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).
Thoughts from John 13:1-17
A few days after the triumphal entry, Jesus was in Jerusalem in the upper room with His disciples. They had prepared to eat the Passover meal there. This night was an exception to His usual routine. At that time, He was spending His days teaching in the temple and His nights were spent on the Mount of Olives (Luke 21:37). This night He came into the city, with His disciples, to eat the Passover and do what He needed to do before His arrest and subsequent crucifixion.
Washing His disciples’ feet was one of the things He needed to do. Foot washing was a common occurrence in that day, for obvious practical reasons. It was a task most typically performed by the lowest, menial slaves. Washing the feet of one’s peers was humbling. Washing the feet of one’s inferiors was unthinkable.
Jesus was the superior in the room. What He did in washing the disciple’s feet was culturally unthinkable. This is likely the reason Peter said what he did when Jesus came to him (John 13:6, 8). Peter had a knack for saying what everyone else was probably thinking. The account does raise some questions we need to answer.
Why did Jesus do this? What is this all about? Why is it in the Bible?
Some would say that it simply means we should wash each others’ feet and many have special services where they do just that. Others would say that it is just an object lesson and so it is a general teaching on humility and serving one another. I don’t believe either of those interpretations is entirely correct and there are good reasons internally and externally to dismiss them.
By external, I mean outside the text of John 13:1-17. The external are not equally significant with the internal reasons, but they are more compelling when taken together with the internal.
- The general humility and service interpretation. If the text means nothing more, then Jesus is here presented as an humble teacher in group with others, such as Ghandi, the Buddha, the Dalai Lama, or Confucius. If the text means nothing more, there is nothing distinctly Christian about it. It’s an act any humanist philosopher could perform and endorse.
- The public foot-washing service/ordinance/practice interpretation. Foot washing was a common occurrence that was much more pragmatic than ceremonial. I’m sure there was a ceremonial aspect when dignitaries were at some high function, but normally it was inglorious.It is not common today precisely because we don’t have the contextual conditions to make it necessary. So, whenever it is practiced by Christians today, it is preeminently ceremonial. There seems to be an inconsistency, or even a contradiction, in having a public ceremony where a person can display their humility.The general trend of biblical teaching on service is for it to be more secret than open.
1 Take heed that ye do not your alms before men, to be seen of them:otherwise ye have no reward of your Father which is in heaven.
3 But when thou doest alms, let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth:4 That thine alms may be in secret:and thy Father which seeth in secret himself shall reward thee openly.
5 And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are:for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 6 But thou, when thou prayest, enter into thy closet, and when thou hast shut thy door, pray to thy Father which is in secret; and thy Father which seeth in secret shall reward thee openly.
16 Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance:for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. 17 But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; 18 That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret:and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly.
- Matthew 6:1, 3-4, 5-6, 16-18
- One more lesser objection to the public service interpretation. I say it is lesser because it is the argument from silence. I know the argument from silence is a dangerous one. I know it usually evokes the sophomoric retort, “The Bible doesn’t say they didn’t either.”The argument from silence can never stand alone, but that doesn’t mean it cannot contribute when weighed together with other things. So here it is. There is not a single reference in the New Testament where the church practiced this. Though there are later references to the Lord’s Supper, there is no mention of foot washing. I’m also unaware of any references in church history before the third or fourth centuries to the practice.
The internal reasons to discern more in this text come from the text itself. These are the most compelling and give the external reasons more weight. I see three primary pointers to greater meaning in the text.
- The first three verses explain what was on Jesus’ mind and therefore moving Him as He took the towel to wash the disciples’ feet.
1 Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. 2 And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him; 3 Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God
- John 13:1-3 (Emphasis added)
These verses point to more than a lesson on humility. He had His death on His mind and His love for His own. Jesus knew it was time to lay down His life in ultimate expression of love for His own (John 15:13).
- Peter’s reaction and Jesus’ response to the foot washing point to more going on.
6 Then cometh he to Simon Peter:and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? 7 Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. 8 Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet.
