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You Will Understand Hereafter

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In John 13:5-20, we read of the famous account of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. This passage is most often used and preached as an example of true servanthood, of being willing to make yourself nothing in order to serve God and other people. It is pointed out that Jesus told His disciples that He was providing an example for them (and us) to follow (13:15). While this is undoubtedly true, is this all that is being taught by Jesus in this well-known portion of Scripture? Or is there more to it than simply being an object lesson in humility? I believe there is more to this foot-washing scene than first meets the eye, much more in fact. While humbling oneself is certainly a lesson that can and should be taken away from this passage, I think there is a deeper point which is far more significant, yet largely overlooked.

Since much of what I will be saying in this article is dependent upon a careful reading of the text, I will reproduce it here:

Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, "Lord, do You wash my feet?" Jesus answered and said to him, "What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter." Peter said to Him, "Never shall You wash my feet!" Jesus answered him, "If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me." Simon Peter said to Him, "Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head." Jesus said to him, "He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you." For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, "Not all of you are clean." So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? "You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. "If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. "For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. "Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. "If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. "I do not speak of all of you I know the ones I have chosen; but it is that the Scripture may be fulfilled, 'HE WHO EATS MY BREAD HAS LIFTED UP HIS HEEL AGAINST ME.' "From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He. "Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me." (John 13:5-20)

The first thing to notice is that when Jesus takes up the task of washing the feet of His disciples, He takes "the basin." The basin was there for this very purpose. It was customary for the host of the meal to not only provide for his guests, but to make them comfortable. This would include a washing of the feet to remove the dirt and sand that had accumulated on sandal-clad feet. The fact that none of the disciples took it upon themselves to do this lowly task only magnifies the humility of Jesus. "The host, though not himself performing this service (cf. Gen. 18:4; Luke 7:44), would generally see to it that it was performed. It was, after all, a menial task, that is, a task to be discharged by aservant." [1] The striking part of this scene is that even after Christ takes the basin and girds Himself with a towel, not one of the disciples gets up to take over this "menial" task of a "servant." It is not until Jesus gets to Peter that we even hear a hint of protest. But this is also where the story gets really interesting.

Before Jesus takes to washing Peter's feet, Peter asks Him if He is indeed going to wash his feet. The irony of the situation could not be any more apparent. Not willing to stand up and gird himself with the towel and wash the others' feet, Peter now feigns indignation at allowing "the Christ, the Son of the Living God" (Matthew 16:16), to wash his own feet. He even goes so far as to claim that Jesus shall never wash his feet. Peter's pretense of piety does not last long though. A simple sentence from the Christ causes him to reverse his answer almost immediately. In fact, Peter's new answer includes washing not only his feet, but his hands and his head. This is important and should not be overlooked. The Jews placed much emphasis on the head and the hands, considering them to be the signs of "wholehearted obedience to the Law in thought and deed (Deut. 6:6-8)." [2] This is why the "mark of the Beast" in Revelation 13:16 is given on the right hand or the forehead; it is a sign of allegiance, in mind and action. Knowing himself to be a sinner, unworthy of the affections of His Savior, Peter tells Jesus to wash him completely. He begins to see that Jesus' footwashing was about far more than merely cleaning the sand off of his feet.

But Peter only understands in part what Jesus is really doing. Jesus says as much when he tells Peter: "What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter." Much speculation has been put forward about what Jesus means here, but I think William Hendriksen is correct when he writes:

Of the many explanations of this expression here in 13:7 there are two which we reject: "in the Hereafter," that is, after you have entered heaven; and b. "as soon as I have washed the feet of all of you and have added a few words of explanation." In harmony with 16:12-14 we must interpret the expression to mean "after my death, resurrection, ascension; particularly, after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Then the meaning not only of this feetwashing but of my entire work of humiliation will become clear to you." [3]

