It is our Lord’s final night, the beginning of his finale. He knows the cup that awaits, he knows the betrayal and the pain, and he knows that we would be watching thousands of years later. What does he do? Through John’s eyes, we see how Jesus demonstrates the heart of the Bible:
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:3–5)
Everything Jesus teaches about the world—about God and about our duty in this world—is evidenced, encapsulated, and emphasized in Christ’s washing of the disciples’ feet. In this act, he shows the incarnation and the crucifixion. He shows David’s loving shepherd and Ruth’s kinsman-redeemer. In this act, he shows the genesis of God speaking the universe into existence, all the way to John’s revelation of the Lamb on his throne. In this act, he shows the final separation between the friends and the enemies of God, and he shows us the narrow way that defies all human wisdom and values. He shows that moment before God said, “Let there be light.” For in the example of our Lord and a wiping cloth, he shows the purpose behind everything—God’s plan compressed into an everyday task.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” (John 13:12–15)
God’s ways are mysterious, yet he hasn’t been working in a corner silently and secretly. He has been progressively telling humanity what he’s up to: covenant. The Bible is this document, his journal, so to speak. The church with Bible in hand has no doubt of the Almighty’s great intention: covenant.1
God—who knows the end from the beginning—has shown us the end, so we know and see what it was all about and where it’s headed: that God might dwell with his covenant people;2 and this fantastic vision of Christ with a towel in his hand carries the heart and soul of that plan.
Before the creation of the world, a plan was made: All the power and majesty and thoughts of the Almighty would be wrapped up and encapsulated into flesh. Starting as a cell, he would grow into a man to be the walking, talking mind of God. God in the flesh would turn the world upside down by making a people who pleased God.
“You are the sons of the prophets and the covenant that God made with your fathers, saying to Abraham, ‘And in your offspring shall all the families of the earth be blessed.’ God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness.” (Acts 3:25–26)
Covenant, incarnation, atonement, and God-pleasing servanthood are all wrapped together in the mystery of the gospel.
Christ redeemed us . . . so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith. (Gal. 3:13–14)
The kingdom of God would come with inside-out power, and a humble mustard seed would take over the universe (Matt. 13:31–32; Dan. 2:35). All this starts and ends with the Creator himself demonstrating a considerate, serving heart (Phil. 2:5–11): “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Isa. 42:1). The leaders of this world expect servants to wait on them hand and foot.
“Will any one of you who has a servant plowing or keeping sheep say to him when he has come in from the field, ‘Come at once and recline at table’? Will he not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, and dress properly, and serve me while I eat and drink, and afterward you will eat and drink’?” (Luke 17:7–10)
God’s Son came as a humble shepherd who tended his flock (John 10:2–18; Ezek. 34:15). Not only was he here to redeem his people as the Lamb of God, but he was also here to sanctify. When his disciples settled in the Upper Room after their busy day, what did Jesus do? Knowing God’s plan and his part in it, our Lord Jesus did the opposite of worldly-wise people. He took off his robe and got to work washing their feet. In front of him were men whose feet had a destined path before them. Some would be “led where they did not want to go” (John 21:18), and others would walk to the corners of the earth. One man’s feet would soon be hanging from a tree (Matt. 27:5), but all twelve would be touched by the Savior.
In a few hours, Jesus would be on his knees, sweating blood. In a few more, his own now-perfumed feet (12:3) would be nailed to a cross. In the ultimate act of service, he would meet our greatest need and face the wrath of God in our place. His disciples would soon be weeping while washing their Lord’s dead body from head to foot. But at this moment, our Lord showed them the full extent of his love, by washing their weary feet.
Peter, though, knew Christ as lion. His Lord was the child born of the promise, the one called “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace” (Isa. 9:6). Sensitive to all this, Peter revolted at the apparent backwardness of Christ as servant. Recall how Christ responded to Peter, “If I do not do this you have no part of me.” Something was going on, however, that was bigger than Peter understood at that moment. God’s plan “Up” was being demonstrated.
Up Is Down Demonstrated: Humility and Repentance
A clear scriptural truth is this: The kingdom of God is entered on one’s knees. Christ entered our world in obscurity and left in glory, and in this model “are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col. 2:3).
Since the beginning, God has been clear about his expectations. Micah 6:8 summarizes God’s desire for man in these words:
He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?
While human society merely gives lip service to justice, kindness, and humility, this is not the way to power. Rather, to be on top, they “lord it over” others.3 Instead of valuing the way they know they should be, they choose not to comply. So God “gave them up to shameful passions” to “do what ought not to be done.” All the brokenness, pain, and suffering in this world stems from this antithetical, self-absorbed perspective on justice, kindness, and humility (Rom. 1:26, 28–32). And in God’s economy, those who choose to push themselves up on the backs of others hurt this world and will soon be thrown down from their exalted place. “He opposes the proud” (James 4:6).
