Rev. VanOverloop is pastor of Georgetown Protestant Reformed Church in Hudsonville, Michigan.

Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. 

He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded…. 

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done unto you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.

John 13:1-17

Jesus began the night on which He was betrayed with an act of selfless service. It was motivated by love for His own. He ended the night continuing to do the same.

Jesus and the twelve had spent most of the day (“the first day of unleavened bread,” Mark 14:12) in the small town of Bethany. Sometime during that day Jesus had sent Peter and John into Jerusalem “to make ready the passover” (Luke 22:7ff.). The preparations consisted of locating a room large enough for Jesus and the twelve, of purchasing a lamb, bringing it to the temple, slaying it, taking back a portion of the meat and roasting it for the Passover meal. Also they had to purchase the wine for the four Passover cups, the unleavened bread, and the sauce of bitter herbs. In addition they had to make sure that the table was properly furnished. Last, but obviously not the least, they were to make sure that the basin, water, and towel were there for the dusty feet of the travelers.

Now late in the afternoon Jesus and the remaining disciples made their way from Bethany to Jerusalem and to the large upper room. This was a trip of a couple of miles. Their sandaled feet would tread the dirt roads until they came to the cobbled streets of the city of Jerusalem. Ordinarily the host would see to it that a servant was present to perform the demeaning task of washing the guests’ dirty feet. As Jesus and the ten were led by Peter and John into the large upper room, no such servant was present.

Prior to their arrival at the room, there had been some quiet, but intense, discussion among the disciples. Scripture’s word is “strife.” The strife among them had to do with “which of them should be accounted the greatest” (Luke 22:24). The likely occasion for this strife was the prominence given to Peter and John, who had been chosen to make the Passover preparations. They had no problem recognizing that Jesus was the greatest, but when it came to each other, then they had a great problem. They all instinctively compared themselves to the other eleven. While some of the twelve were ready to say that they were better than all the others, many were ready to say that they were not less than most of the others. They all saw themselves ahead of some of the others.

This “strife” is on their minds when they climb the stairs to the prepared room. It is one thing to compare ourselves to our fellow-saints when we are all sitting nicely together in a worship service. But it is quite another to compare ourselves to those fellow-saints with whom we’ve just had some “strife.” Then it gets hard! Then the willingness to be less than them, to wash their feet, is very difficult.

It was in this frame of mind that the disciples entered the upper room. As the first one entered, he looked around for the customary servant, saw none, felt the pressure of the others climbing behind him, and then walked farther into the room—past the pitcher of water, the towel, and the basin. Each followed in kind. Eventually they all found themselves seated around the table, ready to eat. They all would rather sit and eat with dirty feet (possibly in such a position that a pair of dirty feet was close to their faces), than be the one who would take the part of the servant to the others. They each desired to excel, something which is done only at the expense of others. We never put ourselves above someone without stepping on them.

At this point, without saying a word, Jesus arises from the table and walks over to the servant’s instruments. He took off His large outer garment, tucked up His remaining clothing so it would not interfere with His work, poured some water into the basin, took the towel, and walked to the feet of one of the disciples. After washing that pair of feet He went to the next, and then the one after that. The whole room had to be pretty quiet. Their embarrassment shut them all up. They did not know what to do or say. They certainly were not going to get up now and tell the Master to step aside.

What was on Jesus’ mind when He did this? First, He was undoubtedly wounded by their strife, by the refusal of each of them to acknowledge that he was His servant. Their fighting to be the greatest affects Him greatly. But something greater than those personal wounds was in His mind and heart. He “knew that his hour was come” (v. 1). This was the hour “that he should depart out of this world unto the Father.” In Jesus’ mind and heart, that which characterized this hour was obedience to His Father’s will. But there was more than just obedience on His mind. His obedience was always from the heart, that is, His obedience was in love and with love. Yes, He loved His Father and would do His Father’s will in love for Him, but also His obedience included love for His own. And He not only would do whatever His Father wanted Him to do for His own (the ones the Father gave Him before the foundation of the world), but also He would love His own. He “loved His own which were in the world.” He loved not just in word, but also in deed. His love was kind and not easily provoked. His love bore all things, endured all things, and never failed.

Jesus was focused on the purpose for which the Father had sent Him into the world. He was thinking about the fact “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God” (v. 3). He was also thinking about the fact that Satan was putting into the heart of Judas Iscariot the thought that now was the time to betray his Master (v. 2); and Jesus did not want to be passive before Satan, but wanted voluntarily and actively to give Himself up. And Jesus was thinking of His love for His own, whom “He loved … unto the end” (v. 1). With these thoughts in His mind and heart, Jesus took upon Himself the task of washing the feet of His arguing, sinning disciples. He would wash them and cleanse them. He would teach them and show them real leadership.

Jesus taught the disciples (and us) that the purpose for His coming is to manifest a love which cleanses from sin. The humble act of washing feet was for Jesus the beginning of the terrible suffering He would endure the rest of this night as well as the next day. This was the beginning of Jesus’ resolve to love His own unto the end. This is Jesus willing Himself to enter the hour. He voluntarily sacrificed Himself. This was a willing action on His part, instead of His being a hopeless prey of Satan. His washing their feet was the powerful proclamation of His determination to go voluntarily to the cross. The path on which Jesus stepped when He girded Himself and took the towel and water-filled basin was a path that concluded at the cross on Calvary’s mount. He poured water, and He would soon pour out His blood on the cross, cleansing them from their sins. By suffering and dying, the Master became the Servant of His own, so they might be perfectly clean.

