The Upper Room Discourse

Foot Washing

John 13-17

Teaching t07671


Earlier this spring, we spent five weeks looking at many of Jesus' "signs" recorded in Jn. 2-11. I want to spend five more weeks considering Jesus' final meeting with his disciples, which is recorded in Jn. 13-17. Scholars call this passage the "upper room discourse" because it took place in the second floor room where Jesus had the Passover meal with his disciples on the night of his arrest. Knowing that he was about to depart from them, he distilled for them the most important truths and spiritual principles of the Christian life.

The passage begins with Jesus washing their feet. Read 13:1-5. Shortly after they celebrated Passover, 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 primarily 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.

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. Luke says they were in the midst of their favorite argument--"which one of them was regarded to be the greatest" (Lk. 22:24)--and I don't think that means Peter was insisting that John deserved that honor, etc. 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. As Jesus was 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? Jesus disrobed, donned the garb of a household slave, washed their feet, and by the time he finished the towel was brown with dirt and manure. His words during and following this show that he was doing this to teach them two profound lessons . . . 

Lesson #1: 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: "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: 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. Jesus tells him in 13:7 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' imminent death on the cross 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 slave is to give his life as a ransom for us.

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--OPTIONAL).

See also Phil. 2:5-8, which is probably Paul's interpretation of Jesus' foot-washing. 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 how he "loved them to the uttermost" (13:1).

This is why, instead of leading the way to have everybody wash their 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.

This helps us to understand Jesus' insistence in 13:8b. It doesn't mean: "Your feet stink so bad that we won't have dessert until they're clean." It means: "Unless you are willing to let me wash away your moral filth, 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 God and belong to him. In his response, Jesus speaks of two distinct kinds of washings.

He speaks first of a full bath. We are dirty before God because of our sins, and we cannot cleanse ourselves (read and explain Isa. 64:6--menstrual rags). Our spiritual dilemma is not that we are ignorant of our own deity, or that we just need some moral fine-tuning. We are objectively guilty before a God who is so holy that we could never earn his acceptance--but who is so loving that he provided a bath for us. 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.

And this washing makes you "completely clean" (13:10; read Isa. 1:18; Ps. 103:10-12). You need to be "bathed" in this way only once. Peter and the rest of the disciples (except for Judas) had already received this bath by believing in Jesus as the Messiah. And you and I receive once and for all forgiveness the moment we put our trust in Christ as Savior. Have you done this? Why not do so today? Explain how?

But even true Christians 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 the ongoing defiling effect of sin in our relationships 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 him in this way (and we all do), this does not cause us to come under God's judgment--but it does affect the intimacy of our relationship with him. When this happens, what do we need? We need to be cleansed. As the Holy Spirit personally convicts us of wrong attitudes and behaviors, we need to acknowledge them specifically to Christ, in faith apply his forgiveness to this sin, and return to a posture of cooperation with him on this specific issue. When we do this, he cleanses our consciences and restores the intimacy of our communion with him. Read Heb. 10:19,22.

"(After I have done this) my fellowship with God has been supernaturally restored. I am cleansed, ready to resume the spiritual life, ready again to be used by the Spirit . . . I cannot be ready until I am cleansed, but when I am (cleansed), then I am ready. And I may come back for cleansing as many times as I need, on this basis."

Some of you are needlessly forfeiting intimacy with Christ because you won't let him wash your feet in this way. The point of resistance may be refusal to submit to his moral leadership, or it may be refusal to admit your need for cleansing, or to trust his willingness to cleanse you. Spiritual growth is not breaking the spiritual sound barrier into everlasting intimacy with Christ. It is recognizing more quickly when you have forfeited it and returning more quickly in this way to be restored.

This is one of the central principles of Christianity--allowing Jesus to bathe and cleanse us from our sins. It cuts right across the grain of our pride and self-sufficiency. But there is another lesson we need to learn from this event. Jesus explains it to us in 13:12-16 . . . 

Lesson #2: Wash others' feet.

Read 13:12a. After Jesus 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 another 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 right now: Wash others' feet (13:14b). In what sense did he mean this?

Jesus 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, to emulate Jesus' foot-washing is to embrace a lifestyle of serving love toward others. Paul understood it this way in Phil. 2:3,4 (read). This is antithetical to our culture's emphasis on self-esteem, etc.--and to the Christian community's corruption of "Love your neighbor as yourself" into an emphasis on self-love. God assumes that we love ourselves. We may be very confused about what our "goal" is and how to get there, but we are deeply committed to pursue it. He assumes this, and then tells us to be that committed to others. Jesus explains it this way in 13:34 (read)--and he says this is to be the key distinctive of Christian spirituality which demonstrates the truth of our message. In this passage, Jesus tells us two things about this lifestyle:

It is rooted in God's love for us. Jesus does not say "Since I washed your feet, you should wash my feet" (13:14). 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. This is why John begins this passage with 13:1,3 (re-read). Because Jesus understood and trusted his Father's perfect loving care, he was able to serve his disciples freely and sacrificially. And he calls on us to love others in the same way--freely and sacrificially--because we are under the same Father's loving care. Read 1 John 4:16-19.

It is the path to true happiness. Read vs 17. This verse changed my life. The word "blessed" sounds ethereal or corny (like something someone says at Thanksgiving dinner or 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 get other people to treat you the way you want to be treated, but Jesus says you will be fulfilled when you learn to love others the way he loves you. The world's recipe turns you into a slave, in bondage to how other people treat you. God's recipe makes you free, because you can always draw upon his love and choose to serve others.


Prayer for decision on these areas.