Last Words for the Last Supper

Two Keys to a Fulfilling Life

John 13:1-17

Teaching t09868


We just finished studying the “signs” recorded in Jn. 1-12. These symbolic miracles formed a key part of Jesus’ public ministry. In Jn. 13-17, John records a very private conversation between Jesus and his disciples during their final evening together. Whereas the “signs” section focuses mainly on who Jesus is and how to believe in him, this section focuses mainly on how to become a productive follower of Jesus. Specifically, Jesus explains what it looks like to follow him, the resources he gives us that enable us to follow him, and the wonderful rewards of following him.

This morning we will look at Jn. 13:1-17, in which Jesus washes his disciples’ feet. Let’s start at the end—by looking first at the reward that Jesus promises to those heed his instruction. Read 13:17. The word "blessed" sounds corny (like something someone says at Thanksgiving dinner or when you sneeze). But makarios means “happy in your soul” or “fulfilled.” In other words, Jesus is claiming to disclose the secret to a fulfilling life. If you understand what he teaches in 13:1-16, and if you put it consistently into practice, you will be fulfilled. I have tested this for 34 years, and I have found it to be true. Let’s see what it teaches . . .

The setting

This takes place during what we call the Last Supper—when Jesus ate the Passover meal with his disciples just before he was arrested in Gethsemane. Read 13:1-5. Just before they began their meal, Jesus got up from the table 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 a ceremonial custom. It was practically important because people walked in sandals through dusty, muddy and manure-filled streets. Your feet got dirty and stinky—especially during Passover when Jerusalem was filled with thousands of pilgrims.

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 one thing, rabbinic teaching exempted disciples from washing their teacher’s feet.1 For another thing, Luke says they were in the midst of their favorite argument—“which one of them was regarded to be the greatest” (Lk. 22:24). This doesn’t mean that Peter was insisting that John deserved that honor, etc. It means that each one was beating his own chest, boasting about his superiority over the others, putting the others down, etc. Any disciple who washed feet in this setting would be admitting he was the low man on the totem pole!

What an ironic situation! Years later, John reflects that as Jesus was getting ready to suffer and die for them, he and the other disciples were stepping on each other. How would you respond to them if you were their teacher (explode; plead)? Jesus disrobed, donned the garb of a household slave, and washed their feet. By the time he finished, the towel was brown with dirt and manure. His words during and following this explain the “these things” of 13:17 . . .

Allow Jesus to wash you

Read 13:6-11. Good old Peter! He had no resistors between his mind and his mouth. “How can I know what I'm thinking until I hear myself say it?” This is Peter at his sanguine finest: first, “Never to all eternity shall you wash my feet!” and then “Give me the full bath!” This is a difficult passage to understand, but the lesson is clear: If you want a truly fulfilled life, you must allow Jesus to wash you. Let's take a closer look to understand what this means . . . 

First of all, it is clear that Jesus is not literally insisting that Peter observe foot hygiene. Jesus tells him that there is a symbolic, spiritual significance to this act which Peter would not fully understand until later (13:7). It is in fact a symbol of Jesus’ imminent death on the cross for Peter—and for us.

It is consistent with what he said just a few days earlier in Mk. 10:44,45 (read). His ultimate act as a servant is to give his life as a ransom for us—a payment for our sins. Jn. 13:1 likewise refers to Jesus’ crucifixion as the ultimate expression of his love—of which this foot-washing is a picture.

Paul echoes this event in Phil. 2:6-8 (read). 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 lost humanity whom he loves—all the way to dying on the cross for them.

This helps us to understand Jesus’ insistence in 13:8b. It doesn’t mean: “Your feet stink so bad that I refuse to serve dessert until they're clean.” It means: “Unless you are willing to let me wash away your moral guilt, you may not have fellowship with me." And so it is for all of us. Peter’s protest in 13:8a communicates an attitude that is unacceptable if we want to know Jesus and belong to him (essential for a truly happy life). In fact, Jesus speaks of two distinct ways we must allow him to wash us.

He speaks first of a full bath. Contrary to what our culture tells us, our main problem is not that we are good people who need to love ourselves more. We are filthy before a holy God because of our sins—so filthy that we cannot possibly wash ourselves (read Isa. 64:6). But God loves us so much that he has provided a bath for us through his Son Jesus. Only Jesus can bathe us because only Jesus (being man) lived a perfect life and thus qualified to lay his life for us, and only Jesus (being God) could die a substitutionary death of infinite value.

This is why, instead of instructing his disciples to each wash his own feet (the common practice when there was no household slave), Jesus washed their feet. In doing so, he took their filth onto himself. This is a picture of what he would do on the cross.

