On the evening before His death, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, then instructed that His followers would continue this practice to help us remember. What are we to learn from this simple but profound observance?
Peter was puzzled as Jesus of Nazareth knelt down to wash His disciples' feet. Jesus and the 12 apostles had gathered in a private room. He had earlier directed Peter and John to prepare their last meal together. It was during this time that Jesus instituted the symbols of the New Testament Passover: The unleavened bread would represent His broken body and the wine would signify His blood that He would lose less than a day later.
Peter was watching, fascinated, as Jesus bent down to wash His disciples' feet. This was unusual, even strange, to see a teacher washing His followers' feet.
Peter had observed Jesus rising during supper to remove His outer garment and wrap a towel around His waist. Peter well knew this was an act customarily performed by slaves or servants. In that day, whenever guests were invited to a home, the lowliest household slave or servant washed the guests' feet. (John 1:27 and Luke 7:44 refer to this custom.) In this case, since this was a private gathering, no servants were present to carry out the menial job of removing sandals and washing the feet of guests.
Wasn't Jesus too good for this?
What was Jesus doing? Surely it was beneath Him to abase Himself in this way. As Jesus moved from one disciple to another, the room probably quieted. All eyes followed Jesus' every move. The disciples shifted their positions to watch Him lift the pitcher of water and pour it into a basin.
Carefully, systematically, Jesus moved from disciple to disciple, washing each man's feet. Peter looked on transfixed, scrutinizing Jesus' every move. Peter suddenly realized it was his turn.
As Jesus bent down to wash his feet, Peter blurted out, "Lord, are You washing my feet?" (John 13:6, emphasis added throughout). Apparently Peter was the only one who openly questioned—and protested—his Master's actions. His understanding of Jesus' behavior wouldn't come until God gave the disciples His Holy Spirit. Only later would they comprehend the spiritual significance of this act of humility and the symbols Jesus instituted during that evening's Passover service.
Jesus responded simply, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this" (verse 7). Of course, Jesus was referring to the Holy Spirit's revelatory power, which would eventually guide the disciples' understanding (John 16:13), enabling them to grasp the spiritual meaning of this physical act. Later they would understand that this ceremony signifies the Christian's humble service to God, His Church and mankind.
Again, Peter's impetuosity surfaced. He protested that Jesus should never lower Himself to the undignified demeanor of a servant: "You shall never wash my feet!"
Jesus Christ calmly responded, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me" (John 13:8).
Peter's next saying mirrors our human tendency to overreact: "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!" (verse 9).
Our Savior then informed Peter: "He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you" (verse 10).
He made clear that the act of washing each other's feet is not really an exercise in personal hygiene. Although His disciples wouldn't understand until later, Jesus spoke of becoming spiritually cleansed, which would happen through His shed blood and death for the sins of humanity.
One man among the disciples was not clean in spirit: Judas Iscariot, who would betray the Savior. Jesus knew who would betray Him, "therefore He said, 'You are not all clean'" (verse 11).
Lessons for Christ's followers
What are we to learn from Jesus Christ's act of humility? Jesus Himself clearly explained the primary lesson of foot-washing: "You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet" (verses 13-14).
In other words, if Jesus Christ is willing to humbly and unconditionally serve His followers in a lowly human task, those disciples should follow His example and be willing to perform even the most unpleasant tasks for their brethren and mankind.
The apostle John, who recorded these events, later explained this attitude with a simple question: "But whoever has this world's goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?" (1 John 3:17). No follower of Christ is to set himself above serving any other human being. God observes His people and blesses those who honor Him by serving as conduits of His truth and examples of true spirituality.
Jesus instituted the foot-washing ceremony to illustrate that He had come to serve mankind. He had earlier made this clear to those who would follow Him: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those who are great exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matthew 20:25-28).
Christ's ultimate service for mankind was his willingness to give His life for us, which was to happen the next afternoon. His example of humility, service and generosity is all the more poignant because of its contrast with the attitude of the rest of humanity. Our natural tendency is to look for ways to make others serve us. God's way, on the other hand, is unpretentious, willing service to others.
Serving others God's way imposes no conditions and expects no reward: "But love [even] your enemies, do good, and lend, hoping for nothing in return; and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High. For He is kind to the unthankful and evil" (Luke 6:35). This powerful scripture tells us much about God's character—that His approach is one of unbiased service to mankind.
Spiritual system at work
Jesus reveals to us a spiritual system that lets everyone come out ahead. It is not the way we normally, naturally think. That is why we must change to God's way, which works forever.
Our way does not work for long. Although we may temporarily benefit, in the long run our human way of doing things traps us. Service to others lives on, but taking or serving only the self dies with those who seek to serve themselves.
Those who would follow Jesus Christ must ask a tough question: Will we dedicate ourselves to Jesus' way of outgoing, humble service toward others, or will we go the way of the world, demanding and taking and serving ourselves? Christ's example of washing His friends' feet is a reminder of that fundamental choice.
You can do three things that will help you understand and capture Jesus' attitude as He washed His disciples' feet:
Ask God to help you better understand and practice the spirit of foot-washing.
Seek God's attitude of humility and service by researching and studying the many examples of it in your Bible, including Abraham, Ruth and Daniel.
Look for ways to serve others.
Every year as we approach the Passover season, let's keep in mind the wonderful lesson of washing others' feet, which symbolizes our serving others with humility and without imposing our own conditions. Jesus tells us to emulate His actions in this simple ceremony: "For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you" (John 13:15).
Then He shows us the results of a selfless, serving attitude: "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" (verse 17).