From Sinclair B. Ferguson’s beautiful new short book, Lessons from the Upper Room:

John’s gospel has quite a different feel from the first three Gospels. . . . The Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) show us “His body”—they tell the story from the outside, as it were. But the nearer John’s gospel gets to its climax the more we learn about what was “going on inside” our Lord.

This is preeminently true in chapters 13 through 17. Here we are invited to listen in as Jesus patiently instructs His closest friends as they sit around Him during a Passover meal.

It would have lasted several hours—truly memorable hours with the Master!

The narrative begins with Jesus showing His disciples that “he loved them to the end” (John 13:1)—and what true love is really like.

Characteristically, He gives a sign—He washes the disciples’ feet.

Then He provides an explanation and asks: “Do you understand the meaning of this sign? Do you see what it means for Me? And do you understand the implications it has for you?”

Doubtless the room had fallen silent. This was a very private gathering—only Jesus and the Twelve.

No house-servant had welcomed them; no one had washed the street grime from their sandaled feet. And clearly, they had all been too proud to do it—either for Jesus or for one another. In fact, Luke tells us that the disciples had been arguing with each other about which of them was “the greatest” (Luke 22:24–27). In sharp contrast, Jesus told them, “I am among you as the one who serves.”

Perhaps it was at this point that He rose from table.

In this world, disciples did not wash each other’s feet—that was a servant’s work. But now the Master is doing it!

When Jesus kneels down before Simon Peter, however, it is too much for him. Appalled and resistant, he breaks the silence: “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

Jesus answers: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).

Clearly something deeper is going on here than Jesus merely removing dust and dirt. This is a prophetic action—like those performed by Jeremiah and Ezekiel. He is acting out a parable of the gospel, showing them by means of a dramatic sign both who He is and what He has come to do. Here, in the foot-washing, He reveals both His person and His work, both His identity and the purpose of His ministry.

One of the best ways to understand the inner significance of these verses is to look at them side by side with the Apostle Paul’s teaching about the Lord Jesus in Philippians 2:6–9:

Point by point, Jesus is acting out symbolically what Paul describes theologically—how He came from the highest glory of heaven, into the depths of our human condition, took the form of a slave, and accomplished our cleansing from sin by His death on the cross, and then was exalted to the right hand of the Father.

—Sinclair B. Ferguson, Lessons from the Upper Room: The Heart of the Savior (Sanford, FL: Ligonier Ministries, 2020), 8–11.

For the video version on this teaching, go here.