This is the second post in the series on the Upper Room Discourse.

Imagine with me for a moment that your boss walked in to work one day, and instead of walking into his office, he came to your desk, armed with a broom and dustpan, and began to sweep up around your desk. How would you react to that? I think most people would be shocked. I mean, that’s not in his job description. After all, his job as the boss is to “be the boss”, right? When we come to John 13:2-20, we see a similar scenario. Twelve men would watch as their Master served them by doing a task that was reserved for the lowest of the low, namely washing their feet. It is in this passage that perhaps Jesus gives one of the simplest, yet profound, lessons He would ever give. In this post, I want to investigate the three different scenes that transpire in this foot washing between Jesus and his disciples.

The Setting of the Foot Washing (v. 2-5)

During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 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, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 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.

First in this passage, John gives us the setting of what is going on in this final night between Jesus and His disciples. In last week’s post, we saw that this “supper” taking place was the Passover meal. It is in the context of this Passover meal reclined at the table, and recalling the redemption that God provided, Jesus reveals several truths concerning the ultimate redemption through Him. This supper, just as other meals in those days, were shared around a low-standing table. People would not sit at a table, but recline toward the table, on mats, or cloaks.[1] In these opening verses, John not only brings us into the upper room and what was taking place, but He gives us two insights. First , he tells us about the established conspiracy against the Son of God. As revealed throughout John’s Gospel, Jesus was aware of His coming hour, when He would  atone for the sins of all who will believe in Him. At the same time, John has revealed to us the means by which that hour would take place. Three other times, John explicitly reveals Judas as the one who would betray Christ (6:71; 12:4; 18:2). Though Satan tempted Judas, and although Judas would forsake and betray Christ, the One whom He had followed for three years, for a mere thirty pieces of silver, it would serve as the means that would bring about God’s redemption for His people. In fact, the whole process, including the scourging, and the crucifixion itself, though an evil act against God, was in fact working according to the eternal plan of God (Acts 4:27-28; Eph. 1:11). They had evil intentions. God accomplished glorious redemption.

Second, John reveals to us in these verses the heart of Jesus. The text tells us that Jesus “knew that the Father had given all things into His hands.” Jesus tells us this earlier in the Gospel (3:35), letting us know that Jesus was fully aware of His sovereignty. He knew that He was Lord of the Universe. Not only that, but He also knew “he had come from God and was going back to God”. As was highlighted last week, he knew that His hour of departure had come. He would soon return to His Father to reign as the King who accomplished the work He had come to do, namely the work of atonement on behalf of His people (17:4; 19:30). Knowing all that, He does something that probably left His disciples dumbfounded. He gets up from the meal, takes off his outer garment (outer robe), wraps a towel around His waist, and then begins to wash the feet of His disciples. Foot washing was an everyday activity in the lives of those in the first century. People wore sandals, and therefore, it was a common practice to have a water basin and a towel prepared for incoming travelers. The water and towel were typically provided by the host (Gen 18:4), however, untying the sandal and hand washing the feet of a traveler was reserved for the servant or the slave. [2] So, when Jesus takes up the towel, and begins to wash feet, he was assuming the role of a slave.[3] Although He is aware of His majesty and authority, He stoops down and served His disciples in the most humiliating of everyday tasks, foreshadowing what He would do in the coming hours, for He came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The Picture of Foot Washing (v. 6-11)

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 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.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 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.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

Second, we move on to the picture this foot washing represents. As we might expect, the disciples are not quick to recognize what Jesus is doing. Peter responds to Jesus in by questioning the reality of the very act. “Lord do you wash my feet?” (emphasis mine. Masters were usually not the foot washers. Jesus responds to this confused question in verse seven by assuring Peter that He will understand at a later time, which probably is not pointing to immediately after the foot washing, but rather to after the passion which the foot washing foreshadows. Peter responds to Jesus once again, but this time with an emphatic statement. “You shall never wash my feet” (emphasis mine). Jesus takes this opportunity to explain what the idea of washing and bathing symbolize.

Responding to the emphatic refusal of Peter, Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” The idea of having a “share” with someone points to an inheritance, and a  Jewish life, was often associated with blessings to come at the end of the age (Matt. 24:51; Rev. 20:6).[4] Jesus has moved on from the physical, humble act, of removing someone’s feet, and is now speaking of cleansing of sin from the soul of a sinner.[5] If Peter cannot allow His Lord to remove dirt from his feet, he will never be able to embrace the cleansing and forgiveness that comes through the cross . Peter, still thinking about physical washing, says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus begins to clear the fog for His disciples. He starts by saying, “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.” Verse eleven provides the basis of why he is talking in these terms. “For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’”

In those days, a person would wake up in the morning, and upon bathing, would be completely clean. The person didn’t need to bathe again, for they had already been made clean for the day. Judas who would betray Christ, was unclean, not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual. His state of being unclean would be evidenced in His rejection and betrayal. To be clean, refers to the inward cleansing brought about through the work of the Holy Spirit (Titus 3:4-5).  Therefore, once an individual has repented from their sins and embraced the work of Christ, they are completely clean. Though one is made clean in Christ, just like the individual who has bathed, they must daily come back to the hands of the Master to be washed from the daily dirt and muck that we sometimes will walk into.

The Lesson of the Foot Washing (v. 12-17)

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? 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. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 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. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Third and finally, Jesus engages  in a post-washing discussion, and in it he drives home the lesson to be learned from what He has done. He asks a rhetorical question concerning their understanding. He then begins to break down the lesson to be learned from the act itself. The first lesson is that they must serve as He has served. He was their Master and Lord, yet He washed their feet? That’s the point. The point isn’t that we should wash someone’s feet. Jesus, in washing their feet, is teaching them an essential principle of following Him. If He, being, Lord of all, washed their dirty, stinky feet, then they are not above doing the same for others. Following Christ is not a road of pride and glory, but a road of humility and denial of self.  Just as He served His disciples, so should they serve one another. Paul gives a similar exhortation in Philippians 2:4-8.

“Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 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 emptied himself, by 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.”

That phrase “a thing to be grasped” could also be rendered “a thing to be held on to for advantage.” Although Jesus knew who He was, he served. Just as He humbled himself, so should we.

So when we look to the foot washing of John 13, may we glory in the work of the cross, through which we have been made clean from sin, may we daily come to the hands of the Master to be cleaned from the dust and dirt of sin, and may we answer the call to become a servant, not only to other believers, but to all people.



[1] Keener, Craig S. The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament. second ed. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, IL: 2014, 288.

[2] Ibid, 288.

[3] MacArthur, John. The Upper Room: Jesus’ Parting Promises for Troubled Hearts. Kress Biblical Resources. The Woodlands, TX. 2014, 13.

[4] Carson, D.A. The Gospel According to John. The Pillar New Testament Commentary. William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, MI. 1991. Kindle Edition, Loc 9700.

[5] MacArthur, The Upper Room,16.