Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
A Crazy Thought
This morning’s story is probably a rather familiar story to you if you’ve been in the church for any length of time—and, even if you’ve never been in the church, you might still recognize the image of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet. Christians love to lean into this story as an example of what humility and service looks like. It’s not uncommon for Christian weddings to include foot washing ceremonies (it’s not something I’d particularly recommend in a wedding, but people do it). The image of foot washing is an image of humble, vulnerable service. There’s a certain vulnerability to washing a person’s feet. Feet are dirty, and you need to physically bow in front of the person, and get as low as you can, in order to offer this kind of service to a person. It almost naturally conveys the sort of service and humility that we might associate with kissing a king’s feet. You can’t help but think “humble, lowly, submissive service” when you think about the service of a “foot washing”.
So, the disciples wash Jesus’s feet, right? That’s what we’d expect, isn’t it? He’s the Messiah. He’s king of kings and lord of lords, he’s God in the flesh! We’d expect the disciples to wash Jesus’s feet, but just the exact opposite happens. The master washes the servant’s feet.
It’s a crazy image, folks. We need to get this image in our heads, and understand how crazy it is. Jesus—the eternal Son of God, the Messiah—takes off his outer garments so that he’s basically in his underwear, and he ties a towel around his waist. This is the very image of humility. Jesus is quite literally putting on the garb of a slave, a servant, the lowest person in that room and in that culture. Then, he commences in the lowest and most humbling work a slave can do. He takes the towel that was wrapped around his waist, and he washes his disciples’ feet with it.
This, folks, is the work of a slave—and only the work of a slave. Several months ago, you may remember me talking about how students served their rabbis in the culture back then. The relationship between a student and a rabbi was much like the relationship between a master and his slaves. The students would provide goods and services for the rabbi in exchange for the rabbi’s teaching. Although, there was one thing a student would not do for his rabbi—it was too low of a job for a student. It was only the work of a slave, and that is to wash the rabbi’s feet. Students don’t wash their rabbi’s feet. Only slaves wash their master’s feet.
Think about that, folks. How would you respond if God stooped down to wash your feet? Or perhaps from the perspective of Peter and the disciples, here, how would you respond if the man you were convinced to be the Messiah stooped down in slaves’ rags to wash your feet? There’s a reason, folks, why Peter responds the way he does in verse 6. What’s he say, there? “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Peter fronts his question by addressing Jesus very explicitly as “Lord”. He’s pointing out how inappropriate this is. “Lord, you would wash my feet? You’re the Lord in this relationship, not me. This is backwards! If anything, I should be washing your feet!”. Peter was aghast at this, folks, and rightly so. It should stun us.
So the question we must ask this morning is “why?”. Why did Jesus stoop so low, and do this? Our passage gives us three reasons, and we’ll consider those three reasons as we walk through this together this morning.
Reason #1: Not for Duty, but for Love
So, what’s the first reason Jesus did this? Why did he wash his disciple’s feet?
Look at verse 1. Read that with me—
1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.
So what’s the reason for the foot washing in this passage? Was it out of a sense of duty—like any slave might do their duty and wash their master’s feet? Why did he do this? “Having loved his own where in the world, he loved them to the end”. Folks, this is the fundamental reason for Jesus’s service and foot washing in this passage which supports everything else. The reason he did this foot washing, at the most fundamental level, is because “he loved them to the end”. The word “end”, there, could be translated with reference to time, meaning, “all the way to the time of his death, he never stopped loving them”. Or, the word “end” could be translated in terms of fulfillment or completion. “He loved them completely, fully, without reservation, perfectly”. I think both translations are equally true, and I almost wonder if both are meant. He loved them perfectly, fully, all the way to his dying breath.
It’s helpful to remember that verse 1, there, of chapter 13, is opening a new section in John’s gospel, here. It’s opening what is often called Jesus’s farewell discourse, which spans from chapters 13 to 17. These are Jesus’s last words to his disciples, in the immediate days before he went to the cross. Jesus knew he was about to die. He even told his disciples he was about to die, although the disciples refused to believe him. It must have been an incredibly tense, weighty moment as Jesus was giving his last words to his self-absorbed disciples, yet it was a moment nonetheless characterized supremely by love. “When Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own… he loved them to the end.”
