General Colin Powell was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for the American armed forces during the Gulf War. General Powell became so famous, so powerful, and so popular that many people wanted him to run for president of the United States.

Here’s a story about Colin Powell you may never have heard.  At the height of his power and fame, General Powell invited a group of army recruits in basic training to share a meal with him. The men had been through a busy day, and the invitation caught them by surprise. They had only a few minutes’ notice to get ready. They showered as quickly as they could and put on fresh uniforms, but they didn’t have time to polish their boots. The men hurried to the place where the general had invited them, excited to be eating at the same table with him.

During the meal, something strange happened. General Powell suddenly got up from his seat, grabbed a rag and some shoe polish, knelt at the feet of one of the recruits, and polished his boots. Then the general moved on to the next man and polished his boots. As he made his way around the table, kneeling at each man’s feet, one or two of them objected that the general should not be serving a shoeshine boy for enlisted men. But General Powell insisted. He polished every boot of every man in that room. Then he returned to his seat at the head of the table.

Have you ever heard that story? Probably not, because it’s not a true story. I just made it up. Colin Powell has done many things, but he will never be known as “the shoeshine general.”

In the military, each man knows his place. Enlisted men can’t even get into the officers’ club, so there’s no way the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs would stoop down and polish the dirty, scruffy boots of lowly recruits.  If a recruit’s boots aren’t shiny enough, all he can expect from someone of higher rank is “Polish those boots, you filthy maggot!” or something to that effect. No officer would shine the shoes of enlisted men, and there’s absolutely no way someone of the very highest rank would do such a thing for those of the lowest rank.

Truth Stranger Than Fiction

The story I told about General Powell is fiction, but truth is stranger than fiction. Someone far greater than any general did something lowlier than shining shoes.  Jesus Christ, Creator of the world, commander of angels, “very God of very God,” stooped down and washed the feet of ordinary people.

Two thousand years ago people in Israel didn’t wear shoes. They wore sandals. Walking along a dusty road in sandals, people’s feet got dirty and needed to be washed. How would you like to wash someone else’s dirty, smelly feet? I’d rather shine shoes! If you lived in Israel in those days, you wouldn’t see anyone important washing the feet of others. That was a job for servants and slaves.

It’s amazing, then, that the highest ranking person in the universe chose to act as a slave and wash the feet of his followers. The apostle John, one of those whose feet Jesus washed, tells us about it in John 13.

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, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his 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.  I tell you the truth, 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.

“Actions speak louder than words,” and this action of Jesus speaks loudly indeed. The foot washing speaks on at least three levels: dramatizing Jesus’ life and work, symbolizing our need for cleansing, and energizing Jesus’ followers to serve others.


Dramatizing Jesus’ Life and Work

Let’s look first at how Jesus dramatized his entire life and work in this one act of washing his followers’ feet. The meal began with Jesus sitting at the table in the place of honor where he belonged. After all, he was the Lord and Teacher. But he got up from his seat, left the place of honor, and laid aside his outer clothing. Then he wrapped a towel around his waist and prepared to do the work of a slave. This was a picture of what Jesus did when he left his position as God and Lord of all things to become a humble human.    When Jesus went from the best seat at the banquet to shoeshine boy, he pictured how he went from heaven’s throne to become part of a poor human family in order to serve us and make us clean.

Taking the role of a slave, Jesus poured water into the basin and washed his disciples’ feet.  This pictured what he would do the next day.  On Thursday night he poured water and washed feet. On Good Friday he poured blood and washed away the sin of his people. As water cleanses dirt, so “the blood of Jesus … purifies us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).

But the drama didn’t end with washing. After Jesus finished his task, he put on his robe and returned to his original place of honor. In the same way, when Jesus completed his suffering to  wash away sin, he shouted, “It is finished” and died. A few days later, he took up his life again, left the tomb, and appeared to his disciples. Then he returned to his original place of honor in heaven. As the Bible puts it, “After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven” (Hebrews 1:3).

