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John 13:1-11 Washing feet - a shameful act for our honorable Lord to do

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Sunday, October 26, 2008

Washing feet – a shameful act for our honorable Lord to do

John 13:1-11

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.

John 13:4-5 NIV


On the last Sunday of February of this year, I launched our study of the Gospel of John, diving in at chapter 17 because I believed that we needed to get an upclose look at our Lord Jesus. One of the best places to discover the character, conviction and priorities of a man or woman is to listen to their prayers while they are in their prayer closet.

John 17 gave us that opportunity with Jesus Christ. In that chapter we saw the character of Jesus that was solidly rooted in His intimate relationship with His Father. We saw the conviction of Jesus that was unbreakable to his assignment to be the sacrificial Lamb of God. We saw the priorities of Jesus by His investment in the lives of His disciples with the full extent of His love.

I admit that my way of tackling the book of John may seem somewhat unorthodox, jumping in at chapter 17, then backing up to chapter 11. It does seem a bit strange. Yet, part of my strategy is to get a clear view of the destination so that as we make the journey with our Lord we are better prepared to understand His moves, His choices and decisions.

Last week we finished up chapter 12, the turning point chapter in the Gospel. Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem brought together all the players, so to speak; those who were for Jesus; those who were against Jesus; and those in between. But for all of them, and for all of us, Jesus is the fork in the road to eternity. Our eternal destination has everything to do with which road we take.

As we enter chapter 13, John sets the context as the Passover Feast. The Passover takes us all back to the days when the Hebrew nation was held captive in Egypt. After repeated signs of God’s power displayed before the Pharoah of Egypt through God’s prophet Moses, Pharoah’s hard heart was hardened by God and He brought judgment on the nation of Egypt.

God told Moses that He was going to send His death angel who would kill the firstborn of every man and animal in Egypt. But, in His mercy toward the obedient and repentant Hebrews, His death angel would Pass Over their homes if he saw blood of a year old lamb painted on the doorframes of their houses.

On that fateful night, God was true to His promise and the Hebrew children were redeemed from death because the angel of death passed over their homes when he saw the blood. From then on, God’s people were to annually celebrate the Passover Feast as a memorial to this day of redemption.

It is within this context, the week celebrating Passover, that Jesus says His goodbyes to His disciples. In John’s Gospel, this “Farewell” section covers chapters 13 through 17. It starts with the powerful lessons of Jesus washing His disciples’ feet and concludes with the intimate conversations of a Son with His Father in chapter 17.

Gerald Borchert in his commentary on the Gospel of John sees chapter 17 as the completion of what Jesus started in chapter 13 with serving His disciples by washing their feet. Borchert suggests that in chapter 13 Jesus modeled for His disciples that Christian discipleship happens in the context of love and servanthood. That’s why He washed their feet.

Then, in chapter 17, Jesus modeled for the disciples that the Christian community’s mission and well-being is accomplished through God-center, Christ-focused prayer. [1]

He suggests that chapter 13 is part 1 and chapter 17 is part 2, thus bringing together love and prayer as critical components in Christian discipleship.

As we now enter chapter 13 with some memory of John 17 still in our minds, hopefully we will see the complementary nature of love and prayer as two (complementary) components in Christian discipleship.

As John 17 opened, it was accountability time for Jesus. Thus, His conversation with the Father which starts with the words, “the time (or hour) has come.” It’s time for Jesus to give an accounting. He could hear His Father asking, “Jesus, did You do what You were sent to do?

Our Lord’s prayer highlights the importance of the relationship between the Son and the Father. His prayer is a conversation with His most intimate of friends. Relationally, they have positioned themselves as a father/son team, though they are nonetheless both fully God. They are one. They are a triunity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit comprising the Godhead. Though they are one, they converse with each other.

John 17:1 (NIV) 1 After Jesus said this, He looked toward heaven and prayed: “Father, the time has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son may glorify You.

This is where we see in prayer the character of Jesus as it is rooted in His intimate relationship with His Father.

Jesus, God the Son, made His greatest sacrifice by attaching Himself to humanity, taking on human flesh, thus making Himself to be an effective mediator between sinful humanity and the righteous and holy Father. In coming to earth, He emptied Himself of His prerogatives as God. In returning to heaven, He is looking forward to receiving back the glory He previously had. John 17:4 says:

4 I have brought You glory on earth by completing the work You gave Me to do. 5 And now, Father, glorify Me in Your presence with the glory I had with You before the world began.

