In a famous passage in John 13, Jesus took a towel and a basin and washed the feet of His disciples. He told them “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” (John 13:14-15).
Some devout Christians have taken this verse literally. They have made it their custom to have “foot washing” services. This is commendable, yet if it remains only a ritual, the true meaning of foot washing has been lost.
After Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He put His garment back on, sat down and asked them, “Do you know what I have just done to you?” In other words, “Do you understand the spiritual significance of foot washing?”
I believe the Lord’s question is for us today as well. Do we understand the depths of what He did in washing the disciples’ feet? Indeed, something very powerful and profound was taking place; Christ was teaching His church one of its most important lessons.
Jesus was not instituting an ordinance to be carried on throughout the church ages, such as communion or water baptism. If so, He would have instituted it at the beginning of the disciples’ training. He would have submitted to a foot washing Himself, as He had done with water baptism. I believe Jesus was giving us an example of the kind of physical manifestation He desires most, that of “taking up the towel.”
I believe that if we understand what Jesus did in washing His disciples’ feet, we will understand the concepts of service and submission. You see, serving one another in love and submitting to one another in godly fear mean much more than taking orders or being accountable to a higher authority. Rather, these glorious truths are unlocked only in the context of “taking up the towel.”