The ordinance of humility: Precursor to the Cross

We lose something precious when we no longer practice the ordinance of humility.

Bernhard Oestreich, PhD, is dean of theology, Friedensau Adventist University, Friedensau, Germany.

Footwashing, as a part of worship, is not widely practiced in Christianity today. One reason might be that only John, in chapter 13, writes about footwashing in a worshiplike context. The two other places in the New Testament that mention footwashing (Luke 7:44; 1 Tim. 5:10) refer to normal hospitality. Another suggested reason is that, due to the vast cultural difference between Jesus’ time and ours, many, today, find it hard to relate to the practice.

This is unfortunate because we are losing out on something precious by no longer practicing “the ordinance of humility.” And that is because of the powerful symbol footwashing provides of what Jesus, Himself, was to go through for us on the cross.

The structure

Only in the Gospel of John can we find the footwashing account recorded. In it, after the introduction in John 13:1–3, the story unfolds in three parts.

The first part describes what Jesus does (verses 4–11) and also includes an exchange between Jesus and Peter, in which John depicts the disciple as not grasping the intent of Jesus’ actions. Three times Peter reacts to the deeds or words of Jesus, and three times Jesus declares Peter’s reactions as inappropriate.

The second part begins with a reference to what just happened: “when he had washed their feet” (verse 12).1 Then, after a detailed introduction that heightens the expectation of the listeners, the text presents a lengthy speech from Jesus (verses 12–20). It seems as though the passage invites the listeners to pay attention to the explanations that will unlock the meaning of the chapter.

The third section starts with a reference to what Jesus had spoken: “When Jesus had said this” (13:21). The text then switches back to a description of Jesus’ actions, which includes the offering of “the morsel” to Judas (13:21–29). As in the first part, some verbal exchange is included, which shows how much the disciples did not understand what was really happening.

What Jesus does

In the first and third section of the narrative, we see the act of footwashing itself filled with significance.

For starters, footwashing was simply a part of the general hospitality practiced in that culture. This gesture was done for beloved guests to indicate they were very much welcome (Luke 7:44). Of course, footwashing was a service often done by someone of lower status, such as slaves or younger female members of the family. But not infrequently, the housewife herself (1 Tim. 5:10) or, in order to express special honor to the guest, even the father himself would sometimes do this service.2 Also, children did it to their father and students to their teacher. In these cases it was a sign of loving service (cf. Luke 7:44–47).3 Jesus washed His disciples’ feet, thus demonstrating His loving care for them. Jesus, bent down to serve His disciples, humbled Himself because He loves them, which was a precursor to and a symbol of the ultimate humiliation He would soon face: the cross. Even more amazing, in the sight of everyone, He turns with a loving heart to the one ensnared by Satan, Judas Iscariot.

Jesus reached out to those ensnared by the devil quite often. This time, though, the true love of the Master meets the false love of the disciple.

The meaning of it all

What are we to take from this episode?

Because John 13 introduces the reader to Christ’s passion, we must see the footwashing in this light. What Jesus does to His disciples is a symbol of His coming death. John states in the first verse that Jesus knew “that His hour had come” (John 13:1), a clear reference to Jesus’ suffering (John 2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:27; 17:1). This is the time of Passover, too, another indicator of Jesus’ death (John 12:1). Out of His great love (John 15:13), Jesus humbles Himself, gets rid of His garment, gives up His honor and, finally, His life.

Peter misunderstood, though. He did not yet know that the Lord’s action signified something much greater than Peter could then imagine. Jesus clearly said to him: “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter”4 (John 13:7). The “hereafter” does not refer to the following speech, because Jesus again testifies that the disciples will understand only later (John 13:19). As elsewhere in John’s Gospel (cf. 2:22, 12:16), these verses refer to the events of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection. These things will open the disciples’ eyes and reveal the deep meaning of footwashing.

Interestingly enough, Peter’s objection typifies a question many Christians have asked through the centuries. How can Jesus be our Lord and God if He is human also? How can He be God if He died on the cross? Yet this describes the great mystery of, not only the Incarnation, but of the Cross. God became a man in order to save us. There was no other way. Jesus had to die in order to give us eternal life.

Hence, He strongly tells Peter that unless Peter partakes of this— “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (verse 8)—He will not benefit from what Jesus will do for him. The word part in this verse means “portion” and can be linked to “heritage” or “booty.” The expression “no portion with Me” does not speak of a spiritual community with Jesus, but refers to something that Jesus will win, and finally share, with His followers. And that, of course, is eternal life.

