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Menial Service (John 13:1-17)

Introduction

I remember all too well that day many years ago when my wife came home to tell me that one of the other seminary wives was having trouble with her washing machine. This woman had just recently given birth to a baby by cesarean section and was suffering from some complications. To have no working washing machine was a serious problem. And so I went over to work on it. It was in seminary housing, where there was no hook-up provided for washing machines or dryers. There was, however, a very popular work-around to this problem. They would put the washing machine in the bathroom, connect an adapter to the sink faucet to get hot and cold water, and place the drain hose in the toilet. This worked reasonably well, most of the time.

The trouble on this occasion was that this woman’s washing machine was in a downstairs apartment. Every time the washer got to the spin cycle, the clutch would grab, the load in the washer would overload the motor, and the circuit breaker (which was located in the basement, some distance away) would trip. Every time I changed the adjustment on the clutch, I had to test it. Each time I did, the clutch would grab again, blowing the circuit breaker. And every time the circuit breaker would blow, I had to crawl out from under the washer, go around the back of the apartment complex, go down into the basement, reset the breaker, come back up the basement stairs, crawl back under the washer, and make another adjustment. This I did far too many times to count.

After I had wasted a considerable amount of time, I laid there under the washing machine, grumbling to God. I was praying that God would enable me to fix this machine, but I was not a “happy camper.” Just about this time, I could feel the ceiling and walls vibrating, and I knew that the woman upstairs was doing her wash. She was washing dirty diapers in the washing machine, but she had made one crucial mistake. She had left one dirty diaper soaking in the toilet, and then turned on the washer, with the drain hose emptying into the toilet. When her washer went into its spin cycle, a good volume of dirty diaper water drained from the machine into the toilet. The dirty diaper in the toilet lodged there, stopping up the toilet, so that all the dirty diaper water from the toilet and the washer spilled out onto the floor, and then somehow made its way down through the ceiling light fixture of the room I was in, and down onto my body, which was spread out on the bathroom floor. Only my head was protected from the flood of filthy water, safely tucked under the wayward washing machine.

I called to the young mother who owned the washer, as she stood nearby trying to encourage me. I told her that the washer upstairs was overflowing and suggested that she turn off the light above me so that it would not explode. “Oh, it does that all the time,” she explained, “and it never explodes.” Poof! Just then, the light bulb exploded, showering my body with an abundance of small glass fragments, which was already soaked with dirty diaper water. It was sort of like sprinkling bits of coconut on a cake that had just been iced. That was about as much dirty work as I could take. Graciously, the Lord enabled my next adjustment to work so that I could go home and clean up.

All of us have had our share of “dirty work,” and I doubt that we have really enjoyed it. This Sunday, I asked for volunteers in the audience to share some of their “dirty work” experiences. I was told of experiences ranging from “changing dirty diapers” to “cleaning grease traps” while in the Army. I know from my own experience that there are many different forms of dirty work. I will not forget the first time I had to go to the store to buy Depends (adult diapers) for a friend and neighbor. I never knew that aisle existed before, and the choices facing me there were so numerous I would have called for help if I hadn’t been so embarrassed. (I drew the line when the visiting nurse told me she would show me how to change our friend’s diapers. I’m honestly not sure whether I declined to protect my neighbor’s dignity or my own.)

Our text is about the dirty work of washing the disciples’ feet. This menial task was performed by none other than the Lord of glory. What an amazing story it is. It is not included in any other Gospel account. It introduces the Upper Room Discourse of our Lord (John 13-17), which is also found only in the Gospel of John. This is indeed a marvelous portion of John’s Gospel. John G. Mitchell writes,

Of all the Scriptures between Genesis and Revelation, I know of no greater portion as far as the people of God are concerned than chapters 13 through 17 of John. I believe in these chapters we have the seed germ of all the truth concerning the Church, as well as almost all the doctrine in the New Testament. Our Lord’s discourse here takes us within twenty-four hours of the crucifixion.233

Here is a text which has much to say to our generation. Let us listen well to what the Spirit of God has to say to each one of us.

The Setting
(13:1-5)

What’s Jesus Doing With That Basin and Towel?

