SGBC Modesto

The Silent Lesson on Love: “Feet Washing”

May 14, 2024 by

William Heinrich

Twenty-one hours from His death, Jesus gathers His twelve disciples unto Himself to eat the Passover meal with them (Luke 22:7-23). Just five days ago the people sought to crown Him as king, but now He faced the cross, not the crown. Jesus knew His purpose was not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give His life a ransom for many (Matthew 21:28). But His disciples did not understand and continued to argue over who was to be the greatest in the kingdom. It was not that Jesus had not told them of His coming death and resurrection. In fact, He had told them repeatedly since He had set His face toward Jerusalem. But they had refused to listen and believe as their eyes were blinded by the fame and position that would be granted them as the disciples of the King. Certainly the departure of their master and the vanishing of their dreams would bring fear and despair. Along with these emotions would come questions and doubts. “If He loved us, He would not have left us.” “Why did He talk so much about the kingdom and then leave us without it? Is that love?”

John 14 deals with the fear the disciples would face. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” John 13 deals with the love the disciples would face. Verse 1 of John 13 gives us three reasons for this silent lesson on love: 1. the nearness of His death; 2. the certainty of His departure; 3. the extent of His love. He then begins to show this great love He has for them by washing their feet. The custom of that day was that people bathed in a public bath; walking home, only the feet were soiled. Therefore, a basin and water were at the door, and only the feet needed to be washed for the person to be clean again. History teaches most washed their feet at the door, but others, when reclining in their divans. The custom was that each person washed his own feet, or in the case of a wealthy home, it was done by a slave.

Now the Passover meal was over, the New Covenant also was established, but dissension arose about who would be greatest, resulting in much strife (CF Luke 22:7-38). Jesus, as He was so accustomed to doing, arose and taught a lesson on His love and theirs, out of a simple basin of water. So often Jesus had taken the simple things of life to teach deep truths. The woman at the well heard about living water; Nicodemus was given the earthly things to explain the heavenly; and in the parables it was a sower, tares in the wheat, mustard seed, leaven, etc. So it is here. Oh, how He wanted them to love one another. “’Little children, I shall be with you a little while longer. You will seek Me; and as I said to the Jews, “Where I am going, you cannot come,” so now I say to you. A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.’” (John 13:33-34). This great love is, therefore, pictured before them, first in His love for them when He took the part of a slave and washed their feet, and then their love for one another when He says, “’   If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet’” (John 13:14). He is literally saying true love will be a slave even if He is Master of all. True love will condescend, give of self, suffer and relinquish rights to the objects of His love.

Peter did not understand the silent lesson at this point. He knew Christ was the Master, and only servants washed feet. Jesus, realizing he did not understand, explained to him that it would be clear later. Peter was instructed at this point to obey even if he did not understand. Peter, like many of us, did not want blind obedience, but depended upon human reason. Reason told Peter that the Master should not humble Himself and do a servant’s work, and he would be no part of it, like John the Baptist who wanted Jesus to baptize him as the greater blesses the lesser. However, the best motive is never right if it causes disobedience. Therefore, Christ corrected Peter with a strong rebuke. The picture is love, and Peter must receive Christ’s love if he is to have a part with Him. This great love gift is only 20 hours away but pictured here before Peter by giving Himself to him in a silent lesson. Peter, desiring this fellowship with the Master, offers his whole body as a sign of his submissiveness to Him restored. Here Christ corrects confused Peter again. He explains the public bath cares for bodily cleansing, and He wished only to wash the soiled feet and he would be clean again. With the thought of cleansing, He now explains that spiritually they were clean, except for Judas, the betrayer.

After He had finished, He followed this sign with a sermon. So like Jesus is this. After He fed the five thousand, He says, “I am the bread from heaven.” After they pour out the vessels of water, He says, “I am the water of life.” Here, after the silent lesson, He says, If I, then, your Lord and Master have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The sermon is that as He laid down His life in love, so should we. As He took up His cross, so should we. As He loved us to the stepping down and doing the work of a slave for us, so should we. “The servant is not greater than his Lord; neither he that is sent greater than He that sent him.”

Now the dissension stopped regarding who would be greatest in the kingdom. The lesson on love has stilled the mouths of the jealous disciples. Christ had proved His love for them in being their servant. Christ had taught they were to show their love for one another by being a servant to each other. Christ had promised that true happiness and blessing would come from giving (love), not getting (hate). Then, as the evening closes and Judas was departed to plot the death of our Lord, He gives clearly that which He had taught silently: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another; as I have loved you, that you also love one another.’”

Questions on Feet Washing

John 13

Is feet washing an ordinance?

I don’t believe it is. The normal way of considering an ordinance is that it must be taught by Jesus in the Gospels and confirmed by the Apostles in the Epistles. The only place of confirmation in the Epistles is in 1 Timothy 5:10. Here it speaks of a special group of widows whose life exemplified love in daily living and has no reference to an ordinance at all.

Did not Jesus command us to wash each other’s feet?

Yes, He certainly did. And if we lived in the day of public baths and soiled feet, we would wash feet as Christ taught. But what He did not teach was to wash what was already clean, as Peter had suggested and Christ refused. To wash already clean feet as in our social structure today of shoes and socks and baths in our homes changes the practical teaching of this chapter into something mystical or symbolical. I feel it best not to change the literal and practical and lose the real meaning. Therefore, though we do not wash feet today to condescend to be a servant of our brother in showing our love, we do give of our substance and concern ourselves with his smallest needs.

Did not Jesus say if He did not wash Peter’s feet that Peter would have no part with

Yes, He did! The word part is the Greek word koinonia, or fellowship. Peter was already saved and a disciple of Jesus. However, the fellowship that follows salvation is dependent upon man. John, in 1 John 1, explains fellowship with God is dependent upon our being in the light as God is always in the light. Peter, by disobeying his Master, was in darkness regardless of his sincere motive, and only obedience would restore fellowship.

Is feet washing grace-giving?

No! Feet washing is not efficacious or sacramental. Some churches teach that things we do, like feet washing, the bread and cup, baptism grants us God’s special grace. This is simply not true. All grace received by man is based solely upon the work of Jesus Christ. That is the whole argument of the Book of Galatians and Romans 1-8. What we do is not to get but because we have already received. The grace upon grace spoken of in John 1:16 never becomes meritorious or it is no longer grace (see Romans 11:5-6). Grace is unmerited favor and, therefore, not merited by something we do regardless how righteous (Titus 3:5 and Isaiah 64:6).