THE ACCOUNT OF JESUS WASHING his disciples’ feet (John 13:1-17) is narrated to establish several points:
(1) Walking on dusty roads in open sandals took its toll. Many homes would assign the lowest of the servants to wash the feet of visitors. On this occasion, however, Jesus and his closest disciples are on their own, and no one thinks to take on the role of the humblest servant—no one, that is, but Jesus himself. The way John marshals the facts shows that, decades later when he is writing these lines, he is still awed by the dimensions of the deed. Jesus knows that it is time for him to go to the cross, “to leave this world and go to the Father” (John 13:1), but he is not self-absorbed. He knows that one of those whose feet he will wash is Judas Iscariot, who, sold out as he is to the devil, is in the process of betraying him. Jesus knows whence he has come, “that he had come from God and was returning to God” (John 13:3). All along he has “loved his own who were in the world,” and now he shows them “the full extent of his love” (John 13:1)—not only the footwashing itself, but the cross, to which the footwashing points (as we shall see). Knowing all this, loving like this, “he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist” (John 13:4)—it is as if every step has been indelibly burned onto John’s memory, and he can play it back, again and again, in slow motion. In the hush of the room, Jesus washes his disciples’ feet.
(2) Peter balks (John 13:6-11). The exchange that follows is multi-layered. On the surface of things, there is a form of humility that is actually proud. In one sense, the most humbling thing to endure in this setting is Jesus washing your feet. So there is a lesson in humility. But there is something deeper: “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (John 13:7); Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet anticipates, symbolically, the washing that is accomplished by the cross, the supreme self-humiliation that is displayed in the cross. Peter will understand such things only after the events. And then, in a moment of flip-flop enthusiasm, Peter wants a bath, and a third level is peeled back to view: a person who is already clean does not need a bath, but only to have his feet washed (John 13:10). And in some respects the disciples, with the exception of the son of perdition, are already clean. Here, then, is a picture of the “once-for-all” element in the cross (cf. Heb. 9:11-14, 23-26); we do not need a new sacrifice, but fresh confession (1 John 1:7, 9).
(3) And always there is the demand to be like Jesus. Reflect on John 13:12-17 and its bearing on us today.