1 Just before the Passover feast,234 Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. He had loved his own who were in the world, and now he loved them to the very end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus. 3 Jesus, because he knew that the Father had handed [all]235 things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 got up from the meal, removed his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around himself. 5 He poured water into the washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel he had wrapped around himself.236

The washing of the feet of one’s guests was expected in Jesus’ day, as we can see from Luke’s Gospel:

44 Then, turning toward the woman, he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house, you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss of greeting, but from the time I entered she has not stopped kissing my feet. 46 You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with perfumed oil (Luke 7:44-46).

Normally, the host would not do this washing himself, because it was regarded as a very demeaning task. We get some idea of just how menial it was from the comment Abigail makes to David in the Old Testament: “Then she arose, bowed her face to the earth, and said, ‘Here is your maidservant, a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord’” (1 Samuel 25:41, NKJV).

Foot washing was understood in the same way by John the Baptist:

When John the Baptist desired to give expression to his feeling of unworthiness in comparison to Christ, he could think of no better way to express this than to say that he deemed himself unworthy of kneeling down in front of Jesus in order to unloose his sandalstraps and remove the sandals (with a view to washing the Master’s feet).”237

I believe our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet in John 13 is further explained by a comment that is found in Luke’s Gospel:

24 A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ 26 But it must not be like that with you! Instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves. 27 For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” (Luke 22:24-27).

It would not at all surprise me if this dispute occurred just as the disciples were entering this upper room. The “table” was not like our kitchen “tables” at all. The meal would have been served to these disciples as they reclined in a u-shaped arrangement, with our Lord at what we might call the “head of the table.” Some suggest that Judas was sitting beside Jesus, at His right hand, in the place of honor. I wouldn’t be surprised. Each place at the table had its own social ranking. This is why our Lord can say:

8 “When you are invited by someone to a wedding feast, do not take the place of honor, because a person more distinguished than you may have been invited by your host. 9 So the host who invited you both will come and say to you, ‘Give this man your place,’ and then with shame you will start to take the least important place. 10 But when you are invited, go and take the least important place, so that when your host comes he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up here to a better place.’ Then you will be honored in the presence of all who share the meal with you. 11 For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted” (Luke 14:8-11).

I believe that when the disciples entered this upper room, they were all intent on sitting in the places of honor—at our Lord’s right and left hand (see Matthew 20:21-23). I can almost see them pushing and shoving their way into the room, hurrying past the basin of water, where a servant normally would have been present to wash the feet of the guests as they entered, in preparation for the meal. This may well have been the time that the disciples argued among themselves about who was to be regarded as the greatest. After all, every one of them would have to establish their “ranking” among the 12 if they were to be seated according to their greatness. I can see our Lord, quietly observing His disciples as they squabble. I can imagine Him making His way to the washbasin, and filling it with water, while His disciples continue to argue with each other, completely oblivious to what He is doing. And then they suddenly become silent as they realize that He has taken the lowest position of all—lower than the lowest of the 12—the position of a servant (and not a high-ranking servant, either). To their amazement, they observe Jesus, working His way from one of them to the next, first washing a pair of dirty feet, and then drying them with the towel that is wrapped about His waist. The argument seems to end with the words of our Lord in verses 12-17. They may not understand all that He has done, but they must have had enough sense to know it was time to be stop bickering and be quiet.238

Two verses out of five focus on the actual washing of the disciples’ feet by our Lord. Three of the five verses provide us with background information, which John believes his readers need to know in order to properly understand the Lord’s actions. We might say that verses 1-3 provide us with information that gives us insight into our Lord’s “state of mind.”239 This “state of mind”240 of our Lord is expressed by John, both in terms of what Jesus “knew” (see verses 1, 3, 11), and in terms of why He did what He did (namely, His great love for His own).

