John 13 The Foot Washing Ministry of the Perfect Servant vs 4-17
John introduces the upper room ministry of the Lord Jesus by relating in a highly vivid manner what took place first in the proceedings of that evening. The washing of His disciples’ feet had immense practical and spiritual significance and the Lord by doing it taught those men two primary lessons – the need for clean feet at His table and the need to serve one another in humility.
As noted in a previous message, John chapter thirteen verses one to thirty form the preamble to the upper room teaching of Jesus, His farewell discourse with His own. The departure of Judas marks the transition.
John then leads us to what Jesus did with introductory comments full with insight and relevance (vs 1-3). He sets the context of this remarkable scene as to when it took place, who did it and against what background. It was before the festival of Passover, yet at the Passover supper when the Son of God, against the background of satanic activity and imminent betrayal, arose from the supper to wash the feet of His disciples. John deliberately heightens the reader’s sense of awareness of the greatness of Jesus in order to impact us with the grace of what He did in love and humility toward His disciples. How true that evening was the saying – ‘Actions speak louder than words’. If Jesus, the Son of God who shares the glory of His Father, possesses all authority and holds the very universe together by His power could stoop to wash the feet of these lowly disciples, then they had absolutely no excuse for not doing the same. This is exactly the point the Lord Jesus made to them: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15).
It is told that General William Booth, the founder of the Salvation Army, once sent a telegram to his officers around the world with a one word message reminding them of what their work was all about. It simply read - 'others'. There in that upper room in Jerusalem with the Cross casting its ominous shadow over the Lord that He taught by example in the most powerful manner that discipleship is all about serving 'others'.
There are two general, but important things to keep in mind as we read through the occasion of the upper room. The first is that the Lord Jesus spending time with His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion was itself a demonstration of His love for them. Don’t miss that. If you love someone you will want to be with them. The first sign of a relationship in crisis is when one party starts to avoid and withdraw from the other. Moreover, love is reciprocal. If I love the Lord Jesus I’ll want to be in His presence and with His people. When that desire is absent there is something wrong.
The second thing is that Christ saw the potential of these men, as only He could, and therefore took the time in the upper room to impart truth to them in preparation for their future. Let’s face it, on the human level they were an unlikely bunch of characters who naturally would never have been brought together, yet from the divine standpoint they were given by the Father to the Son (John 17:6-8). These were God’s men and Christ’s servants. Their time with the Lord Jesus was their training, the preparation for their mission after His ascension. The Lord moulded and shaped them so that they would become the men they needed to be when it mattered. For any believer to be of use in the service of the Master time must be spent in ‘the school of Christ’. Being in His presence, hearing His word and learning at His feet is essential preparation for service.
There is always the danger, particularly in the matter of preaching and teaching, of wanting to run before being able to walk, of trying to teach before having adequately learned and of attempting to give out before having properly taken in. Dr David Martyn Lloyd-Jones said, ‘The worst thing that can happy to a man is to succeed before he is ready’ and Charles Haddon Spurgeon who began preaching in his teenage years said: ‘If I knew I would have twenty-five years left to live, I would spend twenty of them in preparation’. That said, it is important to see the potential in others, particularly younger believers, and encourage accordingly.
'He Riseth from Supper' (vs 4-5)
Bear with me for a moment as I highlight an important point about John’s grammar which helps us sense the effect he intends for the reader by his writing style. As John describes what the Lord does and introduces the exchange between He and Peter he uses a number of present tense verbs (vs 4-10). For an English reader the use of a present tense verb to describe a past event is unusual, but this is not so in Greek. Such usage is called the ‘historic present’ and was employed by Greek authors ‘for the sake of heightened vividness, thereby transporting their readers in imagination to the actual scene at the time of occurrence’ (NASB Notes). That’s exactly John’s purpose here. As we read and listen to him, we are watching, so to speak, the Lord from a front row seat as He rises to wash the feet of these men, including Judas.
