How are you known by those around you? What would they describe you?
Busy? Easy-going? Nice? Withdrawn? Driven? Glum?
What about your church? How is it known in your area?
The night before Jesus died He spoke of one mark by which His followers are to be identified in the world. One word should spring to mind when the world thinks about Christians. Loving.
“A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” (John 13:34-35)
The distinguishing mark of the Christian is not a dress code, not an institutional configuration, not even primarily a doctrinal or moral or religious code. The ultimate, distinguishing mark of the Christ-follower is love.
This is not simply Jesus’ last request. Jesus calls it a new command. ‘New’ because it is to be taken up afresh in every generation. But this is not a suggestion from Jesus. It’s a command: As He has loved us, so we love one another.
This speaks of manner, of order and of movement.
Manner: We are to love in the same manner as Christ has loved us.
Order: We are to love having been loved by Christ.
Movement: We are not to “return the favour” to Jesus but to “pass it on.”
All of this is taught in the foot washing which provides the backdrop to this teaching.
In John 13 it is the night before Jesus’ death. And just when you might expect Jesus to be comforted and supported by His followers, it is Jesus who pours Himself out for them:
“When Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end… Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet…” (John 13:1,3-5)
Here is Jesus ‘loving unto the end.’ And the foot washing parallels His own history as Son of God. Just as He left the Father’s side to love us in costly, sacrificial service, so He leaves His place at the table, trades His robe for a towel and washes His disciples.
And once He had washed and dried their feet, He took up the robe again and returned to His place. In verse 12 He asks, “Know ye what I have done to you?”
Do they? And do we? This foot washing is a picture of something far deeper. Jesus had come from God, was returning to God, and the route which He trod took Him to the utter depths of the cross. We must never forget that these hands which lovingly washed His friends’ feet would, in a matter of hours, be nailed to a Roman cross. We cannot forget this because the washing is meant to picture Christ’s love shown at the cross.
And what a picture! The ruler of the universe, stooping and serving His followers.
John writes about it recalling every last detail. Verse 5:
“After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.”
As John writes about it, he is carried back to the moment it happened. John was there. He’d had his own feet personally washed and padded dry by the LORD of all creation.
How would you feel as Jesus came around the table to you?
I was once in India, staying with a very respectable family in Indian society. The father was a Nawab – the equivalent of a Maharajah or the British equivalent of a Lord. And while I was there, my hosts were insisting that I had a pedicure. I flatly refused – no way was I going to let someone poke around my carbuncled monstrosities. I didn’t want to stand over another human being while they fussed over my dirty feet. No person should have to do that. It is such an awkward thing, to have someone hold your naked feet, to wash water over them and towel them dry while all you can do is sit there and watch. There is something very uncomfortable about allowing someone to serve you to that level.
But I was uncomfortable having one of the household servants do it. It is unthinkable to imagine my host – this Lord – taking off his royal robes, wrapping a towel around his waist and kneeling at my stinking feet.
That is inconceivable for us. But what about this? In John 13, the Lord of the universe does this very thing.
This is how Jesus has loved His disciples. He loves them in action. He loves in concrete service. He addresses their needs. He loves in humility. He gives up His rights and privileges. He loves in a costly way. He loves even under pressure – the cross was just hours away! He loves unconditionally – these men would, by the end of the night, betray Him, desert Him or deny Him. Yet He lovingly washes all their feet, even Judas’. And He loves in self-forgetfulness – He doesn’t care that He loses face. He is not concerned for His own self-image.
How do we measure up to Christ’s new command?
I can kid myself that I’m loving… until it means inconvenience, or a loss of face, or until my love is not returned in kind. And how often does our love evaporate when we’re under pressure from other quarters?
But notice again the order – as Christ has loved us, so we love others. There’s an order in which we are to obey the new command. First be loved. Then love. First receive Jesus’ love. Then pass it on. First know, realise, appreciate – then do. First understand, then act. That’s the order.
In fact this order is one that Jesus Himself follows. Did you notice that very strange line in verse 3? In verse 3 we get a rare psychological commentary on the thought-life of Jesus:
“Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper…” (John 13:3)
Jesus loved the world out of the security He already had from His Father. He first received love and then passed it on. If that’s the order for the Son of God, we certainly cannot short-circuit the process.
Peter thinks he can. Peter wants to put his own doing ahead of Christ’s love. As Jesus comes around with the bowl Peter protests:
“Thou shalt never wash my feet.” (John 13:8)
Later on Peter commits the same error. In verse 37 he boldly proclaims:
“I will lay down my life for thy sake.”
He has things backwards: “Don’t wash my feet, I’ll wash yours… Don’t die for me, I’ll die for you.”
Jesus has to burst his bubble in v38. Peter has no resources to play the part of Jesus. He will deny Christ before the night is out. That’s a shocking turn-around for a man who sounds so spiritual, so committed. But actually Peter’s words in the upper room are full of the same independent self-assuredness which lead him to deny Jesus.
Peter’s mistake in a nut-shell was this: he trusted in his own love for Jesus rather than Jesus’ love for him. He reversed the order. He put his own acts of love ahead of Christ’s. And when the crunch came, of course his own love failed.
Will we submit to the humbling, sacrificial love of Christ? He stoops not just to our feet but to a cross. But through it, we are cleansed and ready to serve.