By Pastor Glenn Pease
After the Russo-Japanese War in which Japan gained a great victory on the sea, the commander of the Japanese fleet visited the United States. William Jennings Bryan was the secretary of state, and it was his duty to toast the visiting commander. Bryan was a staunch prohibitionist however, and never touched champagne, and so he had a problem. He rose from his table at the formal dinner and held up a glass of water, and he said, "Admiral Togo has won a great victory on water, therefore I will toast him in water. When Admiral Togo wins a victory on champagne, I will toast him in champagne." Whether the Admiral was impressed or not, Bryan was able to gain a personal victory in that situation with water as his weapon.
Kagawa, the great Japanese Christian leader, tells of another victory with water. A man was brought to the hospital with a rare Oriental disease that was rapidly taking his life. The only remedy available was a chemical solution to relieve the suffering. His body had to be completely submerged, and so with even his arms pinned beneath the water he had to spend seven solid years in a bathtub. He had heard the Gospel, but had not responded. He requested a New Testament, and by means of string it was hung on a level with his eyes. He began to submerge his inner being in the water of life. He found Christ in a bathtub, and that pathetic tomb became a temple. Many came to hear the testimony of this man whose life was spared by water until he could drink of that water that gives life which never ends.
I suppose there are numerous stories of victory that have been won by water. God certainly gained the victory over the Egyptians when the water of the red sea closed in on them. It was by means of water that he cleanse the polluted world in the days of Noah. Jesus saved a couple of great embarrassment at their wedding by turning water into wine. Water has been the primary weapon by which fire fighters have gained their victories over the destructive flames. Scientists tell us that if it was not for water valor in the air all around us we would be burned up by solar rays. The victory of life over death is going on all the time, and water is the weapon of victory.
Doubtless, numerous volumes could be filled with the victories gained with water. We are examining one that is the Niagara of them all. The paradox is that the great victory that Jesus wins with water is done so quietly that we tend to miss it, like a quiet little stream which runs so noiselessly we fail to detect it. This text seems so quiet for several reasons. First of all it is quiet because Jesus has finished His public ministry. He will never preach to the multitudes again. He will no more walk among the crowds teaching and healing. Jesus had only one more night to live, and He knows it. He is eating His last supper with His disciples, and He knows they have so much to learn before He leaves, and so He has taken them apart.
This leads to the second reason why it seems so quiet. The disciples are somewhat stunned by what Jesus is doing and saying. The disciples ate many meals with Jesus, but never on like this. They did not know it was the last supper, but Jesus did, and He speaks to them in these last chapters of John like He never spoke before. There is depth and mystery here as no where else in Scripture. A. W. Pink says, "We are now to enter upon what believers in each age have regarded as the most precious portion of this Gospel." John R. W. Stott writes, "If Scripture may be liken to the temple, then these chapters are the enter sanctuary of the temple."
We are on holy ground when we enter chapter 13, but we must recognize it is a battle ground. The very flames of hell are burning fiercely, but only Jesus is conscious of the danger, and the presence of powerful enemy forces. Verse 2 tells us that Satan already had put it into the heart of Judas to betray him. He was working hard on Peter also at this very point, and Luke tells us in 22:31-32 that Jesus said, "Simon, Simon, behold Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail."
In there blind innocence, none of the disciples could see that there Lord was soon going to face the forces of hell and darkness in a direct head on encounter. They were so blind and self-centered that Luke tells us even after Jesus instituted the Lord's Supper, "A dispute arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest." There attitudes were all wrong, and Jesus knew He had to convince them of what true greatness was before He left them. The time was so short, and there minds and wills so stubborn. What could He do?
