Jesus Washes His Disciples Feet

A Synopsis of the Sermon of October 11, 2020

John 13:1-17

At Veterans Memorial Chapel

By Ch Jim Odell

This is a synopsis, or quick review, of the sermon for October 11. I am only hitting the highlights of the message, not reproducing the entire sermon.

Our study of the Discourses of Jesus in the Gospel of John make a major change as we arrive in John 13. The next several discourses are given strictly to His disciples, in the “upper room,” far from the ears of either the crowds or His opponents. These are uninterrupted words to His followers.

Some Jewish background is helpful here. It is the night of Passover, the most sacred of the Jewish holy days. The “ceremony” of Passover is observed in homes, by a “family leader” not at the Temple or Synagogue. It includes a major meal, similar to our traditional Thanksgiving feast, only serving lamb not turkey. In this case Jesus and His disciples are in Jerusalem, in the “Upper Room” of a home owned by John Mark’s (author of the Gospel of Mark) mother. The Passover meal has begun, but the ceremonial portion has not yet taken place.

John points out in verse 1, Jesus’ “hour had come.” This word “hour” is used throughout John’s Gospel to point out that Jesus’ hour “had not yet come,” meaning His most important work was yet ahead. Now John points out that Jesus’ hour “had come.” After dinner, He would be arrested, and the next day He would be tried and executed, to pay the penalty for our sins. This was the whole purpose of His coming to earth. His “hour” had come.

Jesus does something at this point that was quite astonishing. He gets up from eating His Passover meal, takes off His outer garment (modern equivalent, shirt), ties a towel around His waist, fills a bason with water, and begins to wash each disciple’s feet.

A little understanding of ancient customs is helpful here. Everyone in the ancient world, from peasant to king, invited guests (friends or family, etc.) to their home for meals, especially on special occasions, like wedding or family events, or business gathering. The “guests” would clean up and bathe before coming to the event. Keep in mind, baths were rare before the invention of indoor plumbing, even in our modern culture. They would wear their best clothes, and arrive before the courses were served. In more wealthy households, and at more formal gatherings, the guests were met at the door by a lower caste servant, often a child, who had a bucket of water and a large towel long enough to tie about his/her waist. His/her purpose was to clean the dust off the guest’s feet before they came into the home. The towels, tied around the servant’s waist kept his hands free to clean the feet, and readily at hand when he was ready to wipe the feet dry. Again, this was a duty assigned to a lowly, if not the most lowly, of servants in the household.

The disciples arrived for the meal, all freshly bathed. No one washed their feet on arrival. After all this was a familiar group and this was not that “formal” an occasion. Jesus waits to do the foot washing till the meal had begun, in order to emphasize the significance of the event. He is telling us that, among His followers there are no “superior” and “inferior” members, all are to serve and be served. Jesus, the “head of the feast,” the “Lord and Teacher,” humbled Himself to the lowest slave, and washes the disciple’s feet!! Being a follower of Christ means serving others, not ourselves. This object lesson makes that point quite clear.

As Jesus makes His rounds to all the disciples, one at a time, He finally come to impetuous Peter. Peter speaks up, “you shall never wash my feet.” Notice how Peter recognized the lowliness of Jesus’ social position, and protested His act. But Jesus’ reply was, “if I do not wash your feet, you have no part with me.” Peter reacts to Jesus’ statement by requesting an entire bath.

Jesus uses this comment to begin a short teaching point. Those who have washed do not need a bath, but do need their feet washed (my paraphrase). He then says, “You are clean, but one of you is not.” [This unclean one is Judas] The cleanness Jesus is speaking of is more than a physical bath. It has to do with moral cleanness. In this world we get dirty. Sin makes us “unclean.” We need a bath (see Titus 3:5). The disciples had all become clean (except Judas) by believing that Jesus was the Christ. Now they were clean. Yet as the “clean” believer moves about the streets of a dirty world, he/she picks up the dust of the sinful world on their feet. There is a need to spiritually “wash their feet” periodically to keep themselves clean from the sin of the world. We call this confession (see 1 John 1:9).

Jesus teaches us two things by this object lesson. First if we are true disciples of Jesus, we need to be humble enough to serve others, and also to be served by others. We are often too proud to allow others to serve us. This is a point we need to keep in mind, in our self-sufficient lives. Likewise, even if the task of serving is lowly and seemingly insignificant, we need to be willing to do so. Secondly, we need to remember to regularly wash the dust of sinfulness off our feet by confession.

As this Passover ceremony progressed, Jesus used this particular “Passover Ceremony” to institute the first ever “Lord’s Supper.” In many Christian traditions, including my own, and based on this “foot washing” event, we take a moment at the Lord’s Supper to confess any sins we need to talk to Christ about, before we take the elements and “remember His Death till He comes” (Luke 22:19). Let us remember to confess our sins to Christ regularly.

CH Jim Odell