Throughout His roughly three-year ministry, Jesus frequently demonstrated the extraordinary humility and servant leadership He expected His followers to emulate. One of the more well-known models of the sacrificial love He taught is found during His final evening with the disciples when He washes their feet at the Last Supper. The passage is found in John 13.
While foot washing was a common practice before a meal, Jesus’ relationship to the disciples and His divine identity made this simple act a radical display of humility. The disciples wouldn’t have even thought to wash each other’s feet, let alone the feet of someone with lower status than themselves. Jesus took on the role of a servant to clean the day’s filth from His followers’ feet—even from His betrayer, Judas Iscariot.
Jesus’ actions reveal the character of God, symbolize another cleansing and ultimately model how we should humble ourselves to demonstrate His love. Let’s take a closer look at this important passage.
Jesus washes His disciples’ feet
While all four gospels tell us about the Last Supper, John is the only writer who includes this powerful moment.
“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).
John points out a few important contextual details here. Jesus knew that:
- These were some of His final moments with the disciples.
- Judas was about to betray Him.
- He had total authority from God.
These details make Jesus’ actions even more significant. It was an experience He wanted to leave them with, and in many ways, it was a culmination of so many of the things He’d taught them. And in first-century Jewish culture, it represented a complete reversal of status. He also included Judas, His enemy, in this act of love.
The cultural significance of foot washing
Due to the climate of this area, it was normal for people to wear sandals or go completely barefoot every day. Foot washing kept homes clean and became a symbol of hospitality throughout the region.
When you entered someone’s home, there would be a basin to wash your feet, and when multiple people gathered, a servant would be there to wash the feet of guests. Mark’s Gospel tells us that this was a borrowed room furnished for this gathering:
So he sent two of his disciples, telling them, “Go into the city, and a man carrying a jar of water will meet you. Follow him. Say to the owner of the house he enters, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is my guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, furnished and ready. Make preparations for us there” (Mark 14:13–15).
In this borrowed and prepared room, the omission of a servant to wash their feet would have been obvious, and there would have been an uneasiness about sitting down to have a meal without having everyone’s feet washed. It wasn’t an oversight. It would have been a glaring issue that everyone was thinking about.
Throughout the Gospels, we’ve seen the disciples jockeying for positions of importance, and we have watched Jesus remind them that the greatest among them would be a slave (Matthew 20:20–28). The disciples have likely all been silent about the foot washing because they’re afraid Jesus would ask them to do it, making them look like the lowest of the disciples.
Jesus lets this tension hang in the air a while before He quietly begins stripping down to perform the act Himself.
To modern readers, it seems strange that Jesus would strip down to wash people’s feet. But removing His outer garments and wrapping Himself in a towel added greater symbolism and humility to what was already an extraordinary act. In John: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, biblical scholar Joseph Dongell remarks: “By each of these deliberate actions, Jesus adopted the look and role of a slave.”
For the act of foot washing, Jesus didn’t need to go through all the trouble of stripping down and wrapping Himself in a towel, He was driving home the message. This was more than a lesson about doing nice things for one another. He intended to visually communicate how leaders were to see themselves.
The act of washing someone’s feet had significant implications about the status of the people involved. There were cultural expectations about who would wash whose feet and what that indicated about their relationship. Bible commentator Colin G. Kruse elaborates on how foot washing traditionally worked:
“Jesus’ action was unprecedented. A wife might wash her husband’s feet, children might wash their father’s feet, and disciples might wash their master’s feet, but in every case it would be an act of extreme devotion. Footwashing was normally carried out by a servant, not by those participating in the meal, and certainly not by the one presiding at the meal. According to later Jewish tradition, a Jewish slave would not be asked to wash people’s feet. That task was assigned to a Gentile slave.” — John: An Introduction and Commentary
Through this seemingly simple act, the most high took on the position of one of the most low. Luke notes that during the Last Supper, the disciples had been bickering about who was the greatest (Luke 22:24–30). Every one of them would have considered Jesus to be the greatest. He was their rabbi, their Lord, the Messiah, and the Son of God.
The symbolism of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet
As is often the case in the Gospels, Peter is the first to speak out, likely sharing what some of the others were feeling. He was uncomfortable with what was happening, and Jesus uses the moment to hint at a greater significance—one which they would understand better after His death and resurrection.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean (John 13:6–11).
