John 13:1 Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.
Jesus’ popularity rose dramatically after he raised Lazarus from the dead. When he entered Jerusalem multitudes shouted, Blessed is the king of Israel! (John 12:13). This was precisely what the disciples had in mind. Jesus would be king, and they would be his team.
They were so convinced this was about to happen, in fact, that they began to quarrel which of them was considered to be greatest (Luke 22:24). Would Peter and Andrew have rank over James and John? Or would James and John have rank over everyone else? What they did not understand (although Jesus told them often) was that their king would soon be crucified. The meal they were about to enjoy would be their last before his death.
Jesus was concerned about his disciples quarreling, so he gave them a profound lesson on humility. [H]e got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around 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 around him (John 13:4-5).
There is not a single example in ancient Greek, Roman or Jewish literature of a master washing his servant’s feet. The task was so menial that, in Jewish homes, it was not required of Jewish servants—only Gentile servants. It was also the opposite of the disciples’ ambition for power, position and prestige.
Since Jesus knew that he had come from God and was returning to God (John 13:3), his sense of identity was so secure that he could do slave-work without concern for what anyone thought. And because he has made us children of God (1 John 3:1), we are secure as well. We don’t have to pull others down to get to the top. We are already on top, and are glad to help others up. We do this by serving them.
John 13:6-7 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, Lord, are you going to wash my feet? Jesus replied, You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.
Peter was deeply bothered. For the Messiah to wash his feet seemed absolutely wrong to him. So Jesus assured Peter that, even though he didn’t understand it at the time, he would understand in the future. You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.
I was walking around the neighborhood, years ago, when I overheard a lady on her phone. She was about thirty years old, and was sitting on her front porch, with two beautiful children playing nearby. Everything looked wonderful, but then I heard her say, I don’t understand. Then she raised her voice and said it again. I don’t understand. Then she began to sob and said, I don’t understand.
My heart went out to her because life can be confusing when it does not go the way we think it should. That’s when we should remember Jesus’ words to Peter: You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.
John 13:8-9 No, said Peter, you shall never wash my feet. Jesus answered, Unless I wash you, you have no part with me. Then, Lord, Simon Peter replied, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!
Peter’s response is a strange combination of humility and pride. He was so humble that he could not bear to have Jesus wash his feet. But he was so proud that he thought he had a better idea than Jesus–not just my feet but my hands and my head as well! No one ever had to wonder what Peter was thinking.
John 13:10 Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean.
If you were going to a party, back then, you would probably take a bath before you left home. But as you walked the dusty roads, your feet would get dirty. When you arrived at the party, you would not need another bath; you would just need to have your feet washed.
Coming to Jesus is like taking a bath, symbolized by baptism. Get up, be baptized and wash your sins away (Acts 22:16), said Ananias. If you were baptized in the Jordan River, you could imagine all your sins being washed downstream into the Dead Sea. You were absolutely clean, and never had to be re-baptized. Nevertheless, the moment your feet hit the shore, they would be dirty again. They would need to be washed, not for salvation, but for continued fellowship with Jesus Christ.
An ancient theologian prayed these words: Jesus, my feet are dirty. Come even as a slave to me. Pour water in your bowl, come and wash my feet. In asking such a thing I know I am overbold. But I dread what was threatened when you said: If I do not wash your feet you have no fellowship with me. Wash my feet then, because I long for your companionship (Origen).
Foot-washing is not an ordinance (like baptism or the Lord’s Supper) but is an illustration of God’s promise to forgive and restore us throughout our Christian life. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:9), wrote John. Jesus still cleans dirty feet.
John 13:21 Very truly I tell you, one of you is going to betray me.
Judas Iscariot did not believe in Jesus Christ exactly like the others did (John 6:64). He believed enough to preach, and even did some miracles (Matthew 10:1). And as long as things were going in his direction, Judas was willing to follow.
But then Jesus started talking about his death. [T]he Son of Man will be delivered over to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him (Mark 10:33-34).
The other disciples did not understand what Jesus was saying, but Judas apparently got the message. He could see that Jesus was determined to die. And if they crucified him, the disciples could be next. Why not seek immunity before it was too late? Why be part of a losing cause if there was still time to survive?
Here we see an important difference between true-believers and make-believers. True believers make mistakes, but have no upper limit. They never say to themselves, I will follow Jesus Christ unless or until it becomes too expensive.
A make-believer will go to church, pray, give, and even become a preacher—but will always have an upper limit. I will follow Jesus unless or until it costs my reputation; unless or until it costs my career; unless or until it costs my family; unless or until it costs my life. When Jesus started talking about the cross, Judas reached his upper limit. It would be better for him if he had not been born (Matthew 26:24), said Jesus.
This is why Jesus preached against the upper limit. Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? (Matthew 16:24-26). Every Judas has an upper limit; but there is no upper limit for those who truly believe in Jesus Christ.
Reflection and Review
Should Christians ever be re-baptized?
How does Jesus wash our feet today?
Have you ever thought about an upper limit?