On the other hand, those who acknowledge God begin by going down on their knees in humble fear and trembling—in repentance, helplessness, and self-loathing (pachad). And thus “he gives grace to the humble.” The dread and fear of Yahweh turns into a different kind of (pachad) trembling: “Your heart shall thrill and exult” (Isa. 60:4–5).4 This terrified trembling is transformed into joyful exultation for those who are welcomed into covenant with Yahweh. The real way up to joy unspeakable is this low door. The way up is down.
Here in John 13, Christ’s greater purpose was to show the kind of people God’s kingdom will be made of: those who know their God. God’s plan has always been to create a people for himself,5 those who have the kind of demeanor that puts God’s thoughts above humanity’s thoughts, God’s way above humanity’s way. God’s prime requirement is our denial of the world’s honor economy. “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven; . . . blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (Matt. 5:3).
Living before the face of God, we shun the siren calls of this world, as Thomas Brooks says, “where one thousand are destroyed by the world’s frowns, ten thousand are destroyed by the world’s smiles. The world, siren-like, sings us and sinks us.” We tie ourselves to the mast of truth, we plug our ears with hymns, and we look ahead to the throne of God.
This is reality. This is what Jesus was showing to us. “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:24). His act modeled the incarnation’s downward movement that would turn the world’s values upside down. Like the counterweight of a catapult, the Creator lowering himself to servanthood flipped everything.
This Upside-Down World Righted: Sanctification and Justification
When Christ washed the disciples’ feet, he brought into this dark and wicked world pure light, pure goodness, and pure truth. Still, we feel with the disciples the tragedy that “he came to his own and they did not receive him.” Rather than honor, Jesus received ridicule. “Despised and rejected of men,” he lifted his chin valiantly, shining in the darkness. His downward path of condescension led to our salvation and God’s approval, and there was no dishonor in that.
On the evening he was betrayed, Christ spoke, compacting all of human history into his words through his high priestly prayer, the first Communion, his washing the disciples’ feet, his announcement of his betrayal—all fulfilling God’s promise to our first parents (Gen. 3:15). “In the form of God, [he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men” (Phil. 2:6–7). Whatever was to his profit, he considered loss.
The people in God’s kingdom are those who know this God and bend to his will. Notice how Peter bends to Christ’s promise of sanctification, when he asks Jesus to be thorough: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:9). His words here echo David’s: “Purge me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow” (Ps. 51:7). In repentance and rest is our salvation (Isa. 30:15).
Our Lord gave it all up to be the promised seed of Adam and the son of David. He thus opened the way to the eternal world, becoming the doorway to God: “I am the door,” and “I am the gate” (John 10:9; 10:7). To enter through that door, we die to ourselves and then find the pearl. As we bend to Christ’s humble sanctifying work, our lives join the lives of other men and women of faith who found this secret way down that led up.
True justice, mercy, and peace come into the lives of those who have this changed relationship. With God it’s no longer a dog-eat-dog survival of the fittest; it’s the low way that Christ showed us. In the kingdom, we are made right in God’s sight, enabled to “look not only to our own interests but also to the interests of others” (Phil. 2:4).
The sanctified are daily changed into the image of the Creator. Giving ourselves to be washed by the Lord’s servant brings grace and blessing. He changes us. “And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Cor. 6:11). Think about the use of the word justify in everyday life. It’s about how words or actions are balanced, righted, and squared off. It’s the term a builder uses. The church the carpenter is building yields to the touch of his hands.
For all that is in the world—the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life—is not from the Father but is from the world. And the world is passing away along with its desires, but whoever does the will of God abides forever. (1 John 2:16–17)
God’s Plan and Purpose Explained: A Kingdom of Priests
Christ washing his disciple’s feet not only shows our need to bend the knee and yield to our Master, but it also explains the larger plan and purpose of God for the world: multiplying a people for himself who jubilantly worship the Lamb (Rev. 7:9).
