It is Thursday evening.
The disciples have gathered with Jesus to celebrate Passover together in “the upper room.” Jesus would not sleep again until the sleep of death that he would enter through suffering upon an executioner’s cross the next day.
And he knew it.
What would Jesus do with his last meal? Where would his mind focus? How would his emotions be expressed? What we discover in John 13:1–8 is shocking.
1 It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 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; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
In the ancient world, people either walked barefoot or wore sandals. Roads typically were not paved. Dirt mixed with sweat would cling to the sandal and get between toes. It often would “cake” in the nails and, depending on when the last time the feet were washed, there would be layers of grit and grime stuck to the bottoms of the feet up to the ankles.
The odor itself would be foul. This is why it was customary not only to wash hands before a meal but also to wash feet. But how was this foot washing to be done? Typically, by a servant of the host.
I assume that if no servant were present an attendee of lowest rank would be expected to perform the duty. In that case, we can imagine the awkwardness of a meal where no one is clearly identified as the lowest ranking participant.
At the last supper, we have such a scenario. Of course, the only participant whom we know is not of the lowest rank is Jesus. Then, the unthinkable. Jesus “got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.”
Okay, so we know the story already. We might expect this. But not the disciples, who are still thinking in terms of “the greatest is the one whom others serve.” And they wanted to be great in the Kingdom of Jesus.
But the King is the one who gets up to serve. Jesus takes the place of the lowest rank. He becomes the servant!
Notice when he does this.
In the verse immediately preceding his standing to serve, we read that “the Father had put all things under his power.”
What does this teach us? Serving is exercising strength. Manifesting grace is demonstrating the power of God. It is at his most validated moment, loved by the Father and given the status of King, that he is empowered to take the place of the lowest rank, because that rank could never define him.
He was the beloved King. Out of that sense of a secure identity he could show practical love, even to Judas Iscariot, whom Jesus knew would soon betray him, getting the ball of crucifixion rolling downhill.
It is only when I am just as confident in my status before the Father that I will no longer need to jockey for position among my peers, but will be able to take the place of lowest rank in order to bless with my own basin and towel.
But also notice what Jesus does. Jesus doesn’t just pour water of the disciples’ feet in ceremonial fashion. He would have to scrub the filth with his own hands, getting the muck and stench on himself in order to make the disciples clean. I bet is we were to swab the disciples’ sandals, we would find all kinds of unpleasant organic material present, including animal feces.
The Servant King is not just getting their feet wet, he is making them clean. Spotless. Free of any contaminant. Yes, washing the disciples’ feet was of functional importance. But it also was of theological and practical ongoing importance.
Peter would protest having his feet washed by Jesus, who replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
After he had washed their feet, he returned to his seat and said, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
The point is not that they would establish a formal foot-washing practice when they gathered for a meal. He was showing them and us what it looks like to love well in a way that reflects how Jesus has loved us. Essentially, practical love proceeds from a willingness to take the lowest place in order to serve and bless someone else.
Sometimes love must scrub feces off feet.
That still pales in comparison to what Jesus had to do to clean not my feet but my very soul from the filth of my sin — which stinks far worse in the nostrils of heaven than excrement.
He took the stench of my sin onto himself, feeling the vile contaminant in his soul as he suffered the penalty I deserved. Upon a cross, Jesus was defiled so that I could be clean.
But why? The original New International Version translation of the Bible renders the second part of John 13:1, “He now showed them the full extent of his love,” as the preparation statement that transitions to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet at the Passover meal.
Other translations use the phrase “he now loved them to the end.” Or completely. Unreservedly.
However, we would translate verse 1 from the original Greek text, the implication is clear. The motive driving Jesus to wash their feet and finally, to wash away their sin, was love.
He loved them.
The apostle John, one of the men whose feet were washed by Jesus and who wrote the gospel that depicts the foot washing event, would go on to say, “This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as a propitiation for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.” (1 John 4:9–11)
This is the message of Thursday. We have a God who has shown his love in the most undeniable and dramatic fashion. He hasn’t just said, “I love you,” as if his love is a sentimental emotional feeling. Oh, the love of God is affective — full of emotional force. But it is a depth of emotion and feeling that is objectively confirmed, settled, and ratified through his demonstration of love.
This is what the foot washing narrative teaches us. This is what the cross teaches us. God’s love for us is not merely audible. It is visible. It is a love that cannot be denied. Oh, may we know this love so that we might show this love, for God’s glory and our joy.
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