"It's a Dirty Job"

  John 13:1-17

One of the most popular shows on the Discovery Channel in recent years was “Dirty Jobs.” Every week host, Mike Rowe, would perform various jobs considered difficult, dangerous or just plain disgusting. Here are his five “dirtiest jobs”:

#1. Sewer Inspector

#2. Snake Wrangler

#3. Chicken Sexer

#4. Horse Inseminator

#5. Shark Suit Tester

        ("The O'Reilly Factor," May 22, 2008.)

He didn’t list it, but I’ll bet washing 12 men’s dirty, smelly feet would be high on the list. But, that is exactly what we find Jesus doing in our passage this morning.

Read John 13:1-17

Before we get too deep into this great episode, it is important to set the context. John asserts that it is the day before the Feast of Passover. It is Thursday evening, less than twenty-four hours away from Jesus’ death on the cross. What would you be doing if you knew that you had less than twenty-four hours to live? Perhaps, you would be praying to be spared from death. Or maybe finalizing your last will and testament. Not Jesus. His mind is set on preparing His disciples for His imminent departure. In fact, all of Jesus’ teaching in John 13-17 takes place on the eve of His death.

As we begin this account, it is critical to observe that John emphasizes twice what Jesus knows. In 13:1, Jesus knows that he is going to die and return to His Father. In 13:3, Jesus knows that the Father has given all things into His hands, and that he has come forth from God, and is going back to God. These statements reveal that Jesus knows his origin and His destiny. True humility grows out of our relationship with God the Father. When you know that your needs are met in Christ, when you know who you are, where you came from, and where you’re going, you’ll be able to freely serve others. If you don’t know who you are, where you came from and where you’re going, you’ll not be secure enough to serve. Instead, you’ll be tempted to manipulate people to get your needs met. But as a follower of Jesus you ought to approach relationships out of a sense of fullness. You know who you are, and you have nothing to prove. You no longer must manipulate people or be paranoid about other people’s expectations and opinions. As you meditate on biblical truths that emphasize your identity and significance in Christ, you’ll be more prone to serve rather than seek to be served.

Before we move on, it is critical to grasp 13:1b, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The theme of this section is service founded and grounded in love. Twice John emphasizes Jesus’ great love for His disciples. His life and ministry were characterized by a commitment to “having loved His own.” During His earthly ministry, Jesus invested all His time, energy, and teaching into His disciples. But John also makes the startling point that Jesus “loved them to the end.”

There is a double meaning here: Jesus persisted in faithful love toward His disciples in going to the cross and He loved them despite their failings—unconditionally. Despite their ignorance, unbelief, disobedience, and eventual apostasy, Jesus persevered in His love for His disciples. One of the greatest incentives to serve others is to recognize that Jesus Christ has a vast, unconditional love for you. If you begin to grasp this love, it will motivate you to want to serve others as an expression of gratitude to Jesus.

Today, you may struggle loving unlovely and unlovable Christians. We all struggle here. However, there is hope: When you cannot love a fellow Christian, God can love them through you. He will give you the supernatural strength to love your brother or sister.

John has disclosed what Jesus knows about Himself and His future (13:1-3). Now he reveals what Jesus does in response to His knowledge. In 13:4-5, John describes Jesus’ actions in seven slow-motion scenes:

. . . so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 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.

Don’t miss the fact that according to 13:4 the meal is already underway when Jesus begins washing the disciples’ feet. Foot washing normally occurred before the meal when guests entered a home. Foot washing was a necessity in Palestine. Not only were the streets dusty and dirty, but they usually contained garbage and the waste from the animals that traveled up and down the same streets. Furthermore, the people didn’t wear socks or Nike Air. Instead, they wore open sandals and their feet became very grimy, grungy, sweaty, and smelly. Filthy, smelly feet could make the meal and the fellowship rather uninviting. In Jesus’ day, foot washing was mandatory!

Typically, a guest normally washed his or her own feet after the host offered a basin of water. You knelt, removed your sandals, washed your feet, and then dried them with a towel. If a host had servants, they might be delegated to do the job for you. This was a mark of a high achievement in biblical times. A host that could provide this luxury had arrived. But under no circumstances would the host wash the feet of his guests. The master would never stoop so low as to wash the feet of those beneath him. Slaves washed feet. Masters never did.

So why in the world is Jesus, the Master, washing His disciples’ feet? Why hadn’t the disciples washed each other’s feet? Why hadn’t someone washed Jesus’ feet? After all, this was the evening before his crucifixion. If there was any night the disciples should have served Jesus, it was the Last Supper. Why did they start the meal with dirty feet? No doubt the events of the final few days had distracted them. But we get a greater clue from Luke 22:24. On the way to the Last Supper, the ambitious disciples had been quarreling over who should be the greatest and who would have precedence in Christ’s kingdom. When they entered the Upper Room, there was no servant to perform the customary washing of the feet of the guests, and none of the disciples would condescend to do the menial task. Their minds were full of the subject of their bitter contention, and none was willing to be servant of all. Each feigned unconsciousness of the neglected duty. The disciples were jealous of one another and were competing for the best place. They were all looking out for number one. No wonder they didn’t wash each other’s feet. No wonder it was left to Jesus. As Merrill Tenney wrote in his commentary on this passage, “They were ready to fight for a throne, but not for a towel.” [John: The Gospel of Belief (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1948), 199.]