John tells us Jesus “knew” that “his time had come to depart from this world to the Father” (verse 1), and that the Father had “handed [all] things over to Him” (verse 3). As He had come from the Father, so He was returning to the Father (verse 3). We are no doubt tempted to read this in a way that is different from and contradictory to what John is actually saying. We might be reading the text something like this: “Jesus, knowing that He was about to suffer on the cross of Calvary …” We have already read of our Lord’s agony over His coming alienation from the Father on the cross (12:27-28), and John does not wish to repeat this again. Here in our text, John emphasizes that Jesus knew His earthly mission was nearly complete, and that He was returning to the Father in heaven. He knew that everything had been given over to Him by the Father. In other words, He knew that everything was as it should be, and that He was in complete control. It is our Lord’s sovereignty that is being stressed here, and not His suffering.241

John wishes us to understand that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet at a time when others would not have been inclined to do so. Jesus was in complete control. Jesus was God’s CEO. When men find themselves in this position, they are tempted to behave very differently: “Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions exercise authority over them’” (Mark 10:42). In spite of who He was; in spite of the fact that all authority had been given to Him, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples. In spite of the fact that He could have required men to minister to Him, catering to His every whim, Jesus humbled Himself by washing the feet of His disciples. This was truly an amazing thing! Jesus humbled Himself, knowing that He was soon going to be exalted higher than anyone in all of human history.

If John is emphasizing the fact that Jesus knew all these things, he is at the same time stressing the fact that Jesus washed the feet of His disciples as an expression of His great love for them: “He had loved his own who were in the world, and now he loved them to the very end” (John 13:1b).

The act of washing His disciples’ feet was our Lord’s way of showing them (and us) how much He loved them. Do you remember in chapter 11 when those standing around at the tomb of Lazarus saw Jesus weeping, they remarked, “Look how much he loved him!” (11:36b)? I think John is now saying to his readers, “Look how much He loved us!”

There is a rather dramatic shift in John’s vocabulary here in chapter 13, which underscores the importance of “love” in chapters 13-17. Let me summarize a few statistics regarding John’s vocabulary, which will underscore the fact that love is a very significant term from here on in John’s Gospel. Notice the frequency of the following terms in John’s Gospel:

WORLD

In chapters 1-12

“world” occurs 34 times

approx. 3 times per chapter

In chapters 13-17

“world” occurs 41 times

approx. 8 times per chapter

LIFE

In chapters 1-12

“life” occurs 50 time

approx. 4 times per chapter

In chapters 13-17

“life” occurs 6 times

approx. 1 time per chapter

LIGHT

In chapters 1-12

“light” occurs 32 times

approx. 3 times per chapter

In chapters 13-17

“light” occurs 0 times

LOVE

In chapters 1-12

“love” occurs 12 times

1 time per chapter

In chapters 13-17

“love” occurs 34 times

approx. 7 times per chapter

It is obvious, is it not, that John wishes to emphasize the love our Lord has for His own? Mitchell observes:

It is remarkable that in this section, starting in chapter 13, begins with the statement, ‘Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end;’ (13:1). This section ends in chapter 17 with Jesus praying, ‘that the love wherewith thou has loved me may be in them, and I in them’ (17:26). He begins and ends with His love for His own. It’s just like the Savior! And down through these five chapters we have the marvelous revelation of His love, of His concern for His own.242

Here is the amazing thing. Jesus loves His own. Jesus loves His own, knowing everything. He loves His own, knowing that He is sovereign, and that He is about to leave this earth and return to His Father. He loves His own, knowing that they have been arguing (or will shortly do so) about who is the greatest, knowing that they are about to forsake Him and flee for their lives, knowing that Peter will deny Him. It is one thing for people to love us, who do not know all of our wicked deeds, thoughts, and motivations. It is another for the Holy God of heaven to love us, knowing every wicked thing we have done and will do. This is, indeed, amazing love. What a comfort to the Christian, knowing that our Lord’s love is constant and unchanging, knowing that He chose to love us—and to keep on loving us—purely out of His grace, and not based upon our performance. Jesus loved His own; He loved them to the “end”—to the uttermost degree, and to the very end.243 What security! What grace! What a Savior!

Peter’s Protest
(13:6-11)

6 Then he came to Simon Peter. Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not understand what I am doing now, but you will understand after these things.” 8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus replied, “The one who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean. And you244 disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 (For Jesus knew the one who was going to betray him. For this reason he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”)

It is as though Peter has been watching Jesus draw nearer to him, as He makes His way around the table, washing the feet of each of His disciples. And when Jesus reaches Peter’s feet, he does what seems to be the pious or humble thing to do—he declines. He asks His Master if He thinks He is going to wash his feet.245 The inference is that Peter will have no part of this. We might paraphrase his words this way: “You don’t think you’re going to wash my feet, do you, Lord?” If the disciples thought it was inappropriate for them to wash the feet of their peers, they would surely think it inappropriate for the Master to wash their feet. Even Peter could see this, and thus he resisted having his feet washed by the Savior.

