1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. 2 During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. 5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.
We come now to a very significant division in this Gospel account by John. Up until now – chapters 1 through 12 – We have been witnessing the interaction between Jesus and those who rejected Him; the rejecting nation.
John began telling us that His own did not receive Him, chapter 1 verse 11, and by the telling of the events of Christ’s ministry in Judea and Samaria and Galilee, John established that claim in the recounting of the numerous confrontations Jesus had with the Jews and their consistent rejection of Him
But another thing John said in chapter 1 verse 12, was that to those who did receive Him He gave the power to become children of God.
Those are the people we will now observe, because at the end of chapter 12 we leave behind those who have rejected Jesus, and chapters 13 through 17 are sharply focused on those who received Him – those to whom He has given the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.
The first sentence of chapter 13 seems a little strangely worded. John says ‘before’ the Feast of the Passover, but verse 2 begins with ‘During supper’. So we need to slow down and find out what John is telling us in verse 1.
It would be ridiculous to take his first sentence to mean that Jesus loved His own before the Passover and until the end of Passover. So what has he told us there?
If we read slowly and look closely at the words, it seems clear that John is telling his readers that as the Passover approached Jesus, knowing that His hour had come to depart this world, determined to demonstrate His love for them to the deepest degree.
When John says ‘to the end’, he doesn’t mean to the end of the Passover, and he doesn’t even mean to the cross. He is talking about degrees not duration, and Jesus demontrated His great love for us to the nth degree.
“God demonstrates His own love for us in that while we were yet sinners Christ died for us.” Romans 5:8 To be certain, the death of God’s sinless Son on the cross of Calvary and the reason for which He went there is the greatest demonstration of God’s love for His own.
However there is something recorded for us in John 13 that I believe would rank as the second greatest show of love from Jesus for His disciples, and the thing that should shame and challenge and inspire all of us in what He did, is that when He was finished Jesus commanded that we demonstrate that same kind of love for one another.
We’ll talk about that today. First, let’s look at several amazing contrasts presented for us in these early verses.
WHAT JESUS KNEW
There are several things that Jesus knew, as John points out in verses 1-3. First, Jesus knew that His hour had come.
In chapters 2, 7 and 8 of this Gospel Jesus had occasion to declare that His hour had not yet come. But in chapter 12 verse 23 Jesus said that the hour had come for the Son of Man to be glorified, and now John confirms that Jesus knew His hour had come.
Interestingly, and here is the first contrast I wanted to show you, from our point of view that meant His hour to suffer. At least, that is the first thing I think comes to our minds when we know that Jesus is hosting His final Passover with His friends and we’re told that ‘knowing that His hour had come’ He did certain things; we think, arrest, torture, cross.
But from the divine side of the equation this is seen as an accomplishment; a departure; a return.
We tend first to think of what men will do, but He thinks of it in terms of what God is doing.
“..knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father..”
And this is not the only time this language is employed by the Gospel writers. In Luke’s account of the Mount of Transfiguration we read that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus, discussing the ‘departure He was going to accomplish’ in Jerusalem.
On the road to Emmaus after His resurrection, Jesus asked His gloomy disciples, ‘was it not necessary for the Christ to suffer these things and enter into His glory?’
I think it’s safe to say that Jesus was ready to have this work accomplished and go back home, don’t you?
Here’s two other things Jesus knew that present another contrast. He knew Satan had put it in the heart of Judas to betray Him, and He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands.
Now I don’t believe John put those two sentences together by accident.
We need to know and understand who is really in charge here. This wasn’t just an impulse on the part of Judas. Satan had moved on him to finally carry out this betrayal that had probably been on the mind of Judas for a long time. So on the one hand there is this most powerful of demonic powers, right here in the room, working against God and His Christ.
But Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into His hands, meaning His was the real power and authority and it was really His plan that was in the working and being fulfilled here, and while – again – on the human side it appeared that evil was triumphing and Satan was doing this thing, on the divine side of the equation, Jesus had come forth from God and He was going back to God.
