Imagine the amazement, the shock, the stunned curtain of silence that fell on the room the night Jesus got up from the Passover table and washed His disciples' feet.
There they were—thirteen men woven together around that low table like one strand, each man reclining in the chest of another. John reclining against Jesus; Jesus reclining against Judas—all locked together for the evening.
Then, suddenly, Jesus stirred, moved, got up. This never happened. The host never got up, never left the table once he was seated. Questions must have raced through their minds. Was He dissatisfied with the food? Did He not like the seating arrangement? Was He ill? That had never happened before.
Then He did something even stranger. He broke that curtain of silence with the rustling of His garments and the pouring of water. He removed His upper garment, took a towel, girded Himself about, and poured water from the pitcher into the basin that awaited the slave who washed feet—only there was no slave until Jesus humbled Himself and went from man to man, washing feet, a slave on His knees leading as He served.
How do you respond to slave discipleship? With a protest in all probability. How can a slave be a discipler? Disciplers are leaders and slaves don't lead. That's true—everybody knows that. Everybody except Jesus. Apparently He didn't get the memo, so He became a slave and a leader, in fact, a slave discipler.
Doesn't Philippians 2:5-11 describe Jesus' descent into slavery? He took on the form of a slave who humbled Himself by becoming obedient unto death, even death on the cross (Phil. 2:8). Jesus willingly turned away from all power in heaven and on earth and became powerless in the eyes of men. He chose to be utterly obedient and dependent on His Father. But who was more powerful in heaven or on earth than this Slave, Jesus? To become a slave discipler is to assume the most powerful posture of all among our disciples, the posture of Jesus.
Still that word slave sticks in our throats. It doesn't make sense. Slaves are powerless. Slaves have no life of their own, no right to their time, no control over their future, no say in their fate, no status in society. They are total non-entities, powerless, completely overpowered. Slaves must say yes when they want to say no. How can the posture of a slave be the most powerful posture of all? Maybe it depends on what kind of slavery we're talking about. And maybe it depends on whom the slave serves.
What kind of slavery are we considering? How about biblical slavery as described in Exodus 21:2-6? When we review that passage we discover four traits of biblical slavery: it is motivated by love (vs.5), voluntary (vs. 5), total (vs. 6), and permanent (vs. 6). We must volunteer to become biblical slaves as a total and permanent commitment to God who loves us. When we do this, we willingly enter into a radical and final servitude to God, which means we must do whatever He requires of us as disciplers, no matter what. You see, the nature of our slavery and the One whom we serve makes slave discipleship utterly overwhelming. Once we understand what being a slave discipler means, we realize we have neither the courage nor the capacity to be what Jesus calls us to be—and we also realize why being a slave discipler is the most powerful posture of all, since, Christ unleashes His power through our powerlessness.
Consider the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 13:6-10. Only Peter broke the stunned silence with his protest, "Lord, You my feet wash (vs. 6)?" Peter got the point but missed the message. He knew Jesus had become a slave and he also knew he wasn't worthy to have Jesus be his slave. But he didn't understand the reality that Jesus, as a slave to His Father, had to be a slave to His followers. Nor was he prepared for the message that to be a disciple of Jesus meant he had to be a slave to his fellow disciples, and Jesus could only teach him this by becoming his slave. So Jesus patiently responded by assuring him he would understand what He was doing later (vs. 7). Yet Peter still missed the message and protested even more intensely by using the strongest negative possible him when he said, "Never shall You wash my feet!" So Jesus responded the only way He could as Peter's faithful slave by saying, "If I don't wash you, you're fired!" That's what He meant when He told Peter that unless He washed him he had no part with Him (vs. 8). The issue in the Upper Room Discourse is not salvation, but fruit bearing, so what Jesus told Peter was that if He didn't wash his feet, Peter would lose all fruit bearing opportunities. There would be no Acts 2 or Gate Beautiful or Cornelius or Jerusalem Council or ministry with his wife to the first century church or I and II Peter or martyrdom. He was done. That was the message his Slave gave him.
To some Peter's response sounds humble, but Jesus responded in a very firm way. "You have been bathed—you are clean already except for your feet. You are tracking sin's dirt all over my clean floor, and I must wash your feet so you can be fit to serve with me." When guests bathed at home and then walked on the ancient dusty streets, they tracked that dirt into the host's home. That's why there was a slave to wash their feet. Jesus used this everyday picture to make the point that once we trust Him we are clean except for the dust of the sins we commit after salvation. This dust clings to our spiritual feel, and we must be cleansed if we are to be fruitful for Christ. Unless Peter recognized this reality and submitted to it, he could have no part with Jesus.
This is what slave discipleship is all about—helping our disciples be fruitful by fulfilling their part with Jesus. Two questions will enable us to understand this more clearly. First, where was Jesus when He washed Peter's feet? On His knees. He could only transform Peter's heart as the powerless Slave who served on His knees. Next, whose agenda did Jesus follow? Peter's? No way! Jesus followed God's agenda.
Jesus discipled Peter from His knees. He assumed the position of a slave because He loved His own unto the uttermost (13:1). Because of love Jesus became a slave to His Father and His followers; because of love Jesus got on His knees to lead Peter; because of love Jesus patiently answered Peter's protest; because of love Jesus told Peter the danger he faced; because of love Jesus followed His Father's agenda and not Peter's; because of love for His Father and His follower Jesus cleansed Peter of sin.
