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Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Jesus' Seventh Sign." To view all parts, click the link below.
John 13:5-7 says,
5 Then He poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.”
Peter was unaware of the prophetic significance of Jesus’ actions, though obviously Jesus knew precisely what He was doing. No doubt Peter saw Jesus’ action as the work of a maidservant, an act of humility. In a time and place where men walked on hot, dusty roads, it was common courtesy to wash the feet of an arriving guest.
Most people today are thus content to understand it as Peter did. But it was more than an act of humility, as we see from Jesus’ reply. Jesus informed Peter that he did not yet understand what Jesus was doing. John 13:8 then says,
8 Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
Peter may have been embarrassed, since there is no record that he had ever washed Jesus’ feet. John Lightfoot writes,
“It was an unusual thing for superiors to wash the feet of inferiors. Amongst the duties required from a wife towards her husband this was one, that she should wash his face, his hands, and his feet. The same was expected by a father from his son. The same from a servant towards his master, but not vice versa. Nor, as I remember, was it expected from a disciple towards his master, unless included in that rule, ‘That the disciple is to honor his master more than his father’.” (Commentary on the New Testament from the Talmud and Hebraica, Vol. III, p. 390)
Lightfoot explains that foot-washing in itself was not done for legal cleansing but for comfort after being out on the dusty road. Legal cleansing involved washing both hands and feet, as seen in Exodus 30:19 and 21. The stated reason is “so that they will not die.”
While there is no reason to think that Jesus washed the hands of His disciples, the necessity of submitting to Jesus’ foot-washing shows that this signified far more than just an act of humility or to give comfort to the disciples while they ate their meal. To refuse meant that “you have no part with Me.” It was a fellowship issue. Peter immediately understood that his fellowship with Jesus depended upon this, and so he overreacted in his usual impetuous way. John 13:9 says,
9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”
Even in his overreaction, Peter was still thinking in terms of a servant’s duty, or, as Lightfoot says, a wife’s duty in those days to wash her husband’s face, hands, and feet. But Jesus’ response shows that Peter still did not understand what He was doing. John 13:10, 11 says,
10 Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; but not all of you.” 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.”
Here we see that the underlying purpose of this foot-washing was for legal cleansing, not for general comfort or even as a show of humility. He was acting the part of Moses, who was also commanded to wash Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:6) when consecrating them. No doubt that too was an act of humility on his part, yet it was also part of the ritual of legal cleansing.
Anyone could be washed with water, but that did not mean that he was truly clean. Water rituals could not cleanse the heart. Many people have been washed (or baptized) with water but their hearts remained unclean. No doubt Eli and his wicked sons cleansed themselves daily at the laver at the tabernacle, and yet they were not in fellowship with the God they claimed to worship. The same could be said of the religious leaders in the temple during Jesus’ day.
True cleansing comes through the water of the word. Physical water was only a type; the word is the antitype. It is the word of God that cleanses the heart and puts one in fellowship with God and with the body of Christ. John explains this principle later in an epistle. 1 John 1:6-9 says,
6 If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 but if we walk in the light, as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. 8 If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us. 9 If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Whereas the priests of Levi cleansed themselves daily as they ministered in the tabernacle and temple, we who are priests of Melchizedek are cleansed first by the blood of Christ and then daily by the washing of the word. Instead of washing our hands and feet with water, we use the word to change our works and our daily walk. This is what refines our thinking and maintains our fellowship with Christ and with each other.
In recent years a teaching has emerged in some portions of the church telling people that they should not confess any sin. They say that confession means owning it, and thus making one subject to sin. This seems to be based on the idea of positive thinking which says that “if we say that we have no sin,” then we will not be liable for it; and if “if we confess our sins,” we will continue to be in bondage to those sins.
This is obviously a distortion of the truth. It is the equivalent of an Old Testament priest refusing to wash at the laver on the grounds that it is an admission that he is in need of cleansing. In other words, if he just ignores the laver, then he can be without sin.
The truth of the matter is that the blood of Jesus does indeed cleanse us from all sin in the big picture, but Scripture gives us more than one cleansing agent. The blood of Jesus imputes righteousness to us, giving us legal perfection, as Paul explains in Romans 4.
