What thoughts raced through the angels’ minds as they beheld their Creator stoop down to wash human feet? How much those burning seraphim must have wondered. They themselves blushed to expose such creatureliness before their King — worshiping the Son around the throne with feet wing-covered (Isaiah 6:2). What did they think now to watch the Holy One take water and clean those calloused, sweaty, unbeautiful toes?
Did they sing with the psalmist, “What is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:4). Did they sympathize with Peter’s astonished “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Did they see something right in Peter’s insistent “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:6, 8)?
From heaven’s view, this moment must have outstripped Jesus’s many signs and wonders thus far. The angels had stood by when the Son created the world, when “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). What was multiplying bread compared to speaking the land and wheat into existence? The calming of a storm to the very creation of seas and wind and waves with a mere word? They already knew their God had power to raise the dead; they knew him as the God of all life.
But this sight was different. The King of kings played the part of slave of slaves. Had their eyes seen anything like it since he took on human flesh? Armies of angels watched their Captain — the eternal God from the Father’s right hand — bend before his creatures to wash their feet, hours before those feet fled in fear. Here bowed an act beyond omnipotence, an act Matthew Henry named a “miracle in humility.” Former wonders proved he was God; this proved what kind of God he was.
Psychology of Service
Oh, to see this act as angels did. Or better, to see this act as God does. Thankfully, the Holy Spirit moved John’s pen to capture it. Contained within his account are two utterly profound, God-revealed details that I too often have read past.
For years, this is how I (and perhaps you) recalled the spectacle:
Jesus . . . rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3–5)
We remember merely the external act. Jesus washed feet, and so should we. But how much better is the Bible’s telling than our remembering. Two discreet phrases get omitted:
During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper . . . and began to wash his disciples’ feet. (John 13:2–5)
The Holy Spirit, who searches even the mind of God (1 Corinthians 2:10), gives John insight into the very thoughts of Christ just before he bent low to serve. We get an open window into Jesus’s meditations of soul. These cannot be irrelevant details. John will not allow Jesus’s hands to wash until we know what sceptered him for service. The Spirit gifts us with the psychology of Jesus’s heavenly servanthood as he foreshadowed the coming cross.
So let us think after his two thoughts before he rose from dinner. And may what we see animate a lifetime of lowly service.
1. I am rich in God.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands . . . rose from supper . . . and began to wash the disciple’s feet. (John 13:3–5)
That the Father had placed “all things” into Christ’s hands was no new thought for him. He felt the fullness from the beginning of his ministry: “The Father loves the Son and has given all things into his hand” (John 3:35).
Christ’s service, here and from the beginning, was not an impoverished service. He did not consider that he had nothing in his hands, or had nothing better to fill them with than human feet. He never needed from his disciples; thus, he could give richly to his disciples. A rich King condescended.
By the Spirit, John makes known that Jesus again deliberates upon all that God had given him. He felt the treasures over in his mind and heart. What golden coins did he feel?
He felt the work, so far accomplished, that the Father gave him to do (John 17:4) — the teachings, the perfect acts of righteousness, the mighty works that a world full of books could not contain (John 21:25) — with the chief jewel now before him. Perhaps he felt the life surging in himself or pondered his authority over all flesh (John 5:25–27; 17:2). No doubt he felt the diamonds and rubies of the glory given him and the glory to be his again, now to be exalted as the God-man, in the Father’s presence (John 17:5). But most often in John, Jesus speaks of the Father having given him a people (John 6:35–40; 10:28–29; 17:1–3, 6–9, 11–15, 22–25).
That night he prays “for those whom you have given me” (John 17:9):
I am no longer in the world, but they are in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, keep them in your name, which you have given me, that they may be one, even as we are one. While I was with them, I kept them in your name, which you have given me. I have guarded them, and not one of them has been lost except the son of destruction, that the Scripture might be fulfilled. (John 17:11–12)
The Father had given him a people. Later that evening, he steps in front of them at his arrest to fulfill his promise: “Of those whom you gave me I have lost not one” (John 18:9). Death, Satan’s accusations, the Father’s just wrath pursued them. He was no hired hand — he laid down his life for his sheep. He had to, if they would be saved. He went low to his knees to wash his Bride’s feet — and down into the depths to raise her to himself and to the Father in heaven. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
2. I am going home to my Father.
Jesus, knowing that . . . he had come from God and was going back to God . . . began to wash the disciples’ feet. (John 13:3, 5)
We are not from the Father in the same way Jesus was. He is the Son, fully God, eternally existent “in the beginning” with God, in the beginning as God (John 1:1–2). The Father sent the Son from eternity past (John 7:29). The Son took on flesh and tabernacled among us (John 1:14); God entered his own story.
Jesus knew this. He incensed the Jews by claiming that before Abraham existed, he was (John 8:58). He would pray that evening, “Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed” (John 17:5). Jesus, in whom the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, came from the Father into the world to save his people from their sins.
During dinner, Jesus’s thoughts fed upon his future with his Father. A few verses earlier, John summarizes the whole brutal cross with a most beautiful phrase: “Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father” (John 13:1). Jesus viewed his coming death, even the most horrific, shameful death, as the ferry to bring him home to his Father.
The joy outweighed the anguish: for the joy set before him he endured the cross, despising the shame. For him (and for all his people), death does not submerge into the abyss; it carries the soul to the God it calls “Father.” Beyond the feet-washing and beyond the cross and beyond even his people and glory on the other side, Jesus reflected upon the one to whom he went: the Abba his soul loved.
No Service Too Low
The Master’s foot-washing foretold of his cleansing cross-work. And with it, he left us an example.
I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 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. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:15–17)
Christ, our great Master and filth-washer, has left us an example — not just in his actions, but in his considerations. In the psychology of the God-man’s service, he shows us that we too must serve from knowing our fullness and our future in him.
We often do not serve because we think ourselves wanting. To serve others, we believe, increases our deficits. Yet consider that in Christ, all things are yours. Remove your outer robe, and you have not removed God’s favor. Tie the servant’s towel around your waist, and you have not forfeited your room in your Father’s house. Take in your hands the mud-stained, smelly, unlovely feet of fellow saints and sinners, and you shall still take hold of your place next to the Son to reign. What can separate us from the love of Christ? While you and I are enveloped in such blessing — the least of which is experienced now — whose feet can we not wash?
Or consider that, like Christ, you sail upon a vessel heading to the Father. Jesus made it so. He went to Calvary to prepare a place for us in his Father’s house (John 14:2–3). Peter writes of the cross, “Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Peter 3:18). Born of God, our destiny is to be with God, forever. What service is too low when you consider a future so high?
You are rich in God now, and richer still as you head to God, your full inheritance. Whom can we not serve along the road to such a glory? The angels saw the Son wash human feet: may they see such beautiful service replicated by his people throughout this selfish world. May they see our satisfaction in God performed in our service of others.