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. The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 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. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” 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.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. 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. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. – John 13:1-17
Today’s passage is an intimate interlude between the birth of Jesus we celebrated yesterday and the confusing crucifixion that is to come. The disciples and Jesus are sharing a meal together awaiting the Passover. I love the sentence “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Jesus was showing these followers that He was a God who Serves which was something quite different in human history up to this point, and since this time.
Everyone is eating the evening meal and probably talking together about the coming celebration of the Passover. Jesus is the only one who knows what is coming and what He chooses to do is very telling of His love and the way He shows it to His followers, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God” Despite the fact that God had given Him the power to do great miracles Jesus chose to lay down His life for His friends because He loved them. He shows this love by washing their feet. Much of the washing in the Old Testament was an effort to be ceremonially clean so that one could enter the presence of God. Jesus is making these followers clean in a symbolic way.
God has been in the business of bathing the people He loves for a very long time. In fact there are several occasions in the old testament where this intimate side of God is revealed. The first mention of washing feet that I found was in Genesis 18:1-5, when Abraham entertains three representatives of God and offers to bring water so they can wash their feet. There is no implication of intimacy with God in this event, Abraham was still in the mode of sacrifice and service to a relatively impersonal God.
Moses models a slightly more intimate love for those that are following him by following God’s instructions to washing Aaron and his sons in Leviticus 8:1-10, and in Exodus 30:17-21 Moses is instructed to “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die.” So we have not exactly reached the point of intimacy yet but there is a connection between being in God’s presence and washing of one’s feet.
In Ezekiel 16:1-14 God describes His care for the people of Israel like this: “I bathed you with water and washed the blood from you and put ointments on you.” This is not exactly foot washing but there is an intimacy here that is very similar to that described in this account in John. There is more of a hint of the coming intimacy in Isaiah 1:15-20 when God commits to “coming to settle the matter” of our sin and separation from Him. I am sure there are other references buried in the old testament and the gospels but I will return to this reach now and see what God has to say about this account of foot washing.
Jesus is busy serving His followers by washing their feet, and Peter is busy missing the point. When Jesus comes to Peter He pipes up in true foot-in-the-mouth Peter fashion “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” Instead of realizing his mistake and the “me” focus Peter doubles down, “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Peter wanted to control the way he would be served by God. As I am writing this it occurs to me that although Peter’s control complex seems ludicrous in this context I am guilty of similar control issues when it comes to God and how I allow Him to serve me.
I think that I am more comfortable making sacrifices for God than allowing Him to make sacrifices for me and serve me through His actions. From everything I have read, including this passage, this service thing is a two-way street with God. He wants us to both serve Him and allow ourselves to be served by Him – at the same time. This is a bit like the way He wants us to pursue Him while He is pursing us. I am not sure why this seesaw servitude is part of our relationship, but I think it does make it richer than a mere one-way mirror.
In the final parts of the passage Jesus makes it clear that part of the reason He is washing the disciples feet is as an example of how His followers are to love and serve one another. The take home message for me is that we as followers of Christ need to be just as good at receiving service as giving it out to others. This is not always easy, especially in a culture that highly values self-sufficiency and independence.
Prayer: God help us to serve one another in love and accept the love and service of others.