Confessing Christ in the Midst of Error—A Greek Exegesis of 1 John 5:18-21
Corporate Confession of 1 john 5:18-21
The Big Idea
The recipients of John’s first epistle were apparently dealing with false teaching that had been the cause of major turmoil in the recipients’ church(es). This schism over the person and work of Christ apparently went so deep that the false teachers ended up seceding from the church. John has spent the last five chapters both correcting these errors and painting a portrait of a true believer. His aim was both to inform his recipients regarding the nature of the true church and to provide comfort and assurance to the regenerate in light of the terrifying implications of persisting in heresy (5:13).
In the immediate context (5:16-17), John has just instructed the recipients to pray for a brother committing a sin not leading to death (ἁμαρτίαν μὴ πρὸς θάνατον). On the other hand, there is a sin leading to death (ἁμαρτία πρὸς θάνατον), and they are not to pray for someone who is committing such a sin.
Main Idea of Passage
On the heels of that heavy truth, John ends his epistle with a vital and comforting corporate confession of faith. 1 John 5:18-21 presents the recipients with a series of three corporate confessions, all marked by the triumphant affirmation, “We know that…” (1 Jn 5:18, 19, 20; οἴδαμεν ὅτι). The content of this confession is a glorious affirmation of the essentials of the Christian faith. In this text, we confess the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic role of revealing the Father to us, our union with Him, and Christ’s preserving work in the life of the believer. The passage (and the whole epistle) is ended with one last exhortation to stay faithful to this confession contrary to the heretical affirmations and denials of the false teachers in their midst.
The passage opens the first affirmation with the first of three uses of the phrase, “οἴδαμεν ὅτι”. The first person plural “οἴδαμεν” functions in all its three occurrences to include the recipients with the author in affirming the truths that bind them together as apostolic Christians. Marshall makes the case that the use of the perfect active indicative emphasizes a state of knowledge, as opposed to the process of coming to know something.1 These are things that, as born again believers, John and his recipients know for certain.
The affirmation of verse 18 is that no one who has been born of God sins, but He who was born of God keeps him, and the evil one cannot touch him. I believe both genitive phrases are genitives of source, focusing on our identity as new creations of God. As is apparent from my translation above, I take the phrase, “ἀλλ’ ὁ γεννηθεὶς ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ τηρεῖ ἑαυτόν,” ([NA28]) to identify Jesus as the One who was born of God, and as the One who keeps everyone who has been born of God. This translation is based on a variant, which reads ἀυτον in the place of the ἑαυτόν adopted in the [NA28]. Marshall, Kruse, Yarbrough, and Baugh all agree that the variant ἀυτον is probably the original reading.2345 The witnesses to this variant are found in A* B 1852 latt. The reflexive element of ἑαυτόν is part of what makes it unlikely to have been original. Given that reading, the passage would be saying that Christians do not sin because they keep themselves and the evil one cannot touch them. While the concept of watchfulness is not foreign to Scripture, such a theme does not seem to fit well in the consistently Christ-centered theology of this corporate confession, in which we are powerfully comforted by the truth of Jesus’s saving and preserving power.
So according to verse 18, what is it about the keeping power of Jesus that accomplishes our inability to sin in the way dealt with in this text? He keeps us from the “evil one” (ὁ πονηρὸς). This is a reference to the devil, in whom the whole world lies, according to verse 19. This last clause in verse 18 about the evil one not being able to touch him ends with a genitive αὐτοῦ for “him”, the referent being ὁ γεγεννημένος—the ones who have been born [of God]. This unusual use of the genitive is explained by the fact that ἅπτεται takes an object in the genitive.
Verse 19 introduces the second confessional “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” phrase. “We know that we are of God and the whole world lies in the evil one.” The “ἐκ τοῦ θεοῦ” is, again, a genitive of source, and the “ὁ κόσμος ὅλος ἐν τῷ πονηρῷ κεῖται” is perhaps either a dative of possession or union, communicating the idea of being in the evil one’s grip. Yarbrough says that the word “κεῖται” carries the idea of languishing, as if the world lies down powerlessly under the devil’s dominion without the strength or slightest ability to rectify themselves.6
The third and final “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” affirmation occurs in verse 20. The weighty truths confessed here are the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic or revelatory role in making Father known, and our union with God through Christ. “ὁ υἱὸς τοῦ θεοῦ” is a genitive of relation, emphasizing the relation of the Son to the Father. The verb “ἥκω” is translated with a perfective force, in spite of the fact that it is present in form, according to BDAG.7 “The Son of God has come…” The dative of the phrase, “δέδωκεν ἡμῖν διάνοιαν” could be called a dative of conveyance, communicating the idea that Jesus has come and has given us understanding.
