Calvin writes “There is no love where there is not a willing slavery in assisting a neighbor.” This has ever been felt to be a basic teaching in the Christian church: however, it was not ever applied in the same way in the church. What was, evidently, meant to be a teaching for the whole life of the Christian was changed into a mere rite of feet-washing. What was meant to be of as broad a scope and deep spiritual motive as what Paul teaches in Gal. 5:13 was made a mere matter of imitation of a formal act. In so doing the “but by love serve one another was forgotten as an injunction which covers the entire table of the law; it was forgotten that this was a basic law of the Spirit which is written upon the tables of our heart.
It was the custom up to 1731 for the Lord High Almoner in England to wash the feet of the poor saints (pedilavium) on Thursday before Easter, a custom that arose in the Fourth Century, and one that is still practiced by the Pope of Rome. This is a practice which is still kept by the Primitive Baptist Church in the U.S.A.; it is also practiced in some of the churches here in the island of Jamaica where the undersigned labors.
These churches, which practice foot-washing as a rite in the church, appeal to the words of Jesus in John 13:14, “If I then the Lord and the Teacher have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet.” This seems to be rather final and conclusive, does it not? However, we must not simply listen to one sentence and a few syllables, but we must study the entire passage in John 13:1-17. In so doing we will come to a rather considerate conclusion that Jesus does here not institute a new “rite” in the church, but that he is here teaching by way of “example”; it is really an illustration with a solemn warning to the disciples concerning the proper attitude which must be had and fostered in the church, to wit, a willing slavery and low-mindedness toward our fellow-member in Christ, fulfilling the law of Christ.
But we are anticipating.
The time when Jesus spoke these words was during the Passover Supper in the upper room in Jerusalem; it was in the night in which Jesus was betrayed. And, strange and incongruous as it may seem, the disciples had a dissention at the table; the question was one concerning protocol and prestige: who was to have the place of honor at the table, and who would be the greatest in the kingdom of heaven (Luke 22:24). The contention was very great! No doubt, Peter had been deeply involved in this heated discussion. And, having been rebuked by Jesus, he must have gone and taken the lowest seat at the table in a rather mocked humility.
And now Peter and all the disciples must learn a lesson. They must be given an example. The term in the Greek for “example” is a term which is used in those Scripture passages where there is also illustration and warning (Matthew 3:7: II Peter 2:6; Hebrews 4:11). A mere cursory reading of these passages will prove that we are dealing with examples which stand out as warnings! Peter needs a lesson in the basic a, b, c’s of godliness in the church; the Lord will teach Peter and bring him from his mock humility to see what he will afterwards “know” when he is converted. And the entire group of disciples will learn this lesson, except for Judas Iscariot.
Jesus rises from supper, takes a basin of water, girds himself with a towel, and comes to Peter to wash his feet. Peter objects in the strongest staccato terms. “Lord, thou wash the feet of me?” he asks. Peter does not understand and Jesus patiently and wisely informs him, “What I do thou knowest not now, but thou shall understand (know experientially) hereafter.” Peter is not listening; he does not submit in obedience. He blurts out, “Thou shall never wash my feet!” Then Jesus takes Peter firmly in hand, and says, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” That brought Peter to his spiritual senses; now he will not only have his feet washed, but he desires also his hands and his head washed. He desires a part in Christ at all costs. Yet, Peter is still so very wrong. He does not understand. What does he not understand? He does not understand that the reality of the “part” in Christ is to be “wholly cleansed” from the guilt and the pollution of sins through the Spirit of Christ. He makes much of the foot-washing; he would expand this foot-washing — as if that were the essence of the washing — into a full bath. But Christ puts him on the proper track by stating that he, who is “cleansed” needeth not to have any member of his body washed, save his feet only. The washing is only symbolical in this ease. I once met an enthusiastic Baptist and he assured me that he was a Baptist by asserting. “Yes, a Baptist and all wet.” to which I rejoined that I was Reformed and “wholly clean.”
Jesus assures the disciples that they are wholly clean in the cleansing power of grace; yet not all, for Judas Iscariot was the exception. But these people, who were wholly clean, needed a lesson, an example-lesson. And the example-lesson is the washing of their feet by Jesus their Lord and Teacher. They need a lesson which show’s them how to reveal in their lives that they are “wholly clean.” They must know that they who say, “I love the Lord” but do not love their neighbor, lie and do not the truth.
Does this mean that foot-washing is here instituted as a rite. We believe not. Jesus does not say that he is instituting a rite in the church. Writes Calvin, “It is to be noted that Christ says that He gave an example. For it is not right to take all his actions indiscriminately as objects of imitation …. We read nothing of this sort. Therefore the (Lenten) imitation of it is no less wicked than if they tried to fly up into heaven. Besides, whereas they ought to have followed Christ, they were aping rather than imitating Him …. This ceremonial comedy is nothing but a shameful mockery of Christ. At any rate, Christ does not enjoy an annual ceremony here, but tells us to be ready all through our life to wash the feet of our brethren.”
This was a good lesson in the midst of the contention as to who would be considered the greatest. The solemn words of Jesus drive the point home to you and me. They are a vow whereby God swears by Himself in Jesus ‘‘Amen, Amen, I say unto you, a servant is not greater than his lord; neither is the one sent greater than he who sent him.”
If ye know these things, blessed are ye when you do them, keep on doing them throughout life’s course.
Do you understand this my youthful friend?