Love turned the powerless Slave into the powerful Discipler because love motivated Him to speak truth to His disciples. And love will transform us from being powerless to being powerful when we call on Christ to do the same thing through us for our disciples that He did for His disciple. But we can only speak the truth to our disciples when we love them as Jesus loved Peter. And we can only do that when Christ loves through us, so we are totally dependent on Him to love with His love so we can tell the truth as He told the truth.
Look at what Jesus did out of love for His followers.
Jesus resisted Peter's challenge and issued His own challenge. Through Christ in us we must resist our disciples' challenges and call them to the challenge Christ has for them.
Jesus rejected Peter's agenda and asserted His Father's agenda. Peter's desire was always to be in control, and Jesus would never let him do this. Our disciples have the same drive, and we must reject their efforts to control and pursue their agenda by calling them to Christ's agenda for them.
Jesus confronted Peter out of His Father's interests in his life, and we must do the same out of the Master's interests in our disciples' lives. As disciplers for Christ we represent Him to our disciples. This awesome responsibility can only be fulfilled as we grow to be more Christlike in how we reach out to our disciples. We must become powerless as Jesus was powerless if we are going to have any power in their lives. In carrying out discipleship He submitted Himself to His followers out of dependence on the Holy Spirit in accordance with His Father's will. By becoming an obedient slave He assumed the most powerless posture possible. And it was out of this powerless posture that He exercised the greatest power possible, the power of love that transformed His men. If that's how Jesus did it, that's how we must do it.
Some may wonder how Jesus could be Peter's slave as well as His Father's. To be the Father's slave was to be the followers' slave because that's what the Father wanted of Him. Note what Paul said in II Cor. 4: 5 where he declares himself to be the Corinthians' slave. (The NIV totally misses the point when it translates this as servant rather than slave. It completely mystifies me why translators so totally misrepresent the meaning of a text when they choose to use a less difficult term in an effort to make the passage clear, but actually miss the intended point). Paul used the word doulos, slave, to describe his relationship with the Corinthians, but he added a key explanation when he said, "for Jesus' sake." Paul was their slave, but not to do what they wanted. He enslaved himself to them to do what Christ wanted in their lives, and this is what we must do with our disciples. As disciplers we are our disciples' slaves to represent Christ's interests in their lives no matter what it costs us. In our slavery we don't do what our followers want us to do; we do what our Leader wants us to do. This means we will have to face our disciples with their sin, as Jesus did with Peter, especially when we don't want to. This calls for us to do what we least want to d confront others about the most difficult realities in their lives. When we fail to do this we fail in our most important task as slave disciplers, serving as Christ's sanctifying agents in their lives. Jesus has chosen to use us as His hands in cleansing our followers of sin. Because of Christ's words and works through us, we bear the eternal fruit of seeing our disciples grow to be more like Him. This is overwhelming and amazing, but also true. Of course, only Jesus can cleanse. But He has chosen to use human agency to accomplish His purpose in the lives of His followers. We cannot shy away from this eternal task.
We must always remember that we are powerless to disciple on our own, especially the way Jesus acts to disciple through us. To disciple His way we need courage to go against our own self-interests and desire to be liked by others. We also have to go against both our natural and Christian culture that will tell us it is wrong, even unchristian to say hard things to others. When we give in to such thinking we are actually disobeying Jesus and acting in unloving ways. Of course love is always as gentle as possible, even when it must be as truthful as necessary.
Once He washed His followers' feet, Jesus resumed His place as the head of the Passover table. At that point He asked His men, "Do you know what I have done to you (vs. 12)?" Then He tells them that if He, their Lord and Master, has washed their feet, they must do the same for each other (vs. 14). That's the whole point of this event. Many times this passage is reduced to such "servant" things as doing humble tasks like pouring coffee for others or setting up chairs for meetings, which are good things to do, but not what Jesus called for in John 13. He wants us to do for our disciples what He did for His: wash their feet as His agents to cleanse them from sin through the loving act of holding them accountable for their attitudes and behaviors. We do this so our disciples don't miss the fruit bearing opportunities He has for them. This is the essence of discipleship, slave discipleship, the most powerful posture possible.
Never forget the fact that we are powerless to assume the posture of serving our disciples the Jesus way, especially when it requires Christ's kind of love. I always feel fear when I must love this way and must seek Christ's power to submit my will and desire to be liked to God and His purpose. Sooner or later as slave disciplers we will have to face some selfishness and fear in ourselves because the flesh always resists loving this way. In those moments only the Holy Spirit can overcome our wills and empower us to love Christ's way.
Remember John 13:17: "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." Rarely does a passage convey a special blessing for those who obey it. What could be more important than such an encouragement? Becoming a slave discipler brings a unique blessing, the blessing of becoming Christ's hands in the lives of our disciples. By becoming as powerless as Christ we experience His powerful impact through us when we depend on Him to free Peters from sin so they can bear His fruit for them.
Bill Lawrence is the President of Leader Formation International, Senior Professor Emeritus of Pastoral Ministries and Adjunct Professor of DMin Studies at Dallas Theological Seminary where he served full-time for more than twenty three years (1981-2004). During this time he also served as the Executive Director of the Center for Christian Leadership for twelve years. Bill is the author of two books: Beyond the Bottom Line—Where Faith and Business Meet, Moody Press and Effective Pastoring, Word Publishing. Bill served twelve years as founding pastor of South Hills Community Church, San Jose, CA (1969 to 1981). He has also been the Interim Pastor of Northwest Bible Church, Dallas, TX, on two different occasions.
Original publication date: September 30, 2009