Edited by Rev. John Adams, B.D.
A PRACTICAL EXPOSITION OF JOHN 13-17.
By Rev. D. J. Burrill, D.D., LL.D.
THE SIGNIFICANCE OF THE FOOT-WASHING.
A year before this meeting in the upper room the disciples, on their way from the Mount of Transfiguration, had disputed as to which should be greatest in the kingdom that Christ was about to set up. 'He reproved them then by taking a little child upon His knees and saying, "If any man would be first, he shall be last and servant of all" (Matt xviii. 1-4; cf. xx. 25-28, xxiii. 1-12).
As they now gathered in the upper room they revived the old dispute. It was unworthy of them. They should have known better. The trouble arose from a total misunderstanding as to the coming kingdom. Christ had made it as clear as possible that this was to be a kingdom of truth and righteousness; but they expected Him to put on a crown and purple robe and "restore the glory to Israel." In that case, what was more natural than that Peter, to whom the keys were entrusted, should be made Prime Minister? Or that Judas, who had been placed in charge of the meagre funds, should be made Chancellor of the Exchequer? Or that the others should expect promotion and discuss their relative priority in the distribution of offices? All this was stupid and puerile; but these disciples were only children of a larger growth. How were they to be made to understand that there was to be no such kingdom as they were thinking of?
We should be slow to blame them; for the fault is a generic one. We are all eager to forge to the front and make life tell. So much is "a man better than a sheep." We are born equal, like sheep, but we part company as soon as we begin to walk. Then competition begins. It is like an Olympiad, in which each one "stretches forth toward the mark for the prize." A boy goes to school and straightway sets out for the head of his class. He enters college and begins to dream of the valedictory, or of graduating summa cum laude. He goes out into the world and girds himself to distance his competitors. Life is a campaign, in which every true soldier aspires, like the storied Spartan, to march in the van.
There is something admirable in this. Ambition has been called "the infirmity of noble minds"; but if properly directed and kept within suitable bounds it is no infirmity at all. To climb the ladder is the laudable ambition of every self-respecting toiler. It is only when men jostle each other aside in their eagerness to push to the front, or when they organise a "closed shop" to keep others out or drive them to the wall, that we begin to see the brutal side of it.
1. The Foot-Washing.
It is clear that this is the inner significance of the foot-washing. Our Lord did not intend to reprove the ambition of His disciples, but to direct and curb it. The story is told simply: "He riseth from supper and layeth aside his garments; and he took a towel and girded himself; then he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet"
One thing is evident: some lesson of unusual importance was in His mind, else He would not have said to His disciples, "Know ye what I have done unto you?"
To say that we are to follow His example literally in this case, as the Winebrennerians do, or as the Pope does on Maunday Thursday, is to misconstrue and belittle it. As well put a literal construction on His injunction, "To him that smiteth thee on the one cheek, offer the other also; and from him that taketh away thy cloak, withhold not thy coat also." It is a true saying, "The letter killeth, but the spirit giveth life." What the Master had in mind was not a petty rite or ceremony, but a great lesson, which was destined, when properly understood, to affect the entire lives and characters of those who followed Him.
His own thought was perfectly clear: He, "knowing that his hour was come, and knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and knowing that he came forth from God and that he was returning to God," did thus and so. And He was desirous that His disciples also should understand it. Are we sure that we apprehend the mighty sweep of His purpose here? Not one of His disciples would have performed the menial service to which He stooped that day. It was not for nothing that He thus demeaned Himself. What did He mean by it?
The first thing we have here is a Definition of true greatness; and it differs in no wise from what He had previously said, "Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven"; and "Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth."
But the humility of the Master is no humiliation. It is not servility, but service; with a definite and blessed end in view. It is not "bending the pregnant hinges of the knee that thrift may follow fawning," but rather stooping to conquer. John Milton characterises it as "that lofty lowliness of mind which is exalted by its own humiliation." There is a false humility which is only another name for pride: like that of Diogenes, of whom Plato said that "he was prouder of the holes in his garments than many kings of their purple and fine linen." On the other hand, there is a warrantable pride, based on truest character, which counts it the very summit of privilege to bow low that others may walk over it into a truer life.