The next phrase tells us that He has given this understanding in order that we might know Him who is true. Yarbrough argues for a variant against the [NA28] rendering, replacing the subjunctive “γινώσκωμεν” with a future indicative “γινωσκομεν”.8 This variant has a fairly wide attestation (MSS א A B* P 33. 81. 307. 442. 1243. 1735. 1881), and has added weight due to being the more difficult reading by replacing the expected subjunctive with an indicative. In spite of the merits of his argument, I find that the subjunctive idea better fits with the flow of thought in the passage. John’s focus seems to be on what we have now in Christ, not what we will have.
The articular adjective, “τὸν ἀληθινόν,” contains an implied pronoun—“Him who is true”. I take the two dative phrases, “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ, ἐν τῷ υἱῷ αὐτοῦ,” as datives of union or location, and the genitive, “αὐτοῦ,” as a genitive of relation. The phrase “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ” refers to God the Father, and we are said to be in “ἐν τῷ ἀληθινῷ,” in His Son, Jesus Christ. Two persons are necessarily in view here. We are united with God the Father because we have been united with God the Son, who is one with God the Father. If we are in Christ, we are in God, and no one can be in God apart from Christ.
This final “οἴδαμεν ὅτι” confession ends with a bold declaration of the deity of Christ. There is debate over the referent of the “οὗτός” in “οὗτός ἐστιν ὁ ἀληθινὸς θεὸς καὶ ζωὴ αἰώνιος,” but Kruse makes the case that grammatically, having Jesus as the referent is supported by the fact that “Ἰησοῦ Χριστῷ” is the closest antecedent.9 Marshall convincingly argues that, “It is precisely because Jesus is the true God that the person who is in him is also in the Father.”10 Wallace concludes that there is absolutely no grammatical reason that this “οὗτός” cannot refer to Jesus Christ.11
The closing verse, verse 21, contains one last command from the apostle: “Little children, guard yourselves from idols.” Baugh argues that the aorist imperative, “φυλάξατε,” carries a specialized meaning. It could either have an inceptive nuance (“set your guard out against…”), or a sharp, emphatic warning (“Watch out!”).12
Themes in the Text
The themes touched on 1 John 5:18-21 are some of the most vital truths one can know. In this passage we clearly see the deity of Christ, His advent and prophetic role of revealing the Father to us, our union with Jesus, and His preserving work in the life of the believer. Considering the purpose and content of the letter, it’s not surprising that John would conclude his epistle with such a glorious, acute, doctrinal crescendo. Because of the rich and critical nature of the themes found in these affirmations, there is no shortage of witness to them in the rest of 1 John, or in the Bible as a whole.
Textual Themes Throughout Letter
Verse 18 opens by identifying a certain type of person—one who has been born of God. This is a theme seen throughout the letter in the form of familial titles given to Christians (3:1-2, 10, 14-17), references to God’s seed abiding in us (3:9), and many explicit references to our being “born of God” (3:9, 4:7, 5:1-2). The idea being expressed here is that we have entered our new life in union with Christ by means of God’s grace. The statement being made about everyone who is born of God is that they do not sin. Clearly, John does not have sinless perfection in view here. In 1:9, John reminded us of the promise of God’s faithfulness to forgive our sins when we confess them. In fact, John said that “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1:8) Clearly, then, what’s in view here is a certain kind of sin that the Christian is unable to commit. This understanding comes from 3:4-10. In those verses, John pivots from talking about the kind of sin Christians commit to a lawless sin that Christians are unable to commit. Christians will in fact sin during this lifetime, but our sin will always be before the face of God. Our sin can never again be the lawless rejection of Christ that it was before we were born of God because our minds have been irrevocably opened to His Lordship. All that we do after the new birth is done in the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. We are unable to sin lawlessly. This distinction between different kinds of sin is likely what is in view in John’s differentiation between sin leading to death and sin not leading to death in 5:16-17. Verse 18 is undoubtedly given to comfort and encourage the believers that might be disturbed by the thought of the sin leading to death discussed in the previous 2 verses. A hardened, damnable sin is indeed a horrifying thought, so John follows that thought by picking up the reassurance of 3:4-10 that if they are in Christ, they are unable to commit such a sin.
