January 25, 2021

The Example


John 13:12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

The popular book UnChristian tells a story that most of us who work with young people already know: most young people in late high school and beyond have several highly negative views of Christianity. Growing up in a Christian home, attending church youth groups or campus ministries does a bit to temper this, but significant numbers of young people with these experiences in two have also concluded that Christians are shallow, narrow, over politicized, pushy, judgmental, specifically anti-homosexual and zealous for conversion.

These characteristics seem exaggerated, but unfortunately, they are often accurate. Many of those young people have experienced, painfully and personally, the truth that Christians take nothing quite so lightly as they do Jesus’ simple words “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

At the heart of much Christianity is a strange irony: in a faith that requires us to confess, not avoid, the knowledge of our own sinfulness, we make it almost a fetish to find ways to blame unbelievers and non-believers for their low opinion of Christians. (If the comment thread of this post doesn’t demonstrate that irony, I’ll be quite surprised.)

What is the “example” Jesus has left us? In John 13 it is the humility of washing the feet of the disciples. In a larger sense- the Philippians 2 sense- it is the entirety of the incarnation. At the end of the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” This is a commission to continue in the example, the “as.” It is the same example Jesus will refer to when he says that the new commandment is to love one another “as” he has loved us.

So the example Jesus gives to his disciples extends to all of his mission; into all that he has done, taught and enacted. The example is the character of Jesus, his person and personality, his actions and attitudes. Most of all, it is the Christ of the basin and the towel we find in the Gospel invitations. “Come to me, all that are weary….and I will give you rest.”

It is the example Jesus gives us that is so desperately needed to counter the painfully poor example of Christianity in the contemporary world. I do not mean a kind of worldly “niceness,” but the intimate experience of the person and power of Jesus that produces a servant with basin and towel, and sends him/her into the lives of others.

As I was studying last night, a program called “Intervention” came on the television. This particular program featured an intervention for a man named Lawrence. His mother, two brothers, girlfriend, secretary and a counselor representing the program all participated. Each person had his/her turn to appeal to Lawrence to get help. It was clear that there was a lot of pain in this story. Lawrence was faltering in his health, slurring his words and angry, but he consistently denied he had a problem or needed any help.

Each person spoke with love, truth, concern and sadness. There was much sadness, but there was no finger-wagging or striking out at Lawrence. Each person was clear and transparent in their great love for a son, brother and person they cared about and feared was near the end of an unnecessary journey. Each one gave a witness, a testimony, of their love for Lawrence.

As I watched “Intervention,” I thought of Jesus kneeling before Lawrence in the form of each person who loved him. Kneeling before him with basin and towel. “If I do not wash you…..you will die.” Each one was an example of Jesus.

Jesus is God’s intervention. Not in asking the world to change, but in changing everything and inviting all persons into a new creation and a new kingdom. Christians follow the example of Jesus as we carry forward that intervention. We are the ones who kneel before our fellow humans and represent the one with the basin and towel. We are the ones called to speak with love and truth, and to abandon the many ways we’ve found to act the opposite of the Christ who humbly washes feet.

I’m aware this isn’t the only example Jesus leaves us, but it is in many ways the most powerful. It is certainly one we should contemplate closely and meditate on deeply during this Passion Week.


  1. I think the problem we have in following Jesus example is our pride. We forget and don’t want to remember that we are just as needy and broken as anyone else, even those “outside”. When we realize that the only reason we have anything is the grace of God, then we can look at ourselves rightly and extend grace to others.

  2. Jesus had already “gone the distance” by leaving Heaven to walk on earth in the flesh. Washing the disciples feet, though, was an example we can actually follow. It’s hard to give excuses why we’re too good to do something for another with Jesus standing there saying “You know, I washed feet.” This is just one of the events of Holy Week, the subject of my most recent blog post which I now invite you to read for the first time (but you don’t HAVE to).

  3. Having witnessed as well as participated in a few foot washings I can sure testify to the profound effect it always seems to have. It certainly isn’t done enough in the Christian community and I’m sure a lot of healing would be released if more of it were done

  4. bookdragon says

    Truly Beautiful. Amen.

  5. “As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.”

    Funnily enough, I was thinking about this verse just this morning. I think too often we get the idea that when Christ urged us to take up the cross, it was simply a call to martyrdom. Here, Christ demonstrates that the work of the cross is, in part, a work of humble service, and that we are called to that, regardless of whether or not we might get killed for our beliefs–indeed, perhaps it is as brave, in its own way, to humbly serve when there will be no consequences, and hence no recognition this side of eternity.

    Thank you for this thought-provoking post.

    “We are the ones who kneel before our fellow humans and represent the one with the basin and towel.”


  6. DunkerEric says

    I love these posts on foot washing, as I grew up with the practice and have found it very meaningful.

    Footwashing was a powerful part of many of our youth retreats, asking us to again say ‘yes’ to Jesus in a way that was authentic and connected with me than yet another altar call.

    Also, I think the act of footwashing was a powerful counterpoint to the kind of Christian pride and superficiality that you mention. As youth, we absolutely knew that however badly some Christians might seem, that this humility and service was what Jesus was really about.

    I recommend going beyond contemplating the foot washing story and urge any readers who have the opportunity to attend a Thursday service that includes foot washing to do so!

  7. My first experience with footwashing came, (are you ready for this?) during a Chapel service at Duke Divinity School. I found myself initially much more comfortable washing the feet of others rather than having mine washed. Your post reminded me again of how much we really need Jesus, how we need to quit “faking it,” in life, how we need to love one another as he has loved us. Thank you.

