Jewish culture in Christ’s time did not allow Jews to wash the feet of others. This passage often portrays Jesus as a servant. But it also shows Jesus crossing the lines of race and breaking the bonds of racism.
Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet
It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he 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.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”John 13:1-8 (NIV)
Jewish Culture Concerning Servitude
In the days of Jesus, the streets of the cities were narrow, animals were the main form of transportation, sewers ran along the sides of the streets, and people wore sandals. It is unimaginable how filthy feet became throughout the day. Washing the feet of guests was a necessity. It was also the lowest form of servitude. It was not only dust being washed from feet.
Imagine a little child with dust-covered feet. You wash his feet and tickle his toes. This happens every day until your child starts playing in the horse barn. His filthy feet come into your home filled with dirt, mud, manure, and minuscule little parasites you can’t see. And they stank! What do you say? “Get your feet in the tub and scrub those nasties!” Gone are the days of washing dust off of cute little toes. Jewish culture didn’t have “cute little toes” days. The streets were as filthy as a horse barn.
Jewish culture in Jesus’ time did not allow Jews to wash the feet of others, because the filth was below them. Only gentiles (any nationality that wasn’t Jewish) were to wash feet. So, this passage often portrays Jesus as a servant. Which is true. Jesus laid down His rights as God, as the Son of God, and His cultural position as a Jew to wash the feet of others, with other ethnic and cultural backgrounds. Jesus did not see race or position. He acted as a servant. Jesus crossed the lines of race and broke the bonds of racism.
Who Was Jesus by Ethnicity and Region?
Jesus was a Jew (Matthew 1 and Luke 3). Jesus was from the tribe of Judah (Genesis 49:10 and Hebrews 7:14). He was a Nazarene (Matthew 2:23). Nazarenes lived in Nazareth, of lower Galilee. So, Jesus was also a Galilean. While Jesus filled the context of being a Jew, He also set the framework of an ethnically and regionally diverse man. One more thing, Jesus was rejected by His own people (John 1:11).
Jesus was from Galilea, a region of Kadesh, which was considered a city of refuge. Non-Jews lived in Galilea including Phoenicians, Syrians, and Sidonians (Matthew 4:16). This potpourri of people even had their own dialect (Mark 14:70). Jews hated the gentiles from these locations (John 7:52).
The twelve disciples were men of different regions and cultures. Some were fishermen, some zealots. Others were tax collectors and a greek speaking doctor. This group of misfits came from the lowest of jobs to the upper echelons.
Jesus, a Jew from an ethnically integrated society, by washing the feet of His disciples, broke the bonds of racism. Jesus knelt. He provided a service that was beneath Him. And Jesus did it to show all people are the same. In Jesus’ eyes, no person’s race, job, education, or region mattered. Jesus, God of the universe, served every race.