Wash One Another's Feet

"Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded" (John 13:1-5).

The chapter begins with the phrase - "Now before the feast of the Passover." Since as early as the second century, there has been a great dispute regarding the Passover and an apparent time discrepancy between John and the other gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke clearly describe Jesus as having eaten the Passover at the proper time (i.e., on Thursday night, under our modern way of reckoning time), and as having been arrested later that evening. In contrast, John seems to describe Jesus' arrest as taking place before the Passover (cf. 13:29; 18:1-14,28; 19:14,31). The simplest solution to this difficulty is to attribute the apparent discrepancy to the imprecise way the Jews spoke of the Passover Feast and the Feast of Unleavened Bread (cf. Matt. 26:17). John, when he speaks of the Passover, evidently means the entire eight-day period, and not simply the fourteenth day of the first month.

Jesus knew that "His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father." Although Jesus was now under a great deal of stress and anticipation regarding the events that were about to take place, He didn't allow this to affect His actions toward the ones He loved (i.e., His disciples). He didn't become self-absorbed or reclusive, but rather "He loved them to the end" and showed this love in many ways.

"And supper being ended" - Some argue that a better translation would be: "And during supper." All twelve of the apostles were present at this time for the Passover supper itself (cf. Matt. 26:20), and the devil had "already put it into the heart of Judas...to betray Him" (John 13:2; cf. Luke 22:3).

John 13:3 declares three specific things that Jesus knew: He knew that He was divine and had come forth from the Father (cf. 1:1,14), He knew that He was going to return to Him soon, to the glory which He had laid aside for the sake of mankind (cf. Phil. 2:5-11), and He also knew that He possessed power and authority suitable for one who had come from heaven and was to return there (cf. Matt. 28:18).

John writes about this event in a very detailed way. He clearly shows the humility of Jesus. His behavior is a strong contrast to that of the apostles who had, at this very dinner feast, been showing their selfishness, worldly ambition, and arrogance by arguing about which of them was the greatest (cf. Luke 22:24ff). How sad that the apostles would fight for a throne but not for a towel!

Jesus assumed the position of a servant in order to accomplish two things, the second being far more important than the first: (1) To clean their dirty feet, and (2) To teach them (again) about what constitutes true greatness. Every disciple needs to learn that greatness comes through faithful service and humility (cf. Micah 6:8; Matt. 5:3).

The typical footwear in Palestine at that time was a pair of sandals. They protected one's feet from rocks and other sharp objects, but they did not keep the feet clean from dust, dirt, and mud. Thus, it was the custom of the day to remove one's sandals at the door where usually a basin of water was kept so that the visitor's feet could be washed upon arrival. However, since there was no host present in the upper room when Jesus and His apostles arrived, the service went undone, since no one volunteered to perform the lowly task. Jesus thus took the responsibility upon Himself, and He girded Himself with a towel and used it to dry their feet after He washed them.

For Jesus to perform such a menial service for His inferiors was a powerful lesson to them and it should still be such for us today. No disciple can ever rightly claim to be above the performance of even the most lowly of services. If Jesus, in His infinite greatness was willing to act humbly as a servant, there is not a single follower of His today who should consider themselves as being beyond such.

"Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, 'Lord, are You washing my feet?' Jesus answered and said to him, 'What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.' Peter said to Him, 'You shall never wash my feet!' Jesus answered him, 'If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.' Simon Peter said to Him, 'Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!' Jesus said to him, 'He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.' For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, 'You are not all clean'" (John 13:6-11).

"Lord, are You washing my feet?" - It is unknown as to how many of the disciples' feet that Jesus had washed before coming to Peter. Evidently the previous disciples had been too shamed or astonished to speak anything regarding the matter, but not Peter! He protests this absurdity, knowing that the Son of God should not be doing such. Knowing Peter's impulsive nature, one would not be surprised if Peter had drawn back his feet in protest as Jesus approached him.

Jesus' response indicates that He was doing so much more than merely cleaning dirty feet. He was teaching them about true greatness and humility. However, this would not be fully comprehended by them until later (cf. I Pet. 5:5). It is interesting to note that as Jesus humbly washed the feet of His apostles, we see a shadow of purification. It was through His sacrificial act of humility (i.e., His death on the cross) that man would be able to be purified in the ultimate sense--spiritually.

"You shall never wash my feet!" - Peter's first response is understandable, but now he is showing his self-righteousness and arrogance, especially by questioning the judgment of Jesus.

"If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me" - Jesus replied swiftly and sharply. For Peter to refuse to have his feet washed would result in him having no part with the Lord in His work, in His coming kingdom, and in the ultimate blessings to be bestowed upon the faithful. Why did Jesus respond so strongly? He did such because the first requirement of discipleship is complete and unquestioning submission to the will of God. Peter was way out of line at that moment, and he seems to understand such based on his next comment.

"Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!" - If this washing was required in order to share in the work and favor of Jesus, Peter reasoned that he could not have too much of it. Peter bounces from one extreme to the other, and though he doesn't yet understand what Jesus is teaching them, it is apparent that each comment he spoke came from a heart filled with love for Jesus.

