By J.R. Miller
It is supposed that the strife among the disciples as to which was the greatest, led to the incident of the washing of the feet. None of the disciples was willing to perform the lowly duty of washing the feet of others. The service belonged to the youngest, or the one of lowest rank. Then Jesus quietly did it Himself. It was not in a moment of depression that He performed this deed of lowly humility. He was fully conscious of His divine character while He knelt before His disciples washing their feet. It was this consciousness of His glory that made the condescension so stupendous. It would have been no condescension for John or Peter to have washed the feet of the others.
The story of Christ's act of humility is told in very beautiful words. Jesus did not consider His holy hands, too fine for the washing of the feet of the twelve men who sat around the table. Some of us think we are too great or too high in rank among men--to stoop to any lowly service like this. Our thought of our greatness and our dignity prevents us from doing the beautiful things of love. That was the way the disciples thought of themselves. Christ's act of humility is an answer to all such pride and pretension. Never was there any other being of such glorious nobility as Jesus; yet He did not hesitate to perform this lowliest of all service. Some us like to do all our serving by proxy. We will pay a deaconess or a city missionary for relieving the poor or ministering to the sick--but will not do the work with our own hands. We do not know what blessing we miss, in declining to accept such blessed service, nor how much more the service means--when we do it with our own hands. "The gift without the giver--is bare."
Peter shrank from having his Master perform such menial service for him. It was natural for him to feel thus. It was his deep sense of personal unworthiness that led him to exclaim as he saw his master about to perform the lowly service, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" The answer Jesus gave bade him submit, though he could not understand what was being done. Someday it would all be clear to him.
"You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand." There are many things which Christ does which at the time we cannot understand. They seem mysterious to us. Yet afterwards we shall see the reason for them and find beauty in them. This is true of many of the providences of our lives. At one time Jacob said, "All these things are against me" (Genesis 42:36). But he lived to see that the very things which he thought were against him--were really working for His good. So it always is in the dealings of God with His people. We cannot understand now--but someday we shall know. "The tapestry weavers do their work on the reverse side, looking at the ends and threads, a mystery of tangle and confusion--but not seeing the beautiful picture they are making on the other side. So we are weaving our lives largely on the reverse side." Some day we shall look on the beauty we are unconsciously making in our life today.
There was something generous in Peter's outspoken feeling that he could not allow the holy hands of Christ to wash his feet. It showed his thought of the glory of Christ--and his sense of his own unworthiness. But the answer of Jesus was startling. "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." It was not merely the washing of the feet to which Jesus referred. Cleanliness is a virtue, no doubt, and a duty as well; but Christian discipleship could not be made to turn on anything so incidental. This word of Christ implies among other things--that no one can be a disciple who insists upon having his own way. Utter self-surrender is the essential condition.
We must put ourselves wholly in Christ's hands, and must do just as He bids us--or we can have no part with Him. It is not ours to reason why, or to make any reply--it is ours only to obey.
Especially must this word of Christ be considered in its reference to spiritual cleansing. Unless Christ washes us--we can have no part with Him. No one can be a disciple, until he has been cleansed, and only Christ can cleanse us. Some people profess to take Christ as a teacher, who yet feel no need of being washed by Him. We must understand that this word is final--that Jesus will receive no disciples who do not submit to Him first to be cleansed by Him. The picture of Jesus with the basin is one of wonderful suggestiveness. He must come to all of us first in this way--that He may wash us.
Peter went then to the other extreme, as his impulsive nature always did. He was wiling to submit not only his feet--but his hands and his head. Then Jesus told him that "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean." Bathing is the cleansing of the whole body; and washing is the rinsing off of the dust that gathers on the feet in walking from the bath to the table. There was no necessity for washing Peter's hands and head--he had just come from the bath, and was clean except that his feet had become soiled with the dust as he walked.
But there is a spiritual meaning too. Peter was a justified and regenerated man--he was "clean." All he needed, therefore, now was that the stains of his daily sinning and from his contacts with the world, should be removed. The lesson here is important. Bathing must come before washing. That is, the mere cleansing of daily sins amounts to nothing--unless we have first been received by Christ and justified and saved by Him. The acceptance of Christ as our Savior lifts the guilt from our souls and leaves us free from condemnation. Yet after that, even the holiest need daily forgiveness for daily sins.
Jesus taught the disciples the meaning of what He had done. "Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet--you also should wash one another's feet." We must do all lowly service for each other. We should have in our hearts that love which will lead us into the lowliest service for even the lowliest people.
Then Christ's act was more than one of service--it meant the cleansing of faults, the removing of blemishes of character, the washing of stains gathered in passing through the world. We should seek to rend this service also to each other. We are to help each other to become Christians. We are to seek sanctification, purification, and upbuilding in character of our fellow disciples. Of course, we cannot wash away sins--Christ alone can do that. But we can do something toward making others purer, better and holier. This part of Christian friendship requires great wisdom. It is not easy to reprove the faults of others. We must be careful, first of all, that our own hands are clean--before we attempt to cleanse the stains on the lives of others. We must cast out the beam from our own eye--before we can attempt to remove the mote from our brother's eye.