Dirty Feet

John 13:6-10

July 24, 2009 | Ray Pritchard

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Thursday night
In the Upper Room
In Jerusalem

The disciples gather with Jesus for their final meal. They are all there-James and John, Judas, Peter, Philip, Bartholomew, Matthew, Simon the Zealot, and all the rest. Reclining around the low table, they chatter in a nervous tone. The men know that something is up. Jesus seems pensive and quiet. He talks, but it seems as if he has something on his mind, and indeed he does. Jesus, as he eats that meal, knows that before long Judas will come with a kiss, the Roman soldiers will come to arrest him, and soon he will stand before Caiaphas and Herod and Pilate. In less than twelve hours he will be hanging on a cross. The conversation goes on back and forth and Jesus listens.

Suddenly he stands up, takes off his tunic, and wraps a towel around his waist. Taking a basin of water, he goes to the end of the table and kneels down. Without a word he takes the feet of one of the disciples, brushes the dirt off, and washes them with water, one foot at a time. When he is finished, he takes the towel and wipes the feet dry. He goes to the next one and does the same thing. In the room there is silence. No one dares to speak. They cannot believe what Jesus is doing.

I. Foot washing was a sign of common courtesy.

What seems odd to us would not have seemed odd in the first century. Because most people wore sandals and the roads were dusty, even a short trip meant that your feet ended up dirty. The Romans had built such a fine road system (“all roads lead to Rome” was more than a slogan) that some of those roads are still in use today. After constructing a road from one city to another, they put a kind of dirt on the road that provided a smooth finish. But that dirt left indelible marks on anyone who walked on the roadway. So it was common in the ancient world to provide a basin of water for visitors to wash their feet. The custom goes back so far that the first four mentions of the word “feet” in the Bible involve washing dirty feet (Genesis 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24). In each case the water was provided so that the visitors could wash their own feet. This was simply common courtesy in those days. And in fact not to offer water for a guest to wash his feet would be a breach of etiquette and an act of unkindness to a guest.

Because most people wore sandals and the roads were dusty, even a short trip meant that your feet ended up dirty.
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We see this clearly in Luke 7:36-50 when Jesus visits the home of Simon the Pharisee. A pleasant dinner was interrupted when a woman who had been a prostitute comes and kneels at Jesus’ feet, weeping because of her love for him, and then drying his feet with her long hair. Simon was scandalized by this shocking, outrageous behavior. But knowing he was thinking, Jesus rebukes Simon with these stinging words:

Do you see this woman? I came into your house. You did not give me any water for my feet, but she wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. You did not give me a kiss, but this woman, from the time I entered, has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not put oil on my head, but she has poured perfume on my feet (vv. 44-46).

The woman loved much because she had been forgiven much. Simon didn’t see himself as a great sinner so he didn’t even bother to offer Jesus the signs of common courtesy:

Water for his feet,
A kiss to welcome him,
Oil to anoint his head.

II. Foot washing was the work of slaves.

In those days you normally washed your own feet after the host offered you a basin of water. You knelt down, removed your sandals, washed your feet, and then dried them with a towel. If a man had servants, they might be delegated to do the job for you. This was the mark of a high achievement in society-that servants washed the feet of your guests. But under no circumstances would the host wash the feet of his guests. The master would never stoop so low as to wash the feet of those beneath him.

Under no circumstances would the host wash the feet of his guests.
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Slaves washed feet.
Masters never did.

III. Foot washing by definition is a dirty, smelly, humiliating business.

Feet stink when they are dirty.

That’s a human fact, not a cultural observation. After a long, hard day your feet have absorbed a pounding. If you wear sandals, they have been exposed to dirt everywhere. If your feet are in socks, they are likely to be sweaty. And then you have all the usual foot problems-ingrown nails, corns, calluses, cracked heels, and for some people, fungus of various kinds.

It’s no great revelation to say that most people don’t pay much attention to their feet.  And men definitely pay less attention than women. For men feet are those things attached to the bottom of our legs. We think about them when we buy shoes, and we think about them when they hurt, but that’s about it. Lots of men go a lifetime without having a pedicure. For women it’s a different matter. But still, most of us don’t think much about our feet unless they’re bothering us.

Feet stink when they are dirty.
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Have you ever tried to wash someone’s feet at the end of a long, hot day? Have you ever tried to wash somebody‘s feet when they are covered with grime and sweat? Have you ever put your face right down next to an ingrown toenail? It’s not an easy thing to do. Some groups observe foot washing as a church ordinance. I have no objection whatsoever to that practice and in fact think it can be a beautiful remembrance of that night in the Upper Room. But if you know you’re going to a foot washing service, what do you first? You wash your feet! That’s what I would do. We just naturally do that because we don’t want someone having to wash our dirty, smelly feet.

But that’s the whole point, isn’t it?

