I am sure we are all familiar with the passage in John’s Gospel telling us about Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. It speaks about servanthood, servant leadership, sacrifice and grace.
I’ve shared some thoughts about this particular passage before. I tend to find it helpful as we think about it to focus on a picture – in this case a couple of pictures by an artist called Leszek Forczek, a style of painting known as illuminism. You can take a look at these pictures here:
So picture the scene…the time was significant, with a building up to one of the most significant feasts and festivals in the Jewish calendar – the Passover.
I’ve often thought about Jesus’ words and actions at this time, especially in light of him knowing “that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.” When we know our time is upon us, we don’t tend to mince words, we say and do the things we do with intentionality, meaning and purpose. So, what did Jesus do? “He had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end.”
Jesus wanted his every word, his every action at this time to be imprinted upon the disciples so that they would never forget. The first thing he did was to wash the disciples’ feet. The second thing he did at this time, as set out in the Synoptic Gospels, was to very poignantly and powerfully make it clear that he was the ultimate Passover lamb.
Passover reminds us of redemption from sin accomplished by Christ. It was the time when Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, was offered as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. It is on that basis alone that God can justify us since we have all fallen short.
Just as the blood of a lamb sprinkled on the doorpost of Jewish homes caused the Spirit of the Lord to pass over those homes during the last plague on Egypt (Exodus 12), so those covered by the blood of the Lamb will escape spiritual death and the judgment of God. Of all the Jewish festivals, Passover is of the greatest importance because the Lord’s Supper was a Passover meal (Matthew 26:17–27). In passing the elements and telling the disciples to eat of His body, Jesus was presenting Himself as the ultimate sacrifice, once and for all. Historical accounts suggest that in A.D. 70, the last year that the temple was still standing, 270,000 lambs were slain. Through Jesus, no more sacrifices needed to be made even if we perhaps choose to have a meal at this time to help us remember.
We’re told that during the Passover meal, the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. As guests and family members entered the home to celebrate Passover, it was customary for a servant or slave to be there to wash their feet. This was the task of the lowest of the lowest classes of people. Yet Jesus himself got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel round his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped round him. It reminds us that “The Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give my life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45) and embodies his principle that “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all, and servant of all” (Mark 9:35; and also John 13:15)
Here, Jesus Christ, God incarnate stooped down and lovingly, sacrificially and gracefully laid aside his majesty and washed their feet. He didn’t just wash the feet of his disciples. He also washed the feet of the disciple who was to betray him. Imagine what must have been going through Judas’ mind as Jesus washed his feet and looked directly into his eyes. Jesus knew that Judas was to betray him and yet still offered him redemption.
He also washed the feet of the one who would deny him 3 times – Peter. Peter is in the spotlight here, and in our first picture. No wonder he said “No, you shall never wash my feet.” We see Peter’s reluctance and hesitancy, but also his hope and expectation captured so well in our first picture. If you look carefully, you can see Peter with one hand raised up to heaven – yearning for understanding of the significance of this event, yearning for a blessing – and his other hand held forward as if to say stop, you can’t do this…YOU can’t do this.
Yet Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
It is at that point that I imagine something of a spiritual breakthrough, a shift if you like in the principalities and powers “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
We know that in a Passover meal, 4 cups of wine are used. These were:
- Kiddush – The cup of Sanctification (Servanthood), drunk at the beginning of the Passover Seder
- Makkot – The cup of Wrath and Affliction (Deliverance), drunk during the retelling of the Passover story
- Ha-Geulah – The cup of Redemption (Sonship), drunk as a blessing at the end of the meal (after supper)
- Hallel – The cup of Acceptance (Marriage), drunk in gracious acceptance and commitment to God.
In 1 Corinthians 11, we are told that Jesus “took the cup also, after supper, saying, “This cup is the new covenant in my blood. Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”” This was the third cup, the cup of Redemption. Tragically Judas Iscariot left the Passover Seder BEFORE the cup of Acceptance; he never completed the meal. He wasn’t able to grasp the significance of what Jesus was telling them; his heart was hardened and closed.
We are then told that when Jesus had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place and said: “Do you understand what I have done for you?”
“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.
“Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once.
“My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come.
“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
We are in a time where perhaps reluctantly we too have to accept acts of sacrificial service, perhaps as people do shopping for us or pick up prescriptions. We sometimes find it easier though to give than receive. Yet Jesus is clear…we are to love one another. We are, if you like, to wash one another’s feet.
I’m grateful that on this night we can think about these things and think about them together. May our response like Peter be “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”; it is wonderful to love and wonderful to be loved. And it is incredible to be reminded of the enormity of God’s love for us. Amen