A kingdom of God, by God, for God: this is the reason for it all (Rev. 5:10). It’s the reason for a carpenter-king, the reason for a babe in a manger, the reason for a lion on the cross. And this is why the one who was “before all things and in whom all things hold together” would take off his robe and wrap a towel around his waist. It was never about this world. It was about separating out a remnant. The wheat from the chaff—those who would bend, yield, and propagate after their kind (Gen. 1:26; Matt. 28:20). Puritan theologian John Owen wrote:
It was out of infinite condescension and love unto our souls that the Lord Christ took on himself this condition. . . . And God knows such an example we stood in need of, both as a pattern to conform ourselves unto under our infirmities, and to encourage us in the expectation of a good issue unto our present deplorable condition.6
Christ came as a model for us of how to be. For things on earth to propagate after their kind, DNA is needed. The replication of DNA is similar to the model we see in the Bible: Adam to Seth, Moses to Joshua, Elijah to Elisha, and Christ to his disciples. The DNA of godliness, as a visual expression of the heart of God, is something caught and taught, a pattern learned and repeated. Paul is explicit about following this pattern. “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you” (1 Cor. 11:23). “Follow the pattern of the sound words that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus,” and “What you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Tim. 1:1; 2:2).
Jesus, on the night he was betrayed, gave us a specific pattern to replicate: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Our Lord Jesus modeled who God is, who we are, and where this whole thing is going: a kingdom of priests to serve our God, a servant-hearted people living for God’s pleasure and glory. Listen to the new song in heaven recorded in Revelation 5:9–10, and see how it shows the heart of his people:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll and to open its seals, for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God from every tribe and language and people and nation, and you have made them a kingdom and priests to our God, and they shall reign on the earth.”
Behold what love! John 3:16 tells us the extent of the love—that God loved the world so much “that he gave.” As if this beautiful world wasn’t enough, and as if love and family and blue skies and waterfalls weren’t enough, he also wanted to make all things right and to create a kingdom of priests to serve God. So he gave his Son. He gave himself.
He came secretly and silently, announced to strangers on camels and to smelly shepherds in the hills. His warmth was drawn from swaddling clothes and hay in a manger. This is the ultimate down-ness. Behold what love! He had a group of people who respected him, honored him, followed him. They “got” him, and they knew he was from God (Luke 9:20). He was coming into the honor and glory that was rightfully his.
Satan tried to tempt our Lord: “All [the kingdoms of this world and their glory] I will give you, if you will fall down and worship me” (Matt. 4:9). Our Christ would not take a knee to that, but he would kneel for this bigger gain. In front of these sons of the kingdom, he knelt down to demonstrate the Big Switch: the upside-down, inside-out, invisible, already/not-yet kingdom of God. He picked up a towel and a bowl of water and showed them the values and economy of God—tangibly. Christ’s hands touched those weary feet.
The theme of washing represents the sanctification of the church. But why the feet? Those men had been on the road with him for three years, walking the Promised Land with the Holy One of God. Oh, how good a foot massage feels when you finally sit after a long week on your feet. They probably had no idea their feet hurt so much.
What was Christ thinking as he touched his beloved disciples? Perhaps he was thinking the words of the bridegroom, “How beautiful are your feet in sandals, O noble daughter!” (Song 7:1). Or maybe he was thinking of what Paul would soon write:
Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, so that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. (Eph. 5:25–27)
When he came to Judas, he might have thought of God’s earlier words to treacherous Israel: “I spread the corner of my garment over you. . . . I bathed you with water and washed off your blood from you and anointed you with oil” (Ezek. 16:8–10). Oh, the great love of Christ for his enemy-friend, to show such kindness on the night he was betrayed. “And you are clean, but not every one of you” (John 13:10; cf. Matt. 5:45).
Everything he hoped for redeemed humanity would come through the feet of these twelve men. They were the chosen vessels—some for noble purposes, some for not so noble. Two feet would be quick to rush to evil, while the twenty-two other feet would carry the good news to you and to me.
How could Jesus wash the feet of his disciples without thinking of Isaiah’s words about “beautiful feet”? Perhaps he prayed and dwelled on this truth in Isaiah 52:6–9 as he cleaned and comforted the ones he so loved:
“Therefore my people shall know my name. Therefore in that day they shall know that it is I who speak; here I am.”
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of him who brings good news, who publishes peace, who brings good news of happiness, who publishes salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.” The voice of your watchmen—they lift up their voice; together they sing for joy; for eye to eye they see the return of the LORD to Zion. Break forth together into singing, you waste places of Jerusalem, for the LORD has comforted his people; he has redeemed Jerusalem.
Without those feet in his hands, without those vectors, those receptacles of his new covenant, his kingdom wouldn’t come and his will wouldn’t be done on earth as it is in heaven. These were his people, his sheep, his under-shepherds. These were the ones who would teach his way of humility, his way of rightness before God. These would soon be filled with the Holy Spirit and enabled to do miracles and teach mysteries. And these very feet would carry his words along the dusty Roman roads.
Likewise, we show our love for God by practical acts of service, especially to the church—remembering that each believer is a vector of the gospel and a holy vessel of the Holy Spirit. We can only speculate about Christ’s thoughts that night. But one thing we know for sure: those feet, one day “having done everything” (Eph. 6:13), would stand, multiplied, before the throne.
