Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet characterizes his entire life
by Del Gray
My first foot washing service was incredibly awkward. I was 41 years old and had been in church all my life, but this was all new to me, having joined a Mennonite Brethren congregation a few months before. I had no idea what to expect, and I kept looking around at other people to see what I should be doing. I didn’t know the person I was paired up with, and when we began the actual foot washing I was self-conscious and uncomfortable. Everything went fine, but throughout the event I had to continually suppress the thought that this was not a normal, socially acceptable thing to do in polite company.
On further reflection it occurred to me that the embarrassment that I felt was also a significant part of the disciples’ experience when Jesus washed their feet at the Last Supper in John 13. I identified strongly with Peter who was ashamed when he saw Jesus acting as his servant and cried out, “No, you shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8).
In Peter’s world this task was demeaning, even insulting to the social status of his Lord. It would have been extremely awkward for the disciples to be treated this way by a social superior. Some ancient sources suggest that the job of foot washing was too undignified for even most servants and was assigned to their children instead.
Typically feet were physically dirty and needed to be washed when entering a home. More significantly, feet were symbolically unclean in a way that went beyond hygiene. Cultural norms in that day regarded feet as offensive and profane, the lowest part of a person. Even the seraphs in Isaiah 6:2 covered their feet in shame in the presence of God’s holiness. Culturally speaking, Peter’s protest was warranted—it was inappropriate for Jesus to wash his feet.
An act of service
When Jesus voluntarily took the posture of a servant and touched his disciples’ feet, they were astonished because it turned the social order upside down. But this was precisely the point of Jesus’ actions. By humbling himself, he continued to reject a model of ministry that would use power and honor in this world to accomplish God’s goals. He refused to adopt the ways of politicians and religious leaders of the day who used their power over people to achieve what they wanted.
Jesus had fought this battle at the temptations in the wilderness, and throughout his ministry he chose to work through humility, service, weakness and self-sacrifice instead. In this sense Jesus’ act of service at this meal was not a one-time event; it characterized his entire life. The act of foot washing at the Last Supper was practically Jesus’ philosophy of ministry contained in one symbolic action.
After washing their feet, Jesus tells his disciples, “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” (John 13:14-15). What Jesus did at that meal for his disciples was clearly meant to be repeated as an important part of following the model that Jesus set for discipleship.
Many church traditions see the importance of the lesson that Jesus teaches here but do not repeat the act of foot washing itself. I am grateful that my church carries on this Anabaptist tradition of a ceremony that provides a concrete symbol illustrating how Jesus lived. Even as I have become more accustomed to the yearly event on Maundy Thursday, the slight sense of awkwardness that lingers reminds me that a life of service is counter-cultural and has a social cost in our world. Like Jesus, his disciples are called to a life of deep humility that does not seek personal gain in status or social standing. As members of the kingdom of God our values are often upside down.
Looking to the cross
The theme of humble service is powerful and relevant for us today, but there are hints in the passage that something else is going on in this scene as well. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet he was not only teaching them about serving other people, he was also acting out a symbol that foreshadowed his upcoming death. The two ideas are closely related in the text.
The beginning of chapter 13 is a conscious transition by John where he introduces a new section of the narrative that focuses on Jesus’ death. John tells us that “Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world” (John 13:1) and that he “was returning to God” (13:3). The second half of the Gospel of John becomes a close look at Jesus’ final days where he “showed them the full extent of his love” (13:1) by going to the cross. The mention of Judas’ plan to betray Jesus (13:2) further confirms that the narrator has turned his eye to the story of Jesus’ passion.
Jesus makes two comments to Peter that also suggest the act of foot washing looks forward to the cross. In verse 7 Jesus says, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” At the time Peter understood that Jesus was acting as a servant while washing his feet, but he did not yet comprehend the full extent to which Jesus would humble himself. This would only come after Jesus allows himself to go to the cross.
By washing their feet Jesus was looking forward to his ultimate act of humble service that would “clean” his disciples completely. This also explains why Jesus tells Peter that, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). Following Jesus requires us to humbly receive what he has done for us on the cross.
The idea that washing their feet points to the cross becomes all the more remarkable when we remember how the disciples fail Jesus in the coming chapters. Immediately after this scene Jesus predicts that Judas will betray him (13:18) and that Peter will deny him (13:38). These two are specifically pointed out, but all of the disciples will likewise abandon him when the cost of discipleship becomes too great. Knowing this, Jesus still stooped down to serve all of them at this Last Supper. The “full extent of his love” included even dying for those who were not faithful to him.
Foot washing in John’s Gospel, then, takes on a comprehensive scope where it acts as an illustration of Jesus’ willingness to humble himself as a servant, not just in ministry during his life but ultimately in his obedience to death on a cross. This understanding helps us to solve one of the mysteries of the Gospel of John.
A symbol on many levels
Earlier in John 6:54 Jesus taught “whoever eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life,” but when we come to the events of the Last Supper there is no mention of Jesus actually establishing the ceremony of communion. On the surface it seems strange that John would omit such an important event. In his Gospel, though, foot washing functions in the narrative as the symbolic prediction of the crucifixion, serving as a parallel to the Lord’s Supper that we find in the other three Gospels.
When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet he provided a symbol with multiple levels that continually reward our ongoing reflection. It is especially significant as we prepare for Good Friday and Easter, identifying with Jesus’ suffering, death and resurrection. His faithfulness to a path of humility and self-sacrifice throughout the events of his last week is astonishing. While we know this intellectually, it is made all the more real when we physically act out the symbol ourselves, sharing a small taste of the shock of that first experience.
We remember that like the disciples we also are unworthy of our Lord and have abandoned him in various ways, yet he remains committed to serving us. We remember that this kind of love for others is what we are also called to. Foot washing helps us better understand what the Son of God submitted himself to from beginning to end when he walked the road to the cross. It reminds us that we too are walking in that same road of humble, sacrificial service, following in Jesus’ footsteps.
Del Gray is associate professor of biblical and religious studies at Tabor College, the Mennonite Brethren college headquartered in Hillsboro, Kan. He is a member of Parkview MB Church, Hillsboro.