What motivated Jesus to do all this? The answer can be stated in one word: love. John 13:1 says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” He showed his love by doing the work of a slave and washing feet, and he showed his love even more fully by dying to wash away sin.  Jesus did all this, not because he accidentally bumbled into it, not because anyone forced him to do it, not because his followers earned it or deserved it, but simply because he “loved his own.” As the Bible says in another place, “God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Some writers and film directors, and even some scholars and preachers, have portrayed Jesus as confused about his identity and mission. They picture Jesus as not quite knowing who he was or why had was on earth. But notice how the Bible introduces the story of the footwashing: “Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1). Jesus knew exactly who he was and where he had come from and where he was going. He knew he was God’s Son. He knew Judas had already sold him out. He knew that the next day he would be nailed to a cross and die for the sins of the world. “Jesus knew,” says the Bible, “that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3). Jesus knew! He spoke about these things to his followers, and in washing their feet, he vividly dramatized his life and work.

Jesus knew exactly who he was and what he was doing. His suffering was unforeseen or unfortunate. His suffering didn’t catch him by surprise. It was for this very reason, said Jesus, that he came into the world (John 12:27). He went to the cross, not in confusion, but with a knowing mind and a loving heart. Well ahead of time, Jesus said, “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again” (John 10:18). In the original language, the words Jesus used when he said he would “lay down” and “take up” his life are the same words which tell how he laid down his robe to wash his disciples’ feet and how he took up his robe again afterward.

Clearly, then, by washing his followers’ feet, Jesus dramatized each step in his mission: leaving his rightful place in heaven, laying down his glory and his life to wash away our sin, then taking up his life and his glory once again, and returning to his place on heaven’s throne. The Bible beautifully summarizes the whole sequence when it says:

Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became 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 confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:6-7).

Symbolizing Our Need for Cleansing

When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he dramatized his life and work, and he also symbolized our need to be washed and cleansed.  We see this, especially in an argument that arose between Jesus and Peter. As Jesus was going from person to person, washing their feet, “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.” After Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter would understand that washing dirty feet symbolized washing away sin, but for the time being, Peter didn’t know what it meant, and he didn’t want Jesus to do it.

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Like Peter, we think we know better than Jesus. We try to correct him and stop him from cleansing us. But washing sinners is Jesus’ main work, the reason he came to earth. If we refuse his washing, we refuse Jesus himself. Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part in me.” The Lord’s message for us is the same: we must accept his washing in order to have any part in him and in the eternal life that he gives.

How do you react to Jesus, the servant who washes dirty sinners? Make no mistake, you do have to react. You must either accept the washing that comes through his blood or else refuse it. Jesus offers to wash you. He wants you to admit that you are dirty with sin, and he offers to make you clean. Do you believe that his blood can wash away any sin? Do you want him to wash away your sins?

You may want to say, “No, Lord, you will never wash me!” You may think you don’t really need to be washed: you think you’re clean enough already. You make mistakes now and then, but you consider yourself basically a good person.  You don’t believe your sin is so serious that only the blood of Jesus can make you clean. You don’t believe you will have no part in the Lord and go to hell unless he washes you.

Well, if you think that way, you have company. A man sentenced to prison for ripping off millions of dollars said, “I never dreamed I could do anything that would result in being a felon.” A notorious murderer was quoted as saying, “You can’t judge a man’s life by one act. Before I became known as a killer, I was basically a decent person.”  Most of us, even killers and robbers, think we’re pretty good. We refuse to be washed because we don’t think we really need it.

Or maybe there’s another reason you don’t want Jesus to wash you. You may know you’re dirty and need to get cleaned up, but you don’t want to be clean. Like a grubby child who likes dirty and hates baths, you know you’re filthy, you know you’re doing wrong–but you like it. It’s so much fun!  You like your sexual games. You like booze and drugs. You like being rich and selfish. You enjoy sin too much to accept cleansing. So when Jesus comes to you and offers cleansing, you respond, “I don’t want you to wash me. I like dirt.”

Maybe you know that if Jesus washes you and serves you, he’ll expect you to start serving others. If you trust that Jesus died on the cross for you, you must take up your own cross. You’ll have to sacrifice time, money, desires, and much more. You’ll have to serve people who are lower than you are, just as the Lord serves you. And that doesn’t sound good. Who wants to give up power and privilege in order to shine shoes?

Or maybe you have what seems like a higher motivation for refusing Jesus’ help. Peter thought Jesus shouldn’t stoop to serve him; he should serve Jesus. Peter intended to do great things for Jesus. He bragged that even if everyone else deserted Jesus, he would remain faithful and die for Jesus. Sounds noble, doesn’t it? “Ask not what Jesus can do for you; ask rather what you can do for Jesus.” That may sound good, but it’s really pride to assume Jesus needs your help but you don’t need his. The truth is, you can’t do anything for Jesus until you first accept what he does for you. You are spiritually helpless unless Jesus helps you. You are dirty unless Jesus washes you. You have no part in Jesus if you are counting on your own efforts to earn his approval. Helping with food drives, giving money to charity, teaching Sunday school–you can do all these things and still have no part in Jesus. You can’t serve Jesus until he first serves you and cleanses you of sin.

