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Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet


Now before the festival of the Passover, Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart from this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas son of Simon Iscariot to betray him. And during supper 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. 5Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him. 6He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered, “You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me.” 9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10Jesus said to him, “One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.” 11For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? 13You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. 14So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.

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1. Before the feast of the passover. John intentionally passes by many things which, he knew, had been related by Matthew and others. He undertakes to explain those circumstances which they had left out, one of which was the narrative of the washing of feet. And though he will afterwards explain more clearly for what purpose Christ washed the feet of his disciples, yet, before doing so, he states, in a single word, that the Lord testified, by this visible sign, that the love with which he embraced them was firm and lasting; that, though they were deprived of his presence, they might still be convinced that death itself would not quench this love. This conviction ought now to be fixed also in our hearts.

The words are, that Christ loved even to the end his own, who were in the world. Why does he employ this circumlocution in describing the Apostles, but in order to inform us that, in consequence of their being engaged, as we are, in a hazardous and difficult warfare, Christ regarded them with so much the greater solicitude? And, therefore, though we think that we are at a distance from Christ, yet we ought to know that he is looking at us; for he loveth his own, who are in the world; for we, have no reason to doubt that he still bears the same affection which he retained at the very moment of his death.

To remove from this world to the Father. This phrase is worthy of notice; for it refers to the knowledge of Christ, that he knew that his death was a passage to the heavenly kingdom of God. And if, while he was hastening thither, he did not cease to regard his own with his wonted love, there is no reason why we should now think that his affection is changed. Now, since he is the first-born from the dead, this definition of death applies to the whole body of the Church, that it is an opening or passage to go to God, from whom believers are now absent. 3838     “Que c’est une ouverture ou passage pour aller a Dieu.”

2. After supper. 3939     “Et apres avoir souppe.” — “And after having supped.” We shall afterwards take into consideration, at the proper place, the whole of Christ’s design in washing the feet of his disciples, and the advantage to be derived from this narrative. Let us now attend to the connection of the words. The Evangelist says that this was done, while Judas already resolved to betray Christ, not only to show the wonderful patience of Christ, who could endure to wash the feet of such a wicked and detestable traitor; but also that he purposely selected the time when he was near death, for performing what may be regarded as the last act of his life.

The devil having already put it into the heart of Judas. When the Evangelist says that Judas had been impelled by the devil to form the design of betraying Christ, this tends to show the enormity of the crime; for it was dreadful and most atrocious wickedness, in which the efficacy of Satan was openly displayed. There is no wickedness, indeed, that is perpetrated by men, to which Satan does not excite them, but the more hideous and execrable any crime is, the more ought we to view in it the rage of the devil, who drives about, in all possible directions, 4040     “Sursum ac deorsum.” — “Up and down.” men who have been forsaken by God. But though the lust of men is kindled into a fiercer flame by Satan’s fan, still it does not cease to be a furnace; it contains the flame kindled within itself, it receives with avidity the agitation of the fan, so that no excuse is left for wicked men.

3. Jesus, knoweth that the Father had given all things into his hands. I am of opinion that this was added for the purpose of informing us whence Christ obtained such a well-regulated composure of mind. It was because, having already obtained a victory over death, he raised his mind to the glorious triumph which was speedily to follow. It usually happens, that men seized with fear are greatly agitated. The Evangelist means, that no agitation of this sort was to be found in Christ, because, though he was to be immediately betrayed by Judas, still he knew that the Father had given all things into his hand. It may be asked, How then was he reduced to such a degree of sadness that he sweat blood? I reply, both were necessary. It was necessary that he should have a dread of death, and it was necessary that, notwithstanding of this, he should fearlessly discharge every thing that belonged to the office of the Mediator.

4. And layeth aside his garments. The meaning is, that he laid aside his upper garment, not his coat; for we know that the inhabitants of Eastern countries wore long garments

5. And began to wash the feet of his disciples. These words express the design of Christ, rather than the outward act; for the Evangelist adds, that he began with Peter.

6. Lord, dost thou wash my feet? This speech expresses strong dislike of the action as foolish and unsuitable; for by asking what Christ is doing, he puts out his hand, as it were, to push him back. The modesty would be worthy of commendation, were it not that obedience is of greater value in the sight of God than any kind of honor or service, or rather, if this were not the true and only rule of humility, to yield ourselves in obedience to God, and to have all our senses regulated by his good pleasure, so that every thing which he declares to be agreeable to Him shall also be approved by us, without any scruple. We ought, therefore, above all, to observe this rule of serving God, that we shall be always ready to acquiesce, without delay, as soon as he issues any command.

7. What I do. We are taught by these words, that we ought simply to obey Christ, even though we should not perceive the reason why he wishes this or that thing to be done. In a well-regulated house, one person, the head of the family, has the sole fight to say what ought to be done; and the servants are bound to employ their hands and feet in his service. That man, therefore, is too haughty, who refuses to obey the command of God, because he does not know the reason of it. But this admonition has a still more extensive meaning, and that is, that we should not take it ill to be ignorant of those things which God wishes to be hidden from us for a time; for this kind of ignorance is more learned than any other kind of knowledge, when we permit God to be wise above us.

