The Gospel According to Footwashing - Reexamining John 13:1-17

Friday, May 13, 2005

The Gospel According to Footwashing - Reexamining John 13:1-17


In studying through the narrative on footwashing in John 13, I was prompted by the text to ask what I believe is a key question, a question which the text seeks to answer, and thus, the point which Jesus desired to emphasize to His disciples that night, as well as to us today. But before that question is asked, a summarization of several fundamental elements in this narrative is necessary.

First, in 13:1, the narrative begins this way. "Before the Passover celebration, Jesus knew that his hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father. He now showed the disciples the full extent of his love" (NLT). The ESV reads, "having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end." This verse guides the rest of the narrative. Here they all are, eating their last meal with their best friend and Teacher, and He is still thinking of them, right down to the very end. And how does He choose to demonstrate His love for the in the end here? Here in the upper room His love is demonstrated by washing their feet, a menial act that symbolizes the greater act to come just hours later.

Second, in 13:3-4, the narrative continues by referring to Jesus authority. In verse 3, there is a statement of authority which the Father had given to the Son. In verse 4, there is a statement of Jesus' preparation to serve the disciples by washing their feet. It seems then that John writes the verses in this order to emphasize that the Divine Authority of the universe is manifesting His authority in menial servitude. Service is the key to greatness, then, a point already well established several times over in the gospels with the disciples. This is the very thing which Christ came to do according to Mark's gospel. Jesus Christ came not to be served, but to serve. And He came to serve by giving His life as a ransom for many (10:45). Christ's whole life was an ongoing series of service acts towards those He loved.

Third, in 13:7 ff., Jesus prepares them for what He is about to do. He explains that what He is doing will be explained after He is finished doing it. But Peter, missing that part, proceeds in pride to reject such a menial act coming from one the greatest human being to ever walk to the earth. When Jesus introduces His explanation to come with a word picture of the truth of what He was trying to illustrate, Peter sees the object lesson for what it is, and humbles himself to be washed completely. In short, the object lesson of footwashing is about the greater truth of washing or cleansing from sin - or forgiveness. Grasping that truth, Peter acknowledges his need of not just a footwashing, but a whole bath. For Jesus, this action on Peter's part is only indicative that he has already been completely cleansed, justified, and forgiven of sin. What he needed then was an application of that forgiveness to his daily sin (1 John 1:9).

So then there are two layers of meaning here: first the servitude Jesus reflected and wanted His disciples to reflect also, and second, the cleansing or forgiveness of sin represented by the footwashing.

Now the question: what is the relationship or chief connection between the first and second layers of meaning? In other words, what is the relationship of humility and service to the cleaning of sins?

I have missed it all these years, only seeing the surface. The surface is clearly stated in every commentary and study bible: serve others just like Jesus served you. But there is more under the surface. Indeed, there has to be more since the footwashing itself represents the cleansing from sin. And what is more, understanding what is beneath the surface is essential if we are to follow Jesus command in verses 14-15 to do for others what He did for us. Our very blessedness depends upon it, according to verse 17.

Consider first that humility is in fact a very key element here, hands down. It is demonstrated first and foremost by Christ, the maker of the universe, humbling Himself (Phil. 2:5-7), even to the point of death on a cross. Again, He came to serve, not to be served. And He served in the most menial ways, like washing feet, as well as in the greatest way, by dying to forgive our sins.

Second, humility is also demonstrated by our acknowledgement of sin and need of cleansing. It takes humility to admit that we are dirty and need cleansing, to admit that we are sinners and in need of forgiveness. Peter refused the footwashing at first, a sign of his pride which was absconding his heart from seeing what Christ was really doing at that time. What Jesus explained to Peter was that if Peter had refused the physical act of footwashing because of his pride, that pride would also keep him from partaking in the spiritual act of receiving forgiveness of sins. And when Peter caught sight of the lesson behind the object, He wanted his feet, and hands, and head washed, all indicative of the humility which allowed him to see his need for a complete and total cleansing of sin.

In other words, when Jesus began explaining what He was doing, Peter caught wind of it and knew he was totally depraved and in need of an extreme spiritual makeover! If his relationship and communion and fellowship with Jesus depended upon the humility to (1) acknowledge sin's presence, and (2) acknowledge the Lord and Master of all and His service to forgive that sin, then he wanted to humble himself comletely. Nothing was more desirable to Peter than to continue the fellowship he had so enjoyed, and he was suddenly willing to do whatever it took to keep enjoying it.

So then, humility, as it regards the second point just made, is demonstrated in allowing the King of the Universe to stoop down into our lives, point out our sin, and point out our need of cleansing from it. It continues to be demonstrated in our acknowledgement of His action in pointing out those things, with willingness and thankfulness to receive His forgiving and cleansing acts. Humility recognizes the need for total cleansing. It teaches us total depravity and makes us own it. And humility, therefore, clings to Jesus' service on the cross for us with a life-and-death attachment to Jesus, with constant dependence upon Him for our whole spiritual well-being. As JFB wrote, "the truest humility is to receive reverentially, and thankfully to own, the gifts of grace."

