Bible Answer

Why did Jesus wash the disciples' feet?

Why did Jesus wash the disciples' feet after supper and not before, as might have been more appropriate?

Washing the feet was a practice of that day related to traveling by foot on dirt roads. Prior to every meal, it was customary for the host of the home to have the feet of guests washed by a servant, however, we should take note that in this particular home there was no servant available to perform the custom of washing feet prior to the meal. Perhaps a few of the disciples noticed that there was no one in the house to perform the traditional foot washing service but that did not spur any of the disciples to perform this task for the sake of their brethren. In fact, Luke records that only a few moments earlier, these same men had been arguing among one another over who would be the greatest in the kingdom. Instead, we see 12 prideful men sitting with the Savior of the world.

JOHN 13:3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God,
JOHN 13:4 got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself.
JOHN 13:5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.

In v.3 John says that despite knowing that Jesus had come from the right hand of God almighty and that all Creation had been given to Him, nevertheless Jesus begins to serve these men. Jesus surprises His disciples by assuming the posture of a servant to them. Jesus used the moment of washing feet in John 13 to illustrate a larger point that His disciples must maintain a servant attitude of humility.

Notice in v.15 Jesus called that moment "an example":

JOHN 13:15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.

Examples are given to illustrate larger principles. Jesus calls us to follow the principle behind the example, not merely the specific illustration itself. Therefore, Jesus wasn't commanding us to repeat the ritual of feet washing before or after the passover meal; He commanded us to maintain an attitude of humility with one another which was exemplified by the ritual. He wanted to use these last hours to teach spiritual lessons that would stay with the disciples forever and be passed on through the Church.

Then and today the Church is filled with a worldly spirit of competition and criticism as believers contend with one another to see who is the greatest. We are growing in knowledge, but not in grace...

Peter is the first to reject Jesus' act of service:

JOHN 13:6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” John 13:7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.”
JOHN 13:8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
JOHN 13:9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”
JOHN 13:10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.”
JOHN 13:11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.”

Jesus tries to explain that the meaning of His actions won’t make sense now but will in the near future. Jesus’ concern was never for the cleanliness of the disciples’ bodies, nor was Jesus worried about satisfying Jewish dining customs, nor was this merely a lesson in humility or service.

Jesus is creating a beautiful picture of the meaning of His death on the cross. First, there is the picture created by their dirty feet and by Jesus’ sacrificial death; He will make His disciples spiritually clean. The dirtiness of our sinful walk is removed by Jesus’ sacrificial act on the cross for He will wash away the sins of the world by His own blood. Additionally, Peter’s protest highlights the second lesson Jesus was teaching; He is modeling the way the disciples should and will serve Christ’s followers in the years to come. These12 man are to set aside personal ambition and the pride that provokes such thinking to serve the needs of others, a lesson we can all learn from.

Jesus reinforces the second purpose in His washing by emphasizing the model of a disciple:

JOHN 13:12 So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?
JOHN 13:13 “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am.
JOHN 13:14 “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
JOHN 13:15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.
JOHN 13:16 “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.
JOHN 13:17 “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

Jesus asks them if they understand what He has done and then asks them to consider what is meant by their Lord and Teacher humbling Himself to wash their feet? Clearly, if the Lord is not above performing acts of selflessness and sacrifice, then none of His disciples are either. Therefore, the lesson for Peter and the rest of us is to emulate Jesus’ attitude and actions in how they serve the church body, not merely the "normal" traditions held around foot washing. Many students of the Bible are smart enough to see that sacrificial service to the body of Christ is an imperative, nevertheless, only those who make it a practice of their lives will receive God’s blessing.

In conclusion, we suggest listening to our John Study on the VBVMI website, specifically John Lesson 13 for an in-depth look of this sacred time between Jesus and His disciples.