Featured image for “The significance of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet”

The significance of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet

Planetshakers Team

31 March 2023

During the Lord’s Supper in John 13, Jesus gets up from the table and washes the feet of His disciples. It is important to realise the extent of what is happening at this moment: God Himself willingly places Himself in an extreme position of humility and servitude. Even though He is their Lord (John 13:13), He takes this humble action to demonstrate two main points. Firstly, the act of washing the feet serves as a picture of Jesus’ ultimate mission: to serve humanity through His humble death on a cross, a death that washes us clean from all sin. Secondly, Jesus intends His demonstration of humility to serve as an example to His disciples (and anyone who reads the passage). Just like Jesus, Christians are called to serve the people around us in humility, especially if one holds a position of Christian leadership.
The act of washing the feet serves as a picture of Jesus’ ultimate mission: to serve humanity through His humble death on a cross, a death that washes us clean from all sin.`

What Does Foot Washing Signify?

In Jewish culture, foot washing could be performed for a number of reasons. Obviously, it was often simply done for the sake of hygiene. At the time, people would commonly wear sandals and as a result, the feet would often be the dirtiest part of the body. Furthermore, foot washing had a function in social and hospitality situations, such as visiting or hosting others. Additionally, the Old Testament provides examples of instances where foot washing would have significance in religious ceremony or service, such as when the priest would complete his duties in the tabernacle (Exodus 30:17-21). However, in these circumstances, the person would typically wash their own feet. Considering the way in which feet are considered the lowly, dirty part of the body, not to mention the humble pose one would have to take in order to wash someone else’s feet, the obvious significance of the foot washing lies in its humility. This humility is reflected in the ministry of John the Baptist in the opening chapter of the Gospel of John. Speaking of Jesus, the Messiah who was coming after him, John the Baptist remarks that he is unworthy even to untie His sandals (John 1:27). It is no surprise then that when Jesus goes to wash the feet of His disciples, Peter, in shock and confusion, reacts by asking: “Lord, You are washing my feet?” (John 13:6, NASB2020)

In the world, authority and leadership take the form of ruling over and domineering others. In stark contrast, Kingdom authority and leadership require one to humble themselves and serve others.

Jesus: The Servant Leader

By washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus makes a poignant statement about His purpose and mission on Earth, and the attitude of humility He wants His disciples to adopt. Notably, this message of radical humility and servanthood is not an isolated incident amongst the teachings of Jesus. The Gospel of Matthew recounts a dialogue between Jesus and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. She requests that Jesus would exalt her two sons so that they would sit at His left and right side in the coming of His Kingdom. Referring to His coming crucifixion, Jesus responds by asking them whether they are “able to drink the cup that I am about to drink?” (Matt. 20:28, NASB2020). He goes on by noting an important difference between authority in the world and authority in the Kingdom of God:

You know that the rulers of the Gentiles domineer over them, and those in high position exercise authority over them. It is not this way among you, but whoever wants to become prominent among you shall be your servant, and whoever desires to be first among you shall be your slave; just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.
This encounter highlights the reason behind Jesus’ desire to wash the feet of His disciples. In the world, authority and leadership take the form of ruling over and domineering others. In stark contrast, Kingdom authority and leadership require one to humble themselves and serve others. This is true even of Jesus, God Himself incarnate, willing to serve His disciples by washing their feet, even the feet of Judas, who Jesus knew would betray Him. (John 13:2-3)
Just as Jesus (God Himself) was willing to humble Himself by becoming a man, to serve by washing the feet of the disciples and to die on a cross for our sake, we as His followers need to put aside our selfish ambitions and desires, and seek the benefit of others.

Application: What Does Christian Leadership Look Like?

By washing the feet of the disciples, Jesus not only highlights the purpose of His coming, but also seeks to set an example for Christians to follow. Having washed their feet, Jesus taught them, saying: “So if I, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash another’s feet. For I gave you an example, so that also would do just as I did for you.” (John 13:14-15, NASB2020) Jesus makes it clear that this is the attitude of humility that those who follow Him should adopt when they interact with others around them. Christians—especially Christian leaders— are to put aside selfish ambition and serve their community. Paul mirrors this thought in his letter to the Philippians, appealing to them to live with humility using the example of Jesus’ incarnation and death:

Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, as He already existed in the form of God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but emptied Himself by taking the form of a bond-servant and being born in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death: death on a cross.
Just as Jesus (God Himself) was willing to humble Himself by becoming a man, to serve by washing the feet of the disciples and to die on a cross for our sake, we as His followers need to put aside our selfish ambitions and desires and seek the benefit of others. The call of a Christian leader is not like leadership of the world. Christian leadership is servant leadership.