Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. JOhn 13:1-17

It’s hard to ignore a major event. The night before you get married is not just like any other night. You know it’s the eve of the biggest day of your life. The night before surgery is not like any other night. You might have a big meal, but if it’s a big surgery, you know what’s coming the next day. 

For Jesus, in John chapter 13, it’s the night before the day when he would go to the cross. 

And what’s the first thing that John records? 

Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. That’s what Jesus does before he dies.

The lead up to the cross

John 13 begins the second major section of John’s Gospel. John’s Gospel is essentially two main sections. “The Book of Signs,” which covers the public ministry of Jesus. That ended last week with the conclusion of chapter 12. “The Book of Glory” is the lead up to the cross, Jesus’ arrest, trial, death, and resurrection. 

So the beginning of chapter 13, I take this as the prologue to the second act of John’s Gospel. And this prologue points to Chrit’s death and to the love that he has for his disciples. 

John 13:1 says: Now before the feast of Passover.  

The timeline of events between John and the other gospels is a subject which is hotly debated by scholars. Some take this event in chapter 13 as being a different day than the Last Supper. 

I take these events as all revolving around the Last Supper and that this foot washing occurs during the last supper, on the night that Jesus was to be arrested. This is the third time in John’s Gospel that Jesus has observed the Passover holiday. 

Just as a reminder, Passover is the annual Jewish holy day which celebrate God redeeming the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. After God had brought a series of plagues upon the Egyptians, he did one final judgment in striking down the firstborn of all of the Egyptians. For the Israelites, God had given the instruction to sacrifice a lamb and put the blood on the door of their household. Those who did this act of faith were passed over. 

There were also instructions for a celebratory meal which was done annually. That’s the meal in which Jesus and the disciples are about to partake. 

The next thing to observe in this opening. John mentions that Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father. 

Nothing that happens in the events is outside the knowledge of Christ or the sovereign will of the Lord. 

Throughout this gospel, John constantly talks about Jesus’ hour. Referring to the hour of glory when Christ would go to the cross. And here, the hour has come. 

Jesus is in control, he knows what’s about to happen. 

But his hour had come to give his life. As the first Passover required sacrifices for the Israelites, it ultimately pointed forward to the true Passover when the ultimate sacrifice would be made for the redemption and forgiveness of the world. 

having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 

The first 12 chapters are much more focused on Jesus ministering to the world, performing signs, teaching of who he is. That is the message going to the world. That Jesus is the divine Son of God who reveals the light and glory of God to the world and who brings the promise of eternal life. 

But over the next five chapters, it’s just Jesus and his disciples. That is where his attention is. 

John mentions the love that Jesus has for his disciples. In the chapters 2-12, the word love is used 12 times in John’s Gospel. In the next 5 chapters, it’s used 37 times. 

Verse 2: During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him,

Judas has not yet betrayed Jesus. The wheels are in motion for that to happen. The plot against Jesus was demonic. This verse also showing a contrast. 

The first verse is about the great savior. The second verse is about the great betrayer. But even Judas is being used within the divine plan. Later on in this chapter, Jesus will predict his betrayal. 

Verse 3: 
 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God

Similar to the first verse, this verse points to the divine initiative as closes out the introduction to this event and the second half of John’s Gospel. 

In order for Christ to be glorified and return to the father, he must first go to the cross. 

So that’s the prologue to this passage. What we’re going to do with our time this morning is look at three scenes.  

Foot washing points us to the cross

Verses 4-5:

4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 

Again, the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is well known to our culture. Even if you know very little about the Bible, it’s an event you’ve probably heard of. 

Washing feet was a common custom in the ancient Greco-Roman world. If people were traveling to meet someone, roads were dusty and dirty. People were usually barefoot or in some sort of primitive sandal. 

Your feet would get dirty. But foot washing was either done by a slave, or a child, or by the person themself. I think we really struggle to appreciate the weight of this event. Footwashing was always, always, always done by someone who was beneath someone else in society. 

There’s no recorded evidence in Greco-Roman literature of a superior ever washing the feet of his subordinates, except for Jesus. It was absolutely radical. 

To the disciples, it would have been absolutely shocking to see that. 

Illustration – meeting the queen 

If you were to meet the King of England, there are all sorts of protocols in place. Everyone is supposed to walk behind King Charles.

You’re never supposed to leave a room that he’s in. He leaves the room first. If you’re dining with the king, he takes the first bite. You never turn your back on the king. 

There are protocols for how to dress. You wouldn’t wear a bathing suit. Protocols of address. You don’t call him Chuck. He’s addressed in a magisterial title. 

You don’t run up and give her a big hug. On and on and on. All of these formal expectations for what you’re supposed to do in her presence. 

Imagine at a formal gathering the king were to take out a bucket and sponge and just start washing people’s feet. 

That. would. Be. shocking. 

But I would argue still not as shocking as in Jesus’ day. Because foot washing isn’t a cultural custom for us. You don’t go to someone’s house and expect them to just have a footbath prepared for you. 

But in Jesus’ day, it was a custom reserved for the absolute most lowly and looked down upon in society. Jesus is taking the most menial and lowly task that a person could possibly take. 

He’s taking on the role of a slave. 

This would have been viewed as something that was absolutely beneath Jesus. 

Humility was a virtue to ancient religious teachers, but not like this. Not in a way that totally went against social custom. 

And so Peter’s reaction is actually pretty understandable in verse 6:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

Jesus is the greatest figure to have ever lived. And the disciples traveled with him, knew him, heard his teaching, saw his signs. 

And Peter asks how Jesus could possibly lower himself to wash his feet. 

Verse 7: Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”

Now that is an interesting thing to say. 

You do not understand…

What is there to understand about washing someone’s feet? 

But afterward you will understand. 