This was such a radical love, folks. The disciples were actively, high-handedly refusing to believe or listen to Jesus through this whole time. He kept predicting his death, and telling them about the way of his kingdom. “I’m going to die soon.” “No Jesus, no you’re not!”. We see that especially highlighted in the other gospels, as they detail these final days of Jesus’s life. The disciples at this point were quarreling amongst each other over worldly things, worldly glory. “When Jesus is erected to the throne in Jerusalem as the Messiah, and when he overthrows Rome, who is going to sit at his right hand? Who of us is the greatest?” That’s where these disciples were at, at this moment.
But how does Jesus respond to them, even as he was facing death and the father’s wrath? He washes their feet. That’s what he does to self-absorbed, easily-distracted, confused disciples. Isn’t that encouraging? He patiently, humbly washes their feet as a show of his commitment to them. Why does he do that? What motivated him to do this? “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Folks, the fundamental reason for Jesus’s service and foot-washing in this story is his unconditional love for his people, and his commitment to their salvation. When all questions are asked, at the end of the day, it always comes back to his love for his people, and it stops there. Why did Jesus die for sinners like you and me? It wasn’t because we deserved it. It wasn’t because we ourselves are desirable. It wasn’t because we did something to earn his love. There’s no other reason, other than God’s incomprehensible, unconditoinal love for those whom he has chosen to save.
It’s freeing, folks. Is it not freeing to be in a relationship of unconditional love—and, you know that it’s not just a passive love? It’s like a father who will never give up on his wayward son. He just keeps pursuing him, every time, and the son knows it. It’s the only thing keeping the son from completely going off the deep end. That’s God’s unconditional love, only it’s far more powerful, far more effective and perfect. He will love you to the end, and he’ll ensure that you make it to the end. This is the sort of love that completely changes people, folks.
I recently heard a refreshing testimony of a man in New York City, and he hit it on the spot. He has the most free, pleasant, joyful, peaceful smile about him. You can tell he’s not seeking to win anyone’s favor, or earn any kind of reputation. He has the look of a man who is fulfilled, happy, content, and at peace—but truth be told, he works with garbage on the streets of NYC. He found a way to make upwards to $1800 a week by organizing trash in NYC, and he’s totally happy to do it. He looks clean, well-kept, respectable, happy, despite his humble job. But then he starts telling of what he did before getting into that little hustle of his. He spent 10 years in prison for drug and human trafficking. Through all that, he lost his wife and kids. He’s never seen his grandkids. He lost everything. “What am I going to do? I got no more tears, I’m all cried out?”. That’s what he says as he humbly acknowledges the mess—and yet, he nonetheless looks stable and content. Then he’s asked, “tell me about your relationship with God.” “Oohhh boy”, he says. He gets fired up, and goes into this spontaneous, beautiful explanation of Ephesians 1:3. He says “there’s this passage in Ephesians”—and he quotes the passage, which says
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, 4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world... In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ…
That’s the verse that fired this guy up. “he chose us in him before the foundations of the world… in love he predestined us”. In love, that’s it. That fired this guy up, folks. This is what this man says about that verse—
“What that means to me is before Genesis 1:1, [God] had already chosen those whom he had chosen… three ladies from the Bronx [came to me in jail, and they] preached the gospel to me. I just felt led in my spirit to say ‘ok, I think you’re telling me the truth. I’ll accept’. Since then I’ve screwed up a million times. I’ve been used of God a million times, but I’ve screwed up a million times. And I’ve come to the conclusion after 30 years that truly truly, God knew who I was and what I was going to do and what I was going to become, and he knew I was going to pick up cans one day before it ever happened. That Scripture [in Ephesians] helps me to realize that when I fail, you know, when I don’t please God or do the things of God, he still loves me and cares for me because he chose me in Christ, he seated me at his right hand in the heavenly places—I’m seated there right now, whether I deserve it or not!”
