My journey in the reading of the Gospel of John for 2021 continues and I am now at the crossroad of two main divisions. For some, this chapter serves as an introductory heading to the entire Book of Glory (John 13-21). The Book of Signs (John 1-12) centres on Jesus’ public ministry with Judaism. The Book of Glory (John 13-21), however, shifts our attention to Jesus’ private ministry, to the hour of His glorification. Beginning with chapter 13, Jesus is alone with His disciples.
The foot washing occurred in the upper room, and it has left indelible significance for the church. For Jesus, it was the display of His humility and His servanthood whereas for us, the event is symbolic of our role in the body of Christ.
When Jesus rose from the table and began to wash the feet of the disciples (John 13:4), He was doing the work of the lowliest of servants. Foot-washing is foreign to us and may evoke responses today never intended in the original biblical setting, but it was not foreign to Jesus and his followers. Jesus’ act was powerful not because of the foot-washing itself, but because of the role He was assuming by doing it.
To sweep a floor is common place, but for Queen Elizabeth of England to come and sweep our kitchen would be upsetting. It is the person of Jesus tied to this lowly role that brings power to this image.
When Jesus came to earth the first time, He came not as King and Conqueror, but as the suffering Servant of Isaiah 53. As He revealed in Matthew 20:28 that He came “not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The humility expressed by His act with towel and basin foreshadowed His ultimate act of humility and love on the cross.
Peter was deeply uncomfortable with the Lord washing his feet, and, never being at a loss for words, Peter protested, “You shall never wash my feet!”
Then Jesus said something that must have further shocked Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8).
Then Jesus explained the true meaning of being washed by Him. Salvation is a one-time act of justification by faith, but the lifelong process of sanctification is one of washing from the stain of sin we experience as we walk through the world. Peter and the disciples—all except Judas, who never belonged to Christ—needed only this temporal cleansing.
When Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He told them (and us), “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15). As His followers, we are to emulate Him, serving one another in lowliness of heart and mind, seeking to build one another up in humility and love. When we seek the pre-eminence, we displease the Lord who promised that true greatness in His kingdom is attained by those with a servant’s heart (Mark 9:35; 10:44). When we have that servant’s heart, the Lord promised, we will be greatly blessed (John 13:17).