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John

Washing the Feet

John 13:1-17

It is a stunning episode. It so clearly shows what Jesus taught about servant leadership that the best instruction on the subject is found simply in the passage itself. We shall add what little we can to your understanding, but first see the lesson presented by the Master:

1It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.£

2The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

9“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

10Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

12When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. 13“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Timing

It is said that the secret to comedy is timing. Perhaps that’s the secret to great drama as well; it just might have something to do with teaching, too.

Background

To understand the teaching more completely, we need to know how to take a bath – in the first century. It was a rare home that had its own bath. Plumbing, as we know it, had yet to make itself felt in the average home. But you could take a bath; indeed, the bath houses were often the negotiation rooms of ancient Roman and Greek culture. A bath house was a public – very public – place. After cleaning your body by oiling it and scraping it (no soap, remember?) you then went into a large pool which was built over a fire pit. Slaves kept the fire going; water flowed through the bath to keep things clean. So it is that a person could bathe quite nicely.

But afterwards there was the walk home. Your feet, so recently cleaned, got dirty again. Here we run into another ancient custom: washing the feet. When you got home, the lowest servant in the house was detailed to wash your feet. This completed the bathing experience, so to speak.

To this custom we must now add the Passover – the feast which defines the nation of Israel. This is the memorial of the night in which the Angel of Death passed over the nation – and began their voyage to the promised land. All has been prearranged this Passover night, right down to the meal and menu. So, on this most memorable night, Jesus begins matters by washing the feet of his disciples.

Why now?

It is clear from Peter’s reaction that this is the first time Jesus has done this. Why did he wait until this night?

  • First, “the time had come.” Jesus knows that the Crucifixion is near; following that will be the establishment of his Church. In that church these men will have high position and honor. He wants them to know what that means in the kingdom of God.
  • Next, because of his great love for his disciples. He would not leave them without this most important lesson – the same disciples who bickered about who would be greatest in the kingdom.
  • Also, there is the matter of Judas Iscariot. Jesus knows what he is going to do – but he will not let him do it without every chance to repent. Jesus washes Judas’ feet as well.
  • We might see it as a diminishing of God’s glory; Jesus sees it as fitting to one who came from God and is now returning. Because of his great power, he can gently serve his disciples.
  • Knowing that God has placed all things in his hands, Jesus turns those same hands to the example of service. With authority comes responsibility; with responsibility, service.
He washes their feet

What does it all mean? Why does he do this? What’s going on? It’s pretty obvious that the disciples all assumed someone else would do this (though they didn’t expect it would be Jesus). There is a symbolic side to this too.

It symbolizes, for the Christian, the repentance after baptism. It’s the answer to the question, “What do I do if I sin after I’m baptized?” The answer is found here: your feet must be cleaned. Not in the literal sense, but in the sense of repentance.

You can do this for yourself – which is greatly encouraged (“examine yourself” – ever heard that in Communion meditations?). You can have someone else help you with it (“confess your sins one to another”). Either way, the lesson is clear: by such cleansing you show your repentance – and accept the Lord’s forgiveness of your sins. “You are clean,” says Jesus, and the meaning still stands today.

Authority, Responsibility, Submission

The Servant King

This is the clearest portrayal of Christ, the Servant King. The son of man did not come to be served, but to serve. Here Christ passes on the concept to those who will be leaders in the church.

  • He shows them the basis of authority – which is responsibility. In this world we obtain authority and delegate responsibility. In the kingdom of God, you are given responsibility (the Spirit appoints some to be teachers, for instance) and from that responsibility you derive your just authority.
  • Such authority benefits those under authority. Our Lord has the authority to forgive sins; we are the beneficiaries.
  • Most of all is the lesson on self importance. In our nation, which used to be a Christian nation, we still refer to our office holders (occasionally) as “public servants.” There was a time when a President could proclaim that “a public office is a public trust” – and not be sneered at for saying it. This idea, that the official is the servant, not the master, of the people comes directly from the Servant Kingdom of God.
“You call me Lord”

We do, in fact, call Jesus “Lord.” I’ve heard it. I’ve heard it in song, less now than before. Indeed, some of the most stirring of Christian music proclaims his lordship. Even in our speech we sometimes refer to Jesus as Lord. But what does “lord” mean to us?

  • For some of us it means that he is so powerful he can solve all my problems. We like that.
  • For some, it means that we are set right with God. We like that.
  • But does it mean that we are to be obedient to him? We don’t like that.

Think about it: when did you last hear the word “obey” or “obedience” used with respect to Jesus? Why? With his apostles, Jesus could humbly recall to them their own words, calling him “Lord.” Could he say the same for us?

“Rightly so”

It seems that lordship is something important, for Jesus has drawn their attention to it on this night of nights. To what end? So that he may wash their feet – that is, provide for their cleansing upon their repentance.

Remember, God can have nothing to do with the wicked – except to destroy them. We must be clean if we are to appear before Almighty God. How can this be done? Only because Christ intercedes for us, on the basis of his sacrifice at Calvary.

But see how effective this is! We are taught that he is “faithful and just” to forgive us, if we repent. Note that the phrase is not “condescending and sneering.” His forgiveness is ours based upon his faithfulness and his justice. His justice, in that the price has already been paid. His faithfulness, in that he is obedient to his Father – just as we should be obedient to him.

The Humility of Jesus

There is a curious fact shown in this passage. The writer, the Apostle John, stresses the divinity and glory of Christ. His words about him are those of praise for the God he is. But Jesus’ actions are those of humility. The episode itself establishes the humility of Jesus. Indeed, we can see the evidence of this:

  • Evidently, until he got to Peter, he did this in silence. Silence, which befits the lowest of servants, those not counted worthy of being heard.
  • Even when he must correct Peter, he does so gently.
  • Finally, see how he says, “You call me Lord,…” It is as if he is reluctant to take on the title, until they understand what it means.
He washed Judas’ feet

If there is any one thing which shows forth the humility of Jesus, it is this: He washed the feet of Judas. He understood quite clearly what Judas was about to do (“not all of you are clean”), but he did it for him just the same.

Why? Why didn’t he run the man out of the room? Is it not because he was giving the man one last chance to repent? He treated him like the rest of the disciples so that he might remain one of the disciples.

It shows us a lesson or two:

  • First, is there a sinner so vile that repentance cannot save? The unforgivable sin is to deny the work of the Spirit – the conviction of sin. All else can be forgiven.
  • It also shows us that our service to others is not for their worthiness, however great we may think that is – but it is for love, for God is love.
The Imitation of Christ

One cannot leave this passage without thinking of the example set. Christ explicitly tells us he did this to set an example for us. What may we learn from that example?

  • First, that our attitude should be that of a servant of God, for we are in the kingdom of the Servant King.
  • We should accept all who come, for we are sinners like them. It seems to be the only qualification for being a Christian – and also the best of reasons to become one.
  • Especially with regard to those close to us, we should always leave the door open to repentance.
  • And, whenever we experience a moment of glory, remember that we are servants to God Most High – and act accordingly.

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