George Everard, 1877
"Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him." John 13:4-5
In many ways does Christ, before His death, set forth His endless love to His redeemed people. The Supper is ended, but not the love that appoints it. He abides for a short season longer with the little flock, and strengthens them for the coming trial. He tells them . . .
of the Father's house,
of the Comforter's presence,
of His own abiding with them, and
of the peace which the world gives not.
He gives them a sample of His future intercession in the prayer which He offers on their behalf.
But in addition to this, we see Him performing an act of very peculiar kindness and condescension — He washes the feet of His disciples. I know nothing more touching in the whole story of our Lord's life, and the incident abounds in precious instruction for the faithful believer.
The Master leaves the Table. He girds himself with a towel. He pours water into a basin, and goes from one to another of that little company, washing their feet and wiping them with the towel with which He is girded.
Once we read of a sinful woman washing the feet of Christ with her tears, and wiping them with the hairs of her head. But now it is the other way. It is not the sinner washing the feet of the Savior — but the holy Savior washing the feet of His sinful disciples. There was such an exceeding depth of tender, considerate kindness in the act. Christ was just entering upon the dark night of His Agony and Passion. Before His mind were Gethsemane, and the house of Caiaphas, and Pilate's judgment hall, and Calvary with its cruel cross. Yet, in the presence of these unparalleled sorrows and sufferings, His heart is set upon showing kindness to those who followed Him. He will show them that He is mindful not only of their salvation, but of their comfort and refreshment.
Remember it, Christian, for Christ is still the same. He cares for you in little matters as well as in great. Believe it, that in His sympathy and love, He will bestow upon you the lesser mercies of His providence, as well as the greater blessings of His grace. Learn to bring to Him each want, each necessity. Though it may seem trifling in the eye of others, He will not disregard your petition.
But no less in this narrative do we see the depth of Christ's humility and condescension. He had said, "Learn of Me, for I am meek and lowly in heart." And again, "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves." Luke 22:27
And by this deed of love He showed how true were these sayings. He remembered at that hour, the glory He had left, and to which He was about to return. He was fully conscious of the supreme authority with which the Father had invested Him, for He knew that the Father had given all things into His hands. Yet He stoops to this lowly deed of kindness.
It was the work of a slave boy, or of the lowest menial — to attend to the feet of the guests. So we read of Abigail expressing her willingness to serve David in any capacity: "Behold, let your handmaid be a servant, to wash the feet of the servants of my Lord." (1 Samuel 25:41.) So we read of the Baptist reckoning himself unworthy "to unloose the latchet of Christ's shoe." Yet this position Christ willingly takes. He condescends to men of low estate; yes, and performs for them the very lowest office.
Never before had Christ been so glorious in grace and in humility. The Lord of glory, the King of angels — stoops to wash the feet of a few poor Galilean fishermen. We read, in the Book of Revelation, of Christ being clothed in a garment of royal majesty, and girt about with a golden belt. But in this laying aside His garment — in this girding with a towel for such an act of love, is there not something more glorious still? Never would the disciples forget that hour. All through their pilgrimage, they would ever remember the touch of those gentle, loving hands. Nor should we forget it either. It abides recorded in the Word as an everlasting memorial of the humility of the Lord Jesus.
What a lesson for each true believer, for each sincere follower of the Lamb! Let us speak to our own hearts as we ponder it — let us learn the life we ought to live.
Yes, if I am Christ's, I must learn of Him. I must make Him my Pattern. I must walk in His footsteps. Many a costly garment has been worn by the rich and great. But was ever any garment so beautiful as that towel — the token of the greatest humility the world had ever seen?
I, too, must be clothed with humility. I must watch against pride in any shape. Pride of dress, pride of personal appearance, pride of rank, or birth, or wealth, or gifts — all this I must trample under my feet. I must sit down in the lowest place. I must be willing to sacrifice my own right or position, when it may be for the glory of God or the good of His Church. I must be lowly in service, willing to do any work to which my Lord may call me. I must be willing that others should rise above me. If I would be greatest — I must be content to be the least.