This inability to sin is due to the preservation of Christ in the life of the believer. Our minds are irrevocably opened to the Lordship of Christ because Jesus preserves us in that state. This preservation is seen in the anointing that abides in us and teaches us all things that Jesus has given His people (2:27). This is inextricably associated with the new birth. In fact, the language of 2:27 is almost certainly a reference to Jeremiah 31:34, which promises that in the new covenant, parties to the covenant will no longer teach one another to know the Lord, for all will know Him. This is said to be the result of a transformation of the heart where the Lord puts His law within us. We are kept by Christ and the evil one cannot touch us (cf. Jn 17:12)!
The truth communicated in verse 18 is a precious and gloriously comforting truth in light of the reality of verse 19—that the entire world is subject to the devil. In the world there is fleshly disregard for God, idolatrous lusts, and death (2:15-17). The world does not know God, and hates His children (3:1, 13). False, antichrist, lying spirits fill this world, which lies in the evil one (4:1-6). And through the death and slavery of mankind to sin, the world is powerless to escape his grip. But all who are born of God are of God, and are guarded by Christ, and the evil one cannot touch them! This does not mean that Christians are spared the ravaging effects of sin in this world, but that their final perseverance and future glorification is sealed in Christ.
Verse 20 opens with a confession of the truth that the Son of God has come. This harkens back to the opening verses where attention is given to the corporeal form of Jesus—the Eternal Life was manifested to them (1:2), and they heard Him, saw Him, and touched Him (1:1). God sent His Son into the world so that we might live through Him (4:9). And in His coming, Christ gave us understanding so that we may know Him who is true. Knowing God is a major theme in First John. There are 8 references to knowing God in the letter, and multiple references to those who do not know God. According to 5:20, Jesus came for the purpose of giving us understanding so that we may know God. Surely the knowledge of God is the most noble thing anyone could seek. In fact, Scripture teaches us that knowing God is eternal life (John 17:3)!
Verse 20 goes on to say that not only do we know Him who is true, but we are in Him who is true. And we are in Him who is true because we are in His Son, who is in Him. Union with the Father and the Son is a theme seen throughout First John (2:22-24, 4:4, 15-16). The reason 2:22-24 makes the statement that denial and rejection of the Son is denial and rejection of the Father and confession of the Son is possession of the Father also is because the Son and Father truly are God. To be in the Son is to be in the Father because the Son is the true God and eternal life!
First John paints a beautiful picture of the idea of eternal life. The last statement of verse 20 affirms that Jesus is eternal life. Believers are united with Him, and as He rose never to die again, so we rose in Him and are seated with Him in the heavenly places! 1:1-2 speaks of Jesus as the Word of Life that was manifested. He Himself is the eternal life that was with the Father and was manifested to us! And 2:25 makes the wonderful promise that God the Father has promised His church this Eternal Life! John says it clearly and beautifully in 5:11-13:
And the testimony is this, that God has given us eternal life, and this life is in His Son. He who has the Son has the life; he who does not have the Son of God does not have the life. These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life. (1 John 5:11-13)
The epistle ends on what may seem like an abrupt note, and its command may seem out of place. John bids his recipients to guard themselves from idols. Kruse says that this can be taken either literally or metaphorically—literally referring to pagan idols, metaphorically referring to the empty doctrines of the false teachers.13 Kruse, citing Sugit, suggests that since a gloss for “εἴδωλον” in classical Greek is phantom, the unreality of the ideas of the false teachers may be in view here.14 That seems probable, since these false teachers and their doctrines have been a main critique and quite possibly the biggest motivation for John’s entire letter.
