The only New Testament passage describing Jesus washing the feet of His disciples is John 13:1-17; yet it provides sufficient information regarding the attitudes required in serving others. Jesus, the main character of the passage, gives us a great example we should imitate.
It was the last night before the arrest of Jesus. He gathered with His 12 disciples in an upper room for the customary Passover meal. Before breaking and eating the bread and drinking from the cup, He washed the feet of His disciples. After washing their feet, Jesus said: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” (John 13:15). Jesus is an example; His actions are exemplary.
In order to truly understand Jesus’ act of service we have to understand the context of the passage. Allow me to highlight seven crucial elements of service that are exemplified in Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.
The passage begins with the following statement: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1). It is because Jesus loved His disciples that He washed their feet. His act of service is based on, and motivated by, His love. All genuine acts of service must be motivated by love, as many biblical texts suggest. Remember John 3:16 or Paul’s summary of ministry in his epistle to the Corinthians: “For Christ’s love compels us” (2 Cor. 5:14).
Jesus reiterates this important point: The words “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” are really saying: As I serve you because I love you, serve one another because you love one another. Therefore, we serve Him because we love Him; we serve others because we love them.
When the evening meal was being served, “the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscairot, to betray Jesus” (John 13:2). Jesus, however, was not oblivious to this, “for he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean” (verse 11). Jesus knew that one of His disciples would betray Him. He knew that one of them would deny Him. Yet He chose to serve. His knowledge about the people He served did not prevent Him from serving. He even served those who hated Him. He served those who were plotting evil against Him.
Earlier Jesus had put this in another way: “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt. 5:46, 47). Again, Jesus our example says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” He is really saying: As I serve everyone, including those who hate Me, you too should serve everyone, even though they may hate you. We are to serve everyone—those who love us and those who hate us.
The story continues. John describes the scene: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3). All things are put under the power of Jesus. He has all power. He has authority. None is above Him. He is Lord; He is God; He is the Creator, yet He washed the feet of His disciples (verses 4, 5).
Jesus has just demonstrated that the manifestation of power is service. If you have an influential position; if you are placed in a strategic position; if you are a key decision-maker; if you are a professor; if you are a lawyer; if you are a school principal; if you are a manager; if you are a hospital administrator; if you are in any position of power and authority, you have to remember one thing: the manifestation of power is service.
Again, Jesus, our example, reminds us: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” He is saying: As I have manifested My power through service, you are to do it to one another. Use your influence, your authority for service.
“So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around 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 around him” (verses 4, 5). Why would John describe Jesus’ action in such detail? Weren’t the authors of the Gospels very selective in choosing their materials? In fact, John himself says in John 21:25: “Jesus did many other things as well. If every one of them were written down, I suppose that even the whole world would not have room for the books that would be written.”
Yet the act of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples is described in a very detailed manner. Imagine Jesus as a teacher or professor. Imagine that the upper room is His classroom. Imagine that toward the end of the three-and-a-half-year program Jesus would like to emphasize one important lesson. He does not say: Well, class, listen up and pay attention; let Me teach you how to wash feet:
Step 1: get up from your seat
Step 2: take off your coat or jacket
Step 3: take a towel and wrap it around your waist
Step 4: pour water into a basin
Step 5: wash the feet of your friend
Step 6: dry his/her feet with a towel
Step 7: return to your seat
He does not say, “OK, Matthew, now that you have heard the instructions, I want you to do it for Andrew!” No! Jesus does not teach like that. Rather, in this particular setting, Jesus teaches by demonstration rather than instruction. He shows that actions speak louder than words. You have heard this before: He talks so much but does nothing; he teaches but does not practice what he teaches. Jesus not only teaches His disciples how to pray the Lord’s Prayer; He Himself prayed regularly, often the whole night. Jesus not only says: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24); Jesus denied Himself and took the cross to Calvary.
James says it like this: “Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and well fed,’ but does nothing about their physical needs, what good is it?” (James 2:15, 16).
Again, Jesus, our example, reminds us, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” He is saying: As I serve by practicing what I say, practice what you say to others.
There is a pattern in what Jesus did that night. Sitting around a table, He left His seat; He stooped at the feet of His disciples, washing and drying their feet, then “he put on his clothes and returned to his place” (John 13:12). In other words, Jesus humbled Himself; then He put on His clothes and returned to His place.
Philippians 2:5-9 describe a similar attitude: “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death—even death on a cross!”
Jesus was in heaven; He came to this world; He died and saved humanity; He returned to heaven. In the upper room Jesus sat in His rightful place (most likely in a prominent position); He left His place; ta
king the nature of a servant, He washed the feet of His disciples; then He returned to His place. The sequence of Jesus’ acts on that night serve as a miniature representation of redemption. In other words, service to God and to others is part of God’s plan of salvation.
Again, Jesus, our example, says: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” He is actually saying: I have come here to save humanity. When we go, when we work, when we interact with others, we are to serve the Lord and others. We serve because we want to save.
Here is the conversation between Jesus and Peter in John 13:6-8:
Peter: “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus: “You do not realize now
what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Peter: “No! You shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
None of the disciples wanted to function as a servant. Who likes to wash dirty feet? They were not ready to serve. They were thinking about power and position; they wanted to be the greatest—not the servant. Despite all this, Jesus washed their feet. Peter wanted to stop Jesus from washing his feet, but Jesus continued on His mission.
Jesus, our great example, says: “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” He is saying: When no one would like to serve, you serve; when no one would like to initiate a good work, you begin; when others hesitate, be courageous to serve; when most are angling to be the greatest, you serve; when someone tells you to stop serving, continue serving. Serve, even though you may be the only one serving!
Jesus gives a promise at the conclusion of this passage: “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them” (verse 17). Knowledge is good, but knowledge alone will not make us happy. Only when we do what we know will we be called blessed and happy. We know that love should be the motivation for service; we serve everyone, even those who hate us. We realize that service is the manifestation of power; we serve by practicing what we say because we understand the close link between salvation and service. We serve, even though we may be the only one serving; and we continue to serve although others tell us to stop serving the Lord.
Jesus, our great example, modeled humble service. As we wash each other’s feet, He invites us to enjoy a spiritual feast. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.”
It is at the feet of His disciples that Jesus left us the example.