Why Did Jesus Wash the Feet of His Disciples?

Jesus spent one evening of his final week, Holy Week, washing the feet of his disciples. Why did he do this and what did it mean? How is it significant in the story of Easter?

Contributing Writer
Updated Mar 15, 2024
Why Did Jesus Wash the Feet of His Disciples?

The story of Jesus kneeling to the floor during the Last Supper to gently wash the feet of his disciples so they could comfortably dine together is one of the most profound pictures of our Savior’s heart of love for us! Jesus cared so very much about the details of his followers' lives! He was willing to get messy to reach, teach, and show undeserved love to his ragtag group of disciples. This was true during Holy Week and is still true today! Discover what we can learn from the story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet at Passover, read the passage from Scripture, and learn the significance of this event leading to Easter.

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Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet: Table of Contents

The Story of Jesus Washing Feet

The story of Jesus washing his disciples' feet is recorded in John 13:1-17. This event occurred in the upper room during the Last Supper. In the biblical account, we read that when Jesus’ disciples arrived at a special gathering Jesus took the role of the servant of the house and humbly began washing each of his disciples' feet. This gathering would later come to be known as the Last Supper. It was the last time Jesus and his disciples broke bread together before his death on the cross. It was during this meal that Jesus took the first communion with the disciples and also identified Judas as his betrayer.

John 13:1-17

Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 

Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet,[a] but is completely clean. And you[b] are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant[c] is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Meaning of Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet

Feet washing was a necessary custom during this time period when gathering to have a communal meal. The men would have come in with their feet dust-covered and dirty from the roads. Cleaning of the feet would have been necessary because the group would have likely been reclining together at a low table and dirty feet would not be welcomed so close to their food. It was the servant of a household's job to wash the feet of incoming guests.

Hebrew Meaning of Washing Feet

In Hebrew culture, washing feet is a ritual of hospitality and humility, deeply embedded in the customs of their time. This act is mentioned several times in the Bible, symbolizing servitude, respect, purification, and preparation.

In a literal sense, the practice arose from the practical necessity of cleaning the feet from dust and dirt accumulated from traveling on unpaved roads in sandals. Guests would be offered water to wash their feet upon entering a home, sometimes performed by the host themselves or a servant, as a sign of welcome and care.

Why Jesus Washed Their Feet and its Significance

Jesus washing the feet of his disciples came with so much significance for both his disciples in this intimate moment and for all Christians who strive to follow Jesus’ example and teachings. This selfless act displayed Jesus’ amazing humility! He took the role of a servant to wash the dusty and dirt-covered feet of his disciples. Jesus was setting an incredible example of what it is to be “Christ-like” through his humble actions. Status, pride, or even dirt did not stop him from rolling up his sleeves to serve the men who had been at his side throughout the duration of his ministry.

Prior to this encounter, the disciples had been fighting amongst themselves trying to determine who was the “greatest” among them (Luke 22:24). Jesus was in a very hands-on way showing them that in his Kingdom the last shall be first and the first shall be last (Matthew 20:16). Jesus even prompts his disciples to show the same heart of service for each other (John 13:15). He is clear that servanthood is essential to what it means to be his follower.

What Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet Symbolizes

This washing is symbolic of the cleansing power of the blood of Jesus to wash away our sins. Peter objects to Jesus' actions but then Jesus rebukes him by saying that unless he washed him, Peter had no part in him (John 13:8). Peter then in a display of passion for the Lord asks him to then wash him from head to toe! Jesus explains that Peter does not need to be washed from head to toe because his actions were symbolic of the cleansing power that being a Christ-follower has in our lives (John 13:10). Once washed by the blood of a lamb you are free from the stains of sin! No repeat washing is necessary.

3 Lessons from Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet

1. God’s Kingdom Works In Reverse Order

Matthew 18:4 says, “Therefore, whoever takes the lowly position of this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” Humility, trust, simplicity, joy, full of wonder, and playfulness are all words that could be used to characterize children. In Jesus’ Kingdom what seems logical to adults oftentimes goes against the way God works. Jesus calls the last to be first (Matthew 20:16). His Word prompts us to serve one another in love (Galatians 5:13). The Bible teaches us to humble ourselves before the Lord (James 4:10). In Matthew 5:38-40, Jesus teaches that when we are wronged not to fight back but to offer our offenders more of ourselves!

All of these ideas go against everything that seems logical, right, or justified in our world! We live in a world where pride, greed, and ambition rule our systems. Money talks, looking out for yourself is prized, and caring for those who are hurt so you can get ahead is not often considered. Jesus intentionally sets an example of how we are to live as his followers through his actions at the Last Supper. He makes it clear that we are called to be the feet washers of our community. Our mission as Believers is to be those who love beyond reason every chance we get.

2. Jesus Washes Us Clean

Isaiah 1:18 says, “Come now, let us reason together, says the Lord: though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool.” The prophet foretold of the cleansing power of Jesus years before Jesus physically walked the earth. His followers would have seen the feet washing and the breaking of bread and sharing of wine at the first communion that happened at the Last Supper as symbolic of Jesus’ cleansing power. When we bring our sins to the Lord he is willing and able to wash us clean. All Jesus did led up to the work of the cross, where he took the weight of our sins onto himself, so we could be forgiven. Don’t be ashamed of your “dirty feet” bring all that you are to the Lord and he is willing and able to set you free.

3. Jesus Was Not What the World Expected

Peter was shocked by Jesus’ actions and asked him to stop because in his mind his king and Savior wouldn’t stoop to the level of a feet-washing-servant. Jesus was not what the world expected. They were looking for a political liberator, someone who would help restore power to the Jewish people, and they thought their Messiah would be powerful in the same way the world measures power. Jesus was full of heavenly ability and did many miracles but he never strove for a place of worldly power or influence.

Jesus rebuked the Pharisees (Matthew 23), avoided political confrontation (John 18:10-11), and took the posture of a servant throughout his ministry. Meanwhile, his disciples were concerned about who would get the best seat in Heaven next to Jesus. It wasn’t until Jesus' death and resurrection that the full picture of Jesus as a Messiah as their foretold Savior was fully understood because while on Earth he never did as they were expecting.

When we think of what it means to be a Christ-Follower do our expectations line up with the example of Jesus? It is easy to put God in a box, thinking he should work in ways that make sense to our worldly sensibilities. The Bible reminds us that God rarely plays by our rules. Jesus came to show us what the Kingdom of Heaven is so we could become a part of it. Spending time reading the Gospels and studying who he was is a great way to remind ourselves of all the ways Jesus is never what we expect but, in every way, better than our expectations.

Photo credit: ©GettyImages/carlosphotos

Amanda Idleman is a writer whose passion is to encourage others to live joyfully. She writes devotions for My Daily Bible Verse Devotional and Podcast, Crosswalk Couples Devotional, the Daily Devotional App, she has work published with Her View from Home, on the MOPS Blog, and is a regular contributor for Crosswalk.com. She has most recently published a devotional, Comfort: A 30 Day Devotional Exploring God's Heart of Love for Mommas. You can find out more about Amanda on her Facebook Page or follow her on Instagram.

Learn more about the meaning and significance behind the Easter holiday and Holy Week celebrations:

What is Lent? and When Does Lent Start?
What is Ash Wednesday? and When is Ash Wednesday?
What is Palm Sunday?
What is Maundy Thursday?
What is Good Friday? and When is Good Friday?
What is Holy Saturday?

What is Easter? and When is Easter Sunday?
Easter Bible Verses
The Resurrection of Jesus 
Easter Prayers


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