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Twelve Pairs of Dirty Feet

by Stephen Davey Scripture Reference: Matthew 26:17–20; Mark 14:12–17; Luke 22:24–30; John 13:1–20

Serving Jesus Christ means serving others as He serves us. That requires humility and selflessness, but it always results in true, spiritual happiness.


As we begin this Wisdom Journey, the Lord Jesus is now preparing for a final meal with His disciples. Luke’s Gospel, in chapter 22, tells us, sadly, what happens as the disciples gather in an upper room:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest [or the least], and the leader as one who serves.” (verses 24-26)

Can you imagine how Jesus must feel—just hours away from His arrest and suffering? He has poured His life into these men to model humility, and they are fixated on who is going to be in the spotlight.

Jesus patiently continues teaching them in verse 27:

“For who is the greater [by worldly standards], one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.”

He then reminds them that they will sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel in the coming kingdom. Frankly, I would be looking for twelve new disciples!

John 13 picks up the narrative at this point and records what Jesus does next:

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. (verses 3-4)

In these days, roads were dusty, and sandals were common. A large waterpot was typically placed at the entrance of a house, and a household servant would arrive with a ladle and a towel to wash the dirty feet of the guests as they came in.

When people ate, they reclined on a simple mat on the floor, propping themselves up with an elbow, facing a low, rectangular, wooden table. If their feet were dirty, everybody knew it. But there is no household servant anywhere in this picture.

And not any of the disciples are volunteering! But we are told in verse 5, to the shock of the disciples, “[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.”

In case they were wondering why, He plainly tells them:

“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.” (verses 13-14)

Now some wonderful Christians would say here that Jesus is instituting another ordinance of the church—that we ought to wash one another’s feet. But the Lord is not giving them a mandate; He is giving them a model. This is not an ordinance; this is an object lesson. He clearly says in verse 15, “I have given you an example.” In other words, there are a thousand ways to be a servant-leader—to humbly serve other people.

I imagine you could have heard a pin drop in this upper room. No doubt, eyes turned down in shame as they saw their Lord and Master playing the role of servant in washing their dirty feet. And by the way, this included Judas Iscariot. I would have pinched his toes instead of washing his feet!

When the Lord arrives at Peter’s feet, Peter pulls them away and says, “You shall never wash my feet” (verse 8). In the original language Peter uses the double negative ou mē, which is a way of emphasizing the negative. He is saying, “Lord, there is absolutely no way in the world you are going to wash my feet!”

Jesus says to him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” The word translated “share” here refers to fellowship. The Lord is telling him, “If I don’t wash you, you cannot have fellowship with Me.”

In verse 9 Peter essentially says, “Well then, give me a full bath—feet, hands, and head as well.” Jesus responds in verse 10, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”

The Lord is referring to two different baths. One is the bath of regeneration. This is salvation—where you are totally cleansed, once and for all, from the penalty of sin. You only need this bath one time. As Paul wrote in Titus 3:5, “He saved us . . . by the washing of regeneration.”

Then there is another bath we will call the bath of restoration. This is restored fellowship that comes when the believer confesses his daily sin. David prayed for this in Psalm 51:7: “Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” The bath of regeneration gets you into the family of God. The bath of restoration keeps you in fellowship with God.

You might have noticed Jesus says that not every one of them has been cleaned, or redeemed.” And this is a reference to Judas—he has never been saved. Let me tell you, there are many people who you would think are part of the family of God, but inwardly, secretly, they are not interested in Jesus at all. They have never had the bath of regeneration, which comes through faith in Jesus Christ. This scene sends a message that just because you are familiar with Jesus does not mean you are a part of His family. So, if you are an unbeliever today, here is the message: give your heart and your life to Christ.

There are two messages here for the believer. First, you cannot have fellowship with Christ if you have dirty feet. Dirty feet here represent a lack of fellowship because of sin that has broken that close relationship with your Lord. You need to confess it; and frankly, your feet are going to get dirty every day. So daily confess your sin, and keep that fellowship with the Lord fresh and clean.

Here is the second message: Serve others as Christ did, and you will experience a unique happiness in Him. Jesus says in verse 17, “If you know these things, blessed [happy] are you if you do them.” Spiritual happiness is not the result of information but application. Roll up your sleeves, and wrap the towel around your waist, and wash a few feet; and you will experience satisfaction and happiness in the Lord.

Jesus refers to Judas in verse 18, saying, “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” Yet Jesus washes his feet too.  

What a convicting example. I tend to wash the feet of somebody who is going to wash my feet in return. The truth is, if we will wash the feet of only those who will return our acts of service with appreciation, we might never serve anybody. Many Christians today will not wash anybody’s feet, so to speak, because it does not offer them anything in return.

Think about this upper room scene: Jesus washed all twelve pairs of dirty feet. What was their response? They can’t wait to sit on their own throne in the kingdom. Thomas is still going to doubt Him, Judas will still betray Him, and Peter will still deny Him. In fact, they will all run away from Him in a matter of hours. But He washed their feet anyway.

Notice that we are not told if Jesus had His feet washed that night. Did somebody volunteer? I would guess that after this lesson was over, the disciples crowded around their beloved Master and all took part in demonstrating their humble service in washing His feet.

But we do know this: all but one of these disciples devoted their lives—to their dying breath—to modeling the servant leadership they learned about this night in the upper room.

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