It is not exaggeration to say that the Lord Jesus did many surprising things in His ministry here on earth. I am not referring to the supernatural signs, that had undoubtedly testified of His divine origin, nor the words and concepts that He pronounced, demonstrating abundantly His deep wisdom, disclosing to us the Father and penetrating into our thoughts to correct false concepts and to point out the perfect justice and righteousness: He also spoke and acted in an unusual way, not obeying the religious customs and social habits of the time when he lived here.
He scandalized the members of the synagogue of His own country with His teachings (Matthew 13:57), the scribes and Pharisees by telling them that they taught doctrines that were commandments of men (Matthew 15:7 - 12), and even His disciples when saying “…My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed… he who feeds on Me will live because of Me…” (John 6:53 - 61). He was even reprimanded by one of them, Peter, for admitting that he would die and rise again on the third day.
As rabbi (master), he allowed His disciples to eat without first going through the ceremony of washing their hands, had a dialog with a Samaritan woman when His disciples went to buy food, He ordered them to bring children to Him so that He might put His hands over them and bless them, he cared for and healed the sick on the Sabbaths, and many other “eccentricities” in a society that was used to narrow and rigorous ethics.
But the thing that perhaps may have shocked his disciples most, causing Peter to again protest vehemently, was when He put aside His honour and dignity of a rabbi and host of the important paschal meal, and took off His outer clothing and tied a towel round his waist in order to wash their feet.
A man could be a servant of another because of misfortunes in life which compelled him to this; he could also be a voluntary slave who, having the option of being set free, decided to remain with His master forever (Exodus 21); but the occasions would be extremely rare or even unknown where a master made himself a servant of His disciples, washing their feet.
According to the etiquette of their society, to wash the feet of the guests was the task of the vilest of the servants. Nor would the thought go through the mind of a disciple even to wash the feet of his master. But now their own beloved Master was ready to wash their feet.
This gesture is even more significant when we take into account that He knew that the Father had given all things in His hands, that He had come from God, and that He was going to God (John 13:3), something His disciples could not yet understand. This is said so we may perceive the full extension of what He was about to do.
Our Saviour had already divested Himself of His heavenly glory to assume the place of a Servant and to execute the divine plan for our redemption giving His life on the cross. The hour was now near for this to be fulfilled. This was the last Passover, where a lamb without spot was sacrificed and eaten, type of His own person.
What He did in front of His astounded disciples was little in relation to having previously left the heavenly home, but it visibly illustrated to them His great humiliation, a lesson which they would never forget.
He was not introducing a ritual, or a “sacrament” to be pompously carried out once a year by clergymen of high position. Many people consider it to be only a lesson about humility to teach that we must serve one another, but this His disciples could easily understand; however, when Peter protested, He said that what He was doing Peter didn’t know now but would understand later. The lesson that He gave is much deeper than this.
He said to Peter “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me”, that is, to have communion with the Lord Jesus it was necessary for Him to wash the feet of Peter (and of His other disciples). The Lord was ready to wash, but it was necessary for His disciples to be willing to allow Him to do it. It was evidently an illustration of a spiritual reality which becomes clearer with the reply He gave Peter when he proposed that He also washed his face and hands: “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean…”
To understand still better this phrase we must know that this verb “to wash” is the translation of two different verbs in the Greek original: louo and nipto. 0 verb louo translates better as “bathing” and nipto “to wash”. In those days it was the custom to go to public baths to bathe and when returning home, in sandals, the feet were dirty and needed to be washed.
The Lord is teaching when we convert from our sins, believe in His Word and receive Him as our Lord and Saviour to become His disciples, we are cleansed from sin like a bath cleans our body: this is regeneration, the new birth. “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin. ” (1 John 1:6 - 7). We walk in the light by means of obeying His word “Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for her, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water by the word…” (Ephesians 5:25,26).
However, even in our walk in the light, our feet in this world are made dirty along the way: it is almost impossible to walk without contaminating them at least a little bit, and the Lord Jesus is telling His disciples that we cannot have communion with Him if do not allow Him to wash them. Nobody but He can do this, and in spite of the sublime position He occupies, He is disposed to wash the feet of each one of us.
But, like Peter, sometimes we feel that we do not need to appeal to Him: somebody once said that one of the most difficult things in this world is to make a saint admit that he is a sinner … coldness, indifference, lack of love (in deed, not only word), arrogance, pride, are forms of sin, as many other attitudes resulting from our contact with the world where they predominate. It is necessary for us to admit, or to confess, our sins in order that our spiritual feet may be washed.
To confess means to agree with God that we are at fault: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). If He does not wash our feet, day by day, we will lose our communion with Him. We have our salvation, which will never be taken away from us, but will stop enjoying His presence in our life, and will lose the joy of serving Him.
But the gesture of the Lord Jesus is also an example for us: “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you '" - it is not a question of repeating the illustration, but of bending ourselves to serve one another: “Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted. Bear one another's burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. For if anyone thinks himself to be something, when he is nothing, he deceives himself.” (Galatians 6:1 - 3). When a brother in Christ dirties his feet, falling into sin, he must be brought back into communion by he who considers himself spiritual. To hit him and to criticize him are not to wash his feet. He must be dealt with gently.
LET US ALLOW CHRIST TO WASH OUR FEET, AND LET US ALSO WASH THOSE OF OUR BRETHREN!