When Jesus told Peter, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me,” Peter was shocked, and he quickly responded, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” That would be a fitting reaction for someone who has never before come to Jesus and trusted in him. If you’ve never put your faith in Christ, then you should pray, “Lord, wash me all over and cleanse me from sin.”

But in Peter’s case, he already knew Jesus and trusted him for salvation. He didn’t need to be saved all over again. Jesus told him, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean.”

In that time it was customary to bathe before going to someone’s home for dinner. Walking in sandals down the dusty street to another person’s house would make your feet dirty. Upon arriving, your feet would again need washing but not the rest of your body. Likewise, when you put your faith in Jesus, your whole being is cleansed and completely forgiven, but you will still commit sins and get your feet dirty as you walk each day in a dirty world. When that happens, don’t think you’ve lost your salvation and need to be saved all over again. Once you’ve had the great bath of salvation through Jesus’ blood, pictured and sealed in baptism, you are clean in God’s eyes. You still need cleansing in your daily walk, but you don’t lose your salvation each time you sin. Go to Jesus each day, confess your sins, have him wash your feet of that day’s dirt, and rejoice that you are clean. This is what Jesus showed in his actions and words to Peter: we must count on Christ for the great one-time washing that cleanses and saves us, and once we’ve been saved, we must continue to count on Christ for daily washing.

Energizing Us to Serve Others

Now let’s consider the footwashing at the third level: the way Jesus energizes us to serve others. If the Most High, the Almighty Lord, was not too high and mighty to serve us, how can we be too high and mighty to serve others? In the words of Jesus himself, “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.”

The way our world usually goes, important people don’t do lowly jobs. What business big shot would scrub toilets and mop floors for his employees? What general would shine shoes for his troops? What president or prime minister would wait on tables and serve meals to janitors who clean the building? Jesus pointed out that those who don’t know the Lord like to boss others around and have important titles. “But,” Jesus told his followers, “you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be 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 22:26-27). “Whoever wants to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:43-45).

Jesus turns the world upside down. The God of the universe becomes the lowliest slave. The Lord of life bleeds and dies. If Jesus gave an order to be humble and serve others but did nothing himself, it might strike us as empty words. But by washing feet and dying on a cross, Jesus practiced what he preached, and he energized his people for service in a way that mere words could never do. His example set before us and his Holy Spirit working within us move us to start thinking and acting like Jesus.

I know a Christian woman who has been energized by Christ, her Master. This lady met an elderly couple who enjoyed living in their own apartment, but they were becoming frail. They needed some extra help to continue living on their own, or they would have to enter a nursing home. So every week this dear lady would come and vacuum the floor, scrub the toilet, and help with their baths. Someone found out what she was doing and whispered to her, “Is your family having money problems?”

“No,” replied the lady, “our business is doing just fine.”

“Well,” said the other person doubtfully, “I can’t see why anyone would do what you do unless they needed the money.”

Why scrub toilets and bathe old people without regard for financial gain? To follow Jesus’ example and obey his orders.

Christ calls us to “serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13). We can serve like Jesus only when we love like Jesus. This love is more than a warm, fuzzy feeling. It is placing others’ well-being above our own comfort and valuing service more than status. And just as Jesus’ act of service was a sign of forgiveness and cleansing, so his call to wash each other’s feet includes both service and forgiveness. Love eagerly serves those who need help and to forgives those who need cleansing. Christ washes us daily of our sins against him, so let us daily forgive each other’s wrongs, wash off whatever has dirtied our relationship, and start each day with a clean slate. If you belong to Jesus and follow him, then no task is too lowly to do, no person is too loathsome to love.

Do you believe in the Shoeshine General, the supreme commander who washes dirty feet of those under him? Do you believe that Jesus is God’s Son who came down from heaven to save sinners like you and me? Have you asked Jesus to wash away your sins by his blood? Are you starting to love, serve, and forgive like Jesus? “Now that you know these things,” says Jesus, “you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17).

By David Feddes. Originally broadcasted on the Back to God Hour and published in The Radio Pulpit.