Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet: An Act of Love and Humility

Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet: An Act of Love and Humility

We live in a society where it is the “norm” for the rich and powerful to be ordering people around, while the poor and the lowly people are the ones serving. In this article, we will delve into a passage where our Lord Jesus changed this standard through His example.

You must be familiar with the scene where Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, recorded in John 13:1-17. (See also Matthew 26:14-39 & Luke 22:24-27.) But for us to conclude this as an act of love and humility on the part of our Lord, a good grasp of the Jewish custom of those days is much-needed.

Background of the Passage

Prior to Jesus’ meeting His disciples at the Upper Room, we read that Jesus had entered Jerusalem on Sunday, and on Monday He had cleansed the Temple. Tuesday was a day of conflict with the religious leaders as they sought to trip Him up in order to get evidence to arrest Him. Wednesday was probably a day of rest, but on Thursday He met with His disciples in order to observe Passover.

*Note: If you’re wondering how I came up with this flow of events, they are recorded in Matthew 21-25.

And reading from Luke’s account (Luke 22:24), we see that while Jesus was nearing the time of His death, His disciples had been arguing who of them would be appointed to the highest cabinet post in Jesus’ coming government.

Jesus Loved His Disciples to the End

When Jesus asked to meet with His disciples, He recognized that it was the time for Him to be glorified through His death, resurrection, and ascension (John 13:1). From the human point of view, it meant suffering, but from the divine point of view, it meant glory.

Jesus knew He would soon leave this world and return to the Father who sent Him, having finished His work on earth (John 17:4). At the Last Supper, on the night before He was about to suffer and die and be betrayed by Judas, Jesus did something interesting for His disciples to show them that He loved them even to the end.

Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet

Here’s the scenario: The evening meal was in progress and as the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot to betray Jesus and knowing that the Father had put all things under His power, Jesus got up from the meal, took off His outer garment, wrapped a towel around His waist and poured water into a basin. Then He began to wash His disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around Him (John 13:2-5).

Yes, the Savior did all that! So, what’s the big deal? It was customary in those days that whenever guests came to dinner, the house slave would wash the guest’s feet which were dirty from the dusty roads. There were even garbage and animal wastes on the roads because animals traveled up and down the same streets.

People in the olden times wore sandals

People wore sandals without socks in those days, making their feet very dirty. Take note that in the Jewish custom, people eat dinner around a low table so they didn’t sit on chairs. Instead, they leaned on pillows with their dirty feet exposed behind them. (This could be similar to Japanese or Korean dining today.) Isn’t it hard to enjoy a meal when there is a very bad smell?

However, at the last supper which was held at a private home, there was no slave present, and apparently, none of the disciples had offered to wash the feet of Jesus and the others. Then Jesus did something that must have almost seemed crazy; He began to do the job of the lowest household servant.

Imagine the reaction of the disciples. They must have been so shocked that there was stunning silence while Jesus was washing their feet one after the other. He comes to Peter who probably was able to regain his composure to echo what each of them must be thinking (John 13:6).

Customary Jewish or Japanese Dining
Photo Credits: Vix.com

Regarding the relationship between a teacher and his disciples, a teacher had no right whatsoever to demand or expect his disciples to wash his feet, in accordance with the Jewish laws and traditions. How much more unthinkable for the master to wash his disciples’ feet?

The Meaning & Significance of What Jesus Did

There are several reasons that prompted Jesus to wash His disciples’ feet. Apart from the obvious reason that their feet were dirty and needed washing, Jesus wanted to teach them humility and love. And as their Lord and teacher, He wanted to teach them by setting an example for them to follow.

Jesus knew better that actions speak louder than words. The disciples who had been following Jesus for 3 years must have heard Jesus preach multiple times about love and humility. Yet, they were still quarreling among themselves who should be greater.

And why was no one willing to humble himself and wash Jesus’ feet? Because they could not do this without having to wash the others’ feet as well – a clear admission of inferiority among their fellow competitors for the top position in their hierarchy.

Whoever wants to be great must be servant of all

It must be pride and feelings of animosity. Apparently, their sinful nature was still very much a part of them. So when Jesus wanted to teach His proud and arguing disciples about love and true humility, He didn’t just say it; He showed it.

In the succeeding verses (John 13:12-17), Jesus explains the reason behind His action and calls His disciples to follow His example. Jesus is saying we should serve others. If Jesus who is our master and Lord of all would choose to lower Himself to do the job of the lowest and least important servant by washing His friends’ feet, then we should always be willing to serve others.

Closing Thoughts

The servant (slave) is not greater than his master; so if the master becomes a slave, where does that put the slave? On the same level as the master! Jesus said “we ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14-16). This is the attitude that marks His followers, especially among church leaders.

While the foot-washing is a powerful lesson in humility, let us not overlook the truth behind it, which is that Jesus did all this out of love. Love was what motivated Jesus to wash His disciples’ feet and He is telling us today that when we humble ourselves and serve, it should be out of love, not out of a sense of duty or responsibility.

Although foot-washing during Bible times was very common, it’s not common today. However, there are many things we can do to serve others as an act of love and humility. What practical examples from your everyday life can you give where Jesus’ example should be followed?


*Recommended Resource:

Full Service: Moving From Self-Serve Christianity to Total Servanthood by Siang-Yang Tan

Is servanthood a way to lead or a way of life? Leadership has its place in Christian ministry, but God calls us, first and foremost, to servanthood. Servant is not a modifier for some other activity but the foundation of the Christian life.

Siang-Yang Tan calls the church back to its primary role of being servants of Christ and other people. This genuine Spirit-inspired servant attitude will enable you to enter more deeply into God’s rest and grace and will revolutionize your life and ministry.

2 Replies to “Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet: An Act of Love and Humility”

  1. I love your depiction of this event! 😍 It’s so true; Jesus’ awesome ability to remain humble is very inspiring. The best part is the only inclination Jesus had was to love, and love fiercely, and unconditionally. That night was a great way of declaring that. Thanks for writing such a thorough explanation of it. ❤❤

    1. Hello Kylie, thanks for your comment.

      Jesus has indeed set an example for us to follow. It’s not always easy especially with difficult people. But if we are to be followers of Christ, we need to imitate Him because we are His ambassadors. And if we find it hard to stay humble and do everything out of love, let us always remember how Jesus humbled Himself even to the point of dying on the cross because of His tremendous love for us.

      Shalom!

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