Peter of Galilee thought he had seen the Master Rabbi do everything over the last several days—from being hailed as a king entering Jerusalem to overturning the moneychangers' tables at the temple, to sternly lecturing religious authorities—but nothing prepared him for what was coming his way now.
In the whirlwind of activity leading up to the annual Passover celebration, Jesus of Nazareth reserved for those closest to Him a unique teaching moment on how they were to live out His instruction of "Follow Me."
His death was hours away, but His teaching wasn't completed, and His disciples weren't prepared to go into the world and to reflect His values until they grasped the lesson of what Peter saw was happening. If we are to be Christ's followers, we must grasp it as well.
Perhaps now was the time!
The days preceding this night of special meaning had been breathtaking for Peter and the others. Weeks before, they had witnessed the resurrection of Lazarus, they had in the past week heard the roar of the welcoming Jerusalem crowd, and they knew Jesus had alluded to the notion that the time was ripe for a momentous occurrence.
Perhaps now was the moment for restoring the Kingdom of Israel under the prophesied Messiah? Jesus was clearly Him! There would be new positions to fill, and who better than those closest to Him over the last few years?
What perhaps started among them as a discussion on the road to Jerusalem was now permeating the atmosphere around the table they shared with Jesus. Seating arrangements for ceremonial occasions were never left to arbitrary choice. Who would be seated closest to the Master? Who would be on His right hand or on His left? A squabble of major proportions was brewing in their hearts.
Jesus' fervent desire
When they were gathered at the meal that evening, Jesus made this heartfelt statement: "With fervent desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I will no longer eat of it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God" (Luke 22:15-16).
But they weren't hearing Him, for their hearts were full of pride and ego. Luke also tells us that "there was also a dispute among them, as to which of them should
be considered the greatest" (Luke 22:24). Here on the eve of pending triumph of God's saving work by His Son's supreme sacrifice, contention spawned by prideful human nature was well under way among Christ's companions.
Jesus begins thoughtfully and deliberately to set the stage for what Peter sees coming his way. He states: "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those who exercise authority over them are called ‘benefactors.' But not so among you; on the contrary, he who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves. For who is greater, he who sits at the table, or he who serves? Is it not he who sits at the table? Yet I am among you as one who serves."
Changing the equation
Christ dramatically alters the entire equation as to how we humanly "go about our business." In the rigidly structured culture of that day, there were clear-cut traditions involving family and social orderings. Additionally, Jesus strips away the veneer of the Greco-Roman world in which leaders promoted themselves as "benefactors"— meaning "helpers of others," but in reality they controlled every aspect of people's lives and lived to be served.
The self-serving Pax Romana—the "peace of Rome" imposed on the known world at the point of spear and sword—came at a cost: surrender to those who had seized power and remaining in benign subservience.
The 12 didn't know it yet, but Jesus, by example, was going to display the personality of His Kingdom that evening and provide a marked contrast between what lies in man's heart and what lies in the loving heart of God.
He had previously stated, "The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve" (Matthew 20:28), but that was just so many words to this hardheaded class of 12 grown men acting like schoolkids playing "king of the mountain." Time was short! He had to do something demonstrable so they could understand.
He knew exactly what to do, by creating an object lesson with a special twist.
The custom of the day in which sandals were the common footwear was to wash one's feet on entering a residence after a day's travels. The roads of Galilee and Judea, depending on the season, could be either a carpet of dust or layered with mud.
This being a private meal, apparently no household slave or servant was present to assist with the task of washing the dirty feet of those gathered there that evening. And, with tension in the air, none of the 12 were heading for the jars of water and towels!
The ageless object lesson
Jesus knew the time was ripe for a lesson to move beyond the moment and be transmitted to our day. It was time to wash away the dirtiness of human pride!
He got up, took off His exterior garments, took a towel, poured water in a basin and readied Himself for action. He began to wash the disciples' feet and dry them with His towel (John 13:4-5). In the culture of that day it was unthinkable for a highly regarded rabbi to wash his disciples' feet.
Moreover, what the disciples didn't know is what Christ was acutely aware of at that moment: "That the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God" (John 13:3). Here on the eve of the moment of supreme personal sacrifice was to come the moment of utmost individual humility.
Now, the sweep of events stopped right before Peter. Jesus knelt on hands and knees looking into the face of His astonished disciple.
Peter asked, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" (John 13:6, New International Version). Jesus replied, "What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this." Peter exclaimed back, "You shall never wash my feet!"
Jesus then very bluntly responded, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me" (John 13:8). Peter anxiously proclaimed, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!" (John 13:9). Christ said, "He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you" (John 13:10).
When speaking of "not all of you," Jesus knew a traitor was present. The Scottish commentator William Barclay captures the moment:
"Such knowledge might so easily have turned him to bitterness and hatred; but it made his heart run out in greater love than ever. The astounding thing was that the more people hurt him, the more Jesus loved them. It is so easy and so natural to resent wrong and to grow bitter under insult and injury; but Jesus met the greatest injury and the supreme disloyalty with the greatest humility and the supreme love" (The New Daily Study Bible: The Gospel of John, Vol. 2, 2001, p. 161)
Continuing with John's account: "So when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them" (John 13:12-17, emphasis added throughout).
This statement was not designed merely for a momentary event, but was displaying an everyday lifestyle oriented toward humble service to others and on allowing God to bless us rather than taking charge and taking matters into our own hands.
Kneeling down with Christ
As we move away from that room of long ago, let's ask ourselves what lessons we may internalize to better walk in Christ's calling of "Follow Me." Here are several we can draw from this event:
• Come to expect the unexpected from God the Father and His Son. God clearly states, "For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways My ways" (Isaiah 55:8). Peter needed this reminder—and so do we. When the teaching moments come, learn to rebound as Peter did, allowing God's Spirit and Word to wash your pride away one lesson at a time. Ask God to help you to be sensitive and receptive to His molding process ever before us as disciples.
• Never underestimate that God knows exactly what we need and when to intervene in our lives even before we realize it ourselves. He understands exactly how to gain our attention and give us a lesson that will lodge in our hearts.
• Understand that God will continue to wash away our pride in many different ways, often beginning with very small things and matters. God often uses "the little" to declare His great purposes, whether it be fish and bread from a little boy, a dab of clay placed on a man's eyes to heal, or something as ordinary as people's dirty feet. Whatever God asks of us, no matter how small or ordinary, learn to responsively give it to Him in faith. If we give him nothing, He has nothing of us to use, but if we give Him even "our little," like a pair of feet, He can take "our little" and make it everything.
• Come to appreciate and embrace this reality: Know that whenever and however God intervenes in your life, it is out of His great love for you and everyone. Even when the disciples were being less than Christlike over who was to be the greatest among them—remember the words of John that introduce this account: "Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end" (John 13:1).
• Be aware that there are plenty of opportunities in our daily lives for washing away our pride and for figuratively washing others' feet—at home, school, work, church and in our community. Our role is to duplicate the active nature of Christ in taking on the role of a servant. Strangers may be easier to humbly serve than those we know, especially those we know who have wronged us.
Most importantly, remember the words of Jesus as we choose to heed His call of "Follow Me" and willingly embrace His role of a loving servant. "If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them."