Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

184. The Washing of Feet [1] (Luke 22:24-30; John 13:1-18)*

"And when the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him" (Lk. 22:14). It was, says John's record, "when supper was ready'—literally: "supper having become." The AV reading: "supper being ended," is clearly mistaken, for later on there are plain indications of the meal being resumed (v. 12,26; for the Greek expression, compare Mk. 1:32; Mt.26 :6; 27 :1; Jn.10 :22). The reference is not to the hour of eating the Jewish Passover, as John makes doubly plain: "Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come, in order that he might depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end" (Jn.13:1).

At first sight there might appear to be a certain inappropriateness about those concluding phrases. Would not John have done better to relate such words: "He loved them unto the end," to the next day when Christ died on the cross?

It is the repeated word "loved" which supplies all needful explanation. In Study 192 it is shown that in this way John was referring not to the Lord's final self-sacrifice but to the Love Feast, the sacramental memorial, now to be observed for the first time and which was to be ceaselessly associated with the Lord's supreme act of love on behalf of sinful men—"his own."

At the beginning of this fourth gospel "his own" had meant "the nation of Israel'—"he came unto his own, and his own (people) received him not" (1 :11). Now John intimates a switch of the phrase to the disciples, the New Israel, who did receive him.

The idea is emphasized by the words: "depart out of this world unto the Father." With double meaning, there is here not only an anticipation of the Lord's self-offering as a sacrifice "unto the Father" (not an allusion to the ascension), but also his final abandonment of the Jewish world, kosmos often having this meaning in John's gospel.

"Knowing . . . that he came from God and went to God" is an expression that has been used with much confidence by Trinitarians as "proof" of the Lord's pre-existence in heaven. Yet an examination of the Greek text reveals a careful distinction between "came from God" (apo theou, no article) and "went to God" (pros ton theon, with the article). The latter definitely requires reference to a personal approach to the Father, but not so the former. Here, as in 1:6, the meaning is diluted to imply: 'He came with a divine mission/ but there is no explicit intimation of a personal descent from heaven.

Apostolic rivalry

In these last hours of strain and leave-taking Jesus needed all the fellowship and help his followers could give. Then how distressing for him that there should be another competition amongst the twelve for precedence. Doubtless—though Luke does not say this—the quarrel concerned priority as to their seating at table. Yet, in a parable specially framed to be a guide to those ambitious for prominence in his ecclesia, Jesus had warned against eagerness for prominence or power (Lk. 14:7-11; cp. Mk. 9:34,35). And later, Peter himself was to make specific reference to this upper-room experience (1 Pet. 5:3,5).

Over a long period this tussle for leadership had been going on among the twelve (e.g. Mk. 9:34; 10:37). (Would it have continued as it did if the Roman Catholic interpretation of Mt. 16:18 were correct?). Blunt warnings and reproaches from their Master may have been heeded at the time, but if so the effect had worn off. A kingdom here and now!—this would appear to have been the obsession which effectively blinded their eyes to the teaching of Jesus concerning his sacrifice.

Ultimately the Lord made his own choice of those who were to fill the chief seats: John, "the disciple whom Jesus loved", reclined in his bosom; Peter was probably next to John on the same side of the Master (Jn.13 :24); and Judas probably straight opposite Jesus.

The washing of feet

On this occasion the immediate rebuke as they were at table was the more effective because at first no word was spoken. Jesus rose up and, removing his upper garment, he took a towel and basin and proceeded to wash the feet of first one and then another disciple (Lk.22 :27; Jn.13 :14). Why had this not been attended to already? Possibly, in view of the fact that this was not the passover meal itself, such attention to preliminary washing had been deemed unnecessary. Or can it be that, by arrangement with Jesus, the omission had been deliberate, and no servant had been delegated to provide this courtesy, simply in order to give the disciples an opportunity to show to what extent they had learned from their Lord the greatness of service and humility?

If the latter conjecture is worth anything, then great must have been the disappointment of Jesus that they gave no thought to their fellows, but instead were concerned to the point of bitterness about their own personal status, How little they realised that the more they asserted themselves and the more successful they were in achieving a superficial priority, the lower became their standing in the eyes of Jesus, apart from whom this petty bickering would have had no meaning at all, for it all had to do with their relative nearness to him!

So Jesus, with basin and towel and earthenware jug went systematically from one to the next. In this way he gave practical illustration of the truth that "he took on him the form of a servant ... he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death" (Phil.2 :7,8). It may even be that in the day of glory there will be a breath-taking repetition of this amazing act of self-humiliation: "He shall gird himself, and make them sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them" (Lk.12 :37). If so, it will be designed (like Lk.22 :16,18) as an awe-inspiring reminder of the days of his human weakness.

