Love, Humility, and Cleansing (John 13:1-11)

Mar 27, 2018
Steven J. Cole

We all can relate to Linus in the “Peanuts” cartoon strip when he shouts in frustration, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!” It’s easy to love the human race in the abstract, but when it comes to loving specific irritating people that I can’t avoid, the process becomes a lot more difficult!

In our text we see the Lord Jesus loving men who did not deserve it. Luke (22:24) tells us that at the Lord’s Supper, just after Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him, the disciples got into a dispute about which of them was the greatest. For reasons that we cannot know, John omits Jesus’ instituting the Lord’s Supper during this Passover meal. Some speculate that perhaps by the time John wrote towards the end of the first century, Christians had elevated the rite too highly, where it had even become magical (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 458; J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels [Baker], pp. 5-6).

But sometime during the supper, Jesus got up and performed this task, which normally was the job of slaves. Since the foot washing came before Jesus mentioned the betrayer (John 13:26), the dispute among the disciples about which of them was the greatest probably came after the graphic lesson they had just observed. Not only were the disciples bickering; also Jesus knew that Judas was about to betray Him, Peter was about to deny Him, and all the disciples would desert Him (John 13:2, 38; 16:32). All of these sins show that the disciples did not deserve Jesus’ love.

Also, the fact that they needed to have their dirty feet washed pictures their need for cleansing from sin. And, we’re just like them. We all have dirty feet that Jesus needs to wash. In fact, the very reason Jesus came was to die in the place of dirty sinners so that they can be cleansed. Also, His example of humility in washing the disciples’ feet gives us a practical example of how we can love those who do not deserve it, even as He has loved us. So our text brings together these three themes: Jesus’ love for those who do not deserve it; His example of demonstrating His love through humble service; and, our need for Jesus to cleanse our sins.

Christ’s love, His humble service, and His cleansing your sins should be realities in your life.

1. Christ’s love, which you didn’t deserve, should be a reality in your life.
John emphasizes through repetition Jesus’ love for His own (John 13:1): “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.” That last phrase seems to be deliberately ambiguous. It can mean that Jesus loved the disciples up to the end of His life. Or, it can mean that Jesus loved them totally or to the uttermost. Both are certainly true.

John’s mention of the Passover draws attention to the fact that Jesus is our Passover lamb. Just as the Jews put the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts and lintel to protect them from the angel of death, so Christ’s blood, applied to our hearts by faith, protects us from the wrath of God. The mention that Jesus knew that His hour had come reminds us that God ordained the cross. While the sinful men who crucified Jesus were responsible for their awful deed, at the same time the cross was predestined by God (Acts 4:27-28). It didn’t take Jesus by surprise. He deliberately laid aside His glory, just as here He laid aside His garments. He took on the form of a slave and became obedient to death on the cross (Phil. 2:5-11). Then, after His resurrection from the dead, He returned to the Father in glory. But don’t miss the point: Unless Jesus is your Passover lamb, unless you have applied His shed blood to your heart by faith, then you are under the curse of death, which means, eternal separation from God.

John also emphasizes that Jesus’ disciples were “in the world.” Jesus was about to depart from this world, but His disciples were still in it. As Jesus will pray (John 17:15-18), He doesn’t ask the Father to take these men out of the world. That is the sphere of ministry to which He sends them. But they are to be distinct from the world. But walking in this world means that you get your feet dirty. Thus the need for cleansing.

John (13:1) states that Jesus “loved His own.” John 3:16 states that God loves the world, but here the emphasis is on Jesus’ love for His own, not for the world. God loves the world by making provision for the sins of all that will believe in Jesus. The invitation goes out to all: Come and take the water of life without cost (Rev. 22:17). Yet at the same time, Jesus has a special love for His own that He does not have for the whole world. As Paul writes (Eph. 5:25), Christ “loved the church and gave Himself up for her.”

You understand this principle. As a Christian, I’m commanded to love all my sisters in Christ, but I have a special love for my wife. I’m commanded to love all God’s children, but I have a special love for my own children. In the same way, Jesus has a special love for His own, whom the Father gave to Him (John 6:37). If you have put your trust in Christ, He wants you to know and to feel His special love for you. He loves you “to the end.”

John contrasts Jesus’ love for His own with Judas’ satanic treachery (John 13:2): “During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him …” Jesus loved Judas, even though he was not one of His own. He washed Judas’ feet before he went out to betray the Lord. Jesus had known all along that Judas would betray Him in fulfillment of Scripture (John 6:71; Luke 22:22). And, while Satan was the immediate force behind Judas’ betrayal (John 13:2, 27), yet at the same time, Judas was responsible for his awful sin. He rejected the love of Jesus, whereas the other disciples knew it personally.

So John wants to ask you: In spite of being painfully aware that you don’t deserve it, do you know the love of Christ as a reality in your life? Does His love humble you before the cross? Does His love cause you to hate your sin? Does His love motivate you to serve others in love, even as He has loved you? And, if you’ve never experienced His love, will you respond now to His love?