The language of John 13:10 seems to imply that they had bathed before coming to Jerusalem. Only their feet had become dirty and needed to be rewashed. Spiritually speaking, the principle is the same. Once one has been washed thoroughly in the waters of baptism from his sins, there is not a need to be rebaptized. Rather, when sin is again committed, one may be cleansed by repentance and confession (cf. I John 1:7-9). It should be understood that baptism itself will not change one's heart (or mindset) from a state of wickedness to a state of righteousness, repentance is required to accomplish that (cf. Acts :38).

"For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, 'You are not all clean'" - Judas, though his body was physically clean and his feet were washed by Jesus, his heart was still vile. It is clear that Jesus is using the act of footwashing as a symbol of inner cleansing. It is true that the other eleven apostles had lapses into selfishness and jealousy, but this is common among all humans. Jesus knew their hearts to be clean and pure, except Judas'. The heart of Judas had been impure for sometime (cf. John 6:64,70), and Jesus was fully aware of this. It is possible, perhaps likely, that Judas knew that Jesus was on to him (if not at this time, definitely later that evening). Although this may have made Judas cringe, it did not deter him from implementing his evil plan.

"So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, 'Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I do not speak concerning all of you, I know whom I have chosen; but that the Scripture may be fulfilled, "He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me." Now I tell you before it comes, that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He. Most assuredly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me'" (John 13:12-20).

"Do you know what I have done to you?" - They all knew that Jesus had washed their feet, but did they understand the significance of it?

It was appropriate for them to call Him "Teacher" and "Lord" for He was such, and even though He was their Teacher and Lord, He did not seek places of preeminence and prestige. Rather, He sought to serve others humbly out of love. Jesus wants His apostles to learn from His example and be willing to serve others (and each other), even in the most menial of tasks.

"For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" - It is unfortunate that some have interpreted this to mean that it is our Christian duty today to wash each other's feet in the assembly. Footwashing, as a church ordinace, did not begin until the fourth century, which was long after the great apostasy had set in. It must be understood that Jesus did not institute the practice of washing feet; rather, it was already a common, culturally-accepted practice that He simply used to demonstrate the proper spirit of humble service. Later that evening, Jesus did institute the Lord's Supper memorial. This is something that He certainly did want Christians to practice in their assemblies (as the rest of the New Testament clearly indicates - cf. Acts 2:42; 20:7; I Cor. 11:23ff). The only other time footwashing is mentioned in the New Testament is in connection with other individual acts of service (cf. I Tim. 5:10).

It is worthwhile to note that Jesus says to do "as" He had done for them, and, unlike the Lord's Supper, He did not give instructions for the act to be done until He comes again (cf. I Cor. 11:26). He wants all of His followers to have an attitude of selfless service, and the exercise of such in that culture included the act of footwashing. However, in American society today, footwashing has never been a cultural act of courtesy or hospitality. For a person today to make a big show of publicly washing someone's feet (or more likely, washing one foot that has been painstakingly cleaned at home) would be to miss Jesus' point entirely. If we followed Jesus' words here literally, we would be introducing a strange and ridiculous practice in our day and age, not to mention the fact that we would greatly embarrass and inconvenience our guests. The literal act of footwashing was for the purpose of removing actual dirt from one's feet, but it was intended to symbolize, for all future generations, humility of spirit and the necessity of performing the most menial acts of Christian service in love.

Individually, if we intend to obey Jesus here, we must look for relevant ways that we can serve others humbly today. There are certainly plenty of opportunities for such service, if we only open our eyes to them.

"Most assuredly, I say to you a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him" (John 13:16). A servant always ought to be willing to do that which his master does; he should not be ashamed of such. "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" (cf. Matt. 7:21; James 1:22). To know that one must be a humble servant is important, but to actually be a humble servant is what will bring God's blessings.

"He who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me" (cf. Psa. 41:9). Just because Jesus knew, "from the beginning" (6:64), that Judas would betray Him does not in any way mean that He forced such to happen. God can see the end from the beginning without necessarily causing it; He can foretell something without originating it.

Jesus declared in John 13:19 - "Now I tell you before it comes that when it does come to pass, you may believe that I am He." Had Jesus not spoken of the betrayal at all, then some may have looked back on the incident and found cause to doubt Jesus, believing that He was totally surprised by Judas' deception (and therefore not divine or omniscient). However, for Him to mention it ahead of time would later lead to the strengthening of their faith. Jesus did not want the deceitfulness of Judas to shake the faith of the other apostles in Him. They needed to believe that He was sent from the Father and that they, as Jesus' messengers, were also messengers of Almighty God.

Again, let the truth be reiterated that in order for Christians today to obey Jesus' teaching here, they must look for relevant ways that they can serve others humbly. We must train ourselves to think like a servant before we will naturally behave like one. Remembering that we are to esteem others as better than ourselves is a good starting point (cf. Phil. 2:3,4). If we make an effort to be cognizant of the needs of others, a multitude of areas of service will manifest themselves to us. Additionally, may we humbly look for any means by which we can serve others and not search vainly only for areas of service in which we will be seen and glorified. Such a one doesn't have the heart of a servant, and, according to Jesus, he already has his "reward" (Matt. 6:2).

Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.