How did the apostles know what Jesus’s crucifixion means?
How did they know that it was the supreme act of service for them and for us? That it was the ultimate indication of God’s character; the demonstration of the nature of that selfless love, which lies at the centre of the universe and at the beginning and end of all time – and which is the source of all our hope for the future.
Because he washed their feet.
You see the crucifixion could easily be seen as something which happened to Jesus – because he was too weak to be able to control the situation. You could interpret the Chief Priests and the Romans as being just too powerful for the magical man who opened the eyes of the blind and brought the dead back to life.
But when we read Chapter 13 of John we start to understand what is really going on.
The culture of the times was that when you arrived at a dinner party, instead of being given a gin and tonic by the host, you would have your feet washed by a slave. This was a humiliating exercise for the slave and not acceptable for Jewish slaves – only Gentile slaves could wash the feet of Jews. But there were no slaves available. So the disciples must have reclined for dinner without having had their feet washed.
And then – the host – the president of the dinner – their teacher and rabbi strips down to do this task himself.
Jesus is prompted to do this – not from a sense of inadequacy but the very reverse (verse 3): “knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from God and was going to God…”
So, at a moment when he has an incredibly strong sense of his identity as God’s Son and his authority over all things in the universe – the consciousness of his ultimate power; he chooses to conduct this humiliating service for his disciples. In doing so he tells us something hugely important about God – he tells us about God’s character – his self-sacrificial love.
Peter breaks the stony silence and gets the wrong end of the stick. He says to Jesus ‘Don’t you wash my feet’. And Jesus responds (verse 8): “Unless I wash you, you have no share with me”. In other words unless you can accept the sacrifice I make for you – you cannot share in what I have to offer.
With ridiculous enthusiasm Peter replies: “Lord not my feet only but also my hands and my head”. But Jesus says: Its OK you are clean already – you have accepted my words – you are washed clean (verse 10) “One who has bathed does not need to wash…but is entirely clean. And you are clean….” So the symbol of foot washing is not about baptism or even conversion and baptism of the Holy Spirit.
Jesus explains in verse 13 – no – it is really about how we should treat each other – however exalted we should be the servants of all; engaging in the self-sacrificial love which points towards God’s character.
Then Jesus steps forward over the next few days to allow himself to be taken into the hands of those who will humiliate him, beat him and crucify him – so that we can be released from the consequences of our own sinfulness – the ultimate sacrifice – the ultimate act of love – the ultimate revelation of the character of the God who is the Alpha and Omega – the beginning and the end.