Perfect love - Jesus washes the disciples' feet, 13:1-17


Only in the gospel of John do we find the account of the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus. It is a beautiful story and in it we are taught two important truths: First, purity before our God and judge is totally in the hands of Jesus. In his act of humility on the cross he makes us clean, washing all our sins away; Second, Jesus' act of humility serves as an example for all who follow him. We are reminded to love our brothers and sisters as he loved us.

The passage

v1-3. John tells us that Jesus has gathered with his disciples for an evening meal. It is the evening before the Passover festival, the Thursday evening before Jesus' crucifixion in Jerusalem. Jesus knows that his time is up, Judas having already decided to betray him, and so Jesus will soon return to the Father by way of the cross.

v4-5. Washing the feet of a person was a task undertaken by the lowest of slaves, yet even though Jesus' authority is unlimited, he undertakes this task for his disciples and in so doing illustrates the selfless humility that will soon be exhibited on the cross.

v6-9. John now records an interchange between Jesus and Peter where Peter initially refuses to allow his master to undertake such a menial task, but then opts for an "all of me" approach when Jesus makes the point that without cleansing Peter can never be in fellowship with him. This conversation serves as a foil to the washing's symbolic meaning revealed in the next verse.

v10-11. In a short saying which makes the point that a person doesn't need to wash twice ("anyone who has bathed needs no further washing; he is clean all over", REB), Jesus reveals that his act of humility toward his disciples is but a symbol of a far greater act of self-humiliation which will bring with it a perfect spiritual cleansing. Sadly, not all of his disciples will have their sins washed away.

v12-17. Jesus now draws out another truth from the foot-washing. He tells his disciples that it serves as an example for them to follow such that they should do as Jesus has done. Their status as followers of Christ does not preclude an acceptance of the least of Christ's followers.

A lesson on teaching ethics

In the story of the foot-washing we have a lesson on teaching ethics that is well worth applying. Love, with all its variants - mercy, forgiveness, acceptance, respect, kindness, ..... is not sown in a person's life by the command to love, but by the experience of love.

Those of us with children spend half a lifetime trying to develop, in the lives of our children, a genuine respect for others. Usually, of course, with the "do this ... do that ..." and "don't do this ..... don't do that" lines. This is probably why elderly ladies in past years, particularly church attenders, were often called "the women's police." As a preacher, I'm sad to say that my natural inclination toward telling other people what to do initially seeped into my sermons, so it wasn't just my children who regularly received a good dose of puritanical instruction.



In the next few chapters of John's gospel Jesus sets out to leave his disciples with an important command - Jesus' disciples are to love one another, love in the sense of care for each other, accept each other, warts and all. The command is simple enough, but Jesus initially sets aside the command and actually presents it as an example to follow. "I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet .... you should do as I have done for you." There is little doubt that an example to follow makes a greater impact than a direction to follow. Yet, what Jesus does is not just an example, he initiates the loving, he first loves them. And this act of self-humiliating love is not just a foot-washing exercise, an act of social kindness, it serves to illustrate a divine act of love which transcends the limits of compassion. As Victor Pfitzner puts it, this act of love "points to the final act of humility on the part of him who is the Suffering Servant and the humble Lamb of God. Without this sacrifice the disciples will have no share of him nor of the benefits of his death."

Here lies the secret of ethical instruction. Love comes naturally to a person who is loved. We can tell someone all day long that they should be forgiving, but all that does is make them less forgiving and more guilty. But if they have experienced forgiveness, particularly divine forgiveness, then forgiving the faults of others comes easily to them; they don't even need to be told to be forgiving.

It was on the basis of Jesus' self-effacing sacrifice that he encouraged his disciples to follow his example and act in self-effacing humility toward one another. The lesson is a simple one: the merciful are those who have experienced the mercy of God, the forgiving are the forgiven, the accepting the accepted, the loving the loved. We may be able to teach a framework for human respect, but in the end it can't be taught, rather, like an unfolding flower, respect is nourished by the experience of respect, particularly when the experience is God's respect.


1. List the profound truths revealed in the first three verses. 2. Why does Peter resist Jesus' act of kindness and why does he change his mind?

3. What clues tell us that the foot-washing is a symbol of the cross?

4. Discuss how you would prepare a children's Bible lesson on being accepting toward others, warts and all.

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