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John 13:1–11.

Up to this point the fourth evangelist has said very little indeed of the special relations of Jesus and the twelve. Now, however, he abundantly makes up or any deficiency on this score. The third part of his Gospel, which begins here, is, with the exception of two chapters relating the history of the passion, entirely occupied with the tender, intimate intercourse of the Lord Jesus with “His own,” from the evening before His death to the time when He departed out of the world, leaving them behind! The thirteenth and four following chapters relate scenes and discourses from the last hours spent by the Saviour with His disciples, previous to His betrayal into the hands of His enemies. He has uttered His final word to the outside world, and withdrawn Himself within the bosom of His own family; and we are privileged here to see Him among His spiritual children, and to hear His farewell Words to them in view of His decease. It becomes us to enter the supper chamber with deep reverence. “Put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.”

The first thing we see, on entering, is Jesus washing His disciples’ feet. Marvellous spectacle! and the evangelist has taken care, in narrating the incident, to enhance its impressiveness by the manner in which he introduces it. He has put the beautiful picture in the best light for being seen to advantage. The preface to the story is indeed a little puzzling to expositors, the sentences being involved, and the sense somewhat obscure. Many thoughts and feelings crowd into the apostle’s mind as he proceeds to relate the memorabilia of that eventful night; and, so to speak, they jostle one another in the struggle for utterance. Yet it is not very difficult to disentangle the meaning of these opening sentences. In the first, John adverts to the peculiar tenderness with which Jesus regarded His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion, and in prospect of His departure from the earth to heaven. “Before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world “ — how at such an hour did He feel towards those who had been His companions throughout the years of His public ministry, and whom He was soon to leave behind Him? “He loved them unto the end.” Not selfishly engrossed with His own sorrows, or with the prospect of His subsequent joys, He found room in His heart for His followers still; nay, His love burned out towards them with extraordinary ardor, and His whole care was by precept and example, by words of comfort, warning, and instruction, to prepare them for future duty and trial, as the narrative here commencing would abundantly demonstrate.

The second verse of the preface alludes parenthetically to a fact which served as a foil to the constancy of Jesus: “The devil having already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray Him.” John would say: “Jesus loved His disciples to the end, though they did not all so love Him. One of them at this very moment entertained the diabolic purpose of betraying his Lord. Yet that Lord loved even him, condescending to wash even his feet; so endeavoring, if possible, to overcome his evil with good.”

The aim of the evangelist, in the last sentence of his preface, is to show by contrast what a wondrous condescension it was in the Saviour to wash the feet of any of the disciples. Jesus knowing these things, — these things being true of Him: that “the Father had given all things into His hands” — sovereign power over all flesh; “that He was come from God” — a divine being by nature, and entitled to divine honors; “and that He was about to return to God,” to enter on the enjoyment of such honors, — did as is here recorded. He, the August Being who had such intrinsic dignity, such a consciousness, such prospects — even “He riseth from supper and lath aside His garments, and took a towel and girded Himself. After that He poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith He was girded.”

The time when all this took place was, it would seem, about the commencement of the evening meal. The words of the evangelist rendered in the English version “supper being ended,” may be translated supper being begun, or better, supper-time having arrived;463463Alford, in loco, gives as examples of a similar use of γενομένος, Matt. xxvi. 6; John xxi. 4; Mark vi. 2. Hofmann (Schriftbeweis, iii. 207, 208) renders the phrase as in the Auth. Ver., and reconciles this view with the narrative concerning Judas by assuming that vers. 26, 27 relate a transaction distinct from and subsequent to the supper. The R. V. has “during supper.” and from the sequel of the narrative, it is evident that in this sense they must be understood here. The supper was still going on when Jesus introduced the subject of the traitor, which He did not only after He had washed the feet of His disciples, but after He had resumed His seat at the table, and given an explanation of what He had just done.464464John xiii. 21.