John makes it clear in verse 3 that he could do anything. Any weapon available to an all powerful Deity was His, for the Father had given all things into His hands. Jesus could have blasted His disciples into submission. By shear force Jesus could have made Judas forsake his evil scheme, and He could have compelled the others to apologize and respect each other. He did not chose to do this, however. But, rather, with the whole world in His hands, knowing that in a matter of hours He will be in the presence of His Father, as the Lord of glory, He pours water in a basin, and stoops to wash His disciples feet. In so doing, He won a great victory with water, and demonstrated that love is the supreme weapon which conquers all. Jesus had His choice of any weapons in the universe, and He chose water and a humble act of love.
What Jesus is teaching here, by this incomparable condescension is so precious and manifold in its implications that it is like a diamond with many surfaces sparkling, and each calling our eye to closer examination. We want to glance at a few of these sparkling facets before we plunge deeper into the inner sanctuary. Washing 24 dirty feet does not sound like the most exciting experience in the world, but the more we examine it, the more exciting it gets. Jesus is revealing in this act that there is only one effective way to deal with sin. Sin is like dirt. Whoever heard of taking a hammer to your hands to get dirt off them. Whoever considered using a file to rub their hands clean. There are all kinds of violent and radical means by which you can try to blast and burn dirt to get rid of it, but all such battles are pure folly, when you can gain the victory easily with water.
There is no point in fighting dirt-just wash it away. Pounding it will get you no where, but water will get you clean. This is just one of the lessons that Jesus teaches us about dealing with sin. You can't fight it with force and drive it out of your life. This is a futile and frustrating battle because you always lose. Sin needs to be cleansed and washed away by the water of forgiveness. John says in his first Epistle that if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive our sins, and cleanse us form all unrighteousness. Water is used as a symbol of the Word. In Eph. 5:26 Paul is writing of Christ purifying His bride and says, "Having cleansed her by the washing of water with the Word."
Jesus is dealing with very specific sins which Satan is using to bring the disciples to defeat. The primary sin was that of pride. They were all so worried about being great, but Jesus should them that true greatness was in performing loving service. The way you overcome the great sin of pride is by gentle acts of service to others.
John emphasizes the full knowledge of Jesus at this point. He knew His full dignity as the Son of God. Knowing that, He did not demand that His disciples wash His feet. He, as the King, took off His garments and washed the feet of the servants. The King serves the servants, and by this act declares all human dignity, which prevents a man from performing a lowly act of love for another, is not dignity, but dirt. It is sinful pride, and is clearly un-Christlike.
Jesus was heavenly minded, yet so down to earth. He was conscious that He would soon return to the Father. Imagine all the angels in heaven singing the King is coming even before the cross. From heaven's perspective the return of Christ took place when He left the earth. The mind of Christ was full of these glorious thoughts of His return to the Father. It seems like going to the sublime to the ridiculous to have Jesus, with this hope, stooping to wash His disciples dirty feet. But there is nothing ridiculous about giving all men the chance for greatness and dignity. That is the victory Jesus won for us all with that basin of water. The towel Jesus used should be our flag as Christians, for it represents the greatness we can all attain.
Jesus said the greatest among you is the servant of all. If greatness depends upon magnetic personally, than most men can never be great. If greatness can be achieved only by doing deeds which gain great publicity, and if one must be charming, witty, dashing, or rich to be great, then greatness is reserved for the few. If, however, greatness before God can be achieved by acts of service, then no child of God is eliminated from the competition. Has there ever been a believer so ungifted he could not wash another's feet? The only talent God requires for any of His children to be great is the talent of the towel-that is, the talent to stoop and meet another's simple needs in lowly service.
In 1878 William Booth started the Salvation Army, and men came from all over the world to join it. Samuel Logan Brengle, a Methodist minister from American, went to England to join the army with the idea of rising to great heights. Booth detected his pride and ordered him to clean the boots of the other trainees as his first job. Brengle rebelled and resented this degrading task, but God spoke to him in a dream. He dreamed of Christ with His disciples in the upper room that last night He spent with them. He dreamed the event of our text, and when he woke he was a changed man, and he prayed, "Lord, you washed their feet, I will black their boots." The example of Christ led him to do acts of service, and thus to greatness, and he became the first American born Commissioner in the Salvation Army.
