John 13 – Humble Service to Others

When Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, he is preforming a parabolic act. As with parables, we need to understand the context in order to understand what Jesus was trying to teach through the washing of his disciples’ feet.

It is well-known that hospitality in the ancient world included foot-washing. Since virtually all travel was by foot, a visitor should be allowed to “refresh themselves” when they arrive by washing their feet. If the host had servants, the task of washing the guest’s feet fell to the lowliest servant. For a Jewish family, the task would be assigned to a Gentile slave (Köstenberger, John, 405). In this case, Jesus takes off his outer clothes and wraps himself in a long towel and does the job of the lowliest slave.

Since this is a Passover meal, it is likely that each of the disciples have washed their hands ceremonially before touching the food of the meal. My guess is that the feet would need to be washed since the are most likely to have come into contact with uncleanliness, the slave who washed the feet would therefore himself be unclean.

This is therefore a shocking act by a Jewish teacher prior to the Passover meal. Jesus’ humble service of his disciples is an illustration of how the disciples are to continue his work after the resurrection.

Said R. Joshua b. Levi, “All acts of labor that a slave performs for his master, a disciple of a sage performs for his master, except for removing his shoe.” b. Ketub. 96a (Neusner, b. Ketub. 11:1, I.2.A; 9:440)

Jesus is due the titles Teacher (Rabbi) and Lord. Even if we take the title Lord as equivalent to sir, both titles put Jesus well above the disciples socially. In a teacher-student relationship of the Second Temple Period, there was little a teacher could not ask his disciple to do for him. Yet Jesus reverses cultural expectations by doing an extremely humbling service for his disciples.

This is a pattern for the disciples to follow (v.15). The noun used here (ὑπόδειγμα) has the sense of a pattern, or model used for moral instruction. Jesus is saying this is an illustration of how you are to serve one another. This is not a pattern to be followed for worship, for example. Although there is nothing particularly wrong with practicing foot-washing in some Christian denominations, it is not an ordinance like the Lord’s Supper. To me this is analogous to saying the Lord’s Prayer. It is not particularly wrong, but misses Jesus point when he gave the prayer of an illustration of how to pray!

How do we serve as Jesus did? First, Jesus did not insist on his titles and honors. Ideally, Peter ought to have served Jesus, but Jesus radically reverses expectations and serves those who are socially lower than himself. If the Lord (and God) of the universe can get down on his hands and knees to wash the feet of those who owe him honor and loyalty, how ought we to serve?

Second, notice that he washes all the disciples’ feet, including Judas. He knew that Judas was the betrayer, yet he extended to him the same humble service that he gave the other “loyal” disciples. Jesus knew that Satan was about to enter Judas and he knew exactly what Judas was about to do, but he treated him in exactly the same way he did Peter or John. That is remarkable to me. I have no problem humbly serving my family or my church family. But what about those who are outside the church? There are people who are outside of my normal circle who I do not serve, in fact, I sometimes treat them with contempt.

Jesus did not, he died for them as well.

18 thoughts on “John 13 – Humble Service to Others

  1. Certainly Jesus washing the feet of Judas is a real mystery, especially in the Jewish sense.. Note, Mk. 14:21. But, on a soteriological reality, Judas was never given salvation, (John 17:12). This has to be one of the most sobering and even fearful verses in Holy Scripture!

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  2. We know that washing the feet of others is mainly the job of the lowliest servant or the Gentile slaves (Köstenberger, John, 405), so when we read that Jesus took this position it is very culturally surprising. With that being said, this is not out of character for Jesus. After all, we read that Jesus came to serve and not be served (Matthew 20:28). When this was taking place though, the disciples did not know that this was only child’s play in comparison to the humility and service Jesus would display only several hours later. The last supper and the events that followed give us a picture of how we should live our lives to serve God and others so that everything points back to what He did for us and continues to do.

    As I reflect on my own life I find that I often am like Peter, resisting to let God see my brokenness and filth. What a beautiful thing that God already knows all of it and asks that we bring it to Him so that He can wash us clean! What convicts me the most though is the way that Jesus knew Judas would betray Him but yet still washes His feet and offers to serve Him. How often do I hold grudges for small offenses of people in my life, when in reality I still need to hold the posture of service with those people!