Just take one more glimpse of the contrasts I’ve already laid out here and then we’ll move on.
This is what men knew. It was time for the annual Passover celebration, wherein the Jews as a nation commemorated that first Passover meal that God had ordained, and the subsequent 10th plague and the deliverance of their ancestors out of Egypt behind Moses.
Pharaoh refused to let Israel, God’s son, go worship in the wilderness, so God killed Pharaoh’s firstborn son. (Exodus 4:22-23)
22 “Then you shall say to Pharaoh, ‘Thus says the LORD, “Israel is My son, My firstborn. 23 “So I said to you, ‘Let My son go that he may serve Me’; but you have refused to let him go. Behold, I will kill your son, your firstborn.” ’
As instructed, the people took a lamb, one for each household, killed the lamb and put the blood on the lintel and doorposts of their homes and went inside where God passed over them to protect them from the death angel, who went over all of Egypt that night and slew the firstborn of every Egyptian home, including the livestock of the land.
So here they were, once more, having prepared all the elements of the meal, and they were here to commemorate that deliverance. In their midst was the one who had inspired Pharaoh’s evil heart, and he was now inspiring the heart of another evil man so that he might finally kill God’s innocent Passover Lamb, Jesus Christ.
From the divine side what was going on, was that Jesus knew His hour had come, He knew that the Father had given Him the task and the power and the authority to shed His blood and lay His body down, to take it back up again, and to ascend back to the Father’s right hand in glory, thus delivering all His people out of bondage to sin and Satan and free them forever making them children of God.
WHAT JESUS DID
Knowing all that, here is what Jesus did, recorded in verses 4 and 5.
“…got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. 5 Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”
Ok let’s talk about what He did then why He did it.
This foot-washing was something that was not even required of Jewish servants by their masters. The Romans might have required it from their slaves, but Jews did not.
This was considered the lowest, most humiliating thing one person could be asked of another, and they generally washed their own feet, and when a host, usually a woman, offered to do it for a guest it was a very humbling expression of affection and esteem.
Now here’s the picture we get from the narrative. Jesus and the 12 have gathered in this room, either rented or borrowed for the afternoon so they can celebrate the Passover meal in private, as a family might. The preparations have apparently been made earlier in the day and now everything is ready.
So they have gathered, and they are now all reclining together on pillows or mats around this low table. John says ‘during supper’ Jesus got up and did this, so apparently the meal had already begun and everyone was enjoying the various elements of the meal and alternately chatting among themselves and hearing Jesus as He repeated the traditional words that went with each part of dinner.
Suddenly Jesus stands, disrobes, wraps a towel around His waist in the tradition of a slave, fills a basin with water…
…and by this point I would imagine the room has grown very quiet as the twelve observe the actions of their Master and wonder what in the world He is doing and what this has to do with the Passover Seder…
…and Jesus knees down at the feet of one of the disciples and begins to wash his feet and proceeds to dry them with the towel around His waist!
Well we know Peter is flabbergasted because in verse 8 when it comes his turn he tries to refuse the washing in no uncertain terms.
Judas, already being filled with loathing for his Rabbi who has been nothing but a disappointment to him is probably so disgusted the very touch of Jesus’ hand on his feet makes his skin crawl.
We can only imagine the discomfort and the disquieting thoughts being experienced by all the rest, since we’re not told anything more about their reactions; but I’ll venture to say that as at other times Peter was probably their spokesman here also.
Notice this. None of them said, “Oh, no, Lord, let me do that!” or “But Lord, I should be washing Your feet!”
Now let’s talk about why Jesus did this. Let me remind you that according to John’s word crafting in the first three verses, Jesus rising to perform this act was out of knowing that the devil had put it in the heart of Judas to betray Him, and that His hour had come to depart this world back to the Father, and it was out of His love for His own who were in the world.
