Sunday, 18 September 2016
This incident is very well-known. It occurred during the last evening of Jesus’ life, shortly before he would be arrested, and its details are recorded in each of the Gospels. The surprising aspect of John’s account is his lack of reference to the commencement of the Lord’s Supper by Jesus, the detail that is stressed in the other Gospels. And the incident of the footwashing is not mentioned in the other Gospels.
From the point-of-view of most people, the big event taking place in Jerusalem that weekend was the Passover. Thousands of Jews had gathered in the city for the event. The Passover lamb would be slain shortly in the temple. The Jewish day began at sunset, so while we would call it Thursday evening, in the Jewish calendar it was Friday evening. And it was on their Friday evening that the Passover celebrations began when families and friends would gather together for a Passover meal.
Jesus had looked forward to this occasion because he knew that it would be the last Passover he would participate in with his disciples. He loved being with them. This time together in the Upper Room would be a time of intense instruction for them, as Jesus spoke to them about the coming of the Holy Spirit. It would also be a time of surprising warnings about their lack of loyalty, especially concerning Peter. But it would also be an occasion of much symbolic action, especially with the institution of the Lord’s Supper, but also with the washing of the disciples’ feet.
At what stage in the meal did Jesus do this? It was before he identified Judas as the betrayer (John 13:21-30), and the other Gospels indicate that Judas was identified before the Lord’s Supper was instituted and subsequent teachings were given. So the footwashing took place towards the beginning of their evening together.
We know that the moment of doing something can add pathos to the action. A person saying farewell to his family as he is about to emigrate has much more pathos that when he says farewell before a holiday. The moment for Jesus’ action was in a sense like an emigration because he would be leaving them soon to go to another land, to the Father.
John reminds us that love for his disciples was very strong in the heart of Jesus. It is possible to translate ‘he loved them to the end’ as ‘he loved them fully’, with the description of his love not being connected to its length of time, but to its intensity. Probably it is best to combine both possibilities and say that he loved them constantly and completely.
This was in contrast to them, because each of them had failed to engage in a basic activity of love in that culture, which was to wash feet after walking on a dusty road. It is true that in a rich person’s house a slave would wash the feet. But they were not rich men, so one or more of them should have done it. Even if one of them had offered to wash the feet of Jesus, it would have said something.
The time when Jesus did this was important. He knew that Judas was going to betray him, that the devil was active in that group of disciples. Yet he also knew that he was on the road to exaltation, that he had reached the stage in his journey when he would return to God. He knew that he was the Mediator commissioned by the Father to bring about the reality of salvation. In other words, he knew his own dignity and he was aware of the incredibility of the task he had been given. What would we say if a king, about to face a war in which he would encounter great challenges, would take time to wash the feet of his soldiers whom he knew would fail him?
The reason why he washed their feet was not because their feet were dirty. His love went far beyond that. He saw the needs of their souls, and he used this enacted parable to show to them where they were spiritually, and what he would provide for them. In passing, we can remind ourselves that he washed the feet of Judas. How did Judas feel as he watched Jesus and sensed the touch of his hands?
The example of Jesus tells us that it is a sign of true greatness to use your position to serve, that it is a sign of grace to serve the sinful, and that it is a sign that one is on the road to glory when he serves those who fail him.
It is obvious that Peter initially found the action of Jesus to be inappropriate. As we have observed, Peter during the three years he had spent with Jesus had come to recognise that Jesus was Lord, and that is how he addresses Jesus here (v. 6). He had not yet worked out how the Lord could die, and Jesus seems to hint at that defect in verse 7. The suggestion that Peter did not understand did not impress him, and he then decided to assert his personal authority by stating to Jesus what he would never be able to do. Of course, it is not part of the role of a disciple to tell his master what to do.
When Jesus told Peter about the necessity of being washed, he assumed that Jesus meant that a literal washing was what was necessary and therefore asked for a bath rather than a mere footwashing. Jesus used the illustration to explain what the difference between having a bath and having a foot wash depicted. It is far easier for us to understand this illustration from our perspective because we live after the death of Jesus has occurred.
