Washing Feet

“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye also should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).

Few events in the ministry of Jesus of Nazareth had been more astounding.

The disciples and many others were amazed to see Jesus displaying power against demons, sickness, and even the natural world (Mark 1:27, 4:41). But it was expected that the Messiah would have power and authority (cf. Isaiah 11:1-10, etc.). His teachings were profound and also came with authority (Matthew 7:28-29), yet, after all, Jesus did come from God (cf. John 13:3).

And then the disciples saw Jesus carrying the basin of water with a towel around His waist.

The humiliation and degradation involved in foot washing has largely been lost on us. Nevertheless, it was acutely felt in the ancient world. People walked around barefoot or in sandals. If they lived in a city they would be walking in mostly unpaved streets with refuse and human waste everywhere. If they lived in rural areas they would be walking in the mire of the fields and the animal pens. Ladies who enjoy wearing flip-flops today can perhaps begin to sympathize with their ancient counterparts– nevertheless, at the end of the day, ancient feet were beyond disgusting. To enjoy a proper meal, they would need to be washed.

Generally it was a slave who was designated to wash the feet of the family members and their visitors. The lot would always fall to the slave with the least standing– the low man on the proverbial totem pole. It was not a job that anyone would enjoy– and it would certainly not be a task that anyone would consciously, willfully choose to do.

And yet the Lord of all, God made flesh, Him through whom all things were created (cf. John 1:1-3, 14) now stands before the disciples and proceeds to wash their feet (John 13:3-5).

Impetuous Peter cannot stand the thought of the Lord and Christ washing his feet (John 13:6-8). He keenly perceives Jesus’ humiliation to stoop to such a task and he cannot bear the idea of this role reversal. Peter knows that he should be washing Jesus’ feet, not the other way around! In order to alleviate the shame, Peter requests for Jesus to also wash his hands and head (John 13:9)– anything to make this humiliation of Jesus less humiliating.

Yet, as usual, Peter does not really understand what Jesus is doing. Jesus, of all people, is very aware of how humiliating and degrading it is to wash feet. Jesus perceives the astonishment, confusion, and perhaps even horror of His disciples. He then fully explains why He washed their feet, and in so doing, He provides one of the greatest challenges to any who would call themselves His disciples.

Jesus does not deny that He is Lord and Teacher– that He is. It is as their Lord and Teacher that He washed their feet– the most humiliating and degrading task– to teach them that if Jesus the Lord and Savior washes feet, so too ought those who follow Him. As Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, so the disciples should “wash the feet” of fellow disciples!

This is exceedingly important, and we should not get so wrapped up in arguments about whether we are to “literally” wash feet or not to cause us to miss the force and power of Jesus’ action and example. How many times in the Gospels does Jesus come out and say explicitly that He is providing an example? Not too many! Therefore, it is evident that Jesus is emphasizing this action and its meaning, and wants all of us to take notice.

Service is rarely glorious. Service is often demeaning. It can be repetitive and annoying. It may seem futile. It may offend our sensibilities. Jesus knows all of this, and that is why He washed the disciples’ feet.

If Jesus our Lord washed feet, humiliating and degrading Himself to the utmost (cf. Philippians 2:5-10), doing the most unimaginably disgusting job in the ancient world, then for those who call themselves His disciples, there is no job too humiliating or degrading to do in His name (cf. Colossians 3:17).

If Jesus our Lord washed feet, who are we to say that a given task is too beneath us for us to accomplish?

If Jesus our Lord washed feet, who are we to say that a given task is too repetitive or futile to accomplish?

If Jesus our Lord washed feet, who are we to say that expectations for us by others are too degrading and beneath our abilities?

