sometimes anonymous ways pleases the Lord but also does something beneficial to us. By engaging in service we forget about ourselves and focus on others.
Someone once wrote:
"In some ways we would prefer to hear Jesus’ call to deny father and mother, houses and land for the sake of the gospel than his word to wash feet. Radical self-denial gives the feel of adventure. If we forsake all, we even have the chance of glorious martyrdom. But in service we must experience the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. Service banishes us to the mundane, the ordinary, the trivial."
One of the most important virtues service develops is humility.
This same author adds:
"Nothing disciplines the inordinate desires of the flesh like service, and nothing transforms the desires of the flesh like serving in hiddenness. The flesh whines against service but screams against hidden service. It strains and pulls for honor and recognition. It will devise subtle, religiously acceptable means to call attention to the service rendered. If we stoutly refuse to give in to this lust of the flesh, we crucify it. Every time we crucify the flesh, we crucify our pride and arrogance."
If we desire to be true disciples of the Lord Jesus, we must cultivate a servant’s heart. The world will not approve of this, but it is highly valued in His kingdom. There are so many practical ways to serve God’s people: (1) listening, (2) hospitality, (3) visitation, (4) generosity, (5) common (or not-so-common) courtesy, (6) empathy, (7) encouragement, (8) intercessory prayer, (9) caring for the sick. The list is endless! Jesus reminds us, When you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were doing it to me! (Matthew 25:40, NLT).
We need to remember that the glorious symbol of Christianity, the cross, also includes a humble, self-effacing symbol---a towel.