What Washing Each Other’s Feet Really Means

“Jesus poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

John 13:5

In John’s beloved account of Jesus’ last moments with his disciples, he records the famous passage where Jesus shows his humility by stooping down and washing each of his disciple’s feet. His lesson was clear and simple: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet..”

And for this reason, the church thereafter uses this as a model to teach how believers should act towards one another. Some churches have even gone so far as to institute the washing of feet as one of the sacraments practiced by the church. This is probably nothing new for you.

But allow me to challenge us to be challenged by this passage afresh.

Part of the shortcomings in fully understanding this passage in its entirety is the fact that this act of Jesus is lost from its cultural context. What we have in our teachings is a 21st century mentality looking into the Bible, and so it always falls short.

It is not surprising then to find that over the years, the church has romanticized this account, seeing the washing of the feet as a “beautiful” thing. We have these beautiful pictures and paintings of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet; he’s clean, he’s pristine, he’s postured, his disciples’ feet are clean, etc… (just like the picture above)

Yet what we forget about the initial impression of this passage to its first century audience, and subsequently our application of it, is that Jesus’ action was not really beautiful. It was not even humbling, it was humiliating.

Washing one’s feet was a job reserved for slaves. It was a dirty job because feet were dirty. And feet were dirty because the roads were dirty- really dirty. And to bend down until you are eye level with your disciple’s knees, take off your garment like a slave, and then proceed to wash the dirt off their feet was quite humbling, humiliating, and servant-like. Have you seen portraits or paintings that properly reflect the ‘dirtiness’ of the scene? I have not.

What then is Jesus trying to teach us?

Well, of course the same thing I suggested earlier- that we should, in turn, “wash each other’s feet” as well. But since washing each other’s feet has absolutely no cultural footing in our understanding, allow me to suggest a similar example that would perhaps cause us to understand the depth of Jesus’ action.

When I think of Jesus’ command for me to wash other Christian’s feet, I think about whether or not I would be willing to go to a brother or sister’s house, go to their washroom, and clean their toilet.

It is dirty, it is humbling, it is humiliating, it is servant-like.

For me, that’s what I think about when Jesus instructs us to be the least amongst us. I think of the most dishonorable thing that people do, and in love, do it for them. I think that we show that we really love each other when we show that we do not only the things we like doing for them, but we do the things for them that we wouldn’t even want to do for ourselves.

I think that considering ourselves truly less than others, as Philippians 2 instructs us, means not just intellectually weighing how that works out, but is done by actualizing it in the way we act towards each other. And for me, there’s nothing more humbling than to take a dirty brush, enter your brother or sister’s dirty bathroom, and to wash a dirty toilet as an act of service towards them.

Have you ever tried it? Going to a Christian’s house and washing their toilet? I can almost guarantee that it will bring you to tears. It will bring you to tears when you finally see how low your God bent and therefore how low we should bend towards each other.

And that’s what I think it means to truly wash each other’s feet.


Phillip Chan

Phil has been writing for 10 years. His passion is to grow in his love for Jesus to obey his purposes in our generation.

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