That explanation will fall to be more particularly considered afterwards; but meantime it bears on its face that the occasion of the feet-washing was some misbehavior on the part of the disciples. Jesus had to condescend, we judge, because His disciples would not condescend. This impression is confirmed by a statement in Luke’s Gospel, that on the same evening a strife arose among the twelve which of them should be accounted the greatest. Whence that new strife arose we know not, but it is possible that the old quarrel about place was revived by the words uttered by Jesus as they were about to sit down to meat: “With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I say unto you, I will not any more eat thereof until it be fulfilled in the kingdom of God.”465465Luke xxii. 15, 16. The R. V. reads “I will not eat it,” in place of, “I will not any more eat thereof,” omitting οὐκετι from their text. Wescott and Hort also omit this word; Tischendorf retains it. The allusion to the kingdom was quite sufficient to set their imaginations on fire and re-awaken old dreams about thrones, and from old dreams to old feuds and jealousies the transition was natural and easy; and so we can conceive how, even before the supper began, the talk of the brethren had waxed noisy and warm. Or the point in dispute may have been in what order they should sit at table, or who should be the servant for the occasion, and wash the feet of the company. Any one of these suppositions might account for the fact recorded by Luke; for it does not require much to make children quarrel.

The expedient employed by Jesus to divert the minds of His disciples from unedifying themes of conversation, and to exorcise ambitious passions from their breasts, was a most effectual one. The very preliminaries of the feet-washing scene must have gone far to change the current of feeling. How the spectators must have stared and wondered as the Master of the feast rose from His seat, laid aside His upper garment, girt Himself with a towel, and poured out water into a basin, doing all with the utmost self-possession, composure, and deliberation!

With which of the twelve Jesus made a beginning we are not informed; but we know, as we might have guessed without being told, who was the first to speak his mind about the singular transaction. When Peter’s turn came, he had so far recovered from the amazement, under whose influence the first washed may have yielded passively to their Lord’s will, as to be capable of reflecting on the indecency of such an inversion of the right relation between master and servants. Therefore, when Jesus came to him, that outspoken disciple asked, in astonishment, “Lord, washest Thou my feet?” His spirit rose in rebellion against the proposal, as one injurious to the dignity of his beloved Lord, and as an outrage upon his own sense of reverence. This impulse of instinctive aversion was by no means discreditable to Peter, and it was evidently not regarded with disapprobation by his Master. The reply of Jesus to his objection is markedly respectful in tone: “What I do,” He said, “thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter,” virtually admitting that the proceeding in question needed explanation, and that Peter’s opposition was, in the first place, perfectly natural. “I acknowledge,” He meant to say, “that my present action is an offence to the feelings of reverence which you rightly cherish towards me. Nevertheless, suffer it. I do this for reasons which you do not comprehend now, but which you shall understand ere long.”

Had Peter been satisfied with this apologetic reply, his conduct would have been entirely free from blame. But He was not content, but persisted in opposition after Jesus had distinctly intimated His will, and vehemently and stubbornly exclaimed: “Thou shalt never wash my feet!” The tune here changes utterly. Peter’s first word was the expression of sincere reverence; his second is simply the language of unmitigated irreverence and downright disobedience. He rudely contradicts his Master, and at the same time, we may add, flatly contradicts himself. His whole behavior on this occasion presents an odd mixture of moral opposites: self-abasement and self-will, humility and pride, respect and disrespect for Jesus, to whom he speaks now as one whose shoe-latchet he is not worthy to unloose, and anon as one to whom he might dictate orders. What a strange man! But, indeed, how strange are we all!

Peter having so changed his tone, Jesus found it needful to alter His tone too, from the apologetic mildness of the first reply to that of magisterial sternness. “If I wash thee not,” He said gravely, “thou hast no part with me;.” meaning, “Thou hast taken up a most serious position, Simon Peter, the question at issue being simply, Are you, or are you not, to be admitted into my kingdom — to be a true disciple, and to have a true disciple’s reward?”