Why? “In love he predestined us”. God has a higher purpose for us, folks, that’s so far above our failures, our faithlessness, our struggles, our weaknesses, and his higher purposes are ultimately motivated by his limitless, unconditional, unfathomable love. As Paul says in romans 5:8, “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us”. That’s how he shows his love for, and commitment to, us. He loves us, his enemies, therefore he dies for us. He sees us wasting away in the dirt and mire of our sin and this world, therefore he cleanses us and washes us.
So, the first reason, or motivation, for Jesus to humble himself and wash his disciples feet—as only a slave would do—is his love. He was committed to loving his own perfectly, until the end. He’s going to get us cleaned up, washed up, and ready for his salvation not because of you, but because of his love. That’s the first reason for the foot washing in this passage.
Reason #2: He Knew the Father’s Promises
Now, there’s another reason. Did you see it, there in verses 2 and 3? Look again at verse 2—
2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper.
So, there’s a fair amount in this passage. We see the first reference to Judas Iscariot, and the devil’s influence on him. That only heightens the stakes, the wonder, of this passage. Jesus washed Judas’s feet, even when he knew Judas was already hell-bent on betraying him. We may talk about that a little bit later. For now, just notice the second reason in this passage for Jesus’s humility and service. It’s there in verse three. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper” to wash his disciples’ feet.
What does that mean? It’s clearly giving a reason for the foot washing, isn’t it? “Knowing that the Father had given him all things…and that he was going back to God… he [therefore] rose” to wash their feet. See the connection there? What’s going on, there? Folks, it means that Jesus wasn’t just motivated by love for his people. He was also motivated by his Father’s promises. He was motivated by knowing his Father’s promises to glorify him through his humble service, and therefore he served in this way.
Folks, that’s the power of God’s promises, and knowing them. Jesus is the supreme example of this. The Father’s promise to the Son—and, the Son’s trust in the Father—literally moved the eternal Son of God to empty himself of his glory, wash the feet of stubborn sinners like you and me, and then die for them. “Do that, and you’ll be glorified. I’ll give you all things”, the Father says to the Son. Yes, this is getting into difficult nuances of the Trinity which we could parse out another time. But yes, this is demonstrating the power of knowing God’s purposes and promises, and walking in them by faith. “Humble yourself under the mighty hand of God, and he will exalt you.” Promise: 1 Peter 5:6. Believe it, humble yourself in true faith and repentance, serve God and others, and you’ll be exalted. Do you know it, and believe it? If you do, it’ll completely change the way you treat your spouse and children, it’ll change the way you work, the way you live and make priorities, the way you find joy and peace. It’ll change everything, the more you know and are motivated in faith by God’s promises. Pray, folks, that the Lord would give you a firm, unshakable faith and knowledge in his promises. We’re talking about living and trusting in God’s word—the same sort of thing that moved Jesus to wash his disciples’ feet, and eventually die on the cross for them.
Why did he do it? Because God the Father said “I’ll give you all things if you do, and in the end, you’ll come back to me in glory”. So, he committed himself in the service of humility, for glory. And folks, if you know the end of the story, the Father made good on his word. Jesus served all the way to the end, all the way to death, and the Father did raise the Son from the grave. The Father did give the Son all things into his hand—all authority, and power, and glory. Jesus, the Messiah, God-in-the-flesh, in a unique way, received all things from the Father for all eternity as a result of his humble obedience and service—and this has massive implications not only for Jesus’s glory but also for our salvation and our eternal inheritance. It’s a preponderous thought, the more you see the Bible tease it out. We’ll see a little bit of that in a moment.
So all this to say, we’ve seen two reasons why Jesus humbled himself so low in this passage, to wash his disciple’s feet. First, he loves us. “He loved his people to the end.” Then second, he trusted the Father’s word that he had received all things and would go back to the Father as his reward and glory for this service. So again (1) he loved us, and (2) he trusted the Father’s word.
