If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.John 13:8
It was the last hours of our Lord’s ministry. Within twenty-four hours He would be in the tomb. It was His final discourse to His disciples before His death, which was His highest self-revelation in speech, even as the Cross is His most perfect revelation in act. John thirteen to seventeen has been well called the Holy of Holies of the New Testament.
But, alas, the disciples were in no condition to receive our Lord’s message. An unhealthy heart prevailed among them, unfitting them to listen to what the Lord had to say to them that last evening. “There had arisen among them a contention, which of them is accounted the greatest” (Luke 22:24), beginning, perhaps, by discussing the prospects of the Master’s kingdom, and ending by personal allusions, and even the direct pitting of man against man. So, heated and angry, and full of resentment, these men silently and sullenly assembled into the supper-room, and laid themselves down on their couches.
It was a necessity in these Eastern lands to bathe the feet after a journey, because of the open sandals which were worn, and for this purpose water and a basin were provided in the supper-room. But for any one of them to wash the feet of the other was to become the servant of all; and that was precisely what each one was resolved, that he for his part, would not do. And not one of them had the disposition to see the ridiculous situation which this created. Nor was one of them sensitive enough to be ashamed at showing such a temper in the presence of their Master.
How was the Lord to bring them into a state of mind in which they could listen wholly and devotedly to Him? How was He to quench their heated passions and stir within them humility and love? In their present frame of mind they could not listen to the Lord, for it was only when their hearts were right with God, and with their fellow men, that they could receive the message of God. Yea, it is only when the heart is right with God that the mind is at its best posture. So our Lord had a problem on His hands, but He was equal to it, as He always is.
“He riseth from supper.” He took the initiative. He made the first move, and took the place of the slave in their midst. He took a towel and girded Himself, and poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.
What a scene, as He moves from couch to couch, taking the soiled feet of His disciples into His blessed hands, and pouring water over them. Words could not describe it. Surely burning shame overcame those disciples, in that supper-room, as they put their feet over their couches to have their Lord do what they were determined, in their carnal pride, not to do.
The apostle John, reflecting on this night, tells us of the mood of Jesus as He performed this lowly act. He might have been wholly absorbed in His own affairs at this particular time. The heavy shadow of the Cross was bearing down on Him, and the weight of the sins of the whole world was about to be laid upon Him. He could have been legitimately excused from thinking of any one else but Himself. But “having love His own He loved them unto the end.” He was departing from this world, and His disciples were remaining in it, to be exposed to all its bitter opposition, and they were destined to bear the brunt of hostility directed toward Him.
How, then, could He strengthen them?
The very fact that they showed themselves still so jealous and childish, so unfit to cope with the world, drew out His affection towards them.
John tells us that our Lord was conscious of His own dignity as He washed the feet of the disciples. “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He was come from God, and went to God.” It would have been no great condescension for a fisherman to wash a fisherman’s feet, but for our Lord, in Whose hands are all things, to condescend thus is of unequalled meaning. Only He Whose consciousness was Divine, could perform this great act of humility.
There is still another circumstance which seemed to accentuate the grace of the foot washing. Judas was now among the guests, and the idea of selling Jesus to His enemies had by this time formed itself in his mind. But to him our Lord made no difference.
We find Jesus at the feet of the traitor, washing them, and drying them with the towel. What a picture of impartiality! What a lesson for us! This is the wisdom that is from above, which is “First pure, then peaceable, gentle, and easy to be entreated, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality, and without hypocrisy” (James 3:17). Jesus knew Judas. He knew him to be a low type but He unmasked him not to the disciples. He treated him like the rest.
Shame and astonishment shut the mouths of the disciples as Jesus went from couch to couch, until He came to Peter. Peter broke the dead silence of the humiliating scene. His first impulse was good. Said he: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” Very willingly now would Peter have taken the basin and towel, and washed his Master’s feet. This was to Peter’s credit. But Jesus tenderly assured him saying: “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.”
“Hereafter” refers to after the Cross, after the resurrection, after the ascension of our Lord, and the coming of the Holy Spirit to teach him all things. This word should have satisfied Peter. But he made a second and hasty speech: “In no wise shalt Thou wash my feet for ever” (Greek text). Jesus answered him with a swift rebuke: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with Me.” This was a solemn warning, not only for Peter, but also for all who refuse, or have never apprehended their need of the Lord’s gracious provision for them. It is a question not so much of life, as of fellowship, of a part with Christ, rather than in Him. That this word “part” has reference to fellowship is clear from our Lord’s words concerning Martha’s sister: “Mary hath chosen that good part, and it shall not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:42). And again Paul’s admonition to the Corinthians: “What concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel?” (2 Corinthians 6:15).