The upper room is filled with silence. The silence was interrupted only by the sounds Jesus made as He went from one pair of feet to another. Silently they all let it happen, until … Peter can’t be silent. He waited until the Master came to his feet. Then He had to speak. “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” He is reluctant to let Jesus do it to him. He is embarrassed and amazed that Jesus would do this.

Jesus responds by telling Peter that something is taking place that he is not able to understand at this time (v. 7). This does not stop Peter. In his ignorance he is bold to speak, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” Peter declares to Jesus and to the other disciples that he will not let it happen. The rest of them might allow the Master to be their servant, but he will not! In a mixture of ignorance, pride, and ardent love for his Master, Peter cannot bring himself to submit to this washing.

Jesus quietly and simply points out to Peter that by refusing this washing, he would miss everything. “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me” (v. 8). The Peter we know then had only one response. In his great (though ignorant) love for Jesus, Peter recants. He admits that he did not know that the implication of his refusal to have his feet washed meant that he was refusing Jesus altogether. That is the last thing Peter wanted. So he then declares himself ready to have Jesus wash not only his feet, but also his hands and head (v. 9), his whole body.

The Lord continues patiently. He is ready to teach Peter and us a necessary distinction. There is first the thorough and complete washing of regeneration. This is such a spiritual washing that one is left “clean every whit” (v. 10). This is justification, God’s declaration of complete forgiveness and imputed righteousness on the basis only of the gracious acts of His Son. This cleansing is once accomplished forever. It does not need to be repeated. But there is another washing, which must follow the washing of regeneration and justification. It is the washing of sanctification, the on-going cleansing of the regenerated and justified child of God who still sins in this life. The daily washing of sanctification is for those who have already received the other washing. While in this life, Jesus’ disciples still get their feet dirty. They still sin, and they are in need of having their feet washed, of having the constant reminder that they are forgiven and righteous.

Jesus very pointedly adds a new thought, “and ye are clean, but not all.” The inspired record adds, “For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean” (v. 11). Not Judas! Not all of them are saved, even though all of them receive the sign of the washing. That which is taking place is not the reality, but only the sign of the reality. The sign is the physical washing (or baptism). The reality is the work of the Holy Spirit in the heart. Eleven of them are clean; one is not.

Now that Peter is silenced, Jesus continues to make His way around the table. Now it is really quiet in that upper room. Nothing else is said. Now their minds are filled, not only with thought of embarrassment, but also with the question of who among them is not clean.

The Master dries off the last pair of feet, sets down the instruments of humility, puts on His outer garments, and returns to His spot at the table. They silently watch. He then speaks. They are ready to listen. He desires to teach them about real service and real greatness. Don’t forget that their earlier strife was about who of them should be the greatest. “Know ye what I have done unto you?”

They all knew that He was Master and Lord. They had repeatedly spoken of Him as such. That meant that they should have washed His feet! But they were all so busy worrying about being better than the other that they neglected the Master (and their duty to Him). It is always that way. When we are trying to be better than another one of those for whom Christ died, then we are really neglecting the Christ.

This willingness to neglect our duties to the Master because we are focused on ourselves and our argumentative brothers and sisters indicates ignorance about greatness. None of the disciples had yet learned what constituted greatness in the kingdom of which Jesus was King. Admittedly, the way it is in Jesus’ kingdom is different from the way it is in the kingdoms of men in this world. Rank in this world means that you climb on top of and over others. Rank in the Master’s kingdom means a willingness to serve. One who leads in the Master’s kingdom is one whose joy it is to serve those whom he leads. (That is why motherhood is so great!)

“I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” Believing in Jesus means that we follow Him. Believing in the foot-washing Jesus means that we follow His example. Jesus is not telling them and us that we must literally wash each other’s feet. Rather He instructs them and us to have hearts (and then lives) of willing service to each other. All of Jesus’ disciples must be ready to render to each other whatever service is needful, no matter how lowly it may seem. Instead of strife over greatness we must strive to want to serve. We must strive to serve. Jesus did so for us!

Any professing disciple of Jesus who is not willing to deny himself and to serve all or any of his fellow-saints is doing one horrific thing: considering himself to be greater than Jesus, the Master and Lord (v. 16). Following Jesus and His example means striving to have His attitude of heart and mind. We must have a serving spirit in our heart and in our lives.

The washing of dirty feet is a lesson about Jesus’ loving His own to the end. His love flows freely and unconditionally. It will never end. Nothing can separate us from it—not even the sin of our strife. He loves us, not only to the end of His earthly life, but also to the end of this age, and then beyond into all eternity. Gratitude for such unending love should shame us of all our pride and motivate us to serve Him by serving each other.

It is one thing to know this. It is another to do it. You can know what it means to wash each other’s feet following the example of Jesus. But then you will not find happiness. You will find anger at brothers and sisters who are not acting like fellow-saints because they are not willing to wash your feet. But you won’t be happy! Happiness is found only in one way. “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (v. 17). Happiness is found not just is knowing, but by doing! In loving Him and in following Him to the end we will know true and lasting happiness. This is delighting in Jehovah. This is rejoicing in the Lord always.