    Jesus truly is the greatest example of love.

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  3. Jesus washing the disciple’s feet is one of the most looked upon stories that Jesus had done. Besides Jesus giving up his life for us the night of the Passover can really strike us as we watch and read about Jesus getting down humbling himself among his disciples or otherwise known as students. As we learned in class the one who washes feet is the lowest servant in the house. With this we can look upon and notice how Jesus took that role in our lives but with that we can connect it to another area as Jesus took the role of our sin and paid the punishment in that way. We get to Peter and we notice that he doesn’t want Jesus to wash his feet. This could also relate to us. We want to be in control of what happens to us and instead of giving it up to Jesus we want to take control of what we want and along with that we would want more and more. So as I think about this story I think about how we have to let Jesus take control of a situation and our lives because without him we are broken.

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    • Great insights Luke, I like how you brought up the part where Peter tell Jesus that he doesn’t want him to wash his feet. In class we discussed possible reasons for this, but none are facts, but I agree that we all do this in our own lives. We see Jesus and what He did for us, and we want Him in our lives, but not our whole lives. There are things that we want Jesus to leave alone, but giving up that last bit of control can be challenging. Peter comes to realize that if he wants Jesus that he must let him wash his feet, he asks Jesus to wash more than just his feet. This opens up a chance for Jesus to explain that not everyone was clean, and someone would betray him. I’m sure that this confused Peter, and if I were him I would have tried to figure out who Jesus was talking about, but more importantly be mindful of my own self. This could also be a hidden lesson for us, that even one of the disciples betrayed Jesus, and he was able to see in person what Jesus was doing. We may get comfortable and think that we are heading towards the Kingdom of God, but we need to make sure with every action that we are striving to act like Jesus.

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  4. The passage of Jesus washing the feet of all His disciples is about more than just the act of Him lowering himself to do a task that is usually done by servants. It is important to recognize this as what it is and how we should apply it to our lives. This is Jesus, Son of God, on his knees washing the feet of those that follow and look up to him. This shows us that we need to live our lives in a similar manner, not necessarily washing other people feet, but putting ourselves in positions to lower ourselves so that we might help someone or show someone a true light onto who God is. In verses 12-17, Jesus is asking them if they understand why he was washing their feet, and he explained how even though He is their teacher, He stilled washed their feet, and this is an example of what they should be doing to others. A key part that I overlooked until brought up in class is how Jesus already knew that Judas was going to betray him, and yet he still washed his feet just like all the other disciples. Just like Jesus was setting an example of what his disciples should do, this is also an example for us towards people who have wronged us. There are going to be people in our lives that are going to hurt and disappoint us, and this is when we need to be most like Jesus. Just because they hurt us, doesn’t put them below us, we are still all equal, but we are called to show love on all people.

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  5. This passage is really convicting. As people, humility is not something that comes easily to us. We seek positions of honor, recognition, the power that accompanies such positions. We want to tell others what to do, not to have them tell us what to do. When Jesus tells us to follow his example of humility and service, it speaks to everyone, because we know we all fail to do so. We look for our own needs and desires, but Jesus says to look for others needs and fulfill them. Kostenberger says, “Washing one another’s feet should be taken as an emblem of lowering oneself to meet another’s need, whatever it may be” (Kostenberger, 133). Paul talks about this same concept, saying “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:3-4). We need to imitate the character of Jesus, being willing to humble ourselves and provide for others, not caring about our own status. Jesus even showed humility to Judas, the person who would betray him! He put the needs of the man who would essentially put him to death before the needs of himself. If we follow Jesus’ example, we will truly be able to emulate a life of humility.

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  6. Service is something that I think many people need to work on in their lives ( me included). Humbly serving the way Jesus did when he washed his disciples feet is something that we do not see very often, many times if someone does a act of service they want to be recognized while they are doing it. Like the Pharisees announcing that they are fasting or praying big long, elaborate prayers in public. Serving people should be done without the expectation of being recognized or rewarded. True service to serving those that are lower than yourself, serving those that are higher than you is usually called brown-nosing. So looking for opportunities to serve other people like how Jesus washed his disciples feet is how service should look.