Alarmed by the Lord’s warning, Peter instantly goes to the opposite extreme: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” Now, Peter cannot have too much. He seeks to be bathed all over. Jesus throws a new light upon His action in His reply: “He that is bathed, needeth no save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean but not all.”
There is a double washing for the believer: the one of his entire person, the other of his feet. The former is once for all; the latter needs repeating daily. The first takes place at new birth. Of this we read: “Know ye not, that the unrighteous shall not inherit the kingdom of God? Be not deceived: neither fornicators … nor thieves, nor covetous … And such were some of you: but ye are washed, but ye are sanctified, but ye are justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:9-11). This washing needs no repeating. “For by one offering, He hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified” (Hebrews 10:14). The new birth holds and is never renewed, because it abides true and good. The efficacy of the first act of faith in Christ abides and is not invalidated by after infirmities.
But the failure of him who is born again comes under Christ’s love and advocacy. This is the daily washing, concerning which we read: “Christ loved the Church, and gave Himself for it; that He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the Word” (Ephesians 5:25-26). This same distinction between the bathing and the daily washing was plainly indicated in the Old Testament. When Aaron and his sons were consecrated they were bathed all over (Exodus 29:4; Leviticus 8:6), but at the laver it was only their hands and feet which were daily cleansed (Exodus 30:18-21). Without this daily cleansing the child of God can have no fellowship with Christ.
That Christ had something more in view than the bodily cleansing and comfort of his disciples is also clear from the remark He made that they were not all clean. All had enjoyed the foot washing, but all were not clean. Said He: “Ye are clean, but not all.” He referred to Judas. He was not a believer in Christ. Jesus discriminated between Peter and Judas. Peter was a believer, but Judas had no root of grace in him.
Our Lord did not mistake present defilement for habitual impurity in Judas. The rest of the apostles were for the present in a passing mood which disturbed their friendship with Christ. They were defiled and needed cleansing. Jesus could very well have eaten with men unwashed, but He could not eat with men hating one another, full of malice and the spirit of bitterness. He knew that at the bottom their hearts were right with Him, and that with one exception, they loved Him. The water He used on their feet was symbolic of His Word. The whole act of foot washing was symbolical of our Lord’s present work on behalf of His own. During His last words to His own, Jesus said: “Now ye are clean through the Word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3).
This is moral cleansing. The practical purification of the heart and ways that defiles and hinders our communion with God is by water, that is by the Word, applied to us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
It is most important to note that we cannot wash our own feet. We are as totally incompetent for this work as we are for the saving of our souls. Only He Who saves us can cleanse us. Our Lord said: “If I wash thee not, thou has not part with Me.” Nor has the Word, apart from the living presence of Christ, any efficacy. As we come to the Word we must examine our motives, our ways, and our walk in the light of His holy presence. In other words, “our feet must be in His hands,” if He is to wash them. We need to get alone each day, opening our hearts to the light of God’s Word. This is an imperative requirement, while we journey through this defiling world, if we are to have fellowship with Christ. He waits to do this service for us. He has given us His Word for this purpose. To neglect His Word is to decline His service in washing our feet, and to do this is to say with Peter: “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” Our Lord was not content to let His action speak for itself. He expressly explains the meaning of what He had done. Said He: “Ye ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Foot washing is not a worldly institution. It is a work of faith and labor of love. If grace is needed to bear the washing, a far larger measure must be in action to wash the feet. If we would emulate our Lord in this way, we must be, as He was when He washed His disciples’ feet.
We must live in full consciousness of our high calling in Christ Jesus, walking worthily of the vocation wherewith we were called, even as our Lord was fully conscious of His dignity when He performed this great act of humility. On this occasion Jesus washed even the traitor’s feet, even so we must show no partiality to any one. We must be wholly governed by love. Jesus was girded with a linen towel, the symbol of a slave. Likewise, if we would do this delicate work, we must be clothed with humility. “If a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted” (Galatians 6:1). We have to get down to wash our brother’s feet. There must be no self-superiority if we are to restore one who is out of the way.
We need not go far to find feet that are soiled and bruised by the hard ways that have been trodden. To wipe off some of the soil from men’s lives–to make them more ready to listen to Christ, is a work which brings its own and immediate reward: “For if ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”
— James R. King Sr. (1905-1977) served as the pastor of the Northshore Baptist Church in Bayside, Long Island, New York for 38 years. The previous article was reproduced from the November-December 2002 issue of Foundation magazine.