This is a Bible study on the passage in the gospel of John where Jesus washes his disciples feet, and thereby teaches us we are to reflect our Lord by humbly serving others. To understand this post, you should stop and read John 13:1-38 before moving on.
In John 13:1, 3 John tells us what enables Jesus to go through with both the humble act of footwashing and the brutal death beyond it. How is Jesus able to carry through his life of service and self-sacrifice? Jesus knew that he only had a few hours left to live. He knew that when he finished this meal to walk to the Garden of Gethsemane, that he would finally be arrested and the chain of events would begin that was destined to end in crucifixion. But Jesus also knew that his death was not the end of him. He knew that his hour had come and that soon he would be going back to be in the presence of his heaven Father. Jesus knew that his Father had given all things into his hand. All these things that Jesus knew, along with the testimony of the Father’s love for him and the power of God’s Spirit with him, gave him the strength to carry through his life of service and self-sacrifice. Jesus could humble himself to the point of self-abasement when he washed his disciples’ feet because he knew all these things. Since all these things were true and known by Jesus, he could leave the disciples his example and commandment to follow.
But look at Peter’s response to Jesus. Why does Peter object to letting Jesus do the work of a slave (John 13:6-8)? Peter rightly understood that Jesus was his teacher and his Lord. Peter must have thought, “I’ve got to be out of my mind to let my Lord Jesus, the Christ, the Son of the Living God, wash my feet!” Peter understood that Jesus was greater than he, that Jesus is the master and Peter the servant. But Peter did not yet understand the kind of teacher that Jesus was showing himself to be. Peter did not see that Jesus came to be a servant, and to serve those whom he loved. The footwashing in a sense symbolized the work of Jesus on the cross, where only Jesus could atone for the sins of other people—the sins of his own people whom God had given to him.
How does washing his disciples’ feet resemble what Jesus is about to do by going to the cross? By going to the cross, Jesus sacrificed himself for the sins of others. Jesus, the King of kings, debased himself by dying a condemned criminal’s death—a death that served as a substitution, a penalty for the punishment that sinners deserve. Jesus served his people through this selfless act of love. The day before when Jesus demonstrated the extent of his love for his disciples by washing their feet and drying them with the towel wrapped around his waist, he acted out the selfless love for his people that was shown on the cross. Jesus told Peter that if he did not allow Jesus to wash his feet, then Peter could have no part with him. Similarly, no one can have a part with Jesus or his Father apart from the work of Jesus on the cross. The picture of a master washing the feet of his disciples is fulfilled in the cross as the master washed the sins away from his people (disciples).
The foot washing symbolizes a work that only Jesus can do for his followers (John 13:8), but it is also an example of what he wants them to continue to do for each other (John 13:13-17). What do you think he’s asking them to do? Literally wash each other’s feet? More than that? I think that Jesus is asking believers to sacrificially serve on another, even to put the interests of others before their own. Jesus is asking them to not consider any task too menial to perform. It is possible that Jesus was asking believers to wash each other’s feet, but I don’t think that he was instituting a third sacrament (a means of grace for the church to formally practice). I suspect that footwashing in the Palestinian culture of the first century was an obvious way to practice the principle illustrated by footwashing. But footwashing in other cultures and eras does not communicate the same thing that Jesus was trying to teach. Perhaps in our culture the principle could be practiced by washing dishes after dinner with houseguests, or taking the coats of guests as they enter your home, or of shoveling snow from a neighbor’s driveway. The parallels are not strong, but the idea is to find something personal that requires manual labor to demonstrate love and care for others.
What do you think “washing one another’s feet” could look like in your church or community? Perhaps in our culture the principle could be practiced by washing dishes after dinner with houseguests, or taking the coats of guests as they enter your home, or of shoveling snow from a neighbor’s driveway. The parallels are not strong, but the idea is to find something personal that requires manual labor to demonstrate love and care for others. In church, “footwashing” could be doing the menial tasks that are required to keep the day-to-day operations of the church up and running. Anyone could do these things, not just children, the jobless, or retired people. Things like weeding the garden, mowing the grass, washing the dishes, changing light bulbs, sweeping and vacuuming, garbage removal, dusting, set-up and tear-down duties. Anything that needs elbow grease or the changing of your “church clothes” applies. In the community, serving on the HOA, picking up trash, sweeping a neighbor’s sidewalk or walkway, mowing a neighbor’s or the community’s lawn, babysitting children for needy parents, etc. The idea is to do all of these things in Jesus’ name for the glory of God.
In this passage, John keeps referring to Judas’s betrayal (John 13:2, 11, 18-19, 21-30). What do you sense are Jesus’ emotions about this betrayal by one who has been so close to him? Is he surprised? Troubled, Indifferent? There are lots of human emotions that come into play when one is betrayed. Betrayal usually occurs between close friends or relative, or between two parties where a solemn relationship exists. I sense that Jesus was sad that one of his closest, most trusted followers was destined to follow the darkness of the world rather than the light of the world. I don’t think he was surprised though. I suspect that when Jesus chose the 12, he probably already knew which one would betray him. But I think Jesus was troubled in his spirit over the case of Judas on the night in which the betrayal happened. I don’t read any indifference in Jesus’ words or actions. Yes, he washed Judas’s feet with the rest of his disciples, but I don’t see any evidence in John’s narrative that Jesus loved the eleven as he washed their feet, but turned off the love for Judas Iscariot. No, I see Jesus loving Judas, the one whom he knew from the very beginning would eventually turn to the darkness (the Dark Side!), to the very end.
