Love Afoot – Part 2
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).