12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” – John 13:12-20 ESV
Earlier in John’s narrative, he described Jesus as having “laid aside his outer garments” (John 13:4 ESV). The Greek word is tithēmi and it means to “lay down, to wear or carry no longer.” The same word is found three times in Jesus’ Good Shepherd discourse as He discusses His pending death.
“For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down [tithēmi] my life that I may take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down [tithēmi] of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down [tithēmi], and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.” – John 10:17-18 ESV
It is no coincidence that John chose to use this very same word when describing Jesus laying aside His outer garment in preparation to wash the feet of the disciples. And when Jesus had completed His task, John states that He “put on his outer garments” (John 13:17 ESV). Again, notice the word John used to describe this action by Jesus. It is lambanō, a Greek word that means “to take what is one’s own” or “to get back.” And it is the same word used in Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd when He stated that He had the authority to lay down His life and to take it up again (lambanō).
John, writing long after the scene he personally witnessed and experienced in the upper room, is revealing his understanding of what took place that fateful evening. While the true meaning behind Jesus’ actions had evaded him that night, with the coming of the Holy Spirit, John had been able to comprehend the symbolic meaning behind the foot washing.
In taking off His outer garment, Jesus was signifying His death. And by taking up and putting on the very same garment, Jesus was illustrating His resurrection. And all that He did in-between was meant to reveal the spiritual cleansing that would come as a result of His sacrificial and selfless death.
It is interesting to note that Jesus, having put on His outer garment and rejoined His disciples at the table, asked them, “Do you understand what I have done to you” (John 13:12 ESV), and they made no reply. They had no idea what this strange and unexpected ritual meant. Because they had not yet received the Holy Spirit. Jesus will later tell them, “But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you” (John 14:26 ESV).
Having their feet washed by their Master had been uncomfortable for the disciples. It had been an awkward experience that had left them embarrassed and confused. But after the coming of the Holy Spirit, their spiritual eyes would be opened and they would be able to see the events of that evening from a whole new perspective.
But on that night in the upper room, Jesus made no attempt to explain what He had done. He simply challenged them to follow His example.
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. And 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.” – John 13:13-15 NLT
It is important that we see understand Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet as what it was, “an acted parable of the Lord’s humiliation unto death” (George R. Beasley-Murray, “Baptism, Wash.” In New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology). Jesus had provided them with a tangible demonstration of His coming death on the cross. It was going to require abject humility, the laying aside of His divine rights, and the willing sacrifice of His life. And the apostle Paul would later use the death of Jesus as an example for believers to follow, calling them to live lives of humility and selfless service.
Instead of being motivated by selfish ambition or vanity, each of you should, in humility, be moved to treat one another as more important than yourself. Each of you should be concerned not only about your own interests, but about the interests of others as well. You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had… – Philippians 2:3-5 NLT
And then he describes the “attitude” or mindset of Jesus they were to emulate.
…who though he existed in the form of God
did not regard equality with God
as something to be grasped,
but emptied himself
by taking on the form of a slave,
by looking like other men,
and by sharing in human nature.
He humbled himself,
by becoming obedient to the point of death
—even death on a cross! – Philippians 2:6-8 NLT
And Jesus commended His disciples for recognizing Him as their “Lord and Teacher.” He seems to have used these words in a non-spiritual and more “earthy” sense. He acknowledges that His disciples saw Him as their Rabbi or teacher and respected Him as their superior. But they were not yet fully convinced of His deity and true identity. So, Jesus seems to be emphasizing that, if their “Lord and Teacher” would be willing to humble Himself and wash their feet, they had no excuse for viewing themselves as too good to follow His example. If Jesus could humble Himself and do the unthinkable, so could they. There was no place in His Kingdom for pride, arrogance, or self-conceit.
And Jesus makes it clear that His washing of their feet had been intended as an example to follow, not a mandatory perfunctory ritual to be mechanically performed. The word “example” means “a sign suggestive of anything.” HIs washing of their feet had been intended as a representation of a far greater act of selflessness they would need to make. And Jesus would later reveal to His disciples just what that more significant act of sacrifice would be.
“This is my commandment: Love each other in the same way I have loved you. There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” – John 15:12-13 NLT
The disciples had no idea what was coming. Even though Jesus had repeatedly alluded to His coming death, they were not yet able to grasp the weight of what was taking place around them. So, Jesus simply called them to follow His example.
“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 13:16-17 NLT
It is likely that all they heard Jesus saying was that they should wash one another’s feet. And it is even more likely that they couldn’t understand why. But before any of them could ask for clarification or express their confusion, Jesus changed the subject.
“I am not saying these things to all of you; I know the ones I have chosen. But this fulfills the Scripture that says, ‘The one who eats my food has turned against me.’ I tell you this beforehand, so that when it happens you will believe that I am the Messiah.” – John 13:18-19 NLT
Jesus was preparing His disciples for what was to come, including His betrayal by the hands of Judas. But Jesus lets them know that all of this was divinely ordained. He had chosen them all, including Judas. Each of them had a role to play. For Judas, his role would be to betray Jesus into the hands of the religious leaders, and his act would be in direct fulfillment of Scripture. Jesus quotes from Psalm 41:9, revealing that He had chosen Judas to fulfill the prophecy it contained. Nothing that was about to happen would be a surprise to Jesus. He would not be caught off-guard by Judas’ actions or shocked by the outcome of His pending trials before the high priest, Pilate, or Herod. It would all take place according to God’s sovereign plan. And Jesus wanted His disciples to know that He knew. In time, they would look back on all that happened and recognize that He had been who He had claimed to be: The Messiah.
And speaking prophetically, Jesus lets the disciples in on what the future has in store for them. When He has ascended back to His Father’s side in heaven, they will become His ambassadors, His “sent ones,” acting on His behalf and fulfilling the will of the Father in His absence.
“I tell you the truth, anyone who welcomes my messenger is welcoming me, and anyone who welcomes me is welcoming the Father who sent me.” – John 13:20 NLT
And this would all be made possible by His death, resurrection, and ascension, and the Holy Spirit’s coming.
“…you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. And you will be my witnesses, telling people about me everywhere — in Jerusalem, throughout Judea, in Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” – Acts 1:8 NLT
They will have plenty of opportunities to do as He has done, selflessly sacrificing their lives for the spread of the Gospel and the glory of God.
English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.