Jesus Washing His Disciples' Feet Was Much More Than Just a Lesson in Service and Humility

Updated on April 6, 2018

Why did Jesus wash the disciples' feet?

I have heard various reasons why Jesus washed His disciples’ feet at the last supper. I suppose that the most common reason offered is that Jesus was teaching humility or service towards our fellow man. While service and humility were lessons that Jesus taught His disciples, I would like to suggest that there was a much deeper and profound meaning behind this act.

The Gospel of John is the only gospel that records this act of Jesus in chapter 13, in verse 7 John writes: Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” It is commonly understood by us now that much of what Jesus said and did was not understood by the disciples at the time that Jesus was among them. It was not until later when it was revealed to them through the Holy Spirit that Jesus was fulfilling what had been written in the law, prophets and the psalms.

Peter was focused on the physical act that was being performed and was appalled that His Master would be a servant to him, but Jesus kept deflecting to a deeper, more spiritual meaning. Jesus said, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Now, does this really fit in the context of service or humility? He also said, "He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason, He said, “Not all of you are clean.” Again, service or humility is not the context of the true lesson that Jesus was teaching.

The key to understanding the lesson being given is found in what was said in verse 8, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me." This is why Jesus told them that they would understand later when scripture would be opened more fully to them revealing that all of the acts of Christ fulfilled what was written concerning Him. Practically everything that was recorded about the life of Christ was to show that what was written about Him in scripture was fulfilled. So, where do we find the true meaning of this washing as previously foretold in scripture? Let’s turn to the Psalms.

Psalm 51:2 Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity and cleanse me from my sin.

Psalm 51:7 Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.

And the prophet Ezekiel.

Ezekiel 36:25 Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.

Then later, in the New Testament, this theme continues.

Acts 22:16 Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.

1 Corinthians 6:11 Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.

Hebrews 10:22 Let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.

Suddenly this act that Jesus performed comes into sharper focus, Jesus wasn’t talking about the need for their feet to be clean, nor was He doing this merely because a servant had not been provided, as was customary in those days. Jesus was stating that unless their sins are washed away that they can have no part with Him. The disciples, even at this late stage of Christ’s time with them still did not grasp what Christ’s mission on this earth was truly all about. They were still seeking an earthly, physical kingdom, not realizing that His kingdom was not of this earth, but was spiritual. This simple act was to show that unless they be washed away of their sins, they cannot inherit the kingdom of God. The message of repentance and forgiveness was at the very heart of Christ’s teachings.

In Matthew 6 Jesus said this immediately after giving us the Lord’s Prayer.

Matthew 6:14 For if you forgive others for their transgressions, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. 15 But if you do not forgive others, then your Father will not forgive your transgressions.

Paul reiterates this and reinforces this concept in Ephesians:

Ephesians 4:32 Be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you.

That rings a bell, doesn’t it? Let’s keep reading in John’s account of the Last Supper.

John 13:12 So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know 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, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

Again, Jesus said that they wouldn’t understand what He was doing to them until later. This did not have as much to do with service or humility as it related to the very core of our salvation by grace . . . Forgiveness of sin.

Yes, service to others is extremely important as it reflects the very fruits of the spirit, but the main lesson that Christ was giving and fulfilling was that unless He washes us clean from all impurity, that we can have no part with Him. Only by putting on the righteousness of Christ might we have salvation.

*All quoted passages are from the NASB

© 2017 Tony Muse


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    • Tamarajo profile image


      10 months ago

      One more thing, I think the position of Laver that was used for washing in following the Sacrificial Altar confirms your revelation and meaning of the New Testament foot washing scene. He told them they would understand after He was crucified. I love all the checks and balances in His Word. They always aim us at God's intended target.

    • Tamarajo profile image


      10 months ago

      Thank you Tony. The timing for reading this couldn't have been more perfect. I was just asking what the lesson was with the laver and all I could find was the service aspect. I just had this feeling it was deeper than that but I couldn't quite get to it and here it is. What a graceful God He is.

      God bless you too!

    • Tony Muse profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony Muse 

      10 months ago from Texas, USA

      Tamarajo - As you already know, the sanctuary was definitely a ritual performed over and over again that represented Christ and His ministry. I would have to do some study what you have connected here, but it seems quite reasonable. I really appreciate you pointing this out!

      I would agree with you. Jesus continually preached on the importance of forgiveness. Hoe can we, after experiencing God's grace, NOT extend that same grace to others?

      If we do not bear the fruits of the Spirit, can our faith be genuine? James said that faith without works is dead. That doesn't mean that we are saved by our works, merely that or "works" are the fruit of the spirit, which is love, patience, charity, kindness, etc. James illustrated that thought by ignoring those who are without a cloak when you have one to give, or how can we watch someone go hungry when we have enough to eat? We Christians ought to feel obligated to help those in need by whatever measure we are able. Maybe it is for this reason alone that many churches have become cold and uninviting?


    • Tamarajo profile image


      10 months ago

      This is definitely a missing piece to a present puzzle.

      I've been looking at the Brass Laver in the Old Testament Tabernacle where the priesthood washed their hands and feet. It was the place that was visited after the Altar of Sacrifice. It illustrates our participatory acknowledgment and understanding of what Christ has done for us through that Sacrifice in cleansing us from our sin. and the New Testament picture goes a step further in saying that our comprehension of this will be even more evident in how we treat each other. Do I have this right?

    • Tony Muse profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony Muse 

      11 months ago from Texas, USA

      Hxprof - Thank you, while humility was at the core of Christ's ministry, I believe that the context of His washing the disciple's feet was truly forgiveness and grace. The feet were the most filthy part of their bodies in those days, which represented our sinful lives. But Christ truly cleansed them of all unrighteousness.


    • profile image


      11 months ago from Clearwater, Florida

      Right on! Succinct piece, getting straight to the point. Christ gives us grace, which allows God to work in us so we can "cleanse ourselves from every defilement" - the process described in scripture as sanctification. It's in that process that we are cleaned up, and it's imperative that we learn how to cooperate with the Holy Spirit in that process of being washed clean, as it says in Philipians 2:12-13 "Work out your own salvation in fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you both to will and to do for his good pleasure". Many of us struggle with this important facet of our faith, which involves truly dying to our selfish and carnal motives of heart. That's not accomplished when we're born again, and it doesn't happen magically afterwards - we must learn how to fully and actively cooperate with God's work in us to be truly "washed" as Christ desires for us.

    • Tony Muse profile imageAUTHOR

      Tony Muse 

      11 months ago from Texas, USA

      Thank you, Diane. It is my belief that most of what Christ said has a a much deeper meaning than what we see on the surface. Every time I read the gospels, I contemplate what Jesus was fulfilling in the Old Testament by His words or actions. His life was truly something for us to meditate on.

      Blessings to you!

    • dianetrotter profile image

      G. Diane Nelson Trotter 

      11 months ago from Fontana

      This is deep! Thank you!


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