36: Washing Dirty Feet

Studies in the Gospel of John

Lesson 36: “Washing Dirty Feet”

John 13:1-17


One of the most moving stories I have ever heard was one read by Dr. James Dobson on his radio program a few years ago, about a successful surgeon in New York City who got his relaxation from time to time by going to the New York City Public Library, not far from his office. There he met a number of interesting homeless characters who used the library for shelter. To make a long story short, his concern for these people grew as he saw the conditions in which most of them lived. For example, he began to notice that one of the men in the library developed a limp in his walk that got worse over a period of months. He finally decided that the limp might be something that could bring about a life-long problem if it wasn’t treated. After a couple of conversations with the man, he found that the problem was that the man was not physically able to bend over and trim his toenails! The story went into more detail than some would want to know, telling how the surgeon had to untie and remove the shoes and socks which the man had worn day and night for months, wash the feet and in the restroom lavoratory and with a special knife used by foot surgeons, to carefully trim the toenails. Now if you think that is a worthy expression of love and humility, the passage to which we come now in our study of the Gospel of John will mean even more to you.


At first reading it isn’t as sickening, or maybe as impressive as the “toenail” story. But when you stop to think about the relative depths to which the Lord Jesus Christ, (and the surgeon in our

Story) stooped, you will realize that it is infinitely more amazing. That story forms the first of three sections to this chapter. The first section is the timeframe of the incident, in verse 1


Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.


Now it is true that Jesus loved His disciples until the very “end” of His time on earth – some of His most moving moments were with the disciples were after His resurrection. But the wording of this particular verse in the Greek text is even more significant. It says “He loved them to the fullest extent.” And that is very reassuring because it points up the fact that His love didn’t stop when He left the earth – in fact, it still continues today!


But there is more to the setting of this story than just its timing and its tenderness. Verse 2 brings out the fact that there was also treachery involved too:


And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son to betray Him having loved His own who were in the, He loved them to the end. 


Jesus knew all about Judas’ hypocrisy and shamefulness. And from the human standpoint it would have been easy to let that knowledge cause bitterness in Jesus’ heart. But instead, it produced a deep acceptance of God’s power to use even this to His own glory. (Look at verse 18 for example)


“I do not speak concerning all of you. I know whom I have chosen, but that the scripture may be fulfilled, he who eats bread with Me has lifted up his heel against Me.”


Because of that, Jesus gave Judas at least two more opportunities to repent – when He washed his feet, and when he handed him the sop at the Passover dinner. And of course this forms a beautiful lesson for us of the importance of being calm in the face of things that would seem to  be against us, committing it all into the hands of the Father’s ultimate will. And that ties in with and leads to the next part of the setting of the story: Jesus’ temperament is shown in verse 3


Jesus , knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands and that He had come from God and was going to God . . . “


On the one hand, as we have been seeing, Jesus loved these disciples to the greatest extent possible, and He hated to leave them and He dreaded the prospect of the cross. But on the other hand, He had a calm, steady demeanor about it all, because He knew where he had come from and where He was going.


And God everywhere instructs us to have that same attitude about our time on this earth – most succinctly in II Corinthians 4:18:


While we do not look at the things that are seen but the things that are not seen. For the things that are seen are temporary and the things which are not seen are eternal.


In the words of the old song, “this world is not my home, I’m just a passing through,” don’t we. We act differently in a place we are “just passing through,” don’t we? For example, if we are visiting a relative in another city we don’t worry about whether or not anybody thinks we are important there; we don’t try to impress people, or get involved in civic activities.


Another part of the setting of this story (but actually kind of a transitional verse) is the technique that Jesus used in giving the example that He is about to give us. Look at verse 4.


[Jesus] rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.


Even though John has reminded us clearly of who Jesus was, and Jesus own realization of who He was, He symbolically humbled Himself and got ready to give this great example of humility. And if you and I are going to follow Him in that example of humility, we will have to take specific steps to prepare ourselves for it. Not necessarily in our clothing (although maybe that too), but in our opinion of ourselves and “what a person in my position “ought” or “ought not” to be doing You know who you are and God knows who you are, so what does it matter whether anybody else knows who you are or not?  I remember a situation some years ago when another friend and I were visiting some of the foreign missionaries that our church supported. One of those missionaries seemed anxious for all of us to understand how many things he had accomplished in the ministry, and in fact, in all of his life. Now the friend that I was traveling with was a very successful businessman and he had flown us to this South American country in his  private twin engine plane, and on the way to the missionaries’ country we had taken a break on an island which was noted for its scuba diving area. My friend was such a frequent diver that he had the prescription for his glasses ground into his diving mask. As the missionary kept finding opportunities to talk about himself I wanted badly to ask my friend to talk about himself and some of his accomplishments his accomplishments. Of course I knew that my friend was a more mature believer than I was, and that he would not say anything about any of his abilities and experiences. That just wasn’t important to him. He knew who he was and God knew who he was and that was all that mattered to him.


So all of that forms “the setting” for this example of humility that Jesus is about to give. But in verses 5 through 17 we find the actual showing of the example. The action itself is in verse 5:


After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.


The disciples would have come into the banquet room directly from the street. Ordinarily, the host would have delegated a slave for the menial task of removing sandals and washing of feet from the mud and other matter that may have adhered to them. (remember that all of the streets were made of dirt in those days.) But since this meeting was obviously meant to be secret no slaves were present. But somebody had to take care of this. The question on everyone’s mind must have been who would take care of this important matter. Obviously none of the disciples was ready to volunteer for the task, because each of them would have considered it an admission of inferiority. Imagine their shock when Jesus Himself took on the responsibility!