Now, there’s a third reason why Jesus humbled himself like this, to wash his disciples’ feet. This one, folks, is the most important.
Reason #3: Jesus’s Cleansing is Necessary
He did it because it was necessary. He washed his disciples—or as some of the language in our passage puts it—he cleansed his disciples, because they needed to be washed and cleansed.
We need to be cleansed by Jesus, folks. This isn’t optional. We see this in Jesus’s interaction with Peter. Again, Peter questions the whole premise—“Lord, will you wash my feet?” In verse 8, he even says “You shall never wash my feet”. Peter is getting all self-righteous and bold with Jesus, here. “The master should never wash the servants feet! This is all backwards, Jesus!” Then Jesus says in verse 8, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me”.
That’s an awesome, telling statement for us right there. “If I don’t wash you, you have no share with me”. To say it positively, “If you’re going to have a share with me, I must wash you”. Do you want a share with Jesus? What does that even mean? Perhaps you might say “I don’t know, Pastor. I don’t know if I want a share with Jesus, what is a share that I should desire it and therefore desire to be washed to get it?”
Folks, that’s inheritance language. This is the sort of language that refers to receiving a share, or a part, in some kind of wealth or power or business or inheritance. Here, Jesus is referring to a “share” in his kingdom. He’s referring to us having a share in the Messiah’s kingdom.
There’s a connection, here, with what we just talked about, isn’t there? Jesus washed his disciples feet because he knew the Father “had given all things into his hand”. Folks, that’s the share we get a part in, if we’re cleansed by Jesus. That’s the inheritance. This isn’t just a “you’re forgiven and cleansed, now go live your life and hope for the best” kind of salvation.
We often have such a truncated understanding of the gospel, and of the Christian hope, folks. The gospel that’s often preached is simply “believe in Jesus who died to satisfy God’s wrath against you and your sins, and you’ll be forgiven and saved”. That’s true, but that’s not the end of the story. Jesus, here, is saying “believe in me, let me wash you clean, and you’ll have a share with me in my glory, my inheritance”.
Folks, this is stuff for the imagination—and, I mean the godly imagination. Jesus inherited the universe—all power and authority—from the Father. When the Bible speaks of a new heavens and new earth without sin or suffering, and a future resurrection of our bodies, and a perfect kingdom ruled by Jesus, that’s what we’re talking about and that’s the kingdom Jesus is saying “I want to share that with you”. I don’t know how Jesus is going to share his reign with all the millions of people he’s saved. That’s for him to figure out. All I know it’s going be glorious, and it’s going to be a kingdom where God is, with his perfect peace and forgiveness and righteousness and joy forever.
I will say this, though. We can see a his governance and kingdom at work even today, can’t we. Those of faith have a share in his kingdom today, do we not? Are we not the body of Christ? Are not preachers and evangelists taking part in declaring his victory over the grave, and calling his people to himself? Is that not taking part in his reign? Do we not get to see his peace overcome fresh souls who repent and believe in him, and experience his joy for the first time? We, his church, have a share in his kingdom folks and we’d do well to not take it lightly. We are his light in the darkness, as he fills us with his forgiveness and peace and joy and Holy Spirit. It’s a glorious thing to be an arm or a leg or a foot of Christ, and take part in his work of salvation through various acts of service. The privileges and honor and glory is only going to increase unto all eternity, folks.
“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Folks, you’ll never want to be washed by Jesus if you want no share with Jesus—and you’ll never want a share with Jesus if you don’t know what share, or inheritance, or blessings, Jesus offers. It’s a layered, thick, rich inheritance folks, and it all starts with getting washed. It all starts with getting clean—and the good news is you don’t have to clean or wash yourself. He does it. He does it completely—and yes, again, because he loves completely. He loves his people to the end.
