Remember Jesus Christ

By Charles R Erdman

Chapter 8 - Washing the Disciples' Feet


Not everyone who observes Holy Week knows what is meant by “Maundy Thursday,” and at least some are perplexed by the word “Maundy.” It is from the Latin mandatum, meaning “a command,” and the word designates the day because on Thursday evening of this week our Lord gave to His disciples His “New Commandment” — “That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.” To appreciate this command more fully it may be well to review the scene at which the words were spoken. As the disciples were accompanying Christ to the Upper Room where the Pass- over Supper was to be served, or as they entered the room and were selecting at the table the seats of most honor, a dispute arose as to which of them should be accounted greatest.

Unhappily, it was not the first time the question had been discussed by them; and unhappily, too, the spirit of pride and jealousy and anger and selfish ambition never has been fully banished from the circles of Christian disciples. On a former occasion Christ had assured His followers that the true measure of greatness is to be found in unselfish service. These had been His words, “Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister . . .. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Now on this Thursday evening He enforces His teaching by a striking object lesson which makes plain the majesty, the modes, and the motive of Christian service. He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments, and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.” Evidently no servant had appeared to perform this necessary menial task. Each disciple had been afraid to assume the role of a slave while arguing his own superiority, but when Jesus stooped to perform this humble gracious act there could be no further dispute as to relative greatness. There was only One among them who was great. By His act all the disciples were dwarfed into insignificance. There could be no degrees of eminence among the infinitely small. How plainly the disciples must have seen their own stupidity; any one of them might have done what they saw the Master do! They surely perceived that nothing is so mean and contemptible as arrogance and pride, nothing so noble, so royal, as humble, self-forgetful service.

Thus it was that Jesus illustrated, not only the majesty of service, but also its various modes. First of all, He wished to give His disciples physical relief. In that eastern country no guests could have been comfortable at dinner unless water first had been poured over their feet. So the disciples, who had come into the city after a walk over dusty highways, needed, as they took their places for the Passover feast, exactly the service which our Lord rendered. He had a real concern for their bodily comfort and their peace of mind.

The world today, more than in any other age, is in need of physical relief. Countless millions are hungry, cold and in prison, homeless and helpless. As never before, the followers of Christ are called upon to follow in His steps and to do all that in them lies to relieve those who are in dire distress. Even in our homes of comfort and of peace, there are countless servants of the King who are expected to devote all their lives to providing for the daily needs of others. Many names which stand highest on the honor-roll of heroes are those of men and of women who have served the world by combatting disease, by aiding the helpless, and by rescuing sufferers from the ravages of famine and pestilence and war?'

There is an even higher form of service. It is in the moral and spiritual sphere. This was the purpose and this the achievement of our Lord. He stooped to wash His disciples' feet, but in so doing He cleansed their hearts. As He resumed His place at the table, the bitter dispute had been silenced, the envy and ill-will and pride had given way to sorrow and shame for their foolish boasts, to affection for each other, and to admiration for their princely Lord.

So today, for those who “remember Jesus Christ,” it is possible to follow His example, and by deeds of lowly service and by words of sympathy, to restore those who have fallen below their cherished ideals, and to lift the burden of anger and jealousy and hatred from their embittered souls.

It is said that a wretched leper refused to accept a message of sympathy from Saint Francis of Assisi; but when the Saint had stooped and bathed the festering body with his own hands, then the repentant sufferer gladly received from him the needed words of comfort and of hope. Thus physical acts of lowly service can be used as instruments of moral relief and means of lifting hopeless men to higher levels of life.

There is a third form of service which, however, only Christ can render; it is that of cleansing from the guilt and stain of sin. This He alone can give. Of such service Christ is speaking in His memorable dialogue with Simon Peter. As He approaches the disciple, to do for him as He had done for the others, Peter cries out in dismay: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” “Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” What did Peter not know then, and afterwards come to understand? He did not then appreciate the fact that in stooping to wash His disciples feet, Christ was giving a faint picture of His whole redeeming mission. He had laid aside His “existence form as God”; He had taken on Him “the form of a servant” and had been “made in the likeness of men”; He was to become “obedient unto death, even the death of the cross,” that He might give spiritual cleansing and new life to those who put their trust in Him.

All this Peter did not understand at the time, and so he cried out in passionate protest: “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him with a stern reproof, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” Surely Jesus meant much more than to say that unless washed by Him Peter could not partake of the supper which had been prepared, or even could not share the fellowship of the Lord. Christ was stating the solemn truth that, unless cleansed by Him from the guilt and power of sin, no one could be His disciple, no one could share His life, no one could have a place in His kingdom.

