13 The basic premise of Jesus’ argument is that the disciples acknowledged him to be their Teacher and Lord. The order is significant. The disciples came to know Jesus first as Teacher (equivalent to Rabbi, the title normally used by Jewish students when addressing their master) and later as Lord. They had been with him in public ministry for almost two years before he asked, “Who do you say that I am?” and Peter answered, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God” (Mt 16:15–16). While it is true that the day will come when every tongue will confess that “Jesus Christ is Lord” (Php 2:11), during his earthly ministry Jesus did not demand the obedience appropriate to lordship from those who had not come to know him first as Teacher. The disciples, however, were correct in acknowledging him as Teacher and Lord because, as Jesus said, “That is what I am.” He was not simply one who had taught them; more important, he was their Lord.
The Suitable Response to Christ’s Love
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (13:12–17)
Having washed the disciples’ feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, Jesus taught them the lesson He wanted them to learn. The theological truths pictured in verses 7–11 (Jesus’ humiliation at His first coming and the once-for-all cleansing of justification versus the daily cleansing of sanctification), though of great importance, are not the main truths the Lord sought to communicate. The primary principle Jesus wanted the disciples to learn was the importance of humble, loving service. That becomes clear because He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” This was a crucial lesson for the disciples, constantly bickering over who was the greatest, to learn. If the Lord of Glory was willing to humble Himself and take on the role of the lowest of slaves, how could the disciples do any less? Jesus had once asked, “Why do you call Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I say?” (Luke 6:46); here He was in effect saying, “Why do you call Me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not follow My example?”
Some argue from this passage that foot washing is an ordinance for the church, along with baptism and the Lord’s Supper (Communion). But Jesus said, “I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you,” not, “what I did to you.” Further, “Wise theologians and expositors have always been reluctant to raise to the level of universal rite something that appears only once in Scripture” (Carson, John, 468). (The only other reference to foot washing, 1 Tim. 5:10, is not in the context of a church rite, but of good deeds performed by individuals.)
To elevate the outward act of foot washing to the status of an ordinance is to minimize the important lesson Jesus was teaching. The Lord gave an example of humility, not of foot washing; His concern was for the inner attitude, not the outward rite. The latter is meaningless apart from the former.
To refuse to follow Jesus’ example of humble service is to pridefully elevate oneself above Him, since a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him (cf. similar sayings in 15:20; Matt. 10:24; Luke 6:40; 22:27). No servant dares to regard any task as beneath him if his master has performed it.
The Lord’s concluding thought, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them,” reflects the biblical truth that blessing flows from obedience. The opening words of the Psalms emphasize that truth:
How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers. (Ps. 1:1–3)
Psalm 119:1 declares, “How blessed are those whose way is blameless, who walk in the law of the Lord” (cf. Ps. 128:1). In Proverbs 16:20 Solomon declared, “He who gives attention to the word will find good, and blessed is he who trusts in the Lord.” “My mother and My brothers,” Jesus declared, “are these who hear the word of God and do it” (Luke 8:21). Later in Luke’s gospel, He affirmed, “Blessed are those who hear the word of God and observe it” (Luke 11:28).
This passage reveals one essential way that believers can obey God and receive His blessing: by following the example of His Son. “The one who says he abides in Him,” John wrote in his first epistle, “ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked” (1 John 2:6). Serving others in the humility of love is imitating Jesus Christ (cf. Phil. 2:5)
Love Exhorted (13:12–17)
SUPPORTING IDEA: Perhaps there exists no act more menial than washing another’s feet, but nothing is beneath a disciple. Did the Savior intend to initiate an ordinance here? Some believe the command to wash the feet of others must be taken literally. But Jesus called us to acts of humble service for other Christians and, as Harry Ironside used to say, “When washing each other’s feet, we should be careful of the temperature of the water.”
13:12–14. The washing not only demonstrated humility and servanthood to the disciples but also laid an experiential foundation for the teaching of verse 10. When the foot-washing ended, Jesus taught an important lesson about the relationship of believers—you also should wash one another’s feet.
As Mother Teresa has shown us, perhaps more than anyone else in the twentieth century, if our teacher and Lord does not hesitate to wash our feet, how can we fail to wash one another’s feet? Certainly there can be no harm in the literal practice of foot-washing, but the symbolism of first-century behavior seems more appropriately replicated in the way we serve people in a variety of ways.
Incidentally, the only other reference to foot-washing appears in 1 Timothy 5:10, so we have scant evidence that the New Testament church actually practiced this as a regular ordinance.
