Thursday of the week-long Passover Celebration had come. It was the Day of Unleavened bread, one of the highest feast days on the Jewish calendar. The official Passover lamb would be slaughtered in memory of that epic event in Egypt when God waged judgment on the Pharaoh. Every first born in Egypt would die…except for the sons of the Hebrew people. The Hebrews had been told to put the blood of a spotless lamb on the doorposts of their homes. This act of faithful obedience would save their firstborn sons and open the door to their freedom from the Egyptians. For century upon century, the Hebrew people (who came to be called the Jews…a shortening of the name of the tribe of Judah) would celebrate that breathtaking time when God delivered them from slavery.
That first sacrifice of the lamb as a form of salvation for the people under Egyptian slavery was an image or a shadow of the one that Jesus was about to purchase with His own blood. The difference was that His death was not for the sake of one generation. His payment didn’t pay for merely one group of people. Jesus would offer His life as a sacrifice to pay for the sins of the members of any generation who put their faith in Him.
The disciples asked Jesus where He wanted them to go to prepare the Passover meal. Jesus told John and Peter:
“‘Behold, when you have entered the city, a man will meet you carrying a pitcher of water; follow him into the house that he enters. And you shall say to the owner of the house, “The Teacher says to you, ‘My time is at hand. Where is the guest room in which I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” And he will show you a large, furnished upper room that is ready and prepared for us.’”
Imagine how random and strange it must have felt to simply follow a stranger into a house because he was carrying a pitcher of water. What if they followed the wrong man? How did Jesus know when the man would happen to walk down that road with a pitcher of water? It took faith for His disciples to obey such orders. It could have made them look like total fools.
They could have asked Jesus for more details. Jesus could have told them the man’s name. They could have talked to him before following the guy into the house. However, the disciples were getting used to the ways of Jesus. It seems like the Lord set the situation up in a way to make sure that the disciples knew that this arrangement was divine. They were nailing down the details, but God the Father was orchestrating the whole thing. Then Matthew, Mark, and Luke all made sure to record what happened. It must have been an important story. It tells us some interesting things about how God works with His beloved as He calls them to act in history.
The disciples went out just as Jesus told them and found everything happened just as He said it would. As the Lord obeyed his Father with utter perfection, the Divine plan unfolded. Every step was purposed by God, and at every stage, Jesus listened to His Father and obeyed.
In the evening, the disciples gathered at the place that they had prepared to celebrate the Passover meal. Jesus was reclining as they sat on the floor together at the table. He said, “‘I have earnestly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer; for I say to you, I shall never again eat it until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God.’”
Think about this for a second. Jesus was God and was infinitely loved by God. He also had the whole heavenly host of angels as His beloved servants. Yet as Jesus was faced with bearing the weight of human sin and the full force of God’s wrath against it, He tenderly longed to be with these bedraggled and confused disciples. His love had nothing to do with some special quality in the ones He was loving. The greatness of Christ’s love for them had to do with His tremendous ability to love. As we read the things He shared with His disciples, we can take His Words very, very personally. They belong to us, too.
It is also interesting to note that as Jesus ate, He was aware that this was His last feast before His suffering. Yet His vision did not stop at the cross. He was looking through the cross to the victory that would be gained on the other side. For you see, Jesus lived in the fullest fullness of faith. He knew that He had come to earth from God and that He was returning to His Father. He knew that His Father had already given everything into His hands. Yet with all of that epic hope in front of Him, Jesus still focused on the present moment of obedience. As John described it, even though Jesus knew the hour of His sacrifice had come, “having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (John 13:1b).
Jesus rose from His place, took off His outer cloak and tied a towel around His waist. The disciples must have wondered what in the world He was doing. Then He went over and poured water into a bowl. One by one, He went to each of His disciples and began to wash their feet. Imagine how dirty and cracked those feet were after the miles they walked each day. Imagine their astonishment that their Master would do such a thing. It was a lowly job, the filthiest of all. In Israel, only non-Jewish slaves were supposed to do it. Yet there was Jesus, scrubbing and rinsing off the dirt and wiping each foot clean with His towel.
By the time He got to Simon Peter, Peter had decided. This was not going to happen. He declared, “‘You shall never wash my feet.’”
Jesus said, “‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’”
Peter replied, “‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’” Oh! How earnestly Peter took everything way too far! But listen to the Lord’s gentle reply, “‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.’”
Why do you think Jesus chose this night to wash His disciples feet? These were His last hours with them on earth before His death. They would remember these moments with special clarity for the rest of their lives. What was so important that this activity trumped anything else He could have said or done that night?
Well, the first thing we know is that the foot washing was an image or symbol of what Christ was about to do for them in His death. He would break the power of the Curse. Just as Adam’s sin brought death, the death of Jesus would bring life to all who believe in Him (see Romans 4 and 5). He was breaking into the order of the Fallen World and bringing a New Age. In the New Order, anyone who put their faith in Jesus is completely cleansed and made right before God! They are given the righteousness of Jesus Himself! From that moment on, they are transformed into a new kind of creature. Their hearts have been utterly changed, and they no longer belong to this world. When they do sin, they do not go back to being lost and cursed and shamed before God. They simply need to confess. Jesus will wash those areas of filth clean, just as He was washing His disciples’ feet. Everyone who has put their faith in Jesus can trust that before God, they are made clean. Yet just as Christ told Peter, His disciples still need to come to Him every day. They need to be cleansed from the sin that will still trouble them while they live as strangers in a world that is Cursed. But this image was not only about being cleansed from sin. Jesus was modeling how He wanted His disciples to relate to one another.
When Jesus said that not all of His disciples were clean, who do you think He was talking about? Do you think Judas knew that Jesus knew? What would it have felt like to be Judas as Jesus was washing his feet? Wow. In that moment, and in all the moments of the week before, Judas had every chance to repent. But even as Jesus scrubbed the filth from his feet, Judas clung to the filth of his heart. Even as Jesus pointed out that Judas was not clean, Judas rejected his chance to confess. And so he became confirmed in his sin.
When Jesus finished washing all of their feet, He said:
“‘Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord” and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’”
Jesus explained to His disciples that now that they were cleansed from their sin, they had marching orders. Jesus would conquer sin and death, and a New Age would begin. It would be possible to have a whole New Covenant with God.
These men were to be the heralds of all that Christ had done, carrying His message to the world. The Kingdom of God would burst out into the Kingdom of Darkness like a brilliant flame as the people gave their lives in faith to Jesus. They would be cleansed, too, and the community of love that they built together would be like a fortress in His Kingdom on earth!
How would they treat each other? Would they become greedy and grasping like the Pharisees, who fought for the seats of honor? Or would they carry in their hearts the character of their Master? Would each choose to wash each other’s feet with humility, meekness, and a desire to be peacemakers? In these sacred moments when the Lord of the Universe knelt down and scrubbed the filth of the day off of His disciple’s feet, He gave a physical demonstration of how the citizens of His Kingdom were to turn their hearts towards one another. It is an image we can take into every relationship and every situation to measure whether our hearts are like the heart of God.