8. Thou shalt never wash my feet. Hitherto Peter’s modesty was excusable, though it was not free from blame; but now he errs more grievously, when he has been corrected, and yet does not yield. 4242     “Neantmoins il ne se deporte pas de contredire;” — “yet, notwithstanding, he does not cease to contradict him.” And, indeed, it is a common fault, that ignorance is closely followed by obstinacy. It is a plausible excuse, no doubt, that the refusal springs from reverence for Christ; but since he does not absolutely obey the injunction, the very desire of showing his respect for Christ loses all its gracefulness. The true wisdom of faith, therefore, is to approve and embrace with reverence whatever proceeds from God, as done with propriety and in good order; nor is there any other way, indeed, in which his name can be sanctified by us; for if we do not believe that whatever he does is done for a very good reason: our flesh, being naturally stubborn, will continually murmur, and will not render to God the honor due to him, unless by constraint. In short, until a man renounce the liberty of judging as to the works of God, whatever exertions he may make to honor God, still pride will always lurk under the garb of humility.

If I wash thee not. This reply of Christ does not yet explain the reason why he resolved to wash the feet of his disciples; only by a comparison drawn from the soul to the body, he shows that, in washing the feet of his disciples, he does nothing that is unusual or inconsistent with his rank. Meanwhile, the reply points out the folly of Peter’s wisdom. The same thing will always happen to us, whenever the Lord begins to contend with us. So long as he remains silent, men imagine that they have a good right to differ from him: but nothing is easier far him than to refute, by a single word, all the plausible arguments which they employ. As Christ is Lord and Master, Peter thinks it inconsistent that Christ should wash his feet. But the evil is, 4343     “Mais voyci le mal.” that, in refusing such a service, he rejects the principal part of his own salvation. There is also a general doctrine contained in this statement, that we are all filthy and abominable in the sight of God, until Christ wash away our stains. Now, since he claims for himself the exclusive right of washing, let every man present himself, o be cleansed from his pollution, that he may obtain a place among the children of God.

But before proceeding farther, we must understand what is the meaning of the word wash. Some refer it to the free pardon of sins; others, to newness of life; while a third class extends it to. both, and this last view I cheerfully admit. For Christ washes us when he removes the guilt of our sins by his atoning sacrifice, that they may not come into judgment before God; and, on the other hand, he washes us when he takes away, by his Spirit, the wicked and sinful desires of the flesh. But as it will shortly afterwards be evident from what follows, that he speaks of the grace of regeneration, I do not absolutely maintain the opinion that he included here the washing of pardon.

9. Lord, not my feet only. When Peter heard that he was ruined, if he did not accept the cleansing which was offered to him by Christ, this necessity proved, at length, to be a sufficient instructor to tame him. He therefore lays aside opposition and yields, but wishes to be entirely washed, and, indeed, acknowledges that, for his own part, he is altogether covered with pollution, and, therefore, that it is doing nothing, if he be only washed in one part. But here too he goes wrong through thoughtlessness, in treating, as a thing of no value, the benefit which he had already received; for he speaks as if he had not yet obtained any pardon of sins, or any sanctification by the Holy Spirit. On this account, Christ justly reproves him, for he recalls to his recollection what he had formerly bestowed on him; at the same time, reminding all his disciples in the person of one man, that, while they remembered the grace which they had received, they should consider what they still needed for the future.

10. He who is washed needeth not to wash more than his feet, but is altogether clean. First, he says that believers are altogether clean; not that they are in every respect pure, so that there no longer remains in them any stain, but because they are cleansed in their chief part; that is, when sin is deprived of its kingly power, so that the righteousness of God holds the superiority; just as if we were to say, that a body was altogether healthy, Because it was not infected with any universal disease. It is by newness of life, therefore, that we must testify ourselves to be the disciples of Christ, for he declares that he is the Author of purity in all his followers.

Again, the other comparison was also applied to the case in hand, that Peter might not set aside the washing of the feet as foolish; for, as Christ washes from the head to the feet, those whom he receives as his disciples, so, in those whom he has cleansed, the lower part remains to be daily cleansed. The children of God are not altogether regenerated on the first day, so as to aim at nothing but the heavenly life; but, on the contrary, the remains of the flesh continue to dwell in them, with which they maintain a continued struggle throughout their whole life. The term feet, therefore, is metaphorically applied to all the passions and cares by which we are brought into contact with the world; for, if the Holy Spirit occupied every part of us, we would no longer have anything to do with the pollutions of the world; but now, by that part in which we are carnal, we creep on the ground, or at least fix our feet ill the clay, and, therefor are to some extent unclean. Thus Christ always finds in us something to cleanse. What is here spoken of is not the forgiveness of sins, but the renewal, by which Christ, by gradual and uninterrupted succession, delivers his followers entirely from the sinful desires of the flesh.