The problem? In John’s time (and in ours), people preferred a Savior who would be more like a hero, someone demonstrating power and splendor. But the gospel presents a Savior who is humble, someone who submitted Himself into the hands of evil men, and who suffered a shameful death. Footwashing reminds us of the humanity of Jesus that rejects all forms of force or retaliation. No wonder people shy away from it.

In His speech after the footwashing, Jesus dealt with this misunderstanding. “You call me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am” (verse 13). In other words, Despite the humble service, despite the shameful death, despite the renunciation of all means of earthly power, I am still the Lord of the universe.

This paradox on earth is true in the kingdom of God: The one who willingly served all is, in fact, the greatest of all (cf. Mark 9:35; Luke 22:26; Phil 2:6–8). Jesus prepared the disciples for His suffering and death so that they might not be in despair but see His glory and divinity in His humbleness.

“From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He5 (verse 19).

John recalls these words in order to encourage believers to understand that service, suffering, and even death are part of true discipleship.6

Misplaced emphasis

The misunderstanding of the disciples goes even deeper. This is seen when Peter asked Jesus to wash “not only my feet, but also my hands and my head” (verse 9). Why did Peter ask for a more complete washing? After Jesus had declared that, without His service, there was no way to share eternal life with Him, Peter might have thought that the washing does something to him that would change him and make him qualified for God’s kingdom. The more washing, then the more qualified he would be, perhaps?

But Jesus rejects that interpretation and says to Peter, “You are clean” (verse 10). He also declares that the betrayer is not clean, despite the fact that his feet will also be washed (verse 11). Obviously, what Jesus did to His disciples was meant in a different sense than how it was grasped by those in the room.

The chapter also reveals another crucial point brought out by their misunderstanding of events—this time about priorities. Peter thought that he, himself, comes first, an expression of the misunderstanding of a pious egoism. After he learned that footwashing has something to do with his salvation, Peter was concerned solely with himself. What does it mean to me that my feet are washed? How can I gain as much as possible?

His request for more washing stands in sharp contrast to the chapter’s focus. John relates the event with Jesus in the center. His fate is in view, His love, His service is what this chapter is about. The emphasis is on the One who washes the feet, not on the one who gets his feet washed.7

Conclusion

This describes the importance of the footwashing story of John 13 and reveals Jesus already signifying His surrender to the cross on our behalf. We find Christ in the center; He unites the lowest service of a slave with being the Lord of lords. Through this footwashing, Jesus delivered a sermon, not in words but in deed. The subject of His sermon was His death for us, a death that reveals His infinite love and true, divine character. This sermon’s call invites us to believe in Him and follow Him in service and surrender (Phil. 2:5).

At the place where the other gospels recount the Lord’s Supper, John recounts the footwashing. This indicates that the footwashing has the same meaning as the Lord’s Supper. Following the command of Jesus, and thus washing the feet of each other, means (as with the Lord’s Supper) that we are proclaiming the death of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 11:26). In short, the “ordinance of humility,” footwashing, demonstrates a way to serve other believers and, also, is a way to draw closer to experiencing for ourselves what Jesus has done for us.

Notes:

1 Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is from the New American Standard Bible.

2 Cf. Testament of Abraham 2.9, a Jewish pseudepigraphon contemporary with the Gospel of John: “Then Abraham went forward and washed the feet of the Commander-inchief, Michael.” Cf. Targum Neofiti of Gen. 18:4.

3 Cf. C. Niemand: “Was bedeutet die Fußwaschung: Sklavenarbeit oder Liebesdienst? Kulturgeschichtliches
als Auslegungshilfe für Joh 13,6-8,” Protokolle zur Bibel 3 (1994) 115–129; idem, Die Fußwaschungserzählung
des Johannesevangeliums: Untersuchungen zu ihrer Entstehung und Überlieferung im Urchristentum, Studia Anselmiana 114 (Rome: Pontificio Ateneo S. Anselmo, 1993), 177–187.

4 Emphasis added.

5 Emphasis added.

6 Herold Weiss, “Foot Washing in the Johannine Community,” Novum Testamentum 21, 1979, 298–325, interprets the practice of footwashing in the Johannine communities as preparation for possible martyrdom.

7 G. Richter, “Die Fußwaschung John 13,1-20,” Studien zum Johannesevangelium, 43–44.

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Bernhard Oestreich, PhD, is dean of theology, Friedensau Adventist University, Friedensau, Germany.

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