What Washing Each Other’s Feet Really Means

“Jesus 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 13:5

In John’s beloved account of Jesus’ last moments with his disciples, he records the famous passage where Jesus shows his humility by stooping down and washing each of his disciple’s feet. His lesson was clear and simple: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet..”

And for this reason, the church thereafter uses this as a model to teach how believers should act towards one another. Some churches have even gone so far as to institute the washing of feet as one of the sacraments practiced by the church. This is probably nothing new for you.

But allow me to challenge us to be challenged by this passage afresh.

Part of the shortcomings in fully understanding this passage in its entirety is the fact that this act of Jesus is lost from its cultural context. What we have in our teachings is a 21st century mentality looking into the Bible, and so it always falls short.

It is not surprising then to find that over the years, the church has romanticized this account, seeing the washing of the feet as a “beautiful” thing. We have these beautiful pictures and paintings of Jesus washing his disciple’s feet; he’s clean, he’s pristine, he’s postured, his disciples’ feet are clean, etc… (just like the picture above)

Yet what we forget about the initial impression of this passage to its first century audience, and subsequently our application of it, is that Jesus’ action was not really beautiful. It was not even humbling, it was humiliating.

Washing one’s feet was a job reserved for slaves. It was a dirty job because feet were dirty. And feet were dirty because the roads were dirty- really dirty. And to bend down until you are eye level with your disciple’s knees, take off your garment like a slave, and then proceed to wash the dirt off their feet was quite humbling, humiliating, and servant-like. Have you seen portraits or paintings that properly reflect the ‘dirtiness’ of the scene? I have not.

What then is Jesus trying to teach us?

Well, of course the same thing I suggested earlier- that we should, in turn, “wash each other’s feet” as well. But since washing each other’s feet has absolutely no cultural footing in our understanding, allow me to suggest a similar example that would perhaps cause us to understand the depth of Jesus’ action.

When I think of Jesus’ command for me to wash other Christian’s feet, I think about whether or not I would be willing to go to a brother or sister’s house, go to their washroom, and clean their toilet.

It is dirty, it is humbling, it is humiliating, it is servant-like.

For me, that’s what I think about when Jesus instructs us to be the least amongst us. I think of the most dishonorable thing that people do, and in love, do it for them. I think that we show that we really love each other when we show that we do not only the things we like doing for them, but we do the things for them that we wouldn’t even want to do for ourselves.

I think that considering ourselves truly less than others, as Philippians 2 instructs us, means not just intellectually weighing how that works out, but is done by actualizing it in the way we act towards each other. And for me, there’s nothing more humbling than to take a dirty brush, enter your brother or sister’s dirty bathroom, and to wash a dirty toilet as an act of service towards them.

Have you ever tried it? Going to a Christian’s house and washing their toilet? I can almost guarantee that it will bring you to tears. It will bring you to tears when you finally see how low your God bent and therefore how low we should bend towards each other.

And that’s what I think it means to truly wash each other’s feet.

Posted by Phillip Chan

Phil has been writing in the Black Box for 10 years. His passion is to grow in his love for Jesus to obey his purposes in our generation.

7 comments

  1. Holly

    You truly captured God's love for us in His act of humility. I have forgotten it. Thanks, Phil.

  2. Hannah

    Thanks for writings & posting this, bro!

  3. GS Kern

    This is MOST excellent. The best thing I’ve ever read on what washing one another’s feet really means in today’s terms. The only thing I would change is the part about thinking less of ourselves than others; I think the Phillipians passage — and others like it — is to think of other people MORE than, or AHEAD of, ourselves. That approach preserves the call to love that one person I call my Self while still loving other Selves in a truly Humble way. God comes first, Others come next, and I am third. Thank you so much for this post!

  4. Alexandra

    I regularly clean people’s toilets when I visit their homes. I don’t tell them either before or after. If it needs to be done, I just do it. Usually, if the person finds out, they feel humiliated. But I’m happy to do it for them.

  5. Marvin Billingsley

    I think my washing another person’s feet the bottoms of your feet is where all the impurities of your body passes through your body for washing all this out of your body cleanse your body your body from disease

  6. Lorre Hopkins

    I think the meaning is related more to our sin. Jesus cleanses us from sin but our daily walk in the world gets us dirty. It is about the dirt that we pick up daily. Peter wanted Jesus to wash his whole body but Jesus told him he was already clean. I think washing each other’s feet because Jesus washes ours is symbolic of us helping each other with the sins that so easily beset us. And also forgiveness. As Christians we are already cleansed by Jesus (our whole body) but we need to have our daily sins (our feet that picks up dirt) cleansed too. We don’t need to be saved again (a whole bath) but we need to remove the daily dirt we pick up. And help others to remove theirs. That’s why forgiving others is so important.

  7. Michaela Mortimer

    That applies to the African Americans or all blacks world wide, they are seen as the lowest and dirtiest of all race’s. Start with them seeing them as equal to you and all they want is an apology from the white race that’s it and to be apart of this world as Children of the true GOD. Jesus could have not explain that any more better than that. The African black are very angry and still angry, very defensive because things are still happening to then as we speak right now, It is ridicules. start by praying first then washing their feet with and apology pubically for the ancestors and let them verbally vent because they will not easily believe your serious. Trust me they are a forgiving people I know because they talk about how they really don’t want to be seeing whites suffer In case you don’t know!!! Most of them only want some one who cares.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.