Jesus used the ordinary, common things of everyday life to explain important spiritual principles to his followers. The night before he was crucified, Jesus took the time to wash his disciples’ feet in order to show them how salvation cleanses us from our sins. John’s gospel tells us:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:1-5)
The first thing that Jesus wanted his disciples to realize was that he was taking on a specific role when he washed their feet. By laying aside his outer garments, taking a towel and tying it around his waist, Jesus was demonstrating that he was a servant of God. The Greek word that is translated laid aside, tithemi (tithˊ-ay-mee) “as a verb, means ‘to put’ is used of ‘appointment’ to any form of service. Christ used it of His followers: ‘Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained (tithemi) you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you’ (John 15:16). The verb is used by Paul of his service in the ministry of the gospel: ‘And I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who hath enable me, for that he counted me faithful, putting (tithemi) me into the ministry’ (1 Timothy 1:12; cf. 2:7; 2 Timothy 1:11)” (G5087).
John the Baptist identified the service that Jesus was appointed to do for God. John proclaimed, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). John indicated that Jesus would take away the sin or you might say the sinfulness of the world. The Greek word hamartia (ham-ar-teeˊ-ah) refers to the practice of sinning or proneness to sin. From the Hebrew word chataʾ comes the meaning of moral failure and refers to “the imputation or consequences of sin, the guilt and punishment of sin as in the phrase ‘to take away [or bear] sin,’ i.e. the imputation of it (John 1:29; Romans 11:27; Hebrews 9:26; 10:11; 1 Peter 2:24; 1 John 3:5)” (G266). Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet illustrated the effect of his atonement for sin. When Peter resisted the process, Jesus explained the purpose of what he was doing. John tells us:
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
Jesus used the word clean figuratively in a Levitical sense to draw his disciples’ attention to the process of purification that everyone must go through in order to enter into the presence of God.
When Jesus said, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean” (John 13:10), he was talking about regeneration which has two distinct parts; paliggenesia (pal-ing-ghen-es-eeˊ-ah) “(spiritual) rebirth” and anakainosis (an-ak-ahˊ-ee-no-sis) “renovation.” “Anakainosis (G342) is the result of paliggenesia. The paliggenesia is that free act of God’s mercy and power by which He removes the sinner from the kingdom of darkness and places him in the kingdom of light; it is that act by which God brings him from death to life. In the act itself (rather than the preparations for it), the recipient is passive, just as a child has nothing to do with his own birth. Anakainosis, by contrast, is the gradual conforming of the person to the new spiritual world in which he now lives, the restoration of the divine image. In this process the person is not passive but is a fellow worker with God” (G3824). Jesus likened being born again to a spiritual bath and said, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet” (John 13:10). The reason why Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, as opposed to them doing it themselves, was so that they could see that their need for his purifying effect went beyond the initial transformation of their lives.
The Old Testament of the Bible illustrates the two step process of regeneration from a physical or natural standpoint. After the Israelites were delivered from slavery in Egypt, they were expected to return to the land of their ancestors and take possession of it. The book of Numbers provides a brief synopsis of the Israelites’ transition into the second step of the process. Initially, the Israelites refused to submit themselves to God’s will. When twelve men were sent to spy out the land of Canaan to prepare Israel’s army for war, ten of the men returned and gave the people a bad report. They said, “We are not able to go up against the people, for they are stronger than we are” (Numbers 13:31) and as a result, “The whole congregation said to them, ‘Would that we had died in the land of Egypt! Or would that we had died in this wilderness! Why is the LORD bringing us into this land, to fall by the sword? Our wives and our little ones will become a prey. Would it not be better for us to go back to Egypt?’” (Numbers 14:2-3). In the LORD’s judgment of the Israelites, there was a distinction between the people that had disobeyed the LORD and those that had confirmed their faith in him. Caleb in particular was singled out. The LORD said, “And none of those who despised me shall see it. But my servant Caleb, because he has a different spirit and has followed me fully, I will bring into the land into which he went, and his descendants shall possess it” (Numbers 14:23-24).
The LORD referred to Caleb as his servant. The Hebrew word ʿebed (ehˊ-bed) “was used as a mark of humility and courtesy…Of prime significance is the use of ‘my servant’ for the Messiah in Isaiah (42:1-7; 49:1-7; 50:4-10; 52:13-53:12)…So the Lord called ‘my righteous servant’ (Isaiah 53:11; cf. 42:6) ‘[to bear] the sin of many’ (Isaiah 53:12)” (H5650). Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet was intended to demonstrate the Messiah’s service to God in taking away the sin of the world. Jesus said, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean” (John 13:10). The Greek word that is translated completely, holos (holˊ-os) means “whole” or “all” (G3650). The Greek word holoteles (hol-ot-el-aceˊ) is a combination of the words holos and telos and means “complete to the end, i.e. absolutely perfect” (G3651). Holoteles is used by the Apostle Paul in 1 Thessalonians 5:23 in regards to the sanctification of the believer being extended to every part of his being. Paul stated, “Now may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it” (emphasis mine).
Jesus’ act of washing his disciples’ feet was not only intended to demonstrate the Messiah’s service to God in taking away the sin of the world, but also to show us that regeneration is an ongoing process that needs to take place on a regular basis. In the same way that we bathe ourselves physically, we need to continually bathe ourselves spiritually in order to keep from becoming spiritually offensive to God. John tells us that after Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he put on his outer garment and resumed his place at the table. And then:
He said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” (John 13:12-20)
Jesus told his disciples that they “ought to wash one another’s feet” and that he had given them an example “that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:14-15). The part of the process of regeneration that takes place on a daily basis is meant to be a joint effort. Not only are we fellow workers with God, we are fellow workers with each other.