Throughout the letter we have seen the black and white contrast of true believers and imposters, and we’ve been taught Christ—the center of who we are, the reason why we are who we are, and the only way that we will remain who we are. Accepting the metaphorical view of this final command, John’s concluding exhortation perfectly sums up the letter—“Christ is your God! The object of these false teachings is not Christ! Stay the course!” Seen this way, verse 21 is a final exhortation to guard themselves from error and cling to Christ.
If enabling us to know God is the reason why Christ came and gave us understanding, one important application for church ministry is that we should carefully study the attributes of God. Given what we see about Him here, what more important study could you do with your church? By means of systematic and biblical theology, we can come to more profoundly understand the infinite glories of our Creator. Understanding what God has revealed about Himself in Scripture will cause us to grow in our capacity to marvel over His person and His work, in light of our sinfulness. This will also equip the church to guard themselves from idolatrous misconceptions about the character of God that cover America today!
Knowing God is eternal life, and that eternal life is in Christ alone! Union with Him alone is union with God. There is no life outside of Christ! The obvious application of this is that we must be rigorously Christ-centered! Foster trust and reliance upon the One who keeps us. To summarize, be a glory of God focused, Christ honoring, Bible saturated, local church minded minister!
Arndt, William F, F. Wilbur Gingrich, Frederick W Danker, and Walter Bauer.A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature: A Translation and Adaptation of the Fourth Revised and Augmented Edition of Walter Bauer’s Griechisch-Deutsches Wörterbuch Zu Den Schriften Des Neuen Testaments Und Der Übrigen Urchristlichen Literatur. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Baugh, S. M.A First John Reader: Intermediate Greek Reading Notes and Grammar. Phillipsburg, N.J.: P & R Pub., 1999.
Kruse, Colin G.The Letters of John. Grand Rapids, Mich.; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. ; Apollos, 2000.
Marshall, I. Howard.The Epistles of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1978.
Wallace, Daniel B, and Daniel B Wallace.The Basics of New Testament Syntax: An Intermediate Greek Grammar, 2000.
Yarbrough, Robert W.1-3 John. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2008.
1Marshall, The Epistles of John, 251.
2Baugh, A First John Reader, 79–80.
3Kruse, The Letters of John, 195.
4Marshall, The Epistles of John, 252.
5Yarbrough, 1-3 John, 316–321.
7Arndt et al., A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature.
8Yarbrough, 1-3 John, 321.
9Kruse, The Letters of John, 197.
10Marshall, The Epistles of John, 254.
11Wallace and Wallace, The Basics of New Testament Syntax, 326–327.
12Baugh, A First John Reader, 81.
13Kruse, The Letters of John, 200.
An Example of Service to Follow
Though it can often be trying, it’s hard to overstate the blessings of being a father. I have a three year old daughter, a two year old son, and a 5 month old son. One of the greatest rewards I’ve experienced in fatherhood is seeing my oldest son try to imitate me. From the beginning, I’ve prayed that God would give me masculine sons, and it certainly seems like He’s answered that prayer! One of the funniest habits of imitation my son has is trying to mimic my voice. He walks around the house speaking in as deep a voice as he can muster. This is such a blessing because I know that he imitates me because he loves me and looks up to me. This is exactly the kind of imitation we should be led to when we know and love Jesus. And this kind of imitation is exactly what our Lord invites us to practice in John 13.
But before we get there, I want to ask you a few questions. Do you feel unsatisfied with your position in your church? Do you feel like you’re under appreciated for your talents and gifts? Do you desire that others would show you more respect and recognition? Those kind of sentiments are exactly the ones being expressed by the disciples in the context of our passage today, and I believe Jesus addresses their felt need for recognition by His actions in this passage, calling us to imitate His example of service.
Historical and literary background of John
The gospel of John was apparently written to a wide audience with the expressed purpose of inspiring life-giving faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God and the Messiah. In John 20:31, John says,
“…these have been written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing you may have life in His name.”
Some form of the Greek word for believe—πιστευω—occurs 98 times in this gospel. In fact, it is the most frequently occurring word in John’s account. And up to this point, John has been developing this theme of vital faith in the Son of God by showing us the things He said and did, and the way people responded to His ministry. In developing this intent, John arranged this passage to show us something about the person and actions of our Lord Jesus just before His betrayal so that we might respond to His example of service by faith. This is a picture of His service to us, and is an example of the way in which we are to serve one another.
