Foot-washing and a new commandment
"Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come
that he should depart out of the world unto the Father, having loved his own
which were in the world, he loved them unto the end" (John
The Son of man was about to embark upon a great journey -- he
was going to the Father. In fulfilling the Passover imagery of his last mortal
days, he was about to accomplish his 'exodus' at Jerusalem (Luke 9:31) by
departing out of the "Egyptian" world, slain as a sin-covering lamb. Associated
with this "journey" was the thought of love, a divine love, an "agape". Jesus
loved his brethren right to the end of his life or, as some versions put it, "to
the uttermost". "He now showed them the full extent of his love"
His was a love that never faltered. The washing of the
disciples' feet showed the same abiding love that would sustain him only hours
later in his trial and crucifixion. The self-sacrifice, the disposition of the
servant, the devotion to others in passionate concern... they were all as
evident here in the 'little' task as they would soon be in the great
We read that it was "during supper" (v 2, RSV) that Jesus, to
whom the Father had committed all power and authority, rose from the meal, laid
aside his outer garments, took a towel, a pitcher of water, and a basin, and
began to wash the disciples' feet (vv 3-5).
The laying aside of his garments was a preview of his coming
crucifixion, when the centurions would strip his garments from him (John
19:23,24). This earlier incident shows his willingness to deny self, to give up
all that he possessed, even simple dignity, in a totality of loving service to
Our Lord's actions here arose out of the sad, sordid
contentions of the apostles as to which of them was the greatest (Luke 22:24).
Perhaps the seating arrangements at this special meal had brought to the surface
again their latent rivalries and jealousies. In absolute disregard of Jesus'
parable of the high and low seats (Luke 14:7-11), they jostled for position
while their leader looked on in dismay.
The immediate rebuke of their pretensions was most effective
because at first no word was spoken. Jesus rose up from the position already
taken at the table and, making provision, began to wash the feet of each
disciple in turn. Why had this not been attended to already? Can it be that
Jesus arranged that no servant be present to provide this service, simply in
order to give the twelve a chance to show what they had learned from him? If so,
then their failure could not have been more complete.
How silly they appear to us in hindsight! The more they
maneuvered and schemed to win his attention, the more they lowered themselves in
his eyes. The more successful they were in achieving a superficial priority, the
less they impressed the one who could read their hearts. And the simplest deed,
that would have won from him the desired smile of appreciation, was the last
thing on their minds. Yes, how foolish they seem. But a moment's reflection will
certainly reveal to all of us cases of similar shortsightedness in our won
dealings with our brethren.
They all sought honor from Jesus. Yet none of the men seems to
have realized how great an honor it would have been for them to have washed
his feet. It took a woman to do that, and to wipe his feet with
her hair (Luke 7:37-50).
So he went systematically from one to the next. And all
argument and discord froze on their lips, except for Peter, whose pride (still
fuelled by a false sense of superiority to the others) provoked him to speak:
"Lord, does thou wash my feet?" (John 13:6).
In reply to Peter's protest, Jesus persisted. "You will
understand better by and by why I must do this."
Still Peter continued to protest, drawing a further rebuke
from the Lord: "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me" (v 8).
So now Peter swings drastically to the other extreme: "Lord,
not my feet only, but also my hands and my head" (v 9).
No, Peter, still you fail to understand. You have been
'washed' already, in your baptism, and you need now only to wash your feet (v
Christ's point is based on the custom of waking home barefoot
after visiting the public baths, so that on arrival one who had so bathed would,
although bodily clean, have yet to wash his feet.
Now the disciples had been washed from their sins in baptism
and had risen to newness of life. They wore robes of righteousness, having been
cleansed from their past sins. But their 'walk' in the Truth made their 'feet'
dirty; they did not need to be re-immersed on that account, but they did need to
have their feet washed. This Christ could do for the, and so necessary it was
that if they omitted his cleansing they could have no 'part' (no fellowship)
with him. Here at once is an exhortation to humility, a rebuke to pride, and a
total overthrow of that flimsy fortress 'justification by works'! Christ's
lesson was not lost on John, who could write years later:
"If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the
Truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive
us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1Jo
Finally Jesus was back at the table again:
"Know ye not what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say
well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye
also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example that ye
should do as I have done to you" (John
These words have been wrested in attempts to prove that the
Washing of Feet is as much a commandment (even a "sacrament") as the Breaking of
Bread, and should therefore be practiced along with it. (The Roman Catholic as
well as some Protestant churches make this same mistake).
