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A Sermon on Footwashing (John 13:1-17) January 4, 2009

Posted by roberttalley in Communion, Footwashing, John's Gospel, Religion, Sermons.



In John 13 and 14 we have the most extensive recording in the New Testament of conversations between Jesus and His disciples. During the course of these conversations, the disciples asked Jesus a number of questions, some of which we want to look at during the next few weeks. Before we look at the first question, I would like for us to understand the scene into which we are diving and then understand the significance of foot washing.

Christ proves His enduring love to His disciples although they will soon be separated from one another (John 13:1-3). The focus of this chapter and the four following is the love Jesus had for His disciples. He will both show His love for them and express His love for them. John, however, wants us to know before hand the circumstances out of which His love for these men comes.

His love has no limit of time or circumstances and no intermission (verse 1). “To the end” means more than “’til death do us part.” There is no limit to the love of Christ for His disciples. It began before the world was created and will continue throughout eternity. There is no circumstance that prevents Him from loving us. He loves us to the uttermost. His love is not on/off or up/down. It is constant, consistent, and continuous. Plainly spoken, He loved us all the way to the cross where He showed His love to us in that while we were still sinners against His holiness, He died for us.

His love is purposeful and planned (verses 1-3). Verse 1 tells us that His love was planned for a specific hour or event. Then verse 2 tells that the event was not only planned but the players, from Christ to Satan, from Peter to Judas, from the Jewish hierarchy to the Roman military might, had already been cast and were ready to play their roles. Finally, in verse 3 we find that the main player, Jesus Christ, had been cast by the Great Director, God Himself, and that soon the curtain was going to close on the present act. For that reason, Jesus Christ found it necessary to prove His love to His disciples. Soon He will be backstage and they will be on the stage alone before a hostile audience and they need to know that He, though unseen, is still there. That was the immediate plan and purpose, with which Jesus performed this act of foot washing.

Christ proves His love through servitude (verses 4-8a; see Luke 22:27 which was probably spoken before the washing of the feet). Perhaps it is widely known that the washing of feet was not a normal part of their routine. It was only performed as an act of hospitality for a visiting stranger and was normally performed by a servant or slave. In the past, they were accustomed to visiting a town or city and having their feet washed by the slaves or the servants of the house in which they were staying. Jesus had never washed their feet and it is doubtful that any of them had ever washed each others feet before.

Christ intended to serve each of the Twelve (verses 4-5). Not just the greats like Peter but the tax collector, Matthew; the political zealot, Simon; the prejudiced Nathanael; the courageous Thomas; the sons of Thunder, James and John; the people persons, Andrew and Philip; the insignificant, James the Lesser and the other Judas, and even Judas Iscariot. Jesus intended to wash everyone of their feet in an act of servitude and submission.

Peter did not intend to allow Jesus to serve Him (verses 6 and 8a). Peter was not polished but He knew one thing: kings do not do the work of slaves. Peter probably thought he was better qualified than the other eleven disciples but he knew that Jesus was his superior in every way. He is so taken back that he asks Jesus, “Don’t you know what you are doing!? I refuse to let you wash my feet!”

Christ teaches what He has lived (verses 7-17).

His servitude was fully revealed by His death (verse 7). Jesus is not saying that Peter did not recognize that Jesus was washing feet. Nor was he saying, you do not understand the symbolism of the act. Peter understood full well the symbolism of foot washing. It symbolized slavery, service to superiors in behalf of someone else. That is why Peter objected to having his feet washed by Jesus Christ. What Peter did not understand was that Jesus would soon be performing the ultimate service, the ultimate sacrifice. Jesus would die in order that Peter might be cleansed from his sin.

His servitude establishes a relationship with those He loves (verses 8b-11).

The service that Jesus Christ performs for us includes more than physical hygiene. Jesus cleans us spiritually and when He cleans us spiritually, we have a “part with” Him. In other words, we share His destiny. Now Peter and the other disciples understood this to mean the earthly kingdom and certainly that is also part of their destiny but we are talking about eternity in the presence of God standing before Him in the righteousness of Christ. That is our part with Christ.

Why then, did Peter not need to be washed again? Peter, it appears, still did not fully understand what Jesus was talking about, confusing physical with spiritual cleansing. There is a beautiful implicit lesson in what Jesus says and does. The whole person is washed beforehand. When one is saved through trusting Christ, he is made completely clean but walking in this world, one is exposed to sin which needs to be washed off. It is Christ the servant, who keeps us spiritually cleansed.

His servitude is our example in our relationship to other believers (verses 12-17). When Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, he showed that He was their servant and that they, like Him were to serve one another. The purpose for His servitude was to exhort us to serve one another even as slaves if it so be necessary.

The basis for our servitude is that He is greater than we (verses 12-16). He is the Teacher. We are the disciples, the followers, the learners. He is the Master. We are His servants. He is the one who sends. We are the ones who are sent.

The result of our servitude is blessedness (verse 17). This word “blessed” sometimes means “happy” but usually it means privileged or favored. Jesus is saying that there are special privileges from God for those who serve others. He who serves as a slave his brother is favored of God. Jesus is saying, you know this truth. I have been teaching you repeatedly over the past few weeks that you should serve one another, love one another, put the other before yourself. You know the truth. It is time to make this the mantra for your life. When you live a life of service to others, you will be blessed, you will favor by God above others. You will become great in the kingdom of God. 

Leroy Eims of the Navigators tells about a man who came to Christ and desired to serve Eims. Because he was young and inexperienced in the faith, there were not a lot of opportunities at the Navigators office for this man to serve. Winter was coming though and the man greatly desired to serve in some way. Leroy Eims gave him the task of shoveling the walkway to the office building. The man was very zealous in this service. In fact he was so zealous, Eims quipped, not a snowflake hit the walkway the whole winter long. Eims said that such valuable service could not go unrewarded and they brought him into the office to train for service within the Navigators organization.

Whose feet are you washing? Are you a slave of Christ or do you serve motivated by ego, appreciation, praise, or success? Perhaps you need to wash the filth of selfishness off of your feet and then look around and find someone else whose feet you can wash.

ADDENDUM: (Burnout is a great danger in Christian service. One of the main reasons we burn out is because we are not being blessed in our service. We feel unappreciated, unrewarded, unfulfilled. When we realize that our appreciation and reward and fulfillment is heavenly and not earthly, it is then that we will be able to combat the very real danger of burnout. We serve as slaves because our Master served as a slave. We are not greater than He. When, however, we serve as He serves, we will be blessed, we will be privileged, we will be rewarded, we will be great in the kingdom of heaven.)