Jesus emphasized the words Teacher and Lord in contrast with the way they had behaved toward him. The Lord reminded them that he washed their feet as their leader. Morris says, “Jesus proceeds to endorse this way of speaking. He commends the disciples, for these expressions point to his true position. But precisely because of this there are implications. His repetition of ‘the Lord and the teacher’ (a reversed order may be significant) emphasizes his dignity. This exalted Person has washed their feet. They ought, therefore, to wash one another’s feet” (Morris, p. 620).
13:15–17. Throughout the New Testament we learn the importance of example, never more so than when Jesus refers to himself. But here we are not focused on some great spiritual reality or doctrinal truth; the passage deals with how we treat other people. As Francis Schaeffer often observed, love is the ultimate mark of the Christian. Since Jesus loved his disciples and loves us in the same way, we need to do for others what he has done for us.
In verse 16 we find John’s only use of the word apostolos, the common New Testament word for “apostle,” here translated as messenger. Interesting that no church office or spiritual gift comes to view here. The context remains one of foot-washing as an example of how Christians treat one another. If we would be Christ’s messengers in any capacity, we must behave toward others the way he behaved toward his disciples.
We receive God’s joy by acting on the principles of conduct that Jesus taught. First we ought to pray, “Lord, wash me”; then we need to pray, “Lord, help me wash others.” And let us not forget that the word blessed can also be translated “happy.” We can be happy as Christians by acting on the principles of these verses, conducting our lives in such a way that we forgive, serve, and love the brothers and sisters in Christ. When we avoid criticism, complaining, and conflict, harmony and unity gain strength in the body.
Hughes calls this kind of behavior, “ ‘people of the towel’: When Jesus said, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’ he might have added, ‘and do you know who you are, as heirs to the towel?’ The power, the impetus, and the grace to wash one another’s feet is proportionate to how we see ourselves. Our Lord saw Himself as King of kings, and He washed their feet. Recovery of a consciousness that we serve Christ the King will also compel us to service” (Hughes, p. 38).
12–15. So when he had washed their feet, had taken his garments, and had resumed his place, he said to them, Do you know what I have done to you? you call me Teacher and Lord, and you say (this) correctly, for (that is what) I am. If, therefore, I your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash each other’s feet, for I have given you an example, in order that just as I did to you so also you should do.
Peter’s objection having been answered, Jesus finished washing his feet, and then the feet of the others until the entire task was done. Then the Lord redressed and resumed his place at the table.
In order to understand what follows it must be borne in mind that the feet-washing was a. an essential element in Christ’s humiliation; b. a symbol of that humiliation (the water that washed away physical filth was a true symbol of Christ’s suffering during his entire life on earth and especially on the cross, whereby he not only atones for the guilt of his people but also merits for them the sanctifying work of the Holy Spirit); and c. a lesson in humility; in other words, an example.
Ideas a. and b. are very closely related. With respect to them Jesus has already told Peter that he would understand hereafter, not now. Nevertheless, Jesus had prepared his mind—and the minds of the others—by saying to him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
But even though the disciples were able, at this moment, to catch but a glimpse of the deep meaning that was wrapped up in the feet-washing, the moral has instantaneous significance for them. How they needed the lesson (item c. above) which Jesus meant to teach them by means of this act! Bear in mind Luke 22:24!
So Jesus said to his disciples: “Do you know what I have done to you?” Do you grasp the positive, practical teaching which I have just now imparted to you?—Note that the Lord does not scold these men. He does not say, “Shame on you! You should have washed each other’s feet instead of waiting for me to do it.” This rebuke is certainly implied in the exhortation, but the words of Jesus go much farther. He is never satisfied with being merely negative. It is as if he were saying, “The past was bad enough; we shall say nothing further about that; for the future, copy my example.” The implied rebuke, concealed in words of loving, positive exhortation, often does more good than the expressed reprimand. In this positive atmosphere Jesus continues:
“You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say (this) correctly, for (that is what) I am,”
Indeed, the disciples were right in addressing Jesus as Teacher (ὁ διδάσκαλε, probably to be regarded as a translation of the Aramaic Rabbi; as 1:38 seems to indicate), for his teaching “with authority and not as the scribes” was the greatest that was ever heard on earth. Also they were right in addressing him as Lord (ὁ κύριος); and the deeper the meaning they poured into this concept, the more right they were. He was, indeed, the owner of all things (see on 13:1, 3); moreover, he was equal in essence and authority with God, the Father. See Vol. I, p. 103, footnote , for the gradual displacement of Rabbi by Lord. And see on 12:21.