Jesus had to get this important lesson across to His disciples or the foundation of His church would be cracked from the start. The record of Peter's resistance is given by John because he was the leader of the 12, and if he failed to learn the way to greatness, how could he lead anyone else? Jesus gained a victory of Peter's pride with this water and a basin, and Peter passes it on in I Peter 5:5, "For God gives special blessings to those who are humble, but sets Himself against those who are proud." (Living Bible).
This last lesson that Jesus taught before the cross is a lesson that must be learned by all believers if they hope to fulfill God's plan for their lives. The biggest battle every believer has is with their own pride. D. L. Moody said his greatest problems in the ministry was the envy of Christian workers. He spent his nights fighting the devil, and his days trying to calm the quarreling among his team of evangelists over whose name should be in greater capital letters in the advertising. Jesus knew this was going to be the greatest battle of His disciples all through history. He knew we would have a tendency to think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, and that is why He taught this lesson at such a crucial hour, and in such a dramatic unforgettable way. With water He washed His disciples feet, and John tells us that the love of Christ for His own is what motivated Him. "Having loved His own which are in the world He loved them unto the end."
Love is a central theme in this inner sanctuary. In chapters 1-12 of John's gospel Jesus ministers to the masses, and though He demonstrates love in action, the theme of His messages to the crowds is life and light. Life is used 50 times in these chapters, and light 32 times, but love is used only 6 times. Now, in chapters 13-17,
where Jesus speaks in private to His own, the change is obvious. Life is used only 6 times, and light not at all, but love is used 31 times. Love takes the dominate role when Jesus speaks to His own. We learn from this that the world needs love and light, but they will only receive it when the church is dominated by love.
He loved them all along, but John says He loved to the end. In spite of their blindness and their pride, and all their other faults, Jesus loved them, and that is why He washed their feet. He was willing to perform this radical act of condescension for their sake that they might be aided in their battle with sin and Satan. He loved them to the end is often translated, He loved them to the uttermost.
Morris has it, "Now He showed how utterly He loved them." He did not cease to love them even though Judas was about to betray Him. Peter was about to resist and then deny Him. His inner circle was about to ignore His agony and forsake Him. Instead of condemning them, He won a victory over His own wrath, and a victory over their stubborn pride, and thus, a victory over all that Satan could have hoped to accomplish here, by pouring water and washing His disciples feet. He loved them to the end-the end of His life and the end of their lives, and to the uttermost, in spite of their pride.
His love no end or measure knows,
No change can turn its course;
Eternally the same it flows
From one eternal Source.
Love which does not stoop is not agape or Christlike love. Jesus stooped to lay aside His garments of deity to take on flesh and be born of a virgin ( a victory with water, for like all babies He was born with water). He stooped to inner the river of Jordon and be baptized (a victory with water, for He identified Himself with sinful humanity). Now in His last hours in the flesh He stoops again to gain a victory with water by this act of condescending love.
We all need to recognize we are no better than the 12, but are equally blind to our self-centeredness and pride. Leslie Weatherhead said in his sermon in London during World War II while the Germans were bombing it-"...when a foul egotism rises up within me and would bid me assert myself, planned for myself, served my own interest, play my own hand and take care of number one: Then, O my Lord, may I hear in imagination the gentle splashing of water falling into a basin, and see the Son of God washing the disciples feet..." If we could develop an attitude like this, we would all win many a victory with water.
Jesus is first of all the Savior, and the greatest victory of life is victory over all that sin can do by receiving Him as Savior and the Water of Life. Horatius Bonar wrote,
I heard the voice of Jesus say,
Behold, I freely give
The living water; thirsty one,
Stoop down and drink, and live.
I came to Jesus, and I drank
Of that life-giving stream;
My thirst was quenched, my soul revived,
And now I live in Him.
That is life's greatest victory with water. If you have not experienced this victory put your trust in Christ right now as the Water of Life.