Jesus shows us through His example that we must serve (1 John 2:6). We must do this in every aspect of our lives. Husbands and wives must “wash one another’s feet,” and should not complain that tasks are too degrading or repetitive or stupid (Ephesians 5:21). Parents and children ought to “wash one another’s feet” (Ephesians 6:1-4). Employees are to “wash feet” by working as to the Lord, no matter how obnoxious their earthly boss may be (Ephesians 6:4-9). We can find plenty of other ways in which we can serve in other capacities in our lives (Romans 6:15-23, 12:1).

Service is not always pleasant, enjoyable, novel, or exciting. It can be downright frustrating, humiliating, and obnoxious at times. But let us remember that Jesus our Lord washed feet, and we are to do likewise. Let us serve in all capacities as Jesus served so that He may obtain the honor and praise (cf. 1 Peter 1:7)!

Ethan R. Longhenry

Washing Feet


But when he saw the multitudes, he was moved with compassion for them, because they were distressed and scattered, as sheep not having a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).

If there was anyone who ever lived who was above “feeling” for other people, it could have been Jesus. After all, He is the Word, God in the flesh (John 1:1, 14). He could have just stayed above the fray of the challenges of sinful humanity.

Yet He chose otherwise! He experienced the challenges that humans face, yet without sin (Hebrews 4:15). He learned obedience through His suffering, having been willing to humble Himself greatly in order to experience such things (Hebrews 5:7-9, Philippians 2:5-11). Therefore, He can relate to the challenges humans face, and, in fact, seeks to do so!

One constant feeling Jesus has toward people during His life is compassion. The word in English captures the essence of the idea: “feeling with” or “suffering with.” The word in Greek is even more explicit: it is the word splagchnizomai, which literally means “to be moved as to one’s bowels” (Thayer’s). Such a definition may sound bizarre: what does compassion have to do with the bowels?

Have you ever had a moment of great empathy or sympathy for another person? Perhaps you saw someone just like you in a terrible circumstance. Maybe you were watching television and they showed pictures of people starving or dying in a foreign land. It could have been one of many other situations. Regardless, when you had that feeling, where did you feel it? Likely it was a “gut feeling.” And since that’s where people tend to feel such things, ancient people thought that love and feeling originated in the bowels. Therefore, one feels compassion when one has a “gut connection” to another in his or her circumstance.

That is the feeling that Jesus had toward the multitudes and toward those in need of healing. Even though He was God, He felt the pain and suffering of the people in His gut. That feeling motivated Him to heal the sick and preach the good news to the poor. The feeling helped Him relate to others.

We, as disciples of Christ, should feel compassion toward our fellow man in his distress (Luke 10:33, Ephesians 4:32). If Jesus could humble Himself to the point of being able to feel the pain and suffering of others in Himself, we should certainly be able to have the same feeling toward our fellow sinners! Compassion transcends all the various attitudes and judgments that divide men from one another, for when we can feel in our gut for our fellow man, we have developed a strong connection with him. If we have allowed the pain and misery of this world to deaden our feelings toward our fellow man, we cannot truly imitate Christ!

If we can relate to our fellow man in his experience, we will have good motivation to take the next step and to work to strengthen, encourage, and support him (cf. Galatians 2:10, 6:10). Notice that the Good Samaritan was motivated to “love his neighbor as himself” on the basis of his compassion toward him (Luke 10:33). It is very hard to do good for those to whom we feel little to nothing. Yet, for those with whom we can relate on a personal and emotional level, it becomes much, much easier! This is why God has charged individuals to help one another, to reflect Christ’s love toward their fellow men (Galatians 6:10, James 1:27, Matthew 5:13-16). Without the personal contact, there can be little to no feeling!

If we are going to serve others as Christ has served us (Matthew 20:25-28), we must have compassion on our fellow man. We must be willing to feel what he feels, even when it is uncomfortable. When we have compassion on another, we are able to better relate to others and get beyond all the factors that seek to divide us from them. It will be much easier to do good and to love our neighbor as ourselves when we relate to our neighbor and are willing to show him compassion. As Jesus showed compassion to us, let us show compassion to others!

Ethan R. Longhenry