A great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:9–10)
What Sort of People Ought You to Be?
Peter, having come so far on his old, tired feet, spoke with great wisdom when he warned us that the “day of the Lord” would “come like a thief.”
The heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be? (2 Pet. 3:10–11)
This is still his answer to us today:
Be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace. . . . [T]ake care that you are not carried away with the error of lawless people and lose your own stability. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. (2 Pet. 3:14, 17–18)
Christ-matching deeds follow true repentance. The replication of his pattern, his “DNA,” is sure enough that Christ will use it as a measure on the Day of Judgment. When Christ separates the sheep from the goats, he will know which is which. When onlookers ask why he made this selection, he will point to their deeds—deeds that will prove he knows what’s what and who’s who (Matt. 25:31–40), that he “may be justified in [his] words and blameless in [his] judgment” (Ps. 51:4; Rom. 3:4). The deeds “after his kind” will reveal to onlookers which of those loved him and kept his commands.7
God’s plan is this: By means of this broken and hurting world, God is creating a people to dwell with him forever. On that day, these people will delight to eternally declare the love of God shown in Christ. Today, they are known by their fruits. In a backward tug-of-war, they struggle to lift others higher than themselves. With a soft heart, sensitive to serve the needs of others, they are found to be just, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God.
Their humble deeds, sacrificial service, and switched priorities today declare that they are a part of God’s kingdom. They live counter to the wisdom of this world, counter to its value system. It is a new type of people, being prepared now for the new heavens and the new earth, clearly severed from the world’s power-hungry, narcissistic economy.
They live to exalt the Lamb on the final day. Forever grateful for grace, they know as Christ did, where they came from and where they are going (13:3). They know the incarnation, the atonement, the Lamb, and the glory. They live, with Abraham, for that upside-down, already/not-yet world. Where up is down and greatness puts others above oneself. What a delightful world it will be when there are only people like this around (Isa. 32:15–20).
Christ’s humble washing of his disciples’ feet shows us all this. If we have been washed, renewed, righted, and taught to teach the mysteries of the kingdom of God, then our deeds will also prove who we are.
“I will restore the fortunes of Judah and the fortunes of Israel, and rebuild them as they were at first. I will cleanse them from all the guilt of their sin against me, and I will forgive all the guilt of their sin and rebellion against me. And this city shall be to me a name of joy, a praise and a glory before all the nations of the earth who shall hear of all the good that I do for them. They shall fear and tremble because of all the good and all the prosperity I provide for it . . . ‘[T]he voice of mirth and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voices of those who sing, as they bring thank offerings to the house of the Lord:
“‘Give thanks to the Lord of hosts,
for the Lord is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!’
For I will restore the fortunes of the land as at first, says the Lord.”
(Jer. 33:7–9, 11; cf. Isa. 44:1–5)
For this purpose, we strive in our short lives to be those people he modeled for us on that night he was betrayed: to fear and tremble, to be found in him, to be washed by him, to bend to him. Thus we make it our goal, as a church, to move together like starlings, yielding and sensing and capitulating our own wills. Our hearts, minds, souls, and strength consciously live before the throne of God—here and now. We long for the day when we will finally “after everything” stand on our beautiful feet, face-to-face before our merciful, beloved, precious Lord and Savior. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
Darlene N. Böcek is a missionary, author, and teacher. For eighteen years, she has served in Izmir, Turkey, with her husband, Fikret Böcek, working together to plant the Protestant Church of Smyrna, a confessionally Reformed congregation. She is active in apologetics on Quora.com and is the author of Trunk of Scrolls (Entrust Source, 2017), a novel about the christological controversies in the Byzantine church.
- Gen. 22:18; 26:4; Dan. 2:18–19, 35; 4:9; 5:12; Eph. 1:9; 3:3, 9–12; Ps. 72:17; Jer. 31:33; Mal. 3:12; Acts 3:25; Heb. 8:10–18.
- Zech. 2:10–11; Ezek. 37:27–28; Gal. 3:8–9; John 14:2–3, 17:24; Luke 23:43.
- Luke 22:25; Matt. 20:25; Mark 10:42.
- See Gen. 31:42; Jer. 33:9; Mark 16:8; Phil. 2:12.
- Gen. 17:7; Exod. 6:7; Jer. 7:23; 31:33–34; Isa. 36:27; 54:13; Ezek. 34:23–24; 36:28; John 10; Heb. 8:10–11.
- John Owen, The Works of John Owen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1966), 512.
- John 14:15, 23; 15:10; 1 John 2:3; 5:3; 2 John 1:6; Luke 11:31–32.