The full bath pictures the once-for-all cleansing that a sinner receives when he or she trusts in Jesus for the first time. At the moment of conversion, they are cleansed from the effects of sin by the efficacy of the blood of Christ. They are forgiven and receive membership of God’s family. Those blessings cannot be lost and are not repeated. As Jesus says here, they are completely clean.
The washing of feet illustrates the defilement that Christians experience through their contact with sin. Such contact does not undo their cleansing and require another bath. They should remind themselves that what Jesus did is always effective. Yet they need to have those stains, illustrated by dust and dirt that get attached to one’s feet, removed also by the blood of Jesus. Perhaps the easiest way to explain is to say a prayer: ‘Lord, thank you for giving me the cleansing that is permanent and which allows me to be forgiven, and thank you also for giving me cleansing daily for my faults.’
We should remind ourselves that as far as the evening was concerned, this was the preparation for the Lord’s Supper. In order to participate as they should, they needed to have both aspects of cleansing – they had to be bathed and they had to have their daily defilement cleansed away. They could not have the second without the first, but the proof that they valued the first was that they engaged in the second. If we come to the Lord’s Supper ignoring the second, the need for cleansing from a few sins rather than our need for a bath for all our sins, we will miss out. When we come to the Supper, we need to be both bathed and to have had our feet washed.
No doubt, if Jesus had asked them to wash his feet, they would have volunteered to do it. The problem was that if they washed his feet they would have to wash all the feet. And none of them had the inclination to do so. Yet Jesus exhorts all of them to wash one another’s feet.
What does it meet to wash one another’s feet? Obviously it is an act of practical service that believers should do to one another in obedience to the command of Jesus. Moreover, it is very personal, very hand’s on; it is not something that can be delegated to someone else. At the same time, it is an expression of love because that is what it was for Jesus. And it is often an action that has been omitted by everyone else and engaging in it might make us stand out from others.
In a literal sense, washing of feet was connected to providing refreshment to those who had been walking in the hot sun along dusty roads and as a consequence felt very weary. In a spiritual sense, every Christian should feel weary from walking through this world. There is a great deal here that will dry up our spirits. We can refresh one another by quoting Bible promises or by offering a short prayer.
It has been pointed out that we should be concerned about the temperature of the water when we wash one another’s feet. If we are angry about something, we might use boiling water. Or if we are clinical, we might use freezing water. Neither of them would bring about much good. Similarly, what will our hands be like when they wash the other person? We could be rough, not tender.
Footwashing symbolises an expression of brotherly love in small things. We would not be surprised to know that Jesus wanted to instruct the minds of his disciples or comfort their hearts. We would accept that he would be concerned about the success of their evangelism. It is not difficult to see that he would want to develop the intensity of their prayers. But why should he be concerned about their feet? Because we don’t care for a person truly if we don’t care for them fully. Could we say that Jesus loved them fully if he did not care about their sore feet? This incident tells us that we cannot be selective regarding which areas of obedience we have. As Jesus indicates, it is not enough to say that he is our teacher and master. In addition, we have to show it by how we care.
What can we say that this lifestyle is like? First, it is a sign of humility because it can only be done on our knees. Foot washing by definition is a lowering of oneself. Second, it is a sign of honesty because it realises that the person whose feet are being washed is not perfect, that some kind of sin has affected him. Third, it is sign of hope because the reason it is being done is to make the other person better. It is a statement that says to the one being washed that he does not need to stay where he is. Fourth, it is a sign of honouring Jesus because he has told his people to do it. Fifth, it is a sign of heavenly-mindedness, because when Jesus did it he was thinking about heaven, and we should be thinking about heaven when we engage in it. Sixth, it is a highway to blessing as Jesus indicates in the context.
Imagine yourself in a thousand years’ time. There you are, enjoying the rewards of grace that Jesus gave you because you engaged in an activity for him in his church. Maybe it was doing some little thing, like giving a cup of cold water. But the Lord have you such a reward for doing it. And then you recall what started you on the practice. Another Christian saw you could do it, but were not doing it. And in an act of footwashing, he suggested to you that you should do it. And you did, and the outcome was amazing, not only while you were on earth, but also in eternity. What will you think of the footwashing then?
