It is important for us to note the fact that Jesus was completely aware of His sovereign authority, His origin, and coming destiny as He depended by faith in what the Father was doing (cf. 13:1, 18); yet He voluntarily took the place of a slave and washed the feet of His disciples. Note how His thinking and action contrast sharply with the self-seeking insecurity of the disciples (cf. Matt. 20:20-24; Mark 9:33-34; Luke 22:24-30).
His security in the Father, His love, and His confidence in the Father and future allowed Him to assume the position of a servant, an amazing example of condescension. This attitude, faith, and action portrayed His entire ministry on earth (cf. Phil. 2:5-8) and provides us with the perfect example of what He wants to do in our lives. But it also provides an example of how this is accomplished—through faith and understanding of who we are in Christ and by confidence in the eternal glories of the future.
Historical and Cultural Context: Foot washing was needed in every home in Palestine. Why? Not only were the streets dusty and dirty, but they usually contained garbage and the waste from the animals that traveled up and down the same streets. People wore sandals without socks and their feet could become very dirty. The custom was to recline around the table at the evening meal. Dirty, smelly feet could make the meal and the fellowship rather uninviting. Slaves were usually provided to wash the feet of guests, and it was a mark of honor for a host to provide a servant to wash a guest’s feet. To fail to provide a servant was a breach of hospitality (cf. 1 Sam. 25:41; Luke 7:40-50; 1 Tim. 5:10).
Since the last supper was held in a private home, and probably as a secret meeting, we can easily see why no slave was present to fulfill the task. Furthermore, since the disciples were filled with dreams of power and prestige in the coming kingdom, we can see how the Lord used this occasion to teach some very fundamental principles of the Christian life. The disciples were jealous of one another and were competing for the best place. “They were ready to fight for a throne, but not for a towel.”245
The situation in this passage demonstrates some serious problems among believers that we each need to deal with if we are going to be successful in properly representing the Lord Jesus to the World.
The first problem was their pride or arrogance that manifested itself in two ways:
There was a second problem. As an outgrowth of all of this, there was an attempt to fellowship with the Lord and one another around the Passover table with unwashed and dirty feet. Thus, as He arose from His heavenly throne to become man to go to the cross for all of us, so the Lord arose from the supper, laid aside His garments, took the towel with which He was girded, and began to wash the feet of the disciples.
Washing the disciples’ feet teaches us the necessity for daily cleansing through forgiveness to have fellowship with the Lord.
Sin hinders fellowship, but love cleanses and restores fellowship (13:6-10). Except for Judas, the Lord was dealing with believers, those who had placed their faith in the Lord Jesus, but they were attempting to have fellowship with Him with unwashed feet. Unwashed feet was the equivalent of a believer trying to walk with the Lord, study the Word, pray, or serve Him with known sin in the life, like the sin of pride and selfish independence. The dialog with Peter and his reluctance to allow the Lord to wash his feet illustrates our slowness to grasp this truth.
There are two different Greek words used for the concept of washing. There is niptw which was used of washing only a part of the body, such as the hands, face, and feet. This word is translated “wash” in each occurrence in this passage. The second word is louw which meant to bathe the body. It referred to a thorough washing of the entire body. It is used in verse 10 and is translated “The one who has bathed ( louw) needs only to wash ( niptw) his feet.” When Peter refused to allow the Lord to wash ( niptw) his feet, the Lord responded, “If I do not wash ( niptw) you, you have no share (fellowship) with me.” He was not denying Peter the possibility of salvation or relationship with Him. The issue was intimate fellowship. For fellowship to occur, there must be daily cleansing through honest confession of all known sin (1 John 1:9). When we confess, He, the Lord Jesus, is faithful to forgive and cleanse us (wash our feet).
Unbelief hinders relationship, but love provides a means for relationship (13:10-11). In verse 10, the Lord made a distinction between being bathed and having one’s feet washed by the Lord. In either case, the Lord is the one who does the cleansing, we only appropriate it by faith and obedience to the issue involved.
The one who is bathed is the one who has trusted in Christ as Savior. The result is a total cleansing—one with lasting results. This is emphasized in the tense used in the Greek text. “Has bathed” is a perfect tense which looks at action completed with results going on in the present. Once we are saved, we don’t need another total bath, only the daily cleansing from the sins that occur as we walk down the dusty and dirty streets of life. The bath of the cleansing work of the cross through faith in Christ is more than sufficient for whatever life may bring (Rom. 8:31-39) and brings all believers into the new relationship of children of God (John 1:12).
The daily washing through confession is needed for the privilege of fellowship and the power of Christ through the control of the Spirit in one’s life. All but Judas, who would betray the Lord, had trusted in the Savior and all were clean in the sense of a bath of salvation from sin’s penalty. They all, however, needed—and would need throughout their lives on earth—daily cleansing to maintain fellowship.
As Christ had cleansed and forgiven them, so they would need to do the same for one another and for all believers. All that they had seen exemplified in His life was absolutely essential in their relationship to each other and to their purpose in the world (cf. Gal. 6:1f; Eph. 4:32; John 13:35).
(1) Knowing who we are and resting in what God is doing is vital to serving others (Rom.12:3; Eph. 1:3).
(2) We cannot fellowship with the Lord as a believer with unwashed feet, i.e., without honest and consistent confession of sin.
(3) We cannot have a relationship with the Lord apart from personal faith in Christ.
(4) When we sin, we do not need to be bathed all over again—we do not lose our salvation.
(5) With Christlike humility, we are to serve one another (Phil. 2:3-5; Mk. 10:43-45).
(6) We are to forgive others as Christ forgives us (Eph. 4:32).
(7) We are to help restore fellow believers in Christ as the Lord restores us (Gal. 6:1f).
245 Merrill C. Tenney, John: The Gospel of Belief, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1948, p. 199.