John 13:1-17 – Jesus Washes His Disciples’ Feet

1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

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

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

7 Jesus 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!”

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

12 When 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. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

When I was a young man, about 17 years old, I felt a strong sense that the Lord was calling me into a ministry career. I didn’t know what that looked like, but my pastor at the time realized that I needed training even before I went off to college to study for the ministry. A great man of God, he was a consummate disciple maker. 

Pastor Ed told me to meet him at the church extra early on Sunday morning for the first lesson in Pastoral ministry. All the way to the church as I drove through the early morning mist, I wondered what powerful lesson lay in store for me. Would we spend an extra hour on our knees in dramatic intercession? Would there perhaps be a time when older saints would gather and lay their hands on me in prayer? Would Pastor Ed ask teach me to do something special in the service like read the scripture or pray for those in need of healing? I couldn’t wait.

When I arrived, Pastor Ed greeted me with a warm smile and hot cup of coffee. He sat me down in his office and explained what was about to happen. “Steve,” he said. “If you want to be great in God’s kingdom, you have to learn to be the servant of all.” With that he walked me down the hall to the restrooms, where a mop and bucket were waiting. He said, “If the Lord makes you Pastor, it means he makes you the chief of servants. From the outside it may look like pastors have an easy time, but I’m telling you this is one hard job. You will be with people when they die, you will counsel people who are acting their best while they do their worst. People will always think you are up to no good. You will be hated, stabbed in the back, run into the ground by gossip. The hours are wildly unpredictable, and it doesn’t pay well. But if God is calling you to serve, there is no better place on earth to be than a doorkeeper in His house. Above all, you must always remember that the job of a pastor is the job of servant. And to help you remember this lesson, I want you to clean the bathrooms until they sparkle and shine. Then the nursery. And then the halls. And if you still want to be a servant, be here early next Sunday morning to do it all over again.”

Jesus was once asked who would be the greatest among his disciples. Luke 22 records the story: 

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. 25 Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26 But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27)

Jesus Christ, the ruler of galaxies says: “I am among you as one who serves.”

And today in John’s Gospel we read him say again: “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” (v 14-15)

A quick word about foot washing. There isn’t really a modern equivalent in our culture. But in ancient times, washing a guest’s feet was considered Hospitality 101. Open-toed sandals traveling dusty roads – or muddy roads when it rained – combined with poor public sanitation, meant that feet were perpetually dirty; awfully dirty; appallingly dirty; nauseatingly dirty.  If company came to visit, at the very least you made sure their feet were washed the moment they arrived – this was usually the lowest servant’s job. The only approximate equivalent I can think of today is to make sure the bathrooms are “get-down-on-your-knees-and-really-scrub-every-nook-and-cranny” sparkling clean when company comes over. But that doesn’t really come close because there is no personal contact involved. Suffice it to say that foot washing was a dirty job, and no one wanted it. 

So here Jesus is with the disciples, who probably had no idea what was about to happen to Jesus – he was about to be betrayed and crucified, but they may well have thought he was abut to be made king after the big triumphal entry into Jerusalem onPalm Sunday, just a few days before. They probably saw themselves as something like Division Champs, reclining at the table and celebrating an after-party with their head coach.

And long after the food has been served, the head coach gets up, grabs a towel and some water, and begins to scrub their dirty, muddy, nasty feet clean. 

Interesting that up to this point, no one had washed their feet. We’re almost through the meal, but their feet should have been washed before they came into the room. It is almost as if Jesus is looking around the table at this set of would-be all-stars, wondering why none of them offered to wash the others’ feet when they arrived. They all thought someone else would do it. So no one did it.

Which brings up an interesting point about menial, servant work: If everyone thinks it is someone else’s job, no one is going to do it. 

Here’s a little story attributed to television commentator Charles Osgood: 

This is a story about four people named Everybody, Somebody, Anybody, and Nobody.  There was an important job to be done and Everybody was asked to do it. Everybody was sure Somebody would do it.  Anybody could have done it, but Nobody did it.  Somebody got angry about that, because it was Everybody's job.  Everybody thought Anybody could do it but Nobody realized that Everybody wouldn't do it.  It ended up that Everybody blamed Somebody when Nobody did what Anybody could have done.

Now that isn’t scripture, and it isn’t really the main point Jesus is trying to make. But it is remarkable how many of us will leave things a mess because we think serving others is someone else’s job. And the dirtier the job is, the less likely we are to take responsibility for it.

But not so with those who really follow Jesus. The true follower of Jesus has learned to imitate their master so well, that instead of looking out for jobs to avoid, they are constantly looking for the hardest, dirtiest, least appreciated jobs – and doing them instead. What’s more, they seek to do those jobs anonymously, not wanting any glory for themselves. 

Look around the room, friends. Look around the church friends. Do you think the trash takes itself out? Someone has been up to something, and that something is serving like Jesus serves.

Lord, please send more servants like that!

Beyond Sparkle and Shine

Now, I want to point out a few details in today’s passage: things we can take to the bank and take to heart about the nature of serving others. But I warn you at the outset: these are some very uncomfortable realities about serving others. These are the toilet-cleaning truths about Christ-like service. 

First, notice that in order to serve well, Jesus has to humble himself by stripping away His pride. He has to take off his fancy holiday dinner clothes and take on the customary work outfit of a slave. That means that in order to serve others the way Jessu serves us, we have to strip away our pride. What do I mean by that? It means that we cannot at the same time serve others and worry about what our friends will think of us. It means that we cannot at the same time serve others and fight to preserve our dignity. True servants are not concerned with maintaining an appearance and protecting a reputation; true servants care not for enshrining their dignity; true servants – servants who serve like Jesus – are willing to strip away their pride, roll up their sleeves, get down on their hands and knees, and do the undignified, often thankless work of building others up. 

