The Foot-Washing Incident

Bible Book: John  13 : 1-17
Subject: Humility; Holiness; Service

We’ve all heard the statement that “a picture is worth a thousand words.” Apparently Jesus considered that to be true, and here in John 13 we see Jesus picturing two great truths that his disciples then, and all of us who are his disciples now, desperately need to learn and keep relearning. Jesus didn’t picture those truths with a brush on canvas--he pictured them by an unusual action: washing the feet of his disciples.


Jesus and the twelve disciples were now in an upper room in a man’s house, a room that he had kindly allowed them to use, so that they could observe the Passover Feast together. This would be their last Passover together, and it would also be the occasion when Jesus would institute the observance of The Lord’s Supper.

Verse 1 tells us what Jesus was thinking and feeling as the cross loomed near: “Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end.”

Some interpreters understand that last phrase to mean that Jesus loved them to the very end of his time here on earth. He would, of course, continue loving them throughout eternity, but the point here, say some interpreters, is that throughout the time he walked among them in the form of a man, he never stopped loving them in spite of their childish attitudes, their weak faith, and their slowness to understand the truths that he taught them.

That’s encouraging--because it reminds us that he never stops loving you and me, either, in spite of our frailties and faults. He is often disappointed in us, and hurt by our attitudes and actions, but his love for us never waivers.

Other interpreters believe that the statement, “he loved them unto the end,” refers to the profound degree of his love--they believe it means that Jesus loved them with a love that was perfect, unreserved, and unconditional--and whether or not that is the intended emphasis in this verse, it is wonderfully true, as the Bible makes clear over and over.

Verse 2: “And supper being ended [the Greek literally says, “And supper taking place.” The NIV renders it, “The evening meal was being served.” The ASV says, “And during supper.” So, the foot-washing incident which follows took place at some point while Jesus and his disciples were gathered in the upper room for the Passover meal and for the instituting of the first Lord’s Supper], the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him.” Some interpreters believe that the supper referred to here was possibly a light, ordinary meal that was eaten prior to the ceremonial Passover supper. But be that as it may, the nature of that supper doesn’t affect one way or the other the great lessons that Jesus teaches in the following verses.

Verse 3: “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went [Greek upagei, meaning literally “goes”--the NIV renders it “was returning”] to God.” Jesus knew who he was, and is: the Sovereign of the universe--and that makes even more remarkable the action which follows.


At this point we need to bear in mind that a common mode of travel in the first century was walking, and many of the roads were dirt. Thus, since most everyone in those days wore sandals, after several hours of walking on one of those dusty roads a person’s feet got dirty. Because of that fact, the practice of foot-washing after a journey was an ordinary, everyday occurrence. It was generally understood that when one visited in the home of another, the host would send his servant to bring a basin of water and wash the feet of the guest. To you and me, it seems that such an experience would be awkward and embarrassing, but in that day and time it was as commonplace as a host taking your coat when you come into his home in our own day.

If a servant or slave was not available to perform this service, the duty of washing the feet of those present would fall to the lowest ranking person in the crowd.

Now let’s look at verses 4-5:

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments [a reference to taking off his outer garments, much as you and I would take off our coat and roll up our sleeves if we were about to get our hands in water]; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.

The disciples must have looked at one another in amazement as they saw what Jesus was doing. They didn’t know what to say; they were stunned that their Lord and Master, the Son of God, who is himself God Incarnate, would perform this menial servant’s task.

They sit speechless as Jesus washes their feet and dries them with a towel--that is, all of them but one were speechless. Verse 6 says, “Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter, saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” Peter, with his impetuous nature, blurts out, “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” Peter was saying, in effect, “Lord, this ought to be the other way around; you’re our Master, our Lord--you ought not be washing our feet!”

Now, let’s consider...


Verse 7: “Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” The NIV renders that verse as follows: “Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’” Jesus was saying, “Peter, the point of what I’m doing goes far beyond what you’re seeing on the surface; I’m doing this to provide a picture for you, to illustrate some powerful truths. You don’t get the point at the moment, but you will later.”

