Call me forty-one. That’s middle-age, if you’re optimistic. Of course, life expectancy is all statistics and probabilities. In real life, the hearse doesn’t only call at the nursing home and tiny caskets break many hearts. Whether our days are few or many, they are all together a brief mist, soon and easily dispersed (James 4:14).
By now you must think me morose and maybe bitter. No worries, I’m not at all. I’m my usual lighthearted and cheery self. I’m as fit as a pure cotton shirt after a hot wash and dry. I’m thinking sober thoughts about the number of our days. These are the kind of thoughts we are supposed to think (Psalm 90:9-12). The point of this reflection is not morbidity but rather to apply our hearts to wisdom, understanding, knowledge, and instruction (Psalm 90:12; Proverbs 2:2; 22:17; 23:12).
When we have the proper perspective on our birthday tally, we think about how we should best use the time we have. So I’m hitting pause and offering some reflections that may be a blessing and a help to my younger constituency.
The future is closer than you think
It’s easy to get along with the future when you are a ruddy youth. You hardly ever argue and all is bright and agreeable with the future. It’s a long-distance relationship for you. It’s going to arrive some day, but you have plenty of time to get everything in place for it. Or, so you think.
You can go quite far on the energy of what you’re going to do when you are young. When a fourth-grader announces he is going to be a neuro-rocket-surgeon, he is applauded and congratulated as though he has actually done something, and sometimes he starts to believe he has. Even into your twenties you can get by on what you’re going to do. You’re young. You’re responsibilities are few. You’re expected to be figuring things out and trying to get settled. You can now have bigger ideas than that fourth-grader and still get congratulated for the great things you’re going to do.
By the time you finish your fourth decade though, you realize you’ve been watching the future approach through a convex mirror and you’ve ignored the white-lettered warning, “Objects are closer than they appear.” The future is upon you and all the time you thought you had is hard to find. All your grand schemes for what you’re going to do are no longer congratulated when you haven’t actually done much. They’re no longer inspiring, even for you, and instead those big ideas are just sad.
If an eighty-year-old man, who has trivially frittered away most of his time, sits on the front porch talking about all the great things he is going to do in the future, you might question his lucidity. You might wonder if he is regularly swallowing all that’s appropriately and professionally prescribed. You are sure he is fooling himself if he is serious. That could be you. It could be any of us.
How do we avoid this shameful eventuality? Heed the words of the wisdom preacher. “Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might; for there is no work, nor device, nor knowledge, nor wisdom, in the grave, whither thou goest” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). Note that we are to do what is at hand to do. Brace yourself because I’m going to utter an abomination to popular dogma. Stop dreaming big dreams and start doing what is at hand to do. How did the artisan in Proverbs come to stand before the royals? It wasn’t by dreaming big dreams to get there. It was by being diligent in his craft (Proverbs 22:29).
Changes are coming
At twenty-years-old you can scarf pizza or burritos at 2 AM with virtually no ill effect. At thirty you can maybe do midnight. By forty, don’t eat pizza after 6 PM or you’re likely to suffer all night. Such are the effects of aging that we cannot envisage when we only have a pair of tens in our hand.
Assuming you have normal vitality, you can expect to see physical changes. Energy levels go down. More sleep is required but harder to get. Certain foods and drinks no longer agree with you, and many more such delights. This is where most of us become more concerned about the quality of what we’re ingesting and maybe even supplementing our nutrients.
A key point in all of this is to realize how these changes affect the way you feel, think, and act. When you’re tired, your tolerance threshold goes down. You’re impatient and irritable. Sometimes you are more negative and maybe even irrational. Sometimes the best thing we can do for the relationships in our life is to get some sleep. We have to be more deliberate about necessary rest and activity and understanding toward others in the same way.
You’re not a kid anymore
I can remember being a young lad and hearing grown-ups talk about how they wished they could be a kid again, or how they’d give anything to be able to go back to childhood. I thought those statements odd then and, frankly, I still think they’re odd. No thank you. I have no desire to go back to childhood days (1 Corinthians 13:11). We’re meant to grow up and discover the world’s vanity and fool’s gold, because we are meant for another world. This is just a brief sojourn.
One particular feature of childhood that differs from adulthood is pure childish joy. A child can experience pure joy without any trace of sorrow, worry, or guilt. Whenever anything upsets their delicate internal balance, an ice cream cone sets the world to rights once again. The cold, creamy goodness is a wonderful restorative to the single digits.