Peter’s words may appear humble, but they are really arrogant. In the first place, Peter is arrogant enough to think he knows better than Jesus what is appropriate and what is not. He knows that Jesus is deliberately washing the feet of every disciple, and yet Peter is so bold as to correct Jesus, as though He was wrong. John Calvin comments:

This speech expresses strong dislike of the action as foolish and unsuitable; for by asking what Christ is doing, he puts out his hand, as it were, to push him back. The modesty would be worthy of commendations, were it not that obedience is of greater value in the sight of God than any kind of honour or service, or rather, if this were not the true and only rule of humility, to yield ourselves in obedience to God, and to have all our senses regulated by his good pleasure, so that every thing which he declares to be agreeable to Him shall also be approved by us, without any scruple.246

We may be inclined to excuse Peter’s resistance at first, but his second protest is a more serious error. Jesus responded to Peter’s first protest by saying to him, “You do not understand what I am doing now, but you will understand after these things.” In other words, Jesus not only indicated that He knew what He was doing and that it was right, but that Peter would understand this also, later on. Jesus is urging Peter both to trust and to obey Him.247 Calvin writes:

Hitherto Peter’s modesty was excusable, though it was not free from blame; but now he errs more grievously, when he has been corrected, and yet does not yield. And, indeed, it is a common fault, that ignorance is closely followed by obstinacy. It is a plausible excuse, no doubt, that the refusal springs from reverence for Christ; but since he does not absolutely obey the injunction, the very desire of showing his respect for Christ loses all its gracefulness. The true wisdom of faith, therefore, is to approve and embrace with reverence whatever proceeds from God, as done with propriety and in good order; nor is there any other way, indeed, in which his name can be sanctified by us; for if we do not believe that whatever he does is done for a very good reason, our flesh, being naturally stubborn, will continually murmur, and will not render to God the honour due to him, unless by constraint. In short, until a man renounce the liberty of judging as to the works of God, whatever exertions he may make to honour God, still pride will always lurk under the garb of humility.248

Let me look at Peter’s protest from a somewhat different perspective. Has Peter protested against the omniscience (knowing all) and the sovereignty (absolute control) of our Lord? In addition to this, Peter is protesting against divine grace. Think of it for a moment. Peter is, with a fair measure of false humility, rejecting our Lord’s actions as though he is undeserving (which, of course, he is). That is the point. What Jesus does for His disciples, He does out of love and grace. And this is precisely what Jesus is about to point out to Peter. Would he resist having Jesus wash his feet, on the premise that he is unworthy? Then he must also reject having his sins washed away by the shed blood of Jesus on the cross of Calvary, for he is unworthy of this as well. To reject grace in principle is to reject all grace, period. And so Jesus says to Peter: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

With this statement, Peter is brought back to reality, to his senses. It was like a slap on the face. If Peter was too quick to protest our Lord’s gracious act of washing his feet, he was not too quick to repent of his foolishness. And that he does. We all can identify with Peter when he speaks before he thinks; would that we might identify with Peter in his ability to forsake his folly and cling to the Savior. Whatever Peter’s faults, he deeply loved the Savior. The thought of having no part with Him (as it would be with Judas) was too much. Now, far from resisting a foot washing, Peter is ready for a full bath. More than anything else, Peter wants to identify and to participate fully in all that Jesus will graciously grant.

Ever so graciously, Jesus denies this request of Peter. If he should mistakenly desire too little of Jesus, neither should he ask for more than is needed. He is clean; he does not need a bath, but just a foot washing. Jesus is also speaking to Peter on a spiritual level. One who has been bathed and thereby cleansed by His shed blood does not need to be “washed” this way over and over again; he needs only to be washed.249 These words certainly appear to lay to rest the belief of some that men must be saved over and over again.

