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.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus 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. 16Truly, 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. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
I thought I might begin today by confessing a sin that has bothered me for some time.
Oh, I don’t mean repent of it. I’ve done that. I just want to confess it in an effort to bring some closure to my life in this area.
In the summer of 1995 I graduated from college. Roni still had a semester to go. We were to be married at the end of that year, on December 16, 1995. So instead of going on to seminary and coming back for Roni (something I did not want to do), I determined to find a place of service to work out the months while she finished her final semester.
As it happened, my home church in my home town was between Ministers of Youth and they hired me to be the interim Minister of Youth. I agreed to do it until December and that’s exactly what I did. Now, by that time I had done a few Minister of Youth interims and was somewhat familiar with serving on a church staff. But while I served on this church staff I attended the ordination service for a friend at another church. At that service I listened a friend of my friend deliver the ordination sermon in which he challenged my friend to be faithful in ministry.
I’ll never forget that at one point in the sermon he charged my friend with being careful not to get bogged down in tasks that other people could, not to give in to petty distractions. To illustrate, he told of a time when he, as the pastor, was informed that there was a problem with the fountain outside of their church. Their church had a large, wide fountain that shot water up in the air. Well, there was a problem and so my friend’s friend related that he grabbed his wrench, took his shoes off, rolled his pants leg up, got in the fountain, and started working on the pipes beneath the water. He went on to say that halfway through doing this he stopped and realized that this task could be done by somebody else. That he, as the pastor, could not do everything, and there were other people who could do this while he gave himself to doing the work of the pastor. He went on to say that he got out of the fountain and called somebody else to do the job.
Now, that struck me as reasonable and, in a sense, it still does. Pastors who try to do everything end up burning out.
So I had that sermon in my ears the next week when I was walking around my home church as the interim Minister of Youth. I was thinking to myself, “You can’t do everything. You have to draw boundaries.”
I was thinking this on a Wednesday night while walking through the church gymnasium on the way to the Fellowship Hall. While walking through, a lady in front of me stopped, called to me, pointed to a puddle of drink that somebody had spilled, and said, “Somebody has spilled something here. You might want to clean that up.”
Well! Here was my big chance! Remembering the words of the ordination sermon, I said, “Yep. Somebody should.” And continued my walk. I will never forget the look on the ladies face. She stopped for a moment and stared in amazement, then sighed heavily, put down her Bible and books, and started walking in the direction of the bathroom to get some paper towels.
I congratulated myself! I had avoided a petty task! I had put up boundaries! I had refused to do something that was menial, not in my job description, and, frankly, something that lady could do herself.
It was a pretty cool feeling…for a few brief moments. It began to bother me shortly thereafter and has bothered me, off and on, ever since. Very quickly, my action struck me as haughty. It struck me as rude. It struck me as contemptuous. It struck me as petty. It embarrassed me.
It struck me as all of these things…and has done so for 16 years. I’ve been forgiven of it, but I’ve still carried it. Until now, that is. I’m tired of carrying it. I think I’ll put it down here and let it go.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, it should not be in the DNA of a blood-bought believer in Jesus Christ to turn his or her nose up at a task because it is too menial, too necessary. Nothing about the gospel tells us that we should refuse to get low. While I still maintain that it is reasonable for Ministers not to try to do everything (a principle supported by Scripture, by the way), it is also reasonable to expect that a Minister of the gospel would avoid pride, haughtiness, and an “I’m above that” mentality.
After all, our Lord and God came lowly to us in Jesus. Our Savior came on bended knee. Not only was no task too menial for Him, in fact He used the menial tasks to teach His greatest lessons. In fact, Jesus could often be shocking in His examples of humility. Let’s consider one such example today.
I. A Shocking Act: The Master Become Servant (v.1-5)
One of the more shocking displays of humility and service that Jesus ever demonstrated occurred at the Last Supper He shared with His disciples.
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.
Let us not miss the two important qualifiers that verse 1 put on our text this morning: (1) the events that follow are linked to Jesus’ “hour,” His coming crucifixion and resurrection, and (2) the events that follow are meant to demonstrate the consistency of the Lord Jesus’ love for His people (“having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end”). In other words, the shocking events that are about to take place are connected in some way to the coming crucifixion of Jesus and they are meant to help the disciples know Jesus’ love and understand how His love works.
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.
It is frankly difficult for us to get our heads around just how shocking this action is. Andreas Kostenberger has pointed out that foot washing in first century Judaism “was considered too demeaning for disciples…and [was] thus assigned to non-Jewish slaves.” Furthermore, while there are biblical examples of Jews washing the feet of other Jews, “the washing of the feet of an inferior by a superior is not attested elsewhere in Jewish or Greco-Roman sources.”
