READ : John 13:1-17
The last words a person speaks to his friends are especially significant, but Jesus’ last act for his friends sends an even more powerful message.
It was Thursday, the evening before Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus had gathered with his disciples in a room in the upper story of a friend’s house in Jerusalem to share the Passover meal. We have a full account in the Gospels of what occurred during those hours they spent together in that Upper Room. The thing that immediately comes to mind, of course, is the Lord’s Supper, where Jesus instituted a new covenant meal with his disciples by changing the Passover Feast into a sacred memorial of his suffering and death.
But Jesus also taught his friends many new things during those hours. His teaching is recorded in the Gospel of John, chapters 13-17. This passage, which contains some of Jesus’ most important sayings, is called his upper room discourse. It is prefaced, though, not by a verbal introduction, but by a sort of acted parable described at the beginning of John 13. During supper, Jesus rose from the table, took a towel and a basin full of water, and one by one he went around the room washing his disciples’ feet. I want to suggest four things about this act of service that are significant for us if we are followers of Jesus.
A DELIBERATE ACT
First, it was a deliberate act. In reading the account John gives us of the last hours of Jesus’ life, I never fail to be impressed by the deeply solemn, almost stately deliberateness with which Jesus did everything. John tells us it was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that his time had come. He was about to undergo his hour of greatest trial and suffering, climaxing with his death on the cross, followed by his resurrection and return to his Father in heaven. And yet there’s nothing about these last hours of Jesus that gives us a sense of panic or of being caught by surprise. Jesus knew what was coming. He voluntarily allowed it to happen. You somehow get the sense, strange as it may seem, that this man – hunted by the authorities, about to be taken by betrayal and then unjustly condemned and crucified – that he nevertheless is the one in control of everything. Jesus doesn’t act like a helpless victim. He acts like the one who is very deliberately accomplishing his purpose.
So there’s never any sense of hurry here in the upper room. Jesus isn’t improvising a last-minute plan. There is nothing impulsive about what he does. He doesn’t jump up suddenly in a panic during the supper and say, “Oh my goodness, what’s happened? We haven’t had our feet washed. Now what? Well, I’d better do something!” No. With a royal dignity he rises and wraps himself in a towel and assumes the place of a servant at the table.
A HUMBLE ACT
Secondly, this was a humble act. Washing the street-dirty feet of each guest was an expected part of hospitality in Jesus’ day. It was a demeaning job, though, one that was usually performed by the lowest servant. But apparently there was no servant in the upper room, and none of the disciples volunteered to do this humiliating job. So in the middle of the meal Jesus did it himself. How is it that for a meal so carefully prepared they omitted to provide for this basic necessity? Remember, Jesus sent representatives on ahead to make sure that everything was ready in the upper room. And yet they neglected this common courtesy. No servant to wash the feet! The disciples were probably embarrassed when they realized this. Maybe they even talked among themselves, wondering if one of them ought to volunteer. But none of them did. It was too far beneath them. How must they have felt when, to their amazement, they saw Jesus get up and take the towel and basin? He, the Master, the Lord, the respected teacher, whose place it was to be served, was going to wait on them and do the slave’s work!
I’m impressed with the striking parallel between Jesus’ actions here and the famous passage in Philippians 2 which describes his voluntary decision to give up his royal rights as God. Phrase by phrase, these two passages seem to echo one another.
John 13:“Jesus knew that the Father had put everything under his power. He also knew he had come from God and was returning to God.” (v. 3)
Philippians 2:“In his very nature he was God. But he did not think that being equal with God was something he should hold on to.” (v. 6)
John:“So he got up from the meal and took off his outer clothes.” (v. 4a)
Philippians:“he made himself nothing. He took on the very nature of a servant.” (v. 7)
John:“He wrapped a towel around his waist.” (v. 4b)
Philippians:“He came down to the lowest level.” (v. 8)
In washing his disciples’ feet, Jesus deliberately emptied himself of his dignity and his prestige. As he knelt there before each one of them, he humbled himself. He humbled himself not only in becoming a man, but in the humble kind of man he became.
