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The Life of Jesus - Series 12: Episode 10

Jesus washes the disciples’ feet

| Martin Charlesworth
John 13:1-20

Jesus demonstrates the need for servant leadership in the community he is establishing - the Church.  He predicts his betrayal by someone close to him - much like what happened to King David.

Jesus demonstrates the need for servant leadership in the community he is establishing - the Church.  He predicts his betrayal by someone close to him - much like what happened to King David.


Hello, welcome to Series 12 and Episode 10. We are in the story of the Last Supper and in this episode 'Jesus washes the disciples' feet'. We are going to follow the story as John tells it in John 13: 1 - 20.

Introduction and Recap

There is a wonderful interplay between the different Gospel accounts as we discuss the Last Supper. We will be looking at material from different Gospels as we go along and John has a huge amount of significant material and teaching. He adds this incident of the washing of the disciples' feet. The broader story of course is that this event, the Last Supper, is placed in the middle of a week of enormous significance, which all the Gospel writers focus on and tell us more about than any other period of Jesus' life. It is what we call the Passion Week, the last week of Jesus' life. It has been the subject of Series 11 and Series 12 up until this point and will continue to be the subject right the way through until almost the very end of our teaching.

Series 11 started with Jesus' entry into Jerusalem, and as I've mentioned in many previous episodes, this is tremendously important. He chose to come into Jerusalem at the time of Passover deliberately because the Passover was the time that he wanted his death to take place, for reasons that we looked at in the last episode. This was a great religious festival for the Jews and so Jerusalem was crowded with many thousands of visitors staying in the city, or staying in nearby villages and towns. All the little streets were crowded; the Temple was crowded; there were many family reunions and friends gathering together; and much religious fervour as they prepared to celebrate the Passover. Jesus arrived on the Sunday in the city, the first day of the Jewish week, amidst a great crowd; a great, enthusiastic crowd welcomed him into the city. On Monday, he went to the Temple and very provocatively disrupted the market-trading that was taking place, which had been organised by the high priests and the Sanhedrin. This trading was very profitable - money-changing, trading in animals and birds used for the sacrificial system. Pilgrims coming into the Temple had to spend a lot of money in order to fulfil their religious duties. Jesus saw this as corrupt and he accused these people of being robbers, taking away from the people and turning the house of prayer into a den of robbers. He had cleansed the Temple once before in John 2 at the beginning of his ministry, and he did it again as a sign of confrontation to the authorities.

On the Tuesday, there is an extended period of debate between Jesus and the religious leaders and the crowds in the Temple compound. This involved lots of questions; Jesus telling lots of parables; and Jesus very fiercely denouncing the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law at the end. That day ended, as far as the account goes, with Jesus sitting on the Mount of Olives nearby, which overlooks the city of Jerusalem and telling his disciples about the end times, the future, things that were going to happen after he died. He told them that the whole nation of Israel was going to come under a severe judgement within a generation of him dying. He told them that the age of the Church was going to be filled with many very challenging circumstances in the natural world - wars, persecution, dislocation, famines and diseases. He is warning them that life isn't going to be easy but the Kingdom is going to keep spreading. He taught extensively about the Second Coming, his return in glory, power and majesty. That took up the second half of Matthew 24, and other parallel passages. In Matthew 25 we have three parables that illustrate the importance of being watchful and faithful as you wait for the Second Coming. A lot of material in series 12 has been taken up with looking at Jesus' teaching about the future. This is all part of him preparing the disciples for the time when he would not be around.

Then the focus shifted to the village of Bethany nearby, where we saw a meal taking place in the home of Simon the Leper. We saw a woman called Mary, of Mary, Martha and Lazarus, who anointed Jesus with precious perfume. We saw that Judas Iscariot decided that he was going to betray Jesus to the authorities. A very tense situation is developing. Everyone is beginning to become aware that this could really be the end-game of Jesus' confrontation with the religious authorities that had been an ongoing, simmering conflict for much of his ministry; it was now building up to a climax. The authorities were very intentionally hoping to find a way to arrest Jesus, try him and get him executed by the Romans. They were just afraid of the crowd - that was the problem. They didn't want a scene of Jesus being arrested forcibly in a public location that many people saw. They wanted to do it privately so it didn't create a disturbance and didn't create a reaction from the crowd against them. That is going on in the background.