As a kid, I could read for hours for the sheer joy of reading without the least feeling of guilt for other things left undone. I could shoot around-the-world on the court for hours without any thought of anything else going on in the world. It was the same for climbing trees and running the ridges.
Such pure joy is lost in maturity though. Even our greatest moments of delight are tempered with sorrow and worries. It seems I have felt this acutely over the last couple of years. While I’m glad to gift my children with moments of pure joy, I’m unable to share it with them completely. They smile and laugh without a care and I smile and laugh with many cares always present. Maybe this is something of Solomon’s meaning that in much wisdom there is much grief and increasing knowledge also increases sorrow.
It seems we are doomed the rest of our days to eat ice cream with hot chocolate sorrow on top. Joy and sorrow are inseparable as our days advance. But is it better to go back to the childhood joys? I don’t think so. I will leave you to consider the words of Solomon once again.
A good name is better than precious ointment; and the day of death than the day of one’s birth. It is better to go to the house of mourning, than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men; and the living will lay it to his heart. Sorrow is better than laughter: for by the sadness of the countenance the heart is made better. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning; but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth. It is better to hear the rebuke of the wise, than for a man to hear the song of fools. For as the crackling of thorns under a pot, so is the laughter of the fool: this also is vanity.
Surely oppression maketh a wise man mad; and a gift destroyeth the heart. Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof: and the patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry: for anger resteth in the bosom of fools. Say not thou, What is the cause that the former days were better than these? for thou dost not inquire wisely concerning this.
– Ecclesiastes 7:1-10
God is in Heaven, and that’s good for us.
Bless the LORD, O my soul. O LORD my God thou art very great; thou are clothed with honour and majesty.
– Psalm 104:1
Like the Bible in Genesis 1, Psalm 104 starts with the reality of God. There is no proof, defense, explanation, or justification–God is. He revealed himself to Moses as the “I am” (Exodus 3:14). He explained himself as “I am that I am”–unlike any other. He is self-existent, uncreated, and unending.
He revealed himself to the prophet Isaiah as unlike any other (Isaiah 42:8; 48:11). The Book of Isaiah reveals a God of majesty and power. He is the one who stretched out the heavens like a curtain and measured the oceans in His hand. His judgments are fierce and His wisdom silences all. Though He thunders, He also gathers His people as little lambs and carries them in His arms. He comforts them as a mother comforts her small child. He also atones for the sins of His people through the offering of His suffering servant and He pardons and washes as white as snow.
God is revealing himself and inviting us to know Him. God is there and He is not silent.
How does God reveal himself?
He reveals himself in His creation (Psalm 19:1-6) and in His word (Psalm 19:7-11). Psalm 104:1-35 shows how the order and constancy of life and the world testify of God. All of His works reflect His glory. He reveals himself specially in His word and in His Son (Hebrews 1:1-3; John 1:1-18). Only through His Son, Jesus, can we know God savingly (Matthew 11:27).
What is revealed of God?
God reveals himself to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. He reveals that He is the creator and sustainer of the universe. He is supremely sovereign. He is supremely holy. He is supremely knowing and wise. He is supremely righteous. He is supremely just. He is supremely true. He is supremely loving.
God is God. He is self-existent. He is alone worthy of praise and worship. He is greater and higher than all His creation.
How do we get it wrong?
God is the greatest reality. He is ultimate reality. He has revealed himself but we fail when we don’t acknowledge Him or we distort His reality. The Bible identifies at least six worldviews that fail because they are wrong about God.
- The fool thinks there is no God (Psalm 14:1; 53:1). He makes man the highest being and survival-of-the-fittest is his ethos. The fool thinks that whatever he has the power to do, he can do. There is no fearful looking for judgment with him, because there is no one to judge.
- The rich, worldly man doesn’t think of God (James 4:13-17). God may be there, or He may not be there to the worldly minded. It doesn’t matter to him, because he takes no account of God in his daily life.
- Pharaoh thinks God has no right or authority over him (Exodus 5:2). He judges the truth of God’s claims and can receive or refuse at his own discretion. He is deluded into thinking he can mediate his own reality. He was postmodern before it was cool. The man-on-the-street way of saying it is, “That may be true or right for you, but it is not true for me.”
