Washing the Disciples Feet: Jesus' Example of Humility
The lowliest act of a slave
It was a somber evening around the table with Jesus. The room was dimly lit by oil lamps. The disciples and their teacher were preparing to eat the passover meal. Little did they know it would be their last passover supper with Jesus. Jesus knew His hour had come, and that He would be arrested that very night. This was His final opportunity to teach them before He was crucified. But then He did an odd thing - He disrobed, took a basin of water and a towel, and went around to each disciple and washed their feet. Can you imagine the thoughts that must have been going through their heads?
"Why is the Master doing this lowly thing?"
"Why doesn't He call one of us to wash feet?"
"Only the lowest slaves do this filthy task."
"He should not demean Himself. We must call a servant to do this?
The Bible only records Peter's reaction. He was quite offended and disturbed. Listen in:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
"No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:6-8).
Jesus' words to Peter were pretty hard; however they had an immediate impact on Peter's attitude: “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (vs. 9).
Jesus told Peter that wouldn't be necessary because people who are already bathed do not need a complete bath; only the feet needed washing because they soil quickly and often as they walk the dusty roads daily. What this means is, along the road of life and in this coming hour, the disciples would need to be kept from defiling themselves. Their hearts might become soiled like their feet.
Jesus put on his garments and returned to His seat. One might expect that you could hear a pin drop in the room at that moment. The Master looked each one around the table in the eye and taught them the meaning of His actions with deep conviction:
“Do you understand what I have done for you?” He asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you" (John 13:12-15).
In other words, "Humble yourselves and serve others as I have." Jesus was their Lord and God, and yet, He humbled Himself and served them. Now they must do likewise in order to be His disciples. Their future was unknown to them in that moment, but Jesus knew shortly that they would be would be tempted, and must keep themselves from pride if they were to do the Father's will.
In that moment of having their feet washed, and hearing Jesus' words, the disciples didn't know what to make of it all, because up until that time, they had been preoccupied with which of them would be greatest in God's kingdom.
Does God ask us to do what is beneath us? This question will never trouble us again if we consider the Lord of heaven taking a towel and washing feet."— Elisabeth Elliott
As a little child
One day, as Jesus was walking down a dusty road, he entered Capernaum, and the disciples were bringing up the rear. The twelve, thinking the Master was out of earshot, had been having an argument about who would be greatest in God's kingdom. When they arrived at a house and settled in, Jesus asked them a very pointed question: "What was it you disputed among yourselves on the road?" (Mark 9:33)
Gulp! They must have looked at each other, saying through their eyes "Oops! He heard us."
"Quick, what do we do now?"
"He heard us again, and He's already warned us before."
"Oy vay, our goose is cooked."
But they said nothing, which was a smart idea. In their shame, they just waited for what Jesus would say.
The Master sat down and got comfortable, which likely made them even more uncomfortable. "If anyone desires to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all" (vs. 35).
Some were probably thinking 'Not this again, He's always saying that. I deserve to be first and greatest.'
Jesus, knowing His young pupils and friends could be rather dense, illustrated His point by taking a child into the midst of them. He took the little one in His arms and said,
"Whoever receives one of these little children in My name receives Me; and whoever receives Me, receives not Me by Him who sent Me" (vs. 36).
Children were not considered equal in social status to adults in Jesus' day. To the disciples, being as children was a humiliation. It was beneath them. The Bible does not share what their thoughts or reactions were to that little lesson, but we can imagine:
"A child? Are you kidding me? They are nothing."
"No way! I'm not stooping that low."
"I don't get it, what does receiving a child have to do with receiving Him?"
"There must be another way."
"I don't like children - they're snot-nosed brats."
Apparently they didn't get it at all, for we find in the next chapter of Mark that the people were bringing children to Jesus to bless them. The disciples got irritated and rebuked the parents (Mark 10:13). In other words, "Leave Jesus alone. He's busy with important people - adults. Kids just get in the way."
In verse 14 we learn that Jesus was greatly displeased - "Let the little children come to me and do not forbid them; for such is the kingdom of God. Assuredly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will by no means enter it." And He took them up in His arms, laid hands on them, and blessed them (vs 15-16).
Head scratching? Eye rolling, perhaps? A little teeth grinding? They did not seem to be able to grasp the concept of humility and serving others. Pride still had a tight grip on them.
Humility has been rightly said to be a correct estimate of ourselves."— Charles H. Spurgeon
Humility not humiliation
Many people confuse the words humility with humiliation. That seemed to be the problem with the disciples. Humiliation speaks of shame and disgrace. If you feel humiliated, it means you've been made to feel stupid, inadequate, disgraceful, and lower in value and social status than others. This is not at all what Christ was doing when He washed the disciples feet. Peter thought He was humiliating Himself, but Christ was showing humility - a lack of pride and arrogance, and willingness to be a servant leader.
In Philippians 2:3, Paul says: Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility, consider others better than yourselves. Christ was never selfishly ambitious or full of vain conceit. He did the will of the Father, in order to glorify the Father, not Himself; and He put the needs of others, before His own. Paul exhorts us to follow suit and explains it so well in Phil. 2:5-8 - You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had. 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 a human being. When He appeared in human form, He humbled Himself in obedience to God, and died a criminals death on a cross" (NLT).
It would have been selfish ambition if Jesus had refused to go to the cross in order to save Himself. But He humbled Himself and went willingly and obediently to the cross for us, as we hear Him say to the Father in His garden prayer "Not My will, but Yours be done" (Luke 22:42).
In John 10:17-18, Jesus tells the religious leaders "Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again.No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father.”
The disciples finally got it
On one of the occasions that James and John sought to be the greatest disciples, Jesus said, "For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many" (Matt. 20:28). Christ never forgot what He was here on earth for. It was to seek and save the lost, to draw all men to the Father, to give them eternal life. By washing the disciples' feet, he was showing self-denial and sacrifice.
After Jesus had ascended to the Father and the Holy Spirit came down on the day of Pentecost, the disciples finally got it. They went out into the world empowered by the Holy Spirit, humble and obedient, and turned the world upside down with the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ. Thanks be to God!
© Lori Colbo 2011. All rights reserved. (Updated July 2015).
© 2011 Lori Colbo