On a surface view, it is difficult to see how this could be the state of the question. One is tempted to think that Jesus was indulging in exaggeration, for the purpose of intimidating a refractory disciple into compliance with His will. If we reject this method of interpretation as incompatible with the character of the speaker and the seriousness of the occasion, we are thrown back on the inquiry, What does washing in this statement mean? Evidently it signifies more than meets the ear, more than the mere literal washing of the feet, and is to be regarded as a symbol of the washing of the soul from sin, or still more comprehensively, and in our opinion more correctly, as representing all in Christ’s teaching and work which would be compromised by the consistent carrying out of the principle on which Peter’s opposition to the washing of his feet by Jesus was based. On either supposition the statement of Jesus was true: in the former case obviously; in the latter not so obviously, but not less really, as we proceed to show.

Observe, then, what was involved in the attitude assumed by Peter. He virtually took his stand on these two positions: that he would admit of nothing which seemed inconsistent with the personal dignity of his Lord, and that he would adopt as his rule of conduct his own judgment in preference to Christ’s will; the one position being involved in the question, Dost Thou wash my feet? the other in the resolution, Thou shalt never wash my feet. In other words, the ground taken up by this disciple compromised the whole sum and substance of Christianity, the former principle sweeping away Christ’s whole state and experience of humiliation, and the latter not less certainly sapping the foundation of Christ’s lordship.

That this is no exaggeration on our part, a moment’s reflection will show. Look first at the objection to the feet washing on the score of reverence. If Jesus might not wash the feet of His disciples because it was beneath His dignity, then with equal reason objection might be taken to any act involving self-humiliation. One who said, Thou shalt not wash my feet, because the doing of it is unworthy of Thee, might as well say, Thou shalt not wash my soul, or do aught towards that end, because it involves humiliating experiences. Why, indeed, make a difficulty about a trifling matter of detail? Go to the heart of the business at once, and ask, “Shall the Eternal Son of God become flesh, and dwell among us? shall He who was in the form of God lay aside His robes of state, and gird Himself with the towel of humanity, to perform menial offices for His own creatures? shall the ever-blessed One become a curse by enduring crucifixion? shall the Holy One degrade Himself by coming into close companionship with the depraved sons of Adam? shall the Righteous One pour His life-blood into a basin, that there may be a fountain wherein the unrighteous may be cleansed from their guilt and iniquity?” In short, incarnation, atonement, and Christ’s whole earthly experience of temptation, hardship, indignity, and sorrow, must go if Jesus may not wash a disciple’s feet.

Not less clearly is Christ’s lordship at an end if a disciple may give Him orders, and say, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” If Peter meant any thing more by these words than a display of temper and caprice, he meant this: that he would not submit to the proposed operation, because his moral feelings and his judgment told him it was wrong. He made his own reason and conscience the supreme rule of conduct. Now, in the first place, by this position the principle of obedience was compromised, which requires that the will of the Lord, once known, whether we understand its reason or perceive its goodness or not, shall be supreme. Then there are other things much more important than the washing of the feet, to which objection might be taken on the score of reason or conscience with equal plausibility. For example, Christ tells us that those who would be His disciples, and obtain entrance into His kingdom, must be willing to part with earthly goods, and even with nearest and dearest friends. To many men this seems unreasonable; and on Peter’s principle they should forthwith say, “I will never do any such thing.” Or again, Christ tells us that we must be born again, and that we must eat His flesh and drink His blood. To me these doctrines may seem incomprehensible, and even absurd; and therefore, on Peter’s principle, I may turn my back on the great Teacher, and say, “I will not have this speaker of dark, mystic sayings for my master.” Once more, Christ tells us that we must give the kingdom of God the first place in our thoughts, and dismiss from our hearts carking care for to-morrow. To me this may appear in my present mood simply impossible; and therefore, on Peter’s principle, I may set aside this moral requirement as utopian, however beautiful, without even seriously attempting to comply with it.

