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A Modern Day Explanation for Jesus Washing Feet

Updated: Feb 15

By Hannah Brzozowski

This blog was adapted from Hannah's sermon at Anchor Church in Champaign,IL. You can listen to it here.

When I think about humiliation, the one thing that comes to my mind are my Facebook statuses from 2008. If you had a Facebook back then, you know what I'm talking about. There were the statuses where we told everyone in our lives where we were at any given moment. Or the ones where we shared WAY too much. Those statuses make me cringe to this day. And, to be honest, after writing this, I've blocked a lot of them from view in order to save myself from further embarrassment.

Today, we look at Jesus' humiliating moment of washing his disciples feet from John 13:1-17. When I've read this passage in the past, it's been hard to understand the level of humiliation this truly was. I've always thought - sure, feet are kind of gross but was this really that big of a deal for Jesus to do? After doing some research, I discovered what this really meant and how gross it was.

Throughout this post, I'll be breaking down John 13:1-17 verse by verse and commenting throughout. First, let's look at the scene the author, John, sets.

The Scene

Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to his Father.

Whenever you're reading the Bible, you want to pay attention to the context.

The first observation from this passage is the date of the dinner. This takes place during a very important celebration on the Jewish calendar: Passover, a Jewish holiday celebrating the Hebrews miraculously rescue from slavery. Their lives were spared because of a sacrificed lamb. In this story, Jesus is being positioned as the new lamb. 

Also, in that time, the custom was to use a table that was coffee table height. So, that meant that everyone's feet were pretty close to the food. Thus, the need for foot washing. No one wants dirty feet near their dinner!

He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end. 

John, the author, really wants us to know that the cross is coming up when Jesus will sacrifice his life for his friends. But, before that, he gives us an example to follow through the washing of the feet.  

It was time for supper, and the devil had already prompted Judas, son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 

When reading this, John makes it very clear that Judas, the betrayer was there. Not only was he invited, but he was actually seated in the position of honor. It wasn’t just Jesus’ friends in attendance, but also his worst enemy. 

Jesus knew that the Father had given him authority over everything and that he had come from God and would return to God. 

Jesus had the power. Because of that, we are expecting Jesus to grab a sword and pierce Judas through the heart or start to lead a rebellion against the Romans, but that’s not what happens...

Another thing to keep in mind:

In Luke 22, there was an argument at this dinner about who was the greatest. It's not a coincidence that it was at this time that Jesus decided to take on the humble position of a servant.

The Washing

So he got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him. (John 13:4-5)

For this part, I think it's helpful to think of it like this....

Imagine you invite your boss over along with coworkers for a meal at your nice house. As the meal is starting, you come to realization that you forgot to clean the bathroom... and you had Taco Bell the night before. I think you get the picture. As your boss gets up to wash their hands, you gasp to yourself. You're embarrassed that they will see your bathroom in this state. Then, they grab a toilet brush, toilet bowl cleaner and proceeds to clean your toilet. They get down on their hands and knees and scrubbed the floor around the toilet and sink even. Then, they come back into the room, wash their hands, put their suit jacket back on and sit down.

This is an equivalent to what is happening here. Foot washing was a dirty, disgusting job that often included washing off sweat, dirt, and human and animal feces. This was before the times of flushable toilets and great sewage systems and people were walking around in sandals. I think you get the picture.

Jesus took on the shameful uniform of a slave by taking off his outer garment and putting a towel around his waist. Peers would very rarely wash each other’s feet. Some Jews insisted that Jewish slaves should not even be required to wash the feet of others. This job should be reserved for gentile slaves or for women or children or pupils. This was a task reserved for women or the lowest of servants. 

While looking up foot washing in the Bible, I saw only instances of women washing feet.

We see...

  • Abigail in 1 Samuel 25:41 -She bowed down with her face to the ground and said, “I am your servant and am ready to serve you and wash the feet of my lord’s servants.”

  • Mary in John 12:3 - Then Mary took about a pint of pure nard, an expensive perfume; she poured it on Jesus’ feet and wiped his feet with her hair. And the house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume.

  • The woman with the perfume in Luke 7:36-38 - When one of the Pharisees invited Jesus to have dinner with him, he went to the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. A woman in that town who lived a sinful life learned that Jesus was eating at the Pharisee’s house, so she came there with an alabaster jar of perfume. As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them.

