John 13 opens the second half of the gospel, what Gary Burge calls “The Book of Glory” (he calls the first half of the book “The Book of Signs”). While chapters 1-12 show Jesus’ public ministry within Judaism, the rest of the book will focus on Jesus’ private ministry to those who believe. And this private ministry to His disciples begins with washing the disciples’ feet.
It is the Passover, and as they celebrate the Seder meal that opens the Festival of Unleavened Bread, Jesus changes this tradition in a number of ways. While the other three gospels (called the “synoptic” gospels due to their similarities) focus on the bread (which Jesus used to point to Himself as the Messiah) and the cup (which Jesus used to identify the new covenant by which His disciples would now live), John ignores these symbols and focuses on the washing of feet. In the Seder meal, there is a ceremonial hand washing meant to make the participants ceremonially clean and able to participate in this priestly meal. But Jesus washes instead the disciples feet, making them both ceremonially clean and also teaching them about servanthood.
As Jesus approaches each disciple, including Judas and Peter the betrayers, He takes the traditional role of the servant and washes their feet. “Go and do likewise” is essentially His message. To follow Christ is to become the servant of all, even when that means humiliation. And so the question becomes one of obedience. Will we go and do likewise? Will we not only serve others when we are doing ministry, but live lives of servanthood? What does this look like at work, at home, at school, and in our everyday lives? More than holding the door for someone, or helping them with a broken down car, will we live the same lives of servanthood that Jesus lived among us?