Teaching series from John

Two Essential Lessons

John 13:1-17

Teaching t05632


Read vs 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 what scholars call the "upper room discourse" because it took place in the second floor room where Jesus had his final Passover meal with his disciples. Knowing that he was about to depart from them, he distilled for them the most important truths and spiritual principles of the Christian life.

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

Footwashing 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. [1] 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-life of the bunch!

What a picture of fallen humanity! The ego, pride, and vanity; the complete spiritual denseness. While he is getting ready to suffer and die for them, they are jockeying for position in his earthly kingdom. How would you respond to them if you were their teacher? He saw it as an opportunity to teach them two essential lessons . . . 

Lesson #1: Allow Jesus To Wash You (vs 6-11)

Read vs 6-11. This is a difficult passage to understand, but the lesson is clear: We must allow Jesus to wash us. 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 vs 7 that there is a symbolic, spiritual significance to this act which Peter would not fully understand until he received the Holy Spirit (Jn. 16:12,13).

It is in fact a symbol of Jesus' death on the cross. This action 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 Phil. 2:5-8, which is probably Paul's interpretation of Jesus' footwashing. 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 is the way he "loved them to the uttermost" (vs 1).

This helps us to understand Jesus' insistence in vs 8b. It means more than just "You must have clean feet if you want to have dessert." It means that unless we are willing to let Jesus serve us by washing us, we may not have fellowship with him. Peter's protest in vs 8a communicates an attitude that is unacceptable if we want to know God and belong to him. In his response, Jesus speaks of two distinct kinds of washings.

FULL BATH: We are dirty because of our sins, and we cannot cleanse ourselves. Only Jesus can do this because only Jesus was both qualified and willing to do this for us. We must allow Jesus to wash us by receiving God's complete forgiveness through Jesus' death on the cross.

And this washing makes us "completely clean" (vs 10). We need be "bathed" in this way only once. This refers to the once and for all forgiveness we receive the moment we put our trust in Christ as Savior.

FOOT-WASHING: But even true Christians like Peter need to go allowing Jesus to wash their feet. This is something different from being forgiven for our sins, as Jesus emphasizes in vs 10. It refers rather to two ongoing ministries of Jesus which keep us in vital contact with him:

We must allow him to cleanse us from the other effects of sin in our lives. Believers in Christ have been completely and permanently delivered from the penalty of sin--but we still need to be delivered from the ongoing power of sin in our lives. When we sin as Christians, we are still forgiven by God, but our sensitized consciences are defiled and we get accused by Satan. As the Holy Spirit convicts us of wrong attitudes and behaviors, we need to acknowledge them to Christ, allow him to apply his forgiveness to our consciences, and cooperate with him as he begins to change us from the inside out.

We must allow him to refresh us from the effects of living in a spiritually hostile world. In the ancient world, it was impossible to walk around without getting your feet dirty. Footwashing was a means of refreshment which revitalized. In the same way, it is not possible for us as Christians to live in this world without being negatively affected by its spiritual atmosphere. This is different from choosing to sin. Every Christian knows the experience of spending a day in the world at work, school, etc.--and feeling somehow spiritually fatigued, coated by a "dust" which makes us feel jaded and tarnished and distant from God. We need to be refreshed in our communion with God, and Jesus is the One who can do this. As we turn to him by prayer, or by getting into his Word, or by interacting with another Christian--he removes this film and restores our freshness with the Lord.

This is one of the central principles of Christianity--ongoing personal, humble dependence on Jesus Christ. It cuts rights across the grain of our pride and self-sufficiency. This is what the New Testament means by faith in Christ.

But there is another lesson we need to learn from this event. Jesus explains it to us in vs 12-16 . . . 

Lesson #2: Wash Others' Feet (vs 12-17)

Read vs 12a. After he washed everyone's feet (including Judas'), 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 the lesson they should learn from his actions. Read vs 12b-15. Jesus' action not only had a symbolic message that they would soon understand (above). It also had a plain lesson they could understand: wash others' feet (vs 14b). In what sense did he mean this?

He is not instituting foot-washing as a ritual for the church to observe. Unlike baptism and communion, both of which were already Jewish rituals, foot-washing was never a Jewish ritual. Furthermore, Acts never narrates the early church observing such a ritual, while it does so many times with baptism and communion.

Rather, Jesus' foot-washing is a picture of a lifestyle of serving love toward others. This is to be the hallmark of Christian spirituality (vs 34: "new commandment;" 1 Cor. 13:1-3). You can perform the ritual of foot-washing without practicing this lifestyle, and you can practice this lifestyle without literally washing people's feet. This "foot-washing lifestyle" is:

rooted in God's love for us. Jesus does not say "Since I washed your feet, you should wash my feet" (vs 14). This is one of the world's definitions of love--giving in order to get: "I did something for you, now I demand that you do something for me." He didn't need their love to be a whole person because his life was securely rooted in his Father's love and faithfulness. Because Jesus drew his life from his Father (vs 3), he was able to serve his disciples freely and sacrificially.

He calls on us to love others in the same way--freely and sacrificially--because we have access to the same source.

informed by how Jesus loved people. Vs 15 says "you also should do as I did to you." In the parallel in vs 34, Jesus instructs us to " . . . love one another even as I have loved you . . . " The world has its own definitions of love, but if we want to learn how to love God's way, we need to study the life of Jesus as it is recorded in the Bible. He alone lived a life of perfect love.

This is a big subject with some real surprises. We're going to spend the next two weeks explaining in much greater detail what this means. But before we do, notice two other revolutionary statements Jesus makes about this way of life . . . 

It is the measure of true greatness. Read vs 16. He is their master; they are his servants. He is the One sending them; they are the ones sent by him. His point is that if he lives a lifestyle of serving love, this is the definition of greatness to which they should aspire. Lk. 22:25-27, spoken in this same setting, highlights this point (read).

Many Christians spiritualize their own indolence by saying they don't want to be great. But Jesus says it is good to aspire to greatness--as long as you choose the right measure. The world measures greatness by external things like WEALTH, BEAUTY, ARBITRARY NATURAL TALENT, POLITICAL & SOCIAL POSITION. But Jesus chooses the antithesis of worldly greatness (household slave washing feet) as his picture of greatness. How do you define true greatness and success? Who do you admire? Who would you be like if you could?

It is the way to true fulfillment. Read vs 17. The word "blessed" sounds ethereal or corny--like something someone says when you sneeze--and off in the distant future. But makarios means "happy" or "fulfilled"--and Jesus uses it to describe what can be ours in the present.

The world says you will be happy when you can take all you want, but Jesus says you'll be fulfilled when you give all you can (Acts 20:35). The world says you will be happy when you get other people to treat you the way you want to be treated ("WOULDN'T IT BE NICE IF THE WORD REVOLVED AROUND YOU?"), but Jesus says you will be fulfilled when you learn to love others the way he loves you.

ELUSIVE BUTTERFLY: If you seek happiness as your goal, it will always elude you. But if you turn away from this and instead depend personally on Christ and serve others, happiness will find you.


[1] "Loosing the sandal was the task of a slave. A disciple could not be expected to perform it. To get the full impact of this we must bear in mind that disciples did many services for their teachers. Teachers in ancient Palestine were not paid . . . But in partial compensation disciples were in the habit of performing little services for their Rabbis instead. But they had to draw the line somewhere, and menial tasks like loosing the sandal thong came under this heading. 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.