He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.” (verses 6-10)
There’s a mixture of respect and pride at work in Simon Peter’s response to Jesus. Respect, in that he sees Jesus as the Master who should not be expected to take the lowly position and task of a common slave. Peter views Jesus much too highly to allow him to stoop so low. But also pride, in that he himself doesn’t want to be the cause of Jesus’ condescension – let him wash someone else’s feet, he thinks, but not mine.
Jesus means to disabuse Peter of both perspectives. Peter’s respect is well-meaning, but misplaced. John gets it exactly right when he writes: "Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love" (John 13:1). Stooping down to serve is the very reason Jesus, as Son of God, came into the world in the first place. Such caring service demonstrates his glory, rather than diminishing it. Peter can fully show respect by fully embracing Jesus’ intention.
But dealing with pride is another issue. It’s a matter of fully embracing one’s own need, recognizing the dirt that’s there, submitting to the cleansing that’s necessary. It’s a matter of realizing there is no other possibility for deliverance than through the Master himself. It’s a matter of coming to terms with the fact that our unclean state means we can’t have the relationship with him we would want. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (verse 8 ).
Peter (bless him!) is quick to change course. He gets it! Immediately. With typical enthusiasm and vigor he spills it out: “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” (verse 9). What’s with the half-measures, he says. Let’s not leave it at foot-washing. Give me a bath!
It’s then that Jesus teaches Peter a valuable lesson, and us, too. If you’ve already had a bath, he says, you only need to have your feet washed to be completely clean. “And you are clean,” he says (verse 10), adding later, “You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you” (John 15:3). The lesson is this: Jesus himself thoroughly washes us, the cleansing coming by his sacrificial death on the cross. Sin is fully dealt with there – past, present and future. Forgiveness is fully won. But, as we travel through life, we pick up dirt – it’s a picture that describes the reality of ongoing sin. Jesus taught us to pray, “Forgive us our debts” (Matthew 6:12). It’s a daily prayer – a prayer for spiritual foot-washing.
John himself will later write, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). It’s the ongoing process of spiritual foot-washing. We’ve had the full bath, but we need to confess our sins, regularly, allowing the Master to wash off accumulated dirt.
Because he’s the Master, he’s able, and his love compels him. Because we walk life’s road, impetuous as Peter, frail as all humanity, we need that ongoing cleansing.
So, submit to the Master. Allow his nail-pierced hands to take your feet, once again.
Lord Jesus, thank you that you have so loved me that you purchased my cleansing by your sacrificial death. You showed me the full extent of your love. Thank you, too, that you are not surprised by my ongoing need. I submit to you once again.
Reflect: Take time to confess. What sins have accumulated? What cleansing is needed?