In John 13:14-15, Jesus gives the disciples the command to wash feet. Is this something we are to follow today?
I think it is important that we deal with this passage a little more seriously than sometimes we do. I think we often cast it off as something that should be cultural discarded. But that would be a mistake. Notice in 1 Timothy 5:10 that one of the requirements of widows is that they have “washed the saints’ feet.” So we may not want to cast this off so quickly. To understand what is going on, let us look at the whole context and I think we will see some important lessons that will help us answer the question. The context is John 13:1-17.
Lesson of Foot Washing
I believe that the key phrase is given for us in verse 12. Jesus says, “Do you know what I have done for you?” By Jesus saying this, he is looking for his disciples to grasp something greater. The answer to the question is not, yes you washed our feet. That would not have been the answer. There is a greater lesson that Jesus is teaching. To see the lesson that Jesus is teaching, let us look again at what happens here. Notice verses 4-6. Jesus, by laying aside his garments and putting a towel around his waist is taking on the form of the servant. He looks just like a servant and is to perform an act of service. This is why Peter says are you going to wash my feet? That was work for someone else to do, particularly not for the son of God. This was a great lesson in service and humility.
Why did Jesus’ wash the disciples feet? 1) It was needed. They did not have tennis shoes walking around on pavement and concrete. Their feet would become dirty quickly. More importantly, you did not sit up at the table, where the feet were hidden, but reclined at the table, with the feet tucked back. Dirty feet was more obvious. This was also customary to be done in people’s homes. Remember in Luke 7:36-50 that Jesus is in Simon, the Pharisee’s house and the sinful woman is washing Jesus’ feet with oil and her hair. Jesus says that Simon did not even offer him a basin of water to do his own feet. Foot washing was customary and necessary in those days. 2) It was a great act of humility. What we truly see is that this really was a great act of humility. This was completely unusual for someone to wash another’s feet. It would be the work of a slave or something you did yourself. Thus we see a great act of humility and selflessness of Jesus by washing his disciples feet. In verse 15 Jesus says that he has left an example for his disciples to follow. Was Jesus leaving the example of performing an outer act of foot washing or was Jesus leaving the example of a godly characteristic of service and humility? It was not a ritual outward act that God is looking for, it is what the outward act communicates!
So why are we not washing feet? Because foot washing is not necessary like it was then and because it would not have any meaning for us like Jesus was showing to his disciples. But let us not cast this away as cultural and so we can ignore this passage. This still has meaning for us. We must perform acts of service for one another. But not simply acts of service. We must do things that we think are beneath us for people who are below us. That is the great example that still applies to us today. We must do things that we would say to ourselves that this is humiliating or that is something we would never do for someone else. Nothing is to be beneath us in our service for others. Jesus showed humility and became a servant. There is nothing culturally obsolete about that. We must do the same thing today.
There is even a deeper level and context that we take this lesson. What happens immediately after this? Judas goes out from the foot washing and from the supper and betrays Jesus (vs. 29-30). Jesus served the very person who would betray him. The lesson moves even deeper. Jesus is asking what we will be: self-serving like Judas or serving others like Jesus? We serve ourselves when we are unwilling to bring ourselves low and do anything for others. We are self-serving when we are unwilling to serve our enemies. These are the deep lessons of this text. I could wash your feet, but does not have the same act of service and godliness today.