The context of the passage is this... a few days before, Jesus entered Jerusalem on the colt of a donkey and to the cheers and praises of the crowds. This is also what we know as the Triumphal Entry. Jesus knows that his death is approaching. "I tell you the truth," he says, "unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground an dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds." With only a few hours remaining before his arrest, Jesus withdraws from his public ministry to spend time with his closest friends.
John doesn't tell us much about the preparation for this last supper. Mostly he spends the next 5 chapters recording Jesus's final words to his disciples. If you turn back a book, Luke 22 gives us a bit more info. The disciples have made preparations and they are gathering for dinner in the upper room. An argument breaks out... who among them was the greatest?
Jesus responds by showing them the full extent of his love. He takes off his outer garments, wraps a towel around his waist, and bends down to wash their feet. The Creator of the universe, the King of kings, the Messiah humbled himself to the role of slave for this rag tag band of fishermen and tax collectors and sinners.
Jesus makes his way around the circle, washing the dusty feet of each disciple. Can you imagine the hush that fell over the room? He stoops in front of Peter. And it typical Peter fashion, he tries to take control of the situation. "You shall never wash my feet," he says to Jesus. Peter, you are my follower and your heart is clean because of the words I have spoken. But the worries and distractions of this world are like dust on your feet. Let me refresh and renew and sanctify you. For unless I wash you, you have no part with me.
Jesus finishes washing the feet of the last disciple. He says, "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you."
And what was that example? Washing feet was the symbol of something bigger. The Kingdom of God is not about power and might and greatness. It is about service. It is about humility. It is about loving one another with a love that is greater than ourselves. "A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)
"Your attitude should be the same of 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!"
~ Philippians 2:5-8