As we noted earlier, John chapters 13 through 16 contain an account of the discussion that Jesus had with His disciples during His last Passover meal, just prior to His arrest and crucifixion. The discussion began, however, with a striking gesture on Jesus’ part – the washing of the disciples’ feet.
John introduces the incident by telling us that “. . . the devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, rose from supper . . .” (John 13:2-4; NKJV). Here again John tells us that Jesus was conscious of certain things as he undertook to do what H was about to do. Jesus knew that He had come from God the Father and was about to return to Him. He knew that the Father “had given all things into His hands.” Thus Jesus knew that He was in a position of preeminent authority over all things. But He also know that Judas had already decided to betray Him. If anyone deserved honor and respect, it was Jesus. And if anyone contempt and disgrace, it was the wretched human being who was about to betray Him.
In light of all that what Jesus did next was most remarkable. He “rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself” (v. 4). He then proceeded to wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel. It would be difficult to imagine a human being doing such a thing, let alone the eternal Son of God, the Lord of the universe! And yet that is exactly what He did.
Apparently most the disciples watched in stunned silence, not quite comprehending what was happening. And the Jesus came to Peter who, being his usual impulsive self, blurted out, “Lord, are You washing my feet?” (v. 6). The word order in the Greek emphasizes the contrast between “You” and “my.” Peter was struck by the anomaly of the situation – “Lord, are You washing my feet?” And Jesus’ answer must have totally mystified him: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this” (v. 7).
Peter protested. “You shall never wash my feet!” (v. 8a), to which Jesus replied with a cryptic comment, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (v. 8b). Well, thought Peter, that being the case, let us go all the way: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (v. 9). Jesus’ reply to that must have been even more mystifying: “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean: and you [plural] are clean, but not all of you” (v. 10).
What Jesus was driving at, but what the disciples probably did not comprehend, was that His action in washing their feet was symbolic of something greater, of something that He was about to do – cleanse them spiritually by atoning for their sins on the cross. He was about to make the supreme sacrifice on their behalf. But it was a necessary sacrifice if their sins were ever to be forgiven. Then they would receive the Holy Spirit who would renew them inwardly, transforming them from fallen sinners to children of light. Without this cleansing no relationship with Christ is possible. “You have no part with Me.”
But what did Jesus mean when He said, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean”? The implication is that when we are saved and born again, we are completely forgiven and inwardly transformed – we are “bathed,” as it were. But we may still fall into sin from time to time, and need to have those sins forgiven and be completely restored to full fellowship with Christ. And so as we walk thought the filth of this world we need to have our spiritual “feet” periodically washed, as it were. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (I John 1:9).
But then Jesus added an ominous note: “You are clean, but not all of you”; and John explains, “For He knew who would betray Him . . .” (v. 11). Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion were not due to unforeseen events or circumstances beyond d His control. Jesus was conscious that this was all part of God’s redemptive plan and that this was an ordeal which He must undergo.
Jesus then undertook to drive home the practical lesson. “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (vv. 13-15). This does not necessarily mean that we must perform the physical rite of footwashing, as is done in some churches (the practice does not appear again in the Book of Acts or the Epistles). But rather it means that we must imitate Jesus’ example of humble service to our fellow believers.
There was a sense in which Peter’s astonishment at what Jesus had done was well taken. There was something odd about the eternal Son of God, the Lord of glory, taking on the role of a servant and performing a menial task. But if Jesus was willing to do that for us, how much more should we be willing humbly to serve each other? We have no excuse for not following His example.
But alas! How very often is it different in our churches today! As fallen human beings we crave attention. We want to be respected and admired by others. We strive to excel so that we can gain honor and respect. And all too often in church life our actions are driven by ego rather than a desire to please God and serve others. But everything we do should be marked by a humble servant attitude. If Christ could die on the cross for us, what excuse do we have nor not serving each other?