- The wicked think that God is like them or like a man (Psalm 50:16-23). God may object to their thoughts and ways, but He can do nothing but thunder in the distance. If He objected to them, He should have spoken or forever hold His peace.
- Nebuchadnezzar thought that God was beside him (Daniel 4:29-37). He thought he could make his own way and maybe even that God owed him prosperity. He was an early prosperity preacher who made God a means to an end in order to get a little more comfort during his vaporous appearance on earth.
- False professors think God is their imaginary god (Matthew 7:21-23). They live their lives using God’s name, but they have actually put God’s name on the craft of their own minds and ultimately do not know Him at all.
We don’t overstate the case to say that knowing God is a life-and-death reality. God’s existence is the greatest truth, greatest reality there is. We come now to our last question.
How is God’s existence good for us?
If God is who He says He is and who He shows himself to be, how is that good for us? Or, what are we profited by it? God’s existence is good for believers and unbelievers. Let me explain.
Good for believers
God being there for believers means that daily you have answers to the questions of life. It doesn’t mean that you know everything, but you can know some things for certain. Being a believer means that God has specially revealed himself to you and you know truth that the greatest human mind cannot find out on its own.
God’s existence means you have purpose and meaning to life. You’re not left to drift and wander aimlessly. You have no need to question why you exist or futilely pursue fulfillment.You are set to pursue His righteousness and His kingdom. You have a purpose.
You can make some sense of suffering because God is there. You don’t know how it all works together or why one thing comes to one and not another. You know suffering isn’t pointless.
You have comfort for the sorrow of death. Death is a painful separation and a reminder of frailty. In death, you do have hope, though it is washed with tears.
You have forgiveness and cleansing from sin. Apart from God there is no atonement and no covering righteousness. Though you fail everyday, the blood of Jesus Christ washes your sins white as snow.
You have help. You are not alone, though there be no human beside you. You do not have to live and do of your own strength or wisdom.
You have guidance. Life can be a confusing maze at times and our way is one of the easiest things to lose. You have sure counsel from God.
You have hope. Everyday you live a life filled with hope. You have something to live for and something to die for. You have something to look forward to that outweighs all grief and pain now.
Good for unbelievers
It might seem odd to suggest that God’s existence is good for unbelievers because that means their condemnation is sure. Many deny His existence rather than face such reality. However, if you are not a believer, I’m glad you are reading this and I assure you God’s existence is good for you.
God’s existence means there is ultimate meaning to life. If there is no God, then all is random, chaotic, and meaningless. I know you are taught that continually but no one lives their life consistently with that view. You probably show kindness to others and care deeply about social justice. You likely want to help the hurting and relieve as much suffering as you can. If life was truly random and meaningless, why would you do any of those things? God’s existence is the foundation for all good things and makes life meaningful.
God’s existence assures you of personal worth and dignity because you are created in the image of God. The questions: Who am I? Why am I here?, have answers because God exists. You are a living soul worth more than the whole world (Matthew 16:26). You are not a waste nor an accident. You have been fearfully and wonderfully made by a wise and loving creator.
God’s existence means that God himself and truth can be known. You are not left to wander in a void. You are not left to doubt and fear with no comfort or sure knowledge. God can be known because He has given you witness of himself.
God’s existence means you can have eternal life. You can live forever in a new heaven and a new earth where sin will never enter and all is true, good, and beautiful.
God is there. God is not silent. God is good for us. Look to His creation. Look to His word. Look to His Son.
Part 1 here
In the first part, we considered some reasons why this passage is not about instituting a foot-washing service, nor is it a general teaching on humility and service. We considered reasons internal and external to the text. One of the reasons comes from the very start of the passage (John 13:1-3) that reveals some thoughts in the mind of Jesus that were moving Him to take the towel and wash. Whatever this act means, it must be consistent with His thoughts.
We certainly don’t want to stop at saying what the passage doesn’t mean. We want to know what it does mean. The thoughts on Jesus’ mind are one contextual piece to help us discern that. Another important contextual piece must also be considered. We must look at what was on the minds of the disciples before Jesus took the towel and started to wash.
The broader context
Jesus knew His time was at hand. In fact, He was hours away from being arrested. He also knew He was moments away from instituting the memorial supper. Jesus also knew what was on the mind of the disciples.
