Teaching series from John

Two Essential Lessons

John 13:1-17

Teaching t22488


Read 13:1. This verse marks a major transition in John's gospel. Beginning in chapter 13, John turns from Jesus' public ministry to his final private words to his disciples. Chapters 13-17 record these final words. Knowing that He was about to depart from them, Jesus distilled for them the most important truths and spiritual principles of the Christian life. This is what we will be covering over the next few weeks.

Read 13:2-5. Sometime during their meal, Jesus abruptly rose from dinner and began washing his disciples' feet. A little background information on foot-washing in first century Palestine will help us to understand the significance of this act.

Foot-washing was not merely a ceremonial custom. It was practically important because people walked through dusty and manure-filled streets with sandals. Your feet got dirty and stinky.

Not surprisingly, washing someone else's feet was regarded as one of the most demeaning tasks anyone could perform. It was reserved for household slaves. But since there was evidently no household slave present at this secret meal, who would perform this task?

Jesus’ disciples were not about to do it for two reasons. First, rabbinic law held that although disciples should perform many services for their rabbis, they could draw the line at removing their sandals and washing their feet. Second, Luke says they were in the midst of their favorite argument—“which one of them was regarded to be the greatest” (Lk.22:24). Anyone who washed feet in this setting would be admitting he was the low man on the totem pole!

What a picture of fallen humanity! The ego, pride, and vanity; the complete spiritual denseness. While Jesus is getting ready to suffer and die for them, they are jockeying for position over one another. How would you respond to them if you were their teacher? Would you plead (“Come on, guys!”)? Would you get fed up (“I can’t believe how selfish you are!”)? Would you withdraw in disappointment? Jesus “loved them to the end” and used this situation as an opportunity to teach them two essential lessons...

Lesson #1: Allow Jesus to wash you

Read 13:6-11. This is a difficult passage to understand, but the lesson is clear: If you want to have a vital relationship/partnership with Jesus (meros), you must allow Him to wash you (13:8). Let's take a closer look to understand what this means...

First of all, it is clear that Jesus is not merely urging Peter to observe hygiene and etiquette. Jesus tells him in 13:7 that there is a symbolic, spiritual significance to this act which Peter would not fully understand until after Jesus was crucified and resurrected.

It is rather a symbol of Jesus’ death for us. Just as Jesus laid aside his garments and assumed the role of a house servant to wash his disciples’ feet, so He laid aside His divine prerogatives to serve a lost humanity whom he loves—all the way to dying on the cross for them (Phil.2:6-9). And just as Jesus took the filth from their feet on to Himself (TOWEL FROM WHITE TO BROWN), so on the cross He took the guilt and defilement of our sins on to Himself (2Cor.5:21).

In fact, Jesus speaks of two distinct kinds of necessary washings:

First, we need to allow Him to give us a full bath. In 13:10, He assures Peter that he has already received this bath, and is completely clean. This “bath” refers to the complete forgiveness of our sins that only Jesus can give us. There is bad news and good news here.

The bad news is that we are so dirty that we cannot cleanse ourselves. Years ago, I was babysitting a 4-year-old boy. I took him to play at the park, and said that afterward we would go to McDonald’s. He played in the dirt for an hour and got covered everywhere. When I walked us home instead of to McDonald’s, he asked why. I said: “Before you do anything else, I need to give you a bath.” He protested: “I’m not that dirty, I’ll wash my hands in the bathroom at McDonald’s, etc.” I said: “No, dude, you’re filthy, and I’ve got to give you a bath!” That boy is like you and me. God says we are dirty with sin from head to foot, that even our good deeds are like filthy rags because they are tainted with evil motives (Isa.64:6), and that our sins have separated us from Him (Isa.59:2). Our insistence that “I’m not that dirty” does not change this fact. God says we are so dirty that we cannot clean ourselves. No amount of moral self-reform, religious observances, etc. can ever cleanse us from our objective guilt before God.

The good news is that on the cross, Jesus took the guilt of all of our sins on to Himself. The good news is that through Jesus, God had provided a way to remove all of our guilt (Ps.103:12) and to pronounce us permanently clean in His sight. Therefore, the key issue is not how dirty you are/have been/will be, but only your willingness to let Jesus give you a bath. Have you done this?

Second, those who have received the full bath (like Peter) still need to let Him wash their feet. This refers to allowing Jesus to cleanse you spiritually as often as He says you need it. From what do we need to be spiritually cleansed?

We need to be cleansed from the alienating effect of a guilty conscience. When we choose to sin as Christians, we are already forgiven by God, but our consciences can condemn us so that we feel like God has rejected us, or that He is disgusted with us. As a result, we withdraw from God in shame, and this makes us miserable and more likely to become stuck in our sin. Instead, we should let Jesus “wash our feet”—by simply agreeing with Him about the dirt (contra hiding them by rationalizing, minimizing, blame-shifting), by thanking Him for His forgiveness (contra beating ourselves), and by asking Him to help us resume walking with Him (contra fatalistically submitting to the sin). Jesus is willing and able to cleanse our consciences as often as needed. Perhaps this is the foot-washing you need today ...