Which leads me to my second point: which is that Jesus serves others with a purpose and intent. Notice what Jesus does: he washes the feet of his disciples. Now, there are layers of meaning here, and throughout the centuries a few key observations about the purpose and intent of foot-washing have been made. 

Most theologians think there is a symbolic connection between washing our feet and forgiving our daily trespasses. The rationale behind that argument is Peter’s initial objection to Jesus, and Jesus’ reply in verses 6-10:

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

7 Jesus 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!”

10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.

Peter, in all his boisterous enthusiasm, once he realizes that Jesus isn’t going to back down, asks Jesus to wash him from head to toe. Thankfully, Jesus refuses, saying that Peter has already had a bath, and just his feet need washing.

Most students of scripture see this dialogue as a symbolic reference to the initial cleansing at our repentance, which is like a bath for the whole soul, and the ongoing work of sanctification, as the Lord cleanses us and forgives us our daily trespasses, which is like washing our feet. It may be a bit of a stretch to read all of that into this one text, but the principle still holds, and is absolutely scriptural. 

Once we have asked Christ into our hearts and he has cleansed us from all our sins, we don’t need to go through that initial “bath” again. We merely need to learn to walk in His grace day by day, and trust that same grace to wash away our daily transgressions as we learn to walk in newness of life, becoming fully devoted followers of Jesus. This is connected to another washing ritual that we still observe, which is one – and only one – baptism for the forgiveness of sins. We don’t need to get baptized every time we sin. We merely take it to the lord in prayer, and as John reminds us elsewhere, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.” (1 John 1:9) 

If footwashing represents Jesus forgiving our daily trespasses against Him, and if Jesus is setting an example for us to follow, then it must also follow that Jesus is also teaching us that we must forgive those who trespass against us. I shouldn’t need to go into detail about this, but Jesus often makes the point that he will have nothing to do with those who are stingy with forgiveness. If we want Jesus to forgive us, then we must forgive those who sin against us.

The Lord says in Matthew 7:2, “For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”

I’ve said enough. But we can never say enough on that subject. Moving on.

Another dimension of Jesus’ purpose and intent in washing their feet is possibly to prepare His team for the hard journey ahead. It isn’t too hard to imagine that some of these disciples would one day soon be walking the long, difficult road to Damascus, to Antioch, to Philippi, and even to Rome, and might occasionally look down at their tired, aching feet and be reminded of the night that Jesus washed and prepared their feet for this journey. We know that some of them, including Peter, would feel these same feet nailed to a cross for the sake of their master and friend. 

It may not be too far a stretch to see Jesus preparing his disciples for what lay ahead as he washed their feet, and in blessing their feet he gave them a profound symbol of his promised presence.

In the same way, when we serve others as Jesus serves us, we must be mindful of the fact that we are preparing others for their journey with God. It won’t always be profound or loaded with mystery, but we must always be open to the ways in which serving others serves the purpose and intent of preparing them for the spiritual journey ahead. 

And how can anyone preach unless they are sent? As it is written: “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15)

Third, and finally, notice that in order to serve others well, Jesus treats Judas, His betrayer, with the same love and respect as those who are loyal to Him. Jesus washed Judas’ feet too. 

While this story is filled with numerous applications for our lives today, I think this is the one that speaks to me the most powerfully today. Recently a friend told me that followers of Jesus, when confronted with someone they cannot stand, have an obligation to “promote” that person to “enemy status”. I thought that was incredible, and right on time.

You see, we often forget that the way of Jesus means that we love our enemies, bless those who curse us, pray for those who spitefully use us, and show love and compassion when we are stabbed in the back and betrayed. In the name of Jesus, we have forgotten to observe the way of Jesus, which is to always elevate our enemies to a place of honor, love and respect. This doesn’t mean that we agree with our enemies, or that we conform to their vision for our thoughts and lives. But it does mean that we wash their feet. We care about them. We forgive them. We love them. 

You see, for an authentic follower of Jesus, “enemy” is a position of the highest honor.

Contrast that with the devil’s venom of hatred and name calling in today’s politically charged climate, and it is easy to see who is a true follower of Christ, and who is just using Jesus to make a name for themselves. Jesus, fully aware of what Judas was about to do, washed his feet with the same level of care and respect that he gave to everyone else. Perhaps He put even more care and attention into washing Judas’ feet than all the others!

Conclusion

As we go from here, may we all learn from Jesus’ example, and imitate him. 

Lord, strip away our pride that keeps us from serving others the way you serve us. Help us to humble ourselves and grow comfortable with our new status as servants in the world. 

Lord, help us to forgive those who do us harm, the way you forgive us each and every day for those mistakes we seem to keep on making. Forgive us our failures, and wash away the mud on our feet.

Lord Jesus, forgive us for the times when we have served in circles, without purpose or intent. Help us to be mindful of the ways that you would have us serve others, seeking to equip and encourage those we serve to grow closer to you.

And finally, Lord forgive us for demoting our enemies and treating them exactly the opposite of the way that you treat your enemies. Help us to remember, Jesus, that we were once your enemies, but that you redeemed us through your great love. Help us to promote our enemies by washing their feet too.

As we go from here today, Father, may we be reminded that you have washed our feet through the ministry of worship and the word and the blessing of fellowship. You have made every foot in here beautiful. May we realize the fullness of that beauty as we go forth and proclaim the good news of your love and grace to a world full of feet caked with mud. 

There’s a lot of work to do out there! The harvest is plentiful, the workers willing to roll up their sleeves and get dirty are few. Bless those workers today, Lord. Comfort and strengthen every foot-washing servant as they follow your example with all joy. 

Amen, amen, amen!   

 

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