Now that we know whither Peter’s refusal tends, we can see that Jesus spake the simple truth when He said: “If I wash thee not, thou host no part with me.” Look at that refusal as an objection to Christ humbling Himself. If Christ may not humble Himself, then, in the first place, He can have no part with us. The Holy Son of God is forbidden by a regard to His dignity to become in any thing like unto His brethren, or even to acknowledge them as His brethren. The grand paternal law, by which the Sanctifier is identified with them that are to be sanctified, is disannulled, and all its consequences made void. A great impassable gulf separates the Divine Being from His creatures. He may stand on the far-off shore, and wistfully contemplate their forlorn estate; but He cannot, He dare not — His majesty forbids it — come near them, and reach forth a helping hand.

But if the Son of God may have no part with us, then, in the second place, we can have no part with Him. We cannot share His fellowship with the Father, if He come not forth to declare Him. We can receive no acts of brotherly kindness from Him. He cannot deliver us from the curse of the law, or from the fear of death; He cannot succor us when we are tempted; He cannot wash our feet; nay, what is a far more serious matter, He cannot wash our souls. If there is to be no fountain opened for sin in the human nature of Emmanuel sinners must remain impure. For a God afar off is not able, even if He were willing, to purify the human soul. A God whose majesty, like an iron fate, kept Him aloof from sinners, could not even effectively forgive them. Still less could He sanctify them. Love alone has sanctifying virtue, and what room is there for love in a Being who cannot humble Himself to be a servant?

Look now at Peter’s refusal as resistance to Christ’s will. In this view also it justified the saying, “Thou hast no part with me.” It excluded from salvation; for if Jesus is not to be Lord, He will not be Savior.466466Peter the apostle understood this well. Four times in his second epistle he conjoins Lord and Saviour in naming Christ (i. 11, ii. 20. iii. 2, 18). It excluded from fellowship; for Jesus will have no communion with self-will. His own attitude towards His Father was, “not my will, but Thine;.” and He demands this attitude towards Himself in turn from all His disciples. He will be the Author of eternal salvation, only to them that obey Him. Not that He would have us be always servants, blindly obeying a Lord whose will we do not understand. His aim is to advance us ultimately to the status of friends,467467John xv. 15. doing His will intelligently and freely — not as complying mechanically with an outward commandment, but as being a law to ourselves. But we can attain that high position only by beginning with a servant’s obedience. We must do, and suffer to be done to us, what we know not now, in order that we may know hereafter the philosophy of our duty to our Lord, and of our Lord’s dealings with us. And the perfection of obedience lies in doing that which reverence unenlightened finds peculiarly hard, viz. in letting the Lord change places with us, and if it seem good to Him, humble Himself to be our servant.

It was a serious thing, therefore, to say, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” But Peter was not aware how serious it was. He knew not what he said, or what he did. He had hastily taken up a position whose ground and consequences he had not considered. And his heart was right, though his temper was wrong. Therefore the stern declaration of Jesus at once brought him to reason, or rather to unreason in an opposite direction. The idea of being cut off from his dear Master’s sympathy or favor through his waywardness drove him in sheer fright to the opposite extreme of overdone compliance; and he said in effect, “If my interest in Thee depends on my feet being washed, then, Lord, wash my whole body — hands, head, feet, and all.” How characteristic! how like a child, in whose heart is much foolishness, but also much affection, and who can always be managed by the bands of love! There is as yet a sad want of balance in this disciple’s character: he goes, swinging like a pendulum, from one extreme to another; and it will take some time ere he settle down into a harmonious equipoise of all parts of his being — intellect, will, heart, and conscience. But the root of the matter is in him: he is sound at the core; and after the due amount of mistakes, he will become a wise man by and by. He is clean, and needs not more than to have his feet washed. Jesus Himself admits it of him, and of all his brother-disciples — save one, who is unclean all over.

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