One of the biggest mistakes in reading this passage is to see the washing of the feet of the disciples by Jesus as basically only a lesson in humility, where the Lord emphasized an ethical truth by a concrete example. Such isolated moral instruction is beyond the horizon of John. In truth, the foot washing (Pedilavium) by Jesus rests upon and interprets the death of Jesus, even as the very context in which it occurred in Holy Week strongly indicates. However, to say this is not to state that there is no holy lesson in right attitude of Christians presented by Jesus in this foot washing; but this is a secondary purpose, arising out of the primary one.
First of all, let us notice that the washing of the disciples’ feet did not occur before the meal began, that is, soon after they had come in from the dusty road. No! “Jesus rose from supper and took off his clothes, and taking a towel tied it around himself…” (verse 4). There are plenty of examples in the Bible of the usual washing of feet after a journey (Luke 7:44; Genesis 18:4,5; 24:32,33), but this is not one of them. This foot washing is an unique event. In the Greek the verbs “took off his clothes” (v.4) and “takes his clothes” (v.12) have been previously used by John with reference to the death and resurrection of Jesus. “I lay down my life that I make take it again,” said Jesus (10:17,18). Further, the putting of a towel around his waist is traditionally the mark of the action of a slave.
Secondly, we do not know in what order Jesus washed the feet of the disciples; but, whatever it was, John focuses upon the reaction of Peter and through it allows Jesus to make clear what the real purpose of this symbolic washing is all about. Jesus tells Peter: “What I am doing you do not know at present, but you shall understand after these things.” He refers to his own glorification in death and resurrection, followed by the descent of the Spirit as his Paraclete (John 14-16). But Peter, impulsive as usual, becomes more obstinate, “Never shall you wash my feet.” To this outburst, Jesus answers, “If I do not wash you, you have no share in me,” and Peter quickly responds, “Lord, not my feet only but my hands and my head.” The contrast here is not between the humiliation of Jesus and the pride of Peter, for there is no pride in Peter’s word. Rather, the contrast is between the divine knowledge of Jesus which is the basis of his action, and the ignorance of Peter, who does not yet perceive that the humiliation of the Messiah is the one and only effective cause of human redemption and salvation.
Jesus refuses to do what Peter craved but insists that only the feet needed to be washed: “The man who has had a bath has no need to have anything but his feet washed, but is wholly clean.” Here the “bath” is a metaphor for the effect of the death of Jesus in cleansing the faithful (cf., 1 Cor. 6:11; Rev.1:5). So when Peter mistakes the symbol for the reality, and wants a total bath, Jesus pronounces the adequacy of the symbolic act by declaring the feet washing to be, by God’s design and purpose, a complete bath, and thus no further washing of hands and head are needed. Thus when the divine relation between the washing of the feet and the death of Jesus is truly recognized, then the foot washing is a complete bath and cleansing—but Peter would only see this when Jesus was risen from the dead.
Not only Peter is clean but also so are the other disciples—except one, the betrayer (see verses 21-30).
Verses 12-17, The Words of Jesus
Jesus proceeds to give to his disciples a partial explanation of the foot washing. As we have noted the full significance of his action will only be understandable by them after his glorification and their receiving of the Holy Spirit. What he says here is dependent upon the primary meaning and filled out in his later teaching that evening (see chapters 14-16 and the teaching on the new commandment, 13:34 & 15:12).
A disciple/apostle is not greater than the Master and so the disciples of Jesus must model their behavior on that of Jesus himself. His action in washing their feet expresses the very essence of Christian authority. It consists of mutual humility of which the washing of the disciples’ feet was a concrete illustration.
Verse 17 is worthy of deep attention: “ If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” Here we have a sentence which has two conditional clauses (“If…” and “if”) with the main clause between them. This has the effect of emphasizing the point that to know that we are to imitate Christ’s example is necessary for salvation, is not sufficient in itself, unless we actually put it into practice (cf. Matthew 7:24 & James 1:25). That is, knowledge must be supplemented and fulfilled in attitude and action.
In this context, the Collect for the second Sunday after Easter comes to mind:
Almighty God, who hast given thine only Son to be unto us both a sacrifice for sin, and also an ensample of godly life: Give us grace that we may always most thankfully receive that his inestimable benefit, and also daily endeavour ourselves to follow the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Almighty God, You who have given your only Son to be for us both a sacrifice for sin and also an example of godly life: Give us grace that we may always be profoundly thankful for what he has so graciously provided, and also that daily we may make the effort to follow in the blessed steps of his most holy life; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
“You ought to wash one another’s feet” (verse14). Though this word of Jesus has been taken literally by a few from time to time in the history of the Church, and though it has also has been incorporated as a symbolic act in the Liturgy of Maundy Thursday in some places, the general understanding of it over the centuries has been to read it, not in its literal meaning, but in terms of its symbolic meaning—that is, mutual humility as the basis of authority.