Reflections on John 13:1-17
The episode recorded in John 13 of Jesus' washing the disciples feet is usually seen as an example of servant leadership. Of course it serves this purpose well, as Jesus says: “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). However, there is more to be gained from this footwashing exercise of servant leadership.
The setting of Jesus' actions is the upper room on the night he was betrayed. John introduces the scene with Jesus' reflection upon going to the cross. With a deliberate echo of the words of the Prologue (“he came unto his own, but his own received him not - but to all who did receive him, who believed on his name, he gave power to become children of God”), Jesus prepares to return to his Father, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). Thus the immediate context is the death of Jesus and the application of that death to his disciples.
Secondly, John reminds his readers that Judas Iscariot is about to betray Jesus (13:2). Judas, as well shall see, will not benefit from the death of Jesus, yet Jesus still deigns to wash his feet.
Thirdly, John portrays Jesus as knowing that the Father has placed all things in his hands (13:3). In other words, with the knowledge of the authority that has been given to Jesus, he now performs the menial act of washing feet.
To the surprise of his disciples Jesus gets up during the meal, removes his outer clothes and begins to wash their feet. This brings a verbal display of protest from Peter, who declares that Jesus will never wash his feet! Yet Jesus gently rebukes Peter, saying, that unless he washed his feet, Peter would have no part in Jesus. Here the emphasis upon the love of Jesus for “his own” is uppermost.
But that was too much for Peter, for he did not want to risk losing his “part in Jesus”. So he boldly invites Jesus to wash him head to toe! Yet that was unnecessary. Why?-because Peter was already clean: “he who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is completely clean” (13:10).
We all too readily pass over this significant teaching of Jesus. Being far more accustomed to describing Christians as “sinners”, Jesus describes those who believe in him as “clean”, indeed “completely clean” (13:10). Later that night Jesus explains that the disciples who have believed in him (notably, with the exception of Judas) “are already clean by the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3).
Yet even those who are clean in his sight need to have their feet washed. We still sin, though sin ought not to characterise our lives-while clean all over, we still need our feet washed. It is a sad loss if our corporate confessions never reflect our status as saints, those who are clean in God's sight, but in need of ongoing cleansing.
Of course the footwashing is voluntarily received. Jesus did not wash Peter's feet against his will. One can only surmise what was going through Judas' mind when Jesus drew near to wash his feet. Jesus knew that Judas was not clean, yet he still offers to serve his betrayer with a demonstration of his love, and no doubt a final offer of forgiveness. Here is a model of our attitude to all within the fellowship of disciples.
Yet as the footwashing symbolises cleansing and forgiveness, Jesus is also teaching his disciples that they have an obligation to forgive each other. While Jesus may discern those who are really clean within, we do not have this insight. The footwashing was “an example, that you should do as I have done to you.” We are hypocrites if we who receive Jesus' forgiveness, fail to forgive others; if we who have been loved by Jesus, fail to love others. They too are clean, by God's grace. This is Jesus' new commandment: “love one another, as I have loved you” (13:34; Eph 4:32).
This episode in John's Gospel has special application for ministers of the word. We must wash the feet of the saints, not discriminating among those whom we might think not worthy of the honour. We must serve each one equally.
How do you wash feet? To answer that question is to ask, how do I truly express my love and forgiveness to my fellow Christians? “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13:17).
Glenn Davies is the Chairman of EFAC Australia, Bishop of North Sydney and Canon Theologian of Ballarat
Reflections on John 13:1-17