In this passage we will see Jesus’ example of service qualified, explained, and applied.
1Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. 2During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, 4got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself.5Then 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. 6So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” 7Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” 8Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” 9Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” 10Jesus 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.” 11For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.”12So 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? 13You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. 14If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. 16Truly, 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. 17If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18I 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.’ 19From now on I am telling you before it comes to pass, so that when it does occur, you may believe that I am He. 20Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.” (John 13:1-20 NASB)
Example of Service Qualified (13:1-5)
According to the first part of Verse 1, these events took place just before the feast of the Passover. Since Jesus sends Judas away in verse 27 of this same chapter, we know that this episode takes place on the night of Jesus’ betrayal. In fact, all of the material from this point at verse 1 of John 13, all the way to the end of Chapter 17 is one long scene in John’s gospel. This first verse actually serves as the introduction of this long section, and the second part of Verse 1 shows Jesus’ motive for the whole discourse. It says that “Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.” So, fueled by love for His disciples, He sets all the encouragement and comfort and exhortation and prayer of the next five chapters before them, knowing that in just a few hours, He would be delivered to those who would kill Him.
So what are the disciples doing as Jesus enters this solemn hour? The Son of God was preparing to enter into the greatest suffering ever endured by a human being, and He was doing so on their behalf, and according to Luke 22:24, the disciples were sitting around arguing who was the greatest among them.
It’s likely that what Jesus does in John 13 is in response to their quarrel. The text says that “Jesus loves His own to the end”, and in love, He’s about to take away any imagined grounds they have for their prideful arrogance.
But not everyone in the room was an object of that electing love Jesus has for His own. Judas, the reprobate, was not receiving the patient instruction of our Lord. Instead, he was in communion with his father, Satan, and was forming his plan to gain profit from his treacherous betrayal. Look at verse 2:
“(2) During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him,”
So we see Jesus’ love of His own in V 1, contrasted with the satanic plot of the unloved one in V 2. Judas never knew that gracious, unmerited love that God, in His infinite wisdom sets on some and withholds from others. He was not one of Jesus’ own. Instead, Judas was left to his own devices, and therefore he sits as a hidden reef in their love feast, plotting the betrayal of the Son of God.
In verse 3, John qualifies Jesus’ actions with a reminder that Jesus is fully aware of His own status, nature, and destiny. Look at verse 3:
“(3) Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God,”
So John frames the events of this passage with a reminder that Jesus knows His status as the Lord of all. “the Father [has] given all things into His hands”. Jesus knows that He is the One of whom Jacob prophesies, when he says,
“(10) The scepter shall not depart from Judah, Nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet, Until Shiloh comes, And to him shall be the obedience of the peoples.” (Genesis 49:10 )
And Jesus fully recognizes that Isaiah writes of Him when he says:
“(6) For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. (7) There will be no end to the increase of His government or of peace, On the throne of David and over his kingdom, To establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness From then on and forevermore. The zeal of the LORD of hosts will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:6-7 )
And our Lord is present with the Holy Spirit as He breathes these words about the Messiah through the Psalmist in Psalm 45:
“(2) You are fairer than the sons of men; Grace is poured upon Your lips; Therefore God has blessed You forever. (3) Gird Your sword on Your thigh, O Mighty One, In Your splendor and Your majesty! (4) And in Your majesty ride on victoriously, For the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness; Let Your right hand teach You awesome things. (5) Your arrows are sharp; The peoples fall under You; Your arrows are in the heart of the King’s enemies. (6) Your throne, O God, is forever and ever; A scepter of uprightness is the scepter of Your kingdom.” (Psalm 45:2-6 )
Jesus also knows His own nature. He knows “that He [has] come forth from God”. He knows that He existed with God from all eternity, and took on humanity for the sake of His chosen people. As God in the flesh, Christ is equal with God in all things. He is of infinitely greater value than all of creation, from all of time, added together, “For in Him all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form”. (Col 2:9)