Jesus knows everything, including the fact that Judas had already purposed to betray him. And so Jesus clarifies that the “cleansing” of which He speaks does not belong to all who are with Him at the moment. This (like nearly everything else Jesus said at this moment of time) must have gone completely over the heads of the 11. Jesus wanted them to remember that even before His betrayal by Judas, He had spoken of it. Jesus was in control of this as well. He was not a victim, but the Victor (see verses 1-3).

Getting to the Point
(13:12-17)

12 So when Jesus had washed their feet and put his outer clothing back on, he took his place at the table again and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example: you should do just as I have done for you. 16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

The first thing we should observe from these verses is that our Lord taught His disciples by His deeds, and not just by His declarations. How different Jesus is from the Pharisees:

1 Then Jesus said to the crowds and his disciples, 2 “The experts in the law and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat. 3 Therefore, pay attention to what they tell you and do it. But do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they teach. 4 They tie up heavy loads, hard to carry, and put them on men’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them. 5 They do all their deeds to be seen by people, for they make their phylacteries wide and their tassels long. 6 They love the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, 7 and to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have people call them ‘Rabbi’” (Matthew 23:1-7).

Jesus has washed the feet of the disciples purposefully. It was a task that needed doing, and our Lord did it. It was also a way that Jesus could demonstrate His unfathomable love for His disciples. But beyond this, it was a lesson which the disciples desperately needed to learn, a lesson in humility. These men were still looking at leadership from a “secular” point of view, rather than from a divine perspective. The secular world looks upon leadership as the opportunity to be served. A leader has many people “under him,” and thus he “uses” them to minister to his own needs. In the kingdom of God, a position of leadership is simply a place of service. No matter where one finds himself on the leader-follower scale, the Christian is to serve God by serving others. Leadership is simply one place of service. It enables one to serve as others cannot.

Jesus employs the greater/lesser logic here. He is the sovereign God, the supreme leader. This is what John emphasizes in the first verses of chapter 13. Knowing this, our Lord purposefully sets out to wash the feet of His disciples. If He, as the sovereign God, can wash their dirty feet, then surely they should do likewise to one another. Rather than arguing with each other about who is regarded to be the greatest, they should be humbling themselves by serving one another. Rather than striving to possess the “rights” of the one who ranks highest, they should seize the opportunity to serve others by doing menial tasks. Put differently, even those “on the top” can and should minister “from the bottom up.” In a “top-down” world, this is a revolutionary concept.

The last statement of our Lord, recorded in verse 17, is profoundly important: “If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” They really didn’t understand this yet, like everything else. But even when they are able to grasp this teaching academically, the important thing is not the knowing of this truth, but the doing of it. We are not blessed so much by what we know as we are blessed by the doing of what we know. This applies to far more than just this one command. It applies across the entire spectrum of biblical knowledge. There are some folks who do not know as much as others, but they do far more than those “in the know.” Again, it is Calvin who observes:

… for knowledge is not entitled to be called true, unless it produce such an effect on believers as to lead them to conform themselves to their Head. On the contrary, it is a vain imagination, when we look upon Christ, and the things which belong to Christ, as separate from ourselves. We may infer from this that, until a man has learned to yield to his brethren, he does not know if Christ be the Master. Since there is no man who performs his duty to his brethren in all respects, and since there are many who are careless and sluggish in brotherly offices, this shows us that we are still at a great distance from the full light of faith.250

Conclusion

We know from our Lord’s words that we must be sure to put the lesson of this text into practice. And so as we conclude this lesson, let us ponder how we should do just that.

Let me begin with a very practical question: Does this text teach us that we must literally wash the feet of others, or does it teach that we must do more than wash feet? There have always been some who have taken the words of our Lord in a strictly literal way:

Foot-washing was practised on Maundy Thursday by the Church of Augustine’s day. It was recommended by Bernard of Clairvaux in one of his sermons. The practice, moreover, was continued by the pope at Rome and by emperors (of Austria, of Russia) and kings (of Spain, Portugal, Bavaria). For a while it was practised by the Church of England and by the Moravians. It has been continued to this very day by certain Baptist and Adventist bodies. It was roundly condemned by Luther and by his followers as ‘an abominable papal corruption.’251

I very much appreciate the comment of John G. Mitchell here:

