“Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” – John 13:3-5
Christ knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God.” It was in the full knowledge of His divinity and of His possession of all power that He stooped to take the towel, the water and the basin and began to wash the disciples feet. The setting is such that we cannot fail to get from the wording the plain intent of the writer, that in this act Christ went the entire distance in humble service. He became a servant indeed. He “came not to be ministered unto, but to minster, and to give his life a ransom for many.” – Matt 20:28
A few days previous to this, Jesus had made His triumphant entry into Jerusalem. The people had hailed Him as the coming King. “A very great multitude spread their garments in the way; others cut down branches from the trees, and strawed them in the way. And the multitudes that went before and that followed, cried saying, Hosanna to the Son of David. Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord; Hosanna in the highest. And when he was come into Jerusalem, all the city was moved, saying, Who is this? And the multitude said, This is Jesus the prophet of Nazareth of Galilee.” – Matt 21:8-11
Following this He had cleansed the Temple and had done “wonderful things,” and even the children were “crying in the temple and saying, Hosanna to the Son of David.” —Matt 21:15. Never before had Jesus permitted Himself to be adored. Now He accepted their homage without question, even defending it when the chief priests and the scribes wanted Him to halt the demonstration. (Matt 21:16,17)
The disciples were much encouraged by Jesus' attitude. For a long time they had wanted the Master to declare Himself. They had known that He was the Teacher sent from God and now they were persuaded that He was the Messiah. They were waiting for Him to establish the kingdom of which He had spoken much; but He was strangely hesitant. Now however, it seemed that the time had come. He had entered Jerusalem as a king. He had received the acclamation of the people, He had cleansed the Temple, and now He had called a meeting at which only the twelve were to be present. Not even a servant was at hand. Surely some important communication would be forthcoming. Each sought the highest place at the table and expectantly awaited developments.
But Jesus made no move. He seemed to be waiting for something. The expectancy became painful. It dawned on the disciples that Jesus was waiting for the customary service of cleanliness, the washing of the feet. But there was no servant present. Who was to do it? Each was very sure that he would not do it. This was no time to make a servant of oneself when so great issues were at stake. The kingdom was doubtless to be established. They were all looking for the highest place, not for that of a servant. James and John had been trying to take advantage of the rest by getting their mother to help them. She had come and asked for the two highest places in the kingdom for her sons, “one of the right hand and the other on the left, in thy kingdom.” –Matt 20:21. At this, “when the ten heard it, they were moved with indignation against the two brethren.” –v:24. The disciples were going to make sure the no such unjust advantage was taken from them again and they had no idea of taking a servants place. Least of all Judas. He had managed to get the place nearest Jesus at the table; John was on the other side.
Jesus waited as long as He could. Then He rose from the table, laid aside His garments, took a towel, poured water into a basin, and began to wash the feet of the disciples. They were filled with astonishment, and could hardly believe their eyes. Surely the Master did not know what He was doing. It was so preposterous that there must be some mistake about it. They had not imagined that the problem would be solved in this way. They had doubtless thought that in the absence of a servant, Jesus would designate one of them to take the servant's place; and each could think of one or more of the others who would be much benefited by being made to serve the rest.
Their astonishment at Jesus' performance was so genuine that for a time they were speechless. Even Peter had nothing to say until it came his turn to be served by the Master. As Jesus knelt at the feet of Peter preparing to wash the disciple's feet, Peter could stand it no longer. In perplexity he exclaims “Dost thou wash my feet?” It seemed so unbelievable and unreal that Peter could hardly believe his own eyes. “Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.”–John 13:6,7. Peter by this time had recovered himself, saw the incongruity of the situation and exclaimed, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.”–v:8. To this Jesus quietly answered, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.”
These words are full of meaning. “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” No part with Jesus? No, unless I wash thee, thou has no part with Me. No part? What does that mean? Jesus was about to institute the Lord's supper. In a little while He would give them the bread and the wine, His body and blood. But “if I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me,” No part in the supper? No part the kingdom? No, no part with Me. If it were only the ordinary washing the feet, Peter would have known exactly what Jesus was doing. But Jesus had something else in mind. “I am doing something that you do not now understand,” Jesus had said, “but later you will understand.” What might this be?
A Higher Cleansing
There can be no doubt that Jesus was here speaking of a cleansing higher than that of washing of the feet. Else why would He state that the disciples did not understand what He was doing? Why would He state that unless He did this for Peter he would have not part with Him? But if we believe that Jesus used this service as symbolic of a higher cleansing, all is clear. And we do believe that this was the intent of the incident.