The Gospels tell us there was an ongoing strife between the disciples. They were arguing which one of them was the greatest disciple (Matthew 20:20-28). On the way to this very supper, they were arguing about this (Luke 22:24-27). This was not an isolated incident, but rather an ongoing problem. They were striving over this at least a year earlier while going with Jesus from Galilee to Capernaum (Mark 9:30-37). They were so preoccupied with this that they did not understand Jesus when He spoke about His death.
So, about to partake of the Lord’s Supper and hours away from Jesus’ arrest, they were striving with one another about which of them was the greatest. Their minds were fixed on exaltation and reward. Each thought their standing was better than the others’ around them.
It’s easy here to chide the disciples and even wonder how they could be thinking about this at a time like this. However, let’s not be too quick to condemn them. Have you ever thought yourself better than, i.e. looked down on, some other Christian because they weren’t a member of the church you’re a member of? Have you perhaps looked down on someone because maybe they didn’t understand some of the truth you understand from God’s Word? So how are we any better than the disciples here when we are fixed on rewards or position. Remember that Jesus rebuked the Pharisees for thinking themselves better and that they wouldn’t have done what others before them did (Matthew 23:29-30).
In the midst of all this, Jesus arose, took a towel, poured water in a basin, and then washed the disciples’ feet. The disciples wouldn’t have thought anything out of place if one of the disciples had risen up and washed Jesus’ feet. But while each was thinking himself better than the other, they wouldn’t have stooped to wash their brother’s feet. Yet Jesus did the unthinkable when He washed their feet. What did it mean?
The application and the new command
After He finished, Jesus did give the imperative to His disciples.
12 So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
13 Ye call me Master and Lord:and ye say well; for so I am.
14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.
15 For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
16 Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.
17 If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
– John 13:12-17
Verse 14 does say, “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Obviously, this act is not excluded from the service we should do. There really is no service that we should see as too low or beneath us to do. If you are in a circumstance where your brother’s feet need washed, you shouldn’t hesitate to do it. However, that is quite different from washing feet in a ceremonial display.
I assert again that if this is all that is meant, Peter and the disciples would have readily understood it without explanation and without need for revelation through the cross. Verse 15 gives us reason to look for more. It sounds very similar to something Jesus said a little while afterward.
34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. 35 By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.
– John 13:34-35 (Emphasis added)
In verse 15, Jesus said, “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (Emphasis added). And He went on to say a couple of chapters later:
This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you.
– John 15:12 (Emphasis added)
Jesus gave a new commandment and, in some way, the act of washing the disciples’ feet is connected. The new command was to love one another, but that doesn’t sound very new. All the way back in Leviticus 19:18, the law commanded to love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus perhaps expanded that a bit, or corrected a false notion of it, in Luke 6:31-36 to include loving your enemies, but He doesn’t call that new.
The new command involves brotherly love and sacrifice (John 13:34-35; 15:12-17). That is new and it is also new that we have not only a command but also a perfect example in life with Jesus Christ. Great love is expressed ultimately in life-sacrifice (John 15:13; 1 John 3:16), but it is also expressed in the lowest service. John made that link in his first epistle when he immediately talked about giving your brother what he needs right after laying down you life for him.
16 Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us:and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
17 But whoso hath this world’s good, and seeth his brother have need, and shutteth up his bowels of compassion from him, how dwelleth the love of God in him?
18 My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue; but in deed and in truth.
– 1 John 3:16-18
Part of John’s point is about truly having God’s love in us. If we have the Father’s love, we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren and we also should have compassion and give to our brother who has need. You can’t have one without the other. It is all the same love.
John calls this the “perfect” love of God. The word underlying perfect here doesn’t mean perfect in the sense of flawless, but rather it is complete or fulfilled. God’s love is perfected in us, or fulfilled in us, not only when we have received it, but when we have shown it to others.
That brings us back to Jesus washing the disciples’ feet. He said what He did was an example and linked it with the command to love one another. What He did here was complete the example of God’s love. He expressed it in the ultimate way by laying down His life, but He also expressed it in the lowest, most humiliating service, by washing their feet. The love that took the beating, mocking, and crucifixion, is the same love that took the towel, basin, and feet of the disciples. This is how we are to love one another, from the least service to the greatest sacrifice. And “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).