Jesus provides a teaching to his disciples in John 13:1-17 (ESV).
1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 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, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “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.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
Consider the historical social and religious context of the traditional Passover service. During a traditional Passover meal, a bowl of water is used to wash one’s hands before eating the bitter herbs, and again before making the blessing over the matzahs. But what Jesus did here with his disciples was never a part of the traditional Passover service of his time.
However, it was customary for a host to give his guests water for washing their feet. It was also customary to wash one’s feet before meals and before going to bed.
Genesis 18:1-6 ESV
1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.”
Genesis 19:1, 2a ESV
1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth 2 and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant's house and spend the night and wash your feet.
Luke 7:44, 45 ESV
44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.
Notice that neither Abraham nor Lot offered to wash the feet of their guests, nor did they have a servant do so. Jesus didn't tell Simon that he should have offered to wash Jesus' feet.
Dan Fefferman provides this reference to the Babylonian Talmud in his excellent answer to Was the use of the woman's hair to clean Jesus' feet considered an indecent act (Luke 7:36-50)?:
Foot-washing was a service which the wife was expected to render her husband (Yer. Ket. v. 30a); according to Rab Huna, it was one of the personal attentions to which her husband was entitled, no matter how many maids she may have had; likewise, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Ket. 61a), besides preparing his drink and bed, the wife had to wash her husband's face and feet (comp. Maimonides, "Yad," Ishut, xxi. 3; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 80, 4).
Thus in John 13, Jesus demonstrated something to his disciples during the Passover meal to make a point. Here are four ways that we can interpret his actions. They are not necessarily exclusive of each other.
If Jesus demonstrated that he came to earth as a humble servant, then how much more should his disciples do so as well? This is a kal v’chomer argument.
Ritual foot washing is instituted as a mandatory practice. Jesus insists that he must wash his disciples’ feet, but only their feet because they are already bathed. This ritual can be interpreted as a symbol of God’s ongoing forgiveness after baptism.
Disciples are expected to serve each other: the stronger disciple in the faith acts as a servant to the weaker one in the Kingdom of God as Jesus himself demonstrated.
Interpreting the imagery that Jesus presented, it seems that Jesus is also addressing our attitude toward sins we commit after baptism. Washing each other’s feet implies that we should confess our sins to each other.
Literal foot washing by Jesus is described only in the Gospel of John. Currently, this ritual is performed by the Pope and at least one Protestant denomination.
How would you interpret this passage—would you choose one or more of the interpretations above or something different—and how did you come to your conclusion?