52 Reflections on the Gospel of John: #26. Washing Feet and Digging Deeper
by Travis Bookout
So, if you’ve been reading these reflections up to this point, it may be starting to sound like a broken record, but when reading the Gospel of John you must look for meanings beneath the surface. There are things that physically literally happen, but there are also hints and clues towards deeper layers of meaning which the reader is supposed to pursue. Jesus literally got on His hands and knees, literally took water and a towel, and literally washed 24 feet. This took time and effort. It was done with care. It was an act of service that He wanted His disciples to experience and imitate.
I’ve seen a preacher scrub vomit out of the church carpet where a little girl got sick. I’ve seen Christians open up their home on Thanksgiving to the homeless for a warm family meal. I’ve seen disciples giving rides to the elderly, repainting widow’s houses, raking leaves, changing light bulbs, fixing appliances, repairing cars, holding hands, praying, and literally washing those who could not wash themselves. I’ve seen the message of foot-washing lived out in the daily life of the church. While it’s possible to emphasize the failings and misconduct of the church, it’s essential to remember the good. The kind. The servants. The foot-washers (1 Timothy 5:10).
That message and challenge must be seen in John 13. It must be lived out. But at the same time, is it possible that there is more going on here also? Is it possible that there is more than just a message of service? More than a literal foot washing? Perhaps a message about a different kind of washing that Jesus provides?
Symbolic Language and Foot-Washing:
Read closely this exchange between Jesus and Peter:
“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘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.’ For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean’” (John 13:6-11).
There are a few clues alerting the careful reader that something deeper is happening here. Notice first, when Jesus says, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” What does this mean? There is something missed in the moment, that will be recognized when looking backwards. You know the expression, “Hindsight is always 20/20”? Sometimes removing yourself by time from an event can help you see the event much more clearly. After the cross perhaps the disciples will look back on the foot-washing and see it in a whole new way.
John sometimes lets the reader know about events that were not fully understood until some later point in time. Remember Jesus cleansing the temple? In this action Jesus profoundly links His body to the temple, but it’s a connection that no one seems to understand. Even the disciples. However John, the narrator, lets the reader know, “when He was raised from the dead, His disciples remembered that He said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word which Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22). Only by looking backwards were they able to understand and believe.
So when Jesus tells Peter “afterwards you will understand”, the reader should begin looking for something that might be missed during the foot-washing, but that will come to light later.
A Share with Jesus:
The second phrase we should notice is, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with Me.” The word “share” means “a part” of something bigger. It is used of parts of clothing, parts of the body, parts of a land, etc. In order to have a part, or a share, with Jesus, He must wash you. Peter, always one to go overboard (once literally), then jumps to the conclusion that the foot-washing is not enough! He tells Jesus to wash his hands and head also! He definitely wants be have a share with Jesus. But Jesus reassures him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.”
Do you believe that? Literally? If you wash only your feet, will you be completely clean? Try that for a few weeks and see how the rest of you smells. Physically, literally, it won’t work. The tone is changing here from literal water and washing, to something else. Some sort of washing that makes you completely clean and gives you a part with Jesus.
Hearing this, and thinking physically (as is common in John) Peter misunderstands and demands more than the washing Jesus provides, but is told that what Jesus does is sufficient to make you completely clean. Just sit back and let Jesus lead. Let Him administer the washing. See what He does. At the end, rest assured, you will be completely clean.
Not All of You are Clean?
Notice third, the phrase, “but not all of you [are clean].” This is about Judas (verse 11). This is the dead giveaway that we are no longer talking about literal foot-washing. Jesus didn’t skip Judas’ feet, or do a sloppy job, or use dirty water. Judas’ feet were as clean as everyone else’s. But His heart wasn’t. Jesus masterfully transforms the conversation into a discussion about cleansing of sin, of impurity, a washing that gives you a share with Him. Judas received a washing, but walked away without ever really being clean.
Water is almost always used symbolically in the Gospel of John (see Reflection #19). It is seemingly linked with baptism (John 3:5, 22-23), eternal life (John 4:14), the Holy Spirit (John 3:5, 7:37-39), sight (John 9:7), and the blood of Jesus (John 19:34). I think the foot-washing is no different. The text hints towards a deeper and symbolic washing provided by Jesus; a washing that makes one completely clean and gives you a share with Jesus. Perhaps while reading this, it’s appropriate not only to ask ourselves questions about humility and service to others, but also about baptism, the Holy Spirit, forgiveness, and eternal life. Have you been washed by Jesus?