This teaching is erroneous on at least three different
- Concerning the Lord's supper Jesus clearly commanded, "Do this". (The verb
in 1Co 11:25 is continuous in action: 'Keep doing this!') But concerning the
washing of feet Jesus says, "I have given you an example (ie, a sample or
a type), that you should do (not what, but) as I have done to
- The witness of the early church is useful. As in Acts 2:42,46, the
Breaking of Bread was the very center and focus of all worship from the earliest
days. On the other hand, the ritual of footwashing makes no appearance for more
than 300 years.
- Peter offers his inspired interpretation of this incident
when he writes: "All of you be subject one to another, and be girded with
humility" (1Pe 5:5) -- as Jesus girded himself (John 13:4) for performing his
service to the apostles. The practical display of humble and loving service had
finally made its impression upon the headstrong Peter. Clearly, Peter is intent
on the spirit of the incident rather than on the literal washing of
One special part of this scene rivets our attention: the
picture of Jesus kneeling to wash the feet of Judas. Here is the best and the
worst together; the perfect love of the Lord and the hateful bitterness of the
betrayer at the same table. Shortly thereafter Philip would say to Jesus, "Lord,
show us the Father" (John 14:8), only to receive the answer: "He that hath seen
me hath seen the Father" (v 9). They had perhaps expected a vision of blinding
glory, thunder and lightning, the sound of trumpets. Instead, they saw... a man
kneeling in their midst with a basin of water and a towel.
All the Father's love was manifested in him: His goodness, His
patience, His forbearance, His kindness even to the sinner and the ungodly. We
realize, then, how necessary it was for him to perform this service for all,
even Judas. Had Jesus passed him by, or waited until he left, then all following
generations of disciples would have said: "You see, it's all right to restrict
our acts of kindness just to our friends." But the love revealed by Jesus leaves
us no such excuse. He who died for those who were yet sinners calls us to follow
his example, and to love those who are most unloving and unlovely! It is a
difficult task, made no easier by the mean-spiritedness and fleshliness of so
many around us. So we do well always to remember that our service to others,
whatever form it takes, is no less than service to Christ.
No matter how willing the mind may be to receive this truth in
theory, the routine of life reveals a hundred instances of the most abject
failure. Unless we are always aware of it, our outlook can become seriously
twisted by constant association with the world's false principles. Labor unions
agitate and threaten and strike, holding in contempt the idea that they should
ever render any "service" in a joyful, liberal fashion. All around us workers
squirm and fret under rules and restraints, and scheme to get the most pay for
the least effort. "But ye shall not be so... he that is chief, (let him be) as
he that doth serve" (Luke 22:26).
Such humility is not a thing to be striven for. The greater
the agonizing effort to achieve it, the more it eludes him who strives. What is
needed is a quiet transformation of spirit through the continuing influence of
Christ's example, along with a complete disregard for the possible impression
our "good deeds" may make upon others.
This incident teaches us something else again. As Christ does,
so ought we to do. If he can forgive trespasses, how much more ought we! "If ye
know these things, happy are ye if ye do them" (John 13:17). We may feel as
reluctant to forgive a brother's sin, as we would to wash his feet, especially
if he is one we are tempted to consider inferior. But Christ's example, if it
means anything, means that we must. How many ecclesial contentions would be
ended, if one of the contending parties would humble himself sufficiently to be
the first to do so!
A New Commandment?
"A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved
you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my
disciples, if ye have love one to another" (John
How was this a new commandment? It had in fact been the
most prominent theme of all of Christ's ministry. Both the greatest commandment,
and the second which was like unto it, involved love. Love was, furthermore, the
root and foundation of the law.
This commandment was 'new' only in the sense that it
was now being given the perfect interpretation in the life of Jesus. For the
first time in human history a man stood before his fellows as the absolutely
flawless embodiment of the Divine ideal of "agape":
"This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you.
Greater love hath no man that this, that a man lay down his life for his
Of all the challenges that face us in these last days, surely
this is the greatest: to exemplify Christ's love in all that we do and say, and
thus through our practical knowledge of his sacrificial life to "show
forth" his death until he come.