Someone might object at this point, “How can Jesus wash the feet of a traitor? How is this relevant to us?” Jesus can wash the feet of a traitor because Judas hadn’t betrayed him yet. Jesus did not judge Judas for what he was about to do, but rather loved Judas all the way up to the moment when Judas left the inner circle go to the chief priests to initiate the betrayal. Yet even during the betrayal scene in the Garden, Jesus is kind to Judas. He allows Judas the plant the kiss of death on his cheek, setting in motion the events of the Passion, the greatest tragedy in history. This is relevant to us because he also must love those whom we suspect may eventually betray Christ and his Church. We must choose to love like Jesus loved, washing our brother’s feet even when it feels like turning the other cheek. And yes, we must even love the wayward brother who is sinning against Christ, his church in general, and perhaps even ourselves in particular. The love of Christ, acted out in the upper room footwashing, compels us.
But how is it possible that someone who knows Jesus and his teaching intimately, who has seen his miracles firsthand, whom Jesus has trusted and honored, can nonetheless betray him? What does this mean for us? It is possible for betrayal to happen among Christ’s disciples because the kingdom of God is inhabited by wheat and tare, sheep and goats, dough and yeast, elect and pretenders. But the question remains, how do we know who we are? Am I one of Christ’s sheep, or do I belong to another flock? Is God my Father, or is my father the enemy—Satan? Jesus reveals to us in John that we will know if we hear the voice (teaching) of Jesus and follow him. Many heard Jesus and were attracted to him and the blessings he provided. But many also walked away from Jesus when he began to teach things about himself and God that they didn’t like. When he began to make ultimate demands on their loyalty, they abandoned him. It is the same today. If you are willing to follow Jesus wherever he leads, whatever he teaches, whatever lot in life he assigns to you, then you can be assured that the fate of Judas is not yours. But if you are like Judas—a follower who wants Jesus to fit your agenda—then beware the sin of betraying the son of God. How can this happen? Because without the merciful and providential hand of God upholding us to keep us in the faith, being faithful to the Triune God, then each of us would surely follow the path of Judas. “There but for the grace of God go I” should be our humble confession.
Now let’s look at the cross. How can John view the cross as a moment of glory, not hideous disaster? The cross is the beginning of a process of lifting up the Son of God. Just as the serpent was lifted up in the wilderness so that everyone who was bitten by the fiery serpents could look upon the bronze serpent statue and be healed, the Son of God was lifted up into the air on the cross, a spectacle to all, so that whosoever looks to the cross and the sacrifice for sin (Jesus as the Lamb of God) upon it, will be healed. The cross is where God reconciled the world to himself through forgiveness of sin through the atoning, expiating, propitiating sacrifice of Jesus Christ. Jesus is “lifted up” both literally into the air, and symbolically as the King of kings. The cross was paradoxically where the darkness was definitively defeated by the light of the world. What appeared to be the defeat of God was in reality, in the spiritual realms, the routing of all God’s enemies. It had been planned from eternity past, not as a hideous disaster, but as life for the world. Jesus accomplished that eternal plan. He proved he is the light and life of the world. Truly, the light came into the world but the darkness did not comprehend or overcome it. As the apostle Paul burst into doxological praise pondering the mystery of God:
Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen (Rom 11:33-36).
How is Jesus’ kind of love like and unlike the emotional love we generally think of? Jesus’ love is like the emotional love we usually think of because it touches the emotions. Jesus loves with full passion (pathos). But the love of Jesus entails much more. It is a love that is full of knowledge (logos) and works itself out in acts of loving devotion (ethos). The emotional love we so often think of tends to be shallow, emotionally driven, temporary, fleeting, heart-felt instead of head-felt. Puppy love and real covenantally-committed love are very different indeed.
You may be thinking now, “That’s all very good knowing that the Father loved Jesus. But what does this have to do with me? How can I know that Jesus and the Father love me—as securely as Jesus knew it?” As I said before, if you believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, then you can be certain that you have life in his name. Not just “your Christ” but also “the Christ”. If you believe these things then you can know that Jesus and the Father love you. If you believe these things and recognize over the course of time that your love for God grows, strengthens, and continues, then you can have the same assurance that Jesus had that his heavenly Father loved him.
Sometimes Christians fight for truth in unloving ways. Sometimes Christians compromise truth in order to get along in ways that seem loving. Think of a situation you face. How can you relate to your fellow Christians without compromising truth or limiting love? This is an issue that I think is always close to the heart of every person who is engaged in teaching, preaching, or leading people in some way. For myself, it is tempting (and easy) to hit people over the head with my doctrinal hammer. I’ve been to seminary and have learned a good bit of theological and biblical knowledge. It is so easy for me to spew knowledge when I disagree with a brother or sister in Christ and not realize the damage that I do to Christ’s sheep. I am very aware of my sinful tendency, and try very hard to love people in ways that do not harm. On the other hand, sometimes I try too hard, and I slip into the opposite sin of trying to get along with others, not so much by compromising, but by emphasizing the similarities between myself and others and deemphasizing the differences (when the particular differences under examination) are what are most significant. It is a delicate balance to find so that we relate to other believers without compromising truth or limiting love. One method I use to help me achieve that balance is to remember that I don’t know nearly as much as I think I know. Another method is to practice the art of listening and asking probing, relevant questions. Still another is to remember that love is the greatest of the fruit of the Spirit. The Scriptures says that if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. Faith, hope, and love abide, but the greatest of these is love (1 Corinthians 13:2, 13).