Then comes the Last Supper, which is the context of the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus. In the last episode, we looked at Luke's account, starting in Luke 22: 7 of the preparation for, and the initiation of what has become known as the Last Supper. We noticed that it is a Passover meal and in the last episode I described the historical tradition of the Jews to have a family meal on the Thursday of the Passover feast, in the evening. Having sacrificed a lamb in the Temple, they would bring the animal back to the home: roast it, cook it, and serve it with certain other foods as an act of thanksgiving worship towards God, who rescued the Jews from Egypt. God had called on them in that moment of rescue to kill lambs and goats, to eat them in a certain way and then to depart their homes. They miraculously escaped from Egypt through the Red Sea. We discussed all that in detail in the last episode.

The Passover Meal

Jesus is gathering his disciples for the last time and that is why we call it the Last Supper - it is the last evening meal before Jesus dies the next day, and Jesus consciously wants the last meal to take place during the Passover celebration because his death is a symbol of the atonement, the substitutionary sacrifice that was seen in those early days, when the blood of the animal that was killed was placed on the door frame of the houses of the Jews, and that protected the houses from God's judgement, as he was judging the Egyptians and preparing the Jews for departure. Jesus believed himself  to be the fulfilment of the Passover in some way and Paul saw that very clearly in 1 Corinthians 5: 7 where he describes Christ as our Passover Lamb who has been sacrificed for us. We are just beginning the story of the Last Supper and in doing so we remind ourselves of what we read in Luke 22 at the end of the last episode. Then we are going to turn to John's fascinating account of something that happens right near the beginning of this meal. The twelve disciples are gathered with Jesus in an upper room in the city of Jerusalem. Judas Iscariot is there, at least for the time being, and Jesus initiates the Last Supper with these words; Luke 22: 14 - 16.

‘When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table, and he said to them “I've eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer for I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfilment in the Kingdom of God.’”

Luke 22:14-16, NIV

These were his opening words, which began the process of eating the meal and drinking the wine that came with it. There were certain moments when the drinking of wine was formalised into a part of the ritual of the meal and there was the telling of the story of the ancient Passover during the meal. These were the rituals of the Jews but at this particular moment, just as the meal is getting started, Jesus does something that has nothing to do with the meal at all directly. He suddenly decides he is going to wash the disciples' feet. Our text for today is in John 13:1 - 20. We will read first of all verses 1 - 5,

‘It was just before the Passover Festival Jesus knew that his hour had come to him to leave the world and to go to the Father. Having loved his own who are in the world, he loved them to the end. The evening meal was in progress and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God. So he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.’

John 13:1-5, NIV

Foot Washing

This custom of foot-washing is important to understand. It was a regular part of daily life in ancient Israel for the very simple reason that people wore sandals and they travelled around on the dusty roads. Dry and dusty roads produced dirty feet that needed washing. As part of hospitality, it was appropriate when people came to your home that as they took off their sandals, they could wash their feet. In a poorer home, the host might just give you a bowl and some water and a towel, so that you could wash your own feet. In a richer home, the host might have a servant who would wash your feet for you. There was no servant here. This wasn't a rich family, so Jesus took the place of the servant and he washed his disciples' feet. It says here in the text that ‘he loved them to the end’. His commitment to his disciples is amazing. They had sometimes let him down and they were sometimes complicated to manage; they were sometimes awkward. He was facing the greatest test of his life and yet he was still thinking of them and he still wanted to encourage them and to serve them. This passage tells us that Jesus had full knowledge of what was going on. He knew about the timing. He knew that Judas was shortly going to leave to betray him, but he trusted his Father and he made this wonderful gesture of grace to the disciples because their feet were dusty. They had walked from Bethany, where they were staying, into the city - a journey of several kilometres even just to come to the meal.

Servant Leadership

Verses 6 - 11 continues the story.

‘He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realise now what I'm doing, but later you'll understand.” “No” said Peter, “you'll never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Ah, then Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well.” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet. Their whole body is clean and you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that is why he said ‘not everyone was clean’.

John 13:6-11, NIV

Peter really struggled with this act. He saw Jesus going round the disciples washing their feet, as they were reclining to the table and when his turn came, it was something he couldn't imagine being right. How can it be right that the Lord, the Messiah, the King, the rabbi, the teacher, should be the servant? It was the wrong way round! Peter was thinking - if we're going to have foot- washing then it's probably one of us who ought to be washing the feet. Maybe it should be me. He couldn't imagine a sense in which Jesus was his servant, but Jesus insisted. Peter then had a wholehearted change of mind and allowed his feet to be washed. Verses 12 - 17.