But John doesn’t just tell us about Jesus’ love. He also shows it in a dramatic, shocking way:

2. Christ’s example of humble service should be a reality in your life.
Sometimes actions speak louder than words. Jesus’ actions here show us both how He loved us when we were unworthy of that love and how we can love others who may not be worthy of it. John (13:3-5) paints the picture like this:

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.

By the first phrase, John shows us Jesus’ authority over all of heaven and earth: “The Father had given all things into His hands.” The hands that control the universe, including all the angelic host, humbly washed the dirty feet of twelve undeserving apostles!

To understand this incident, you need to know that washing someone’s feet was the task for the lowest servants (Carson, p. 462). Friends did not wash their friends’ feet. There are no examples in ancient literature of a superior washing the feet of an inferior (ibid.). And so the disciples would have been shocked to have their Teacher and Lord (John 13:13) wash their feet! Apparently, they were so shocked that they sat in stunned silence, until Jesus came to Peter. He probably verbalized the thoughts that the others had been afraid to say when he protested (John 13:8), “Never shall You wash my feet!” But as Jesus will go on to explain (John 13:14-15), He did this to give us an example of how we should humbly serve one another. This humility has at least four practical aspects:

A. Humility recognizes that no task is beneath us to do for Christ’s sake.
I got a lesson on this early in my pastoral ministry. A young woman whose husband had a violent temper called me in tears and asked if I could come over after they had had a bad quarrel. She had a young baby and no means of child care or transportation to come to my office, so I went. When I walked in, I could see beans all over the wall and floor, where the husband had angrily thrown the pot off the stove. But it was the stench of vomit that quickly drew my eyes to the floor in front of me. The woman had vomited all over the floor and was too sick to clean it up. So before I could talk to her about her soul and her marriage, I had to clean up her vomit. Welcome to the ministry!

I’m not suggesting that a pastor’s main role should be to clean up vomit or do other jobs of service. Pastors should devote themselves to the ministry of the Word and to shepherding the flock. Those gifted to serve should devote themselves to service (1 Pet. 4:10-11). But at the same time, never think that a task is beneath your dignity or calling. You’re Christ’s slave. Sometimes He asks His slaves to clean up vomit out of love for Him.

B. Humility requires thinking of others more highly than of yourself.
The disciples hadn’t washed one another’s feet because they were arguing about who was the greatest. But after pointing out that seeking dominance over one another is the way of the world, Jesus said to them (Luke 22:26-27),

“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.”

Two women in the church in Philippi were having a dispute. Paul wrote to that church (Phil. 2:3-4), “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.” He went on to cite the example of Christ, who willingly took on the form of a servant and went to the cross for our sakes. So many quarrels in the church and in our homes would evaporate if we would, with humility of mind, regard the other person as more important than ourselves! Related to this…

C. Humility requires getting your focus off your rights and your needs and onto others’ needs.
As the eternal Son of God to whom the Father had given all things into His hands, who had come forth from God and was going back to God (John 13:3), Jesus certainly had the right for the disciples to wash His feet. I’m sure that His feet were as dirty as theirs. But He wasn’t focused on His needs or His rights, but rather on their needs. They not only needed their dirty feet washed, but they also needed this lesson in humble service.

Again, how many quarrels at church and in our homes would stop before they started if we would take our eyes off ourselves, our rights, and our needs, and instead think about the other person’s needs! A husband thinks, “I’ve worked hard all day, putting up with hassles at work so that I can provide for my family. Don’t I have a right to some peace and quiet when I come home at night?” Maybe, but that’s the wrong focus. Your focus should be on how you can serve your wife and children. The wife thinks, “I’ve been changing diapers, shopping for groceries with screaming kids, cleaning up messes all over the house, and trying to get dinner in time. Don’t I have a right for a little time by myself?” Maybe, but that’s the wrong focus. Humble service requires getting your focus off yourself and onto others’ needs.

D. Humility requires receiving, not just giving.
It’s easy to serve or to give to those in need out of pride. Peter’s unwillingness at first to let Jesus serve him did not stem from humility, but from pride. It embarrassed him to think of Jesus washing his feet. That implied that his feet were dirty and in need of washing! It would have served Peter’s pride much more if he had washed Jesus’ feet. But Jesus explained that if He didn’t wash Peter’s feet, then he had no part with Him.

