Being a 20th (and now 21st) century, individualistic, “everyone is equal” American, I had long been uncomfortable with the idea of worship. Worship is derived from the English phrase “worth-ship” which bears the idea of acknowledging the worth of something. Expanded as it refers to God, worship includes acknowledging Him, adoring Him and serving Him. I knew that God was great and powerful and I had no trouble acknowledging His greatness and power just like I might acknowledge the power of the ocean or the greatness of a mountain. However, the idea of God sitting in heaven and demanding that His followers constantly worship Him, giving Him adoring praise and service forever, seemed vain and even insecure. Actually, it was my own vanity and insecurity which caused my discomfort.
My thinking was poor on many levels. First, it was based on a misunderstanding of God. He is infinite and therefore has infinite power, knowledge. God also has infinite glory. Nothing that I do can ever add one bit to it. The angels in heaven, the planets in the universe, the trees of the field and even the rocks on the ground declare His glory (Psalm 19:1, Luke 19:40). Every bit of His creation worships Him. God is neither a boastful tyrant trying to puff Himself up at the expense of His subjects nor a famous actor now past his prime and desperate to regain past glory. God is the everlasting source of everything, the fount of every blessing and the center of all Creation. If we spent every moment of every day praising Him, adoring Him, and obeying Him, we could not come close to acknowledging His true worth.
My second misunderstanding was about Creation. When we see a lovely flower or a majestic sunset our natural reaction is to praise it (“How magnificent!”) and thereby acknowledge its worth. When a scientist makes a great discovery or an Olympic athlete wins a gold medal we praise that person (“What insight!” “What skill!”). If something truly strikes us as remarkable, we have a psychological need to remark on it. It is almost as if we cannot fulfill our appreciation of what we are admiring unless we praise it; we publicly, usually verbally, acknowledge its worth. C.S. Lewis wrote “I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation.” Thus praise, acknowledging the worth of something, is more necessary for us than it is for the thing or person praised. Flowers and mountains couldn’t care less what we think about them. Even people, if they are truly walking in the Spirit, are ambivalent about others’ opinions unless those opinions accurately reflect the opinion of God.
Additionally, since God made everything, the acknowledgement of the worth of everything that He has made belongs to Him. We can praise a sunset or a man, but ultimate praise belongs to the One who made the sunset and the man.
Spiritual formation can be described as the process begun at salvation (justification), continued through life (sanctification) and completed in heaven (glorification). It involves daily becoming more like Jesus Christ, the Son of God and God the Son. Becoming more like our Lord includes gaining wisdom to see things as they really are and acting accordingly. Thus worship is the key to spiritual formation, and the goal of it. Worship, including acknowledgement of God, adoration of Him, and action in obedience to Him, is foundational. According to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, “man’s chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” To borrow an idea from Paul, someday evangelism and disciple-making will pass away, but worship will endure forever.
When modern Christians consider Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13, we know that He was teaching one of the most important lessons of His ministry. However because our culture is radically different from that of first century Palestine, it is difficult for us to grasp the real significance of the act.
The act of foot washing is not part of the ceremonial law of the Old Testament but it is mentioned several times. When Abraham was entertaining his angelic guests in Genesis 18:4 he suggested that they wash their feet, an important part of foot hygiene when walking long distances in a hot, dry part of the world. In Genesis 19:2, Lot offered lodging to those same angelic visitors, allowing them to wash their feet during their stay. When greeting the messenger sent to fetch a bride for Isaac, Laban arranged for him and his men to wash their feet (Genesis 24:32). Genesis 43:24 described Joseph’s brothers being brought into his house and receiving water to wash their feet. In all of these cases foot washing was something a person did for himself and it was done for comfort, for courtesy, and for the practical reason of foot health. Modern soldiers and hikers know the importance of foot care under similar circumstances.
In one instance in the Old Testament, 1 Samuel 25:41, someone mentions washing the feet of another. Abigail, wife of the late Nabal, calls herself “a maidservant to wash the feet of my lord’s servants.” In this instance a woman humbles herself to wash the feet of honored guests. It was customary for a rich host in the ancient near east to have the lowliest of servants wash the feet of special visitors in his home, or at least give them water to wash their own feet (cf. Luke 7:44) (Kostenberger 146).
Against this backdrop Jesus acted. Foot washing generally occurred before dinner, because guests did not sit in chairs, they reclined, and in that position one person’s feet might be close to another’s face. In John 13 dinner was already over and no one had volunteered this simple courtesy to the others, even so much as bringing water. Jesus laid aside his coat and, now dressed as the humblest of servants, filled a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
Such an act was puzzling at best and scandalous at worst. There was no Messianic prophecy that Jesus needed to fulfill and no Old Testament precedent or ceremony that He needed to follow; Jesus just did it. That He washed their feet instead of them washing His was unthinkable; no self-respecting rabbi would have washed the feet of his minions; rather he would have rebuked his students for not washing his. The disciples were undoubtedly ashamed that He did it because none of them would. They were also mystified by His humble spirit (Culver 588).
Jesus’ lesson is simply to serve humbly in His kingdom even as He did. Men are constantly fighting for the top position (Mark 10:35-45) while Jesus, in the top position for all eternity, did not strive for it (Philippians 2:6). As JRR Tolkien would have said, we are obsessed with gaining the ring of power and do not want anything that would make it seem that we don’t have it.
There is significance today for believers in this example. Just like James and John, we strive for top position, even if it requires sin for us to get it. Few people want to be second, to be a follower, or to be “behind the scenes”. We all want to be first, be the leader, and be on stage. In our society, which is crazed with the need to measure everything, we want ways to measure our wonderfulness so we can surpass others.
Another important lesson is that believers are to show such love and service even to those who hate and abuse them. Jesus washed all of the disciples’ feet, including Judas. How hard it must have been to wash of the feet of the man who was about to betray Him! We must note that Jesus’ example was for believers to serve other believers; He did not set up a foot washing service in Jerusalem to wash the feet of whoever happened by.
Another important contemporary lesson, although by no means the last, was that Jesus noticed needs and He met them. Oftentimes believers fail to do what the Lord commands simply because we are too self-absorbed to notice what needs to be done.
Culver, R.D. “Foot Washing” in The Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopedia of the Bible. Ed. Merrill C. Tenney. Grand Rapids: Regency, 1976.
Kostenberger, Andreas J. Encountering John: The Gospel in Historical, Literary, and Theological Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.