  8. Thanks for this post. In my fellowship I am walking beside some friends who have fallen into one of “those” sins-one that is actually “bad”, unlike the other sins that everyone around us commits regularly. As I’ve been walking the tightrope between those who would condemn on the one hand and those who would condone on the other, this post was refreshing. I am to carry the basin and towel in their lives, grateful that I have been cleaned of much, and longing for them to be as well. That is the way of Jesus-truth and love balanced together, and presented from a place of service. Thanks. Keep writing, please.

  9. Wow, this post came at an amazing time (for me, anyway)! I just finished reading Dan Merchant’s book titled “Lord, Save Us From Your Followers” – and this is exactly what he talks about throughout the entire book!

    My favorite quotes from this book are:

    “I had to admit there have been far too many instances where my selfishness, impatience, ignorance, arrogance – you name it – has pushed people farther away from God rather than closer to Him.”

    “In First John it talks about how Jesus came in “truth and grace”. Seems like we might be a little heavy on the “truth” and a little light with the “grace”.”

  10. Just came across your blog.
    I appreciated your thoughts on becoming more like Jesus in our approach to the world around us. Having been on the inside and outside of faith, I really see a need for genuine love from the church. This act that Jesus did for His disciples really gives us an example of how we can serve the world. Before Jesus ever declared that He was in fact the “Bread of life” (John 6:35), He first fed the 5000 people (John 6:1-15), serving and showing that He cared for and loved them. There rae many examples of this all throughout the gospels.
    John 3:16 is often loved and quoted, but the words love and give are so closely related that we must never forget to also live this way! Thanks for your post and look forward to hearing more of your thoughts!

  11. Enoch McCarter says

    The King James translates the passage you mentioned in Philippians as Jesus becoming a man of no reputation. We might become more winsome to the world if we worried less about our reputation and more about being faithful servants.

  12. The washing of feet is a symbolic gesture. It was based on the need to be clean and comfortable before a meal in a land where there were few paved streets and walkways and no running water. The washer was usually a person of the lowest status. For the master, the Rabbi to assume this role was shocking, scandalous and humbling. The act itself has less meaning in our day.

    Unless I completely miss your point, Michael, you seem to advocate not the act but the submission behind it. What if I were to babysit for the single mother so she could have a night of rest? What if I were to wash bathrooms in the local high school? What if I were to serve as a bartender in a gay bar?

    It seems to me that the challenge for us is to rid ourselves of the pride that bids us to consider ourselves worthy of being washed and lower ourselves to the the station that Jesus assumed.

  13. Uncle Mikey says

    I am advocate of this being a practice of the Church to place a visual application of what Jesus communicates, for that the Church of today is forgeting that Jesus has already was our feet, and we ought to do the same to our fellow brethren and those that we encounter in this world.
    We ought to see more ways to meet needs of those arounds us, for the main principle here is for us to meet needs in service. Service to others will always open times of “intervention” to share the truth of the Kingdom of God.
    We must ask ourseleves how can wash their feet today… Then we will see how we can share truly and authenticly the hope in Jesus our Lord.

  14. Hey Michael, Since no one else has brought this up I’ll throw in another perspective on this incident, recorded in John 13. Note particularly, in verses 8-10, the dialogue between Jesus and Peter. They are talking in terms of some cleansing which identifies the one being washed with Jesus. Jesus says without his washing no one can have a part in Him.

    Of course, we can then see the symbolism here clearly points to cleansing from sin, from the dirt which pollutes our lives, from the filthy paths which we tread. Then, in verses 14-15, Jesus is telling us that just as He has washed his disciples, (ie., forgiven us through cleansing of the Gospel, Heb. 10:22 Titus 3:5, Eph. 5:26 ), so too, Jesus disciples are to forgive/wash each other’s sins away by speaking the Gospel to each other, to the repentant one. (Matt. 16:19, 18:15-18, John 20:21-23)

    This kind of forgiveness is rare, and the general lack of it, EVEN among believers, and by believers towards the world, certainly contributes to cynicism and skepticism by the world, among BOTH young and old.

    May God help us to live Jesus words (Matthew 5:23-26, 38-48), as witnesses to the world of a “culture” completely different than what they see daily, at work, in their families, in the political arena and between nations.

    “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

  15. So, where do we draw the line?

    I agree that Evangelicals particularly tend to want to make the heathen live like we should. I agree that this is a bad idea.

    However, how do we call sin, sin if that’s being “judgemental” or “anti-gay”? Just preaching “God loves you” really isn’t the truth, is it? The Bible constantly refers to the unrepentant as “the enemies of God” and such and that Jesus came to save them (and us) from the judgement to come.

    The problem is just as sticky within the church. While I abhor the idea of a checklist of who is saved or not, there are clear statements on how to deal with those who are commitiing unrepentant sin inside the church as well.

    So, I ask again, where do we draw the line between foot washing and tush kicking?

    There is also the point that some of these people we have “pushed away” had no intentions of ever being with God or us anyway. Wide is the path…


  16. Peter’s refusal to allow Jesus to wash his feet is alive and well in my heart. While willing to serve others I am too prideful to have my own feet washed or even to take off my socks to show how badly I need the bath.
    Jesus promotes a balance of being served in community and of serving selflessly as His way.
    He suggests that forgiving is a critical part of experiencing the full cleansing of our forgiveness.
    I hope I can consistently find the humility to do both.

  17. In response to DaveD I think love forces us to call out sin for the sake of the person committing it, to save him/her from the harm it brings.

    I’ve been to churches where all they dished out was the tush kicking, week after week. It makes me feel as if all that’s needed of me is to be in this safe group of people who don’t do this or that and everybody else on the outside is frowned on by God. I just don’t think Christ was like this.

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