While other English versions usually translate all the narrative in the past tense, the King James along with Young’s Literal Translation best reflect the Greek in verses four to ten. The verbs to note are ‘riseth’ (v 4), ‘laid aside’ (v 4; which Young translates ‘doth lay down’), ‘poureth’ (v 5), ‘cometh’ (v 6), ‘saith’ (vs 6, 8, 9, 10). Of course these are old English forms. If we read the narrative with the ‘s’ ending of modern English we get the idea:
'He rises from supper, and laysaside His garments; and took a towel, and girded Himself. After that He pours water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded. Then comes He to Simon Peter: and Peter says unto Him, “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said unto him, “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter”. Peter says unto Him, “Thou shalt never wash my feet”. Jesus answered him, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me”. Simon Peter says unto him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head”. Jesus says to him, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all”' (John 13:4-10).
Evidently the towel, water and bason were present in the room, but there was no appointed servant to perform the task. Foot washing was necessary in that culture where the exposure of sandal clad feet meant they got dirtied walking on dry and dusty roads (Gen 18:4; 24:32; 43:24). Such a menial task, it would appear, was beneath men who aspired for position in the kingdom (Luke 22:24). Each of them would probably have washed the Lord’s feet, but they never attempted to do so nor do we read on this occasion, for good reason, that His feet were ever washed. It was the unnamed woman in the house of Simon the Pharisee who washed His feet with tears and wiped them with her hair (Luke 7:36-38).
Reclining with the Lord at the beginning of the supper (Matt 26:20; John 13:12, 23) around a low table (Luke 22:21; 28) on ‘thin mats’ rather than chairs and facing toward the table while probably leaning on their left arm with their feet extending outwards away from the table not one of them had thought to do this menial, but necessary task. It’s interesting that John records no conversation or words spoken until Peter breaks the silence. We can almost sense the tension of unspoken surprise from the disciples as the Lord without a word rises from the table, lays aside His garments, girds Himself with the towel, pours the water into the bason and begins washing their feet. When He finished His work He took His garments again and sat down (v 12). Having removed His garments most likely to His inner seamless tunic (John 19:23-24) He now wore the dress of a servant while doing the servant’s work.
We can readily see how the Lord’s actions illustrate the truth of what Paul wrote to the Philippians:
'Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, He humbled Himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. Wherefore God also hath highly exalted Him, and given Him a name which is above every name: That at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of things in heaven, and things in earth, and things under the earth; And that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father' (Phil 2:5-11).
Here is the mind of humility. “I am among you as He that serveth” said the Lord Jesus to His disciples in that room as they disputed about greatness even after He had washed their feet (Luke 22:27).
'Then Cometh He to Simon Peter' (vs 6-11)
There was of course tremendous spiritual significance in when the Lord washed their feet. He told Peter, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me” (v 8). Without getting his feet washed he could not enjoy fellowship with or in Christ. To share at His table and enjoy His presence requires the cleansing of the water of the word. This is why before the Passover supper proceeds and Christ shares both the meal and His teaching with His own, not only did their feet need to be actually washed they also needed to be taught vital spiritual truth. Their first lesson was, the necessity of personal preparation for communion with Christ. This lesson we need to keep before us. We ought not to just come ‘any old way’ into the presence of Christ if we want to enjoy the sweetness of His fellowship. We need the cleansing and sanctifying work of the word of God. More about that shortly.
Peter being Peter protests: “Lord, dost Thou wash my feet?” (v 6). Peter once again seems to think he knows better than the Lord, but as Jesus reminded him: “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter” (v 7). Perhaps there are two ways to understand this statement. The Lord was saying to Peter something like. “No Peter, you don’t know what I’m doing just now, but you will after I’m done for I’ll explain” which He did at verses twelve to seventeen. Secondly, the full significance of what Christ was doing would come later, “You Peter will eventually know the meaning of my action, when I am risen and glorified and the Holy Spirit has come who will guide you into all truth” (John 12:16; 16:12-15). What follows in the conversation indicates that Peter didn’t at that point understand the deeper truth which the Lord states to him (v 10). People who think they know more than they do are hard to teach. Peter had that trait (Matt 16:22-23; 26:33). Still he loved the Lord Jesus and to have no share in Him was an unbearable thought to Peter (v 9).