With those fundamentals and foundations laid down, are we any closer to answering what I believe is the key question? Yes, we are. But first, a caveat must be mentioned with respect to footwashing. Following Jesus command in verses 13-14 about footwashing isn't about observing footwashing as an ordinance or rite today. A true "I'm sorry," goes out to my Brethren brothers. That just isn't what Jesus was after here, and to make it an ordinance completely misses the real point behind the action, something I'm about to explain right now. With that caveat, here is the question stated once more and my (current) answers.

Question: What is the relationship between the service and humility demonstrated in footwashing, and the cleansing of sins represented by the footwashing?

Answer One: First, Christ's command to wash each other's feet was meant to be a symbolic gesture of willingness to serve each other in whatever way necessary since Jesus served us in the greatest way possible. So washing each other's feet says something about the gospel. It says, 'Since Jesus served you and I in the greatest way possible, I will serve you in whatever lesser way possible.' It says, 'If Christ loved me to the end by serving me with complete cleansing of my sins, I will love you to the very end by serving you in whatever you need it.'

The humility factor is especially demonstrated in the fact that church leadership and authority is in view here. Christ, the Lord and Teacher of the church is speaking to men who will be the founders of the church, the apostles. Thus, in verse 14, "If I," the Salvation for the church have been willing to serve you in such a menial way, then you as the founders of the church to come ought to do the same for others. It is in this way that the servant will be like the Master, per verse 16. The founders of the church had this act of Christ as their foundation in acting, behaving, thinking, teaching, etc. Serve others to the very end, no matter how bitter, just as Christ did for us.

Answer Two: Second, since the washing of feet portrays the cleansing of sins we've committed, though we are already cleansed, the disciples washing each others' feet would stand to serve as a reminder of that Jesus cleansed those sins as well as the rest. Footwashing becomes a reminder of forgiveness. And since footwashing is simply a symoblic gesture which stands for any service of any kind, great or small, our service to others should be accompanied, perhaps, with an explanation for that service. In response to remarks like, "I can't believe you did this for us. Why did you do this?" should come replies like, "I served you in this way to remind you and I both of the greatest service ever done for us in Christ when He forgave us and cleansed us from our sins." This leads to the last, and what I believe to be the most crucial connection and key here.

Answer Three: Third, what Christ clearly seems to be after here is the communication of His cleansing of sin to others, through their service, even in the most menial ways. Jesus communicated His cleansing of the disciples' sins by washing their feet. Matthew Henry, I believe, is the only one in print who hits this crucial nerve: "What I have done to your dirty feet, that do you to the polluted souls of sinners; wash them." Here is much needed and crucially key connection, then, between humility/service and cleansing of sins, between the act and the truth represented by that act!

What Henry means by this, I believe, is the lifestyle intended by Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:22 where he writes, "I have become all things to all people, that by all means, I might save some." Paul was willing to serve in whatever capacity necessary in order to save some. He, an Apostle, one holding an elevated office of leadership and authority, wanted to do just what Christ did, namely, do whatever it took, serving in whatever way necessary, in order to see souls saved, cleansed and forgiven.

Here is the key then: Humility and service, to all who need it, no matter what the need may be, and doing so by any means necessary, are pathways for the gospel message to travel upon. They are tools which the gospel will use to affect the washing, cleansing, and forgiveness of sins. Christ loved us to the very end, serving us in both menial and massive ways, in order to affect forgiveness and complete cleansing.

So also we must love the lost to the end, serving them in whatever ways necessary, in order to see them experience complete cleansing. They'll know we are Christians by our love. It is in this way that the world looking on will see our good works and glorify our Father in heaven (Matt. 5:16; see also Philemon 4-6, 1 Peter 2:12; 2 Corinthians 9:13). And likewise, we must love believers to the end, serving them in whatever way necessary, in order to see them experience, taste, and cherish afresh the forgiveness and cleansing of Christ.

In summary, it seems what Jesus is intending to teach His disciples in John 13 by washing their feet is that their future service to others, great and small, is a means of communicating the gospel in lifestyle and lip. Let us savor the beautiful example of humility and servitude which Jesus certainly intends by His example. But let us also dive deeper below the surface of this truth in this text, by seeing that our service, great and small, is intended to be a means of preaching the gospel, of seeing totally depraved souls, like ourselves, completely cleansed from all sin, justified forever in His sight.

He served us in order to save us. And we also must serve others in order to save them. This reexamination better honors the meaning of the text and it avoids the very surface level meaning of, 'Jesus served, so we must serve, too." It better honors the text because it not only defines service, but gives it purpose and meaning also.

As a postscript, to this post, consider the application of this text to marriage. There is no other text in Scripture which better mirrors the application of John 13:1-17, I believe, than Ephesians 5:25. Husbands must love their wives with the same self-sacrificial, serving love which Christ showed His church. He gave up His life for the church to make her holy, and clean, washed with the water of God's Word. Jesus loved the church to the very end, serving the church in order to make her holy and clean, speaking the word of cleansing and forgiveness to her. And in the same way, husbands ought to love their wives to the very end, serving their wives in order to see them saved and/or to see them daily cherishing and utilizing Christ's word of cleansing and forgiveness.

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