Jesus had a lot of opportunities to teach his disciples while on Earth. Object lessons, lessons that couldn’t be learned in any way other than being in his presence. Like Peter walking on the water, but then sinking when he took his eyes off Jesus. There were miraculous creations of wine and food, healings, and raising others from the dead. And oh yes, the sermons.
And yet, he saved one of his greatest lessons on leadership for one of his final teaching opportunities, that Last Supper night more than 2000 years ago.
Jesus — the only begotten Son, the Creator, who in just three days would defeat death and Hell itself — took on the garb of a servant and washed his disciples dirty, dusty feet.
So why did Jesus wait until the end of his ministry to wash his disciples feet? Why wait until his time on Earth with his disciples was almost over to drive home the point that leaders serve, and aren’t just served? He had talked with the disciples about this before (see Mark 10:43-44). So why deliver this message in such a powerful way at the end?
We don’t know for sure, because the Bible doesn’t say. One thing we do know: This message was important to Jesus.
Peter, if I don’t wash your feet, you have no part with me. – John 13:8
Maybe it’s because the disciples took the opportunity in the Upper Room to squabble about which of them would be greater in the Kingdom (see Luke 22:24-30). Maybe it was clear that the lessons Jesus taught earlier just hadn’t sunk in.
And perhaps there was yet another reason, one based on simple human nature.
Modern educators often reference the principle of “primacy and recency.” Learners tend to remember best what they heard first, and what they heard last.
The very word “disciple” means “follower.” The disciples had been followers of Jesus for three years. And they had heard a lot of messages from Jesus up until that point.
But this time was different. Jesus knew the time for His arrest, trial, crucifixion, and resurrection was near. And, the disciples’ time for merely following was nearly over. Their time to lead was about to begin. And a refresher of what it meant to be a leader was in order.
In a span of just a few weeks, these men would cease being just “disciples” and become “Apostles.” Message carriers. Holy Spirit bearers. Called by Jesus Himself to take the good news of His Gospel to the ends of the Earth, and to show the infant church by example what it really means to follow Jesus.
Perhaps Jesus saved this lesson for the end because this time, it really needed to stick. The young church would face enough obstacles to its survival for its leaders to act superior to its members.
Leaders of today, no matter who you lead, pay heed. Serving those who follow you is your leadership.