Read John 13:1–17.
With three boys who like to do battle with pretend light sabers, chase each other in a never-ending game of tag, and generally wreak havoc on the solemnity of the morning, my wife, Laurin, and I try to keep one small corner of our home sacred: the shower. Though our power is only that of mere mortals, we each do what we can to keep our littles far enough away from the master bathroom so that the other can enjoy ten minutes of peace and quiet.
I read somewhere that your morning shower can make or break your day. There’s something about the solitude, the warm water, and the routine of washing that gets your brain’s creative juices flowing. I can’t count the number of ideas that have come to me, seemingly out of nowhere, while I was in the shower. When I’m involved in a difficult project at work or thinking through some issue facing our family, it’s often in the shower that I find clarity. Then, of course, there’s the feeling of being clean. It’s a reset, a starting over, a moment to feel new again. For me, the day can’t really begin if I haven’t taken a shower.
Modern plumbing and on-demand, hot, running water would have been unthinkable luxuries to Jesus’ first disciples. Even so, they knew the blessing of being truly clean. Jewish life in the first century was inextricably tied to ceremonial cleanliness. There were ritual baths, handwashing and foot-washing protocols, and procedures for ensuring the water used remained unpolluted.
When it came to the lowly job of washing feet before a meal, the task usually fell to a servant or slave. So, when Jesus stands up in the middle of Passover dinner, grabs a towel, and starts scouring toes, it is unexpected to say the least. According to the ways of the world, Jesus should be the last to pull foot-washing duty. Surely, He could designate the role of sole scrubber to one of His disciples. (I mean, He should pick Judas; he deserves the dirty job for what he’s about to do.) Instead, Jesus offers His friends an example of true servant leadership and authentic humility. But this is no ordinary foot-washing session. Jesus is revealing one of the secrets of the kingdom. We know this because of what He tells Simon Peter.
Peter bristles at the thought of the Son of the living God wiping the filth from his toes, and at first he refuses to participate. Jesus gently responds, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). This is about more than good manners or ritual purity; this is a serious issue to Jesus.
Peter can sense his Master is not kidding, so he extends his feet and adds, “Then, Lord,… not just my feet but my hands and my head as well” (v. 9). Peter is all in. If Jesus needs to wash him, he wants to be made completely clean.
Jesus assures Peter that since he’s already had a bath, it’s only necessary to cleanse his feet. The “bath” Jesus speaks of is the faith to follow Jesus in the first place. It’s the heart’s surrender, not good works or holy living, that makes a person one with Jesus (14:20). This connection to the Savior makes us clean in God’s sight (1 John 1:7). We can approach the throne with confidence (Hebrews 4:16), take our blood-bought place in the household of God (Ephesians 2:19), and have confidence on the day of final judgment (1 John 4:17). God will not cast us aside because of our many sins. Instead, He will embrace us as prodigal children who have finally come home.
The foot-washing, though, is different. It has to do with the regular and ongoing work of drawing near to our Savior. It’s our daily commitment to Jesus as Lord. It’s about keeping ourselves unstained by the world so that we do not grieve the Lord’s Spirit (Ephesians 4:30). It’s not a cleansing meant to save us; rather, it’s the washing away of our old selves, bit by bit, so that we begin to look more and more like Jesus.
By washing His disciples’ feet, Jesus is showing each one He wants nothing to interfere with their relationship. He wants them to walk closely with Him, even when He is no longer by their side physically. By encouraging His friends to wash each other’s feet, He’s inviting them to emulate His humility. He’s teaching them to serve one another in the most important way possible—as an ongoing reminder of Jesus’ love for them.
You see, Jesus didn’t just get up from the seat of honor at the table that night. Decades earlier, He had stepped down from His seat of glory in heaven. He didn’t just take on the role of a servant for the duration of the Passover meal; He had lived His entire earthly life serving people on the fringes. He didn’t just get His hands dirty scraping the grime off others’ feet; He had come to bleed and die to make a way for the world to come back home to God.
The simple act of foot-washing mirrors the humble heart of Jesus’ ministry. As we follow His example and serve one another, we speak the gospel with our lives.