What Was So Important About Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet?

Denise Larson Cooper

Updated Apr 11, 2022
What Was So Important About Jesus Washing the Disciples' Feet?

When the New Testament says that Jesus washes his disciple's feet, something very important was happening. It was more than an act of service: it signified what Jesus was preparing his disciples for.

As a gymnastics coach, I spend many hours a day focused on my gymnasts' feet. These athletes need strong feet for the tumbling and dance elements in the floor and beam routines, to run for vault and bars. A gymnast relies on her feet to convey not only power but also grace and beauty. Since much of my gym work revolves around feet, one of the Scriptures that has intrigued me—during Lent especially—is John 13, where Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. This story presents the Last Supper, the focus of Maundy Thursday worship. Traditional churches will include foot washing as a ritual in the Maundy Thursday liturgy.

I find this service a bit uncomfortable. Like Peter, I resist letting anyone wash my feet. I usually slink into my pew and wait for it to end. However, Jesus shows no squeamishness: He performs this ceremonial washing of His disciples’ feet with a solemn purpose. Jesus’ determination made me want to explore the Scripture more deeply.

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Why Was Washing Feet Important in Jesus' Day?

In the Old Testament, priests performed and received ceremonial foot washings before they entered the temple for worship. Foot washing was a serious matter: a basin for foot washing would have been placed between the Tent of Meeting and the altar so Aaron and his sons could wash before entering the Tent of Meeting, “Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die” (Exodus 30:20). Disregarding the ritual cleansing meant death to a priest.

In John 13:4-5, Jesus “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” Jesus has placed the basin between the disciples and the altar, His cross. Through His death and His resurrection, Jesus makes holy all who come to the cross through the power of the Holy Spirit. Through Christ’s atoning work on the cross the disciples and all believers are made holy and righteous before God and then set apart for service in His body, the Church, a holy priesthood of believers. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet to purify and cleanse them for their service to God: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8).

Jesus anoints the disciples for their new role as priests in the new temple that God will raise up. Jesus ordains them so they can serve His church when He leaves this world, returning to the Father. Through the act of purification, Jesus imparts His holiness to the disciples so they will be set apart from the world even though they will remain in the world. Jesus teaches his disciples that His holiness, salvation, and purity will all come through Him and His suffering.

What Does Jesus Show When He Washes the Disciples' Feet?

Through this simple act of foot washing, Jesus demonstrates to His disciples His eternal role as God’s High Priest and Mediator and their part in the priesthood. Even though He must suffer and die, the disciples can by faith be certain that He will never leave them or forsake them. 

Scripture says, “During the days of Jesus’ life on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions with loud cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission. Although he was a son, he learned obedience from what he suffered and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him and was designated by God to be high priest in the order of Melchizedek (Hebrews 5:7-10). 

Jesus is the High Priest of Heaven. Through the foot washing, He ordained His disciples to be priests of the church in the world. He will offer up prayers on their behalf, “he always lives to intercede for them” (Hebrews 7:25), and will empower them through the Holy Spirit to perform their priestly duties to the glory of God. 

Who Does Jesus Call to Be A Priest?

Through the atoning work of the cross, the sinner is saved and the Church increased in the world. The Holy Spirit draws the sinner to the altar, Christ’s cross, and his heart is cleansed and purified through the sacrifice of God’s perfect Lamb. The sinner is washed in the waters of baptism. The old creature is crucified with Christ, and the new man is regenerated by the living waters of the Word and dedicated to God’s service through the power of the Holy Spirit.

Each saved sinner is called to the Church to be a priest in the “kingdom of priests” (Exodus 19:6) and part of God’s “holy nation” (Exodus 19:6) on earth. As such, the new believer discards the clothing of the old man, and these new priests receive the sacred garments of righteousness, godliness, and holiness through Christ. 

All priests clothed themselves in sacred garments when ministering before God and serving man. According to Exodus, these garments include “a breast piece, an ephod, a robe, a woven tunic, a turban and a sash.” (28:4). Now clothed in Christ, the priests of His Church receive a breast piece of truth, an ephod of salvation, a robe of righteousness, a woven tunic of peace, a turban of redemption, and a sash of faith. (Ephesians 6:14-17) They wear priestly vestments while making sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God and offering prayers and petitions to God. They must wear these whenever they proclaim the Gospel of Christ so all men will know that God sent His only begotten Son into the world to love the world and save the world through Him. These garments are to be worn whenever and wherever God calls the church to minister in the world until the day of her triumph. On that day, the Church will remove the priestly garments of service and wear the radiant raiment of the resurrection. Jesus, the High Priest of God, condescended to earth, to ordain and consecrate His disciples to be the Church in the world. When the members, the priests of Christ, gather for worship they celebrate the washing with water and the Word, give thanks for the atonement of Christ’s holy work on the cross, and look forward to the day of triumph in the resurrection. 

“But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (1 Peter 2:9-10).

Denise Larson Cooper has a passion for Christ and sharing His Word. She is an avid walker and spends many hours in the great outdoors admiring God’s creation. She also enjoys photography, leads small group Bible studies and invests the Gospel in all she does. Denise graduated with a Masters of Divinity from Asbury Theological Seminary and worked ten years of inner-city ministry in Rochester, New York. A wife and mother of two daughters, Denise currently works as a gymnastic coach. For Daily Devotionals from Denise, follow her on Facebook.

Photo credit: ©iStock/Getty Images/Rudzhan Nagiev