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I’ll never forget the occasion when, as a teenager, I walked into church for the first time in my life. The little country congregation was in the middle of a special service. At the front of the worship area, small goblets of dark grape juice and several plates holding pieces of unleavened bread were arranged on a beautifully carved wooden table. But before these emblems were distributed to those present, the minister invited his congregation into an adjacent room where basins of warm water were neatly placed on the floor in front of a circle of chairs. Each chair was also draped with a small towel.

An elderly man, perhaps 80 years of age, approached me and said, “Son, can I serve you by washing your feet?”

I was dumbfounded. Nobody had ever washed my feet—except for my mother, when I got them dirty as a youngster.

Hesitantly, I sat on a chair and took off my shoes and socks. As the elderly man tenderly washed my feet and dried them with the towel, he looked up into my eyes and said, “Young man, I pray that these feet of yours will walk clear through into the kingdom of God when Jesus comes back.”

I’ve never forgotten his words. It was a very emotional time for me, and those words became an anchor deep down inside my inner being through many difficult times.

Most Christian faiths celebrate the Lord’s Supper in their unique ways, but only a few observe the preliminary ordinance of footwashing or “humility,” as it’s come to be called.

And yet, just as Jesus said of the Communion meal, “ ‘Do this in remembrance of me’ ” (Luke 22:19), so He also said of this service of humility, “ ‘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. . . . Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them’ ” (John 13:14–17).

Jesus models servanthood

What I find most unusual is that Jesus, who rightly calls Himself the Lord of the universe and Lord of our lives (see John 1:1–3) and who is our great Teacher in all aspects of life, took off His outer garments and began to wash the feet of His followers. And this at a time when they were embroiled in a power struggle and full of negative feelings toward each other.

The mother of James and John had asked Jesus to appoint her sons as leaders in what they anticipated was an emerging political kingdom, and this request had made the ten other disciples angry (see Matthew 20:20–28). Now, just hours before Jesus knew He was about to die, they were all gathered in a second-floor room to initiate a solemn ceremony to commemorate His death.

As Jesus gathered His disciples together, it seemed that everything was conspiring against His hopes for a new spiritual community. Ugly human pride and ambition had surfaced in the hearts of the disciples He was training to administer His coming kingdom.

It was customary for a servant to wash the feet of guests when they arrived from a hot, dusty journey, so for one of the disciples to do this now would, in their eyes, make them unfit for leadership.

Jesus struck at the heart of their human pride by modeling a spirit of humility and service. He took the servant’s role and did what a servant normally does. The Creator washed His creatures’ feet!

Peter’s reaction to Jesus’ action is typical of the proud human heart. He said, “You shall never wash my feet”—a response that echoes the reaction of most people when unsavory parts of their inner being are exposed before God’s discerning eye. We fight tooth and nail to appear respectable when it is plain to see we are not.

humility an impossibility

It’s hard for us to be humble. In fact, in our natural human state, it’s impossible. The unconverted heart does not have the capacity to transcend its self-centeredness. Our constant preoccupation with our image before others strikes a mortal blow at humility before we even begin the journey in its pursuit. It’s safe to say that only people who are unaware of their humility are truly humble.

Yet Jesus said, “ ‘Learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart’ ” (Matthew 11:29). From a human point of view, this sounds like an enormously arrogant statement, but when we stack it up against the reality of the humility Jesus manifested in His life, death, and ministry for our salvation, we discover that He was simply stating a self-evident truth.

To learn humility from Jesus is not just striving to imitate His behavior. His servant heart needs to somehow become our heart. We need to look at other human beings through His compassionate eyes. We need to have the simple attitude of a child who, in the days of Jesus, was only slightly “higher” than a servant in the ancient Hebrew household.

developing a servant heart

The first step toward this is, like Peter, to receive a revelation of our lack of humility. Jesus gently but firmly leads us to face every negative aspect of our unconverted human nature and to acknowledge them before Him as things for which we need forgiveness. There is no pathway to humility without being broken inwardly in some tangible way.

The next step is to accept by faith that Christ Jesus “has become for us wisdom from God—that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). Everything we lack is part of an inheritance we can claim from Him as our rightful possession (see Ephesians 1:17–23).

Then as the days, months, and years pass, we will, largely without being aware of it, find ourselves with a servant’s heart. Our attitudes to our family members, our fellow workers, and the disadvantaged in society will all have changed. The inverse laws of Jesus’ life will have become ours. The “poor” will become “rich,” the “weak” will become “strong,” and the “proud,” “humble.”

How Jesus Taught Humility

by Graeme Loftus
From the August 2007 Signs