John 13:1-17 (NRSV)
Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
It was customary that the lowest servant of the house would wash the feet of the guests as they came into the house, especially for a formal meal like this. For some reason, this didn’t happen when Jesus and the disciples came into the room. So they ate their meal with dirty feet.
This was more awkward than we might think. First, because of the sandals they wore and the roads they walked on, the feet would be dirty. Second, the disciples would eat a formal meal like this at a table known as a triclinium. This was a low (coffee-table height), U-shaped table. The guests would sit, and their status at the meal was reflected by how close they were seated to the host or leader of the meal. Because the table was low, they didn’t sit on chairs. They leaned on pillows, with their feet behind them. This meant that dirty feet could be unpleasantly close to the table during the meal. So the unwashed feet were conspicuous.
So why didn’t any of the disciples do this first? Any of the disciples would have gladly washed Jesus’ feet. But they could not wash His without having to be available to wash the others’ feet, and that would have been an intolerable admission of inferiority among their fellow competitors for the top positions in the disciples’ hierarchy. So no one’s feet got washed!
Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
Jesus had loved His own. But He hadn’t finished loving them. He would love them to the end. The idea behind the phrase to the end is “to the fullest extent, to the uttermost.”
To the end means to the end of Jesus’ earthly life. Though the disciples gave up on Him, He never gave up on them. Though they stopped thinking about Jesus, and were only thinking of themselves, He never stopped thinking of them. Whose problems were worse – Jesus’ or the disciples’? Who was concerned more for the other? He loved them to the end.
To the end means a love that will never end. Jesus will never stop loving His own. It isn’t a love that comes and goes, that is here today and gone tomorrow.
To the end means a love that reaches to the fullest extent. Some translations have “He loved them to the uttermost.” Jesus poured out the cup of His love to the bottom for us.
2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
At this moment of deep meaning, Jesus did something that must have almost seemed crazy. He began to do the job of the lowest servant in the household. He began to wash the disciples’ feet.
At this critical moment, at this evening before the torture of the cross, Jesus doesn’t think of Himself. He thinks about His disciples. Truly, this is loving them to the end. After all, Jesus’ disciples treated Him badly – and were about to treat Him even worse, forsaking Him completely – yet He loved them.
Jesus completely gave Himself to washing their feet. Look at how thorough He was in this work. First, He rose from supper. Then Jesus laid aside His garments, which had to remind Him of what waited in just a few hours, when He would be stripped of His garments and be crucified. Jesus then took a towel and girded Himself. Finally Jesus poured water into a basin. If Jesus wanted to just display the image of a servant, He would have had a servant or one of the disciples do all this preparation work. He then would have quickly wiped a damp cloth on a few dirty feet and consider the job done. That would give the image of servanthood and loving leadership, but Jesus gave Himself completely to this work.
This was an extreme act of servanthood. According to the Jewish laws and traditions regarding the relationship between a teacher and his disciples, a teacher had no right to demand or expect that his disciples would do such a lowly thing as wash his feet. How much more unthinkable was it that the Master would wash His disciple’s feet?
6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.”
9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean.
“When I am clean, Lord, keep me too,
For that is more than I can do.”
And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
12After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Scripture is full of references to washing and cleansing. HERE is a song that references Psalm 51: 7 — Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.
1) Have you ever been part of a foot-washing ceremony? How did it feel? I have, and I find it a lesson in humility. (Many churches include this in their Maundy Thursday services.)
2) What can we do daily to wash one another’s feet? Or in other words — How can we love one another with Christ-like humility and kindness? What specific thing could you do for someone today in obedience to these commands (see verse 14) from Christ?
The New Revised Standard Version, copyright 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.