A. Jesus was, first of all, illustrating a truth regarding HOLINESS.

Let’s look at verses 8-10:

Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he Ye are not all clean. So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?

When Jesus said, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me,” he clearly was referring to the spiritual washing, the cleansing from sin, that he was symbolizing, or illustrating, by washing Peter’s feet--and the feet of the others.

Simon Peter was already saved, so Jesus wasn’t talking about that initial cleansing called conversion. What, then, was he referring to? He was referring to that daily spiritual cleansing that all Christians need. Although sin is no longer on the throne in a Christian’s life, the fact remains that we do sin--and consequently we all need daily cleansing, just as people in the first century needed to have their feet washed on a daily basis as they traveled the dusty roadways of that day and time.

When Jesus said to Peter, in John 13:8, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me,” he was saying, in effect, “Peter, if you don’t allow me to cleanse you from the sin that has crept into your life as a believer, you’re not going to have any part in that close fellowship with me that I desire all believers to have, and which they all need.”

Peter still didn’t completely “get it.” In verse 9 he was saying, “Well, Lord, if all of this is about spiritual cleansing, then don’t stop with my feet; just cleanse me all over!”

In verse 10 Jesus was saying, “No, Peter; he that has had that overall washing, as you have--in other words, the person who has been born again, as you have--is saved forever, and never again needs that basic cleansing experience. [1 Corinthians 6:11 speaks of believers as having been “washed”; Titus 3:5 refers to conversion as “the washing of regeneration”; Revelation 1:5 speaks of Jesus as “him who loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.”]

“But, Peter, he does need to have his feet washed. For even though he is basically clean, in other words saved, nevertheless as he walks the roadways of life he is unfortunately going to pick up some of the filth of the world--and therefore he needs to come to me daily for that secondary type of cleansing in order to have constant close daily fellowship with me. He needs, so to speak, to have his feet washed on a daily basis.”

So, even though we who have trusted Jesus as our Lord and Savior are “clean every whit”--that is, saved and basically cleansed from our sins--we still need a “spiritual foot-washing” every day if we’re to know the joy and strength and fulfillment of a close daily fellowship with Christ.

B. Secondly, Jesus was also illustrating a truth concerning HUMILITY.

Earlier, when Jesus and the twelve were enroute to Jerusalem, we learn in Mark 10 that while Jesus’ heart was heavy with anticipation of the crucifixion, James and John were concerned with their own egos. In Mark 10:37 we read: “They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory.” Jesus expressed his disappointment that they were engrossed with such things, and said in verses 44-45: “And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.” We learn in Matthew 20 that their mother made a similar appeal to Jesus on her sons’ behalf. Every indication is that not only James and John, but the other disciples as well, were full of egotism and self-interest.

So, Jesus uses the foot-washing incident as an object lesson in humility. He was saying to them, in essence, “You’ve been arguing and pouting over which of you is the most important, the most prominent; but I’ve just now shown you what a disciple’s attitude ought to be. Just as I have humbled myself and taken the servant’s role in washing your feet, so you ought to have that same attitude toward one another. In the daily occurrences and incidents of life, such as that of foot-washing, each of you ought to be willing to take the lesser role--that of being a servant to others. That’s the role in life I’ve taken; and surely if I, your Master and Lord, have taken such a role, you as my followers ought to do so, for the disciple is not greater than his Lord! From now on, exemplify in your lives the attitude which I’ve just now demonstrated for you by the washing of your feet.”

Humility is one of God’s primary prerequisites for his richest blessings. D. L. Moody once said, “If we only get down low enough, God will use us to his glory.” Another time Moody said, “The measure of a man is not how many servants he has, but how many he serves.” Allan Moseley said, “In the kingdom of God, the way up is down.”

