Many stories from the Bible are grafted into common elements in our culture, yet without any context for the origin. Two simple, nearly universal ones are a rainbow in the sky, and a dove with an olive branch in its beak.
The rainbow speaks to us of hope, especially as sunbeams penetrate a stormy sky. The dove is sign of peace. What's their origin? The story of Noah and the flood (Gen 9:8-17; 8:11).
The story of Jesus washing His disciples feet speaks to many people of the humility of Jesus. But most people miss the point of why Jesus stooped to wash the disciples feet. This is further compounded by ignorance of who Jesus is.
Jesus, the Passover, and foot washing
The timing of Jesus' humble act is significant. It was the Jewish feast of Passover, an annual event to commemorate the Angel of Death passing over the homes with the blood of a lamb painted on the exterior door frame (Exodus 12:5-7, 12-14). In John 13:1, Jesus knew it was His appointed time. He would become an all-encompassing Passover Lamb for anyone who would trust in Him (John 1:29).
After eating the Passover supper with His disciples, Jesus did something extraordinary. He got up from the supper, took off His outer clothing, wrapped a towel around His waist, poured water into a bowl, and began to wash His disciples feet.
We know it was extraordinary because of Simon Peter's reaction when Jesus came to wash his feet (John 13:6-10). Once Peter was convinced it was necessary, Jesus finished washing all their feet, including the man (Judas Iscariot) who would betray Him.
Then Jesus put His clothing back on and sat down to teach them. It was an object lesson. One that shocked them. Why? Because Jesus, their Teacher and Lord, had taken on the form and work of the lowest household servant.
[bctt tweet="What Jesus demonstrates by example and teaches in words is poignant and powerful"]
The nature and heart of Jesus
So, how is this relevant to us in our time? What Jesus demonstrates by example and teaches in words is both poignant and powerful. What He did was unexpected. It was beyond anything His disciples could imagine.
Jesus, the one they believed was the Messiah and whom they called Rabbi (teacher), stripped down (think underwear), stooped down, and did what the lowliest household servant was expected to do. It would be more appropriate for these twelve men to wash His feet, rather than He theirs.
[bctt tweet="Jesus stripped down, stooped down and did the unexpected"]
This is relevant for every person who trusts in Jesus—as Lord and Savior (Matt 16:24). It is not just for people in positions of leadership, although it is certainly true for them, too. It is applicable for any of us who claim to be Christian, for we are all to be leaders by example as representatives of God's kingdom, regardless of our role in life.
8 traits of servant-leadership we see in Jesus
A simple way to see these traits as relevant for any believer is to consider Jesus' attitude of heart and how it translates into action. Each one has relevance for us, some more so than others.
1–Jesus was motivated by love (John 13:1)
Jesus' number one priority was to please the Father. But, is it ours? He was compelled by love, not ambition. Love for the Father, and love for those who followed Him. And His love extended beyond all boundaries, even betrayal.
We are told He would love them to the end, or, as it says in another translation, to the fullest extent. The nature of God's love is expressed in John 3:16— God so loved the world, that He gave His only Son....
Jesus was motivated by love. Are you? Are we, as His church?
2–His humility was based on confidence (John 13:2-3)
Jesus had nothing to prove and nothing to lose. He knew who He was, where He had come from, and where He was going. His relationship with the Father, His mission, His nature as a Son, were His base of confidence, not His role as Messiah.
If our confidence is based on anything else than our personal relation with the Lord, it is empty. It will not last, and will let us down. Jesus' confidence gave Him freedom to stoop down as a servant.
Are so you confident in your relationship with God that you can serve others without losing face?
3–He denied Himself and gave Himself to God 1st (John 13:4-5)
The basic call of discipleship (Matt 16:24) is the basic foundation for leadership in God's kingdom. We need to look beyond ourselves—our own needs, desires, dreams—and commit them and ourselves to the Lord.
If we can't look beyond ourselves, how can we hope to lead anyone into and within the Kingdom of God? The key is to give ourselves to God first, which will be seen in our relationship with others.
How do we see others? How do we treat others?
4–He had authority with purpose (John 13:6-9)
The authority of God is not a position to be held or a mere role. Godly leadership guides others with gentle strength for their benefit, not ours. Any authority we have from God is a gift because it has value and purpose beyond us.
Jesus showed us an authority with purpose. It wasn't power in and of itself, but exercised to bless and strengthen others.
Sometimes it needs to be set aside as we see Jesus set aside His outer clothing (John 13:4). Sometimes it is exercised because of a purpose beyond the immediate situation.
Are we willing to set aside authority for a greater purpose?
5–He exercised discernment with restraint (John 13:10-11)
Jesus knew the nature and character of His disciples, all of them. Just as He knows each one of His followers today.
When God's Spirit reveals things to us, we don’t always have to reveal it to others. We need to use discretion and seek the Lord for why He reveals things to us.
We don't need to act as if we're God and confront, defend, or try to correct all wrongs. We need to be careful not to interfere with what the Lord wants to do.
When God reveals things, are we willing to seek discernment, and use discretion and restraint?
6–He instructed by example (John 13:12-13)
People need to see the truth in us, as they did in Jesus. His teaching went beyond words, and so it is with us. Leading by example is a basic responsibility of all good leadership.
Jesus didn't teach them before He washed their feet, he washed, then taught. He gave them an example to follow, then explained it to them.
What is the example others see in us? Does it reflect the humble heart of Jesus?
7–He exhorted by His example (John 13:14-15)
As a parent, I lead, teach, and exhort by example. This is also true for any role of leadership,whether in a recognized role as a leader or not.
It's okay to have reasonable expectations of those we lead. People expect leaders to lead! People also have expectations of us, as Christian believers. We are to lead them, by example, towards God and His kingdom.
Is our life example clear and strong enough that it speaks to others?
8–He exhorted the disciples to action (John 13:16-17)
"Words are beautiful, but action is supreme," is a quote echoed by modern revolutionaries. But Jesus's whole life was revolutionary. Though it seemed to end in death, He rose from the dead! Even as the Savior of the world, he stooped down to serve.
His exhortation to the disciples, to not just know truth but to do it, is echoed in the Bible by the apostle John (1 John 3:18), by James (James 1:22), and the apostle Paul (Col 3:15-17). This is where others see the integrity of our spiritual life.
Do we just know the truth, or is it at work in us, and visible to others?
We all lead in some way, as examples to others in various roles in life—at home, our workplace, church, and in various relationships. And all Christian believers are called to lead others to Jesus, so they may enter God's kingdom—a domain of love and light.
Do you see how you can put these 8 traits of servant-leadership into action?