In this moment, he wasn't just taking on the position of a slave but you could say, a woman, the most overlooked position of society at the time. By Jesus doing this, their concept of what was right was shattered. If Jesus could wash feet, what did that mean for their argument just moments before about who was the greatest among them.

The Argument

When Jesus came to Simon Peter, Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 

Peter was most likely the last to have his feet washed since he was sitting at the end. It could be that Jesus’ talk to them about who is the greatest got to him and he decided to take the humble spot. But, notice, he refused to take the lowest spot of washing feet. 

Jesus replied, “You don’t understand now what I am doing, but someday you will.” 

It is clear that this is a picture of Jesus’ death of the cross. In both cases, Jesus will take the humble route to serve others. In both cases, the disciples are made clean through Jesus. But, of course, Peter doesn’t understand this yet. 

“No,” Peter protested, “you will never ever wash my feet!” 

This is a common theme for Peter: stubbornness. Remember when Peter forbid Jesus from dying? This shows us just how absurd Jesus’ love is and how twisted it was for a respected person to wash feet and to die on the cross. Over and over, dying on the cross is in view here. It also makes me think of the time that John the Baptist objected to baptizing Jesus. People have a real problem with how humble Jesus is! 

Jesus replied, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me.” 

Simon Peter exclaimed, “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!” 

Jesus replied, “A person who has bathed all over does not need to wash, except for the feet, to be entirely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not all of you.” 

Jesus, the incredible teacher that he is, uses Peter’s overkill statement by further developing his theological point. Once you have been bathed, you are good. You are clean. You are secure. Jesus only needs to die once! You only need to come to know Jesus once.

For Jesus knew who would betray him. That is what he meant when he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

John really wants us to remember: Judas was there. And there’s no question that Jesus knew he would betray him! 

The Teaching

After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, “Do you understand what I was doing? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am.  And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet.  I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you.  

Jesus wants us to follow his example of washing feet. But, what does this mean? Some people think this should be a sacrament like baptism and communion. However, the word for “example” is more like “pattern.” This isn’t necessarily something you do at a worship service. It is something you model your life after — doing the humble job, getting down and dirty. 

I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message.   Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them.

If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. Jesus really meant it! We could all use some blessing in our lives! 

To summarize the symbolism in this passage: From Enduring Word Commentary:

  •  Jesus rose from supper, a place of rest and comfort.

  • Jesus rose from His throne in heaven, a place of rest and comfort.

  • Jesus laid aside His garments, taking off His covering.

  • Jesus laid aside His glory, taking off His heavenly covering.

  • Jesus took a towel and wrapped it around Himself, being ready to work.

  • Jesus took the form of a servant, and came ready to work.

  • Jesus poured water into a basin, ready to clean.

  • Jesus poured out His blood to cleanse us from the guilt and penalty of sin.

  • Jesus sat down again after washing their feet.

  • Jesus sat down at the right hand of God the Father after cleansing us,

So, how can you humiliate yourself like Jesus?

You’re humiliating yourself like Jesus if…

  1. The job is really dirty.

  2. The job is not respected. 

  3. You serve people you don’t like.

  4. You cause confusion instead of getting accolades.

Pastor Craig Groeshel puts it this way: Look at the needs that you can meet and ask God “Is this an assignment for me to meet?”  Is this a way that you can humiliate yourself or humble yourself and serve one of your children today? Are there enemies in your life that you need to wash the feet of?  What's that one thing at work that no one wants to do?

Look for the opportunities that you can serve like Jesus this week. Once you start looking, it's hard to miss them. I promise.

One more thing: As you serve, think about what God has done for you. Maybe as you're cleaning the dishes - you think "just like I’m wiping this dish clean, God wiped my sins clean." Maybe it’s as you're taking out the trash - "Jesus helps me to get rid of the filth in my life." Or maybe as your doing that task, your praying for your coworkers. Use it as a reminder of what God is doing all around you. 

Just like Jesus’ feet washing meant more than just washing feet. So, our tasks can be more meaningful than just doing the task at hand. 


Looking for a church, community, or kids activites in Champaign-Urbana? Why not come visit Anchor Church this Sunday! Plan your visit now!

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