We have also here a Principle laid down; the same that the Romans referred to in the proverb, Servire est regnare.
To serve is indeed to reign. Is a mother ever greater than when she ministers to her children? Is a king ever more sovereign than when he seeks the welfare of his humblest subjects? Where will you find a nobler legend than that on the escutcheon of the Prince of Wales? "I serve!"
And here is also a Law formulated; to wit, the Law of Service. All who truly follow Christ are under this law.
It is recorded that when Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet He resumed His garments and sat down and talked with them. In the course of that conversation He said, "A new commandment give I unto you; even as I have loved you, that ye love one another." How could this be called a new commandment? Had He not frequendy bidden His disciples to love one another? Had He not told them one of the two great commandments was, "Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself"? Yes; but this is different, as we shall see further on. They are not to love one another as they loved themselves. The love of self is to be entirely obliterated; and they are to love one another as Christ had loved them; that is, with an entirely self-forgetful and self-denying love. That was indeed a new commandment! The world had heard nothing like it
This new commandment is illustrated by the washing of their feet. A man returning from the bath would gather dust upon his feet along the way: so that on reaching the next threshold he must lay aside his sandals and use the basin before entering. Thus it is necessary for those who have been purged from sin to cleanse themselves from the defilement of ever-recurring sins. And it is the duty of all who follow Christ to help one another in this matter; not to blame or thrust with the fist, but to bend low and lend a hand. Was not this what Christ was ever doing? And should we not expect Him to lay the same injunction upon us? Paul puts it in another form: "Bear ye one another’s burdens, and so fulfil the Law of Christ" (Gal. vi. 2).
We have here, furthermore, an Example. And Jesus said, "If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye ought also to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done unto you."
Nor was there anything extraordinary in this particular case of humility on the part of our blessed Lord. Had He not said, "The Son of Man is come not to be ministered unto but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many"? In his incarnation he bowed the Heavens to come down and take upon Himself the form of a servant. His life was all ministry; it was expended in the behalf of His fellow-men. It is written that He "went about doing good." What biography was ever written so briefly and wonderfully as that? And His death was the greatest ministry of all. On the Cross He stooped to conquer the world. In that supreme act of self-sacrifice He girded Himself to serve all men.
This I conceive to be the lesson of the foot-washing. "Let that mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus: who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant; and, being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, becoming obedient even unto death, yea, the death of the cross. Wherefore God hath also highly exalted him, and given unto him the name which is above every name, that in the name of Jesus every knee should bow." "If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them."
2. Judas the Betrayer
In connection with the foot-washing, — which was an acted parable on true greatness, — our Lord addressed Himself to the cases of two self-willed disciples who were presently to illustrate the truth of His teaching, per contra, one by betraying Him and the other by denying Him.
The first is Judas. If, as many think, he was "the worst man in the Bible," it was not because he was an enemy of Christ. In that respect Annas and Caiaphas, Herod and Pontius Pilate, the Roman soldiers and the Jews generally, were as guilty as he. It was his dark treachery and deliberate hypocrisy that made his name a perpetual hissing and byword. In the three lists of the apostles he is always mentioned with this stigma, "Judas, which also betrayed him."
And yet this man was once an innocent child in his mother’s arms. He played with other boys in the streets of Kerioth, and his laughter was as innocent as theirs. He passed into his manhood under a rainbow arch of promise. Then Jesus came into his life, saying, "Follow me!" and Judas rose up and followed Him. For three years he sat with the other disciples at the feet of the great Teacher, whose words are always a "savour of life unto life, or of death unto death." His heart meanwhile was unchanged. He wore a mask, and wore it so successfully that his disloyalty was unsuspected by his most intimate friends until the last act in the awful tragedy, when he betrayed his Master with a kiss.