As His mission to a hostile world is about to be completed with the perseverance of a trained and obedient soldier, we see, bathed in prayer, the conviction of Jesus as He fulfills the assignment as the sacrificial Lamb of God given to Him by His Father.

Our Lord’s prayer in John 17 also shows us how He kept His focus on training up His disciples to carry on His work. In verse 6 of chapter 17, Jesus says in His prayer:

6 “I have revealed You to those whom You gave Me out of the world. They were Yours; You gave them to Me and they have obeyed Your word. 7 Now they know that everything You have given Me comes from You. 8 For I gave them the words You gave Me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from You, and they believed that You sent Me.

God gave the disciples to Jesus so that Jesus could train them to carry on the mission of Jesus to the world after He returned to the Father in heaven. Certainly, the completion of the task involved the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Jesus could see that happening. He told His disciples that they would be given the Holy Spirit. And, again, prophetically, Jesus proclaims in prayer as complete what will take place.

So, in the face of distractions and opposition, we see in His prayer the priorities of Jesus by His investment in the lives of His disciples.

So, with this backdrop of Christ’s prayer in chapter 17 as a vital component to the training of His disciples, let’s get into the complementary chapter that adds the component of loving servanthood to the training curriculum of Christ’s disciples.

Chapter 13 of John’s Gospel. By the way, as the writer of a Gospel, John can be rightly referred to as an evangelist. An evangel is a good message, like the Gospel is good news. An evangelist is a messenger bringing good news.

John 13:1 (NIV)

1 It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love.

In addition to the context of chapter 13 being the time of the Passover Feast, John notes for us immediately that Jesus’ time or hour had come. This is the same introduction we get in chapter 17 as Jesus opens His prayer by saying, “Father, the time (or hour) has come.” The hour refers to the time of His departure from this world and the time of His greatest demonstration of love. Verse 1 contains both of those thoughts, (1) Jesus’ departure from this world and (2) His ultimate demonstration of love.

To Christ’s disciples as they reflected on this moment after the resurrection and to students of Scripture, it is clear that Jesus is letting it be known at this small gathering with His disciples that He is going to be the Passover Lamb of God at this special and historically unique Passover Feast.

The key dynamics of this story include Jesus’ anticipated departure, His demonstration of love by washing His disciples feet and by His prophesied dying on the cross, and (3) betrayal from within the ranks of the disciples.

2 The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.

Regarding the betrayal, we see the interplay of temptation and disobedience, of opportunity and desire. This story has two script writers. We are most familiar with God as the script writer of how things played out in Jesus’ life. But Satan was also writing a script. And he needed someone to work with the Pharisees and Saducees that he has already deceived and brought onto his team. So, he made his appeal to Judas Iscariot. That’s the temptation part of the interplay. But, Judas had a desire that was vulnerable to Satan’s temptation. So, when he was tempted or prompted by Satan, he gave in and joined Satan’s ranks. His desire was married to a Satanic opportunity. Betrayal was the result.

So, with everything moving forcefully toward the crucifixion where the loving purposes of God would cross with the evil purposes of Satan, with almost a surreal calmness, Jesus, God in human flesh, Creator of the universe, King of kings and Lord of lords, demonstrates His love for His disciples in a most unexpected way.

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.

Folks, it doesn’t take much imagination to begin to feel the power of His action. In fact, the more I imagine this event, the more I can understand Peter’s resistance. Foot washing was in the category of menial tasks and among the lowest of those tasks. It was shameful to touch or wash someone’s feet. It was the assignment given to Gentile slaves and women. So, for these students to see their Rabbi do this shameful task of washing their feet, it had to be shocking, possibly even revolting.

A familiar rabbinic story is told in Pe’a 1.15c.14 of Rabbi Ishmael, whose mother sought to honor him by washing his feet when he arrived home from the synagogue. After he refused her because he viewed her effort as dishonoring to her and ultimately to him, she sought a censure against him from the rabbinic court for his refusal to allow her to honor him. This story provides some insight into the perspectives of shame and honor in Judaism. (For further information see Str-B 1.707.) [2]

This action by Jesus is not accidental. And, in some ways, it shouldn’t be surprising given that we know that, in coming to earth in obedience to His Father, He gave up His exclusive rights as God to be made in human likeness and take on the very form of a servant. This humble act of washing His disciples’ feet was not His first, nor would it be His last. Physical torture and the cross was still waiting for Him.

