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!” (John 13:8–9)
The response was both indefensible and yet somehow reasonable — outrageous, and yet fitting. If the apostle Peter had learned anything from walking with Jesus, it should have been to never challenge or refuse Jesus. Even the waves obeyed him. How dare a mere man deny him.
And yet he did. As Jesus kneeled down to wash the disciples’ dirty feet, Peter refused. “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8). Never.
Knowing what we know now, it’s easy to look down on Peter. Couldn’t he see what was happening? Didn’t he know whom he was speaking to? His response, however, suggests he saw more than we might think — perhaps more than even we have seen yet.
Why Jesus Should Never Wash Feet
From the very first words, the Gospel of John has prepared us for the surprising scandal of this moment.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. (John 1:1–3)
And that Word became flesh and dwelt among us (John 1:14) — and that Word was now kneeling beside Peter’s unwashed feet. The God who combined hydrogen and oxygen to invent water now poured that water into a basin and wrapped a towel around his waist. The God who made man from dust now planted his knees in that dust. The God who intricately designed and joined each of the 23 bones in the human foot now reached down to clean one. No one was worthy to untie the strap of his sandal (John 1:27), and yet he stooped that low and more for his disciples.
Peter knew who was kneeling before him. Jesus had asked him, “Who do you say that I am?” And Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:16). To see the Son of the living God wrapped in flesh and blood was nearly inconceivable. To see him now wrapped in a towel and on his knees was just too much. This isn’t right! Can you really blame him?
Why Jesus Did Wash Feet
It’s hard to blame Peter for withholding his unclean feet from the sovereign and eternal Word of God, and yet that same Word immediately rebuked Peter. “Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me’” (John 13:8). Has any rebuke been filled with more mercy and hope? I’m kneeling down, Peter, to tell you that, in me, you can be clean — if you’ll humble yourself and be washed.
For Jesus to save those who had rejected and betrayed him, he would have to be humiliated in their place. To have those he had chosen and loved, he would have to humble himself “to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:8). The offense of him touching dirty feet would pale next to what he was about to suffer. He kneeled down that night to teach them what love really is and does. “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins” (1 John 4:10).
After he washed their feet, he said the same to them: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). There would be no cleansing without kneeling, without disgrace, without blood. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8). Then not just my feet, Jesus, but my hands and head too — wash allof me. Drench me in this love and mercy.
Why We Should Wash Feet
Jesus did not kneel down, however, only to tell his disciples what he was about to do, but also to tell them what he wanted them to do. “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” (John 13:14–15). If the Word — the Word who was with God and who was God — can kneel down to wash your feet, how much more ready should you be to turn and wash another’s foot? Look what Love has done for you. Now let that love overflow through you.
Why would Jesus lead and leave this way? Why recruit and train a small army of foot-washers? “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). Because stooping down to wash feet stands out in a selfish world. Unusual love reveals supernatural love. So, love one another.
And, to be clear, washing feet doesn’t mean sacrificing happiness. “If you know these things,” Jesus says, “blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17). The happiest people in the world have found their happiness on their knees — and so will you.