From the beginning of this passage, it’s established that the hour for Christ’s death has come. 

This story isn’t primarily about feet, it’s primarily about the cross. Afterward, Peter will understand. 

That in looking back after Jesus has gone to the cross, died, and rose, that looking back to the foo washing will have it’s truer and ultimate meaning. 

Later on, looking back on this event, Peter will understand the significance of what Jesus did on that night. He will understand the supreme humility of Christ. He will understand that Jesus came not to be served, but to serve and give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28). 

He will understand that before Jesus displayed the most scandalous and outrageous show of love by giving his life for the world, he did the most outrageous display of humility in serving his disciples by washing their feet. 

And looking back, it will be understood that the washing of the feet on the night before he went to the cross was a symbol of cleansing the whole person with the gospel. 

But on that night, as Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, Peter doesn’t yet understand, as will become clear from his response. 

Foot washing points us to the Spirit 

Verse 8: Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

Like I keep saying, the washing is not just about feet. It’s about the cross. It’s about salvation. It’s about forgiveness for our sins. And it is that washing to which Jesus says “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

In John 13, Jesus talks of the necessity of washing feet, and he’s pointing to the cross and a symbolic Spiritual cleansing. 

And the message that Jesus tells to Peter is true for every person in the world. 

 “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

It’s a washing from sin. That’s what makes sense of the passage. It’s not about feet, it’s about the cross. Jesus hasn’t literally washed any of our feet. Does that mean that we can’t be saved? No, of course not. 

But he washes us in his blood, through his spirit, and in his grace by going to the cross.

And that is the washing that if we do not have, we have no share with Christ, we have no inheritance with Christ, and we have no forgiveness with Christ. 

So Jesus tells Peter that Peter must be washed. Peter still thinks they’re talking about literal washing with water. 

Verse 9: Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 

Classic exuberance that we see from Peter. When he here’s that, he wants to have his whole body washed. But that’s not what’s necessary here. Because it’s the washing of the feet which is the symbol for the cleansing of the soul. 

Verse 10, Jesus will explain why Peter’s request is unnecessary. 

Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”

Again, Peter is only focused on the physical aspect of foot washing. Jesus is talking of the spiritual reality of being washed in his grace. 

Peter has already been washed by Chirst, set apart by Christ, forgiven by Christ. And so when Peter wants his hands and his head washed, it’s unnecessary because he is already clean. 

He will be no more forgiven by having all the water dumped on him. Grace is not partial. We’re not partially washed by Christ. Jesus fully saves us. He fully forgives us. 

Notice at the end of verse 10, Jesus says to Peter “you are clean, but not every one of you.” 

Referring to Judas. 

Verse 11 says: For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 

Tim Keller brings up this point, but Judas is a disciple who served Jesus. He’s with Jesus here. He has his feet washed by Jesus. Judas was part of the greatest small group that ever existed, the greatest Bible study group that ever existed. 

He had the greatest pastor, spiritual leader anyone ever had. 

And yet Judas is in the room, and he has his feet washed. And he’s about to betray the Lord. 

It is having your soul washed by Jesus, your soul cleansed by Jesus that is what brings the promise of eternal life. 

Only that. 

Acts 4:12 says: there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.” 

We come to the third major section of this passage. Foot washing shows us humility. 

Foot washing points us to humility 

Verse 12:

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 

Jesus answers his own question. 

Verses 13-15:
You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

What Jesus is saying here is that “You do have reverence for me. As you should. And with me lowering myself and humbling myself in this way, as the teacher, I am calling on you to do likewise. 

He calls the disciples to wash one another’s feet. 

Excursus – should we wash feet? 

That begs a question. Should we wash each other’s feet? It is sometimes done. I’ve heard of it done at weddings. 

Pope Francis has before washed the feet of prisoners. Some churches even take this as a command, almost treating footwashing like a sacrament similar to baptism or communion. 

I don’t think we should take it that way for a couple of reasons. 

First, the Bible never gives foot washing as a universal command. It’s mentioned one other place in the New Testament in 1 Timothy 5:10, in a context where it’s talking of footwashing as an example of hospitality. 

But we don’t see it as a command. 

Secondly, we don’t see it viewed as a sacrament in the early church or in early Christian writings, which means that people who were closer in time to the disciples themselves did not take it that way. 

principle of humility 

Instead, the principle is what matters. Jesus has debased himself, and in the act of washing the feet of his disciples. In some ways, if all we were called to do was wash the feet of others, for us, that would almost be the easy part. 

What’s not so easy – for many people – is the principle that leads one to washing the feet of another, and that is showing true humility before someone else.

So much of our world is about appearances. Jesus took on the most menial and inglorious task in his world. We can really be obsessed about appearances. 

There have been studies done that show that people are more likely to wash their hands if there’s someone nearby. In other words, some people don’t care about washing their hands as much as they care about others thinking they care about washing their hands. 

The photos people share online of them and their family. So often posed, everyone looking nice, picture perfect. We want to be seen as respectable, competent, good, and from a good family. 

Don’t misunderstand. None of that is inherently bad. 

But what can be a problem is when we become obsessed with how we look, how are family looks, how we’re perceived and thought of. And we do live in a very vain and visual world. 

And that attitude can fly in the face of humility. 

I think of the scene with Jesus and his disciples. 

Quoting from Matthew 18:1-4:
At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. 

Serving the Lord is serving something bigger than yourself, serving things of eternal importance and significance. 

And that’s what Jesus calls us to. To serve and to be humble. That’s what Jesus is saying at the end of the passage when he says: 
16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Jesus sets the example. He wasn’t above humble service, and neither are we. We are called to follow Jesus and that includes following his example of humility. 

Thanks for reading! If you like this post, please share and subscribe.

Tagged with: