The need for leadership is critical for the world today. The need for a deep, spiritual leadership is acute for the Church. The concept of “servant leadership” is common within the secular world and the Christian world. Often, John 13 is cited as a foundational passage in the Bible for servant leadership. But what is John 13 truly about? What is meant by this extraordinary act of Jesus on behalf of the disciples?
The context of this “foot washing” is what is usually referred to as the Upper Room Discourse. This is the longest recorded teaching session we have in the Bible of Jesus with his closest followers. It continues through John 17. But it begins with the principle of cleansing. In John 13:1-3, we find out that Jesus knew that it was time to head towards the cross. Jesus knew that he was going to be betrayed by Judas Iscariot. And he confidently understood his own identity as God incarnate. Upon this foundation, he rose and donned the garb of a household slave and began to wash the dirty feet of his disciples. Peter understood something about the identity of Jesus and questioned why he would perform such a menial function. Jesus explained that this metaphorical task is necessary for Peter to uniquely identify with him. Upon hearing this Peter wanted a whole body wash. Peter truly wanted to be identified with this God-man that he knew was the Messiah (Matthew 16:13-20). But Jesus responded in v.10 with, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” Jesus used the foot washing example as teaching on spiritual cleansing and forgiveness.
These essential spiritual principles are found only in participation with him. He declared the twelve clean, except for Judas Iscariot. This passage is primarily about cleansing, not about leadership. Emulating their master was a secondary teaching to that of cleansing and forgiveness. There is a proper order to the teaching–cleansing, then leading through serving.
In v.12-17 Jesus went on to explain that the twelve are to emulate what he had done for them. He reminds them that even though he is Lord he played the role of a servant. He also reminded them that the servant is not greater than his master nor is the messenger greater than the one who sent him. If God incarnate could demonstrate such great humility by performing the task of a slave, we can do no less. But it readily flows from a forgiven life, a clean heart. And that is the main point.
Only a forgiven and cleansed person can truly live out the role of a servant leader. Only a person who understands their true dependence upon Jesus can be humble enough to live out the role of a servant leader. Our tendency will always be towards wanting to be God. But he already exists and has lived among us. He humbled himself and went to the cross so that we could be cleansed and forgiven. From that foundation, he asks us to do likewise. There is no servant leadership apart from a clean heart that is able to take on the necessity of humility. We are to lead by serving and pointing others to the cleansing power of the cross.