Jesus has washed the feet of Peter who will deny Him, of Thomas who will doubt Him, and of Judas who will betray Him. He has more in mind here than an ordinance of foot washing. I have no argument against those who claim we should have literal foot washing services. If you feel you should do that, that’s between you and the Lord. I think, however, that the Lord has a far greater matter before us here.252

If one is convicted that this command should be taken literally, then he should literally apply the words of our Lord. Even so, this is not to be viewed as the limit to which these words should be taken. Jesus does not simply say that we should do what He has done, but that we should do as He has done. The washing of the disciples’ feet is an example253 to be followed, and not just as an act to imitate as a ritual.254

I believe that we must be very careful about coming to the conclusion that Jesus or His apostles did not mean what they appear to have said. Many of the commands of the Bible are too quickly and easily set aside, because we don’t like them, or because our culture will not tolerate them. The Bible’s teaching on the role of women is an example of the latter. Our Lord’s teaching about “turning the other cheek” is an example of the former. But in our text, it seems as though Jesus is clear that He is teaching the principle of servanthood, rather than merely commanding the practice of foot washing. We do not see this command repeated or practiced as an ordinance in Acts or in the Epistles. I do believe that while foot washing itself is not commanded, there are many other actions which the principle of servanthood does require. We shall seek to identify these by first identifying the characteristics of foot washing which are transferable, and then by considering some possible practices which conform to these characteristics.

The Essence of Washing Feet

Consider the following elements which characterize our Lord’s act of washing the disciples’ feet:

(1) Our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet was service. Our Lord did the work of a servant as He served His disciples.

(2) Our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet was a necessary, beneficial service. As a former student and classroom teacher, I can safely say that this was not “busy work.” It was not work for work’s sake, but work that had very practical benefits for the disciples—clean feet.

(3) Our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet was menial service. Foot washing is “dirty work,” work which required our Lord to “get His hands dirty.” This work was so menial the disciples were not willing to perform it themselves, and at least Peter attempted to keep Jesus from carrying out this humble task.

(4) Our Lord’s service of washing the disciples’ feet was a voluntary act, motivated by love. Jesus was not fulfilling any Old Testament commandment or prophecy. What Jesus chose to do here was not “in His job description.” Our Lord’s service was “above and beyond the call of duty.” He was not doing what someone (including the disciples) had asked Him to do.

(5) Our Lord’s service of washing the disciples’ feet was a task which someone else could have done. This foot washing was a task Jesus could have commanded any one of His disciples to do. Jesus did what someone else could have done, what the disciples expected someone else to do.

(6) Our Lord’s service of washing the disciples’ feet was His gracious ministry to those who were undeserving, and even to him who would betray his Lord. Here they were, arguing with each other about who was the greatest, oblivious to what lay ahead for the Master. Here they were, those who would desert Him, who would deny Him, who would betray Him, and Jesus washed the feet of all.

(7) Our Lord’s service was the meeting of a need that no one else was willing to meet.

(8) Our Lord’s service does not appear to be very “spiritual” nor very “significant.” How quickly ministry opportunities are seized when the ministry is prominent, popular, prestigious, fulfilling, and profitable. The washing of the disciples’ feet appeared to be none of these. Foot washing is mundane, everyday, garden-variety service.

(9) Our Lord’s service was selfless, sacrificial service.

The Expression of Foot Washing Today

So, assuming we understand better what the foot washing of our text was, in essence, how should it be expressed today? How can you and I obey our Lord’s command and wash feet in today’s context? I have some very practical suggestions.

(1) Make a commitment to the Lord to begin “washing the feet” of others. Recognize that this is contrary to the spirit of our age. Jeannette and I attended an HCJB (a fantastic radio station which broadcasts the gospel from the mountains of Quito, Ecuador) banquet this past week. As I looked about I noted that almost all the guests were older folks, like myself (not ancient, but mature, mind you). I have been told that one of the characteristics of the so-called “Generation X” is that they are completely selfish. They don’t give themselves or their money. Instead, they expect others to give to them. Foot washing begins with taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. If we truly follow Him, we will take up our cross, and we will sacrificially serve others. This is what the gospel brings about.

