In the Bible, chapters 13-17 of the Gospel of John are entitled by scholars as “the upper room discourse”. The scene is Jesus’ last supper with the 12 disciples – His closest friends. This meal takes place the day before Jesus is nailed to the cross for the sins of the world … mere hours before He would be betrayed by Judas (one of His inner circle) and arrested.
The first half of John 13 (verses 1-20) is devoted to the story of Jesus’ washing the disciplines’ feet before supper. In the culture of the day, it was customary to do so. Back then, there were no Converse Allstars. No Timberlands. No Nikes. And no sidewalks or paved roads. No cars. Instead, the disciples no doubt walked around in open-toed sandals (if they had shoes at all) on dirt paths and roads, amid horses and oxen and donkeys and … all the stuff left behind by horses and oxen and donkeys. So, I suspect their feet were … um … disgusting. In that day, it was the horses that “just did it” … all over the “sidewalk”.
To exacerbate the need for washing, tables and table setting were not the same either. In modern western culture, we are accustomed to high tables and chairs, which orient us upright at the table with our feet under it. If you come to supper tonight barefoot with dirty feet, your family might not even notice. However, in Jesus’ day, in their culture, the table was lower to the ground. You would essentially lie on the floor or on cushions, propped up by more cushions, and lean over the low table to eat. So, now my disgusting feet are way too close to the head of someone else “reclining” at the table. In that environment, there’s no way you’d want your Aunt Sally’s feet left unwashed for the meal.
So in one sense, Jesus’ act of service to wash the disciples’ feet is very practical. He’s preparing them for their meal together, and giving a radical demonstration of servant leadership in the process. John quotes Jesus as explaining this after he’s washed their feet… “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13:13-17 ESV)
But as radical and exemplary and instructive as that was, it’s not my focus. Neither do I think it was Jesus’ only focus. Rather, back up a few verses, and observe Jesus while making His way around the table to wash His friends’ feet. Ostensibly, it was easy going until He got to Peter, who stopped him and objected to what he was doing. First of all, it’s always Peter, but we’ll come back to that. Secondly, it’s amazing no one else objected. I can imagine that the whole group was absolutely stunned that He was doing what He was doing. Maybe they were silent because they felt guilty that nobody had done it first. That would have been me (feeling guilty). Maybe they felt like one of them had failed in some aspect of preparation. Maybe someone was supposed to have a servant there. Maybe the servant was late. Maybe it was Matthew’s turn that night, and he dropped the ball. Who knows!? But I’m quite sure that what Jesus did was unexpected. So much so, that Peter reacts and creates a second teachable moment inside Jesus’ lesson about serving one another…
Peter gets a bad rap. I love Peter. He could never be accused of being lukewarm. (See Revelation 3:15-16) And I bet God loves that about him too. He’s broken and fallible, hot-headed and impetuous, overly eager, dramatically overestimates his abilities at times, and more … but … he’s definitely hot. I hear a lot of people in my world throw around phrases like “sold out” or “on fire for God”. Whenever they do, I think of Peter. If 10% of the people that boast that level of devotion to Jesus in our day were 10% as “on fire” as Peter was, our whole world would be different.
Getting back to the scene… Jesus is trying to wash His friends’ feet. He gets through a few of them, but Peter stops Him and objects. Jesus then used some pretty harsh and specific language in response to Peter’s objection: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” (John 13:8b) This is what I wanted to talk about. I contend that three things were going on…
I know best!
First, Peter had to humble himself and obey the Lord, even though it didn’t make sense to him. Peter thought he knew best, and Jesus was making clear to Peter (and to us) that in fact, Peter had no idea what he was talking about. What a great example / lesson for us: Whether it makes sense to us or not, whether we understand why or not, whether the path is clear to us or not, whether it will cost us something or not… In all things, obey the Lord. If God says “jump”, we say “how high?”. Like we concluded above, it doesn’t work to tell God “no”. Period.
If you refuse God in that way, or interrupt what Jesus is doing to explain your superior wisdom to the God of the Universe, then in that moment you’re the God in your own heart, not Him. And in that position, you have no share with Him. You cannot serve two masters. (See Matthew 6:24) It’s His kingship or yours, but it can’t be both.
Me before you!
Secondly, in that moment, Peter was preaching a different gospel than Jesus was. Peter says, “You’ve come for us to serve you!” Jesus was saying, “I’ve come to serve you!” God is truly high and lifted up. Above all things. Majestic in beauty. All powerful. And we are absolutely created to serve Him! But that infinite and almighty God stepped into time to die a criminal’s death on the cross for us. He came to serve us. In the same way satan had a point in saying that Jesus could command all the nations to bow down to worship him (See Matthew 4:1-11), Peter was saying that Jesus should be served, not serve. There’s a truth in those things, but that doesn’t make them right. Peter didn’t realize it, but in that moment, he was singing satan’s song… “Don’t worry about the cross or some lesson about us serving each other. You’re above that. Be worshiped! That’s what you were meant to do and be, right?” Satan wanted Jesus to put Himself first, and so did Peter. Me before you!
But Jesus’ unrelenting will was to fulfill the plan … the purpose for which He came to earth, and the vision He and the Father had together from the beginning. If Jesus had again said, “Get behind me, satan!” (Matthew 4:10a), it wouldn’t have been uncalled for. Jesus, “though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (See Philippians 2:3-8)
Love is selective!
And lastly, Jesus was and is determined to sanctify those who follow Him. God desires that we would become more like His Son. The plan in Peter’s heart when he interrupted and tried to redirect Jesus was all about how Jesus was above washing Peter’s feet. I don’t think it’s much of a stretch, therefore, to assume that Peter too was above washing others’ feet. Maybe not everyone. He’d have jumped at the chance to wash Jesus’ feet, and probably been quick to wash the other disciples’ feet as well (although you’ll notice that neither he nor anyone else around the table beat Jesus to the punch on that). But what about beggars and lepers, tax collectors and sinners, adulterers and prostitutes, drug dealers and cruel overseers? What about gentiles or Samaritans? What about all the people in your life that you don’t particularly like or value or think much about? Who’s washing their feet?
Well, simply put, Jesus would. Would Peter? Would you?
And here’s the harsh truth: If we won’t wash their feet, then Jesus would say that we have no share with Him. You want to be like Jesus, Peter? Well, then you shouldn’t be thinking about thrones in heaven or streets of gold or Palm Sunday. Being like Jesus means thinking about Good Friday … about being despised and rejected by men, being nailed to a cross, and washing the feet of those who would kill Him but whom He loves anyway. That night, Jesus washed Judas’ feet too.
So, do we “have a share with Him”?
If we do, then…
- God knows best. We say yes to God. No questions. With or without understanding. Even when it’s hard.
- You before me. We understand God’s true, servant nature. We do not stand between Him and the cross. And we love others the way Jesus loved us.
- Love one another. Even when they’re different or we don’t like them or it costs us a lot to do so, we serve them. They’re not beneath you, whoever “they” are.
Jesus’ lessons are hard. May God grant me (and you) the grace to even be the moon and reflect the brilliance of the light of His example! Glory to the Most High King! Amen.