Jesus isn’t literally saying, “If you won’t let me clean your feet, you can’t be my disciples.” As Kruse puts it in his commentary, “Such a response by Jesus makes no sense if all that was involved was footwashing.” Like most scholars and theologians, Kruse argues that washing the disciples’ feet was a symbolic act, pointing to a spiritual cleansing that would come later, as the result of another display of humility.
Jesus’ self-humiliation in washing His disciples’ feet symbolized His self-humiliation in accepting death upon the cross to bring about their cleansing from sin.
That’s why Peter had to accept Jesus’ humility. “In this respect, Peter and the rest of the disciples must accept what Jesus did for them, for if they did not, clearly they could have no part with him,” Kruse remarks. “Jesus was saying to Peter that unless he was prepared to accept what he would do for him on the cross, there could be no relationship between them.”
Joseph Dongell puts it another way, connecting the foot washing to the entire purpose of Jesus’ ministry:
“The foot washing first signified salvation offered through Jesus’ death. As Jesus explained to Peter, Unless I wash you, you have no part with me (13:8b). At issue was more than an attitude adjustment for a stubborn disciple; it was acceptance or rejection of Jesus and His redemptive mission as a whole.” —John: A Bible Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition
Washing the disciples’ feet was a precursor to the sacrificial love He would soon model on the cross. And Jesus goes on to say that He intends for the disciples to display this same humility and self-sacrifice to others.
Jesus set an example to follow
While His position made this act of service shocking, it’s also what made it such a powerful model. If Jesus is willing to humble Himself so low for others, how could His followers possibly be above doing the same?
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. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17).
Later in the meal, Jesus tells the disciples that displaying this humble, self-sacrificing love is how people will recognize His followers. “A new command I give you: Love one another. 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 13:34–35).
Jesus isn’t saying, “Now, go wash everyone’s feet.” He’s saying, “Now, go love people by putting them above yourselves.”
The significance of Jesus’ washing Judas’ feet
The entire time Jesus is washing the disciples’ feet, He’s fully aware that Judas is about to betray him (John 13:11). And still, Jesus washes his feet like everyone else’s. He shows the same love and humility toward an enemy—His betrayer—as He does toward His closest friends.
Earlier in His ministry, Jesus told His followers to love their enemies (Luke 6:27, Matthew 5:43–44). Jesus modeled this love in the way He treated Samaritans (who the Jews would have considered enemies), but in His treatment of Judas here, Jesus shows love toward a much more personal enemy. It’s the embodiment of His words in Luke 6:32–36:
“If you love those who love you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who are good to you, what credit is that to you? Even sinners do that. And if you lend to those from whom you expect repayment, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, expecting to be repaid in full. But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.”
As we seek to follow Christ’s example, we need to extend our humility toward those who will never return our acts of service, will take advantage of us, and never thank us.
What can foot washing look like today?
Dongell remarks that foot washing is fine in itself, but as followers of Christ, we should see this as a broader lesson on what Christian service looks like. “First, while little harm and much good may come from the practice of foot washing as a Christian sacrament or edifying symbol, the interest of Jesus clearly lay in the larger arena of life and service,” he says in his Wesleyan commentary on John. “To do as I have done will take the disciple down unpredictable pathways where no water or towel will be in sight. Surely the Spirit of truth will guide the disciple in learning to develop the character and behavior which most beautifully embodies the example of our Lord.”
As modern-day followers of Christ, not only will we find ourselves in situations “where no water or towel will be in sight,” but the cultural significance of foot washing may not be there either. In the context of a shared meal and these relationships, Jesus taking on this menial task represented a profound act of humility. Not only did He do work that would have been expected of the lowliest slave or servant, but He took on the appearance and posture of one as well.
Following Christ’s example in John 13 requires us to recognize the cultural hierarchy in modern social settings and place ourselves on the bottom rung, through our actions and through our posture.
Keep exploring Jesus’ ministry
Over the course of His three-year ministry, Jesus consistently challenged norms and revealed a better way to live. Every interaction He had with others helps us discover more about who He is, what He is capable of, what the kingdom of God looks like, and how we should live in light of that. His parables offer a wealth of wisdom, and His life provides a powerful model of sacrificial love.
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