If your feet aren’t dirty, they don’t need washing. If they need washing, someone has to stoop down and get up close and personal with your dirty feet. For most of us, that’s a bit embarrassing and humiliating. Several years ago, when our oldest son Josh was spending his first year in China as an English teacher, the rest of the family took a trip to visit him in Beijing. We had a wonderful time and loved the country and the people. We visited the Forbidden Temple, Tiananmen Square, the Summer Palace, and the Great Wall of China. All very fascinating and amazing. One day Josh announced that we were all going to have a Chinese foot massage. I was skeptical but was promptly outvoted 4-1. So we took a taxi down to the main shopping district of Beijing where we found the foot massage establishment on the second floor of a building. It turned out to be a very nice setting. They seated each of us on a raised chair (like a barber chair) where we could watch TV or read magazines. They offered us tea and sandwiches. Eventually the foot massagers came out. Four women and one man. I ended up with a young lady who was maybe half my size. She looked up at me, smiled, and placed my feet in a pan of extremely hot tea, which evidently cleansed them and also took away most of the feeling. A few minutes later she came back and went to work-massaging, rubbing, stretching, pulling, prodding, and doing all manner of things to my feet, including popping my toes.  At one point she looked to the side and made some of joke in Chinese. What can you do when someone is joking about your feet in a language you can’t understand? She worked on my feet for a while, and came around behind me and massaged my neck and shoulders and upper arms. Marlene, Josh, Mark and Nick got the same treatment.

If your feet aren’t dirty, they don’t need washing.
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The whole experience lasted an hour and cost $12 per person. Even though all that rubbing made me sore, in the end my feet felt better than they had in months. In looking back on that experience, what I remember is how vulnerable it felt to have someone massaging my feet.  It’s humbling to have someone clean your feet even if you are paying for it.

IV. Feet represent the whole body.

This may not be apparent at first, but think about it. Your feet carry an enormous load. Did you know that the average person walks the equivalent of three times around the earth in a life time? And the foot itself is a complex mechanism made up of 23 bones, 33 joints, and over 100 muscles and tendons. Whether you know it or not, your feet represent all of you. After all, wherever your feet go, the rest of you must follow.

If your feet hurt, your whole body hurts.
If your feet are cold, you are cold all over.
If your feet are dirty, you can’t feel clean until your wash your feet.

If your feet are cold, you are cold all over.
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Your feet take you anywhere you want to go. That’s why the Bible says, “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” (Romans 10:15)  In our bedroom we have a picture of two pairs of feet. One is masculine and a bit rough-looking. The other is small and well-manicured. The first belongs to Josh, the second to Leah. Josh took the picture of their feet standing side-by-side. The picture is engraved with the words “How beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news!” And indeed, those feet are beautiful to us.

V. Foot washing exposes the heart for all to see.

Because the feet are a humble part of the body, washing them touches us deeply and reveals our truest feelings. That’s why Peter reacted so strongly when Jesus approached him with the towel and the basin (John 13:6).  In Greek the words are even stronger than in English. The words “you” and “my” are put in an emphatic position, as if Peter is saying, “You my feet are washing?” But even that doesn’t express the shock Peter felt. “How can it be that you my Lord should wash the feet of someone like me?”  Peter felt that this was simply not right, that somehow the roles had been reversed. It violated all that he had been taught for Jesus to touch his dirty feet. This simply could not happen.

By the way, this is one of the longest conversations between Peter and Jesus. And everything Peter says is wrong. Don’t you love Peter? He swings from one extreme to another. The more Peter talks, the more confused he gets. First he is shocked (v. 6), then he flatly refuses for Jesus to wash his feet (v. 8), then he tells Jesus to wash his hands and his head too (v. 9). He speaks out of confusion born of frustration and complete misunderstanding. Nothing that Jesus says or does makes sense to him.

Don’t you love Peter? He swings from one extreme to another.
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In verse 8 he refuses Jesus in the strongest language possible. He uses so many negatives that we can’t translate it very well into English. It means something like, “You will never, ever wash my feet, not now, not ever, absolutely not.” To which Jesus calmly replies, “Fine, but if I don’t wash your feet, you have no part with me” And that’s when Peter impulsively says, “Go ahead. Give me a bath. Wash me all over.”

God bless Peter. He doesn’t understand, but he wants Jesus to know that he loves him wants to be his disciple through and through.

That’s what I mean when I say that foot washing exposes the heart. The lack of water for foot washing exposed Simon the Pharisee’s callous indifference. Peter’s confusion reveals the depth of his dedication.  He wants to follow Jesus with clean feet, a clean heart, and with every other part of his body.

Don’t miss the fact that according to John 13:4 the meal was already underway when Jesus began washing the disciples’ feet. But the time for foot washing normally came before the meal. Why hadn’t they washed each other’s feet? Why hadn’t someone washed Jesus’ feet? Why did they start the meal with dirty feet? No doubt the events of the final few days had distracted them. But we get a greater clue from Luke 22:24, which tells us that in the Upper Room after Jesus had instituted the Lord’s Supper, “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was to be considered the greatest.” Can you imagine that? Jesus has just revealed that he would give his body and blood for them, and now they are all looking out for number one.  No wonder they didn’t wash each other’s feet. No wonder it was left to Jesus. The Master must become the servant of all so these big shots will understand who he really is and why he came to the earth.

