John 13:1-17

May 27, 2001


Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor

The Grantham Church
John 13:1-17

In chapter 13, Passover has come. And, further, Jesus’ hour has come. It was G. K. Chesterton who once said, “There is nothing that clears a man’s mind so well as to know that he will be hanged in the morning.” In just a few days Jesus will hang on a cross. He must have felt something like, there is so much to do. I could heal more people. There is more to teach, and these twelve disciples are not really ready to be on their own. He might have felt these things. At the same time he promised that he would send the Holy Spirit who will be the ongoing help to these disciples and others who believe in Jesus, so Jesus’ presence was not the only resource his disciples would have.

What does Jesus do in his few remaining days? He teaches his disciples about the character of his new kingdom and about how to pray. What do you think Jesus’ state of mind was as he faced his death? There were conflicting feelings in him. He shows his humanity as he weeps over Jerusalem, as he expresses agony in Gethsemane and he faces death with a certain amount of dread. Yet these things are trumped by his willingness to show the full extent of his love for his disciples and by his spirit remaining submissive to the Father’s will. Though he is the man of sorrows, yet he shows determination as he sets his face toward Jerusalem and toward the cross that he knows is coming.

One day last week, I was reading and I said to myself, I really should go put the next lawn treatment on our lawn. Or, I could take a nap. So I took a nap. I’ll get the lawn done later, I said. For Jesus there was no later. He couldn’t put this time with his disciples off.

In chapter 13 the time of the evening meal has come. Jesus and his disciples are together. Proper etiquette would have some servant of the house wash their feet, but no one had done it. There were servants there because verse 2 says the meal was being served. Jesus therefore rises from table and lays down his outer robe and washes the disciples feet.

We’re not used to symbolic actions, though we have birthdays, with cakes, candles, ice cream and gifts which symbolize the joy of birth. Jesus’ feet washing symbolizes redemption. When Jesus lays down his robe in verse 4 and in verse 12, takes it up again, those are same two Greek words used in John 10:17 where Jesus says: “The reason the Father loves me is that I lay down my life - only to take it up again.” Those are the words John uses to describe what Jesus does in the feet washing: he lays down his robe and he takes it up again. That’s one hint that the feet washing symbolizes in some way Jesus’ coming death on the cross.

Then there is the symbolism of the feet washing itself. Much has been made of the fact that even Jewish slaves could not be required to wash feet. This was a demeaning, menial job. There is a practical reason for feet washing. The disciples had walked that day through the dusty streets of Jerusalem in sandals and their feet were dirty and they were reclining on a couch to eat. You might ask, when these disciples realized their feet had not been washed, why didn’t one of them offer to do this? But you have to learn to do menial tasks. Jesus was the one who knew best how to serve, and so he it is who takes the initiative to wash the feet. Judas was one of those whose feet he washes. We see down in verse 27, Judas is still in that room with the others. It’s interesting that this act which symbolizes cleansing was done for Judas, for Jesus is offering Judas a chance to repent.

Besides the practical reason for feet washing and the symbolism in laying down and taking up Jesus’ life, feet washing is a humble act. That is why people didn’t usually want to do it. The Brethren In Christ look on feet washing as a little step in learning humility.

So Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Everyone accepts this until in verse 6 Jesus comes to Simon Peter. He raises an objection. And Jesus says to him in verse 7, “Now you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

You might ask, what is there to not understand? Their feet are dirty. They need to be washed. And it is at this point we realize there is something more involved.

Do you remember the 1984 film, The Karate Kid? Pat Morita meets Ralph Macchio and gets Macchio, who is a young teenager, to wash his car and then to paint his fence. And exhausted at the end, the kid complains, why am I doing this? Then Morita shows him that the movement of the hand to wash and wax and the movement of the wrist to paint are the same motions one uses in karate.

So it was with the disciples, there is something more that is happening in this feet washing than they see. In verse 8 Jesus connects feet cleaning with a spiritual cleaning: “Unless I wash you,” he says to Peter, “you have no part with me.” That cleaning is a spiritual pre-condition for being one of Jesus’ people.
Does Peter understand Jesus’ point? Sure. Look at his response. “If you are going to cleanse me, wash my hands and my head as well.” No one knows better than Peter how much he needs cleansing. But how then is Jesus using the word “clean” in verse 10? “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet (because they’ve since become dirty); his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not everyone of you” - referring to Judas.

