The Lord's apostle John wrote his gospel sometime after Matthew, Mark and Luke had written theirs. He also recorded a number of things which the others had not included. He devotes far more space than the others to the events of the evening prior to the crucifixion. By inspiration of the Holy Spirit, John gives his own eye-witness testimony of that evening. In this article, we shall focus on one of those events. After eating the final Passover meal with His apostles, and ordaining the keeping of the memorial supper by His disciples after His departure, Jesus does a startling thing; He gets up from the table, lays aside His outer garment, girds Himself with a towel, pours water into a basin, and then proceeds to use the water and towel to wash the feet of His apostles. What was the meaning of this very humble, and somewhat disturbing act of our Lord? As Jesus told His apostles, "You'll understand later."
The Custom of Feet Washing
"(Jesus)... rose from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. Then He poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and wipe them with a towel with which He was girded." (John 13:4-5).
Customs usually develop in societies to answer certain needs of that particular culture. The main mode of transportation in Jesus' day was walking, footwear consisted of sandals, and the environment was often hot and dusty. Because of this, a custom developed where, in behalf of the comfort of one's guests, basins of water would be provided so they could wash their feet after a long journey. If the hosts were wealthy, the household servants would perform the task, washing the guests' feet. It was a sign of courtesy and hospitality.
It had been a busy day of travel for Jesus and the apostles. There was no servant, at least in the usual sense of the word. The apostles had been bickering earlier about which of them was the greatest. This same poor attitude had effected them throughout the ministry of Jesus, in spite of His teaching time and again about how greatness in God's kingdom is measured in the amount of service one renders unto others, and not the other way around (Luke 22:24-27; 9:46-48; Mark 9:33-37;50; Matthew 20:20-28).
What Jesus intends to do is to leave them with an impression they will find impossible to ignore. They had not allowed His words to sink in. But now they would have a vivid memory of the humility of their Lord. They would never forget it!
"And so He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, 'Lord, do you wash my feet?' Jesus answered and said to him, 'What I do to you you do not realize now, but you shall understand hereafter.' Peter said to Him, 'Never shall you 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 has bathed need only to wash his feet; and you are clean..." (John 13:6-10a)
Peter voices the same feelings that most certainly all the apostles were feeling. Stunned and embarrassed, Peter puts his feelings into words of protest. It had been Peter who had identified Jesus as "the Christ, the Son of the living God." Now, to have the Son of God bow down and wash his feet seemed so out of place that Peter could not contain himself. "Never shall you wash my feet!"
But, of course, if Peter is not willing to submit to Jesus in everything, then Jesus cannot use him. If Jesus is to be Peter's Lord, then he must be willing to do the things Jesus says (Luke 6:46). By the way, it was not the last time people who claim to have faith in Jesus and yet would push His words aside. It would not work for Peter, and it will not work for others. Faith in Jesus means yielding ourselves to His will in everything. If Jesus says washing Peter's feet is a necessary part of being His apostle, then it is. If He says being baptized in water is necessary to wash away sins, then it is (Mark 16:16; Acts 22:16).
"And so when He washed their feet, and taken His garments, and reclined at the table again, He said to them, 'Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them." (John 13:12-17).
Jesus asked if they understood what He had done to them. The answer, for now, is "no". Jesus had earlier said that they did not yet understand (verse 7). Of course they understood He had washed their feet, but that was not the point, nor the significance of the act.
Jesus proceeds to drive the point home. It was not about footwashing, but rather about service. The proper thing in His kingdom is to seek for opportunity to serve others and not to be served by others. There is no place for arrogance in Jesus' kingdom, but rather for brotherly consideration and love. This is the mind of Christ (Philippians 2:3-5).
This was not a command to make the washing of feet a formal activity in the public assembly. That misses the point. It was simply an example to follow: Jesus served others, if He is Lord and Teacher, then so should we (Galatians 5:13-15). Those who are high-minded and too good to humbly serve others are too good to be Jesus' disciples.
Jon W. Quinn
From Expository Files 21.7; July 2014