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  7. Jesus washing the disciple’s feet is something that is unique to John. What makes this even more interesting to look at is not the physical act of washing the feet of his disciples but rather the spiritual and theological side of the washing. I’m of course not trying to say the physical washing of the feet wasn’t important but I don’t think that’s what Jesus wanted us to focus on. Yes, it is true that traditionally washing of the feet was a duty reserved for the lowest ranking slave. And what Jesus did broke all of those Jewish cultural norms. But I just think there is more to it that Jesus washing their feet. Looking at this theologically the feet washing was more of an analogy that by Jesus washing their feet he has made them spiritually clean. a persons feet would have become dirty because they wore sandals and no other form of foot protection. And Israel is in the middle east which is made up of mostly deserts and dry areas. The way of traveling was done of foot by means of roads. Not like the modern ones we have in our western society but dirt roads. And because of this their feet would become dirty with travel. And by Jesus washing their feet it made it them spiritually clean. God himself came from heaven and walked among his people. And this demonstrates the love he has for us that he was willing to do the job of someone of the lowest status. But that by doing this he cleaned the disciples themselves.

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  8. It’s wild to know that Jesus washed Judas’s feet, even while knowing about his imminent betrayal. This reminds of Romans 5:8, which tells us that “… while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While I would like to think I would not have been the disciple that betrayed Jesus, my sins were the sins Jesus was atoning for while he was dying. I kind of see Jesus washing Judas’s feet as a metaphor for Jesus loving me even while I was a sinner and this is super humbling.

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  9. Washing of feet is one of those things that at first, I found absolutely disgusting because I hate feet so much. However, when I chose to partake in washing feet when I was a camp counselor, this was such an honoring thing to do for my campers. In the blog, it was noted that most likely the disciples had already prepared themselves to eat. i.e. washing their hands ceremonially. And they probably did not wash their feet because who really would have thought of that. I can totally agree with the disciples that this was a shocking act to them. Because of all that they have taught about Jesus, seen what He does, etc. It is also even more shocking that Jesus would have gone to the point of washing all of their feet. If you have never gotten down on your own hands and knees and washed someone’s feet, I would highly encourage this. I think it helps worship Jesus just a little bit more. It is extremely humbling.

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  10. it is eye opening to see this moment as a parable like moment. it makes sense that Jesus would reverse the norm like this as it was something he tended to do often. while it may have been surprising for his disciples it is characteristic of how his ministry had played out. the fact that he even washed Judas’s feet shows us how we should even treat those who would be our enemies. Jesus could have pointed out Judas’s betrayal or even just ignored him but he treats Judas with respect and shows he cares for him. we as Christians should do our best to love everyone even those who would see harm done to us because those people need Jesus as much as anyone else does and Christ died for them just the same as he did for me

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  11. In response to the question on how to serve like Jesus, I think the best approach is with humility and love. We have to be able to step down from whatever status or position we have in life and humble ourselves among each other. Jesus did something really amazing by showing us that even He who comes from such a high rank is willing to come down and present himself equal with us. Even though Jesus knew he came from God, he did not consider God’s equality something to firmly hold on to (Kostenberrger, 145). Therefore, when serving like Jesus one must let go of the pride or statues they might be trying to protect. There are so many vital elements in a person’s life that some can’t find to separate themselves from to serve or forgive like Jesus. However, serving like Jesus is going to take a person to break apart from what pride they might be hanging on too. It might not be pride a person doesn’t want to break away from, but it could be other things like getting out of our comfort zones. Whatever the case may be, the best way to serve like Jesus is to come down to the status of a slave and show genuine love in everyday life.

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  12. The fact that John includes the story of Jesus washing the disciples feet is just another example of how unique of a writer John is. This is yet another story in which John uses to promote his uniqueness within the gospels. We find Jesus humbly serving the disciples and becoming one of lesser status only to make his point known. The way I think of this, if I was a disciple, I find that I would be confused as to why Jesus was getting down and serving me. We know that Jesus knew Judas was the betrayer yet, he waits til later in the dinner to expose him as the betrayer. This shows that Jesus does in fact care about Judas and his status as a disciple, but I think it just means that Judas was confused about who Jesus was. This leads to him betraying Jesus and turning him in, because he was led astray from what the truth Jesus spoke about.

