John 13:1-11: Taking a Towel
November 22, 2021
TODAY'S BIBLE READING:
The washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus has taken on various kinds of meanings in popular literature and in the common imagination. But what does it mean? What was it originally intended to convey?
The first thing to notice is that nowhere does Jesus institute this practice as a regular and repeatable sacrament. When Jesus instituted the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, he told his disciples to do this as often as they ate it in remembrance of him. But there is no such instruction about the washing of feet. So while there is certainly nothing intrinsically wrong with performing such an action among Christians, there is no need to insist upon it as a common practice, and should not be imbued with special sacramental force.
What then does this action mean? John, the author of the Gospel, specifically tells us. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end” (13:1). This deed, then, is intended to show the full extent of Christ’s love. It is intended to be an illustration, a visual aid, of the meaning of the cross and of Jesus’ love.
They did not understand at the time what Jesus was doing, but “afterward you will understand” (13:7). In the light of the cross, we can see that the washing of the feet of the disciples is indicative of the character of Christ: his compassionate love, his service, grace, his sacrificial mercy. He took up a towel, and washed their feet—dirty, grimy, soiled from the animal waste of an ancient street. He washed those feet.
Such is his love—perfectly revealed and finally fulfilled in his redeeming death for unwashed, dirty, foul, sinners like us. Perhaps this morning you feel unloved. You think no one could love you for what you have done—certainly not a holy God. You are too dirty to be loved.
Think again: in this illustration of Jesus’ love, we see him loving us by serving us, even to the extent of washing the dirty feet of his disciples. It was their clean feet that meant he washed their feet! The fact that they were dirty meant that they needed their feet to be washed. So it is with us: our sins stink to high heaven, but heaven comes low to clean us and make us pure.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Josh Moody (Ph.D., University of Cambridge) is the senior pastor of College Church in Wheaton, IL., president and founder of God Centered Life Ministries, and author of several books including How the Bible Can Change Your Life and John 1-12 For You.
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