(2) You don’t have to look for this kind of ministry opportunity; it will find you. Our problem is not a lack of opportunities to “wash feet”; it is our unwillingness to “see” and to seize these opportunities. Look, for example, at the story of the “Good Samaritan” in Luke chapter 10. The priest and the Levite saw the man who had been beaten, there in the road before them, but they did not view ministering to him as their responsibility. It wasn’t in their “job description.” They had their religious duties to carry out. They weren’t into foot washing of this kind. But the Samaritan took this ministry upon himself. The need for “foot washing” in our society is as common as dirty feet were in our Lord’s day. We simply need to open our eyes to see these needs.

(3) We must take our eyes off of ourselves, and gird ourselves with the “mind of Christ” which we see in our text. When sacrificial service is our goal rather than self-seeking, we will see the many needs around us for “foot washing.” We simply need to look for those needs which are not being met and, with the strength God provides, meet them. Once a desire for practical service overcomes the urge for self-seeking, the opportunities are unlimited.

(4) We need to focus our attention on those undone things which we have come to expect someone else to do. For example, as you get up to leave this service, are there bulletins, dirty Kleenexes, and half-filled coffee cups left behind? Do we have a custodian? We do, but why should we not serve him by taking out our own trash, or that left behind by someone else? If we see trash in the parking lot, do we walk by it, just as the disciples hurried by the water basin? Every Sunday, one or more couples gets up at the end of the worship hour to minister to one of our handicapped young people. This kind of ministry does not seem significant, but it is the very kind of ministry our Lord commands and commends.

When I prepare to conduct a funeral service, I usually meet with the immediate family and close friends, to go over the plans for the service, and also to obtain information about the life of the one who passed away. Often, I will say, “Can you think of a story which captures the essence of what ______’s life was about?” Very often, they will tell me a story, and when the others hear it, they will say, “Oh, you’re right, that is just like ______.” This story of the washing of the disciples’ feet is just like Jesus. It captures the “mind of Christ” in a very practical way. It is this spirit which prompted our Lord to perform the ultimate washing, the washing away of our sins through the shedding of His blood on the cross of Calvary. We, like the disciples, were dirty and defiled, and totally unworthy of His mercy and love. And yet He humbled Himself to cleanse us from sin by His humiliation and suffering on the cross. Have you accepted this washing for yourself personally, or have you, like Peter, sought to push Jesus aside? We must humble ourselves by acknowledging our sin and our need, and the necessity to be cleansed by Him who is without sin—Jesus Christ. May we accept His gracious offer of cleansing, and thus enter into the joy of intimate fellowship with Him.

One final thing I would like you to ponder as I conclude this message. It is a statement that is made necessary by the twisted culture in which we live: Love is not about sex as much as it is about dirty feet. May God give us the grace to wash feet this very day.


233 John G. Mitchell, with Dick Bohrer, An Everlasting Love: A Devotional Study of the Gospel of John (Portland: Multnomah Press, 1982), p. 247.

234 There are many technical questions involved in the timing of this meal, which are of much interest to scholars, but not of much profit to our exposition. Suffice it to say that John is not really interested in such matters, either. He must have read the Synoptic Gospels before he wrote this Gospel, and yet he did not see it profitable to clarify every apparent discrepancy. For a more careful look into these issues and possible solutions, see D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), pp. 455-458; William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, 2 vols. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1953-1954), vol. 2, pp. 221-227.

235 The NET Bible has a footnote indicating that the Greek text literally reads “all things.” I believe the “all” is necessary to our understanding of this verse, and so I have inserted it.

236 It would seem to me that the lack of a servant to wash the disciples’ feet was deliberate on our Lord’s part. First of all, it was the host’s responsibility to provide this (see Luke 7), and Jesus was the host. Furthermore, throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus very carefully arranging for things in advance (the procuring of the donkey and its colt, and of a place in which to celebrate Passover, etc.). I cannot imagine that our Lord—who is omniscient (knowing all)—would forget to provide for the foot washing. And finally, all the things that were necessary for the foot washing were present (the basin, the water, the towel). I am therefore inclined to think that Jesus purposefully arranged for a servant not to be present, so that He could wash the disciples’ feet, knowing (as He did) all that would take place during this meal.

