[ 5 minutes to read ]
Thoughts from John 13:1-17A 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 . . .