2010 Ligonier Pastors Conference - R.C. Sproul Jr. (IX)
Wednesday afternoon, Dr. R.C. Sproul Jr., founder of Highlands Ministries and teaching fellow for Ligonier, closed out the second day of our Pastors conference with a lecture on “Blessed Are You if You Do Them.”
Dr. Sproul Jr. began his talk by reading an extended portion of scripture in chapter 13 of John’s gospel:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.
We can often become so familiar with a passage of scripture that we lose our ability to be shocked by the truly shocking. This is one of those familiar passages; yet, when we look at this passage, we have the Lord of Glory doing a dirty, nasty job, and taking a posture of humility.
For the most part, up until this point in the Gospel of John we are given broad climatic events where basically one of two things are going on: either we read of Jesus addressing a large crowd of people or we have one of Jesus’ epic battles with the Pharisees, wherein Jesus exposes their hearts and walks away in triumph. But this is not the case in this passage. Here we have a snapshot of Jesus speaking to His disciples just hours before He will depart from this world. He knew that within a matter of hours the full wrath of God the Father would be upon Him, and His response to the disciples is a response of love, a love to the very end.
Often when we have a hard day, we think that we should be treated special. That people should cater to us and be sympatric to us. Well, whatever kind of hard day we have had, we have never had a day where we knew that in a matter of hours that the God of heaven and earth was going to pour out His full wrath on us.
Jesus, the One who is about to face the difficulty, the hardship, the challenge that has never been faced before by any human, is thinking about His love for the disciples. And in case this isn’t clear, John stutters for us in verse 2: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
How could the Lord of Glory do this humiliating job?
If you lived in 1st century Palestine without any particular set of skills and were in need of a job, you might look for a wealthy family that would offer you a job. If you received such a job, you would know that, in this culture, all the persons in the household have a hierarchy, and when you receive this job, you will be receiving a bottom-rung job, probably washing the feet of all the servants.
In this passage, Jesus is doing what the lowest servant’s job is. How could Jesus do this? How could He lower Himself to that level?
Well this is how God’s economy has worked for so long. If you want to be first, you have to be last. If you want to live, you must die. Everything is upside down. We might be inclined to say this is what Jesus has in mind here. In God’s economy, when we humble ourselves God exalts us. This may be a perfectly reasonable thing to conclude. But this is not the answer that the passage gives us. When we ask the question: How could Jesus do this thing?, the answer is found in verse 3: “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God.”
This text does not take us from humiliation to glory, but from glory to humiliation. The reason why Jesus is about to do this is not because He aspires to be great one day, but because He knows how great He already is. Knowing that He has come from God and is going to God, He washes the disciples’ feet. There is value in noting the parallels to Jesus’ earthly ministry in seeing how He humbled Himself through the incarnation and came as the only One who could clean us.
There are three more lessons that we will draw out as we look at the remainder of this passage.
1. The beginning of our humility is learning to face the reality of our dirty feet.
Now if you are a Calvinist, you may be tempted to think you have this licked because we affirm the doctrine of total depravity. But we can often make the mistake thinking that knowing the doctrine of total depravity is the same thing as understand the depth and the scope of our own sin. There is a difference between saying that people are really, really bad, which is true, and saying, “Lord be merciful to me, a sinner.”
Here is a little test for you on this: When we hear someone speak about the depth and scope of human sin, is your first reaction to think of all the ways you have been sinned against, or, instead, is it to consider all the ways you have sinned against others?
Jesus wants us to know that we have dirt feet. But we are like Peter. We love Jesus; we are on Jesus’ side and want to see the kingdom expand. So when we see Jesus washing the disciples dirty, nasty feet, we want to help Jesus out. And we would have made the same mistake as Peter, and Jesus would have said to us, “get in line so that I can wash your dirty, nasty feet, because if I don’t, you will stay dirty.”
Isn’t Peter us? Don’t we see ourselves to be heroic solders fighting side by side with Jesus in the name of the kingdom and His reign? The fact of the matter, however, is that Jesus is fighting this battle, and we are on the battlefield with Him, but we are dead. We are dirty, and we have nasty feet and dirty hearts. We need Jesus to cleanse us or we cannot be clean.
2. Jesus washes Judas’ feet
Jesus knew Judas’ heart, but washed his feet anyway. Why did He do it? Well Jesus models for us here how we are not to practice presumptive excommunication. Jesus treated Judas as his own, in order to show the need to leave time and opportunity for repentance and turning. The wheat and tares will grow up together, and we are not to be presumptuous about who the tares might be, but to be longsuffering with one another.
3. Go and Do Likewise
The third truth is not as simple as we might think. Jesus calls us here to “go and do likewise.” We often spiritualize this text by saying that we are suppose to serve one another. Our calling is not just to do a job for our neighbors, but to do the nasty, difficult jobs that truly serve one another. It’s not enough to simply help each other, we have to be willing to take the nasty jobs. We are called to the unpleasant jobs.
When we look at what the foot washing is symbolizing here — the washing away of sins — we may think that we are not called to that. And that is right, we cannot wash away sin. We cannot do what Jesus does here because we are dirty and unworthy to be able to wash away the sins of others. That said, we are called to serve our brothers by covering their sins, not holding their sins against them, and remembering not their iniquities. We need to be persuaded that our feet our dirty, and that humility isn’t just serving your brother, it is forgiving him.
How do we do this when we are so certain that their feet are dirtier than ours? We do that by knowing that we have been born again in the Spirit and are joint heirs with Christ.
But what does it mean to be joint heirs with Christ? It means that what Christ inherits, we inherit. What does He inherit? Everything.
Do we really break fellowship over the color of the carpet? Do we really split churches over discrete doctrinal issue? No, churches split because we want something, and we are clamoring over the crumbs off the table where the dirty feet walk. Jesus is offing us to dine with Him, and gives us everything we need.
Jesus tells us to go and do likewise. I hope that when you go back to your churches, your passion would be to wash the feet of the brethren, to develop a consciousness of your own sins and not of others, and that you would realize by being joint heirs of Christ, we have inherited the world. Beloved, if you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.