One of the most compelling narratives in Scripture is the retelling of the last supper. A lasting image has been the picture of Jesus, the Son of God, washing his disciples feet. Let’s take a closer look at where John introduces this act, Jesus’ final instructions, and his prayer for the Apostles, starting in John 13:1-5:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself.
Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (John 13:1-5)
Notice the timing. Jesus did not wash their feet before the meal. It is written that He “got up from supper”. They were already reclining. Most likely their feet were already clean, after all, they were in the midst of their meal. Take a look:
(Jesus) got up from supper, and laid aside His garments … (John 13:4a)
In the past I taught that this was a great demonstration of love (because that is what the Scriptures teach). Yet, what I really thought was this: the virtue most clearly exhibited was humility. How was Jesus washing their feet an incredible demonstration of love? Take a look at this lineup of the demonstrations of the love of Jesus.
The incarnation… incredible love!
The cross… incredible love!
Washing feet… incredible love. … Really? Yes.
If Jesus didn’t wash their feet to prepare them for the Seder, then what provoked this? Why this abrupt change? Why did Jesus get up from the supper? Something more foul than the stench of dirty feet pervaded that room. The seeds of the Apostolic community’s destruction had germinated and needed to be uprooted.
Dining with the Devil
During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him (John 13:2)
The devil had left an imprint in the heart of Judas Iscariot. The word “devil” translates “diabolos.” Properly, the word means “slanderer.” That spirit was actively at work.
The Synoptic Gospels report Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness. John’s Gospel does not. The matters addressed in the Temptation are settled in John. He wrote that Jesus knew His origin, authority, direction, destiny and the timing of that destiny’s fulfillment (John 13:1a,3). Yet present at the Seder was a heart conformed to the Slanderer’s corrupt perspective. The meal’s ambiance was tainted with a satanic attitude.
Certainly the Messiah was aware of Judas’ heart and the power of such satanic influence. Earlier that week Judas’ “compassionate” complaints were contagious.
Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. (Matthew 26:6-7)
But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (he who was about to betray him), said, “Why was this ointment not sold for three hundred denarii and given to the poor?” (John 12:4-5)
And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” (Matthew 26:8-9)
Judas’ polluted heart (John 12:6) produced an atmosphere of diabolic challenge and temptation. In the wilderness Satan tempted Jesus: “Who are you? What are you? Prove it. Worship me, Your reign can begin right now!” This attitude was present at the table.
The Messiah was aware of Judas’ identity from the beginning:
Jesus answered them, “Did I Myself not choose you, the twelve, and yet one of you is a devil?” Now He meant Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the twelve, was going to betray Him. (John 6:70-71)
There, partaking of the covenant meal, about to have his feet washed(!), was the malevolent slanderer. He played innocent (John 13:21-22), but his calculating enmity and hate-filled hypocrisy could not be concealed. Jesus knew Judas and the traitor’s true intentions.
Judas’ presence was not the only problem at this banquet. One thing John charitably omitted was what may have been the immediate background to the Messiah washing their feet: the ludicrous argument mentioned in Luke’s Gospel. It happened right after Jesus instituted what is known as “the Lord’s Table”.
[Jesus said,] “But behold, the hand of the one betraying Me is with Mine on the table. For indeed, the Son of Man is going as it has been determined; but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!”
And they began to discuss among themselves which one of them it might be who was going to do this thing. And there arose also a dispute among them as to which one of them was regarded to be greatest.
And He said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who have authority over them are called ‘Benefactors.’ But it is not this way with you, but the one who is the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the servant. “For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at the table?
But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:21-27)
Perhaps it was then that (Jesus) got up from supper, and laid aside His garments (John 13:4a).
Why did Jesus demonstrate humility?
In the light of Luke’s report it is evident that the apostolic community had no small difficulty with pride, position seeking and the resultant mutual animosity. They argued with one another about who was most important. That was extremely bad behavior. It was also ironic; they were some of the most important people who ever lived. They had an extraordinary destiny and they needed one another to fulfill their calling.
Why did Jesus wash their feet?
The Messiah was guarding their destiny. He was preserving them as a community. He loved them as individuals, and He loved them corporately, as a body. He loved their present. He loved their future. He loved what they were and what they were about to become. He loved them as the nucleus of mission, as preservers of the Word of the Kingdom and as the earthly nexus of Heaven’s activity amongst Israel and the nations.
He loved them enough to call them to be the foundational people of the Messianic Community. Their relationships would become the pattern for the Church throughout the ages – and they were being derailed! It was as if all their training was for nothing. Jesus had discerned Judas as he schemed. With dismay He watched the disciples argue. Things were going downhill fast. Would His purposes for them be defeated? He would not give up on them; He loved them “to the end”. What was He to do? I can imagine His grieved heart calling out to Father for wisdom.
Then, in a moment of prophetic insight, Jesus “got up from supper” and through the most humiliating, least skilled, “taken for granted” labor, he changed the dynamic of the meal. This was direct divine intervention. It was a shocking prophetic act that would help form them forever. He did not love them by washing dusty feet. The Lord loved them through washing their feet, preserving God’s purposes for their lives.
When one reads John 13-17 one is struck by the reality Jesus saw. He had His eyes on the disciples’ future life together. They were to be the dwelling place of the Spirit and were about to confront the spiritually enhanced wrath of the satanic world system. How could they stand if they were motivated by the “boastful pride of life” (1 John 2:16b)?
They were called, like Jesus, to be the dwelling place of the Spirit. What type of community might sustain the active and abiding Presence of Holiness? Only a group thus branded. They would remember what Jesus did for the rest of their lives. It became the pattern of their relationships.
Also, they would model it. They would disciple others. They would walk in the fullness of who they were, but would lay aside their dignity to preserve the Messianic community. The Apostles would lay down their lives, not because they highly valued humility, but because of the great love with which they loved one another.
The Messiah did not want the community He was forming to fall apart. He could not sit by and allow these men to be disqualified because of their pride and position seeking. He “got up” and intervened. When He washed their feet Jesus loved them by giving them a foundation for their future relationships.
Jesus Demonstrated Humility Because He Loved Them
Through washing their feet, Jesus brought the crucifixion into every day interaction. He demonstrated a fundamental motive of true leadership: sincere love for the Body and the individuals who comprise it.
The Apostles were faced with a choice and didn’t know it. Would they be like Judas or Jesus? Would they be fixated on self-interest (maneuvering for status, authority, hierarchy, worldly advantage), or would they be discipled by the Messiah? By washing their feet here’s what I hear Jesus saying to these men:
“I love you so much and want the best for you. I don’t want rancor, selfish ambition, position seeking, cynicism or bitterness in your corporate life. That will destroy you. It is best for you if you love one another so much that you’re willing to humbly serve one another. That will preserve you.
“Just in case there is any confusion about what I want, look to My example. You ask, “What is love?” Let this be the demonstration of the type of love which preserves community. Look at what I did. You can do this. You can do this continually.
“Don’t be offended. Don’t give up on one another. Don’t throw in the towel; take up the towel.
“Get up from supper.”
There were two opposing spiritual influences present at the Last Supper. There was an undercurrent of conflict as the adversary viciously sought his opportunity. Jesus alone really knew what was going on. The Messiah saw the state of the disciples and looked beyond His resurrection and ascension to the time the community would no longer have His physical presence. With inspired strategic love He washed their feet. Then Jesus said, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another” (John 13:34). Let’s “get up”.