And you are clean. This proposition may be said to be the minor in the syllogism, and hence it follows that the washing of the feet applies to them with strict propriety.

But not all. This exception is added, that every one may examine himself, if Judas may perhaps be moved by a feeling of repentance; though he intended by it to take an early opportunity of fortifying the rest of the disciples, that they might not be perplexed by the atrocity of the crime, which was soon afterwards to be made known. Yet he purposely abstains from naming him, that he may not shut against him the gate of repentance. As that hardened hypocrite 4444     “Cest hypocrite effronte.” was utterly desperate, the warning served only to aggravate his guilt; but it was of great advantage to the other disciples, for by means of it the Divinity of Christ was more fully made known to them, and they likewise perceived that purity is no ordinary gift of the Holy Spirit.

12. When then he had washed their feet. Christ at length explains what was his intention in washing the feet of his disciples; for what he had said about the spiritual washing was a sort of digression from his main design. Had it not been for the opposition made by Peter, Christ would not have spoken on that subject. Now, therefore, he discloses the reason of what he had done; namely, that he who is the Master and Lord of all gave an example to be followed by all the godly, that none might grudge to descend to do a service to his brethren and equals, however mean and low that service might be. For the reason why the love of the brethren is despised is, that every man thinks more highly of himself than he ought, and despises almost every other person. Nor did he intend merely to inculcate modesty, but likewise to lay down this rule of brotherly love, that they should serve one another; for there is no brotherly love where there is not a voluntary subjection in assisting a neighbor.

Know you what I have done? We see that Christ, for a short time, concealed his intention from his disciples, but that, after having tried their obedience, he seasonably revealed to them that which it was not expedient for them previously to know. Nor does he now wait till they ask, but of his own accord anticipates them. The same thing will be experienced by us also, provided that we suffer ourselves to be guided by his hand, even through unknown ways.

14. If then I, who am your Lord and Master. This is an argument from the greater to the less. Pride hinders us from maintaining that equality which ought to exist amongst us. But Christ, who is far exalted above all others, stoops down, that he may make the proud men ashamed, who, forgetting their station and rank, look upon themselves as not bound to hold intercourse with the brethren. For what does a mortal man imagine himself to be, when he refuses to bear the burdens of brethren, to accommodate himself to their customs, and, in short, to perform those offices by which the unity of the Church is maintained? In short, he means that the man who does not think of associating with weak brethren, on the condition of submitting mildly and gently even to offices which appear to be mean, claims more than he has a right to claim, and has too high an opinion of himself. 4747     “Cestuy-la s’attribue plus qu’il ne faut, et fait trop grand conte de soy.”

15. For I have given you an example. It deserves our attention that Christ says that he gave an example; for we are not at liberty to take all his actions, without reserve, as subjects of imitation. The Papists boast that, by Christ’s example, they observe the forty days’ fast, or Lent. But we ought first to see whether or not he intended to lay down his fast as an example that the disciples might conform to it as a rule. We read: nothing of this sort, and, therefore, the imitation of it is not less wicked than if they attempted to fly to heaven. Besides, when they ought to have followed Christ, they were not imitators, but apes. Every year they have a fashion of washing some people’s feet, as if it were a farce which they were playing on the stage; 4848     “Comme s’ils jouyoient une farce sur des eschaffauts.” and so, when they have performed this idle and unmeaning ceremony, they think that they have fully discharged their duty, and reckon themselves at liberty to despise their brethren during the rest of the year. 4949     “Tout le reste de l’an.” But — what is far worse 5050     “Il y a bien pis.” — after having washed the feet of twelve men, they subject every member of Christ to cruel torture, and thus spit in Christ’s face. This display of buffoonery, therefore, is nothing else than a shameful mockery of Christ. At all events, Christ does not here enjoin an annual ceremony, but bids us be ready, throughout our whole life, to wash the feet of our brethren and neighbors. 5151     “De nos fi,eres et prochains.”

16. Verily, verily, I tell you. These are indeed proverbial sayings, which admit of a far more extensive application, but which ought to be accommodated to the case in hand. In my opinion, therefore, they are mistaken who suppose them to have a general acceptation, as if Christ were now exhorting his disciples to bear the cross; for it is more correct to say that he employed them to serve his purpose.

17. If you know these things. He declares that they are happy, if they know and do these things; for knowledge is not entitled to be called true, unless it produce such an effect on believers as to lead them to conform themselves to their Head. On the contrary, it is a vain imagination, when we look upon Christ, and the things which belong to Christ, as separate from ourselves. We may infer from this that, until a man has learned to yield to his brethren, he does not know if Christ be the Master. Since there is no man who performs his duty to his brethren hi all respects, and since there are many who are careless and sluggish in brotherly offices, this shows us that we are still at a great distance from the full light of faith.