When Jesus adds, “You say (this) correctly, for (that is what) I am,” he is making a statement that is entirely in line with his great declaration in 10:30: “I and the Father, we are one.” Those who claim that Jesus never represented himself as the rightful object of worship are clearly wrong. See also on 1:7, 8.
Now comes the application. It is an argument from the greater to the lesser: “If, therefore, I, your Lord and Teacher—the terms are reversed now, for it is especially as Lord that Jesus can claim the right to obedience—have washed your feet (and the very form of the conditional sentence indicates that this act is here rightly assumed to have actually occurred), you also constantly (present tense) ought to wash each other’s feet.” Surely, if the Lord of glory is willing to be “girded around” with a towel, having taken the form of a servant, actually washing and drying the feet of those who are so very far below him, it ought to be easy for mere disciples to render loving service to one another in the spirit of genuine humility! Note the emphatic position of the pronouns in the original. We have tried to preserve something of the flavor of the original by using italics.
Is Jesus instituting a new ordinance here, that of feet-washing? No, he is not commanding the disciples to do what (ὁ) he has done; but he has given them an example in order that they, of their own accord, may do as (καθώς) he has done. Hence, significantly he adds: “For I have given you an example (ὑπόδειγμα here only in John, but found also in Heb. 4:11; 8:5; 9:26; James 5:10; and 2 Peter 2:6), in order that just as I did to you so also you should constantly do.” Jesus has shown (cf. the verb δείκνυμι) his humility under (ὑπό) their very eyes (hence, ὑπόδειγμα).
But although no sacrament has been instituted to be literally copied this does not remove the fact that under certain conditions those who may wish to show their hospitality in this manner are doing the proper thing (cf. 1 Tim. 5:10). It should, however, be stressed that what Jesus had in mind was not an outward rite but an inner attitude, that of humility and eagerness to serve.
16. Most solemnly do I assure you, the servant is not greater than his lord, neither is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.
For the words of solemn introduction see on 1:51. In all probability Jesus added these words in order to prevent anyone from saying: “It is below my dignity to wash the feet of another believer.” If it was not below the dignity of the Lord, it surely should not be considered below the dignity of the “servant.” This remains true even then when the servant is sent or divinely commissioned to function in a high office or to carry out an important task in the Church. If humility is the proper attitude for the Lord and Sender, how unremittingly should not the servant and commissioned individual exercise himself in this grace and grow in it. See also 15:20; Matt. 10:24; Luke 6:40; 22:27.
17. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
See what has been said about this verse above, in footnote . The words of Jesus are very clear. Faith without works is dead. See also Matt. 7:17, 24–27; 11:30; 1 Cor. 4:20; and James 1:22–27; 2:14–26. It must not escape us that we have here not a commandment but a very loving and tender declaration. It has been called a promise, but it is even more than that. It is the statement of a fact: the practice of humility imparts blessedness. When Jesus says, “If you know these things,” etc., he means, according to the context, “If you know that a. he who is Lord and Teacher is willing to minister to the needs of those who are his subjects and pupils, even though in doing so he has to stoop very low; and if you know that b. all the more, those who were thus benefited should be willing to serve one another in humility of spirit; if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
The term blessed (μακάριοι) does not necessarily refer to those who are considered happy by others; nor even primarily to those who consider themselves happy, but to those who are indeed the objects of God’s favor, whether or not they are considered such by other men or even by themselves. The blessed ones may be poor and may even be mourning (cf. Matt. 5:1–12, The Beatitudes). The blessedness here spoken of is a matter not (at least, not primarily) of feeling, but of inner spiritual condition or state. The Christian who practises humility possesses this felicity whether he is at all times conscious of it or not. Before God, in his eyes, he is blessed. The Aramaic word which Jesus probably employed both here in 13:17 (see also 20:29) and in The Beatitudes (also in several other New Testament passages) resembles the Hebrew word found in many passages of the Psalms (1:1; 2:12; 31:1; 32:2; 33:12; 34:8; 40:4; 41:4; etc.). It means superlatively blessed, most blessed. It is true, of course, that the smile of God which is upon such a person who is constantly doing these things (note present continuative tense), so that humility is of the very essence of his character, will sooner or later be reflected in his heart, so that he will possess the peace of God which passes all understanding.
 Mounce, R. H. (2007). John. In T. Longman III & D. E. Garland (Eds.), The Expositor’s Bible Commentary: Luke–Acts (Revised Edition) (Vol. 10, pp. 548–549). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (2008). John 12–21 (pp. 68–69). Chicago, IL: Moody Publishers.
 Gangel, K. O. (2000). John (Vol. 4, pp. 251–252). Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers.
 Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953–2001). Exposition of the Gospel According to John (Vol. 2, pp. 234–237). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.