Jesus Washes Feet
- Main Text: John 13:1-7
- Accompanying Text: Psalm 51:7-14
“The washing of feet, whether by oneself or by somebody else, was practised throughout much of the ancient world. Most of it in the Bible was the provision of water to guests, so that they might wash their own feet; to wash somebody else’s feet was regarded as a signal act of condescension and humility, in fact the work of a slave.
Jesus’ act of washing the feet of his apostles, during his last evening with them, was rich in symbolism and significance. Indeed, Jesus himself indicated that there was mystery here, more than met the eye, when he said: ‘You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand’ (John 13:7)”. 
The synoptic gospels fill in some of the other details of Christ’s last meal with his disciples before his crucifixion. In preparation for Jesus gave Peter and John a rather mysterious instruction: “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him, and wherever he enters, say to the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says, Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ And he will show you a large upper room furnished and ready; there prepare for us” (Mark 14:13-15 ESVUK). Who was the man with the jar of water, and whose house was this? How had it been prepared? So many unanswered questions! When the disciples saw the man with the jar of water, did they remember the wedding at Cana and the jars of water that had been turned into wine? Was such a miracle to happen again?
What happened next was not, strictly speaking, the observance of the Jewish Passover because it happened the evening before it would have typically taken place. On the following afternoon, “Christ, our Passover lamb” (1 Corinthians 5:7) was crucified when, during the day, the sacrificial lambs would have been slain and the yeast burned in the countdown to the Passover. This last meal began an entirely different observance. This was the institution of a new sacrament for a new covenant. It was when Jesus “took a cup, and when he had given thanks he said, ‘Take this, and divide it among yourselves. For I tell you that from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.’ And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood’” (Luke 22:17-20).
The Spirit inspires John to note what Jesus knew and thought about himself. Jesus, the “man who knows he has come from God. The man who knows he is returning to God. The man who knows that everything in the cosmos is under him. That man gets up from the meal, strips to his undergarment, wraps a towel around himself, pours water into a basin and washes his disciples’ feet. It is hard to imagine the full shock of this moment. Culturally, for fairly obvious reasons, washing feet is a task you either do yourself or it is done by a slave or very menial servant. Perhaps, with all the cloak-and-dagger arrangements, menial servants have not been supplied. What is not allowed is that leaders do menial tasks. Jesus does what he did to the woman at the well, and what Mary did to him at the dinner. He steps straight over the social conventions…It is demeaning and completely wrong. It undermines everything that leaders and teachers are meant to be. But Jesus is busy turning everything upside down, for what is a given for Jesus is his authority. Everything is under his power. Jesus does not need to be protected from serving in order to be leading. For him, serving is to become what leading means…A disciple is not a stagnant recipient. A disciple gets in the flow. A disciple first receives but then gives. Jesus has washed out feet. We all wash feet now”. 
“When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, it is as though he is enacting a parable about the importance of achieving true purity that expresses itself in in action…The literal cleaning involved is not the point. Indeed, the act of washing purifies the washer more than the washed as it enables them to practise humility and service. That this symbolic act is made plain when Simon Peter, who initially didn’t want his master to serve him, changes his mind and pleads, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.’ Jesus replies, ‘He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit; and ye are clean, but not all.’ The cleanliness he is referring to clearly spiritual, intimating at the treachery Judas is soon to enact.” 
Thoughts re application today
There is “a striking discrepancy between the humility of the servant and the greatness of the Lord…‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Peter’s astonishment was very understandable. The Master was behaving like a slave. This remarkable event (John 13:1-17) accurately exemplifies the paradox of Jesus. Shortly before his death the teacher and Lord girded himself with a towel and washed the feet of his disciples. As John Stott says, ‘Is this not unique in the history of the world? There have been lots of arrogant people, but they all behaved like it, There have been humble people, but they have not made great claims for themselves. It is the combination of egocentricity and humility that is so startling…Why am I a Christian? Intellectually speaking…it is because he who claimed to be his disciples’ Lord humbled himself to be their servant’ (Quoted from Why am I Christian? By John Stott by IVP, UK, in 2003:46)”. 
As we read how disciples discover that a room has been prepared, it reminds us that Jesus has prepared a place for us. In the John’s next section he explains, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also” (John 14:2-3).
Some other Scripture Resources
- John 14:1-3
- Matthew 26:18-29
Footnotes and references
- Quoted from Samuel Logan Brengle’s essay, A necessary lesson in Humility, in The Incomparable Christ by John Stott, published by IVP, UK, in 2001:144.
- Ian Galloway, Called to be Friends: Unlocking the heart of John’s Gospel, published by Hodder & Stoughton, UK, 2021:80-82.
- Julian Baggini, The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? Granta Publications, UK, 2020/2021:15.
- Pablo Martinez & Andrew Sims, Mad or God? Jesus: the Healthiest Mind of All, published by IVP, UK, in 2018:154-155.