You cannot have a truly fulfilled life without having a relationship with God—and you cannot have a relationship with God unless you allow Jesus to give you a full bath. The great news is that you need to be “bathed” in this way only once. When you allow him to give you this full bath, you become “completely clean” (13:10)—permanently forgiven for all of your sins (Isa. 1:18). Have you allowed Jesus to give you this bath? All you have to do is humbly agree with him that you can’t clean yourself and ask him to forgive you through his death on the cross. Why not do this today?

But even those who have bathed (like Peter) need to go on allowing Jesus to wash their feet. This is something different from being forgiven for our sins, as Jesus emphasizes in 13:10. It refers to another, ongoing cleansing we need in order to maintain a vital relationship with him.

We have been completely and permanently delivered from the penalty of our sin—but we still sin, and we still need to be cleansed from sins defiling effect on our relationship with Christ. God is not an impersonal force; he is a Person with a moral will for our lives. If we want relational closeness with him, we must respond to his moral leadership. When we turn away from his moral leadership in our attitude or behavior (and we all do), we do not forfeit God’s forgiveness—but it does affect the intimacy of our relationship with him. When this happens, how do we regain that intimacy? We must allow Jesus to “wash our feet.” It is not difficult to do this—it involves three simple steps:

First, we simply need to agree with his verdict that our feet are dirty. When he points out a wrong attitude or behavior, instead of rationalizing or blaming others we need to take personal responsibility and admit to him” “I have rebelled against you, and I am sorry.”

Then, having agreed with his correction, we need to also agree with him that he his death on the cross has already made full payment for this sin. We must not attempt to pay for it by beating ourselves or replaying it or doing penance—this only demeans the value of his work for us. Instead, by faith we need to say “Thank you for forgiving me.”

And then, having received his correction and applied his forgiveness, we need to simply get up and resume relating to him and following him. “I am ready to serve you, Lord—what do you want me to do?” He may want you to confess this to another Christian. He may want you to apologize and ask forgiveness. He may want you to simply move forward. I don’t know what he may want you to do—but he knows, and he will show you.

When we present our “dirty feet” to Jesus in this way, he washes them. He cleanses our guilty consciences, and he restores the intimacy of our relationship with him. Recommend Schaeffer’s chapter (“Freedom from Conscience”) in True Spirituality.

Some of you are needlessly forfeiting a fulfilling life simply because you won’t let Jesus wash your feet when they are dirty. I think this is a problem with many Xenoids. Most of us are clear about our full bath, but we often use it as an excuse to avoid our need for ongoing foot-washing. Consequently, we feel out of touch with Jesus’ loving presence and guidance and empowering.

Do you want a fulfilling life? Then let Jesus wash you. But there is another “thing” we need to know and do—and Jesus explains it to us in 13:12-16 . . . 

Wash others’ 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 was ready to teach them another lesson they should learn from his actions. Read 13:12b-14 (misreading 13:14b – “. . . you ought to wash my feet” or “. . . you ought to keep your feet clean”). What is the proper response to allowing Jesus to wash you? To wash others’ feet. What does this mean?

Jesus is not instituting foot-washing as a ritual for the church to observe. The book of Acts never narrates the early church observing such a ritual, while it does so many times with baptism and communion. There’s nothing wrong with literal foot-washing—but you could do this literally and miss the real point. Jesus is calling on us to embrace something far more radical.

To emulate Jesus’ foot-washing is to embrace a lifestyle of serving love toward others. Just as Jesus washing the disciples’ feet was a picture of his sacrificial love for them, his call to “wash one another’s feet” is a call to sacrificially love others. Jesus makes this clear in 13:34 (read).

I know this sounds crazy. It is absolutely antithetical to what our culture teaches about personal fulfillment. It teaches us: “You will be happy when you get other people to love you the way you want to be loved.” But Jesus declares: “You will be happy when you learn to love others the way I already love you.” You can’t mix these—you have to choose one or the other.

If you subscribe to our culture’s lie, you will become a slave (because we cannot control how people treat us) and your life will become increasingly miserable. Self-absorbed people are miserable people. Haven’t you proven this to yourself already? How much more do you need to learn about this?

But if you trust that Jesus loves you and will take care of you, you express this trust by giving his love away to others. Then you will become more and more free (because you can always do this, no matter how people treat you), and you will discover that your life is becoming more and more full of his love. Loving others increases your capacity to receive and experience his love.

It is a real cross-roads decision to reject this lie and believe Jesus’ counsel on this. Many of you are unhappily stuck at this cross-road. You have allowed Jesus to give you a bath, and you even let him wash your feet sometimes—but you haven’t decided yet to sell out to an other-centered, serving way of life.

If you want to learn how to live this way, get involved in a home group. This is where you will see models whose lives will inspire you to pursue this way of life. This is where you will get all kinds of opportunities to practice serving others. And this is where you can get great coaching on how to become a more effective servant. And this is where you can get camaraderie with other fellow-servants.


1 “Every service which a slave performs for his master shall a disciple do for his teacher except the loosening of his sandal thong.”

Copyright 2004 Gary DeLashmutt