Rethinking Peter’s Foot-Washing: Sometimes I think John took special delight in recording Peter’s unique interactions with Jesus. He gives us so many singular moments that the Holy Spirit now uses to teach us. It certainly happens here in John 13:1-10. Let’s take a look . . .
I’ve heard people point to Peter in the upper room as an example of humility, and on the surface it appears that way. As Jesus makes his way around the room, Peter tucks his feet up under his robe and denies Jesus: “No. I don’t want you to wash my feet. This is wrong! I should be washing your feet.” But who is Peter (and who are we) to tell Jesus what He should and shouldn’t do? It may seem humble, but in reality, Peter is trying to boss Jesus around!
Back up a few verses so we can get the full picture. In John 13:3-4, we read, Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. Then he started kneeling in front of each disciple and washing each foot. Do you see what I see here? Jesus knew Who He was, so He could act freely, with nothing to prove and without losing anything. Jesus grasped and practiced true humility. That’s why He could stoop down and serve (like here), but He could also stand up and roar (like when He cleared the temple in Luke 19:45-46).
I suppose the disciples were accustomed to Jesus’ strange behavior. But still, what did they think when they saw Jesus get up from the table and start taking off his clothes? Did any of the others try to stop him? Did anyone approach him, reach for the bowl and say, “Here Jesus, let me do that. You shouldn’t have to worry about something so menial”? Apparently not.
Jesus finally arrives in front of Peter (v. 6). Surely, Peter wasn’t intentionally contradicting Jesus. I tend to think that his attitude was more of, “Jesus doesn’t really realize what He’s doing. We need to protect and correct Him because He walks around with His head in the clouds most of the time.” It wasn’t Peter’s first time to think something like this. Once, when Jesus was talking about His death, Peter pulled him away from the crowd, saying, This shall never happen to you! That’s where Jesus utters the often-miscontextualized line, Get behind me, Satan! (Matthew 16:21-23).
On this occasion, Jesus isn’t quite so harsh. I imagine that he sits back on his heels, hands dripping, and looks up at Peter’s face. He sighs. It’s always something with Simon Peter. “This is what has to happen,” He says matter-of-factly. Jesus’ act of servant-hood foreshadows his death. Humbling Himself in this small way was nothing compared to giving His whole life (Philippians 2:8). In His profound yet simple way, Jesus said, “Accept this from me, then later, accept my actual sacrifice on your behalf.” We (meaning believers today, and every day since then) have to understand that on the cross, Jesus did something completely humiliating and torturous . . . something too awful to comprehend . . . and He did it for us. There’s an aspect of Jesus’ death that honors us, that says, “Here, let me take care of this for you. I don’t want you to experience it.” It’s an awkward thing to consider, but He must wash us in His blood (morbid and outdated terminology, I know). While we can wash our own feet, we can’t wash the sinfulness out of ourselves. He willingly went to the cross, scorning its shame (Hebrews 12:2). There’s a clear correlation between what He does here in the upper room and what He will do the next day on Golgotha.
On to verse 9. What does Peter want—a sponge bath? Peter thinks he’s saying something good: “I want to go ‘all in’! Wash all of me; let me be completely with you!” But Jesus tells him that he doesn’t need all that. He needs to accept Jesus’ actions as sufficient and correct (perfect)—no more, no less. You see, Peter thought He knew what He needed better than Jesus knew it, so he can’t just accept what happens; he can’t just watch and learn.
A few minutes later (v. 16), I think Jesus was looking at Peter when He said, “No servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” Peter was the servant. Jesus was the master. Peter was the messenger. Jesus was the sender. Thus, Jesus acted with the confidence that comes from perfect humility.
For us, the lesson is two-fold. So many of us will willingly accept the humble or humiliating, but we struggle with accepting the good things He wants to give us. Is anonymity your calling or does He want to raise you to a position of influence? Is that dead-end job where He wants you to stay or is He moving you up on the depth chart?
Or perhaps the Father has called you to something that seems way “out of your league”—the kind of thing where you (on your own) are very likely to fail. Have you been telling the Holy Spirit that you can’t do it, that He has made a mistake, or that He needs to find someone else?
He wants to put you down? Let Him. He wants to exalt you for His glory? Let Him. He wants you to risk incredible failure? Do it. Reader, it’s His call.