237 Hendriksen, vol. 2, p. 228.

238 This entire paragraph is speculative, and thus the reader should beware, but it does at least suggest how things may have happened.

239 In a criminal trial, the state of mind of the accused is usually given considerable attention, especially in crimes which have different degrees (first, second, third) of guilt, and therefore of punishment. Here, while it is unusual perhaps, John describes our Lord’s “state of mind” so that we can determine the degree of goodness of this foot washing. I think we should conclude from what we are told that Jesus is to be assessed with “first degree goodness.”

240 “I am of the opinion that this was added for the purpose of informing us whence Christ obtained such a well-regulated composure of mind. It was because, having already obtained a victory over death, he raised his mind to the glorious triumph which was speedily to follow. It usually happens, that men seized with fear are greatly agitated. The Evangelist means, that no agitation of this sort was to be found in Christ, because, though he was to be immediately betrayed by Judas, still he knew that the Father had given all things into his hand. It may be asked, How then was he reduced to such a degree of sadness that he sweat blood? I reply, both were necessary. It was necessary that he should have a dread of death, and it was necessary that, notwithstanding of this, he should fearlessly discharge every thing that belonged to the office of the Mediator.” John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentaries, Volume 7: The Gospels (Grand Rapids: Associated Publishers and Authors Inc., n.d.), p. 821.

241 Being omniscient, Jesus knew everything. He knew that Judas had decided to betray Him to the Jewish religious leaders. Jesus would also have known that all of His disciples would abandon Him and that Peter would deny Him, but in verses 1-3, this is not John’s emphasis.

242 John G. Mitchell, with Dick Bohrer, p. 248.

243 “… (this noun only here in this Gospel) is ambiguous, meaning both ‘to the end’ and ‘to the utmost.’ It is likely that here we have a typical Johannine double meaning, with both meanings intended. But the aorist, hgaphsen, is more consistent with love shown in a single act than with the continuance of love (imperfect).” Carson, p. 614, fn. 8.

244 The NET Bible carefully renders “you” (plural) so that we understand that Jesus is not just speaking to Peter, but to all the disciples. Morris comments, “But Jesus goes on to affirm that the apostolic band (‘ye’ is plural, showing that Jesus is now looking beyond Peter) are clean in the sense meant, i.e. clean from sin (cf. 15:3). But He immediately adds ‘but not all.’” Morris, p. 619.

245 We might be tempted to agree with Peter. As often as he “put his foot in his mouth,” his feet may have been clean!

246 John Calvin, p. 821.

247 Calvin’s words here are powerful when he writes, “We are taught by these words, that we ought simply to obey Christ, even though we should not perceive the reason why he wishes this or that thing to be done. In a well-regulated house, one person, the head of the family, has the sole right to say what ought to be done; and the servants are bound to employ their hands and feet in his service. That man, therefore, is too haughty, who refuses to obey the command of God, because he does not know the reason of it. But this admonition has a still more extensive meaning, and that is, that we should not take it ill to be ignorant of those things which God wishes to be hidden from us for a time; for this kind of ignorance is more learned than any other kind of knowledge, when we permit God to be wise above us.” John Calvin, pp. 821-822.

248 John Calvin, p. 822.

249 “The Old Testament priests were ceremonially bathed just once when they were inducted into the priest’s office. After that, they washed only their feet and hands at the laver of cleansing.” Mitchell, p. 252.

250 John Calvin, p. 824.

251 Hendriksen, vol.2, p. 236, fn. 134.

252 Mitchell, pp. 253-254.

253 The term “example” is found not only here (this one time) in John, but also in Hebrews 4:11; 8:5; 9:26; James 5:10; and 2 Peter 2:6.

254 I will quote Calvin one more time here: “Now, therefore, he discloses the reason of what he had done; namely, that he who is the Master and Lord of all gave an example to be followed by all the godly, that none might grudge to descend to do a service to his brethren and equals, however mean and low that service might be. For the reason why the love of the brethren is despised is, that every man thinks more highly of himself than he ought, and despises almost every other person. Nor did he intend merely to inculcate modesty, but likewise to lay down this rule of brotherly love, that they should serve one another; for there is no brotherly love where there is not a voluntary subjection in assisting a neighbour.” Calvin, pp. 823-824.