Summary: The washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus was his way of teaching them humility in serving others, a dramatised parable of his submission to death, an anticipation of the Cross and the Empty Tomb abd a message for us today.
WASHING THE DISCIPLES’ FEET - AN ACTED PARABLE
On the night before His Passion Jesus spoke some wonderfully prophetic words: "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand" (John 13:7). These are the words of Jesus addressed to His disciples. The scene is the room in Jerusalem in which Jesus celebrated the feast of the Passover shortly before He was arrested. It’s likely that they had eaten the Passover meal together in previous years and had found it a joyful experience. That was the intention, for it was the way in which the Jews remembered how God had delivered their forefathers out of the clutches of the Egyptians many hundreds of years before. But on this occasion it was all so different. It wasn’t a united and happy company of disciples that gathered with Jesus. The frame of mind in which they found themselves could best be described as one of "fightings without and fears within" (2 Cor 7:5). A dispute had arisen at the supper table as to which of them should be accounted the greatest. Perhaps there had been an undignified scramble to get the places nearest to Jesus around the meal table.
The disciples were like the children that Jesus had spoken of, arguing in the marketplace because they couldn’t have their own way. C S Lewis, in his book "The Screwtape Letters", imagined that he could overhear what a chief tempter in Hell was saying: "It will be an ill day for us," the tempter says, "if what most humans mean by ’Religion’ ever vanished from the Earth. It can still send us the truly delicious sins. The fine flower of unholiness can grow only in the close neighbour-hood of the holy. Nowhere do we tempt so successfully as on the very steps of the altar." Any well-informed Christian will agree that it’s true. How our Lord must be grieved by position-seekers in the church, petty jealousies between believers and so on.
These "fightings without" of the disciples, of being at odds with one another were only a symptom of their "fears within", their true relationship with God and His Son. For some time now tension had been building up as Jesus had realised that the crisis hour of His Passion was drawing near. Jesus became extremely conscious of the forces of evil seeking to overwhelm Him as He prepared for His self-sacrifice. There was a great battle raging in His mind over doing His Father’s will, and He confessed that His soul was troubled. Naturally He would have welcomed any spiritual help and support from His followers in this time of stress - but it wasn’t forthcoming. You’ll know the saying and have proved it from experience that "a friend in need is a friend indeed". This is a ministry that all Christians can engage in. No special qualifications are required but a heart of love and sympathy. The Lord Jesus failed to find this in His disciples. It’s so easy to criticise the disciples - but what about us? Somebody once said that when we point an accusing finger at another we automatically point four at ourselves! Very often only a simple act of kindness is all that’s necessary to bring cheer to someone who is low in spirit.
The time had come for Jesus to teach the disciples a lesson and He chose to do it in the form of an acted parable - that of washing their feet. The inspired evangelist John was an eyewitness of the scene. It had made an indelible impression on his mind. He remembered ever so clearly how Jesus poured water from the pitcher into the washbasin and then proceeded to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the end of the towel tied around His waist. The reactions of all but one of the disciples aren’t recorded. They probably kept their thoughts to themselves. Perhaps they were at a loss what to say, being perplexed and ashamed of the fact that Jesus was doing for them what they should have done for Him and for each other. But not when it came to Peter’s turn. He was the man who couldn’t keep still. He did his thinking aloud: "No," he protested, "you shall never wash my feet?" Peter was shocked. He saw the absurdity of the situation, the unreasonableness of what was happening. The Lord of glory on the one hand, and Peter’s feet on the other! What a contrast! It was at this point that our Lord uttered these magnificent words, "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand."
What did Jesus mean? We can see in these words an invitation by Jesus to His disciples to watch closely what He’s doing and listen carefully to His explanation that was to follow. Anyone who has been house hunting will remember the process of getting details from the estate agent of a likely property and looking at it from the outside. But you can get only a general idea of what the house is like. So you look at the brochure and see what are the arrangements for gaining access. When you get the key you can complete your understanding of the inside of the house. This is just a parable of life’s meaning of our spiritual pilgrimage. Often we can’t understand what’s happening at the time, but there’s a key to gaining understanding, and it’s found in the Lord Jesus Christ: "You do not realise now what I am doing, but later you will understand."