John 13:1–20: Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
This is one of those passages that’s probably more famous within Christian circles than outside the church. In fact, it’s become a sort of metaphor for servanthood; in the Church we commonly talk about “washing one another’s feet” as a shorthand for serving one another. (I could be wrong about the inside/outside the Church assumption, maybe “washing one another’s feet” is used in contexts outside the Church, but it feels pretty Jesus-y to me…)
As the Passover feast approaches, Jesus knows that it’s just about the end of his ministry on Earth. In what feels to me like a prologue, verse 1 tells us that, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Jesus then gets up, strips off his clothes and wraps a simple towel around himself, fills a basin with water, and starts washing his disciples’ feet. (John tells us that the devil1 has already entered into Judas’ heart, and that he’s going to betray Jesus.)
When he gets to Peter, Peter questions whether Jesus is actually going to wash his feet. Jesus tells him that although Peter doesn’t understand Jesus’ actions yet, he will later, but that’s not good enough for Peter: he says that Jesus will never wash his feet! But then Jesus says that if he doesn’t wash Peter’s feet, Peter has no share with him. So Peter completely reverses course: in that case, not just his feet, but his hands and head too! But Jesus tells Peter that the feet are enough—if I were to paraphrase verse 10, Jesus is saying, “when you’re clean you’re clean, no further washing is necessary.”
Jesus then explains to the disciples what he has done—and highlights Judas’ imminent betrayal, while he’s at it:
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? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 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. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (verses 12–20)
To me, if my thoughts on this passage were to be summed up in a couple of verses, it would be 16–17: “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. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
Jesus—who is God—pushed the idea of “servanthood” very, very far, and as his disciples we should do likewise.
He Loved Them to the End
Jesus is about to die. It’s what he came to the Earth for, and what his life and ministry have always been leading up to. From what I found online, it seems like this event is taking place on Thursday; tomorrow Jesus will be tried and executed. (I found a couple of timelines of Jesus’ last week here and here. I’m sure there are lots of others as well.)
So if it was your last full day alive, and you knew it, what would you want to do? If you were a teacher like Jesus, you’d probably have a lot of last-minute instruction to give to your disciples. And Jesus does; John will record a lot of teaching from Jesus over the remainder of the book. (We’re at Jesus’ last day, and there’s still a third of the book of John still to come!) But before we get to that, he displays his humility in this act of washing their feet, demonstrating what true leadership is. He doesn’t smack them around, saying, “I’m about to go, and you guys still don’t get it!” Instead, he says, “I’m about to go, which means you guys will be leading my Church. Let me show you how.” And then he strips down mostly naked, gets a basin of water, and starts washing their feet.
It sounds like a humbling experience just to read about it. It turns out to be even more humbling to do it! When I was younger, at a Christian summer camp, we once did this as a group activity: We got everyone together in a big circle, and then person-by-person we washed each other’s feet. One person would wash the feet of the person next to them, then that person would wash the next person’s feet, and so on. And when you’re kneeling in front of someone like that it’s embarrassing for you and embarrassing for them. In my case, there was a matter of trying to figure out how thorough I was expected to be, whereas I don’t think Jesus even had that question: of course he washed his disciples’ feet properly.
“For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 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.” (verses 15–16, Jesus speaking)
I think all of this makes logical sense, and in the Church we understand that leadership is a form of servanthood; any good local church will treat leadership in that manner. But if I’m right that verse 1 is a prologue to this passage, this isn’t just an act of servanthood by Jesus, it’s an act of love:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. (verse 1, emphasis added)
Everything I said about about the embarrassment and humiliation of washing someone else’s feet still stands, but it’s way easier to perform this type of act of servanthood if you love the person or people you’re serving. Let alone any other type of serving that you perform within the Church.
I know from experience that it’s very flattering and humbling to be offered a position of authority within the Church, such as Deacon (in my case), or Elder, or some other leadership position. Despite how nice that feels, I’m wondering if we should look in our own hearts and turn down such positions if we don’t feel this kind of love for the people we’ll be serving. We’re given some rules for who should (and shouldn’t) be Deacons in 1 Timothy 3:8–13, and it doesn’t mention love anywhere, so maybe I’m pushing the point too far—or maybe when Paul was writing to Timothy the idea that a Deacon should love his fellow Christians was so basic it wasn’t even mentioned.
John is very explicit in this passage that Judas has already decided to betray Jesus. Jesus himself even calls it out in verses 10–11:
“… And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
But he doesn’t wait for Judas to leave and then wash the “worthy” disciples’ feet. He washes all of the disciples’ feet, including Judas’. My only point here is to extend the point made above: when Christians take positions of leadership in the Church, which makes them servants, they are servants to everyone, and are to love everyone. There’s never a question of who “deserves” servanthood and who doesn’t; in our hearts, we’re to love everyone, and serve everyone.
We often throw around the term “Judas” to refer to someone who’s betrayed us, but the reality is that there’s nobody in my local church who’s ever betrayed me even close to the level that Judas betrayed Jesus2. But Jesus stripped down and washed Judas’ feet, as a servant.
“… no share with me”
As I keep stating, this whole passage is about Jesus’ servanthood, and an act of true humility. Though they don’t yet understand it, he’s demonstrating how the disciples should act when they start to lead the Church after he’s gone.
So what does he mean when he tells Peter that he will have “no share” with Jesus if Jesus doesn’t wash his feet? I’m not sure. The ESV Study Bible notes are saying that Jesus washing the disciples’ feet “symbolizes the washing necessary for the forgiveness of sins,” and Matthew Henry’s Commentary says something similar, but… I’m not sure I agree with that analysis—a very bold stance to take, for an unlearned man to question the folks who wrote Study Bibles and commentaries, I know—because it doesn’t seem to fit with the rest of the passage in which Jesus is teaching his disciples about what he’s done. Though it would make his statement to Peter more clear (especially verse 10); obviously, if one hasn’t had one’s sins washed away, one has no share with Jesus.
To me, it feels more consistent if we say that Jesus is demonstrating to Peter what true leadership/servanthood looks like, and that if one doesn’t understand that, it means that one doesn’t understand Jesus, and is therefore not one of Jesus’ children.
I’m not going so far as to say that it’s wrong to see a metaphor for salvation in washing the disciples’ feet—definitely Jesus’ act of servanthood the next day, in going to the cross and dying for our sins, was the greatest act of servanthood ever performed—I’m just not convinced that it’s what he’s saying in this passage. However, it’s not something I’d be very dogmatic about, and again, I note that two separate commentaries (that I know of) have called this washing of the disciples’ feet symbolic of being cleansed of their sins, and I don’t have their learning, so on the whole I’d have to guess that they’re right about this.
Interestingly, John doesn’t say that “the
Devil” had put this into Judas’ heart, he says that “the
devil” had done it—lowercase
d. It’s not just the ESV, I noticed that the NIV and NKJV also say “the devil” instead of “the Devil.” I have no idea what the significance is of this, however. Does that mean that John isn’t talking about a specific being here—not the Devil but a devil? Is it a specific being, just not a proper name—i.e. Satan is “the devil,” no capital
Dnecessary? I have no idea. ↩︎
There’s actually nobody I can think of in my church who’s ever betrayed me, in any way, so this might be a bad example. ↩︎