What are we to make of the story of Jesus washing feet? This act was meant to give Jesus’ disciples a dramatic example of love to follow so that they could continue being like Jesus for each other after he had left the earth.
Here is the basic story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, as narrated by the apostle John:
“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:1-5)
I’ve had a fond connection to this story ever since listening to Michael Card’s wonderful song, “The Basin and the Towel.” That’s not how the original participants in the story would have felt about the actual event. Let’s look at the disciples’ response to this intrusion on their sense of decorum.
Jesus Washing Their Feet Didn’t Feel Good
In the previous chapter, John 12, no less than a voice from heaven had predicted that Jesus would soon be glorified. This would have made the central event of the next chapter (narrated in John 13:1-17) all the more confusing.
Having their feet washed by Jesus was uncomfortable enough that Simon Peter, often the spokesman of the disciples, flat out told him, “No. You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8). This wasn’t the first time Peter told Jesus no. There was the time Jesus had caused a miraculous catch of fish for Simon Peter, and he had responded, “Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). Then there was the time when Jesus mentioned his upcoming crucifixion and Peter said, “Never, Lord! This shall never happen to you!” (Matt. 16:22). All three times, Simon Peter felt Jesus had crossed a line with excessive servanthood and grace.
Here, Jesus was embarrassingly underdressed, in his undergarment plus a towel around his waist. Kneeling in the posture of a literal servant, he washed their feet with water and dried them—apparently 24 in all—on the towel around his waist. This was a humbling job reserved for an undistinguished servant. It wasn’t merely a ceremonial gesture; their sandaled feet were covered in dirt, dust, and sand.
Who had it worse? Honestly, I’m not sure. Jesus’ job was grubby and smelly and looked humiliating. Yet it would be the rare disciple who wouldn’t feel sheepish and even guilty for being the recipient of this attention. This was their Lord and Master, the Messiah who would soon lead them to victory over their enemies. What did this slavish display say about him? What did it say about them and their level of neediness? They had probably never felt so awkward.
“What did it say about them and their level of neediness? They had probably never felt so awkward.”
It’s hard to say who had it worse here, much like when a nursing home worker has to change an adult’s diaper. As little as we like to admit it, we’re not unlike a needy nursing home resident in our need for Jesus’ compassionate care, without which we remain in self-made messes. He is really going to wash our feet (John 13:6)? As Jesus put it, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8b).
Having Jesus Wash Your Feet Doesn’t Make Sense, Does It?
It wouldn’t have been strange for Jesus to give his disciples some kind of metaphoric “spiritual cleansing.” It wouldn’t have been confusing that Jesus loved his disciples and wanted to show them kindness in some way. He was always showing compassion to people who needed his help. What would be confusing is for his closest disciples to find themselves taking such a needy posture. They themselves had helped Jesus carry out his ministry for needy people. Such a servile display would have made them question their status as well as his.
His explanation didn’t resolve the confusion. In a nutshell, his explanation for washing their feet was that, as their Master (kurios), he was washing their dirty feet, so they needed to follow his example and wash each other’s feet:
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13:12-16)
“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”
That seems like an odd way to put things. By definition, the master is the one whose feet should get washed by the servant. He’s redefining roles so dramatically that it becomes unclear who’s who. He’s clearly their leader, and yet he’s washing their feet. So, does that make them the masters in some sense? No, because then he tells them to do the same for each other as he does for them. He turns the point of being in charge on its head.
Why Jesus Washed Feet
We know why Jesus washed their feet because he told them plainly: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15).
But why was it so important that they follow his example? What was at stake that this practice needed to continue? To answer, let’s look at the context of this story.
Surrounding this story of surprise is a context of sadness. Why were they sad? It’s because Jesus was leaving. First to the cross, and then, after the resurrection, he would return to heaven. Numerous times, chapter 13 mentions Jesus leaving:
- “Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.” (13:1a)
- “He had come from God and was returning to God.” (13:3b)
- Jesus told them, “Where I am going, you cannot come.” (13:33b)
- Jesus told them, “Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.” (13:36b)
When Jesus left, it would not be a waking from a dream for the disciples. It would be the passing of a baton. By teaching his disciples to wash each other’s feet, Jesus had in mind the continuation of his mission to make more disciples who would believe in him: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34b-35; see John 13:1). Taking up a towel and basin of water would go on to characterize everyday Kingdom life.
Jesus washing feet: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:34).
It wasn’t going to be easy without Jesus. Judas was already planning to betray him (John 13:11; 13:21). Longtime followers would disown Jesus under pressure (13:38). In the midst of betrayal and denial, they were going to miss Jesus’ reassuring, compassionate guidance.
How could they survive without Jesus being there in the flesh, walking with them? They would need to be Jesus for each other. They would need to do for each other what Jesus had taught them to do by example. They would wash each other’s feet. By doing so, they would be reminded of better days both behind and ahead of them. By imitating Jesus, they’d be giving each other important reminders of where they had come from and where they were headed.
Remembering where he had come from and where he was going is what gave Jesus motivation to wash his disciples’ feet in the first place:
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” (John 13:3-5)
We all wish we could see Jesus in the flesh, and someday we will. In the meantime, he’s given us ways to embody his example for each other.
Jesus washing feet: “We all wish we could see Jesus in the flesh, and someday we will. In the meantime, he’s given us ways to embody his example for each other.”
5 Reasons to Wash Each Other’s Feet
We wash each other’s feet today by serving each other in ways that don’t puff up our own pride. Washing the feet of imperfect people, especially those who betray and deny us, won’t often feel good or make sense in the moment. Why do it? Here are 5 reasons from John 13 to serve each other in servant-like ways.
1. Jesus told us to.
Jesus didn’t stay enigmatic about why he was washing their feet. Again, he was setting an example he expected his followers to follow as part of Kingdom life. “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:14-15). Enough said on that question. The question for us needs to shift from if to how.
2. It’ll help us become more like Jesus.
Jesus may have been self-effacing in his posture, but he never pretended to be something other than what he is: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.” As our rabbi and Lord, Jesus isn’t merely a podcast we tune into once in a while. He’s our God and our guide, and we want more than anything to become like him. We do this by keeping him front and center of our vision: “And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasingly glory” (2 Cor. 3:18a).
As Philippians 2:3-5 says, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.” In Matthew 22:16, Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last.” We wash feet as part of everyday Kingdom life so that we can become more like Jesus.
“We wash feet so that we can become more like Jesus.”
3. We’ll be blessed.
Why did Jesus wash his disciples’ feet? Again, it was so that they would do the same for each other. But why should they do the same for each other? In doing so, they would be blessed. Jesus explained, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:17). Let’s not miss that the blessing is not in knowing what Jesus said, but in doing what he modeled.
4. We’ll be loving each other in concrete ways.
This is the same chapter in which Jesus gives disciples a revolutionary command: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). The command to love people wasn’t new (e.g., see Lev. 19:18). Although the word “love” can be just as malleable as the word “neighbor,” the command to love each other as he loved us brings a disruptive concreteness into view.
By washing their feet, Jesus was giving his disciples concrete, tangible ways to carry out this radical command. And let’s remember that this command was given in the context of sadness over Jesus leaving. When we love each other as he loves us, we remind each other of him. Collectively, we function as his body on earth (1 Cor. 12:12ff).
“When we love each other as he loves us, we remind each other of him.”
5. More people will come to know Jesus.
If we take the time to wash each other’s feet in ways that mirror Jesus’ love, what’s the result? Jesus tells us: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35; see John 13:1).
“Washing feet” in our various ways of acts of service may seem radical, but it actually makes a lot of sense, given the reasons Jesus gave.