A SYMBOLIC ACT
Thirdly, Jesus’ foot-washing was a symbolic act. The foot-washing symbolizes our spiritual cleansing through the work of Jesus. There is an interesting interchange in the story which often puzzles readers. It’s the conversation between Jesus and Peter when Jesus came to wash his feet. Impulsive Peter, true to form, objects when Jesus is about to do this. “Wait a minute, Lord, this isn’t right. This isn’t worthy of you. I’m not going to let you wash my feet!” And Jesus responds with this strange statement: “Unless I wash your feet, you have no part of me.” He couldn’t have been speaking literally. He must rather have been pointing to some symbolic sense in which he must “wash” someone in order for them to belong to him. Now, if we put it that way, the meaning jumps out at us. He’s thinking of his death, then only a few hours away, and its effect. As Christians we say that Jesus “washes” us with his blood, meaning that when we trust in his sacrifice on the cross for our sins, we are cleansed spiritually. It brings us forgiveness for those sins and it unites us with him. When you believe in Jesus your life is joined to his, and you become, in spiritual terms, a new person. Because you are in union with Christ, the benefits of his death apply to you, so the guilt of your sins is washed away and you’re made clean in God’s sight – as pure and clean as Jesus himself is. So this foot-washing is a symbol pointing to the cross and to the way what happened there is applied to us through faith in Jesus. Jesus cleanses us once for all when we first believe in him, but he also cleanses us over and over whenever we repent of our sins and turn to him again and ask for forgiveness.
AN EXEMPLARY ACT
Finally, Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet was an exemplary act. And now we come, I think, to the most important point; at least it’s the point that Jesus himself draws attention to. “I have given you an example,” he said. “‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord.” You are right. That is what I am. I, your Lord and Teacher . . . I have given you an example. You should do as I have done for you. . . . Now you know these things. So you will be blessed if you do them.’”
O course they didn’t understand everything about what Jesus had just done for them. The disciples couldn’t have grasped the symbolism about the cross then, of course, because Jesus had yet to die. But what they could understand was the power of the example that he had given them, an example of humble, self-effacing service to others. They could grasp the fact that if Jesus, their Lord and Master, would lower himself to do this for them, then none of them was too important to do anything helpful for anyone else. They could feel the force of the towel and the basin. They could realize that the Lord was now placing these servants’ implements in their hands. From now on that kind of service would be the distinctive mark of Christians, both individually and as a community. “I . . . have washed your feet. So you also should wash one another’s feet.”
Some Christians have taken Jesus literally. There are churches where foot-washing is used as a sort of sacrament, either in worship services or at special seasons of the year. I remember when I was a student studying in Europe one summer touring a monastery in Austria. As we walked through the cloisters in the inner courtyard, I noticed a bench along one wall with twelve seats on it. Each year on Maundy Thursday, the anniversary of Jesus’ evening with his disciples in the upper room, the abbot of that monastery knelt before those twelve benches, in which the twelve youngest monks were seated, and washed their feet as a literal re-enactment of Jesus’ action.
What Jesus really means for us to do, though, is not to literally wash each other’s feet. Foot washing stands for any humble, loving service which meets the needs of people, whatever those might be. What is it that the Lord is calling you and me to do when he tells us to wash one another’s feet? He’s calling us to feed the hungry, heal the sick, clothe the naked, house the homeless, help the destitute. He’s calling us to remember the prisoner, to visit the lonely, to comfort the grieving, to befriend the stranger. He’s calling us to share the good news of the gospel with everyone. When we do that, we share his love as wel – in the most practical ways.
If you are not a Christian, then what Jesus says and does here probably won’t make much sense to you. In fact, it might turn you off. But you need to put your faith in him. You need to believe in him and allow him to wash your sins away. If you are a Christian, you need to get to work and start washing others. You really don’t have any choice! You must serve other people as Christ has served you.
Oswald Chambers, the great devotional writer of the first part of this century, pointed out that our Lord did not say to his disciples here in his final words to them in the upper room, “I’ve had a most successful time on earth. I’ve addressed thousands of people and been the means of their salvation. Now you go and do the same kind of thing.” No. What he said was this, “If I then your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them! It’s not enough just to think about them.