Sunday Thoughts: Washing the Disciples' Feet Was More Than a Selfless Act of Service

Sibeaster, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Christians all over the world recently celebrated the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, completing God’s plan of salvation for those who call upon Jesus as Lord and Savior. Of the four accounts of the days before Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection in the Gospels, John goes into the most detail.


One key passage of the account of the Last Supper in John is where Jesus washes the feet of His disciples.

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. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 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, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 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.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 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.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

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.”

John 13:1-15 (ESV)


It’s hard to imagine in our day what washing the feet of 12 men would look like. Think about it: there were no concrete sidewalks or nicely manicured lawns in those days. Every surface where people walked was dirt, and they wore sandals.

Since a supper like the Passover Seder was a special event that took place indoors, washing the feet of one’s guests was an important, common practice. A servant would be the one to wash the guests’ feet because the task was nasty and, frankly, thankless.

Jesus and His disciples didn’t have a servant to take care of that menial job, and the disciples clearly didn’t think of it either, so Jesus took the initiative to do it Himself.

Related: Sunday Thoughts: Certain of God’s Promises

For as long as I can remember, I’ve been taught that washing the feet of the disciples was a selfless, humble act of service on Jesus’ part and that it was meant to teach them — and us — a lesson. And that’s true.

Jesus did what only a servant was supposed to do, and He was the master and teacher! He humbled Himself and performed a menial task that should have been beneath His station, at least in the eyes of the world.

Of course, the application is that we’re supposed to emulate Jesus in this way. It’s a pretty obvious object lesson that we can take into our daily lives, and I do hope that we can serve others the way Jesus did.


But washing the disciples’ feet was even more than that, as I recently learned. I discovered the book The Final Days of Jesus: the Most Important Week of the Most Important Person Who Ever Lived by Andreas J. Köstenberger, Justin Taylor, and Alexander Stewart when Logos, the Bible software I use, offered it at half-price. It’s a real treasure, and I intend to make it an annual part of my Holy Week observance.

In the chapter commenting on what happened on Thursday of Holy Week, the authors point out that:

…believers are “clean” (i.e., converted and regenerated) but still need continual spiritual cleansing (i.e., confession and forgiveness). Jesus makes this point in response to Peter’s misunderstanding of the situation (John 13:6–11). Peter and the other ten disciples were “clean” (though not yet regenerated) and only needed partial “cleansing,” in contrast to Judas, who was not “clean” and for whom temporary partial “cleansing” was not enough. Believers do not need to be “resaved” every day yet are in need of daily spiritual cleansing and renewal by the Holy Spirit.

What an incredible picture this action conveys! Christians are clean because of what Jesus did on the cross and when He emerged triumphant over death from the empty tomb, but that doesn’t mean we don’t get scuffed by our own sins every day.

The theological concept for our being declared right with God thanks to Jesus is “justification,” and the term for our ongoing process of becoming holy is “sanctification.” Another more informal idea is “already but not yet:” we’re already saved but we won’t be perfect like Jesus until we join Him in eternity.


So Jesus’ act of washing the feet of His disciples wasn’t just a tremendous example of the type of service we should perform. It was also a tremendously encouraging picture of Jesus continuing to cleanse us day by day even though He took care of our sins once and for all by His blood.

I don’t know about you, but thinking about it fills me with gratitude!


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