The disciples were full of jealousy and dissension when they came into the chamber. How could Jesus make them see their condition? The service He did for them accomplished this work. When they saw Jesus washing their feet, they were filled with shame. Each knew that he ought to do what Jesus was doing. Each knew that he did not love his brethren as he should. When they saw Jesus take the place of a servant, their pride was humbled, and they were ready to take any place which He assigned them. As Jesus knelt before them and washed their feet, He at the same time washed from their hearts all the evil jealousy and envy which had possessed them.
When at last it dawned upon Peter what Jesus was doing, he exclaimed, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” The words of Jesus that Peter could have no part with the Lord “if I wash thee not,” had sunk into his conscience. If Jesus' service was that important, why not include the hands and the head? To this Jesus answered, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean but not all.” –v:10. It is clear from these words that Jesus had spiritual cleansing in mind, for they were now all clean except Judas. “For he knew who would betray him; therefore said he. Ye are not all clean.” –v:11. Judas' sin was not bodily uncleanness, it was the state of his heart. It is to this kind of uncleanness that Jesus refers.
As baptism is a bath, and symbolic of spiritual regeneration and cleansing, so the service which Jesus performed for the disciples in this ordinance of humility had spiritual significance. Both were symbolic of cleansing, “not the putting away of the filth of the flesh, but the answer of a good conscience toward God.” – 1 Peter 3:21
If Ye Know These Things
After Jesus had finished washing the feet of the disciples, He took His garments, and sat down, and said to them: “Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you. Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater then he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” – John 13:12-17
There can be no disputing that the words, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet,” are definite. “Ye also ought.” Ought is a strong word. The statement is not “Ye must,” but “Ye ought.” It is left for the conscience to decide. But if a Christian should ask Christ, “Must I wash my brother's feet?” Christ would answer, “You ought to do it,' the Christian will naturally take the position that what Christ thinks he ought to do, he will do.
If any think that such a service is too humiliating, Christ wants us to know that “the servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.” – John 13:16. And so far from this being a sorrowful, depressing ordinance, “if ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” –v:17. Taking all these statements into consideration, we incline to the belief that the example Christ has given was meant to be binding on Christians, and that this ordinance is really a preparatory one for what is generally termed the Lord's supper.
While we are thinking of the outward form of the ordinance, we must not forget that he who kneels before a brother to wash his feet as a church ordinance, and does not consider this pledge of his willingness to do other lowly service for his brother, fails to get the lesson which Christ wishes to teach. Whoever takes part in the service thereby solemnly covenants with God that he will be willing to consider others better than himself. If the ordinance is done only for show, it ceases to be an ordinance and becomes sacrilegious. God looks at the heart.
The Lord's Supper
Jesus instituted the Lord's supper immediately after the events as before mentioned in John 13. “When the hour was come, he sat down, and the twelve apostles with him. And he said unto them, With desire I have desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer: for I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof, until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God. And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and said, Take this, and divide it among yourselves for I say unto you, I will not drink of the fruit of the vine, until the kingdom of God shall come. And he took bread and gave thanks, and brake it and gave unto them saying, This is my body which is given for you: this do in remembrance of me. Likewise also the cup after supper, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood, which is shed for you.” – Luke 22:14-20
Paul records the events this way: “For I have received of the Lord that which also I delivered unto you, That the Lord Jesus the same night in which he was betrayed took bread: And when he had given thanks, he brake it, and said, Take, eat: this is my body, which is broken for you: this do in remembrance of me. After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me. For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do show the Lord's death till he come. Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep. – I Corinthians 11:23-30
The Lord's supper is celebrated by most Christian churches. This is right and according to Christ's command. Christ Himself instituted the ordinance. As we eat the bread and drink the cup, we become partakers of His body and blood, partakers of His suffering, and also of His life.
This Is My Body
There has been much dispute whether the bread is really the body, and the cup really the blood, of the Lord. This seems unnecessary. When Christ took the bread saying, “This is my body,” He was still in the flesh, He still had His body. It is not conceivable that Jesus was would be in the body and also hold His body in His hand. If the bread is literally the body of the Lord, then Christ has two bodies, for He took the bread and held it in His hand at the very time He was still in the body. But such cannot be. Christ standing with the bread in His hand gives it to the disciples and says “This is my body,” Do we therefore need to take the same position as did the Jews when on another occasion they “strove among themselves saying, How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” – John 6:52. The bread and the wine are emblematic of the body and the blood of the Lord. They are symbols. Only a person who adores or worships the emblems instead of the Creator will have any difficulty with the plain meaning of these statements.