Peter now turns to another extreme. As he had contradicted his Lord concerning the fact, he now is mistaken as to the extent of the necessary cleansing: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” He is implying that he had made a mistake in his former words. He now admits the need of cleansing, but fails to understand its required limits. He would apply to the whole body that action which Christ intends for only one part. Therefore Jesus answers: “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit.”

Christ is speaking in symbolic language. The disciples have been cleansed by their fellowship with Him and by His Spirit. They do not need to begin the experience over again; but they do need relief from their present state of heart and mind. The message may be of help to all the present followers of our Lord. Christians begin a new life when they accept Christ as a Savior and find pardon and peace in Him; there has been a total change. They have been cleansed, "bathed”; but as they journey through more recent days their feet often become soiled; they do need daily cleansing from daily defilement. It was so with the disciples. They had “bathed” and were “clean all over,” but on their way to Jerusalem and even as they sat down to partake of the Paschal feast, there had come into their hearts envy and hatred. They were called not to become followers of Christ, but as His followers to be cleansed from the stains which had been contracted during their selfish debate. They needed not to be “bathed,” but only to have their feet washed.

They were already “clean”; yet Christ added, “But not all of you.” For He knew that Judas was to betray Him. This was why He said, “You are not all clean.” The question often is asked, Was Judas a true believer who, under the stress of temptation, fell away from Christ, or is it to be understood that he never had been a Christian? The answer of Christ seems decisive: “You are not all clean.”

The pathetic fact is this. A man may be enrolled among Christian disciples; he may be in their company for years, he may even be the treasurer of a church, as Judas was, and yet he may not be a renewed soul, and may never have received the spiritual cleansing which Christ can give. On the other hand, one who had surrendered his life to Christ, and has been cleansed from sin, may find that his feet have been stained by the dust of the world's highway. He should seek the cleansing which his Lord is able and ready to supply.

In the record of this memorable incident, the feature most emphasized is the motive which impelled the Master to render this unusual service. The motive was love, unfaltering, unfailing, unforgetting love. It is with this statement the story opens, and it closes with the command that all His followers should imitate His example. These are the first arresting words: “Having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end” Probably “to the end” means “to the uttermost,” or “perfectly,” or “with a perfect love.”

Christ showed this by His forgetfulness of self. He knew that “his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father,” and He knew that He was to go by the dreadful way of the cross, and that on this very night the journey would begin. Yet His thought is not centered upon His own peril and anguish, but upon the needs of His disciples.

Christ further showed His love in that He fully realized His divine origin and destiny; He knew “that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God”; yet He was willing to serve His disciples as a slave, and He stooped to wash their feet.

The very character of these disciples emphasized the greatness of Christ's love for them. They did not appreciate Him; they did not understand Him. These peasants, now, in the very presence of the King, were showing their stupid pride and anger in a dispute as to which of them should be accounted greatest in His kingdom.

Yes, there is Judas, just ready to betray the Master, having bartered his own soul for a few pieces of silver. His feet Jesus bathed, knowing that they were about to carry the traitor to the Garden, from whence Jesus would be hastened to Pilate and the cross. As He stooped to wash the feet of Judas it was the Master's last vain appeal to Judas for repentance, His last offer of life.

The love of Christ was shown, possibly most of all, in the purpose He wished to attain. He desired to make the disciples comfortable; He aimed to remove their temper and pride; He wished to teach them a lesson in spiritual cleansing; but chiefly His desire was to give them an example and to declare a fundamental law. This is His own interpretation of the scene: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.” Thus Christ states the whole principle, the essence and the character of the Christian life. It is found in obedience to His “New Commandment.” Yet it is an “old commandment,” which men have had “from the beginning.” Love has ever been the “fulfillment of the law.” In what sense then does Christ call the Commandment “new”? He gives it a new standard, a new example, and a new motive. The standard is: “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends.” The supreme example is His own self-sacrifice: “Ye should love one another as I have loved you.” The new motive is love for Him, who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Thus we can live in the spirit of “Maundy Thursday” when we obey this New Commandment and show by our lives that we are true disciples of Christ, declaring our love for one another by lowly sympathetic service.

Wherever in the world I am,

     In whatsoe'er estate,

I have a fellowship with hearts

     To keep and cultivate,

And a work of lowly love to do

     For the Lord on whom I wait.