This incident is recorded in each of the Gospels, a reminder of its significance in understanding who Jesus is. We know from John’s Gospel that it took place on the day after he was anointed by Mary of Bethany in the house of Simon the leper. It took place on the first day of the final week of Jesus’ life on earth. This perspective should cause us to look for clues as to how he felt at that time.
The provision of the colt
From one point of view, it is possible to regard this incident as the spontaneous outpouring of an enthusiastic crowd glad that Jesus had come to the annual Passover and who were hoping that he would do something about their captivity to Rome. No doubt, many of the crowd reacted in this way. Yet it is also obvious that Jesus was in control of events, and we can see this from how he obtained the colt to sit on when he entered the city.
Luke’s account informs us that Jesus knew where the colt was, that it was tied, and that no one had ever sat on it. It is possible to suggest that Jesus had arranged for a colt to be made available, but even if he had it is surprising that he would be able to say where it was at that moment. He was not referring to a street that was far away. Instead it was one where his description could be checked easily. The possession of such knowledge indicates that Jesus was divine.
Another intriguing feature of the colt is that no one had ever sat on it. The expected response to anyone who tried would be for the colt to try and throw him off. Clearly, Jesus wanted to sit on this particular colt. We might say that is not a problem for Jesus because he is God and therefore able to control the animal. No doubt, it is possible that was how he controlled the animal. Yet I wonder if there is another explanation, which is that the animal recognised in some way that its Creator was going to use it. The reasons why animals are afraid of humans is that we are sinful. But what would happen when a sinless man sat on it? On this occasion, the colt did not object.
There is a third surprising feature of this incident and that is the presence nearby of secret disciples. How do we know that there were secret disciples there? Because of the way that the spoke about Jesus when the disciples went to get the colt. In obedience to Jesus, the disciples told the owners that the Lord needed the colt. The response of the owners was to let the Lord have the colt, and they must have had some regard for Jesus and some knowledge of who he was when they accepted that he was Lord. Moreover, they showed their recognition of his Lordship by letting the disciples take the colt away. So we can suggest that Jesus used this incident to make some people acknowledge that they recognised that Jesus was the Lord.
Of course, we should try and imagine the two disciples that Jesus sent to collect the colt. They were in danger of getting arrested as thieves when they took the colt away. Maybe they considered that possibility as they went to get it. Nevertheless, on their return, they would tell the others that because they did what Jesus told them to do they did not have any problems. Simple obedience to his instructions brought about the desired result. And that is a good lesson for us to learn as well.
There is another detail here that fits in with what we know of Jesus, and that is his poverty. Jesus always had to borrow things, whether it was a boat or a place to stay. Here he is, about to take part in a parade that will highlight his greatness, and he has to borrow the colt on which he is to sit.
It is obvious from the description of the procession that it was perceived as a royal occasion. The crowd recognised that it was the arrival of a king. Of course, several normal features associated with the arrival of a ruler were missing. It is striking that Jesus did not have any soldiers in his retinue. Surely, the absence of them would have been observed. Soldiers would normally have been present even if it was a victory parade. The fact that Jesus had no soldiers was a statement of two things: one was that his mission was one of peace and the other was that any fighting that had to be done would be performed by himself.
Of course, we know that both these matters were at the centre of his mission and that both of them were connected to where he was going during this final week. No one in the crowd expected him to go to Calvary, but he knew that was his destination. There he would deal with the issues preventing peace, and there he would deal with the invisible enemies that enslaved the human race. At Calvary, he would pay the penalty of sin and make it possible for sinners to have peace with God. There he also would defeat the powers of darkness and provide the basis for setting free from their dominion all who would trust in him.
Other Gospels tell us that the incident was a fulfilment of prophecy that highlighted the kind of king that Jesus is. The choice of transport indicated that the predominant feature of his character was humility. We are familiar with his own self-description that he was gentle and lowly in heart. Humility points to the perfection of his humanity. And he displayed in situations in which, for others, the temptation to pride would have been at its strongest. Although he was the king, he was still the servant of the Lord who humbled himself to the point of death. And here he is, nearing the day and the location when he would die.