In the Orient there is a tree which puts forth a beautiful leaf, then a red hypnotic flower, and afterwards a gall-apple filled with poisonous dust. It is called the "Judas tree": it appropriately symbolises the self-propagating power of evil; its leaf, its blossom and its fatal fruit.
The genealogy of evil is set forth by the Apostle James, after the same manner, in three downward steps, as follows: "Lust, when it hath conceived, bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death."
The story begins with lust. The word has an uncanny sound. Its reference is to any inordinate desire. It may be the desire of pleasure. Or it may be ambition, that is, the unbridled lust of earthly glory. In the case of Judas it was avarice. This was the leaf of the Judas tree.
Now money, of itself, has no moral quality at all. It is good or bad, as the case may be. It will kindle a fire to warm the blue hands of poverty, or to burn up truth and virtue and all nobleness. It will make the wilderness of the world to blossom like the rose, or scorch the greenest meadows into barrenness.
All depends on what is done with it. But without controversy "the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, by which many have pierced themselves through with many sorrows" (1 Tim. vi. 10).
Lust when it hath conceived bringeth forth sin. It is recorded of Judas that, as treasurer of the Twelve, he "bare the bag"; and we are led to surmise that he purloined from it. We know that he coveted the money which might have been realised from the sale of the precious nard with which the feet of Jesus were anointed. It was the lure of thirty pieces of silver that ultimately ruined him.
The taste of the sacramental wine was on his lips when he went out of the upper room and betook himself to the Hall of Caiaphas to betray his Lord. The rulers were eager to receive him. This was the opportunity they had long waited for.
"When," they asked, "wilt thou deliver Him unto our hands?"
"This very night."
"He is now on His way to a garden on the slope of Olivet. I know the place well. He is accustomed to go there for meditation and prayer. I will lead you." They set forth, guards, rabbis and a mob with staves and lanterns. The traitor was in front. He led them at a quick pace down the path to the Kidron and up along the slope of the opposite hill. As they entered the garden, Judas turned and said, "Whomsoever I shall kiss, the same is he; hold him fast"
As they passed under the deeper shadows of the olive trees they saw Christ yonder in the moonlight; and Judas, rushing headlong to his ruin, approached and threw his arms around Him. "Hail, Master," he cried, and kissed Him. The word here used is that of a lover and a maid: he kissed Him eagerly, passionately, again and again. Thus did he consummate his crime. It was Lèse majesté, treachery of the deepest, darkest dye. That kiss in the garden was the red flower of the Judas tree.
Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death. The body of the self-slain traitor swings above the deep abyss of Hinnom. We may not linger here. The winds are moaning, "The wages of sin is death!" The tree has borne its gall-apple. Thus the betrayer of Jesus went unto "his own place." Where else could he go?
And yet observe how Jesus tried to save Judas. He admonished him again and again, saying, "One of you shall betray me." He kindled many beacons to warn him away from the dizzy abyss. In giving him the sop which had been dipped in pottage — a token of singular friendship— He made a pathetic appeal to the lingering sense of manhood that was in him; as if to say,
"Thou art mine own familiar friend; I pray thee, do it not I" The words, "What thou doest, do quickly," were like the cry of one awaiting the surgeon’s knife: "Do not prolong the agony I" How could Judas hear and not respond? The answer is, his heart was fully set in him to do evil. He went out, "and it was night!"
Nor was it too late even then. For ‘‘while the lamp holds on to burn, the greatest sinner may return." Was not the penitent thief caught up into heaven when his feet were staggering on the very crust of hell? The saints triumphant are all sinners saved by grace, and among them are many once drabs and drunkards, plucked out of the horrible pit and the miry clay. Thank ' God, while there’s life, there’s hope!