‘When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them, “You call me teacher and Lord and rightly so for that's 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. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”’

John 13:12-17, NIV

Jesus here is drawing together two threads of his ministry that sometimes people found very hard to hold together. First of all, his power and authority; he is Lord and he is teacher. Secondly that he is, in another sense, a servant; he is there acting like a servant. He is modelling something which we have come to call ‘servant leadership’ for his disciples to follow. He wants his disciples to form a community that will continue after he has gone. There was a risk that the community could break up once Jesus was gone because, after all, he was the centre of the community; he was the reason for the community; he was the leader of the community; he was the one who called them into community. That community needed to continue once Jesus had died, and risen and ascended and was no longer present with them on earth. If that was going to be the case, then the servant attitude - one for another - was going to be very important. There must not be factions, there must not be pride, there must not be division. There must be teamwork, mutual love and support across the team of the disciples. They needed to learn to serve one another in a fresh way and that would be put to the test after Jesus had left them.

Verses 18 - 20 finishes this part of the story.

‘“I'm not referring to all of you. I know those I have chosen, but this is to fulfil this passage of Scripture; ‘He who shared my bread has turned against me.’ I'm telling you now before it happens so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am. Very truly I tell you whoever accepts anyone I send, accepts me and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”’

John 13:18-20, NIV

Jesus Predicts His Betrayal

Whilst Jesus is talking about the unity of the disciples serving one another, he is also telling them, and warning them of the significance of the fact that one of them is going to betray him. One of them is going to turn away from them. This is also going to be a very traumatic event for the group of disciples. They had been twelve together for three years on the road. Very shortly, Jesus is going to be taken away from them and Judas Iscariot is going to be taken away from them because he is going to go to the other side. He is going to go to the establishment. As we will find out later, once he has betrayed Jesus, he has a tremendous fit of remorse. He is absolutely heartbroken. He realises the terrible thing he has done and he commits suicide. He has gone from the group of disciples, so from the Twelve plus Jesus, they end up being eleven. No Jesus, no Judas Iscariot. They are going to need to love one another and support one another. They have got two traumatic and completely different events to come to terms with. What Jesus is doing in the Last Supper is preparing his disciples, through teaching and action, for very changed circumstances, which they are going to face very shortly. Here, he quotes a passage of Scripture which comes from Psalm 41: 9.

‘He who shared my bread has turned against me’

Psalm 41:9, NIV

and he said that that is going to be fulfilled when one of the disciples turns against him, one who has shared his bread. In other words, one who has been with him on the journey, shared his meals, shared life together and even shared the bread of the Last Supper. Here again, this is a reference to Judas Iscariot, who very shortly will leave the Last Supper and head straight towards the Jewish rulers, the Sanhedrin and the high priests and tell them where Jesus is going, so that they can send out a party of soldiers to arrest him.

Jesus predicts this, and he said that this particular prediction was going to be fulfilled again. Psalm 41 was written by King David. King David predicts that somebody close to him is going to turn against him. It doesn't say in the psalm who that person is. There are a number of possible candidates of people who turned against King David but the most likely person that this prophesies about is one of his sons by the name of Absalom. David had a complex family - several wives and a number of different children by different wives - and one of his wives he had married only after committing adultery with her. The first son from that union had died. The second son was Solomon, who ultimately became his successor. It was a very complicated family and David's sinful actions in the middle of his life led to a prophecy that his family life would be filled with difficulty in his later life, and that is exactly what happened. The supreme example of that was, while he was king of Israel, his son Absalom started a rebellion. He spent his time gathering discontented people and suggesting that he should be king rather than David. Then he actually gathered them together into a little army, went to Jerusalem and took over the capital city. David, the king of Israel, the famous king of Israel, had for a time to leave the city, with his court, and then eventually he overcame Absalom. Absalom was killed and David was restored to the throne. This is the probable background to this particular verse - someone who has shared his bread, in that case a member of his own family has turned against him. The fulfilment here, is what we call a typological fulfilment, because King David is linked to Jesus in the sense that Jesus is David's successor. He is the son of David, as we have discussed on several occasions. He is a biological successor to David but he is receiving the royal throne that David was promised would last forever. He is going to become the king on the throne of David, as prophesied in 2 Samuel 7: 11 - 16. There would be an eternal dynasty. Jesus is David's son and, just as David had someone close to him who turned against him, rebelled against him, tried to undermine him and overthrow him, so Jesus is going to have someone close to him, in this case one of his twelve disciples, Judas Iscariot, turn against him and try to overthrow him and destroy him. In that typological sense, this prophecy is fulfilled. It has recapitulated something that happened to King David, and happened in a similar way to David's successor, Jesus. Jesus is warning his disciples.


