Washing the Feet of Betrayers, Deniers and Runaways

The foot washing scene is peculiar to John’s Gospel (chapter 13). Scholars tell us that it was a common practice to wash one’s feet before reclining at table for a meal. Normally, the host would provide guests with basins of water and towels and they would wash their own feet. Rabbinic teaching stipulated that masters could not require their Jewish slaves to wash other people’s feet, although a Gentile slave could be required to do so. Foot washing was something wives did for their husbands and children for their parents out of respect. And disciples would do for their teachers almost anything a slave would do except deal with their feet, which was considered too demeaning for a free person.

But when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he turned the world of social convention upside down to symbolize the full extent of his love for them and to give them a breathtaking example of how they were to love and serve one another.

What strikes me in this passage is everything this passage tells me Jesus knew ahead of time as he washed the disciples’ feet. Such knowledge would have prevented many a disciple from actually doing what Jesus did.


First, the known cost of loving didn’t stop him. "Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father." (John 13:1). The means of Jesus’ "home going" was an excruciating death on a cross. Where others would avoid the pain and suffering and the cost of loving another, thinking more of themselves, Jesus gave. He knew ahead of time that he would be a suffering and dying messiah. The cross was the expression of his determination to love "to the fullest extent" and "to the very end."


The next thing John tells us that Jesus knew was that "the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God." (John 13:3).

Standing and authority are often the biggest road blocks to service. Who we are and what we have relative to others are exemptions from serving because it is beneath our station to serve "downward." There must be a pecking order, we claim.

The fact of a pecking order may be true for chickens, but it shouldn’t be for the saints.

Paul puts the point poetically when he writes at Philippians 2:6-8 that Jesus, "being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness." Indeed, his self humbling–symbolized at John 13 by washing others’ feet–was massive. The son of God died on a cross for humanity!


The final thing John tells us Jesus knew ahead of time was "who was going to betray him…." (John 13:11) The devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus, John says. 

For most folks it would be exceedingly difficult to find it in their heart to be generous in the face of a deep hurt or betrayal from the one they were pledged to love. After all, if it didn’t actually justify retaliation, couldn’t we claim an exemption from serving another? FOOT WASHING

What did Jesus do? John says Jesus washed all the disciples’ feet–even Judas’! Within hours of the meal, Judas had carried out his betrayal of Jesus to the authorities. But so too, within hours, Peter had denied Jesus several times! And within hours, all the rest of the twelve had run away!

Not only were the disciples, to a man, merely human and not divine like Jesus, but each one in turn had shown themselves less than faithful and entirely unworthy. Yet, Jesus loved them, one and all, to the uttermost.

He washed the feet of the betrayer, the denier and the runaways.


What would have stopped others from serving and loving did not stop Jesus. He knew the supreme cost that love would call from him. He knew exactly who he was, but he stooped, nevertheless, to the level of humanity and died in their place on a Roman cross. And he loved against the shocks of human ignorance, ingratitude and hostility.

That kind of love is the pattern we are to imitate. Jesus advised, "now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you." (John 13:14, 15)

That kind of love is the proof of our discipleship. "By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:45)

That kind of love is traceable to its source and therefore a powerful witness to the great Lover of our souls and the Example extraordinaire: "We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19)