The praise of the disciples
Luke informs us that the disciples together began to praise God. By disciples, he means more than the twelve. There was a large number of them and their reasons for being there were different. Some of them had witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus (John 12:17). Others would have been with him as he journeyed to Jerusalem and would have seen, for example, the healing of blind Bartimaeus. We are told about two of their actions: (1) what they did with their cloaks and (2) what they did with their voices.
With regard to their cloaks, two things occurred. First, some of them used them as a kind of saddle to sit on, and second, some of them spread their cloaks on the road so that the donkey would walk along it. Why did they do this? Normally, a donkey would be ridden bareback. So this little action of putting cloaks on the donkey for Jesus to sit on showed that the disciples did not regard Jesus as an ordinary person. Little things are important and they can say a lot.
Then others in the crowd started putting their cloaks on the road, and the other Gospels tell us that they also cut down palm branches and placed them on the road. I suppose we could say that this custom was the equivalent of a red carpet that is used when an important person arrives. It was a statement that the person riding the donkey was different, that the normal road was not suitable for him. Instead, they covered up the normal road. It is only a symbolic gesture, but it was a very public one. Each person who did this was willing to give up their cloak in order for Jesus to be honoured.
We are not surprised that they would want to sing. After all, the singing is a verbal explanation of what they were doing with the cloaks and the branches. Their words made clear to others that they were delighted that the King had come. Many of them had seen his mighty works, and they had deduced that he was the Messiah, the King that God would send
But what would they want to sing? They combined different ideas in their song. There is a connection to Psalm 118:26, about the one who comes in the name of the Lord, except that they changed ‘he’ to ‘the King’. They realised that Jesus fulfilled that verse in the psalm. It is a psalm that is full of Jesus and we can read it and see some things that perhaps those singing in this incident did not realise, for example, about Jesus being the rejected stone who became the head cornerstone. And they added to the verse a statement about peace and glory, which is probably connected to the way that Jesus had ridden peacefully into the city.
Of course, we know that the singers were not aware of why Jesus was coming into the city. They did not know that he was going to be crucified in a few days. Yet we can read the story with deeper understanding they had, and also sing the psalm with greater awareness than they had. We can, as it were, join in the song because we actually know what really took place. The King has entered the city to go the cross of shame, to experience not the adulation of the masses, but the isolation of Calvary. And yet he keeps on directing the donkey onwards, knowing that each step takes him closer to his arranged engagement. He is going to be crowned, but there is a big battle to take place before that will happen.
As expected, there were those present who spoiled the experience. The Pharisees had their say in verse 39, and we can see that one thing they did not want to say was that Jesus was King. Instead for them, he was only a teacher with a bunch of unruly disciples. It is likely that they knew well the psalm and the passage from Zechariah that was fulfilled in front of their eyes. But they were blind to the amazing reality that they were criticising.
The prophecy that Jesus gave
Sometimes when something notable happens to a person we see his or her outward response, but we are not really sure what the person truly thinks about the situation. In contrast to such, we know what Jesus thought of the city. He knew that it did not appreciate what was happening, and he also knew that in forty years’ time judgement was coming when the Romans would destroy the city in AD 70. Of course, his description of that future event is another evidence that he is divine. Yet how did he react to their current indifference and their future destruction? He wept. What a climax to the parade!
This is a reminder that Jesus has a love of compassion for those who will never become his followers. Many in the city at that time refused to believe in him, and the inhabitants who would live in the city during the next four decades continued to reject him and frequently persecuted his church. Yet he wept over them. He wept for them even although he knew that many of them would soon call for his crucifixion, that in the process they would prefer a bandit to him. The question that challenges us is whether or not we are like Jesus concerning those who are perishing.
Here we have an example of Jesus as the Man of Sorrows. His disciples are rejoicing, his opponents are complaining, and Jesus is weeping. The disciples may have assumed that the procession indicated great days for Jerusalem, but Jesus knew that the opposite was the case. There is something in his sorrow that made him isolated even from those who loved him and wanted to honour him.
Preached on 18th September 2016