- John 13:6-8 (Emphasis added)
Peter’s objection seems reasonable, but Jesus tells him that he does not understand what is being done. He said Peter would understand it “hereafter,” which means after His death. If Jesus was just washing Peter’s feet and thereby teaching Peter to wash the other disciples’ feet, then Peter would easily have understood that without need to look upon it through the lens of Jesus’ death on the cross. There is more going on than the foot washing.
- Jesus’ explanation to the disciples afterward points to more in meaning.
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?
- John 13:12
This question is in the same vein with His statement to Peter. They didn’t understand what He had done and wouldn’t until after His death and when He opened their understanding.
These are good reasons to see that Jesus did not institute a foot-washing service in these verses, but rather He did something that had to do with His death and His love for His own. In the next part, we want to consider what this is about and also what it means that He did tell His disciples to wash one another’s feet.
To be continued . . .
The Bible’s blessed life, as presented in Psalm 127, 128, and the brighter passages of Ecclesiastes, is ordinarily plain and dull by today’s standards. The happy man there counts his blessings as the people that surround his table and share in the fruits of his hands’ labor.
The culture around us contrasts this image sharply with an insatiable desire for more, bigger, and better. Americans have a tendency to scale up. If we find something good, then we want to mass-produce it, package it, and sell it. The idea of smaller or simpler hardly ever occurs or appeals to us. Our education and entertainments all tell us to dream big, have big ideas, big goals, big visions, etc.
This thinking thrives not only in the secular purview, but it pervades the churches as well. Of course, we add, “for God” to the end of the world’s message. “Dream big for God. Have big ideas for God.” So forth and so on.
We are not content with small, simple, and quiet. We have to go big, surely, to honor God. We have an idea; then we name it. We promote it and expand it. We cast the largest vision we can and try to get others on board.
This thinking has produced a lot of discouragement in pastors and missionaries. They are pressured and made to feel guilty if their works are too small, or aren’t gaining quickly enough. Many young preachers are discouraged if they are not soon the pastors of large churches with high nickel and nose counts. Perhaps some leave pastorates they should have stayed in because they thought promotion was the sure sign of God’s blessing.
When this thinking holds sway in the pulpit, it produces a lot of restlessness and discontent in the pews. Discontent is also known by another name: unthankfulness.
Is the Bible consistent in this view?
Let’s ask this question another way. Is the simple life view that is blessed in the Old Testament consistent with the commands of the New Testament? Is the dream big philosophy consistent with the New Testament?
Much is made of disciples being called and leaving fishing nets and tax tables behind to itinerate through Galilee and surrounding areas. That’s big. That has traction. That’s the sort of thing to get us moving. But we seldom hear about a different command that Jesus also gave.
The first half of Mark 5 tells of Jesus casting a legion of devils out of the man who spent his time running around naked among the tombs. After the demons were expelled, the man was clothed and in his right mind at the feet of Jesus (Mark 5:15). When Jesus went to depart, the man wanted to go with Him. Jesus would not permit it, but rather gave him the command we have forgotten.
Howbeit Jesus suffered him not, but saith unto him, Go home to thy friends, and tell them how great things the Lord hath done for thee, and hath had compassion on thee.
- Mark 5:19
Go home. Go tell your friends. That’s not very big. That doesn’t sound very good in a fundraising letter. How do you make a poster out of that? Yet that is what Jesus told him to do. God certainly does call some to extraordinarily big works, but that is not most. He requires a steward to be faithful, not famous.
Is the command in Mark 5:19 an isolated incident? Is it the exception? Is it consistent with other New Testament commands? The command to go home is very much in line with other commands concerning the Christian life. Consider:
And that ye study to be quiet, and to do your own business, and to work with your own hands, as we commanded you; That ye may walk honestly toward them that are without, and that ye may have lack of nothing.
- 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12
For even when we were with you, this we commanded you, that if any would not work, neither should he eat. For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busybodies. Now them that are such we command and exhort by our Lord Jesus Christ, that with quietness they work, and eat their own bread.
- 2 Thessalonians 3:10-12
Let him that stole steal no more:but rather let him labour, working with his hands the thing which is good, that he may have to give to him that needeth.
- Ephesians 4:28
I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; For kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty.