In this setting, you see, this was a real demonstration of humility and servanthood on His part. And it was probably aimed right at the disciples’ pride, because Luke tells us that as they came into the room they had been arguing about who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven!


But in verses 6 through 11 we find the objection to Jesus’ action. The expression of the objection is in verses 6 through 8


Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, you are washing my feet?” (7) Jesus answered, and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” (8) Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet!”


Peter’s action is a mixture of shame and reverence. – “Lord, are You washing my feet? His refusal to ever allow Jesus to wash his feet shows the impetuousness of his disposition and his high regard for Him. But the explanation is given in verses 8 through 10


(Peter said to Him, “you shall never wash my feet”) Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.”  (9) Simon Peter said to Him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (10) Jesus said to him, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.”


The thought of separation from Jesus was abhorrent to Peter. Above everything he wanted to be a part of what Jesus was doing. So now he asks for a whole bath! But Jesus explains that he only needs to wash the part that has become dirty after a bath. (Note the difference, in English and in Greek, between “bathed” and “washed in verse 10.)


The clue to the meaning of this whole episode is in the last 5 words of verse 9 – “but not all of you.” Judas has already been identified by John as being the betrayer in verse 2. And verse 11 is going to underscore that. But obviously, Judas was as clean as anybody else physically. So Jesus had to be talking about spiritual cleanness. And the point was that after the “bath” “of salvation there must be a “washing off” of sin when we allow it to come into our lives. And I John 1:9 tells us that that is done by confession of sin. In verse 11, though, John comes back to one subject to clarify Jesus’ meaning. There the exception to what Jesus had said about them all being clean.


For He knew who would betray Him; therefore, He said, “you are not all clean.”


One of the anomalies of the incarnation is that Jesus was God and man simultaneously. And John mentions this more than the other gospel writers. In the last part of chapter 1 He showed that He understood the potential of the disciples. In chapters 2,3,6,8,10, and 12 He predicted His death and resurrection. And in chapter 5 and again in chapter 10 He enunciated His unique relationship with the Father. And here is another of those places – He obviously knows how everything is going to wrap up in His death, burial and resurrection. This also demonstrates an eternal principle: “The Lord knows those who are his.” (2nd Timothy 2:19)


Judas looked just like a believer outwardly – Jesus had even washed his feet. And he could have become one that very night, although he didn’t. But the Lord knew he wasn’t. And He always does. (and He is the only one who does!) Be careful not to “assume” too much one way or the other. As someone has said, we are going to surprised at some of the people who are in heaven (and some who aren’t.)


Finally, in verses 12 through 17 we have the explanation of this whole example that Jesus has given. And it is in the form of two principles that we all need to keep in mind. First, there is the principle of rank in verses 13 through 17


So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments and sat down again “Do you know what I have done to you? (13) You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, 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 should do as I have done to you. (16) Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.”


Down through the years some groups of Christians have practiced this as a rite – and that is alright. But it seems more likely that Jesus meant it to be figurative. The whole context is figurative – verse 15 says “I have given you an example.” And His command was to do “these things,” plural.


So what is the lesson? I think it is that when we are faced with an opportunity to meet in someone else’s life we should never think that we are “too important” to do it; that we “outrank” them. This militates against everything that is considered important in our society. And we are good at disguising our reasoning on these kinds of things – “too busy, “not my responsibility,” “somebody else can do it better than I can,” etc. Now it is true that there is a realistic way to divide responsibilities in the church matters – for example, the deacons and apostles in Acts 6, – but this is talking about those day-to-day personal relationships and situations that come out of them. It may be a financial need, it may be health need, it even be a sin that needs to be confronted in that person’s life (probably the most difficult of all,) Or the reassurance of someone who has sinned and repented. The illustration Jesus chose suggests that it might often be something unpleasant and “smelly,” as in the story in the beginning of this lesson. But where would we be if Jesus, who had every right to, had taken the attitude that we so often take about those kinds of things when He saw our need for salvation?


The second principle in Jesus’ explanation of His example is the principle reality in verse 17


                                       If you know these things, blessed are you if do them.


This little statement is one of the most important, but most often overlooked principles in the entire Word of God! And I call it “principle of reality” because so many times in the Christian life we know what to do; we just aren’t doing it.


There are many Christians today who are not enjoying the peace and joy and happiness that are supposed to be a part of the Christian life. But if they would analyze it realistically and honestly they would find that it is because they are not doing what they already know God wants them to do – whether this or some other principle. But for the believer who is willing to “get real” God’s promise is “blessedness.” The word “blessed” is a much misunderstood word in the New Testament. It is almost always a translation of the Greek word ‘khesid’ for which there really is not an equivalent English word. The state it describes is a mixture of spiritual blessing and human happiness. The word “satisfaction” might come closer.


In this passage Jesus teaches us a foundational principle of the Christian life –  one that is much forgotten in our day. But not only does He each the lesson, He promises great reward if we practice it!



The purpose of these studies is to help people come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Savior. Romans 3:23 says that “All of us have sinned and come short of the glory of God.” “And Romans 6:23 says that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life.” And John 3:16 says that “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life. If you will sincerely ask Him to forgive your sins and give you eternal life He will readily do so. Having trusted Him as your savior it is my hope that the lessons will help you grow in grace and bring others to know Him as well. If you would like more information you may contact me at “janicetemple@yahoo.com

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