Jesus Washes His Disciples' Feet
1It 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.
2The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
I grew up always having at least one dog in our house. Before I left for college, in fact, we owned two different dogs. I always liked dogs and I recently got one for my own sons, although I don’t think I like dogs as much now as I did then. It’s one thing when a dog messes up your parents house, you don’t really think about it. But it’s something else when he messes up your house. Somewhere along the line in the last few years, however, my parents switched over from owning dogs to now owning three cats and no dogs. I’m not even going to try to be sensitive here. I don’t like cats. I don’t see the point of owning an animal that won’t even come when you call it. My dad tells a poignant little anecdote, though, that perfectly captures the difference between cats and dogs. He says that a dog looks at the fact that humans feed him, take him outside, clean up after, and care for him, and thinks, "They must be God." A cat, on the other hand, looks at the fact that humans feed her, let her outside and inside, clean up after her, and take care of her, and thinks, "I must be God." That’s really the difference between dogs and cats in my opinion. Dogs see the service that humans lovingly provide for them as evidence that the human is higher than they are. Cats, though, see the service that humans lovingly provide for them as evidence that the human is lower than they are.
In John 1:14, John tells us that the "Word became flesh." Jesus left the glory, splendor and perfect peace of being in heaven, the place where God’s will is done perfectly for frailty of the human condition. He made it clear throughout his ministry that he did not come to be served or revered as God, he came to serve humanity. Everything he did, everything he was about was loving service and humility. The questions that Jesus followers wrestled with during his life are the same ones we must wrestle with. Do Jesus’ acts of service provide evidence that he is who he said he was, the Son of God, sent directly from the Father or do those acts show that he’s quite the opposite, because no Son of God should be humbling himself like he did? God is clearly the master, but the question is, are we cats or dogs? Does Jesus’ humble servanthood show that he is God or stand in contradiction to that fact? As we will see tomorrow, Peter struggled with that very same question.
John begins by telling us that it was just weeks before the Passover Feast. We should be familiar enough by now with John’s penchant for mentioning Jewish festivals that he doesn’t just use them as time markers, but also likes to show how the true and full meaning of that festival finds its complete fulfillment in Jesus. The Passover was the feast that commemorated the time in Israel’s history when God had promised to free Israel from the slavery of Egypt by bringing death to every firstborn in the country. The people of God would escape that death by killing an unblemished lamb and spreading the blood of that lamb on the top and sides of their doorposts in the pattern of a cross. It was the blood of the lamb that would keep the people from the death that would come to everyone else. John has already told us that Jesus is the lamb of God (Jn. 1:29) and now he will show us how that will work out. The full meaning of the Passover will find its truest expression in Jesus.
Jesus knows that his time had come and that it was time for him to leave this world and return to the Father who sent him. Everything that he had done was an expression of his love for his own who were in the world, but now Jesus has gathered them together for a final Passover meal (John doesn’t gives us all the details of the meal but assumes that his readers are familiar with the other Gospels accounts of the details). It is through this time that Jesus wants to demonstrate the full extent of his love. He could tell them, but all the better to demonstrate for him what he is about to do. Jesus wants to demonstrate in a vivid and memorable way, just exactly how his love would be manifested for them. But before John tells us about that, he will remind us that evil is always lurking about Jesus and has even entered into one of his inner circle. Judas had opened himself up to the devil by his refusal to truly believe and has already determined to betray Jesus. Thus we have a stark difference between the full extent of Jesus’ self-giving love and the evil that Judas has embraced.
It is easy to think that Jesus, in this scene, lowers himself despite the fact that he is God, to show humans the necessity of being a servant, yet that would be to miss a major part of the point. John says that Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God. . . so he got up. What Jesus was doing was not in spite of who he was but was a direct result of it. If you want to see God, Jesus said, take a look at Jesus, and to truly see who Jesus is, we must see him on his knees as the feet of men who were about to fail, abandon, and betray him, serving them and showing them his love. This scene shows us in action what Paul tells us in words about Jesus in Philippians 2, mainly that because of his nature as God, Jesus was a servant when he took on the flesh of a man. Being a servant is not something God does, not something that Jesus did, a servant is who he is. That is the full expression of God’s nature, the full extent of His love.
The act of washing their feet must have been stunning to the disciples and, in fact, it seems that the room remained in deafening silence until Peter’s voice shattered the air. It was a common part of the Jewish culture to expect that a disciple would perform a whole host of serving and even menial tasks for their teacher. The one act that was considered even too lowly for a disciple to perform was that of washing feet. It was customary for the feet of everyone at the meal to be washed before the meal but that was left to servants and slaves. Jesus picks out the one task that was too low for even a disciple to perform and lovingly washes the feet of each of his disciples, including Judas.
It speaks of Jesus’ true unconditional love that he knew that Judas was going to betray him to his death and yet none of the others knew. He kneels at the feet of Judas and washes his feet with the same love and humility that he washes all of the others (we’ll discuss this action in more detail in the next pasage). That is genuine, self-giving love. That is the full extent of his love.
When Jesus met Nathanael, he told him that "You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that. I tell you the truth, you [all] shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man" (Jn. 1:51) Jesus informed Nathanael that he was Jacob’s ladder in the flesh. He was the place where heaven would open and manifest itself in the earthly realm. As the disciples followed Jesus, he assured them, they would see greater things than an impressive demonstration of knowing what Nathanael was doing when Jesus couldn’t have possibly seen him physically. Surely the disciples were excited beyond belief at those words. What things were they going to see? What kind of great things were in store for them as they followed this man? Who could doubt that the blind being given sight, the lame being healed, the religious power structure of their time being challenged, thousands fed with a few loaves and a couple of fish, and the dead being raised were great things that all showed aspects of God’s nature and the new creation that Jesus was unveiling? What none of them could possibly imagine was that the greatest display that there were going to see was Jesus shedding his outer robe, tying a towel around his waist and washing the feet of a group of unschooled, ordinary men who had dedicated themselves to being his students.
Was this the full extent of his love, though? Was this foot washing the fullest extent of Jesus’ character and love? Is this how he would love his disciples to the very end? Yes and no. In a very real sense, this act of service and revelation of God’s nature was the greatest thing that they would see. In another very real sense, though, this was a moment when Jesus was only teaching them about the greatest thing they would see. In chapter ten, Jesus declared that he was the Good Shepherd, and that the primary attribute of the Good Shepherd was that he would lay down his life for his sheep. What Jesus did with a wash basin and a towel was show them them the very heart, reason, and purpose of the Cross. He showed them that he would serve them by stooping to death not because that’s what God would do for them but because that’s who He is.
Do you view humble service as who you are in Christ or do you reduce it to something you do? When we see things like Christian service, humility, evangelism, or any other aspect of the Christian life as merely things we do, they will eventually become tiresome and feel like something we have to do. What we are called to realize, though, is that to live is Christ, and those things are part of who we are. We are part of the new creation and that is who we are not what we do.