Foot Washing: My Good Friday Lesson

And supper being ended, the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. 5 After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded -- John 13:2-5 NKJV There are many biblical stories that fill my mind at this time. These stories impress in me different aspects of Jesus’ suffering and death on the cross on Good Friday -- his prayer in Gethsemane, betrayal by Judas, arrest by Roman and Jewish authorities, illegal trial, and finally, nailed to a cross to die. He was subjected to unjustifiable humility, mindless brutality, and unspeakable physical pain. The “wages” of sin are indeed high and cruel. But it was paid by one who “had come from God and was going to God.” The full extent of God’s love can now be seen. Jesus showed it to us.

This year the story that touches me most is the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. More than anything else, it is an act of voluntary humility.

Jesus got up after the Passover meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist (v. 4). The verb used for “laid aside” is not the usual word for this activity. Perhaps John the gospel writer intends an allusion to Jesus' imminent laying down of life, since this verb is used for that idea elsewhere in his gospel. Similarly, the word used for taking up his garments (“When He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again” - John 13:12) was used to describe his taking up his life again. So perhaps through the language he uses, John is connecting these two events of great humility.

Having taken off his outer garment, Jesus was left with his tunic, a shorter garment like a long undershirt. Slaves would be so dressed to serve a meal. Jesus tied a linen cloth around his waist with which to dry their feet, obviously not what one would expect a master to do. A Gentile slave on the other hand, would be required to do that, but not a Jewish slave. In the Jewish culture of that time, foot washing is something wives did for their husbands, children for their parents, and disciples for their teachers. A level of intimacy is involved in these cases, unlike when Gentile slaves would do the washing. In Jesus' case, there is an obvious reversal of roles with his disciples. The one into whose hands the Father had given all (John 13:3) now takes his disciples' feet into his hands to wash them.

In the story of the foot washing, then, we have the most profound revelation of the heart of God apart from the crucifixion itself. We also learn more of the relation between Jesus and his disciples, the relation of the disciples with one another in humble service and the mission of the disciples to the world.

If Jesus takes the role of a servant, then the servant of such a master should be expected to do the same. Thus, the community of believers, the church of Jesus Christ, which will be formed after Jesus’ death and resurrection, has been taught what its basic characteristic is to be. It is to be engaged in the work of the gospel with humble and self-sacrificing love.

Pastor Robert Chew