One of the most outstanding examples of Jesus’ character we need to emulate is in John’s account of the Last Supper. By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus gave us a picture of what Paul was communicating to the Philippians, but we also get an example we’re intended to follow. And a model is precisely what Jesus intended it to be.
Paul’s letter to the Philippian church holds up Jesus’ humility as a model. He tells the church:
In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:5–11, New International Version*).
This is not only a powerful reminder of the kind of attitude we’re supposed to have, but it’s also a beautiful reminder of the character of Jesus. He chose to take on the nature of a servant and enter into our experience in order to reconcile the world to Himself. In God’s economy, greatness is personified in the most humble act of service.
Paul then ties Jesus’ exaltation to His humility, reinforcing the message we get throughout Scripture that God lifts up the humble and resists the proud (Proverbs 29:23, Ezekiel 21:26, Matthew 23:12, James 4:6, 4:10, 1 Peter 5:6).
Jesus provides an example at the Last Supper
Let’s examine John’s account:
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill this passage of Scripture: ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’
“I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. Very truly I tell you, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.”
His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.”
Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him.
So Jesus told him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” But no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the festival, or to give something to the poor. As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night (John 13:1–30).
Lessons about service from the Last Supper
John frames this section by talking about the love of Jesus. The Lord knew His time was running out and He’d soon be returning to the Father, and John wants us to know that He loved His disciples until the end. To illustrate this, he gives us the story about the Last Supper.
Here are three lessons about Jesus’ love and service that we can take away from this critical story.
1. Jesus’ power is demonstrated through service
John’s Gospel is the only one that tells us how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. But before he gets to the actual story, he sets it up with these words:
Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
Think about how the conjunction “so” is being used here. John wants us to know that Jesus knew He was all-powerful. He knew where he was from and where he was returning to. And He responded to this by getting up from the table, taking off his cloak, and donning the garb of a servant.
Peter’s response makes it clear that washing the disciples’ feet was considered a lowly act. Too embarrassed by the situation, he initially refuses to let Jesus wash his feet until Jesus attaches essential symbolism to the gesture.
We’re not used to seeing power used this way. All over the world, the powerful use their authority and resources to rule over others and excuse themselves from serving others. And when we’re given even a modicum of influence or prestige, we’re faced with the temptation to use it on our own behalf to make our lives easier or better. Jesus used His power to serve.
What’s alarming is that the disciples still didn’t entirely get it. A number of times throughout His ministry, Jesus told the disciples that the greatest among them would be the one who served. But look at what Luke tells us happened at the Last Supper:
A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:24–27).
Since Luke doesn’t offer an account of the foot washing, it’s hard to know if this happened before or after. Either one would not be surprising. Maybe Jesus got up and put on the towel in response to this conversation, or perhaps the disciples still didn’t get it and immediately fell back into one of these discussions.
What we know for sure is that Jesus was God among us, and He came as a servant. So this is a lesson about how power is used in the kingdom of God and it’s an example of how we should view our role among others.
2. Jesus washed His enemy’s feet
As Jesus wraps up the meal, He offers bread to Judas and tells him to quickly do what he intends. John lets us know that this was a moment shared between Judas and Jesus, and the disciples had no idea what it meant. But Judas knew.
This tells us that Judas was present at this event and when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He washed Judas’ too. Think about this for a moment. After washing their feet, John tells us that Jesus was very troubled in His spirit and announced that one of them will betray Him. Jesus wasn’t above being hurt by Judas’ betrayal.
But He still serves the betrayer, washing his feet just like everyone else.
It can be challenging for us to serve others who have hurt us. But if Jesus was setting an example for the disciples to follow in washing their feet, part of that example was in how He treated the very man who was in the process of betraying Him and would be responsible later that evening for turning Him over to the authorities.
3. No servant is greater than his master
The things Jesus did for others sprang from His very nature. They demonstrated His character to the people He came into contact with. But they were also examples—to His disciples and to people who would follow Him in the future.
After Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, He tells them that He has just set an example that He expects them to follow. But then He tells them something very important. He says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” (John 13:15–16).
This saying comes up a number of times in the Gospels. When He is talking about the persecution He will face and tells the disciples that they should also expect persecution, He tells them, “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master” (Matthew 10:24). When telling them that the world hates Him and they should expect to be hated as well, He says “Remember what I told you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master” (John 15:20b).
In the ancient disciple/master relationship, there was no question about who was greater. The master was greater, and the disciple strove to grow into the master’s likeness. When Jesus reminds the disciples that the master is greater than the servant in regards to persecution, He’s reminding them that if they really want to be like the master, they should expect the same treatment the master experiences. It’s an encouraging reminder when they’re being mistreated that they’re on the right path.
When it comes to serving others, Jesus’ words take on more of a warning. He’s set an example of service He intends for them to follow, and they can choose to do so or not. By telling them that no servant is greater than his master, He’s reminding us that by choosing not to follow His example, they’re putting themselves above the master. They’re effectively saying, “The master may behave like a servant, but I don’t have to.”
Jesus wants to remind us all that He has set a precedent for His followers, and if the Master sees the importance of service and is willing to do it Himself, His servants should, too.
Learn more about what the Bible says about service
The Bible has much to say about how we treat and serve others. If you’re looking for more information about how Scripture handles the topic of service, check out “15 Bible Verses About Christian Service.” And if you’re looking for opportunities to serve, visit our How-to-Help page for a number of suggestions for reaching the world abroad—and around you.
*All Scripture is taken from the New International Version.