In other words, Jews rarely washed the feet of other Jews (there are notable examples of this happening elsewhere in the Bible) and Jewish masters never washed the feet of their subordinates. What we have here is a scandalous violation of a social taboo. In washing the feet of His disciples, Jesus, the Master, effectively became the servant.
Please remember the two preface comments that verse one gave us: He did this to prepare the disciples for His crucifixion and He did this to demonstrate and define His love.
It will be helpful to realize that John 13 begins the second major literary unit of John’s gospel. Chapter 13 through the middle of chapter 17 constitute what is called Jesus’ “farewell discourse.” It is the beginning of a section in which Jesus begins to demonstrate what is about to happen on the cross.
I believe we may see in this shocking act of foot washing a kind of preface to or preparatory act for the cross itself. It is almost as if Jesus, knowing that the very idea of the cross would be psychologically and spiritually flabbergasting to the disciples, decided to do an initiatory and lesser physical act so that the disciples might begin to get their heads around the idea that not only was Jesus going to do something they would find very strange (i.e., be crucified), He was going to do something they would find shockingly unexpected.
The great Southern short story writer Flannery O’Connor was once asked why she wrote such gruesome short stories. She replied that in the land of the deaf and blind you have to shout loudly and draw startling images.
I believe Jesus is trying to draw a startling image here in order to prepare the disciples for something even more startling to come.
After all, how can we comprehend a Master who becomes a servant, a God who becomes a baby, a King who becomes a pauper? We have the benefit of being raised, many of us, with the story of Jesus. We have been prepped for the shocking good news and, in fact, many have already grown bored of hearing it. But on the fresh ears of the disciples, the idea of the Messiah as a humble servant required preparation. He prepared them by scandalizing them with the washing of their feet.
The popular Bible commentator William Barclay spoke of this scene and said the following:
“When we are tempted to think of our dignity, our prestige, our place, our rights, let us see again the picture of the Son of God, girt with a towel, and kneeling at His disciples’ feet.”
That is good advice, to be sure! Let us remember the shocking service of our Lord!
II. A Shocking Prophecy: The Cross Foreshadowed and Explained (v.6-11)
The act was shocking in and of itself, but it was also shocking in terms of what it said and of what it foreshadowed. We can begin to get at what this act is pointing to when we observe Peter’s objection.
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.” 8a Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.”
Lest you marvel at Peter’s objection, remember how utterly unexpected this act was. Again, Rabbis did not wash the feet of their disciples in this culture. Even in our day we can understand this, but only to an extent. Peter acts with revulsion, not at Jesus but at the idea of Jesus washing his feet. Peter’s amazed reaction was similar to John the Baptist’s reaction when Jesus came to be baptized in Matthew 3:
13 Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to John, to be baptized by him. 14 John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?”
It seemed to Peter as it seemed to John the Baptist: backwards, inappropriate, almost wrong. But in both cases Jesus persists and says it is necessary. Furthermore, Jesus goes on to tell Peter that more is happening here than Peter can currently grasp.
8b Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
Obviously, the idea of having no share with Jesus, of having no part of Him was more disturbing to Peter than the idea of Jesus washing his feet, for not only does Peter relent, he actually asks Jesus to do even more.
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.”
This is a fascinating and strange conversation. We are privileged to be able to overhear this exchange in which more was being said than the mere words indicated. We know that Jesus is saying something profound about who He is, what it means to be in relationship with Him and what He is going to do. But what is it? What is Jesus driving at here? What is happening in this exchange?
Let us keep in mind the sequence of events:
· Jesus comes to wash Peter’s feet.
· Peter refuses to let it happen.
· Jesus says that Peter will have no share with Him if he doesn’t let Jesus wash his feet.
· Peter changes course and asks Jesus to wash all of Him.
· Jesus says that one who has bathed does not need a full bath, just a foot washing.
It is an enigmatic conversation, and one that has puzzled interpreters through the years. I believe, though, that it is possible to get at what’s happening here by keeping a few important things in mind.
First, let us remember that all of these actions are connected with “Jesus’ hour,” and that “Jesus’ hour” refers to His saving work on the cross, His resurrection and His ascension to Heaven. Furthermore, these actions are intended to demonstrate and define Jesus’ love for His disciples. That means, then, that the washing of the feet is intended to prepare them to understand what is happening on the cross.
On the cross, Jesus shed His blood. This means that the water at the foot washing is a foreshadowing of the blood on the cross and that the washing with water is intended to prepare them for the idea of being washed with blood. Of course, it would be helpful if we had some other example of John speaking of forgiveness of sin in this way…and, thankfully, we do.
In 1 John 1, John writes this:
8 If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
John speaks elsewhere, in other words, of the forgiveness of sins as a “cleansing,” a “washing.” I believe that when Jesus talks about being washed or bathing or having your feet washed that He is speaking metaphorically here of having your sins forgiven. I believe the water is a preparatory symbol for the blood that He will shed on the cross.
