John 13: 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.
The washing of feet was considered too demeaning a task to give to a Jewish slave. Only a gentile slave could be asked to take on such debased work; a matter of personal hygiene one usually had to do for oneself. Not so very long ago Mary had washed Jesus’ feet with expensive perfume and dried them with her hair. It was an act of self-humiliation intended to honour Jesus.
Now Jesus enacts a parable, along similar lines, intended to explain his incarnation. It is precisely because (v4) he knew he was God incarnate— from God and returning to God— that he got up from the table and took on the appearance of a slave. That is to say, he left behind his heavenly majesty and took up human flesh in order to serve. Jesus poured water into a bowl (perhaps an oblique reference to his baptism into the human race in Jn 1:29-34) and began wiping the feet of his disciples with the towel he was wearing. In the terms of the parable, it is Jesus’ own body that becomes the instrument of cleansing from sin. The filth belonging to the disciples feet is washed away by the body of Jesus.
Peter protests (v8). He recognises that Jesus is far greater than he and will not let him debase and humiliate himself on his behalf. But Jesus insists. The footwashing is a parable, an enacted metaphor. Unless Jesus dies for Peter’s sin then he has no part in him. There’s no magic in the water– it’s really all about the cross. Jesus’ incarnation climaxes in the cross.
Having been rebuked, Peter calls for a full bath (v9)! Once again, he misses the point of the parable. Already the disciples believe in Jesus— the condition of faith is present— and so the ‘bath’ of baptism is not required as that initial signal of repentance, confession and belief which results in cleansing. But the cross which this faith depends upon is still essential— which is the point of this symbolic foot washing (both cross and foot-washing are ‘humiliation’). Peter has mixed/extended the metaphor and Jesus is getting him back on point. He is preparing his disciples to understand the cross.
Almighty God, I am humbled that you would humiliate yourself in my behalf, taking my sin in your body on the cross. I may never fully grasp what was involved in laying aside your divine glory in order to take on the mantle of a slave. But I thank you that in Jesus Christ you did this; and that I am a beneficiary. Please let me learn to live in response to your glory and your self-sacrifice. Amen.