Peter goes from one extreme to another! From protesting to Jesus, “Thou shalt never wash my feet” (v 8) to “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head” (v 9). Now the Lord Jesus with the patience of love (1 Cor 13:4) reminds Peter of this truth: “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit” or “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean” (NASB v 10). A complete wash is only necessary once, but foot washing is an ongoing necessity. In this statement the Lord is teaching two vital truths – the once for all washing of new birth and the continual washing by the word of God.
The Lord Jesus told Nicodemus “Verily, verily, I say unto thee, except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God” (John 3:5). The background to His statement is very probably Ezekiel chapter thirty six verses twenty five to twenty eight. The water indicating the cleansing of new birth and its spiritual renewal by the power of the Holy Spirit. The writer to the Hebrews using Old Testament language said:
'Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water' (Heb 10:22).
He is referring, in figurative language, to those who have known the value of the blood of Christ and the cleansing of new birth. On the Cross the side of the Saviour was pierced and ‘forthwith [or immediately] came there out blood and water’ (John 19:34). A literal reality which tells of the sacrificial death of the Lord Jesus. It also reminds us that He made propitiation by His blood and through His Cross work assured the cleansing of regeneration through the power of the Holy Spirit and the impartation of eternal life. Paul writing to Titus says:
'But after that the kindness and love of God our Saviour toward man appeared, not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, by the washing of regeneration, and renewing of the Holy Ghost; Which He shed on us abundantly through Jesus Christ our Saviour; That being justified by His grace, we should be made heirs according to the hope of eternal life' (Tit 3:4-7). At the inauguration of the priesthood in Israel the first thing that Moses did to Aaron and his sons before they were dressed in their priestly garments for service was wash or bathe them with water (Ex 29:4; Lev 8:4). It was Moses who washed them, not themselves. This relates to the first and last part of the Lord’s statement: “He that is washed ... is clean every whit” (v 10). But in the function of their priestly ministry the priests were to continually wash their hands and feet at the bronze laver. This was their responsibility. We read:
'For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: When they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD: So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not: and it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his seed throughout their generations' (Ex 30:19-21).
This was an ongoing necessity as they ministered in the presence of God. This relates to the second part of the Lord’s statement: “needs only to wash his feet” (NASB v 10).
It’s not that the priests in their tabernacle service had done anything wrong or sinned, but their priestly service in the holy precincts of the LORD’s presence demanded they approach with clean hands and feet and that they carry no defilement from outside into the LORD’s holy courts (Ex 40:31-32). To not wash would have been a sin and carried the penalty of death.
In contrast to the washing from the laver, if a priest did commit sin he needed the value of a blood sacrifice (Lev 4:3-12). The ministry of ‘foot washing’ by the purifying and sanctifying effect of the word of God is a distinct truth from the necessity of confession, forgiveness and cleansing when we sin against God. The latter is the truth of First John chapter one verse five to chapter two verse two. That is not to say that the washing of water by the word will not lead to confession; it often will as we become conscious of particular sin in our lives, but it’s not the believers fault that this world is evil nor is it a sin to live in the world, but in so doing we are unavoidably and unintentionally affected by it. We need the cleansing and sanctifying effect of the word of God as it removes the ‘dust’ and ‘dirt’ unavoidably and unconsciously contracted by living in this world and restores our spiritual sensitivity so easily dimmed and dulled by the grind of daily life. The word of God through the ministry of Christ brings spiritual refreshment to our souls. Paul writes:
'Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, That He might present it to Himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish' (Eph 5:25-27).
