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 which the Holy Spirit now uses to teach us.  It certainly happens here.  Let’s take a look . . .

John 13:1-10.

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” (My paraphrase of v. 8). 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.

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. –John 13:3-4

Because Jesus knew exactly
Who He was, He could stoop
down and serve, but He could
also stand up and roar.

Then he knelt in front of each disciple and washed 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).

And being found in appearance
as a man, he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death
–even death on a cross!
Philippians 2:8

On this occasion, Jesus isn’t quite so harsh. I imagine 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 would say matter-of-factly. Jesus’ act of servanthood foreshadows his death. Humbling Himself in this small way was nothing compared to giving His whole life (Philippians 2:8). In this profound yet simple action, Jesus said, “Accept this from me, then later, accept my actual sacrifice on your behalf.”

For the joy set before him he
endured the cross, scorning its
shame, and sat down at the right
hand of the throne of God.
Hebrews 12:2

We (meaning believers today, and every day since then) must 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 nine. 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 he doesn’t need all that. He needs to accept Jesus’ actions as sufficient and correct (perfect)—no more, no less. 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.

09-18 Tennessee Valley Fair (9) ribbon prize winner purple
Can we accept “Best in Show” for God’s glory? (c) Carole Sparks

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. I know I would rather wash someone’s feet than have someone wash my feet. We’re willing to suffer for Him, but we’re less willing to be blessed for Him.

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 you can’t do it, that He has made a mistake, or that He needs to find someone else?

Regardless, there is no humility in telling Jesus what He can or cannot do in your life. Humility says, “Yes, Lord.” Period. (For more on this topic, read my previous posts, “Do Me a Favor?” and/or Whatever…or Whichoever.)

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.

Sometimes we sound humble when we’re actually being bossy. Peter did too. My #humility is #NotAboutMe. (click to tweet)

What do you think? Was Peter trying to boss Jesus around? Do you find it easier to sacrifice for Jesus than to be honored? Whatever thought this post has generated in your mind, let me/us know about it in the comments below. I’d love to hear from you! 

9 thoughts on “Who’s Humble Now?

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