This is a key to fully understanding this passage as a whole. If what Hendriksen says is correct, there will be some other time in the future when Peter will understand what Jesus was really teaching with His act of humility and washing. We must remember that Christ was speaking to Peter, and not the group as a whole: "Jesus answered and said to him..." If we take on either of the two extremes of pushing Peter's understanding into something that will have to wait until heaven, or making it so soon that Peter will understand by the end of the meal, we rob the passage of its power. If Peter must wait until he gets to heaven to understand, the event has no meaning here, for him or us. But if we make the understanding too soon in Peter's future, i.e. the explanation that Jesus gives to all of the disciples in verses 12-20, we make a mockery of the text, causing "now" and "hereafter" to completely lose their meaning. Neither of these extremes in timing are acceptable or necessary. Too often, we overlook what Jesus was doing and focus on the why. In this instance, many theologians focus on Jesus humbling Himself and taking on the role of a servant as the entirety of the lesson, forgetting that washing was the humble task He chose to use to teach the lesson. And in this case, only Peter is promised that he will "understand hereafter."

So what event in Peter's future might we look at to gain an understanding of this footwashing scene? I believe we find it in Acts 10:9-23. Remembering that we are looking for an event that comes after Jesus ascension and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit ("He will guide you into all truth," John 16:13), we find the account of Peter's vision of the sheet coming down out of heaven, which contained all kinds of unclean animals. The similarities between this event in Acts and the footwashing are striking. Both involve preparation for a meal, a sheet (i.e. a towel), and a cleansing. Both display Peter's penchant for righteous indignation. Both involve a direct communication between God (Jesus) and Peter and end with God sending messengers to others to speak on His behalf. The parallels are remarkable and not coincidental. The vision of the sheet is where God begins to open Peter's eyes to the greatness and worldwide nature of the Gospel. The Jewish traditions that Peter held so dear of washings and the prohibitions against certain foods and certain people that he obeyed so faithfully were being categorically dismantled before his very eyes. After the vision of the sheet, Peter is taken to Cornelius—a Gentile, one with whom he would have never associated before—where he proclaimed: "You yourselves know how unlawful it is for a man who is a Jew to associate with a foreigner or to visit him; and yet God has shown me that I should not call any man unholy or unclean" (Acts 10:28).

By direct revelation, Peter is learning the lesson that Jesus said He would. Just like the animals on the sheet or the Gentiles in Caesarea, Peter too was unclean before Jesus washed him. But the water in the footwashing basin was only able to remove the dirt from the surface. Peter was well aware of this as shown by his desire for Jesus to wash his hands and head. Peter understood that Jesus was the real Cleanser ("Lord, to whom shall we go? You have words of eternal life," John 6:68), but he still had to learn that Jesus wasn't limiting his domain of clean to the Jews only. When Jesus declared the disciples to be clean in John 15:3-4, He made no reference to any external washing: "You are already clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me." Jesus had already declared the disciples to be clean at the footwashing (John 13:10), with one notable exception: Judas Iscariot. "He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you." Judas received nothing more than clean feet from Jesus' act of kindness, his unregenerate heart was still set on betrayal.

In Luke's recounting of Peter's vision, he makes an important observation about what Peter was doing: he was praying (Acts 10:9). Even though he was "clean," Peter understood that constant communication with his Lord was vital to his "keeping clean."

Once joined to Christ and cleansed in His blood, [believers] are completely absolved and free from all spot of guilt, and are counted without blame before God. But for all this they need every day, as they walk through this world, to confess their daily failures, and to sue for daily pardon. They require, in short, a daily washing of their feet, over and above the great washing of justification, which is theirs the moment they first believe. He that neglects this daily washing is a very questionable and doubtful kind of Christian. Luther remarks pithily: "The devil allows no Christian to reach heaven with clean feet all the way."[4]

With all due respect to Martin Luther, the devil has nothing to say about it. Even if we arrive at heaven's doorstep with dirty feet, Jesus will be there to wash them.


[1] William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: John (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, [1953] 2007), 2:228.
[2] David Chilton, Days of Vengeance: An Exposition of the Book of Revelation (Tyler, TX: Dominion Press, 1987), 342.
Hendriksen, John, 231.
[4] J.C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on the Gospels: Volume 4 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, [1856] 2007), 2:18.

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