All argument and discord froze on the lips of the disciples—except with Peter, whose mind was soon effervescing with a sense of superiority over the rest; but now in him it was a different kind of pride.

Peter's protest

These others had evidently so little sense of the fitness of things that they would even allow Jesus to perform this most menial service to each of them! Was their estimate of him as low as that? He, Peter, would show them a better attitude. He at least had a finer sense of propriety, and he proceeded to show it by vigorous protest: "Lord, dost thou wash my feet?" (cp. Mt.3 :14). At the same moment, doubtless, he made a rough attempt to take over the basin of water so that he might do this for Jesus instead.

It was the common-place every-day test which comes a thousand times over to the disciple with higher standards and more conscientious service—the temptation to thank God (or to congratulate himself) that he is better than the rest. And this was, and is, the more dangerous sin because the more subtle, and the more difficult to recognize and cope with.

This assertion of his own superior worth was to be Peter's downfall (and his making again) before the night was out. It has to be thus with every disciple who rejoices in the better qualities of his own discipleship, for if he wait until the Day before facing up to the shattering truth that he has nothing to preen himself about, he has waited too long.

So in reply to Peter's protestations, Jesus insisted: "You will understand better by and by why I must do this."

But at this moment Peter saw only one thing—that his pride was being rebuked and he was loth to acknowledge his need of it. "Never, never, till the end of time, shalt thou wash my feet," he asserted with characteristic vigour. The same kind of double negative had been used by him before: "Be it far from thee, Lord: this shall never, never be unto thee," and in that also he was to be proved wrong. (As on every other New Testament occasion when men have used the same over-emphasis: Mt.26 :35; Jn. 11:56 and 20.-25).

"If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me." Interpreting the acted parable, this austere saying must surely mean: If no participation in this Breaking of Bread service, then no sharing in the Messianic future. In using this word "part" Jesus spoke, and very soon was to speak again, about inheritance of the Kingdom and about these twelve ruling with him over the twelve tribes of Israel (Lk.22 :30). And this was an aspect of his Messianic work about which Peter was as eager as the rest. So he gave way.

More than that, in a burst of realisation that even more lay behind this symbolic action of Jesus (see Study 185), he now swung with typical Petrine violence to the other extreme: "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head." Was it that a sudden flash of mental honesty revealed to him his own true state? Or were the words an expression of his eagerness for any experience that would give him a real and lasting closeness to his Master?

But no, Peter! You have been washed already, in the baptism of your early discipleship, and "he that is bathed all over needeth not save to wash his feet". It was a winsome and reassuring assertion of the power and authority of Jesus, not only to bring a man out of the old Adam into his New Creation, but also to provide continual cleansing from the renewed and inevitable defilements of daily life, and of his lower nature. Jesus is the purifier of the troubled disciple who finds with mortification and distress that though he wills for Christ's sake to have done with sin, sin has not yet done with him. Even there the power of Christ can reign. The Son of man has power on earth to forgive these sins also, and he signifies this through the sacrament which he now appointed.


How much of the intensely symbolic meaning behind this humble act of Jesus did the apostles perceive? "Thou shalt know hereafter," he said to Peter. In the course of the next forty days many things that Jesus had said and done were to be floodlit in their memories with an almost blinding intensity. "When therefore he was risen from the dead, his disciples remembered that he had said this unto them" (2 :22). "When Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of him" (12 :16).

Is it significant that Jesus mentioned feet only, and not hands? Perhaps the apostle John, writing in later troubled times of contention against the inroads of Judaism, saw in this a setting aside of any justification by works. Let a man's walk in life be right, and his works will be acceptable in spite of his sins. "He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." How many truly and fully believe this of their life in Christ, that by their sharing of the Bread and Wine in sincerity and truth they are "clean every whit"? The one who has been "baptized into Christ" has "put on" Christ—in the sight of God he is clothed with the robe of Christ's righteousness, not with his own (cp. Tit.3 :5). But the inevitable defilements of daily life and the strain of living with one's inherited Adamic propensities mean a constant need for spiritual renewal and refreshing. It is no accident that the very phrase: "for the remission of sins," used regarding one's baptism (Acts 2:38; Mk. 1:4), was used again in the Upper Room and with reference to its renewal of the New Covenant in Christ (Mt.26:28). Nor is it accident that the washing of the disciples' feet took place even whilst the Last Supper was in progress (cp. the force of Jn.15 :3; Eph.5 :26; Heb. 10:22).

Origen, anxious to justify his own enthusiasm for "allegorizing" the gospels, has this comment: "Let those who refuse to allegorize these and the like passages explain how it is probable that he who out of reverence for Jesus said: 'Thou shalt never wash my feet’, would have had no part with the Son of God, as if not having his feet washed were a deadly wickedness." Regarding this example, at least, there can be no argument!