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  13. John continues to show how he is a different writer than all of the other gospels. He includes one of Jesus’ lowliest of jobs of servanthood to his disciples even the one who he knew would willing betray him for money. Feet in those days did not have much protection from the elements and would have been disgusting and awful to wash but Jesus did not care. He took on the job that no one expected him to so that he could show the world how to love properly. How could he wash Judas’ feet all the while knowing that Judas was going to betray him? Jesus did not seem to care all he cared about is loving us well. Jesus was fully God and fully human so who knew all things, he knew that he would tell Judas to go and do as he had promised he knew that very night that he would be wrongly accused and the next day that he would die for the very man who betrayed him with a Holy kiss. As a human, I cannot wrap my mind around the idea that Jesus would be willing to sincerely wash Judas’ feet and just show Judas his love for him through that and then Judas still wanted to betray Jesus.

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  14. The story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet is not something that I have ever considered to be related to a parable. I understand that Jesus usually teaches in parables by telling stories, but I never considered the fact that Jesus used parabolic acts to do so as well. A parable is most commonly defined as “a story used to illustrate a moral or spiritual lesson.” Jesus is not telling a story here. He is actually physically showing them what service will look like. This is something greater than an allegorical story, this is action. Jesus is taking on the role of the lowliest servant and washing the feet of His disciples, the people who are supposed to be serving and helping Him. This act is a demonstration to us that we are to be humble and serve everyone around us no matter what our status is. Jesus was a Rabbi, and His disciples were His followers, this meant that He should have asked one of them to do it for Him. However, here again we see Jesus breaking down social and cultural boundaries to make way for the ways that people are now to live and treat each other. We cannot have pride and we cannot pick favorites, Jesus humbled Himself and washed all of the disciple’s feet, even the one who would betray Him. This is the way that we are to be living out life, it is not just a mere story.

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  15. Foot-washing was a hospitality that was common among their culture, however, the disciples were surprised by Jesus’s action because it was an action typically saved for slaves or servants. By washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus brought himself down to the level of servant to show his disciples by example how to humble themselves and serve. When Jesus washes the feet of his disciples, he makes himself ceremonially unclean from coming in contact with their feet. The uncleanliness of the feet is one of the reasons why this action was typically held for the lowest level servant or slave. Jesus washes their feet as an example. Additionally, Jesus washes all of the disciples’ feet. At this point, Jesus already knew that Judas was going to betray him. Jesus could have skipped Judas and called him out on his future betrayal but he did not. “He extended to Judas the same humble service that he gave to the other “loyal” disciples” (Long). Would we have done the same in that moment? Odds are likely not. It would be difficult to treat someone the same even if we knew they were going to betray us. However, Jesus shows us that we must treat each other equally and we must humble ourselves and serve one another.

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  16. The act of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples is one of great humility. I don’t think we will ever truly understand how humble of an action it was though as we do not fully understand the culture that they lived in. To know though that this task is one that is given to the lowest of servants says a lot as to how much Jesus humbled himself. He set an example to us and his disciples that we are supposed to treat those around us as more important than ourselves. The task that is seen as lowly and dirty being done by one who is considered by society to be important changes the way we think the world should work. Another thing that stood out to me was the phrase in this post that said, “The slave who washed the feet would, therefore, himself be unclean”. To me, this brings the foot-washing farther than reversing the roles and setting an example. To me, this is another example of Jesus’s holiness. If the slave was considered unclean after washing feet, then Jesus would also be considered unclean after he washed his disciple’s feet. Yet, Jesus washing the feet shows how he is going to be making all mankind new again as well. The uncleanliness of the feet washing wasn’t something that he seemed to be affected by. It just seems slightly symbolic to me that just as he washed clean the feet of his disciples, he also washed clean the sin that is in a believing human heart.

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