It’s amazing to me that with everything going on during Jesus’ last week in Jerusalem, he still took time to humbly wash his disciples’ feet. Though footwashing was common in the ancient world, there was no precedence for someone of Jesus’ stature to perform such an act of humble service. Let’s learn more about the practice of footwashing and this particular episode in John’s Gospel with these comments from the IVP Bible Background Commentary.

Footwashing in John’s Gospel

John intertwines foreshadowings of the betrayal and cross with the footwashing. Jesus follows Mary’s example of servanthood (12:3).

Scripture Passage

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he 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 13:1-5

13:1–2. Before the banquet, diners would normally wash a hand, eat appetizers, and then recline (13:12) and wash both hands for the main meal. (Because they reclined and had only one hand free, those preparing the food sliced it before the meal.) Meals could be accompanied by music, lectures, other entertainment, or deep discussion; Jesus here provides a teaching session.

13:3–5. The couches would be arranged around tables containing the food, with the upper part of each person’s body facing the food and their feet away from the table. Jesus would go to the outside of this circle to wash each person’s feet. A wealthy home might recline three or four people on each of three large couches; whether couches were available here (or mats, or cloaks), the arrangement may be similar. The person would lean on the left elbow, leaving the right hand free to reach food on the table.

Ancient Practice of Footwashing

After travelers had come a long distance, the host was to provide water for their feet as a sign of hospitality, as exemplified by Abraham (Gen 18:4). Yet loosing sandals and personally washing someone else’s feet was considered servile, most commonly the work of a servant or of servile or submissive persons (cf. 1 Sam 25:41).

Travelers’ sandals need not be covered in dung, as some scholars have suggested (although in Rome people were known to occasionally empty chamber pots from their windows, sometimes to the misfortune of passersby below). Side roads were very dusty; the main streets of Jerusalem, however, would have been kept clear of human waste, especially in the Upper City, where Jesus likely ate this Passover meal historically. In any case, travelers and people walking in the streets normally washed their feet when entering a home. Jesus’ removing his outer garments to serve them would also appear as a sign of great humility before them.

By so serving, Jesus prefigures his death as the suffering servant of Isaiah 53 on behalf of the many. Jesus’ milieu celebrated honor and feared shame. Unlike most elite men in Greco-Roman society, Judaism valued humility; but like other societies, it also upheld societal roles. Jesus overturns even positions of social status. Rabbi Judah ha-Nasi (about A.D. 220) was said to be so humble that he would do anything for others—except relinquish his superior position; seating according to rank was crucial. Jesus goes beyond even this. Footwashing shows the deep humility and servitude of the Son of God.

Ancient evidence suggests that Jesus may have poured water over the feet into a basin. Sometimes one would pour cold water into the basin first, and then hot water. Possibly Jesus uses a basin used for handwashing before the meal.

Scripture Passage

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

John 13:6-11

13:6–8. Jesus’ act violates cultural status boundaries so thoroughly that Peter finds it unthinkable.

13:9–11. The “bath” here may allude to ceremonial washing that Jesus and the disciples had undergone before the feast (11:55), but Jesus applies it in a spiritual sense. This figurative sense of cleansing was common enough that the disciples should have been able to understand his meaning. John’s repetition of Jesus’ statement of 13:10 in different words in 13:11 is not surprising; ancient writers valued variation and few people expected casual quotations to follow exact wording (cf. also Lk 24:46–49 with Acts 1:4–8; Gen 39:17–19; 1 Sam 15:3, 18).

The Meaning of Footwashing

Scripture Passage

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

John 13:12–17

13:12–14. Disciples normally served their teachers, after the model of Elisha serving Elijah and Joshua serving Moses. One expression of service, however, was not required even of disciples: dealing with the teacher’s feet; Jesus goes beyond the service expected even for disciples. Although people often sat on chairs, they normally “reclined” (as here) for banquets (like Passover).

13:15. Disciples were expected to learn by imitating their teachers.

13:16. Some slaves were prominent when compared with free peasants, but any authority slaves exercised was derived from their masters, and slaves were always subordinate to their masters. An agent was always subordinate to his sender, his authority limited to the extent of his authorization.

13:17. The literary form of “beatitude” was common in the Old Testament and early Judaism. Judaism also emphasized that one should not only know but also obey God’s law.

Even the Betrayer is Present!

Scripture Passage

I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

John 13:18–20

13:18. Moving beyond the footwashing, here Jesus cites Psalm 41:9, a psalm of a righteous sufferer; lifting up one’s heel to another was an act of disdain (cf. Mk 6:11). Betrayal by a friend sometimes happened, but was counted the most heinous form of betrayal. To eat at table with another formed a permanent covenant of peace (sometimes ideally extending even to descendants), so to betray one’s host at a meal was especially treacherous. (To give one example of the covenant bond: two warriors about to engage each other in battle relinquished the fight after learning that one’s father had hosted the other’s at table a generation earlier.)

13:19. Jesus’ wording here evokes Is 43:9–10, where God announced the future in advance (cf. Is 41:26; 44:7, 11; 48:3–7) so that his people might know that he alone was God.

13:20. In ancient cultures, one responded to agents, ambassadors or other representatives according to one’s feelings toward the person who authorized them.

Learn More with the IVP Bible Background Commentary

The IVP Bible Background Commentary provides succinct and meaningful information on the background of the biblical text. Through cultural, historical, and linguistic details, these two volumes can help you grow in understanding the ancient world in which the word of God was written. Add them to your Olive Tree library today and start learning about the background of the Bible!

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