The Master must become the servant of all so these big shots will understand who he really is and why he came to the earth.
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VI. Foot washing pictures Christ’s death on the cross.

That’s what Jesus meant when he told Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (v. 7). The dirt on their feet symbolized the dirt they all carried on the inside. The outer stain from the dusty roads mirrored the inner stain of sin no washing with water could ever remove. Jesus putting on the servant’s towel pictured his willingness to die the death of a common criminal. And the water stood for his blood that cleanses from sin. The washing itself stands for the “washing of regeneration” (see Titus 3:5) whereby our sins are washed away. That’s why Jesus told Peter that his feet must be washed or he would not have any part in him (v. 8). As long as Christ is outside of us, all that he has done for the world is of no value to us. It is not enough to say, “I attend Wesley Methodist Church” or “I love to sing the hymns” or even “Pastor Brian baptized me.” It’s not enough to say, “I believe that there was a person named Jesus who lived and died 2000 years ago.” On that night in the Upper Room, it was not enough to say, “I like the idea of Jesus washing feet; I just don’t want him washing my feet.” As long as you stand apart from Christ, all the knowledge and religious experience in the world makes no difference.

As long as Christ is outside of us, all that he has done for the world is of no value to us.
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Charles Spurgeon points out that Peter’s many spiritual advantages made no difference:

He was humble but humility is not enough.
He experienced miracles but miracles are not enough.
He heard Christ teach but knowledge is not enough.
He walked with Christ but merely being close to him was not enough.
He performed acts of service but doing good was not enough.
He saw Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration but spiritual experiences are not enough.
He was full of enthusiasm for Jesus but even that was not enough.

Peter must humbly submit to having his feet washed by the Son of God, and he must do it even though he did not fully understand it. In the same way coming to Christ is like having our feet washed. We must come to him, dirty and unclean, embarrassed by the stain of sin we cannot remove, and we must do nothing at all while Christ does the work for us.

Coming to Christ is like having our feet washed.
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We cannot wash away our own sin. Christ must do that for us. Many of our hymns speak to this truth:

“What can wash away my sin?
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”

“There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins,
And sinners plunged beneath that flood lose all their guilty stains.”

“Dark is the stain that we cannot hide.
What can avail to wash it away?
Look! There is flowing a crimson tide,
Brighter than snow you may be today.”

“Jesus paid it all, all to him I owe,
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.”

VII. Foot washing shows our need for continual cleansing.

Jesus came to a world of dirty feet.

Our journey through life is much dirtier than we think. You never know what you might step in that will leave you defiled and unclean. We don’t like to think about that but it is true. No matter how hard we may try to stay clean, we are all dirtier than we think, and we end each day dirtier than when we started.

That’s why Jesus told Peter that although he was clean already, he still needed to have his feet washed. “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet” (v. 10). Two different words are used here-one meaning a complete bath and the other meaning to wash something. Coming to Christ is like taking a bath. We are made clean as our sin is washed away. But we still need daily cleansing by the blood of Christ.

No matter how hard we may try to stay clean, we are all dirtier than we think.
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This pictures both our daily defilement through sin and our ongoing need for cleansing. We learn from this that we only need to be saved once. But because we sin every day, we need daily cleansing. We need to have the dirt removed from our feet.

When we come to Christ, the guilt of our sin is removed forever. Because we live in a dirty world, we need cleansing every day.

Regeneration cannot be repeated.
Cleansing must be repeated.

Think about the course of your life over the last 24 hours:

You have said things you ought not to have said.
You have responded unkindly or too quickly.

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You have done things you ought not to have done.
You have left undone acts of mercy.
You have not been perfect, nor have I.

That’s why we need what Jesus offers. We need to be cleansed again every day. We need salvation that takes away the guilt of sin and provides for daily cleansing. Jesus fits us for heaven, he removes the guilt of sin, and he daily cleanses us from every sin when we call on him (1 John 1:9). Thus through his bloody death on the cross Christ provides all that we need, now and forever.

For many years I had heard that Martin Luther said that we should “sin boldly,” but I never knew the context of that seemingly outrageous statement. Then I ran across this quote from letter Luther wrote to his friend Philip Melanchthon on August 1, 1521:

We are not imaginary sinners!
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God does not save those who are only imaginary sinners. Be a sinner, and let your sins be strong, but let your trust in Christ be stronger, and rejoice in Christ who is the victor over sin, death, and the world. We will commit sins while we are here, for this life is not a place where justice resides. . . . It suffices that through God’s glory we have recognized the Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. No sin can separate us from Him, even if we were to kill or commit adultery thousands of times each day. Do you think such an exalted Lamb paid merely a small price with a meager sacrifice for our sins?

If we are shocked by this, perhaps we have never appreciated the depth of our sin. And until we see the depth of our sin, we will never appreciate the great sacrifice our Lord made when he died on the cross.

Brothers and sisters, we are not imaginary sinners!

We are great sinners who need a great Savior. And we have one in Jesus Christ who stooped so low that he was not ashamed to wash our dirty feet.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?