But on one condition; that is, repentance. Judas did not repent He was overwhelmed with remorse; but remorse is not repentance. His was merely a regret for consequences, not for guilt itself as an offence against a holy God. True repentance involves faith; wherefore there is always a rainbow of hope in its tears. The monk Staupitz uttered a great truth when he said to Luther, who had come to him overwhelmed with contrition: "My friend, your repentance is spurious unless it drives your soul to God."
No matter how heavy the burden of guilt that weighs upon the sinner’s heart; it remains true that God, for Christ’s sake, stands ready to remove it "The blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth from all sin!" It is, therefore, never too late to mend.
3. Peter, the Denier
All the world loves Peter; but there is no denying that he was a great blunderer. His faults, however, were such a$ lean to virtue’s side. His overtopping weakness was self-confidence. He was so sure of himself that he was always walking on thin ice. It is a true saying, "Pride goeth before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall."
He was repeatedly warned against his besetting sin. When he protested, "Although all should be offended in thee, yet will not I," his Lord replied, "Verily, verily, I say unto thee, this night before the cock crow thou shalt deny me thrice." And that night the thing was done. In the open court of Caiaphas the high priest, where the soldiers had kindled a fire and were warming themselves, he protested even with an oath, "I know not the man," and immediately the cock crew.
So Peter fell. The man was "down and out." Weighed in the balance and found wanting! No, not yet. The crowing of the cock recalled him to himself, and, chancing to turn his eyes towards the judgment hall, he saw the Prisoner at the bar, who "looked upon him." Oh, that look of the Master! So full of tender reproach and entreaty! Then Peter remembered; and he "went out and wept bitterly." Shame, self-contempt and momentary despair were struggling to get the better of him. His pride was pitilessly laid low. But the end was not yet.
Let us observe how he struggled to his feet. It was on that very night that Judas also denied his Lord and betrayed Him. How was it that, while one went out and hanged himself the other was restored to favour? There are three reasons for this.
First, Peter really believed in Christ, while Judas did not. It was Peter who had recently witnessed the good confession, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the living God!" No matter what his weakness might be, he was upheld by a strong conviction that Jesus was the long-looked-for Messiah, and that He had power on earth to forgive sin.
Second, he really loved Christ, while Judas did not. Faith begets love. A few days after this threefold denial, a group of the disciples were fishing in the early morning. In the twilight a lone figure was seen walking on the shore. The fishermen whispered among themselves, "It is the Lord!" and began to row toward the shore. But Peter could not wait; in a passion of repentant love he threw off his fisher’s coat and leaped into the water. A few moments later he stood dripping in the presence of his Lord, who asked, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" Alas, his old name! Why not "Peter, the man of stone"? Ignoring the reproach, he answered, "Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee." Again, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" — "Yea, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee." A third time, as if to correspond with his three denials, "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" Peter answered, "Lord, thou knowest all things; my sin, my shame, my foolish pride, my self-reliance, my remorse, my fear; and thou knowest that despite all these I love thee." And thrice the Lord said, "Feed my sheep." Thus was he restored to the apostolate. At last he understood the footwashing, and was willing that his Master should control him. From that time onward he never wavered in his devotion; and ultimately he earned his knighthood as the man of stone.
Third, he was loyal to Christ, through it all; for as faith begets love, so love begets loyalty. His lamentable fall was once for all. How quickly he recovered! On the Day of Pentecost we find him confronting the assembled multitude with the words, "Ye have taken the Lord and with wicked hands have crucified and slain him!" His life was in his hands when he thus spoke; but there was no trembling of the knees nor shaking of the voice. This man had learned his lesson. Frank, fearless and enthusiastic we shall observe him henceforth in the forefront of affairs. He preaches to principalities and powers, meets persecution without blanching, becomes a familiar acquaintance of the scourge and prison damp, and braves the weariness of missionary toil until he passes through the gates of Rome to a martyr’s death. A moment later, as he enters on his heavenly reward, we can imagine him saying to his Master with immeasurable joy: "Now, Lord; thou knowest that I love thee!"