The attitude of the disciples is what makes John’s deliberate slow-motion account even more powerful. By delaying the foot washing into the meal, Jesus escalated the level of suspense. Have you ever been at a restaurant with some friends, and that awkward moment arrives when the check is placed on the table? The question that likely runs through your mind is: Whose turn is it to pay? Of course, you likely assume it is your friends’ turn to pay for the meal. So, you wait and wait, hoping that they will pick up the bill on the table. Finally, it dawns on you that your friends are not going to pay. So, you slowly reach for the bill, hoping that they will beat you to it. It may seem that this is what Jesus is doing. After spending three years with the world’s greatest theologian, you would hope that the disciples would be willing to serve Him. But this is not the case.

Here we see Jesus as a master teacher. The lack of a servant to wash the disciples’ feet was deliberate. It was the host’s responsibility to provide this, and Jesus was the host. Furthermore, throughout the Gospels, we see Jesus very carefully arranging things in advance (e.g., procuring the donkey and its colt, securing a place in which to celebrate Passover). It is unlikely, then, that Jesus would forget to provide for the foot washing. Finally, all the things that were necessary for the foot washing were present (i.e., the basin, the water, the towel). Therefore, it is likely that Jesus purposefully arranged for a servant not to be present, so that He could wash the disciples’ feet as a picture of servant leadership.

Now, if you are familiar with the Gospels, you are probably anticipating what is about to happen. Peter and Jesus have some legendary dialogue. In 13:6-11, John records Peter’s apprehension over Jesus washing his feet. John writes,

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." (vss. 6-7).

Although Peter can be slow on the uptake, he finally recognizes that his Creator, the very Lord of glory should not be washing his feet. However, Jesus explains that this act will make sense later. And that should have been enough. However, Peter is fighting Jesus tooth and nail: “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet” (vs. 8a).

The Greek is even more forceful: “You will never wash my feet forever.” In other words: “Jesus you will never, ever wash my feet, not now or anytime in the future.” You’ve got to love Peter here! When he gets it wrong, he gets it spectacularly wrong.

Jesus responds to Peter by saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” (vs. 8b). Jesus is not saying that Peter was not saved. But the purpose of the foot washing was to illustrate Jesus’ philosophy of ministry, which is servant leadership. For Peter to reject Jesus’ offer to wash his feet is to reject His entire approach to ministry.

Peter is a man of extremes. Good, old Peter. Sometimes the only time he opens his mouth is to change feet! In 13:9, Peter says to Jesus, “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Peter says, “Jesus, just give me a bath! I’m ready to jump into the tub.” Naturally, he is overcompensating, so Jesus says to him,

“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 (vss. 10-11).

There’s a great lesson here: We walk in a dirty world every day, and some of the dirt rubs off on us. We need to let Jesus get close enough to us so He can keep our lives clean. The issue is not salvation but intimate fellowship with Jesus. Jesus Christ, not only died on the cross for the sins of the world, he lived a life of servanthood. During this last supper, Jesus washed all the feet of his disciples, including Judas, the one who would betray him in a matter of hours.

To visualize this, it is important to remember that Jesus and His disciples are not sitting in chairs around a dining room table. Rather, they are reclining on their left elbows, eating with their right hand, and have their feet behind them. The stench from their feet must have been horrendous. How could they really have enjoyed their meal? Nevertheless, Jesus went from disciple to disciple and washed their feet. In His love, He was able to endure the ingrown nails, corns, calluses, cracked heels, and filth. He did the dirty job that no one else would do. What a great, sacrificial love!

In 13:12-17, John’s account becomes rather pointed:

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them (vs. 12).

Jesus, the master teacher, poses a question because He wants to make sure that they have really caught this truth. He then follows up His question with a powerful declaration:

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (vss. 13-14).

It is worth noting that some Christians understand 13:14b to prescribe foot washing as the third ordinance, along with baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Most Christian groups (including the United Brethren) do not observe foot washing as an ordinance. In fact, I think making it an ordinance rather misses the point that Jesus is making. He is using washing his disciples’ feet as a symbol of service that Christians ought to do to one another. I can see people literally washing one another’s feet in obedience to an ordinance and yet failing to serve one another in other ways.

John’s account concludes in 13:15-17 with a powerful punch line:

15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

The command is: Do as I have done. Jesus is simply saying, “See what needs to be done and do it.”

If I could boil down this sermon into one statement, it would be: Actions speak louder than words. If Jesus asked the disciples, “Do you love Me?” they would have responded, “We love You with all our hearts.” If He had asked them, “Do you love one another?” His disciples would have replied, “We love each other and all of God’s children.” Jesus’ disciples knew the right things, but they did not do the right things. Yet, James, the half-brother of Jesus said, “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” (Jas 1:22). Actions speak louder than words.

Many cathedrals in Europe suffered damage in bombing raids during World War II. The explosion of a bomb in one great cathedral blew the hands off a statue of Christ. Though the cathedral was repaired, the statue of Christ stands there today with His hands missing. An inscription on the pedestal reads, “Christ hath no hands but yours.” Today will you be Jesus’ hands and feet?

Today, will you pray that the Holy Spirit will reveal to you a single person He wants you to serve? Don’t think about a list of twenty, just one single person that the Lord will lay upon your heart. Ask Him for the grace to love this person unconditionally and to serve him or her with your whole being. Remember, actions speak louder than words. May you and I follow in the sandals of Jesus and become foot washers.