We need however, to be careful as we consider these emblems as common bread and wine. They are emblems, they are symbols, and as such are not to be put to common use, but are to be considered worthy of dignified respect. The baptismal water is ordinary water used for a specific purpose. It is not 'holy' water, it is not to be worshipped or adored, neither is it to be contaminated. The wine and bread used in the celebration of the ordinances is dedicated bread and wine. It is symbolic of the broken body and spilled blood of the Lord. It is not to be carelessly handled; even the leftovers are to be carefully disposed of. This however, does not mean that we are to worship the bread and wine. Christ Himself would have been most perplexed had any worshipped the bread which He gave the disciples. Had any at that time claimed that it was His real body, He would have wondered how they believe such when He stood right before them.
There is life and light in the ordinances as the Lord instituted them. Also as stated before, there is danger in their misuse. Of this Paul says, “Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord's body. For this cause many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep.” – I Corinthians 11:27-30
These are serious words. It is no light matter to eat and drink damnation to oneself. There are some Christians who absent themselves from the ordinances of the Lord's house. This should not be done. These ordinances are meant to be a blessing and no Christian can afford to neglect them. Yet, according to these words, caution should be exercised. No one must eat or drink unworthily. For this reason, “let a man examine himself.”
The New Covenant
To take the bread, to eat it, is a most solemn commitment. It is the new covenant. As a person takes the bread, the broken body of the Lord, they enter into a solemn covenant with God that they will follow the Lamb whithersoever He goeth, be it Gethsemane or Golgotha; that if need be they are wiling to have their body broken as was Christ's. As they eat the bread it becomes a part of their body, or rather, as they eat the bread they become a partaker of the Lord's body. The bread, the Lord's body, becomes identified with their own body. But the Lord's body is the broken body, “broken for you.” Symbolically, the bread becomes, “Christ in you the hope of glory,” Christ and the believer are one.
But this is not all. The ordinances embrace the cup as well as the bread. No one can ever fulfil the terms of the covenant in their own strength. For this reason the Lord has given us the cup, which is also a part of the new covenant. As the life is in the blood, so the life of the Redeemer is symbolically in the cup. “This cup is the new testament of my blood.” That life, that cup, the Christian takes. By the life that is in the blood, even the life of Christ, the believer enters into covenant with God. Not in his own strength but in the strength of the blood of the new covenant which he received in the cup, does he enter into covenant relation with God. Any Lord's supper at which the participant does not partake of both emblems, is faulty. The cup as well as the bread must be used. Only in the strength of both can the covenant be carried out.
As we take the bread, the broken body of the Lord, do we really accept that body with all that is implied in its acceptance? Are we willing to follow the Lord? Are we willing to become blood brothers of the Lord, partakers of His sufferings as well as of His glory? Are we willing to stoop to help the lowest; are we willing, as He was, to humble ourselves and become obedient, even unto death? Are we willing to kneel before our brethren and do for them the lowest service? Are we willing to take any place, however humble it may be, and thus follow the Master? Are we willing to do what Jesus did – to take the towel and the basin? Nothing is more symbolic of service, of ministry, of humility, than to take up the towel. Are we ready to go with Him all the way? If so, let us show it by our works. Christ took the towel, He stooped before the brethren, even before Peter, and John and Judas. Are we willing to follow? If we are, there can never be in our hearts any strife for the highest place. If we in humility do what Christ taught us as an example, He will say to us as He did the disciples, “ye are clean.” With his assurance we can partake of the bread, we can drink of the cup. Thus we can enter into covenant relation with Christ, we can have the assurance of sins forgiven, of cleansing. Thus the ordinances of the Lord's house will take on new significance and glory, we shall in a more intimate way follow the Master, and we shall have the blessed assurance of His divine presence in our lives.
There are greater blessings for us in the celebration of the ordinances of the Lord's house than we have yet experienced. What more or higher joy can mortal man conceive than to be invited to the table of the Lord, to sit at meat with Him? Of the cup Jesus says, “But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.” –Matthew 26:29. For that day the church is longing. For that day Jesus is longing. The church can only pray that the day may not be long delayed. “Blessed are those servants, whom the lord when he cometh shall find watching: verily I say unto you, that he shall gird himself, and make them to sit down to meat, and will come forth and serve them.” – Luke 12:37
Based on The Faith of Jesus, p. 481-491 by M L Andreason