This display of humility by Jesus had to have been quite convicting for the disciples, particularly James and John; that is John, the writer of this Gospel. According to Matthew’s account of the Gospel story in Matthew 20:21, just before arriving in Jerusalem, the mother of James and John asked Jesus, possibly on behalf of her boys, if Jesus would set it up so that James and John could sit on the right and left of Him in His kingdom.

So, where would they sit if Jesus is a servant? Undoubtedly, Jesus’ behavior was making the disciples think. And whatever else we can say about Peter, our text certainly suggests he was thinking as he was watching Jesus wash the feet of his fellow disciples. And, I think it is altogether possible that Peter was speaking for the rest of the disciples, even the ones who were in stunned silence that Jesus had already washed their feet.

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!”

Though Peter was thinking, he certainly was not understanding. Jesus makes that point clear. But, it is understandable that there would be resistance to allowing Jesus to wash the feet of the disciples. Couldn’t we see that for Peter he was wanting to preserve the sense of honor for his Lord? This would be like watching the President of the United States coming to our house and cleaning our toilet. I certainly would stand in his way and say, “No way, Mr. President, you will never clean my toilet.”

But if we give Peter credit for thinking, I don’t think we can give Peter credit for listening and pondering. You notice that his refusal to allow Jesus to wash his feet shows no evidence that he heard what Jesus had just said to him.

7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

Peter’s reply suggests that he thinks he knows exactly what Jesus is doing and he wasn’t going to have any part of it.

But with an either/or ultimatum, Jesus says, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me.”

Well, Peter heard those words and they were as shocking as watching Jesus wash his fellow disciples’ feet. But, as Jesus points out, Peter still did not understand what Jesus was doing. For Peter, he thought Jesus was talking about washing dirt off his feet. For Jesus, He was speaking symbolically, like He often did in parables.

10 Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his 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.

Unfortunately, the NIV has added the word body in verse 10 and makes it more difficult for the reader to think symbolically about the cleansing that Jesus is speaking of here. The ESV states it more accurately and even notes that many manuscripts don’t include the phrase about the feet either.

John 13:10 (ESV) 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet,1 but is completely clean. And you2 are clean, but not every one of you.”

So, could it be that by this humble act of washing His disciples’ feet that Jesus was, in actuality, bathing His disciples in a whole new perspective on what it means to be a disciple of Jesus? Washing feet was just a symbol. It was a representation of the kind of humble service disciples of Christ were to engage in. For us to miss the symbolism of footwashing is to take up the same confusion that Peter had. We, too, would be talking about jumping into the bathtub in response to the words of Jesus.

But, Jesus has just demonstrated a whole new way of thinking. Symbolically, the disciples have just been bathed in the servant-leadership model. They have been cleaned of the false notion that leadership means to lord it over people, use people, exploit people. That is not leadership. And Jesus has just washed their thinking of that perspective. All of them were clean, completely clean, except the betrayer. He was still captive to the notion that you only go around once so get all you can now, ‘cause that’s all you’ll ever get.

So, here in the opening verses of John 13, Jesus is preparing His disciples for the Passover where He will be the Lamb sacrificied to cleanse all who will receive by faith His cleansing blood.

The hour for Christ’s departure has come. He has given a significant demonstration of His love for His disciples by washing their feet. And, among the very ranks of the disciples is one who will betray the Savior and will play a role in bringing about the crucifixion that will become the means of redemption for any sinner who welcomes Jesus as His Savior and Lord. Jesus the Lord is the Passover Lamb, our servant-Savior.

Lord Jesus, would You bath each of us in the understanding that to be Your representatives in this world means that we join You in being humble servants?


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[1]Borchert, Gerald L.: John 12-21. Nashville : Broadman & Holman, 2002 (The New American Commentary, New International Version 25B), S. 187

[2]Borchert, G. L. (2002). Vol. 25B: John 12-21. The new American commentary, New International Version. Nashville: Broadman & Holman.

1 Some manuscripts omit except for his feet

2 The Greek words for you in this verse are plural

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