What, then, of the difference between bathing and having your feet washed? If Jesus is speaking of the water as a symbol for the forgiveness of sin (and I believe He is), then He is saying that when a person is born again, when a person is saved, they are bathed in the blood, washed completely and forgiven. So if a person is born again, they do not need to be bathed again completely. They have already been bathed completely.
But, as we walk through the world sin still nips at our heels. We still struggle and fall. This means that while we do not need a complete bath, we do need our feet washed, we do need daily confession and repentance. It is not, then, that we have lost our salvation, that we need to be re-bathed. It’s simply the daily sins that beset us and the daily scars we collect from the attacks of the devil. I believe that John Calvin was right when he defined “feet” here as “a metaphor for all the passions and cares by which we are brought into contact with the world.” He also added that “Christ always finds something in us to cleanse.”
This is true. Christ does indeed always find something in us to cleanse. That’s because we struggle with sin, we stumble and fall.
Some of you think you need a full bath when what you really need is to have your feet washed. Translation: if you are saved you do not need to be saved again, you simply need to go to the Lord in a consistent spirit of repentance.
On the other hand, some of you think all you need is a foot washing when what, in fact, you have never been fully bathed. Translation: some of you have minimized your sins and localized them. You think that you simply need repentance over this or that action when, in point of fact, your very being is tainted with sin and under the curse of sin. You need to be bathed in the blood of the Lamb and receive the forgiveness of Jesus Christ.
This act of foot washing was shocking because it prophesied the crucifixion and Christ’s work on the cross. It prophesied the ultimate washing that would come only through the ultimate sacrifice. The water prophesied the blood.
III. A Shocking Invitation: The Painful Call to Imitation (v.12-20)
It is all very shocking indeed. But the most unsettling aspect has yet to come. When Jesus is done washing the feet of the disciples He gives an explanation that calls us into a very uncomfortable area.
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. 16Truly, 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. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
It is one thing to marvel at the extent of Christ’s love for us, to be shocked by how far He would go to save us. It is quite another to see the humility and self-sacrifice of Christ as a lifestyle to which we ourselves are called. But this is exactly what Christ does: He calls us to follow His example. He not only calls us to follow the example in the upper room. He also calls us to follow His example in what the events in the upper room typified and signified: the cross. In other words, in calling us to wash one another’s feet, Jesus calls us to take up our cross.
Speaking of Jesus’ call for imitation, Francis J. Moloney refers to “the command to lose oneself in loving self-gift unto death.” That’s nicely said: “the command to lose oneself in loving self-gift unto death.” To wash one another’s feet is to serve one another in displays of shocking humility to the point of death itself.
Humility is our act of worship, our faith response to what God has done for us in Christ on the cross. Abbot Alonius, one of the Desert Fathers, said, “Humility is the land where God wants us to go and offer sacrifice.” This is true. Have you been to this land lately?
Before you begin to think of acts of service you have done, let me remind you of what unbelievably startling fact: when Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, Judas was still present. Our text says that Satan had already entered Judas but it also reveals that Judas does not leave the assembled disciples until after this act is complete.
The implication of this heightens the wonder and the pain of Jesus’ call to imitation, for it means that Jesus is not only asking us to wash the feet of our friends, He is also asking us to wash the feet of our Judases. It means that we are to wash the feet not only of those we love but also of those we might consider enemies.
Can you begin to imagine how this would change the church and the world? Such radically humble displays of self-giving would bind us together as a church and recreate us into an authentic family. Furthermore, it would both empower our witness in the world and be our witness in the world.
This is what it is to love. This is what it is to be Jesus to the world. This is what it is to wash feet.
Perhaps you remember the late Christian musician, Rich Mullins. Mullins once demonstrated in a simple but meaningful way what it means to be Jesus.
One day, Mullins fell into a very heated and intense argument with his road manager, Gay Quisenberry. They parted after a very sharp exchange. The next morning, Gay awoke to a strange noise coming from outside her window. She got up and went outside and stood stunned at the sight of Rich Mullins mowing her yard.
This is what it means to wash feet. This is how the world is changed. This is how I am changed. Taking up your cross does not have to be grandiose and extravagant. It can be simple and compelling.
Let me ask you a question: is washing the feet of others part of your life? I do not wish to reduce this to mere acts of kindness. Rather, I wish to remind us that the cross which is foreshadowed by Jesus’ shocking act in the upper room compels us to do whatever we need to do demonstrated the heart of the gospel: God’s love incarnate in the crucified and risen again Christ.
Have you embraced this Jesus?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
If so, how are your feet today? Do they need to be cleaned?
And what of your neighbor’s feet? Could it be that God is calling you to clean his feet or her feet today?