And although we know that in the following chapters Jesus is going to have much to tell His disciples that they and we need to know, here is an act – a demonstration – being performed by someone who knows He only has hours left and is therefore leaving them with a most important final lesson, not of words but, as I said, of action.
But thanks be to God, He did not leave it to our imaginations or our power of discernment to try to make sense of what He did and why He did it. Because when Jesus was finished He put his outer garments back on, reclined back at the table, and began the oral portion of this final lesson.
WHAT JESUS COMMANDED
13 “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14 “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 “For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.”
Remembering that Jesus uses precisely the words to perfectly convey His thoughts, notice He said “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.”
His first words after sitting down are to remind them that He is Teacher and Lord. No surprises here; the words mean ‘teacher’ and ‘lord’, so think about their significance in this setting.
You call Me Teacher and Lord and you are correct, that is what I am. So as Lord, meaning owner, master, I have the right to command you, and as teacher, you have the obligation to learn from Me. Right?
So your Teacher and Lord has just given you a lesson; set an example for you to follow. Learn from your Teacher, obey your Lord!
Ok let’s get something out of the way so we don’t have to discuss it further. Jesus was not teaching that in the church we’re supposed to have foot-washing ceremonies. That is silliness; at best it is useless; at worst it is pride-producing legalism.
To take this account to be a biblical mandate to wash people’s feet is to miss the infinitely more important lesson being taught.
The physical illustrations Jesus used in His teaching always represented spiritual truth – a spiritual application. So let’s see it that way. In fact the confirmation of what I’ve just said is found in verse 7, when Jesus tells Peter that what He is doing at the moment is something Peter will grasp the meaning of later, though he did not understand at the moment.
Obviously Peter understood he was about to get his feet washed. So there was deeper meaning behind this physical act.
I think the best way to explain the underlying teaching is to approach it from these two words – and in this order – ‘humbleness’ and ‘holiness’.
Jesus said in verse 16, “Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.”
Matthew Mark and Luke all record Jesus’ teaching that in the Kingdom of Heaven some who are first shall be last and some who are last shall be first.
The spiritual principle at work beginning with the Triune God and coming down to us is that the true master serves. The true Master exalts the servant to a place of value and worth.
If Jesus, the Lord and Master and Teacher of all, the One through whom God made the universe and who holds all things together by the power of His Word, wraps Himself in the garb of a bondslave and stoops to bring us up, how much more should we who are nothing gladly humble ourselves to the lifting up of our brothers and sisters in Christ?
If the Father placed all things into the Son’s hands, and then the Son wrapped a towel around His waist and washed the feet of Judas, how ashamed should we be when we treat our fellows in the faith with scorn?
Is it coincidence only that the lesson Jesus chose as most important to teach in the final hours with His disciples is the one that the history of the church has proved over and over is hardest for us to learn and obey? I don’t think so.
Let’s look at that second word.
In verse 10 Jesus said that he who has bathed needs only to wash his feet. Then in verse 14 He said that the example He had set was that we should wash one another’s feet. Here is the teaching.
By the sanctification that comes with our salvation God has made us clean. He has bathed us so to speak.
In Titus 3:5-6 Paul wrote:
5 He saved us, not on the basis of deeds which we have done in righteousness, but according to His mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewing by the Holy Spirit, 6 whom He poured out upon us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
But the reference to our feet has to do with our daily walk and our exposure to sin and evil in this world. While we are clean forever before God and set apart unto Him, there is yet a need for us to seek after holiness in our daily lives, recognizing temptations, putting away sinful behaviors, confessing sin to God when we find that we have sinned, living in a perpetual state of repentance for the daily cleaning of our feet.
Now listen. If Jesus has commanded us to clean one another’s feet, then that means He wants us to help one another in this regard. That means watching out for one another…watching one another’s back, so to speak. It requires us to even expose sin when necessary and even to confront one another about sin on occasion.