What has Peter been reluctant to do? He is reluctant to submit to Jesus because he doesn’t understand what Jesus is doing. Peter doesn’t think it proper for Jesus to wash his feet. It ought to be the other way around. But to submit to Jesus brings cleansing. Peter doesn’t want to simply receive with humility what Jesus is doing for him. We are often like that, aren’t we? We have our own standards of propriety and when God doesn’t pay attention to them, we don’t understand. We’re not very good at submitting to God when we don’t understand why.

That’s why - isn’t it? - that when we read the Bible we need to submit to what it teaches. That submission brings cleansing into our lives. Reading the Bible is where God’s will is revealed to us and we may choose to do it or not. Feet washing is symbolic because it is a revelation of what God is like, and what he wants us to be like.

Most of the commentaries I read asked this question about feet washing, how should we obey verse 14 today? What they mean is, since feet washing is obviously an out-dated custom, what can we do in its place today? There is only one other place in the New Testament where we hear of feet washing. It’s in 1 Timothy 5:10 which speaks of feet washing as a suitable task for widows. We don’t have dirty feet today, except when we’re at the beach. Maybe we should collect trash and garbage. That’s a demeaning task. Maybe we should work on houses in Harlan County, Kentucky. Maybe we should join those who pick up trash along three or four miles of a US highway. That’s the kind of re-thinking these commentaries suggest. Rodney Whitacre, who is usually pretty balanced, suggests in his 1999 Intervarsity commentary that the word “as” in verse 15 demands the interpretation that we find something that corresponds to feet washing today. The problem with that idea is that in verse 14 Jesus draws the comparison, I have washed your feet, you should wash one another’s feet. That seems pretty clear to me.

Besides, there is still the lesson of humility when you wash someone’s feet. You have to kneel before this person. You have to take his/her feet in your hands, and wash and dry them with a towel, including drying between the toes. You can still learn about humility in doing that.

And then in verse 16, Jesus talks about serving others, which is exactly the point of feet washing. This is what God is like. He serves his people. We see what God is like when we wash feet.

We can also think about feet washing in light of Jesus’ coming death on the cross. Maybe that is the first thing that comes to your mind. Verse 1 says Jesus “now showed them the full extent of his love.” We know that the full extent of Jesus’ love was shown at the cross. But feet washing anticipates that, as does Jesus’ baptism. If people were baptized for the forgiveness of sins, what sins did Jesus need to confess when he was baptized? The answer is, none, yet even at the beginning of his teaching ministry, he identifies with us in our sin by himself being baptized. And here at the end of his life, he identifies with us in our need to be cleansed.

In itself feet washing doesn’t bring cleansing or humility. Jesus washes Judas’ feet, but Judas’ heart is elsewhere. It has already been given to Satan. There is no cleansing for Judas becuase he is too proud to repent.

I think that Dorothy Sayers’ reading of Judas is correct. She portrays Judas as the most intelligent of the disciples - with the possible exception of John - and Judas is attracted to Jesus because he sees him as a man of integrity who does not yearn for an earthly kingdom. But Judas is filled with pride. Sometimes intellectual prowess does that to a person. And when Jesus rides into Jerusalem to the crowd’s acclamation, Judas interprets that as Jesus getting ready to throw over the kingdom of love idea and inaugurate a kingdom of power. So Judas betrays Jesus, finding out too late that he was wrong. But he is too proud to do what Peter did. He is too proud to repent.

Satan is seeking people to trick. He found Eve and he has found many others. Peter later will say that Satan is like a prowling lion, seeking people to devour. (1 Peter 5:8) How can we avoid his traps? By keeping close to Jesus and by allowing the light of the Word of God to keep us focused on Jesus.

God is seeking people too. When Jesus says in verse 3, “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God....,” what Jesus was saying is, God is sovereign. God is in control. You may trust him with your life. All the Judases, Annases, Caiapheses, Pilates, and mobs in history are acting within the control of God. That doesn’t mean Christians won’t be killed. Jesus was. But it means we need not despair.

One last lesson. Verse 8 issues a personal challenge to each one here this morning. Has Jesus washed you? There is no sin that he cannot wash away. John is very clear on that in his letter, 1 John 1:7, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light... the blood of Jesus his son cleanses us from all sin.” Have you let Jesus wash you? If you say, “yes, I have let Jesus wash me,:” then you understand the meaning of feet washing. You may even have taken first steps in humility.