The disciples were puzzled. They had seen and heard much that was unconventional from their Master and Teacher, and on this night His actions seemed even more unusual.
The Passover, one of Israel's great feasts and a time of joyous celebration, was at hand. Yet Jesus was uncharacteristically subdued. That was peculiar in itself, but now, during their meal, He rose, took a pitcher and a large bowl and began going from disciple to disciple washing each one's feet!
What did this mean? Was this another of those puzzling occurrences that the disciples had often witnessed, unable to fully grasp what their Master was trying to teach them? Why, on this night of celebration, was He saying and doing these peculiar things? What did it all mean?
The ordinance of humility
On the night before His death Christ introduced a custom that would teach His disciples a crucially important lesson. The question for us is whether it is still relevant for Christians today. That lesson was taught through the simple act of foot-washing, the humble act of Jesus Christ as He observed the Passover with His disciples during the last night before His death. They did not understand His instruction then, but they later came to see that Christ's actions that evening were to teach them some profound principles.
What are we to learn from the events of this night? What is the significance of Christ's example?
John 13 describes the setting. "It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him" (verses 1-5, New International Version throughout).
We see in these verses the motivation for Christ's actions that evening: He "knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God." Because of this, Jesus did what He did as a lesson for His followers for all time. He knew that He would die within 24 hours. He knew these were His last hours in human form with His disciples.
What lesson did He want to be sure they remembered? What did He want to leave them with?
Foot-washing: a menial task
Let's consider the significance of Christ's actions. What was the point He was trying to make? We live under different circumstances today, so it's more difficult for us to relate to those events. Placing ourselves in the culture of that time helps us better understand.
In first-century Judea, people wore open sandals rather than shoes as we usually do. They didn't travel in cars or buses. They walked everywhere, usually on dusty paths and dirt roads. When it rained, they walked through mud. They didn't have concrete or brick walkways like most cities have today; few areas of the cities could afford stone paving. Most people simply didn't take a bath or a shower every day; daily bathing was a luxury for the wealthy and prosperous. Feet became downright dirty under those conditions.
We may not often consider the fact that Jesus Christ and the disciples usually had dirty feet, but they did. If you or I walked everywhere on dirt roads while wearing sandals, our feet would be quite dirty too.
Whenever guests were invited to a home, the lowest household slave or servant was given the basest job-which was bathing the feet of guests. The washing of feet was not an enviable task. It was a demeaning chore, reserved for the servant with the lowest status. The Gospels refer to this custom in John 1:27 and Luke 7:44-46.
On this particular evening, since Jesus was playing host to a private meal, no servants were present to handle the menial task of removing sandals and washing the feet of the guests.
The disciples' attitudes
Although all four Gospels record events of this evening, none records any of the disciples volunteering to do this task. That would have been admitting inferiority to the others. Luke 22:24 adds an interesting detail about that same evening: "Also a dispute arose among [the disciples] as to which of them was considered to be greatest."
Rather than considering how they could best serve each other and make the evening more pleasant for the others, the disciples' minds were focused on "which of them was considered to be greatest," to the point that an argument broke out and angry words were exchanged as the men jockeyed for position within the small group.
It isn't clear exactly when on that night this contention arose. Did their controversy prompt Jesus to quietly rise, pour water and, like a common slave, begin washing their feet one by one? That certainly would have quelled the argument! Or did this quarrel take place after Jesus had already washed their feet-demonstrating just how little the lesson had sunk in?
We don't know for sure. But what is clear is Jesus' quiet rebuke: "The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them ... But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves" (verses 25-26, emphasis added throughout).
Peter the impetuous
One of the disciples did understand at least some of the lesson Christ was trying to teach them. When Jesus knelt to wash Peter's feet, Peter blurted out, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?"
Jesus responded, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." He knew the disciples still had much to learn, that they couldn't at that time understand the deep spiritual lesson He was trying to impress on them.
But that didn't satisfy Peter. "No, you shall never wash my feet," he said (John 13:6-8). Peter realized that Jesus was deliberately degrading Himself by His actions, assuming the role of the basest of slaves. But Peter still didn't understand the larger lesson, that those who follow Christ have to have the attitude of a servant.
Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me" (verse 8). There is another lesson given here as well-that we must be washed by Jesus Christ to have eternal life in God's Kingdom with Him. We are made clean by Christ's sacrifice as pictured by the Passover (1 Corinthians 5:7; Hebrews 9:12-14), and if we have faith in that sacrifice and allow Him to live again within us (Galatians 2:20), He will share eternal life with us (1 John 5:11-13).
But Peter didn't grasp any of this. He thought of it strictly in terms of physical washing, so he asked Christ to wash even more of him. "'Then, Lord,' Simon Peter replied, 'not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!' Jesus answered, 'A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.' For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean" (John 13:9-11).
Christ simplifies the lesson
Seeing that they still didn't understand, Jesus said even more to impress the lesson on them. "When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. 'Do you understand what I have done for you?' he asked them" (verse 12).
Of course they didn't understand. Considerable time would pass before they would grasp the importance of Christ's purpose and teaching and the mission He was giving to them.
"You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (verses 13-15).
Who should be our example, our ultimate role model? We could find none greater than Jesus Christ, the Son of God. We are to follow in His steps and walk just as He walked (1 Peter 2:21; 1 John 2:6). We are to emulate His example in every way. And His example was one of living to serve others (Matthew 20:28).
Jesus concluded His lesson: "I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him" (John 13:16).
Jesus Christ says that if He was willing to humble Himself and put Himself in the position of being a servant, and to take on the duties of the lowest of slaves, who are we to think we're too good to humbly serve others?
We are Christ's servants. Do we ever think we're too good to humble ourselves as He did? Do we think that some kinds of serving and giving of ourselves and our time are beneath us, that we should let someone else do them instead?
We are also Christ's messengers, carrying the good news of salvation that He has commissioned His servants to carry. Do we sometimes think that we're better than the one who has called us and given us this job to carry out?
Although we may not say that by our words, do we say it by our actions? Is there always some reason we can't help others when there is a need? If we're always coming up with reasons why we can't help when we know of a need, aren't we saying the same thing by our actions? Aren't we really saying that our time and our wants and our needs are more important?
Do we understand the lesson?
God well understands the message conveyed by our actions. But do we understand? Christ asked His disciples, "Do you understand what I have done for you?" We need to ask ourselves that same question. We need to ask ourselves whether we have learned the lesson that Jesus Christ so vividly pointed out to His followers when He assumed the role of the lowest servant to teach His followers the vital lesson of humility, serving and giving.
Jesus gave us the example of foot- washing and said, "I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." There are still Christians who faithfully follow His example, instructions and teachings. They recognize the importance of one of the last great lessons Christ gave His followers before His death. They remember that He humbled Himself as a servant to teach us the lesson of serving the needs of others.
And they recognize His promise of John 13:17: "Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them."