[Jesus] 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... [Afterwards, he said,] "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. John 13:4-5,14

In Jesus' ministry, we often hear him talking about humility and serving others, and we see clearly how this is illustrated by his act of washing his disciple's feet. He speaks with disgust about teachers who "love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues" (Matt. 23:6) and then he says, "The greatest among you will be your servant. For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted. (vs. 11-12).

Honor was very important in that day, with many customs in place to differentiate those with less status from those with more. Apparently, in Jesus' time, it was considered very important that disciples and students honor their teachers. This meant that disciples were supposed to show great respect to their rabbi. They were to be his servants, serving his food and pouring water over his hands for him to wash. When Jesus took on the task of the lowest slave of the household by washing the feet of those who were supposed to be his own servants, he was making a powerful statement to them - especially because the issue they were fighting about that evening was who was the greatest among them.

Interestingly, a story is told that is very similar to this one about the great Rabbi Gamaliel, who was head of the Sanhedrin and defended the disciples in Acts 5:34-40. Interestingly he was an influential figure in later Judaism as well.

At a banquet, he got up and served food and drink to several rabbis who were of much less stature than him, which shocked them. A debate ensued about whether the great rabbi could set aside his own honor and serve the others, with some initially rejecting his service, just as Peter rejected Jesus' offer to wash his feet. But finally, they declared that he could:

Is Rabbi Gamaliel a lowly servant? He serves like a household servant, but there is one greater than him who serves. Consider Abraham, who, even though he was the greatest of his generation, ran to serve what looked like three lowly wanderers (Gen. 18:8). But there is one even greater than Abraham who serves. Consider the Holy One, blessed be He, who brings forth rain and causes the earth to bloom and arranges a table before each and every person. And, during the exodus from Egypt, God walked in front of the Jewish people. (Ex. 13:21) Ordinarily a king would walk or ride in the rear of the party. This shows us that God was willing to suspend God’s own dignity and, therefore, all the more so can a rabbi.

It is interesting that Gamaliel, who showed his sympathy with the early church in the book of Acts, is recorded as acting very similarly to Jesus by humbly serving others. Could he have been influenced by Jesus' teaching? The Gospels say that he knew about this famous rabbi and his unique movement, so it is a strong possibility.

It is beautiful how Paul, a disciple of Gamaliel, brought all these ideas about the humility of God in the person of Christ himself. He said:

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, 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. (Phillipians 2:5-11)

     
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