Foot Washing and Cross-Bearing

Have you ever washed someone’s feet? I have. A couple times in various contexts. It sounds gross. But it wasn’t. Really. In our day, our feet are protected from wear and tear. We drive or ride to get to work, school, and home. We rarely walk more than a hundred yards and when we do, we wear Nike or Keen. What’s more, our streets and sidewalks don’t have slop and feces and trash on them. Feet today are as clean and cared for as they have ever been. So washing someone’s feet today is not as offensive and disgusting as it could be.

But back in the first century, it was. It was down right rank chore. It was reserved for the lowest person on the household totem pole. Nobodies, house servants, washed feet. Feet which had more than jam between toes (let the reader understand). If this kind of foot washing was a profession today, you can bet Mike Rowe would give it a shot.

In John 13, Jesus and his disciples eat their last meal together. Things were tense: Jesus said someone was going to betray him. But at one point, it got a little awkward. Master Jesus strips himself of his outer garment, drapes a towel around his waste, gets on his knees and starts and starts scrubbing the filthy, fecal feet of his disciples. And then he says, “If I have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Everyone is offended. Or perplexed. Later in John 13, Jesus says, “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” (v. 34). As a matter of fact, if the disciples love as Jesus says, the world will know they follow Jesus (v. 35).

So what’s this all about? Was Jesus really telling his disciples to become literal foot washers? Didn’t Jesus know that shoes and boots would be invented and our feet would be protected and clean(er)? Is Jesus saying that the ultimate sign of love is to wash someone’s dirty feet?

Foot washing is a parable. An illustration. A foreshadow. Of what?

The cross, of course. That’s where John’s story is going. On the cross, Jesus goes low in humility–much lower than he deserves–and deals with all the muck and mire and trash and feces in the disciples’ lives and ours. That is “how” Jesus loved the disciples. Not merely by washing feet but by washing them in giving himself up for them. Elsewhere, John writes, “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sin” (1 John 4:10). As a servant who washes feet strips down and forfeits their personal dignity, Jesus was striped of much more than his robes and dignity. He lost his connection to the Father because he became sin, a curse for the disciples, for us so that we might come to God. He washed away the muck, yes. But he became the muck. He lost it all. He radically gave himself up. In washing their feet, he gave up his rights to be “the man,” and he became the servant. In dying for their–our–sins, he became the man on the cross. That is love. Foot washing equals cross-bearing.

But Jesus doesn’t just give up himself so we don’t have to. He gives himself up so that we can. And if the disciples, if we, love this way–radical, self-giving for the good of others–the world will know we belong to Jesus. You want to follow Jesus? You get to wash feet. You get to die. That’s what true love is. We love without any fanfare. Without any recognition. Without anything in return. Friends, this is a high calling. May God help us!

And then there’s that word in John 13:35, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” The world might be able to argue against our doctrines and worldview, but it will not be able to argue against our love. The world may object to justification by grace and prayer to a God we can’t see, but it will not object if we lay down our reputation, power, control, resources, comfort, convenience for others. The world may not like the idea of a Triune God being worthy of all glory and praise, but it will always be attracted to radical, humble, everyday self-sacrifice.

People may not join us, but they will know we have a different Master. A Master who serves. A Master who washes feet. A Master who bears a cross. Let’s be people who follow our Master.


The Grace of the Cross

Taken from Valley of Vision: A Collection of Puritan Prayers and Devotions

I thank Thee from the depths of my being for Thy wondrous grace and love in bearing my sin in Thine own body on the tree. May Thy cross be to me as the tree that sweetens my bitter Marahs, as the rod that blossoms with life and beauty, as the brazen serpent that calls forth the look of faith. By Thy cross crucify my every sin, use it to increase my intimacy with thyself, make it a ground of all my comfort, the liveliness of all my duties, the sum of all Thy gospel promises, the comfort of all my afflictions, the vigor of my love, thankfulness, graces, the very essence of my religion, and by it give me that rest without rest, the rest of ceaseless praise.

Thou hast also appointed a cross for me to take up and carry, a cross before Thou givest me a crown. Thou hast appointed it to be my portion, but self-love hates it, carnal reason is unreconciled to it, without the grace of patience I cannot bear it, walk with it, profit by it. Oh blessed cross, what mercies dost thou bring with thee. Thou art only esteemed hateful by my rebel will, heavy because I shirk thy load. Teach me, gracious Lord and Savior, that with my cross Thou sends promised grace so that I may bear it patiently, that my cross is Thy yoke which is easy, and Thy burden which is light.