Second, we need to be cleansed from the deadening effect of living in a spiritually hostile world. In the ancient world, it was impossible to walk around without getting your feet dirty. Foot-washing was a means of physical refreshment. In the same way, it is not possible for us as Christians to live in this world-system without being negatively affected by its spiritual atmosphere. This is different from falling into to sin. Every Christian knows the experience of spending a day in the world at work, school, online, etc.—and feeling somehow spiritually fatigued, coated by a “dust” which makes us feel jaded and tarnished and distant from God (“SLIMED”). We need to have this “dust” cleansed and be restored to freshness with the Lord. Jesus is willing and able do this as often as we need it (which for me is often!).

What does it look like to let Jesus wash our feet in this sense? It may mean choosing to draw near to Him through private prayer and/or Bible meditation. But there is another, even better way—which is Jesus’ second lesson...

Lesson #2: Wash one another’s feet

Read 13:12a. After Jesus washed everyone’s feet, He sat down. I bet you could hear a pin drop! Now that He had everyone’s undivided attention, He taught them the second lesson they should learn from His actions (read 13:12b-15). They should follow His example and wash one another’s feet. In what sense did he mean this?

He was not instituting foot-washing as a ritual for the church to observe. The book of Acts never mentions the early church observing such a ritual, while it does so many times with baptism and communion. (Only 1Tim.5:10 mentions Christians doing this, and Paul may be using the expression figuratively.)

Rather, Jesus means: “Help one another be spiritually cleansed and refreshed/restored. Be willing to let others do this regularly for you, and be willing to do this regularly for others. You can’t stay close to Me or effective in My service without this.” Do you want a more practical picture of what this looks like?

“Confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas.5:16). Much of the time, we can’t get freedom from our guilty consciences until we talk about our sins with Christian friends and ask them to pray with/for us about them. Are you allowing other Christians to wash your feet in this way? And to serve your friends by listening to their confession, and by assuring them of Jesus’ forgiveness, and by praying with them for His help is a crucially important ministry. Are you washing others’ feet in this way? (SAME WITH FEARS)

“Bear one another’s burdens, and thus fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal.6:2). “Burdens” refers to crushing loads, circumstantial difficulties that press us down and knock the spiritual wind out of us (EXAMPLES). Much of the time, we can’t get back on our feet until we share these burdens with our Christian friends and let them bear it with us through their compassion and prayer and encouragement based on God’s promises. Are you allowing other Christians to wash your feet in this way? And to serve your friends by helping them in the same way is a crucially important ministry. Are you washing others’ feet in this way?

“Consider how to stir one another up to love and good deeds” (Heb.10:24). By ourselves, we easily lose motivation and vision for serving Christ, and slip into the same short-sighted, self-centered life as those around us. But when our Christian friends (by thinking about us before God) tell us how God can/has worked through us, or share what God could do through us, how motivating (and even life-changing) this is! Are you allowing other Christians to wash your feet in this way? And to serve your friends by helping them in the same way is a crucially important ministry. Are you washing others’ feet in this way?

Do you follow what Jesus says in 13:14? Are you engaged in this kind of mutual foot-washing several times a week? If your answer is “Yes,” you know the tremendous difference this makes in your spiritual life. If your answer is “No,” you are missing out and needlessly sentencing yourself to feeling chronically slimed by the world, entrapped by sin, discouraged, and impotent as a witness. “Isolated Christians are defeated Christians.” Decide to follow what Jesus says here! Get involved in one of our home groups, and begin to regularly interact with your brothers and sisters both as a foot-washee and as a foot-washer.

Do you want more motivation to do this? Jesus gives it in 13:17 (read). “Blessed” is not a religious word that you say when someone sneezes, or that you pray before Thanksgiving dinner. “Blessed” (makarios) means truly happy. True happiness is what we all want; true happiness is what God has wired us to pursue. The question is: How can I obtain true happiness?

The world says you get it by living for yourself: getting the circumstantial breaks, getting people to treat you as you wish, getting more things, etc.

Jesus says this is a lie (Mk.8:35a). Jesus says that He gives true happiness to those who allow Him to bathe them, and who allow Him to wash their feet, and who embrace a lifestyle of mutual foot-washing.

It’s not the understanding of these things that brings true happiness; it’s the doing of them! It is not nodding today and saying: “I already know this;” it is selling out to a lifestyle centered around this. How happy do you want to be?

“Loosing the sandal was the task of a slave. A disciple could not be expected to perform it... There is a Rabbinic saying (in its present form dating from A.D. 250, but probably much older): ‘Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosing of his sandal thong.’” Leon Morris, "The Gospel According to John," The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1975), p.141.

This washing comes immediately after Jesus explained the Passover meal as a prophetic picture of his death on the cross for our sins (see Lk.22:19,20). See also Jesus’ insistence in Mk.10:45 that He came to serve and give His life as a ransom for many. See also Phil.2:5-8, which is probably Paul's interpretation of Jesus' foot-washing.