Jesus—His Life and Message: Washing the Disciples' Feet (Part 2)

May 25, 2021

by Peter Amsterdam

In the previous article,1 we read how, as Jesus was washing the feet of His disciples, the apostle Peter objected to having Him wash his feet. In response, Jesus said to Peter, You are clean, but not every one of you,2 making the point that one of the disciples was not clean.

This chapter continues:

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?”3 

Having completed washing the disciples’ feet, which would have included the feet of Judas, who was going to betray Him, Jesus put on the garments which He had taken off earlier and returned to His place, reclining at the table. In asking His disciples whether they understood what He had done, He already knew the answer—they didn’t understand. Earlier, He had said: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”4

Jesus continued,

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.5

Jesus refers to the way His disciples addressed Him, as Teacher and Lord. “Teacher” is the equivalent of “Rabbi,” the respectful way to address a religious leader in Judaism. Calling someone “Lord” was much more rare. It was a way to express deep reverence. Jesus commended the disciples for using these terms in reference to Him, and told them that if someone with such dignity and honor had washed their feet, then they ought to be willing to wash one another’s feet.

I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.6

Bible commentators raise the question of whether Jesus specifically meant that believers should literally wash the feet of other believers, and if so, should foot washing be part of their church service or fellowship? Or was Jesus giving an example of being willing to serve one another in a humble and servant-like manner? It seems the consensus of most commentators is that foot washing was meant as an example rather than a specific command.

The point Jesus made seems to be that if He, as their Lord, humbled Himself by assuming the role of a servant, His disciples ought to be willing to do the same. Rather than instructing them in the particular act of washing another’s feet, Jesus was demonstrating an attitude of humility and service to others. He set the example of how we, as Christians, should serve others, even if it is unpleasant or humbling.

The apostle Paul made a similar point when he wrote,

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.7

Jesus then said:

Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.8

The use of truly, truly, I say to you, alerted the listeners that what Jesus was about to say was important. Jesus reminded the disciples that they were servants and messengers, and as such they should not think too highly of themselves. If Jesus, their master and the one who sends them, was willing to do such lowly actions, then they as those who were sent should not see menial tasks as beneath their dignity.

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.9

Jesus tells His disciples that since they now understand these things, they will be blessed if they do them. While it is an important first step for believers to know what Jesus asks of us, it is in doing what He asks that we receive His blessings.

I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’10 

Jesus clearly knew who would betray Him. He quoted from Psalm 41: Even my close friend in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted his heel against me.11 One author adds: Most commentators understand “lifted up his heel” as a metaphor derived from the lifting up of a horse’s hoof preparatory to kicking, and this is probably correct. … The point of the quotation is that Judas’s action was unnatural. It represented the betrayal not of an acquaintance but of an intimate friend.12

I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.13

Jesus was preparing His disciples for what was coming, as He didn’t want His being betrayed to damage their faith. By telling them in advance what was going to happen, He was showing them that it was all part of His Father’s plan.

Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.14

Once again, as in verse 16, Jesus uses the truly, truly saying. He expresses the dignity of His messengers. Those who receive the messengers, and thus their message, receive the sender (Jesus). Along with that, to receive the sender is to receive the Father.

After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.15

Though Jesus was understood to be in control of the situation, nevertheless, the events which He knew would occur still affected Him. This is the third time He has made reference to someone betraying Him.16 The disciples looked at each other and had no idea whom Jesus was referring to.

(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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2 John 13:10.

3 John 13:12.

4 John 13:7.

5 John 13:13–14.

6 John 13:15.

7 Philippians 2:5–11.

8 John 13:16.

9 John 13:17.

10 John 13:18.

11 Psalm 41:9.

12 Morris, The Gospel According to John, 552.

13 John 13:19.

14 John 13:20.

15 John 13:21–22.

16 John 13:10, 18.