Christ Washing the Disciples’ Feet
This significant action, so full of kindness and condescension on the part of our Saviour, is recorded for our example. Happy shall we be, if we truly copy it. Here is no affectation of humility, but humility itself; nor is it performed as a mere ceremony, but to teach us “in love to serve one another.” Its being done at a time when “Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father,” renders it additionally impressive. It was the same night in which he was betrayed; a night in which it might have been thought his own approaching trials would have engrossed his whole attention; yet then he was fully employed in behalf of others; setting an example of brotherly affection, ordaining a standing memorial of his death, fortifying, by a speech full of unparalleled consolation, the hearts of his disciples, and commending them to the care of God his Father. “Surely he hath borne our griefs, and carried our sorrows,” not only in making his soul an offering for sin, but in every step that led on to that awful crisis.
Laying aside his garments, he took a towel, girded himself with it, poured the water into a bason, and went from one to another, performing the work of a menial servant. When it came to Peter’s turn, his feelings revolted at the idea. “Lord,” saith he, viewing his dignity on the one hand, and his own insignificance on the other, “dost thou wash my feet?” Jesus answered, “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter;” intimating that he had a reason for so doing, which, though it might not be manifest at present, would at a future time be rendered plain. “Nay,” saith Peter, almost indignantly, “thou shalt never wash my feet!” As though he had said,—This is too much, and what I never can submit to!
Jesus answered him, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” What! if he washed not his feet? No, his soul, from the pollution of sin. Transitions like this, from things natural to things spiritual, were usual with our Saviour. Thus, when he had healed a blind man, he took occasion to observe, “For judgment I am come into this world, that they who see not may see; and that they who see may be made blind.” The answer in the present instance was to this effect.—Dost thou account it too great a stoop for me to wash thy feet? Let me tell thee, I must stoop lower than this, or woe be to thee! I must cleanse thee from a defilement much more loathsome than this, or thou canst have no part with me in my kingdom.
Peter, perceiving now that he spoke of the purifying of his soul from sin, suddenly changed his tone. “Lord,” saith he, “not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” q. d. If this be thy meaning, I know that I need to be cleansed throughout.
Jesus saith unto him, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit; and ye are clean, but not all.” As it is sufficient for persons who have bathed their bodies in the stream to wash off the defilement attached to their feet by walking on the shore, so they that have believed in Christ shall never come into condemnation, and need not the repetition of a passing from death to life, but merely an application for the pardon of their daily sins. Such was the character of all the disciples, except Judas, who, notwithstanding his profession, was yet in his sins.
From this interesting conversation, we are taught several important truths.
First, We may sin against Christ, under a show of modesty and reverence for his name. There is no doubt but that Peter’s first objection sprang from these motives; and had he yielded to the first answer, perhaps he had been blameless; but to resist after he was assured that his Lord had a good reason for what he did, though he at present did not comprehend it, was setting up his own wisdom and will against his. Nor was this the first instance in which Peter was guilty of so doing. When our Saviour spoke of going up to Jerusalem, and of suffering many things, and being killed, and rising again the third day, he rebuked him, saying, “Be it far from thee, Lord; this shall not be unto thee.” In all this he “savoured not the things that were of God, but the things that were of men.”
There is much of this spirit in our self-righteous objections to the grace of the gospel, and self-willed oppositions to Christ’s revealed will. One pleads that salvation by mere grace is dishonourable to God’s moral government; but let him know, from the example of Peter, that there may be a regard to Christ’s honour which he doth not require at our hands; and that we should act much more becoming by acquiescing in his will, than by obtruding our own conceits in opposition to it. Another alleges, It is too much for a sinner so unworthy as I am to hope for so great salvation.—But can you do with less? and is it the comparatively worthy that mercy delighteth to honour? True wisdom will fall in with that way of honouring God which is revealed in the gospel; and genuine modesty will not dispute with the Saviour, but humbly take him at his word. And the same spirit that receives his grace without hesitation will obey his precepts without delay; not asking why or wherefore the Lord requireth this, but accounting it our meat to do his will.
Secondly, A cordial and practical acquiescence in the way of salvation through the blood of Christ is necessary to a participation of his benefits. It may seem rather singular that Christ should suspend his blessing on his own act—“If I wash thee not,” &c., but that act supposes the concurrence of the party. He stood ready to wash Peter, and stands ready to wash the foulest of sinners. If therefore they be not washed, it is owing to their preference of pollution, or their self-righteous objections to the way of being cleansed. To feel ourselves entirely polluted, and ready to perish—to despair of being cleansed by any thing that we can perform, or work ourselves up to—to place no dependence on prayers or tears, on our bitterest repentance or most unfeigned faith, considered as acts of holiness—and to repair, altogether vile as we are, to the blood of Jesus, as to a fountain set open for sin and for uncleanness—this is the hinge of true religion, without which we shall have no interest with him in his benefits, nor portion with him in his heavenly kingdom. If we come not to him as polluted sinners to be washed, our iniquities are still upon our head; and if we die in this state, they will go down with us to the grave, rise with us at the resurrection, be found upon us at judgment, and for ever bar against us those gates through which nothing unclean can enter. In this case, so far as we are concerned, the Saviour might as well have never come into the world, nor have laid down his life; nay, better; for if our filthiness be found upon us at the last day, it will be the bitterest of all aggravations that the kingdom of Christ has been nigh unto us.
Thirdly, Though the believer, who hath passed from death to life, shall never come into condemnation; yet he standeth in need of continual cleansing from his daily defilements. The notion that it is inconsistent for a believer to pray for the pardon of his sins is contrary to the express directions of Christ, and to the example of the godly in all ages. It belongs to a “life of faith on the Son of God;” and without it, whatever self-flattering ideas we may entertain, we are dead while we live; and in whatever degree we come short of such a life, wearing away our transgressions by forgetfulness, instead of washing them away by repeated application to the blood of the cross, we incur the displeasure of Christ, and forsake our own mercies.
Excerpt from “Various Passages,” in Illustrations of Scripture.
Fuller, A. G. (1988). The Complete Works of Andrew Fuller: Memoirs, Sermons, Etc. (J. Belcher, Ed.) (Vol. 1, pp. 656–658). Harrisonburg, VA: Sprinkle Publications.