And finally, going into the events of our passage, Jesus knows of His own destiny. That He is “going back to God”. In a very short time, Jesus would be received back into the courts of glory with the deafening applause of innumerable heavenly beings, shouting:
“(7) Lift up your heads, O gates, And be lifted up, O ancient doors, That the King of glory may come in! (8) Who is the King of glory? The LORD strong and mighty, The LORD mighty in battle. (9) Lift up your heads, O gates, And lift them up, O ancient doors, That the King of glory may come in! (10) Who is this King of glory? The LORD of hosts, He is the King of glory…” (Psalm 24:7-10 )
So according to verses 3-5. Jesus had full knowledge that He is the Lord of all creation, that He is equal with God the Father in every way, and that He was soon returning to His infinitely exalted glory. Astonishingly, with all of that in mind, Jesus…
“[gets] up from supper, and [lays] aside His garments; and taking a towel, He [girds] Himself. Then He [pours] water into the basin, and [begins] to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”
This was shockingly scandalous behavior to the disciples. We can see something of the abject nature of Jesus’ actions in the context of His day by considering the place of foot washing in classical literature. In Homer’s Odyssey, we follow the long journey of king Odysseus as he makes his way back home after the battle at Troy. When king Odysseus returns, he finds that his home has been taken over by a gang of unwelcome suitors that are harassing his son, eating up his goods, and courting his wife. Upon his arrival to Ithaca, his homeland, the goddess Athena is said to have changed his appearance into that of an old beggar. After coming to his own household, his wife shows admirable hospitality by sending for a slave to come wash her disguised husband’s feet. Odysseus says that he will only have the oldest and most experienced slave touch his feet. The practice of washing feet in the ancient world was possibly the most menial task anyone could do. In a world where the vast majority of people walked when they needed to go somewhere, its understandable that feet would be viewed as an unclean part of the body. It was a shameful thing to handle someone’s feet. A task fit only for the lowliest salves of a household.
With that in mind, we can somewhat sympathize with Peter’s reaction to the Lord Jesus putting on the garb of a slave and bowing down before him to wash his feet. But Peter, in his characteristically misguided zeal, rebukes Jesus, not understanding what is was our Lord was really doing. Let’s consider verse 6-13 of John 13:
Example of Service Explained (13:6-11)
“(6) So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, ‘Lord, do You wash my feet?’ (7) Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.’ (8) 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.’ (9) Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.’ (10) 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.’ (11) For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’” (John 13:6-11)
As our Lord comes to wash Peter’s feet, he responds with an emphatic “NO!” The NSAB appropriately places an exclamation mark after Peter’s denial. In the Greek, the sentence translated “Never shall You wash my feet!” begins with the double negation: “οὐ μη”, which, unlike a double negative in English, simply communicates a very strong negative in Greek. “Never shall You wash my feet!”
But Peter isn’t realizing that Jesus is giving an object lesson here. In washing their feet, Jesus didn’t merely have the luxury of clean feet in mind. With this menial task, He was pointing to an infinitely more degrading service He was about to render for them. In verse 7, Jesus said, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter”. We get a clue as to what that work is as we look at Jesus’ startling response to Peter’s rebuke in the second part of verse 8: “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
What did Jesus mean by this? Was He establishing a third ordinance of literal foot washing? No, the text will later say that Jesus did this as an example. No, Jesus was illustrating the gracious cleansing of salvation that comes to all who are appointed to that blessing!
The Psalmist cries out,
“(2) Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity And cleanse me from my sin. … (7) Purify me with hyssop, and I shall be clean; Wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow.” (Psalm 51:2, 7)
The prophet Ezekiel, in relating God’s Words concerning the nature of the New Covenant that the Messiah was coming to establish, says,
“(25) Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your filthiness and from all your idols.” (Ezekiel 36:25)
In fact, this idea of washing being the picture of New Covenant salvation is so pervasive that the sign of this new covenant, is partly said to be a picture of our sins being washed away, as Acts 22 says,
“(16) Now why do you delay? Get up and be baptized, and wash away your sins, calling on His name.” (Acts 22:16)
Paul uses this imagery to describe the New Covenant salvation that had come to the Corinthian believers in 1 Corinthians 6:11,
“(11) Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.”