On the Appian Way, not far outside the walls of Rome, there is a little church called ‘Domine quo Vadis. In its floor is a marble slab bearing the imprint of a human foot, at which pilgrims cross themselves and bend their knees in worship. An ancient legend says that this is the footprint of the risen Christ who, on His way to Rome, met Peter fleeing from persecution; and when Peter asked, "Domitie quo Vadis?" that is, "Lord, whither goest Thou?" he answered, "I go to Rome to be crucified again for timid men like thee." This legend is not true to the character of Peter; and, of course, there is nothing in the inspired record to confirm it.
I have indicated three reasons to account for the recovery of Peter, namely: he believed in Christ, loved Him and was loyal to Him. But there are three much better reasons for it.
The first is that Christ loved Peter. And, when all is said, we are saved not by our love for Christ, but by His love for us. In the account of His meeting with the disciples in the upper room it is recorded that "having loved them, he loved them to the end." He loved them without reference to any personal merit of theirs. He loved Peter, knowing that he would deny Him; and He loved him to the very end, just as He loves us.
The second fact to account for the recovery of Peter is that Christ prayed for him. In one of His warnings He had said, "Simon, Simon, behold Satan hath desired to have thee, that he might sift thee as wheat; but I have prayed for thee that thy faith fail not." What a buttress of strength have we here! If "the fervent effectual prayer of a righteous man availeth much," how much more availing shall be the fervent effectual prayer of the only-begotten Son of God, who ever liveth to make intercession for us !
And thirdly, Christ stood by him. Had He not promised, "I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee"? How could Peter’s faith fail when Jesus was praying for him? His joy foiled; his assurance foiled; his self-confidence foiled; but his faith failed not. "It was night" for him as for Judas, but the morning star was in his sky. His confidence was due to the prayer of his Lord. Blessed be His Name, we have no friend so near as He! He is nearer than touching or seeing. To realise this is to discover the secret of the higher life. I never walk alone; He walks with me. I never meet temptation alone; He is my strong helper. I never address myself to duty alone; it is always He and I. His yoke is for two. Where I go He goes with me, unless I wilfully part company with Him. I never sin, save when I fling Him off.
Not that Peter was never afraid; it was in spite of fear that he stood to his colours. I have heard of a braggart in battle saying to his comrades, "You are afraid; your knees are shaking," and getting the quick answer, "If you were half as frightened as I am you’d run." This is the touchstone of courage. Peter may have trembled, but he did not run. It was thus that he won out. No coward he. No quitter he. For thirty years of toil and trial he faced his duty, met his temptations, and finally died like a man.
We may take courage from the experience of this man. It is a notable fact that he, in whose early experience there was so little of promise, grew to be pre-eminently the Apostle of Character. No one of the sacred writers insists as earnestly as he on the importance of a symmetrical cultivation of the graces. It is Peter who sets for us that great "sum in addition" which is really the most difficult problem of life: "Add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge, and to knowledge temperance, and to temperance patience, and to patience godliness, and to godliness brotherly-kindness, and to brotherly-kindness charity; for if these things be in you and abound, they make you that ye shall be neither barren nor unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ."
Thus we learn the lesson of Peter’s fall and recovery. It is not an easy matter to live a Christian life. We are called into a close grapple with "the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eye and the pride of life." But who wants to live an easy life? "The north wind makes Vikings."
If a man chooses to struggle on alone he can do so. In that event, however, let him not complain if the issue is against him. But blessed is the man who can go with fortitude into the fiery furnace, if need be, to be tried as gold is tried. He need not fear the final outcome, if, like the three youths of Babylon, he can realise in that fiery furnace the presence of the Son of God.
Let us take heed and beware, however, of self-confidence.
If we fall it is through pride; if we rise again it is not in our own strength, but because the Lord stands by us.