Paul referred to believers’ joint effort of regeneration as edification or the building up of the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:12) and said, “And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:11-16). The Greek word oikodome (oy-kod-om-ayˊ) means “architecture” and “expresses the strengthening effect of teaching…(the idea conveyed is progress resulting from patient effort)” (G3619). When we are building each other up in love, we are helping other believers to understand the truth of God’s word and are making spiritual progress together rather than alone. Paul emphasized the importance of having unity in our faith and told Timothy, “The aim of our charge is love that issues from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith” (1 Timothy 1:5).
The three descriptors Paul used: a pure heart, a good conscience, and a sincere faith; depict the end result of anakainosis, therefore, it seems safe to assume that Paul was talking about mature Christians helping other Christians gain spiritual strength. Anakainosis is “the adjustment of the moral and spiritual vision and thinking to the mind of God, which is designed to have a transforming effect upon the life” (G342). In the case of Judas Iscariot, the disciple that betrayed Jesus, it is evident that this transformation never occurred. Jesus told his disciples, “I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me’” (John 13:18). Jesus’ statement implied that like the others, Judas was hand-picked to be a disciple of Christ, but the end result was not spiritual regeneration. John tells us:
After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.” The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke. One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table at Jesus’ side, so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking. So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.” (John 13:21-27)
Satan’s possession of Judas’ body was possible because he was not spiritually clean (John 13:10). Judas was not born again, he had never experienced the spiritual rebirth (G3824) that the other disciples had.
One of the ways that we can view salvation is a type of spiritual protection. In his list of the believer’s spiritual blessings, Paul noted that believers are stamped as with a signet ring or private mark for the security and preservation of our spirits. Paul said, “In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him, were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory” (Ephesians 1:13-14). The key to this spiritual protection is believing in Jesus Christ. While the Israelites were in route to the Promised Land, they were accompanied by an angel and the LORD told them, “Pay careful attention to him and obey his voice; do not rebel against him, for he will not pardon your transgression, for my name is in him. But if you carefully obey his voice and do all that I say, then I will be an enemy to your enemies and an adversary to your adversaries” (Exodus 23:21-22). “Exodus 23:21 states that the angel of the Lord has the power to forgive sins, a characteristic belonging to God alone (cf. Mark 2:7; Luke 7:49) and that he has the name of God in him” (note on Exodus 23:21). It is a distinct possibility that the angel was the preincarnate Jesus Christ and so the Israelites protection was also based on belief in Christ, but the angel couldn’t pardon the Israelites sins and therefore, they had to go through a process of purification every time they committed a sin against God. When the Israelite soldiers engaged in a war with the Midianites, they disobeyed the LORD and took captive some of the women they weren’t supposed to. Afterward, Moses instructed the men to purify themselves. Numbers 31:19-24 states:
Encamp outside the camp seven days. Whoever of you has killed any person and whoever has touched any slain, purify yourselves and your captives on the third day and on the seventh day. You shall purify every garment, every article of skin, all work of goats’ hair, and every article of wood.” Then Eleazar the priest said to the men in the army who had gone to battle: “This is the statute of the law that the Lord has commanded Moses: only the gold, the silver, the bronze, the iron, the tin, and the lead, everything that can stand the fire, you shall pass through the fire, and it shall be clean. Nevertheless, it shall also be purified with the water for impurity. And whatever cannot stand the fire, you shall pass through the water. You must wash your clothes on the seventh day, and you shall be clean. And afterward you may come into the camp.”
The Hebrew word that is translated purify and purified in this passage is chataʾ (khaw-tawˊ). “Chataʾ means sin; sin-guilt; sin purification; sin offering…The basic nuance of chataʾ is sin conceived as missing the road or mark…From this basic meaning comes the word’s chief usage to indicate moral failure toward God and men, and certain results of such wrongs…The verb may also refer to the result of wrongdoing, as in Genesis 43:9: ‘…Then let me bear the blame for ever’” (H2398). The statute of the law that Eleazar the priest referred to indicated that everything that could be passed through the fire should be purified in such a manner, but “whatever cannot stand the fire, you shall pass through the water” (Numbers 31:23). Therefore, it seems likely that the soldiers’ purification involved taking a bath.
Jesus’ comment after washing his disciples’ feet, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash except for his feet” (John 13:10) was most likely intended to clarify the difference between purification under the Mosaic Law and what happens when a person commits a sin after he is born again. “One who has been entirely cleansed need not radical renewal, but only to be cleansed from every sin into which he may fall (John 15:3; Hebrews 10:22)” (G2513). When we sin, we don’t need to recommit our lives to the Lord, but we do need to confess our sins and repent of them. Jesus told his disciples before he washed their feet, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7). The afterward that Jesus was referring to may have been Peter’s denial of the Lord. Jesus said:
Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.” Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.” Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times. (John 13:33-38)
Jesus linked his new commandment to love one another to Peter’s denial when he asked him the question, “Will you lay down your life for me?” (John 13:38). The implication being that although Peter was saved, he still wasn’t completely clean or absolutely perfect as he may have thought (G3650/3651).