Unclean Judas

With further emphasis, Jesus repeated: "And ye are clean—but not all; for he knew who was betraying him." These disciples!—these with their quarrelling and their crudities and their dim opaque vision of the Master they claimed to follow—these were clean! (ls.52 :7,11). But not Judas, even though his feet had been washed as clean as Peter's, for he alone out of all the twelve had now lost faith in Jesus and had become himself "the son of loss." The essential meaning, then, of this part of the parable is that a man may be diligent in his attendance at the Lord's Table, but if he does this in a spirit of formality then it does him no good at all, but only harm. There the others are made clean, but not he!

What were Judas's reactions to these solemn words of his Master? For he alone understood them. But even here the goodness of the Good Shepherd, in doing what he had done just now and in saying what he said, could not reclaim this lost sheep, because the letter's measure of greatness had become something altogether different-a worldly-wise criterion which makes no sense to the one who truly lives in the presence of Christ, and by which neither Christ nor disciple make sense either.

Now Jesus "took his garments" which he had "laid aside," precisely as he was very soon to "lay down his life that he might take it again," thus fulfilling "the commandment received of the Father" (10 :17,18). By and by he was at his place at table once again, reinforcing the more obvious object lesson by simple instruction with repetitious emphasis (v. 12-17) as though to children: "I, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet." In any other man this would ask to be interpreted as inverted humility, one of the most poisonous forms of pride. Only Jesus can say such things and get away with them. "You, then, owe it to one another to wash each other's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you."

Time after time the New Testament emphasizes the Christian duty to imitate the humility of Christ (e.g. Rom.15:1-14; I Cor.10 :33; 11:1; Phil.2:4-7; 1 Th. 1:2-7; Eph.5:l,2).

Modern practice?

These words have been inadvisedly appropriated by some to prove either of two opposite conclusions, both of which are wrong. There are those who argue that the Washing of Feet is as much a commandment of Christ as the Breaking of Bread and should therefore be practised whenever the latter is celebrated. There are others who argue that the Breaking of Bread need not be literally observed provided the spirit of the observance is there, because— say they—the similar commandment concerning the Washing of Feet is observed in the spirit and not in the letter. Jesus commanded both; therefore let both be observed in the letter (so it is argued by some) or both in the spirit (by others).

Either way this approach seems reasonable enough. Where is the fallacy?

In a matter of this sort the witness of the early church is valuable. The Breaking of Bread was the very centre and focus of all activity and worship from the earliest days (e.g. Acts 2:42,46), whereas in the rest of the New Testament and for fully three hundred years later there is no single mention of the Washing of Feet as church ritual.

In any case, careful reading of the words of Jesus shows a clear distinction. Concerning one he said: "Observe this practice" (1 Cor.11 :25; the verb is continuous), but concerning the other his word was not: "I have given you a sample, that ye should do what I have done to you"; but: "I have given you a type, that ye should do even as I have done to you" (same word as in Lk. 17:28—another type).

There is also an inspired interpretation available in Peter's own words, written with pointed allusion to this incident: "Likewise, ye younger, submit yourselves unto the elder (Lk.22 :26). Yea, all of you be subject one to another, and be girded with humility", even as Jesus when he girded himself with the towel (1 Pet.5 :5 RV). Here, clearly enough. Peter is intent on the spirit of the observance rather than on the literal washing of feet.

But, if Christ is to be there, the humility of this self-demeaning service must be there also, for—the Lord added with a quiet irony—"the servant is not greater than his lord; neither is he that is sent greater than he that sent him." But this humility is not a thing to be striven for. The greater the agonizing effort to achieve it, the more it eludes him who strives. In this more than anything it is a matter of quiet imperceptible transformation of the spirit through the influence of Christ himself. In this especially those who live closest to him will gain most from him.

Exhortation and warning

"If ye know these things, blessed are ye if ye practise them." It is a statement of the obvious which needs, nevertheless, to be said and said again, for whatever the willingness to receive this truth in theory, the routine of life in the world gives the lie to it a thousand times a day, so that, except he be aware of it, the outlook and practice of the disciple can become seriously warped and twisted by his constant association with false principles of living. Is there also implied behind the words of Jesus an ominous converse: "If ye know these things, cursed are ye if ye do them not"?

The searing influence of worldly standards of behaviour was brought pointedly home to the disciples with a familiar illustration: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called Benefactors." The last phrase should probably read (with heavy irony): "they call themselves Benefactors", and this is even more true to life. Inscriptions on ancient coins bear witness to the literal truth that then, as in every age, dictators sought to camouflage their lust for power behind a facade of eagerness to improve the lot of their people, an eagerness made worse than useless by a desperate anxiety that it be known by all the world.