What we learn from our Lord’s ministry is the absolute importance of the word of God and Christ in the believer’s life. To state what is elementary, we need to personally read our Bibles daily and we need to benefit continually from the public reading and preaching of the word of God. The Lord Jesus said to the disciples “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3) and He said to the Father in prayer: “Sanctify them through thy truth: thy word is truth” (John 17:17). Spurgeon in his book Lectures to my Students on showing the power of an illustration tells this following story:
'A woman is called upon by her minister on the Monday, and’ he finds her washing wool in a sieve, holding it under the pump. He asks her, “How did you enjoy last Sabbath’s discourses?” and she says that they did her much good. “Well, what was the texts?” She does not recollect. “What was the subject?” “Ah! Sir, it is quite gone from me,” says the poor woman. Does she remember any of the remarks that were made? No, they are all gone. “Well then, Mary,” says the minister, “it could not have done you much good.’ Oh! but it had done her a great deal of good; and she explained it to him by saying,” I will tell you, sir, how it is; I put this wool in the sieve under the pump, I pump on it, and all the water runs through the sieve, but then it washes the wool. So it is with your sermon; it comes into my heart, and then it runs right through my poor memory, which is like a sieve, but it washes me clean, sir”'.
“Do as I have Done” (vs 12-17)
The Lord Jesus had not only given His disciples a spiritual lesson on cleansing, he had also shown them a practical lesson in service (vs 12-17). What He had done as their Lord and Master or teacher they needed to do for one another – “Ye ought to wash one another’s feet” after His example (v 14). They were to wash their brethren’s feet literally for Feet needed washed in that culture. It was a menial, but necessary service to be done. They ought to do it. Also, and perhaps more particularly, what the Lord Jesus did symbolised and gave a powerful lesson in how they were to serve one another in humility and sacrificially. Taking the lowly place and giving to, or doing for others represents the values of the kingdom. The Lord Jesus will go on to instruct His disciples: “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” (vs 34-35). He loved unconditionally and sacrificially. To quote again from what Paul wrote to the Philippians: If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any bowels and mercies, Fulfil ye my joy, that ye be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others (Phil 2:1-4).
But, as the Lord reminded His disciples and through them, us: “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (v 17). Knowing is the easy part, doing is difficult.
Abigail was a remarkable woman of piety and insight. After she intercepted David and preserved him from committing an act of vengeful folly that would have been a stain both on his character and reputation, he invited her to become his wife. We read of her response: ‘And she arose, and bowed herself on her face to the earth, and said, “Behold, let thine handmaid be a servant to wash the feet of the servants of my lord”. What a statement of servant humility.
The Lord’s example teaches us that we need to serve one another, particularly in ways that will bless, refresh and spiritually help and encourage fellow believers. As we have noticed, the Lord has taught a twofold lesson in His example. The need for the washing of the word and need to practically serve one another.
There is of course the aspect of service that we may call ministering the word to others which is not limited to preaching and teaching though they are the primary means of so doing. Any brother or sister can share the word of God in a timely manner for the good of a fellow believer.
But, as we have at times been reminded by others, just make sure the water in your bason is the right temperature and not too cold or too hot! Unfortunately, extremes seem to be a very human tendency as we have noticed from Peter. We don’t want to leave someone chilled or scalded by our endeavours. To clean, soothe and refresh someone’s feet the temperature needs to be right.
In conclusion, I’ll leave with you the helpful words of Hamilton Smith (1862-1943). He writes:
'In Scripture water is often used as a symbol of the cleansing effect of the Word of God. At conversion the Word is applied by the power of the Spirit, producing a thorough change, and imparting a new nature, which entirely alters the thoughts, words, and actions of the believer — a change signified by the Lord's words "washed all over." There can be no repetition of this great change, but those thus washed all over may oft-times grow dull of spirit. As the travellers' feet are soiled and wearied by the dust of the road, so the believer, in contact with the daily round, the duties of the home-life, and the pressures of business life, as well as the continual conflict with evil, may often be wearied in spirit and thus hindered from having communion with Christ in His things. It is not that he has done anything that conscience would take account of, calling for confession and the work of the Advocate, but his spirit is wearied and needs to be refreshed, and such refreshment Christ delights to give if we will but put our feet into His hands. Turning to Him He will refresh our souls by presenting Himself before us, in all His perfections, through the Word' (The Last Words, An Exposition of Chapters 13 to 17 of the Gospel of John).
Scripture quotations, unless otherwise indicated, are from the King James Version.