As we conclude, what can we learn from this amazing story? The most obvious point of course is that this act of foot-washing tells us something profound about leadership and about community. It introduces to us in a dramatic fashion the concept that in the Kingdom of God and in the Church, leaders are servants, as well as being leaders. Jesus had already indicated this very clearly in many different ways but here is an example - Mark 10: 45. Jesus makes the statement that

‘for even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’.

Mark 10:45, NIV

The whole of Jesus' life, in a way, is an act of service. Leadership in the world that we live in, in society and politics, in business, in professions, in the marketplace, in agriculture - leadership can be just the accumulation of power and authority to yourself. It can be very selfish; it can be focused around the individuals who become leaders; it can serve their own needs. Christian leadership is not like that. The person who aspires to leadership in the Kingdom of God is committing him, or herself, to a life of serving other people and serving Jesus Christ. Just as Jesus is the servant leader, he wants his Apostles and his disciples to be servant leaders. He wants us to learn from this act of foot-washing, that we, if we are leaders, also accept the role of being servants for our fellow Christians. In a healthy church, an attitude of mutual service is one vital sign of life. The community needs to be real; people need to be very open to helping and serving one another when their needs come. That is what truly makes us the body of Christ.

Let me conclude with just a thought about verse 10. When Jesus said

“Those who've had a bath need only to wash their feet, their whole body is clean, and you are clean though not everyone of you.”

John 13:10, NIV

‘Not everyone of you’ of course refers just to Judas Iscariot but let us think for a moment about this statement to the eleven. ‘You are clean’ like you have had a bath and now all you need to do is wash your feet because the rest of your body is clean. This is a metaphor, or a description, of a profound reality in the spiritual life. The process of becoming a true believer in Jesus Christ involves a spiritual rebirth that is cleansing of all the evil things and sinful things that we have done in our lives. They are forgiven. From God's point of view, they are never going to be held against us. They are forgotten in that sense. We have had a bath so to speak. Paul describes this amazingly in 1 Corinthians 6: 9 - 11.

‘Neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who have sex with men, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor slanderers, nor swindlers will inherit the Kingdom of God’ and that is what some of you were, but you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the spirit of our God.’

1 Corinthians 6:9-11, NIV

A very similar analogy there: you were washed, cleansed. That is the point of conversion. All that moral dirt, all the negative things we have done is washed away. There is a ‘cleanliness’ in us. We are forgiven; we feel it; our conscience is clear. We feel we can relate to God. We feel free of the burden of the things that we have done wrong. Along the way, we are going to need some occasional washing, like the washing of the feet in this situation. The Christian position is to know that they are forgiven for all their past sins but when there is some specific thing we have done wrong, we need to do what 1 John 1: 9 tells us.

‘If we confess our sins he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins, and purify us from all unrighteousness’.

1 John 1:9, NIV

In an interesting way, in John 13: 10, Jesus describes the spiritual life. You are fundamentally clean; everything you did in the past is forgiven but on a day-to-day basis, we need to just check and if we have sinned in any way and we know we have done wrong, we need to ask for forgiveness and turn away from those things. We are going to continue the story of the Last Supper in our next episode. There is a lot more to come and many more significant things happen at that amazing meal on Thursday night before Jesus died.

Study Questions

The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.

  • Exploring Faith
    Exploring Faith
    1. How do you work out having mutual love and support? Give examples
  • Discipleship
    1. In what ways Jesus could be seen to be the ‘passover lamb’ as in 1 Corinthians 5:7.
    2. How does one avoid pride and division taking a hold in a fellowship?
  • Further Study
    Further Study
    1. Use tagging to find other references to Jesus being the Son of David. Read 2 Samuel 7:11 - 16.
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