Peter watched Jesus make his way toward him, washing the feet of other disciples.
It had already been a confusing Passover. Jesus had been unusually burdened, close to tears all day. The atmosphere during the meal was charged with ominous anticipation.
Peter had grown used to Jesus doing and saying unpredictable things. But what Jesus was doing now was wrong. He was the last person in the room who should be washing feet.
All of Peter’s life he had been taught that feet were dishonorable members of the body. They were usually dirty, frequently smelly, and among the most likely members to come in contact with things that the Law declared unclean.
Outside of immediate family, feet were washed by slaves and servants—ideally non-Jews so as not to subject any of the Covenant People to such humiliation.
And one never insulted an honored person by pointing one’s feet at them.
But here was the Messiah, the most honored Jew to ever walk the earth, stripped like a common slave with a towel around his waist willingly handling the unclean feet of his disciples. This was backwards. If anything, Peter should be down there washing Jesus’ feet.
When Jesus got to Peter he smiled at him and reached for his feet. Peter pulled them back. “Lord, do you wash my feet?”
Jesus loved Peter. The Rock never did anything, right or wrong, without jumping in with—or in this case withholding—both feet. He knew what Peter was thinking. So he replied, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”
Unwilling to subject Jesus to such dishonor Peter said, “You shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus’ countenance became dead serious. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
The shock of this statement stunned Peter for a second. He was trying to preserve his Master’s honor. But Jesus was essentially telling him, unless you let me bear your dishonor, your uncleanness, you can’t be my disciple.
Well, he didn’t understand what this all meant, but Peter would leave no doubt about his trust in and love for Jesus: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Joy radiated from Jesus’ eyes and smile. And as he washed Peter’s feet he said, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.”
Then he paused for a moment and looked into Peter’s eyes. This beloved man was unknowingly about to face the most difficult, grievous, and glorious three days of his life. He would benefit from this reassurance: “And you are clean.”
Then his eyes dropped back to Peter’s feet and he resumed washing. “But not every one of you.”
Two lessons from this account in John 13:1-11:
First, much of the Christian life is spent trusting Jesus now and understanding him later. Jesus typically does not feel it necessary to explain on the front end why he is doing something the way he is doing it. And, like Peter, when it looks wrong to us, we are tempted to object to the Lord’s will.
God understands and is patient with our confusion and even our deep wrestling or grief. But he wants us to trust him, and not grumble or question in unbelief (Philippians 2:14). God’s ways are not our ways (Isaiah 55:8). His purposes for bringing or not bringing certain things to pass often extend far beyond us—maybe even generations beyond us.
So during those times we need to remember Jesus’ words to Peter: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”
Second, what Jesus is bringing about in the sometimes confusing, sometimes very painful work he is doing in our lives is sanctification. He is washing our feet. He not only bathes us, completely removing the guilt of our sin in his cleansing work on the cross, but in love he keeps forgiving us (1 John 1:9) and disciplines us so that we will share his holiness (Hebrews 12:10-11).
Our understanding his purposes in a particular providence tends to be not as important to God as our trust in his character. So together let’s continue to “trust in the Lord with all [our] heart, and…not lean on [our] own understanding” (Proverbs 3:5). Because one day we will understand. And we will, with great joy, proclaim, “The Lord is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works” (Psalm 145:17).