- 1 Timothy 2:1-2
Those don’t seem like very radical directives. The reality is that we need to be content and earnestly faithful where God has placed us (Ecclesiastes 9:10). The Lord may be pleased to enlarge your borders and bring you into a bigger room, but that is His work and not our’s (Psalm 75:5-7).
I encountered a statement along this line of thought from James Fraser who was a pioneer missionary among the Lisu people of southwestern China in the early part of the 20th century. Fraser’s life could hardly be called dull and ordinary, yet he didn’t see it as better than the more mundane. He prized faithfulness wherever God has placed us. He felt God had placed him among the Lisu and he should be faithful there, but he did not despise nor chide the engineer, shopkeeper, or homemaker so long as they were being faithful.
I have included the quote below. It is a little long, but it is good. It’s probably not the sort of thing we are use to hearing and especially from a missionary, so it is all the more worthwhile.
It has come home to me very forcibly of late that it matters little what the work is in which we are engaged; so long as God has put it into our hands, the faithful doing of it is of no greater importance in one case than in another.The plain truth is that the Scriptures never teach us to wait for opportunities of service, but to serve in just the things that lie next to our hands.
The temptation I have often had to contend with is persistent under many forms: “If only I were in such and such a position,” for example, “shouldn’t I be able to do a great work? Yes, I am only studying engineering at present, but when I am in training for missionary work, things will be different and more helpful.” Or “I am just in preparation at present, taking Bible courses and so on, but when I get out to China my work will begin.” “Yes, I have left home now, but I am only on the voyage, you know; when I am really in China, I shall have a splendid chance of service.” Or, “well, here in the training home, all my time must be given to language study—how can I do missionary work? But when I am settled down in my station and able to speak freely opportunities will be unlimited.”
It is all IF and WHEN. I believe the devil is fond of those conjunctions. I have today to a limited extent, the opportunities to which he has been putting me off (not that I have always yielded to these temptations), but far from helping me to be faithful in the use of them, he now turns quite a different face. The plain truth is that the Scriptures never teach us to wait for opportunities of service, but to serve in just the things that lie next to our hands. The Lord bids us work, watch and pray, but Satan suggests, wait until a good opportunity for working, watching and praying presents itself—and needless to say, this opportunity is always in the future. Since the things that lie in our immediate path have been ordered of God, who shall say that one kind of work is more important and sacred than another? I believe that it is no more necessary to be faithful (one says it reverently) in preaching the gospel than in washing up dishes in the scullery. I am no more doing the Lord’s work in giving the word of life to the Chinese than you are, for example, in wrapping up a parcel to send to the tailor. It is not for us, in any case, to choose our work. And if God has chosen it for us, hadn’t we better go straight ahead and do it, without waiting for anything greater, better or nobler?Since the things that lie in our immediate path have been ordered of God, who shall say that one kind of work is more important and sacred than another?
We often say, “I am looking forward to this, that or the other. Have we any right to be so dissatisfied with our present condition, which God has ordained for us, that we hanker after something in the future? I can hardly see that we have. There is one great exception—we are to look forward with earnest expectation to the coming of the Lord. But we have to be patient even in this. To look for our Savior’s appearing is a very different thing from hankering after enjoyments of which we hope to partake some time ahead.
Why should I, in the hot, close, rainy season at Tengyueh, long for the dry months when things are more pleasant all round? Didn’t God intend me to put up with the discomforts of heat and mildew? Why should I look forward to the time when I shall be able to speak Chinese more freely? Didn’t God intend me to serve an apprenticeship in learning the language? Why should I look forward to a little more time for myself, for reading, etc.? Though it is the most natural thing in the world to have such thoughts, I feel that they are not at all scriptural. There is more of the flesh about them than the spirit. They seem to be inconsistent with the peace of God which, it is promised, shall guard our hearts and our thoughts through Christ Jesus. The apostle Paul said that he had “learned,” in whatsoever state he was, “therein to be content,” implying that he had reached that attitude through discipline. I suppose it must be so with all of us: the natural tendency is to be always straining after something in the future. 1
- Taylor, Geraldine (2012-03-31). Behind the Ranges: The Life Changing Story of J.O. Fraser (Kindle Locations 368-397). OMF International. Kindle Edition. ↩