Peter understood it. He wanted a share with Jesus—granted, I think Peter had the wrong understanding at that moment of what a share in Jesus’s kingdom meant, but Peter had the right impulse. He wanted a share with Jesus. I love his response to Jesus in verse 9. “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” That’s perfect. It’s a zealous, ambitious, desperate response to what Jesus had said—although, it’s also misinformed. Look at what Jesus said next. Look at verse 10, there, where Jesus reminds Peter that he was already clean, and didn’t need to be washed head-to-toe a second time. Verse 10—
10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
That’s what Jesus says to an over-zealous, desperate, though misinformed Peter. It almost seems like Jesus is being inconsistent, if you don’t think about what he’s saying. Remember, Jesus says as he’s washing Peter’s feet, “I must wash you, for you to receive have a share with me”. Then Peter says “Lord, not only my feet but also my head and hands!”. Then Jesus says, basically, “ahh, Peter, you’re already clean.”. Doesn’t that seem odd, or inconsistent?
Folks, this deserves thinking. Jesus is getting nuanced, here, in the way he’s describing his cleansing and foot washing. He’s telling these disciples, as he’s washing their feet, that they have already been bathed and washed. “You are clean”, he says—“I don’t need to wash you head to toe again”. He’s declaring them clean before God—acceptable, washed, in their entirety. Their sins—past, present, and future—are forgiven as they have come to believe in Jesus by faith. That’s how Jesus’s cleansing blood works, when we’re speaking of his cleansing blood of forgiveness. We need to be washed by his blood, folks, to get cleaned up and get rid of our sin before God. That’s the washing Jesus is referring to when he says his disciples “you’re already clean, you don’t need a full bath again”.
Instead, he says “now that you’re clean, I only need to wash your feet”. What’s that mean? This is all circling back to why Jesus is washing his disciples feet. We’ve been focusing most on why he would humble himself to do this incredibly humbling service—(1) he loves his people, and (2) he trusts the Father’s word to exalt him through it. Although, this is getting more concentrated at why Jesus is only washing their feet, and not bathing their whole body.
The simplest answer, folks, is that this is an image of the continued renewal and washing of the Holy Spirit which believers receive from Jesus every day. Yes, we believe that Jesus’s one sacrifice applies to cleanse us of all our sins—past, present, and future. But yes, there’s still the ongoing struggle with sin and the flesh. Folks, this story is an excellent encouragement to you in that respect. Jesus serves his people, folks—he serves his people whom he has cleansed. He keeps them clean, even as we continue to stumble and bumble about in our sin, in our flesh, and in this cursed world. He’s washing us, renewing us, serving us, keeping even our feet unstained from the world as we walk about it in our flesh.
I don’t remember the last time I quoted John Calvin in a sermon, but this is what he says about this. He says—
The term feet, therefore, is metaphorically applied to all the passions… by which we are brought into contact with the world; for, if the Holy Spirit occupied every part of us, we would no longer [be tempted] with the [sins and passions] of the world; but now, by that part in which we are carnal, we creep on the ground, or at least fix our feet in the clay, and, therefore are to some extent unclean. Thus Christ always finds in us something to cleanse. What is here spoken of is not the forgiveness of sins, but the renewal, by which Christ, by gradual and uninterrupted [progression], delivers his followers entirely from the sinful desires of the flesh.
I think that’s spot on, folks. Jesus, here, is showing his humble service—his humble commitment—to renew us and continually cleanse us from the sinful passions of this world which we constantly stumble into. Yes, you’re cleansed and forgiven. Although yes, you’re being cleansed as Jesus continues to make you holy and blameless before him. He’s doing it, folks, as though he were serving you at your feet. He’s your Lord, and yet he’s your servant. He’s serving you in a service of salvation, cleansing, and holiness, that you might continually be cleansed from this world for the world to come.
If you’re not washed by him—if he doesn’t do this work in you—then you have no share with him.
So, brothers and sisters, this is a shocking picture of Jesus’s commitment to us. He—the Lord of glory, God in the flesh, the Messiah who holds all things—is showing his love and commitment to his people, even us today. When you think of him washing the feet of his disciples, remember that he did it (1) because he loves us to the end, (2) because he sought to receive all things from the Father, and trusted in the Father’s word to that end, and (3) because he’s committed continually in his service to wash and renew you day by day, to make you fit for his kingdom.