The Central Meaning of the Cross

J. Gresham Machen:

The Cross of Christ is certainly a noble example of self-sacrifice; but if it be only a noble example of self-sacrifice, it has no comfort for burdened souls; it certainly shows how God hates sin; but if it does nothing but show how God hates sin, it only deepens our despair; it certainly exhibits the love of God, but if it does nothing but exhibit the love of God it is a mere meaningless exhibition which seems unworthy of God.

Many things are taught us by the Cross; but the other things are taught us only if the really central meaning is preserved, the central meaning upon which all the rest depends.

On the cross the penalty of our sins was paid; it is as though we ourselves had died in fulfillment of the just curse of the law; the handwriting of ordinances that was against us was wiped out; and henceforth we have an entirely new life in the full favor of God.

— J. Gresham Machen, What is Faith? (New York: MacMillan, 1925), 148.

HT: First Importance


When I Survey the Wondrous Cross

By Isaac Watts, 1707

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died,
My richest gain I count but loss,
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast,
Save in the death of Christ my God!
All the vain things that charm me most,
I sacrifice them to His blood.

See from His head, His hands, His feet,
Sorrow and love flow mingled down!
Did e’er such love and sorrow meet,
Or thorns compose so rich a crown?

His dying crimson, like a robe,
Spreads o’er His body on the tree;
Then I am dead to all the globe,
And all the globe is dead to me.

Were the whole realm of nature mine,
That were a present far too small;
Love so amazing, so divine,
Demands my soul, my life, my all.


Knowing What God Has Prepared for Those Who Love Him

You have heard it said with a warm tone during a small group. You have seen it plastered on a coffee mug or a Bible cover at a Christian book store. You have even quoted it to yourself in hard times.

What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him (1 Cor. 2:9). 

When we say it, read it, or hear it, what we often assume is that this is God’s “word to me” during life’s doldrums. Essentially, what we mean is, “God has awesome plans for your life. It will work out. Hang in there!” But is that what the Apostle Paul meant?

Let me tip my hand right away: this verse is not about God’s unimaginable plans for your life. Paul is saying that God has actually already revealed the depth and riches of his wisdom in the gospel. What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor heart imagined actually has been seen, heard, and imagined by those who have the Spirit. Let’s allow the context to explain.

In the middle of chapter 2, Paul is finishing up a little section on the wisdom of God. He already made the point in chapter 1 that his job as an apostle is to preach the gospel, not with eloquent words of worldly wisdom, but with cross-exalting speech (1:17; cf. 2:4). Paul calls his message “the word of the cross,” which, for those who are being saved, is the power of God (1:18). This word, this power, this wisdom, is Christ himself (1:23; cf. 1:30). The world’s got wisdom backwards (1:20). Yet, it pleases God to save those who believe this “folly” of the cross. (1:21). This folly, this gospel, this Christ, is the incomprehensible redemption that God has accomplished through his Son: life through death; victory through defeat; exaltation through suffering. It is the exact opposite of the world’s so-called wisdom. 

As chapter 2 begins, Paul reminds the Corinthians that he didn’t preach to them the wisdom of the world (2:1-5). He preached Christ (i.e. the word of the cross). Paul admits this word is not a wisdom of the world or of the rulers of this word (2:6). “The rulers of this age” did not understand God’s wisdom (2:8). If they had, Paul argues, they would not have crucified Jesus. But, as it is, they did not understand. Their eyes, ears, and hearts could not discern what God prepared for those who loved him. But those who love God can.

The gospel, then, is “what no eye has seen, nor ear has heard, nor heart of man imagined” (v. 9). Paul quotes Isaiah 64:4 here, which is talking about how God has done “awesome things that we did not look for” (64:3). Isaiah tells us that God acts, unlike the idols of the world, and works redemption in ways that the human mind could not conceive or invent. The gospel is foolishness to our natural thinking, and only a God who is not of this world could plan something so beautifully backwards. Christians would not have understood this if God had not revealed its wisdom through the Spirit. But, thankfully, contrary to the Christian t-shirts and handbags, we do know what God has prepared for those who love him! Paul writes, “These things God has revealed to us through the Spirit…[so] that we might understand the things freely given us by God” (vv. 10, 12).

If you have the Spirit, if you trust in Jesus as your wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption, then you have seen, heard, and imagined what God has prepared for those who love him. It has not all been revealed now. But it has been revealed in part through the word of the cross. Folly to the world, but divine wisdom to us.