But this does not mean we are actually perfect. We are imputed righteous because the blood of Jesus covers our sin while we are learning to be led by the Spirit. It takes time to be changed into his image. In Leviticus 16 the first goat covers sin; the second goat removes sin.
Those who do not understand the law find it difficult to understand the spiritual principles in the New Testament as well. Relatively few Christians understand the difference between imputed righteousness and actual righteousness, because they do not comprehend Paul’s teaching in Romans 4. Christians thus find themselves wallowing in guilt because they think they are not saved as long as they are imperfect. They are thus vulnerable to the false teaching that one can be perfect by refusing to acknowledge or confess sin.
The biblical solution is to understand that they are already imputed righteous, defined as God calling what is not as though it were (Romans 4:17 KJV). This legal or “positional” righteousness gives us fellowship with God even before we are actually perfected. It gives us time through the feast of Pentecost to learn obedience until we are fully perfected through the feast of Tabernacles.
Hence, we may indeed lay claim to being righteous, as long as we understand that it is imputed righteousness, not actual righteousness. In so doing, we call what is NOT as though it were. This is not a lie, nor does it ignore reality, because it is legitimized by God Himself. It is based upon a law of time, wherein a promise of what shall be may be appropriated as if it were a present reality.
Meanwhile, Pentecost teaches us the ways of God by the leading of the Spirit and by hearing His voice, so that the law may be written on our hearts over a period of time. So Passover is where we receive the blood of Jesus; Pentecost is the time where we receive the water of the word that cleanses us in our daily walk.
Without the blood, we have no basis of fellowship with God, but without the water of the word to wash our feet, we again fail to walk in the light and have fellowship with Him. Rather than denying the existence of sin in our lives, or claiming that we have no sin, we ought to repent daily and to hear His voice, so that our minds are transformed and renewed (Romans 12:2).
The importance of the water of cleansing is seen in Jesus’ response to Peter, who at first did not want Jesus to wash his feet. That response is seen again in the church itself—in those who reject the law (word) of God through various forms of lawlessness (anomia). In the end, though men may perform many wonderful miracles in the name of Jesus, He will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness” (Matthew 7:23).
This, I believe, is the underlying principle behind Jesus’ act of foot-washing. Though Peter did not yet understand its purpose, he would come to understand it after the day of Pentecost, which, among other things, brought the revelation of daily cleansing by the washing of the word.
What about Judas?
It appears that Jesus washed the feet of Judas. Jesus also told Peter that washing his feet was necessary to be in fellowship with Him. So was Judas in fellowship with Jesus?
The more precise wording is that without washing their feet, they would have no part with Him. Judas, in spite of the fact that he was a thief (John 12:6) and a betrayer, did indeed have a part with Jesus as a disciple. We read this in Peter’s words in Acts 1:17 KJV,
17 For he was numbered with us and had obtain part of this ministry.
Judas “part” or portion in this ministry had been temporary, of course, for he was replaced, even as Ahithophel had been replaced after betraying King David. It is possible to have a calling that proves to be temporary. We see this with both Saul and Ahithophel. Saul’s anointing was legitimate, and theoretically, at least, he might have had an enduring dynasty, if he had remained obedient (1 Samuel 13:13).
Judas, too, had the opportunity to endure as Jesus’ disciple. His calling was legitimate, but it too was temporary, for he was to fulfill the role of Ahithophel who betrayed David in the story of Absalom’s rebellion (2 Samuel 15:31).
Therefore, just because Jesus washed the feet of Judas with physical water did not ensure him a permanent place among the disciples. He fell out of fellowship with Jesus because his heart was not cleansed by the word. And, of course, we must also recognize that in the sovereign plan of God, Judas had to play the role of Ahithophel.
So also Jesus acknowledged in John 13:11 that “not all of you are clean.” This was an obvious reference to Judas, who was outwardly cleansed but not inwardly.
Note: This blog post is part of a series titled "Jesus' Seventh Sign." To view all parts, click the link below.