Read John 13:1-17
Before we begin this reading, it’s interesting to note that the NIV Application Commentary divides the book of John into two parts: Part 1, Chapters 1-12, is referred to as the “Book of Signs,” and Part 2, Chapters 13-21, comprise the “Book of Glory.” The first part includes an account of Jesus’ public ministry while the second part focuses on Jesus’ private ministry. Pay particular attention to chapters 13-17 where we see how Jesus interacted with and prayed for His disciples.
The focus of the first half of John is on the signs of Jesus, evidences of his identity borne by miraculous works. The focus of the second half of John is on the hour. Jesus now must say farewell to his followers and begin his return to the Father through his arrest, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. In 13: 1 Jesus recognizes that “his hour” has come to depart out of the world, and he focuses his attention on “his own,” whom he has loved. NIVAC1
With that background, let’s look at the first part of chapter 13.
There are two words that jump out to me in this passage: clean and if. The point of the story seems to revolve around being clean. The Jews were accustomed to the idea of ritual cleansing, it was a key part of their tradition. However, Jesus doesn’t seem to be concerned with rites and rituals. His emphasis was (and is) much deeper. Consistent with many passages, Jesus looks beyond the surface at the heart. Yet to make His point, He uses a very plain and common exercise, He washes their feet.
I wonder what it was like to be in the very small group of men who walked with Jesus on a daily basis. By this time, perhaps, it was all too common to have a meal with the light of the world. They’ve been at this for something like three years with no expectation of the events that are about to come in a matter of days. While Passover is a great and special event, I’m sure they had no doubt this was going to be the last time they would celebrate with the Savior of the world incarnate.
John points out that Judas Iscariot is among them. The true low point in John’s gospel message is just around the corner. Still, Jesus wants to make a significant point about servant leadership so He does something rather simple and extraordinary.
he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 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. John 13:4-5
When Jesus stood up to take care of the foot washing step, I imagine the disciples looked at each other with a bit of disbelief mixed with embarrassment. The looks suggest, “oops, sorry boss, we forgot,” or something like that. Jesus is constantly doing things that are outside the box. That alone should suggest that we stop looking for a box to fit into and start doing what He said!
Whether Peter was the first one or not isn’t the point, though I’m sure there are those who want to argue this as some significant theological issue. From my perspective, Peter is in perfect character and boldly speaks up. I imagine John taking notes and thinking one day he’ll write down what this wild man said.
As John records the event, Jesus already prefaced the washing by letting them know that later they will understand the significance of this event and probably most significantly,
“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” John 13:8
Stop! You have no part with me? This isn’t a crowded theater or large venue, this is a room with a handful of men eating supper with Jesus. Everyone heard these words and I think Peter expressed the thoughts of the others.
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” John 13:9
Peter wasn’t asking for a full bath, he was saying what the others were thinking, perhaps what we are thinking: clean me completely!
Jesus began to answer their questions as He stoops down like a mere servant to do the work of washing feet.
Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. John 13:10-11
He honors them greatly by stating their whole body is clean (except Judas, of course), then continues the process, rinse and repeat 11 or 12 times. I think He washed Judas’ feet as well but knew this would not change his heart. Let that thought sink in for a moment.
One last thought about the washing experience: this took some time. Many of us have replayed the scene while acting as Jesus or one of the disciples in a church play or skit. If we take a moment and put ourselves in the room, I think the mood quickly changed from chatting, telling stories, to one of complete silence. For what seemed like hours, Jesus, their master, our master, was on His hands and knees thoroughly washing 12 dozen feet.
The point of the lesson is significant. Having witnessed the event, there is something that we must do and it’s a lot more than merely washing feet.
Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. John 13:14-15
Now comes the “if” word that I mentioned earlier. We are to take care of one another, wash each other’s feet, with the complete understanding that we are only messengers, not elevated to some artificial hierarchy of importance. We are to serve, but here’s the stinger:
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. John 13:17
Now that you are aware, you will be blessed if you take action. You are no longer ignorant. If we’ve read the gospel of John to this point, we can no longer say we have no clue. We have seen, now we must do something to receive the blessing of our Master.
Lord help us to learn from your incredible example of servant leadership. Teach us to wash each other’s feet so that we may be blessed and as a result be a blessing to others by leading them to You.
1Wilkins, Michael J.; Garland, David E.; Bock, Darrell L.; Burge, Gary M.; Fernando, Ajith. NIVAC Bundle 6: Gospels, Acts (The NIV Application Commentary) (Kindle Locations 66815-66818). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.