"But not so ye", warned Jesus in plain peremptory fashion, "for I—your Lord and Master—am among you as he that serveth." These words preserved only by Luke (22 :27) clearly imply the act of foot-washing described only by John.

"And (Jesus went on) ye are they which have continued with me in my temptations" (Heb. 2:18; 4:15). This remarkable way of describing his own ministry was not a vote of thanks for sterling support and service through three and a half years-for during that time, it was not they who had borne with Jesus but he who had borne with them. Rather was he emphasizing responsibility because they had been so close to him. "To whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more." These men had known Jesus in his humility as none others had. Opportunity came to them as to no others to know and marvel at his self-demeaning. As he had taken on him the form of a servant, so too must they. The same moral imperative lay on them more heavily than on any.

Thus, and only thus, could he "appoint (covenant; v.29) unto them a kingdom, even as the Father had appointed unto him." The humility which made him obedient even to the death of the cross would highly exalt him and give him the Name which is above every name. If they would share his glory, "eating and drinking at his table in his kingdom, and sitting on thrones judging the twelve tribes of Israel"— as did the son of Barzillai (1 Kgs.2 :7), in reward for loyalty to a rejected king—then their path of glory must lead to the grave—the way of self-denial and humble service, the way of shame and the death of self (2 Cor.1 :7).

^ "Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord." Such is the inevitable cry of every disciple when faced with such exacting standards. The Ideal is so impossible. If only Jesus would make the way more easy! They were twelve silent, shamed, uneasy men who continued supper with Jesus. And ever since, that same supper has been shared by men brought to silence and to shame by the same example and the same word of rebuke.

The Judas prophecy

Jesus returned to the sad theme of betrayal. In more than one place his broken sentences bear witness to the torn state of his emotions:

"I know whom I chose (Lk. 6:12,13), but (there will be betrayal) that the scripture may be fulfilled: He that eateth bread with me did lift up his heel against me."

There are deliberate divergences here from the Septuagint text of Psalm 41. Instead of "loaves", there is the one Loaf broken in the Lord's New Passover; and the less usual word for "eat" is the one used sacramentally by Jesus at the feeding of the five thousand (Jn. 6:54,58], when Judas had eaten of his Lord's miraculous loaves— and began to lose faith (6:64,67-71).

But now Judas was near to the point of no return. Very soon he "lifted up his heel" against his Master. There is here clear allusion to the familiar promise given in Eden (Gen.3 :15) of the Seed of the woman who would bruise the serpent in the head. The picture is that of One who lifts his foot to crush the serpent's head and who is, in that very act, stung in the heel.

Remarkably, however, the words are used about Judas as though he were the redeemer crushing the serpent's head. It is a fantastic reversal of truth, and seems to imply that this sick apostle had come to the conclusion that his Master was a false Messiah, and that it was his (Judas's) duty to fill the part of redeemer of his people, saving them from subtlety and deceit. Had Judas come to share the foul and yet true philosophy of Caiaphas that it was expedient that one man die for the nation so that the whole nation perish not? (Jn. 11:50).

Yet, as the serpent ate the forbidden fruit in Eden (see H.A.W. on Gen.1-4), so Jesus was willing for Judas to share the Bread at that last gathering—and this, apparently, Judas did: "he ate my Loaf with me".

Warning of this betrayal Jesus now gave enigmatically to the rest, "that, when it come to pass, ye may believe that I am (the one who fulfils this prophecy)." He intended that one of the hardest trials of their faith should ultimately become a superb ground for conviction. The fulfilment of Bible prophecy, then and also now, provides a unique support for sorely-tested loyalty.

Notes: Lk. 22:24-30

Should be accounted. Gk. suggests : who really was the greater. Then was this wrangle between just two of them? Clearly Peter was not recognized as having any priority. Then what of R.C. interpretation of Mt.16:18?
Called benefactors. A heavy irony. Contrast Jesus, called "The Lord our Righteousness" (Jer. 23:6).
The younger. In later days this became a kind of technical term for the less prominent executive officers in the early church: Acts5:6;l Jn. 2:13; 1 Pet.5 :5.

He that is chief; s.w. Heb. 13 :7,17,24. But this respect for elders is to be accorded to the humility of their service: "as he that doth serve."


Into his hands. Contrast 1 Cor.15 :27.
The translation in the text in Farrar's—a beautifully turned expression.
No part. Normally meras means inheritance.
He that is bathed. Apart from the fact that some of the twelve were, earlier, disciples of John the Baptist, this is the only intimation that the apostles were baptized.

Wash his feet. Cp. Ps.49:5, and the idea behind Jn. 15:3 RV.

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