Many people are offended by the gospel or don’t see their need for it because they’re proud of their good works. They’re proud of all that they do for others. They view themselves as having clean feet. It would embarrass them to admit that their feet are dirty and that Jesus needs to wash them. But to receive the gospel, you’ve got to recognize that your feet are filthy and that no one gets to heaven by washing his own feet or by washing others’ feet. You only get to heaven when you let Jesus wash your feet. That leads to the third theme:

3. Christ’s cleansing your sins should be a reality in your life.
His undeserved love should be a reality in your life. His example of humble service should be true in your experience. But foundational to everything else is your need to have Jesus wash away your sins. So Jesus’ action here foreshadows the cross. One writer, A. M. Hunter, (cited by Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans], p. 613) observes, “The deeper meaning then is that there is no place in his fellowship for those who have not been cleansed by his atoning death.” He points out that this episode pictures the truth of 1 John 1:7, “the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Hunter adds (ibid.),

Many people today would like to be Christians but see no need of the cross. They are ready to admire Jesus’ life and to praise the sublimity of his moral teaching, but they cannot bring themselves to believe that Christ died for their sins, and that without that death they would be lost in sin.

There are at least three reasons that we all need Jesus Christ to cleanse our sins:

A. Cleansing is necessary because of who Jesus is.
As John begins his gospel (1:1, 14), Jesus is the eternal Word who is God, who took on human flesh. He shared the glory of the Father, but willingly laid that aside so that He could come to bear the penalty for our sins on the cross. He is the Light of the world, absolutely pure, just as God is light (John 8:12; 1 John 1:5). He spoke the very words of the Father to us (John 7:16; 8:26, 28, 38). He lived a sinless life, so that He could rhetorically ask His critics (John 8:46), “Which of you convicts Me of sin?”

Limiting ourselves to our text, we see that Jesus is the eternal, omniscient one. He knew that His hour had come and that He would shortly be returning to the Father, with whom He had dwelled before the foundation of the world (John 13:1). He knew that Judas would betray Him (John 13:11). He knows each of us thoroughly.

Also, Jesus is the loving one. In spite of our failures and sins, which He knows in advance, He loves us as His own children.

Further, Jesus is the sovereign one. The Father has given all things into Jesus’ hands. He was in complete control of His own death. Neither Satan nor Judas could thwart God’s sovereign plan through the cross, but rather inadvertently fulfilled it.

Lastly, Jesus is the suffering servant who died for our sins. His example of humble, self-sacrificing service identifies Him as the servant of Isaiah 53. The Passover connection identifies Him as the Lamb of God who takes away our sins. When you come into the presence of the Holy One of God, you instantly recognize your need for cleansing. With Peter, you fall down at His feet and cry out (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

B. Cleansing is necessary because of who we are.
We all are guilty sinners in need of cleansing: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Contrary to some (R. C. Sproul, John [Reformation Trust], pp. 242-243), this text has nothing to do with baptism. Nor is it instituting a third church ordinance of foot washing. Rather, Jesus meant, “I must wash away your sins by My atoning death or you have no part with Me.”

Jesus mentions two types of cleansing (John 13:10): “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” The bath refers to the once-for-all washing of regeneration (Titus 3:5), when God cleanses us from all our sins through the blood of Jesus (Rom. 8:1; Heb. 10:10, 14). All the disciples, except Judas, were clean in this sense.

But the foot washing refers to the ongoing application of that once-for-all cleansing to our daily lives. We can compare it to a boy who is adopted into a family. He becomes a full member of the family by virtue of his adoption. He can’t lose that standing. But in his daily relationship with his father, he may disobey or wrong his father. He doesn’t lose his sonship, but he does need to ask his father’s forgiveness so that their relationship can be close. In the same way, we stand before God completely forgiven through faith in Jesus and His shed blood. But in our relationship with God, we often fail Him by sinning. We need to receive the ongoing cleansing for those sins that is symbolized by Jesus washing our feet.

Thus cleansing is necessary because of who Jesus is and because of who we are. Finally,

C. Cleansing is necessary because of where we walk.
We walk in this sinful world, so our feet get dirty. Again, if you have trusted in Christ, you are never so dirty that you need a complete bath again. But at the same time, although you have trusted in Christ, you are never so pure that you don’t need to get your feet washed again. It’s an ongoing process to maintain your relationship with the Lord.

Sometimes, your feet get dirty because of deliberate sin. You choose to do what you know God’s Word forbids you to do. At those times, you need to confess your sin and appropriate the forgiveness that Christ secured for you by His death. At other times, you just feel defiled because of contact with this cruddy, dirty world. Maybe you’ve been bombarded with sensual advertisements or just the magazine covers at the supermarket checkout. Perhaps you’ve had to deal with worldly people at work, so the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16) have left you feeling defiled. Those are the times to open your Bible and let “the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26) cleanse and refresh your soul. Let Jesus wash your feet!

So ask yourself three questions: (1) Do I consistently experience Christ’s undeserved love? If not, you need to figure out why not and get that problem resolved. (2) Do I consistently follow Christ’s example of humble service? If not, jot down some specific ways that you can begin this week. (3) Do I consistently come to Christ for cleansing from my sins and from the crud of this dirty world? If not, He’s waiting with the basin and the water of His word to wash your feet!

Additional Reading