No doubt one reason that the apostle Paul was so greatly used of God was his genuine humility. In 1 Corinthians 15:9 he spoke of himself as “the least of the apostles, that am not meet to be called an apostle.” In Ephesians 3:8 he referred to himself as “less than the least of all saints.” In 1 Timothy 1:15 he declared that “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief.” In the last century there lived another man with a similar spirit: G. K. Chesterton. The London Times had asked various writers to respond to the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” Chesterton’s reply was simply: “Dear Sirs. I am. Sincerely yours, G. K. Chesterton.”

By giving that object lesson in humility, Jesus was--by clear implication--warning us against the sin of pride. In 1 Peter 5:5 we are reminded that “God resisteth the proud, and given grace to the humble.” Proverbs 16:18 declares, “Pride goeth before destruction, and an haughty spirit before a fall.”

Craig B. Larson told about one of the most widely renowned Spanish matadors of the last century--a precocious 21-year-old named Jose Cuberto. In spite of his youth, he had experienced spectacular success and acclaim. There came a day, then, when he entered the ring with one of the fiercest bulls in all of Spain, and the bull began galloping at Jose, trying to gore him, but missing his target every time. With every unsuccessful attempt, the maddened bull became more infuriated. Having skillfully side-stepped the enraged bull’s every charge, and having grievously wounded the animal, Jose then made what he considered the kill by thrusting his sword into the delirious bull, which resulted in the huge animal collapsing. Brimming with self-satisfaction, Jose didn’t wait to make sure that the bull was finished; instead, he immediately turned to the cheering crowd to bow and enjoy their applause. The bull, however, was not dead. It rose and lunged at the unsuspecting matador, its horn piercing Jose’s back and puncturing his heart. Shortly thereafter Jose lost consciousness and died.

Having told that story, Craig Larson then made this application; he said, “Just when we think we’ve finished off pride, just when we turn to accept the congratulations of the crowd, pride stabs us in the back. We should never consider pride dead before we are.”

The only safeguard against pride and other sins that can maim, cripple, and destroy is to be anchored trustfully and obediently to the Lord Jesus Christ. If you are a Christian, you have the Holy Spirit of God dwelling within you--and 1 John 4:4 assures us that “greater is he that is in you, that he that is in the world.” That doesn’t mean, of course, that you’ll ever be perfect in this life, for you certainly won’t--but as you walk with the Lord daily and read his Word and call on him to help you, he will enable you to gain an ever-increasing degree of victory over those temptations that assail you.


So, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet he was not, as I understand it, instituting a ritual to be observed by all future generations of believers. Rather, he was illustrating two great spiritual lessons which are to be taken to heart and acted upon by believers of every day and age. He was teaching a lesson about holiness, and a lesson about humility--and in the latter case, he was saying that as we live from day to day we should not be concerned with position and prominence, but with being of service to others in his name.

I certainly don’t have any quarrel with, or criticism of, those sincere Christians who observe foot-washing in their church as a ritual, if that helps them more effectively to maintain a consciousness of the two great lessons Jesus was teaching. However, I don’t believe that Jesus intended to institute a ritual--I believe that he was simply using an illustration, that one observance of which would serve as a reminder for future generations. As I said, though, while disagreeing I nevertheless respect the view of those who see it otherwise and who understand Jesus to mean that we should continue to practice foot-washing from time to time when we gather in his name. But be that as it may, it is unquestionably clear that his primary focus was on the lessons he was teaching--that we are to be holy and humble.

Look now at verse 17. The NIV translates it as follows: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

It isn’t enough simply to understand these two great spiritual truths that Jesus was teaching; we must put them into practice in our daily lives if we’re to know the joy and usefulness that Jesus wants us to experience.

But the first question that every person should face is this: “Have I experienced that initial cleansing of which Jesus spoke? Have I repented of my sins and by faith committed my life to Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior?” If you have not, you can settle that all-important issue right now. In Revelation 22:17 we read: “And the Spirit and the bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come. And let him that is athirst come. And whosoever will, let him take the water of life freely.”