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What was the significance of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples?

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Jesus washing the feet of the disciples (John 13:1–17) occurred in the upper room during the Last Supper and has significance in three ways. For Jesus, it was the display of His humility and servanthood in forgiving sinners. For the disciples, the washing of their feet displayed a mindset in direct contrast to their heart attitude at that time. For us, washing feet is symbolic of our role in the body of Christ.

Walking in sandals on the roads of Palestine in the first century made it imperative that feet be washed before a communal meal. People ate reclining at low tables, and feet were very much in evidence. When Jesus rose from the Last Supper and began to wash the feet of the disciples (John 13:4), He was doing the work of the lowliest of servants. The disciples must have been stunned at this act of humility and condescension—that Jesus, their Lord and Master, should wash the feet of His disciples. Washing feet was more properly their work, but no one had volunteered for the job. Jesus came to earth not as King and Conqueror but as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. As He revealed in Matthew 20:28, He came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The humility expressed by Jesus’ act with towel and basin foreshadowed His ultimate act of humility and love on the cross.

Jesus’ attitude was in direct contrast to that of the disciples, who had recently been arguing among themselves as to which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24). There was no servant present in the upper room to wash their feet, and it never occurred to them to wash one another’s feet. When the Lord Himself stooped to this lowly task, they were stunned into silence. Peter was profoundly uncomfortable with the Lord washing his feet, and he protested: “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8a).

Then Jesus said something that must have further shocked Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8b), prompting Peter, whose love for the Savior was genuine, to request a complete washing (verse 9). Then Jesus explained, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you” (verse 10). The disciples had “bathed,” and they were all “clean” but one—Judas, who would betray Him (verse 11).

So, Jesus’ act of washing the disciples’ feet illustrated their spiritual cleansing. Jesus is the One who forgives. Peter and the rest had experienced the full cleansing of salvation and did not need to be bathed again in the spiritual sense. Salvation is a one-time act of justification by faith. What follows is the lifelong process of sanctification: a daily washing away of the stain of sin. As we walk through the world, some of the world’s spiritual filth will cling to us, and that needs to be washed away—forgiven by Christ (see 1 John 1:9). Peter and the other disciples—all except Judas, who never belonged to Christ—needed only this minor cleansing.

When we come to Christ for salvation, He condescends to wash our sins away, and we can be sure that His forgiveness is permanent and complete (2 Corinthians 5:21). But, just as a bathed person needed to wash his feet periodically, we need periodic cleansing from the effects of living in the flesh in a sin-cursed world. This is sanctification, done by the power of the Holy Spirit who lives within us, through the “washing of water by the Word” (Ephesians 5:26), given to equip us for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16–17).

Further, when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He told them (and us), “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). As His followers, we are to emulate Him, serving one another in lowliness of heart and mind, seeking to build one another up in humility and love. Part of that humble service is to forgive one another (Colossians 3:13). When we seek the preeminence, neglect to serve others, or refuse to forgive, we displease the Lord. True greatness in His kingdom is attained by those with a servant’s heart (Mark 9:35; 10:44), and they will be greatly blessed (John 13:17).

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What was the significance of Jesus washing the feet of the disciples?
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This page last updated: February 10, 2023