Jesus—His Life and Message: Washing the Disciples' Feet (Part 1)

May 18, 2021

by Peter Amsterdam

In the Gospel of John, Jesus’ public ministry comes to an end in chapter 12. For the most part, the next five chapters focus on His final teaching to His disciples.

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.1 

This opening verse of chapter 13 sets up the timing, showing that the events which were to transpire happened right before the Passover feast. We’re told that Jesus knew that “His hour had come,” meaning the time of His death, the time He would depart out of this world. Throughout this chapter, we read other references to Jesus knowing what was going to happen.2 He was not taken by surprise.

Because Jesus knew that He had little time left, He put emphasis on teaching His disciples, and this continues through the next five chapters of this Gospel. In this opening statement, we’re also told something about Jesus’ relationship with those who had followed Him during His ministry. He loved His disciples all along, and He would love them to the end—an end which was drawing close.

The next sentence is a long one and it makes up three verses, so I’ll cover it verse by verse.

During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him ...3

We’re not told where the supper was taking place, nor do we know exactly when it happened, only that it was sometime before the Feast of Passover. As readers, we are informed that the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot to betray Jesus; however, this was unknown to the disciples at the time.

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 …4

The Gospel writer makes the point that Jesus had command of the situation. Just as He knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world, we now read that He knew that the Father had given all things into his hands and that He was going to return to His Father. Jesus was about to take a very low place, but He knew that He was going to return to the place of the highest honor in His Father’s presence.

... rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.5

Jesus got up from the table and took off His outer garments. He was likely left wearing only a loincloth, as a slave would wear. He then took a towel and wrapped it around His waist. The Greek word translated as towel refers to a linen cloth or apron which servants would put on when doing their work. This is the end of the sentence which comprises three verses.

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.6

One author explains: Proper etiquette … taught that guests, begrimed from journeying through the dusty streets, should, on arrival, have their feet washed by a slave. This was a particularly humble task, included in a list of works which a Jewish slave should not be required to perform.7 Though it was a humble task, Jesus washed and dried His disciples’ feet.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”8 

It seems likely that the disciples had been silent while Jesus was washing their feet. It was only when He came to Peter that words were spoken. In a sense, Peter was speaking for all of the disciples, as he considered it inappropriate for the one whom he had earlier called the Holy One of God9 to wash his feet.

Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”10

It doesn’t seem that Jesus was offended at what Peter said, but He did caution him by pointing out that Peter would come to understand at a later time. This is similar to other comments found in the Gospel of John. His disciples did not understand these things at first, but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things had been written about him and had been done to him.11 When therefore he was raised from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this, and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus had spoken.12 It may be that the afterward refers to when the disciples received the Holy Spirit, after Jesus’ ascension into heaven.

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.”13 

Even though Jesus had pointed out to Peter that he would later understand the significance of His actions, Peter still rejected the idea of Jesus washing his feet. Jesus’ response was blunt. Unless Peter let Jesus wash his feet, he would have no part with Him. This was similar in tone to other rather strong statements Jesus made: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God.”14 “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you.”15 One author wrote: Quite simply, Jesus is telling Peter that refusing the love about to be displayed in the washing of his feet would simply prove that he was not one of Jesus’ “own who were in the world” (v. 1), but belonged instead to “the world” itself.16

Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”17

Having rashly stated that Jesus would never wash his feet, he now wants his head and hands washed as well. Peter seems to have been an impetuous person, one who acted quickly without much thought or care. We find another example of this in the account of Jesus’ transfiguration, when Peter said to Jesus, “Rabbi, it is good that we are here. Let us make three tents, one for you and one for Moses and one for Elijah.” For he did not know what to say, for they were terrified.18 Though impetuous, Peter’s comment about Jesus washing his hands and his head was probably sincere and it gave Jesus the opportunity to make a point to the disciples and to all who read this Gospel.

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.”19

Jesus pointed out that if one has bathed and afterwards goes out, such as to the feast which the disciples were presently attending, then they only need to wash their feet, as they are clean. Jesus was making the point that His disciples were clean from sin, in the sense that they were believers and had been forgiven of sin.

The one exception was Judas Iscariot.

He knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”20 

Earlier in this Gospel, we are told that Jesus was aware who would betray Him. (Jesus knew from the beginning who those were who did not believe, and who it was who would betray him.)21 Jesus answered them, “Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.”22 Jesus didn’t name the traitor at this point, so His disciples didn’t know who it was. Before the end of the meal, He would let two of His disciples know who was going to betray Him.

(To be continued.)


Unless otherwise indicated, all scriptures are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

General Bibliography

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Young, Brad H. Jesus the Jewish Theologian. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 1995.

1 John 13:1.

2 John 13:3, 11.

3 John 13:2.

4 John 13:3.

5 John 13:4.

6 John 13:5.

7 Milne, The Message of John, 197.

8 John 13:6.

9 John 6:68–69.

10 John 13:7.

11 John 12:16.

12 John 2:22.

13 John 13:8.

14 John 3:5.

15 John 6:53.

16 Michaels, The Gospel of John, 729.

17 John 13:9.

18 Mark 9:5–6, Matthew 17:4, Luke 9:33.

19 John 13:10.

20 John 13:11.

21 John 6:64.

22 John 6:70.