So do you see why those two words, ‘humbleness’ and ‘holiness’ had to be in that order? If I am to wash your feet in our mutual pursuit of holiness, and you mine, it cannot be done except in a spirit of humility and putting the other person ahead and above ourselves.
Jesus didn’t wash their feet from the head seat at the table. He had to step down and stoop down to do it.
There is another angle at which to view this teaching and that is from the perspective of the recipient of the washing. Humility and holiness are involved here also.
The one who receives the cleansing must exercise humility in recognizing and admitting that the washing is needed, but if the desire for holiness is not present he is not likely to receive the treatment with humility. On the other hand, when a believer has his feet cleaned regarding his daily exposure to sin and his natural bent to sinning because of the sin nature and has humbled himself before God’s Holy Spirit in the perpetual sanctifying process of fitting him for heaven, holiness is going to be nurtured and developed in his life and walk.
Mature believers will recognize that some of the greatest moments of spiritual growth they have experienced have come on the heels of humbling themselves before God, and at times even before other trusted believers, and made confession of sin and received cleansing from it.
Let me be clear though on the dynamics of the heart’s response.
Peter very strongly refused to let Jesus wash his feet until Jesus explained that it was necessary if their relationship was to continue, then he let Him do it and expressed a desire to be clean all over.
Judas as far as we know accepted the foot-washing without a word, but there was no change in his heart, except perhaps a greater determination to betray Jesus to His enemies.
There is a third word in this process; one which can only come after the other two. There is ‘humbleness’, then ‘holiness’, and the third is ‘happiness’. Listen to verse 17
17 “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
Notice if you will that Jesus didn’t say you’ll be happy if you know these things. He said if you know them, you will be blessed (or happy) if you do them.
This is a mandate from the Savior, fellow Christians. He has acted the servant as an example for us, then He has very clearly and unambiguously declared that joy comes from doing what He has instructed us to do.
Christianity is not a religion of the mind only. It is a religion of the heart that manifests in the life. If it is absent from the life that is an indication that it is not in the heart, and if it is not in the heart then there is only head knowledge (if that) which is not Christianity at all but just a figment of the imagination.
This was the last legitimate Passover celebration. Have you ever realized that? All of the types and symbols provided in the various elements of the meal were fulfilled the next day in the person of Jesus Christ.
During this dinner Jesus fulfilled the types of the wine and the bread by telling them they were representations of His body and blood and that they were to partake of these things, not once per year on Passover, but as often as they would in remembrance of Him until He returns.
This was His last peaceful meal with those He loved, whom He loved to the uttermost in taking the form of a bondservant and becoming obedient to the point of death, even the humiliating, ignoble death of a cross – and He did all this after saying, ‘I gave you an example’.
Are you familiar with the story by James Thurber, “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty”? It is a short story he wrote in 1939 about a man who spends so much of his time fantasizing about being in great adventures that he is rendered ineffectual in the real world, where his life is dull and boring and entirely out of his control.
Jesus does not make Walter Mitty Christians. He fills is own with His Spirit and moves faith from head to heart from which comes the fruit of the Spirit through the believer’s daily life.
Judas had his feet washed, but he was not a true believer and his life demonstrated what he really was. Jesus said to the group ‘you are clean, but not all of you’, and John clarified that for us by writing, “For He knew the one who was betraying Him, for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean’.”
The message there for the true believer is that like the rest of the Apostles that day, the true believer is clean all over and acceptible to the Father and fit for heaven because he or she has been saved by the blood of the Lamb and washed clean by the pure water of the Word.
So we are secure. If you are a true follower of Christ, born from above and sanctified by His Spirit you can never again be unacceptible to God. You are His, bought with a price and nothing can snatch you out of His hand.
He wants you to go in that knowledge, and let that certainty produce in you a humility before God and your fellows that will desire to serve in holiness, humbly receiving in return the service that is rendered to you; for joy comes not in knowledge only, but in the doing of the Master’s instruction, which He taught us by example at the last Passover.