A theme in the apostle John’s writings is the love of God exemplified in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ. As John introduces the scene where Jesus humbly washes the disciples’ feet, he highlights the full extent of Christ’s love: “It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (John 13:1).
John emphasizes that Jesus loved his own to the end. “His own” were the disciples. The Lord shared a private, profoundly intimate farewell dinner with His closest companions. He knew the hour of His death and departure from this world were imminent, and He wanted to impart a message—an object lesson—that would stay with them forever. The lesson started with the humble act of washing their feet, but that was only the beginning.
In the original Greek, the phrase translated as “to the end” means “to the full extent; to the limit; to the uttermost.” Jesus would demonstrate the full extent of His love, not just through the lowly service of washing the disciples’ feet but also through His patience with Judas and His forgiveness of His disciples’ betrayal and abandonment after His arrest. Christ’s manifestations of love would ultimately reach the uttermost limits through His suffering death by crucifixion.
John explains that Jesus, knowing Judas planned to betray Him, still rose from the table and began to wash all the disciples’ feet (John 13:2–5). With grace and compassion, Jesus gave Judas every opportunity to repent and return to Him.
It’s important to understand that the menial task of foot-washing performed by a master to his servants was unheard of in first-century culture. Jesus initiated a shocking lesson they would never forget. Although He was their Sovereign Lord, Christ took the place of a servant to demonstrate how He loved His own to the end.
Peter, in typical fashion, could not contain himself. He strongly resisted the Lord’s ministrations until Jesus reassured him, “Unless I wash you, you won’t belong to me” (John 13:8, NLT). Then Peter enthusiastically submitted to the Lord, exclaiming, “Then wash my hands and head as well, Lord, not just my feet!” (John 13:9, NLT).
Peter and all the disciples would soon comprehend the deeper meaning behind Christ’s words and actions. The foot-washing was a symbolic foreshadowing of His cleansing sacrifice on the cross. Through His death, Jesus would serve them beyond the limits of human understanding to the full extent of divine love: “Though he was God, he did not think of equality with God as something to cling to. Instead, he gave up his divine privileges; he took the humble position of a slave and was born as a human being. When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross” (Philippians 2:6–8, NLT).
Along with Peter and the other apostles, believers today desperately need to grasp the Lord’s teaching on humility and service: “Since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them” (John 13:14–17, NLT). Serving one another humbly, dying to our own selfish desires for the benefit of others, reveals the full extent of our love: “We know what real love is because Jesus gave up his life for us. So we also ought to give up our lives for our brothers and sisters” (1 John 3:16, NLT).
The fact that Jesus loved His own to the end means He loved them to love’s fullest extent and uttermost limit. It is the heart of the gospel message: “God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him. This is real love—not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a sacrifice to take away our sins” (1 John 4:9–10, NLT; see also John 3:16–17). John revealed that he had learned the lesson of the foot-washing, saying, “Dear friends, since God loved us that much, we surely ought to love each other. . . . If we love each other, God lives in us, and his love is brought to full expression in us” (1 John 4:11–12, NLT, see also 1 John 4:7, 8, 11, 19–21).