The violet is one of the most fragrant flowers — but it grows low, and often hides itself from view. The ear of corn, when ripe and most precious, bends down its head to the ground.
Great is the strength of humility. I read, in the old classic fable, of one whose strength was renewed whenever he touched the ground — his enemy could only destroy him when he lifted him up high in the air. So Satan can only prevail when he can lift me up in pride. If only I am humble, he can never harm me. For God resists the proud, and gives grace to the humble.
Great likewise is the reward of humility. It shall sit down in the highest mansion of the redeemed — it shall taste even now, the sweetest fruits of the Tree of Life.
But we find a break in the story. Peter stops for a moment the completion of Christ's work. His love, his zeal, his view of Christ's glory, yes, and his rashness and self-will come in: "Ah, it is too much. I the disciple, You the Master! I the sinner, You the Savior. Lord You shall never wash my feet!" There was much here that was commendable. But mingled with this, self was lurking beneath: "I know better than Christ. This act does not befit Your majesty or glory."
Christ answers very tenderly, as if He would say, "I have a purpose you know not. Leave me alone to act as I think best. By-and-by I will explain it all. You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand."
Christian, learn the lesson our Lord teaches. You must not dictate to the All-wise — you must not interfere with His working. In the most unlikely ways, He will fulfill His bright designs of mercy. By a path you know not and would never have chosen — He will perform that He has promised. Gladly leave all in His hands.
Though it be the storm that wrecks your treasure here,
though it be the mystery you cannot fathom,
though it be the sorrow that well-near breaks your heart,
though it be a loss or a disappointment that blasts all your fair prospects and makes life a desert,
though it be the pain that calls forth many a groan
— yet in the future all will be clear, and as bright as day. He has led you forth by the right way — that you may go to the city of habitation.
In Peter's answer, we see nothing but self-will. He sets his will against Christ's, and refuses to permit Him to fulfill the task He has chosen. In the original the language is very strong: "As long as the world lasts — You shall never wash my feet!" Ah, bold and presumptuous speech! It was now all self — self — wretched self. But self must have a fall. Self-will is self-destruction. So Christ rebukes him sharply: "Unless I wash you — you have no part with Me." As if He would say, "Then I must disown and reject you. Unless you yield to my will, you can no longer have part in my kingdom."
In a moment all is changed. The thought of being cast off is intolerable. "Nay, nay, this must never be! If this is the alternative, let Christ do as He will with me — let Him take me to the bath and wash me from head to foot. To be His, and His forever — this is all my salvation and all my desire. Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!"
Nay, there is no need. He who has been in the bath in the morning, needs at night but the washing of the feet, from the dust that through the day may have clung to him. "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean." John 13:10
In this subject there yet lies in the background precious instruction as to the cleansing from sin. Meanwhile let us carry away the twofold lessons of humility and self-renunciation. We must rejoice to be nothing — and let Christ's will be supreme.
Renew my will from day to day,
Blend it with Yours, and take away
All that now makes it hard to say,
'May Your will be done.'
O God, my Father, behold me in Your mercy and loving-kindness. Give me the anointing of Your Spirit, that I may perfectly know You, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent. Lead me to the Savior's footstool, and teach me to consider Him in His life and death.
I thank You, O merciful Redeemer, for Your endless love to Your people. I thank You for stooping so low in Your pity for Your disciples. You are ever the same, yesterday, today, and forever. O make me truly to believe in Your care. In every trial and sorrow, may I trust in You. Supply every lack of my soul, and give me all that is profitable for me in this present life. Undertake for me in everything, both great and small — and in every hour of darkness make me patient, in hope of Your coming and kingdom.
O God, grant me by Your Spirit to follow in the footsteps of Christ. Give unto me the spirit of meekness and of true humility. You dwell with the humble and contrite in heart — make me to be such indeed. Break down my pride, and lay low every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of You. Make me more thoughtful for the needs of others, and willing to do for them that which lies in me.
Help me, O Father, and fulfill my humble desires, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.