SGBC Modesto

The Silent Lesson on Love – Foot Washing

March 27, 2024 by

William Heinrich

Twenty-one hours from His death Jesus gathered His twelve disciples to Himself to eat the Passover meal with them. Just five days before, the people sought to crown Him 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. But His disciples did not understand and continued to argue over who was to be 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. Their eyes were blinded by the fame and position that would be granted them as 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 gives us three reasons for this silent lesson on love: the nearness of His death; the certainty of His departure; and the extent of His love. He then began to show this great love He had for them by washing their feet. The custom of that day was that people bathed in a public bath; only the feet were soiled walking home. Therefore, a basin and water were at the door, and only the feet needed to be washed for the person to be clean again. Most washed the feet at the door, but others when reclining on their divans. The custom was that each person washed his own feet; in wealthy homes 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 took 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 and leaven. So it is here. Oh, how He wanted them to love one another. “Little children, yet a little while I am with you. Ye shall seek Me; and as I said unto the Jews, ‘Whither I go, ye cannot come,’ so now I say to you. A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another, as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”

This great love is pictured before them. First, in His love for them when He took the part of a slave and washed their feet. Then, their love for one another when He said, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Literally, He is saying that true love will be a slave even if it is master of all. True love will condescend, give of self, suffer and relinquish rights to the objects of the 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 that it would be clear later. Peter was instructed to obey even if he did not understand. Like many of us, Peter depended upon human reason. Reason told Peter the Master should not humble Himself and do a servant’s work. And he would be no part of it. He was 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 was only twenty-one hours away, but was pictured here before Peter as the Lord gave Himself to him in a silent lesson. Peter, desiring this fellowship with the Master, offered his whole body as a sign of his submissiveness. Here Christ corrected confused Peter again. He explained the public bath cares for bodily cleansing; He wished only to wash the soiled feet and Peter would be clean again. With the thought of cleansing, He explained that spiritually they were clean except for Judas, the betrayer.

After He had finished, He followed this sign by a sermon. So like Jesus is this. After He fed the five thousand He said, “I am the Bread from Heaven.” After they poured out the vessels of water, He said, “I am the Water of Life.” Here in the silent lesson He said, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye 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 stilled the mouths of the jealous disciples. Christ had proved His love for them in being their servant. Christ had taught that they were to show their love for one another by being servants to each other. Christ had promised that true happiness and blessing would come from giving (love), not getting (hate). Then, as the evening closed and Judas departed to plot the death of our Lord, He gave clearly what He had taught silently: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.”


Questions on Foot Washing

  1. Is foot 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 mention in the Epistles is in I Timothy 5:10. Here it speaks of a group of widows whose lives exemplified love in daily living, and has no reference to an ordinance at all.
  2. 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 has suggested and Christ refused. To wash already clean feet, as in our present social structure of shoes and socks and baths in our homes, changes the practical teaching of this chapter into something mystical or symbolical. It is 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.
  3. Did not Jesus say if He did not wash Peter’s feet that Peter would have no part with Him? 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 I 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. Only obedience would restore fellowship.
  4. Is foot washing grace giving? No! Foot washing is not efficacious or sacramental. Some churches teach that things we do, like foot washing, the bread and cup, or baptism, grant 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 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; otherwise, it is no longer grace (cf. Romans 11:5,6). Grace is unmerited favor and, therefore, not merited by something we do, regardless of how righteous (Titus 3:5; Isaiah 64:6).