Who Washes Whose Feet?

By Geo R Brunk, II

We have the account of this most unusual incident in the first 17 verses of John 13, Let us observe that this chapter begins a new phase of our Lord's ministry--from public to private. Hitherto, John portrays the public ministry of Jesus where His miracles and teachings were in the public view. In chapter 13, we find a significant transition for the remainder of John's Gospel where our Lord ministers to His inner circle.

Let us also observe that this is the night of His betrayal--the last night before His trial and crucifixion.

In Luke's account of the paschal supper, He tells us, "There was also a strife among them [the disciples], which of them should be accounted the greatest" (22:24). How difficult to imagine that the disciples who had been in such intimate association with our Lord could conceivably engage in such carnal conversation, especially upon such an occasion as this! Obviously, it had not even occurred to them that they might wash the Master's feet and even the feet of one another.

But, here, Jesus takes what was a very common procedure and makes what some believers consider to be a Christian ordinance. In those days, ordinary people wore sandals attached to the feet with a few straps. Walking on unpaved surfaces meant that it was either dust or mud and in either case their feet were soon unclean. A water-pot was always at the entrance of a house and the servants at the house would wash the unclean feet of guests as they entered, Jesus did what none of them seemed prepared or willing to do.

Let us try to visualize the setting. Notice the six things which Jesus did which are mentioned in this passage. "He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself After that, he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded" (vv. 4, 5). Let us try to get a mental picture of this--Jesus moving from disciple to disciple, stooping to wash their feet; Judas, as well as the rest.

But this noble act of Jesus was protested by Peter who did riot want his Master to perform such menial service as this, for he said, "Thou shaft never wash my feet," To this, Jesus replied, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me." Impulsive Peter responds, saying, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head."

It appears that Jesus not only washed their feet, but He cleansed their hearts as well, Hopefully, they were deeply touched by this matchless humility which must have put them to shame for their strife and bitterness. Jesus said, "Ye are clean, but not all." For he knew him that should betray him.

So after he had washed their feet and had taken his garments and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then your Lord and Master have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. . . If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.

Except for the protest of Peter, there must have been stone silence on the part of the others. One can almost feel the stillness of that room, except for the thinkle and splash of the water as Jesus moved from disciple to disciple. Alexander Maclaren says, "Nowhere else do the blended lights of our Lord's super-human dignity and human tenderness shine with such lambent brightness. Nowhere else is His speech at once so simple and so deep. Nowhere else have the heart of God so unveiled to us. On no other page, even of the Bible, have so many eyes, glistening with tears, looked and had the tears dried. The immortal words which Jesus spoke in that upper chamber are His highest self-revelation in speech, even as the perfect self-revelation in act"

The disciples were ill-prepared for the profound teaching that Jesus would give them as long as they had such feelings of jealousy and ambition as seen in their squabbling with one another.


Here We Have a Manifestation

It is a manifestation of love expressed in verse I. 'When Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end." Also, in verse 34, we read, "Jesus said to his disciples, A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another" So we have here in the foot-washing. a manifestation of love. It has been suggested that this is the key to all that follows, right to the end of the section which closes with chapter 17. It is in love that He washes His disciples feet as though He were the menial and they the Master so that He may impress upon their minds the sublimity of lowly service, of humble ministry for the salvation of the world. It is love that speaks out to this little band gathered at this Supper, and says, 'The one badge which you are always to wear, by which you are always to be recognized anywhere, is love to one another." It is love that says, 'Do not let your heart be troubled; believe in God; believe also in me." It is love that binds them to Him, and makes them one with Him as the branch is with the vine. It is love that assures these followers of His that though He will soon be received out of their sight, and they will no longer be able to grasp His hand, still another Comforter will come and be with them and lead them into the sphere of all truth. And, it is love that breathes out the great intercessory prayer that these disciples may be kept from the evil of the world, and enabled the Father. "Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end," and to the last, to the uttermost, until everything was finished. He proceeded to wash their feet that He might show the reality and the quality of His love, (James Hastings)


A Model 

The washing of the disciples' feet is not only a manifestation of love; it is a model.

Jesus had already commanded His followers to love, even to love their enemies. But here He gives a new commandment which is to "love one another as I have loved you." Let all God's children examine their hearts about having this kind of love for the "brethren." Think of it! "As I have loved you."

So, this is a model, A few denominations believe that it is therefore more than an object lesson. There is a difference between an object lesson and a model. Jesus gave His disciples an object lesson recorded in Matthew 18:2-6 where He set a little child in their midst and taught them. He did not command that they should follow His example here. But, in this instance, He commanded them to follow His example, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you."


The Measure of Love

We have not only a manifestation and a model, but we also have the measure of love. He loved them "unto the end." The idea here, as expressed earlier, is that He loved them to the very uttermost and not simply as long as He lived. We see the quality of His love which extended not only to the end of life, but to the end of our lives as well, and even to the end of the world and the end of until He died, more than that He loved in the highest degree; it includes that of course, but there is more. It was the kind of love that brought Him the humiliation, the suffering and the death upon the cross. Here is the expression of the height and depth and breadth -- the dimensions of the kind of love that believers are to have one for another.


From the Sword and Trumpet, July 1999, pages 1-4. Their address is P.O. Box 575, Harrisonburg, VA 22801.


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July 1, 2000