Wednesday, October 03, 2007

Cleaning one another's feet

This morning I was listening to a popular Bible teacher on the radio, and he used the story of Jesus washing the disciple’s feet in John 13 as an illustration for a message on Christian service. Now I’ve heard this passage taught that way many times, and I have no desire to disparage the particular teacher I was listening to (lest someone Google the date and topic and somehow figure out who I’m talking about.) However, I wonder if we’re missing a very particular point Jesus was making in this passage. Was Jesus simply teaching his disciples the necessity of serving one another—which is certainly true—or was he teaching them a very specific act of service using the washing of feet as a metaphor?

To me, it’s almost certain his purpose was not merely teaching his disciples to clean each other’s feet. Throughout John’s gospel, when Jesus does a physical act, such as give sight to the blind, or raise someone from the dead, his material acts represent spiritual truths. Sight to the blind, for example, represents spiritual illumination (John 9:41) and raising the dead (John 11) represents Jesus’ power to give eternal life. So what does washing the feet represent?

I think the major clue is when Peter asks that Jesus go ahead and wash his head and hands as well, Jesus replies, "A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you." (John 13:10, NASB) When Jesus says, “you are clean” is he referring to bodily hygiene? No, I think he’s referring to their spiritual state. Looking at it this way makes sense then of the comparison between Judas (“not every one of you”) and the others. Surely Judas wasn’t unique because he hadn’t bathed.

If he’s equating physical cleaning with spiritual cleansing, then what are we to make of washing the feet versus washing the entire body? I believe he’s teaching the need for his followers to cleanse the everyday spiritual dirt—sin, that is—which regularly occurs in the life of the disciple. Our “whole body is clean” in the sense that Jesus performed the sacrifice that once and for all makes our scarlet sins white as snow. But as 1 John 1:8 tells us, “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves, and the truth is not in us.” So then, even though we have been entirely cleansed, each day we pick up spiritual grime that needs removal.

I was helped to see this because this very morning in my daily Bible reading I came to this passage: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.” (Galatians 6:1) I believe what Paul is teaching here is exactly what Jesus is illustrating by exhorting his disciples to wash each other’s feet.

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