The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: F

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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 13:1).
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" (NIV).

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 work!

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 others.

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 10).

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 1:8,9).

A Sacrament?

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 13:12-15).
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 counts:

  1. 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 you."
  2. 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.
  3. 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 feet.
Judas too

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 13:34,35).
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 friends" (15:12,13).
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.

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