Although most Gospel parables came in story form, occasionally Jesus acted out a parable. For instance, when he rode into Jerusalem on the back of a donkey, through that action he proclaimed to those with eyes to see that he was the longed-for Prince of Peace. So too when he washed his disciples’ feet, he acted out another parable, and through that action proclaimed to those with eyes to see the meaning of the Cross.
This is what underlines Jesus’ words to Peter: “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (13.7). Jesus’ lesson in humility was embarrassingly clear, but the deeper significance of his washing the disciples’ feet could only be appreciated after the cross and resurrection.
Similarly, the words John uses to describe Jesus’ action are significant. Literally, John says Jesus ‘laid down’ his clothes (13.4), and then, once the washing was over, ‘he took them up again’ (13.12). These are not the usual verbs for taking off and putting on clothing. They are verbs which Jesus had used of himself as the good shepherd to speak of his death and resurrection: “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (10.11); “No one takes it from me, but I lay it down, and I have power to take it up again” (10.18). For John the foot-washing points to the Cross.
This reference to the Cross is also present in the words of Jesus to Peter: “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (13.8). Jesus was not just talking of washing with water; he had in mind a deeper cleansing. He was in effect saying that ‘There is no place in my company for those who have not been cleansed from sin by my death. If you want to be one of my disciples, then you must receive the benefits of my death on the Cross.’
The Cross – a place of amazing love
John begins the story by saying: Jesus “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the very end” (John 13.1) – i.e. he loved them even to the end of his life, even to the point of the Cross. Immediately John goes on to speak of Judas Iscariot (13.2). The implication is that Jesus loved even Judas, whose heart was set to betray him. As Jesus washed the feet of Judas, so too in love he died for Judas. The NIV has an alternative translation: “He now showed them the full extent of his love”. The love of Jesus extends to all infinity. As Paul later wrote to the Ephesians, the love of Jesus knows no bounds – the breadth and length, the depth and height of the love of Jesus are beyond comprehension. His love is literally “unfathomable”, “unsearchable”, and “surpasses knowledge” (Eph 3.18,19).
The Cross – a place of extraordinary humility
Washing the feet of others was a demeaning, humbling experience. Slaves of Jewish birth were not bound to perform this menial task, but Jesus turned the tables. Jesus, the Lord of glory, stooped to perform the task of a slave. What was true of his washing his disciples’ feet, was true even more of the Cross. In the words of the great Christ-hymn: Jesus, “though he was in the form of God… emptied himself, taking the form of a slave… And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death – even death on a cross.” (Phil 2.6-8). Jesus, the Son of God from all eternity, took upon himself the role of the Suffering Servant: “The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquity” (Isa 53.11).
The cross – a place of deepest cleansing
The purpose of the foot-washing was cleansing – so too the purpose of the Cross. Just as it was impossible to tramp the dusty roads of Palestine without getting grubby, so it is impossible to live life without picking up all sorts of dirt on life’s journey. None of us are clean – all of our lives are stained by sin. Jesus said: “It is from the human heart that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride folly. All these things defile [make unclean] a person (Mark 7.21-23). Humanly speaking there is no way we can get clean again and so get right with God, but God has provided us with a solution in his crucified Son, who can make us clean however much we may have messed up. As John later wrote: “The blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1.7). In Jesus we can truly begin again, for in him there is total forgiveness.