D.A. Carson comments:
Doubtless the disciples would have been happy to wash his feet; they could not conceive of washing one another's feet, since this was a task normally reserved for the lowliest of menial servants. Peers did not wash one another's feet, except very rarely and as a mark of great love. Some Jews insisted that Jewish slaves should not be required to wash the feet of others; this job would be reserved for Gentile slaves, or for women and children and pupils. In one well-known story, when Rabbi Ishmael returned home from synagogue one day and his mother wanted to wash his feet, he refused on the ground that the task was too demeaning. She took the matter to the rabbinic court on the ground that she viewed the task, in his case, as an honour. The reluctance of Jesus' disciples to volunteer for such a task is, to say the least, culturally understandable; their shock at his volunteering is not merely the result of being shamefaced, it is their response to finding their sense of the fitness of things shattered. But here Jesus reverses normal roles.In John 13:12-14, Jesus tells them why he is doing this. He tells them that he is giving them an example to follow. Of course, he does not mean that all they will do now is wash people's feet. He is painting a picture; a picture of what service looks like. He tells them, "If your Lord washes your feet, then you ought to wash each other's feet." The distinctions are gone; service isn't about rank or privilege, it's about humility. The one who was about to hang on the cross, suffer, and die, was serving them, despite He being the one who is worthy to be served. As Christ's disciples, this is our example, too.
Service and sacrifice are related. We read in Romans 12:1 that we are to present our bodies a living sacrifice, which is what Paul calls our "spiritual worship." Service is an outflow of our worship. We want to serve the one we worship. The recipients of our service to God are the ones around us, whether in the Body of Christ, or outside the Body of Christ, but the motivation behind what we do is to worship our God. The passage in John demonstrates that service is to be motivated by humility.
It may be subtle, but often, our service can be less about the object of our worship and more about ourselves. It is a temptation at times for me to serve for myself instead of of the Lord. It becomes evident when I begin to do things like grumble because I am not being recognized for my service, continually compare my service to others', or get insulted when I don't get words of praise. When service is done for the accolades or the pat on the back, it has stopped being an act of worship. Sometimes, we are motivated more by a desire to make a name for ourselves than exalt the name of God. That is not the picture Jesus gives us here. The picture is lowering ourselves. He must increase and I must decrease. Of course, sincere servants of God may attract attention simply because their service is a blessing to many; that is not wrong. The problems begin when our motive for serving is the recognition, or worse, we stop serving because we're not getting it.
In her book The Afternoon of Life, Elyse Fitzpatrick, in the context of service opportunities, discusses the relationship between service and a title. I like how she puts this:
Any woman who wants to pick up the basin and the towel may do so whether she's got a title or not.We love titles: manager, co-ordinator, deacon, chairperson, vice-president; whatever. Sometimes, titles are necessary, but they don't make the service more legitimate. What makes it legitimate is the object of our worship, and the willingness to pick up the basin and the towel, no matter what the task. We need not bemoan the lack of service opportunities. They are everywhere. Perhaps what is needful is a reminder of what true service looks like. We need look no further than Christ Himself.