And the writer of Hebrews exhorts his readers, saying,
“(22) let us draw near with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water.” (Hebrews 10:22)
But perhaps the clearest picture of New Covenant washing comes as Paul exhorts believing husbands in Ephesus to love their wives in the same way that Christ did when He gave Himself up for her:
“(26) so that He might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, (27) that He might present to Himself the church in all her glory, having no spot or wrinkle or any such thing; but that she would be holy and blameless.” (Ephesians 5:26-27)
According to that passage, when Jesus gave Himself up for His bride on the cross, He did so for the purpose of washing her! That is the picture Jesus is painting as He sets His clothes aside, girds Himself with a towel, and bends down to wash the disciples’ feet.
And this soul washing act of service was about to be carried out in just a few hours! Jesus was about to be betrayed by Judas Iscariot, and handed over to the hardened, unbelieving Pharisees who will spit on Him and mock Him and have Him crucified. What a fitting picture it is that He washes the dirtiest part of their bodies since, as He hangs on that cross, the perfectly holy God of creation will become the most defiled being in existence as He takes the sin of an innumerable multitude of wicked rebels into His own body. The defilement will be so extreme as Jesus becomes a curse for His people on the cross, that the holy Father will turn His face away in disgust and unleash upon Him the immeasurable flood of wrath that rightly belongs to the ones that Jesus came to serve. What a fitting picture, then is foot washing! The Messiah left His glory above to enter this fallen creation, not “to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mat 20:28) The precious and infinitely majestic Son of God fulfilled the station of a slave by washing the unclean feet of His disciples.
Throughout Scripture, salvation, in all of its aspects is pictured as washing and cleansing. And if you are to receive this washing, it must come from condescending grace at the hands of Jesus, or you will remain in your filth and alienation from God. Notice the text says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” Do you see the glory of that? Helpless sinners that we are, our only hope is that God condescends as low as possible and raises us up through the substitutionary life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And still, “If [Jesus does] not wash [us], [we] have no part with [Him]”! We need Him to enable us to come to our senses to take hold of this cleansing salvation He has wrought! To use Jonathan Edwards’ picture, the prison door is open, but in our flesh, apart from grace, we don’t even desire to leave it! And if God didn’t preserve us in the faith, we would fall away in a heartbeat! Yet we have the testimony of Scripture that those whom He has chosen, He washes, and those whom He washes He preserves all the way to glory! Not a drop of the cleansing blood of Jesus will have been spilt in vain! Our Triune God alone will have the glory for our salvation! Words cannot express how utterly humble of a people we should be!
So after Jesus explains the spiritual nature of this act He’s performing, Peter wants more! It’s hard to know exactly what Peter is thinking in Verse 9. Looking at how Jesus rebuffs him, I think the best understanding is that Peter had misunderstood Jesus by taking the object lesson literalistically.
“Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.’”
Jesus corrects him and comforts him by assuring him that he’s already been made a partaker of the cleansing that’s being demonstrated in the foot washing. If you’ll remember, Peter is the one who makes the good confession in Matthew 16, saying, “(16) …You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” (Mat 16:16). By the grace of God, he had been obedient to the light he had been shown so far, and Jesus responds to gently correct his ritualistic understanding of Jesus’ physical washing in the first part of verse 10. Let’s look at it:
“Jesus said to him, ‘He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean;…”
Jesus is declaring that Peter has already been washed, and is completely clean, but He goes on to mention one that hasn’t been washed. Look again at verse 10 and lets read through verse 11:
“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.’ (11) For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’”
The spotlessly clean state of Peter is compared with the foul stench of Judas, the betrayer. Judas has not come to the cleansing fountain by faith. He sees the Savior, and knows the things that are said about Him—that He has come to take away the sin of the world—but he doesn’t care to come to Him to be cleansed of his sin. Grace has not brought him to his senses so that he might come out of his filth and wash away his sins through the promises of God. So presumably, there was this one, stinking, smelly, unclean man in the midst of a group that had been washed white as snow.
It is highly likely that some professing Christians reading this blog have never actually been born again and washed in the blood of Jesus. Consider the fact that Judas remained one of Jesus’ disciples for a season, even as it became more and more dangerous to do so. Yet he had not been washed. I wonder… Have you been washed?… Do you know the freedom of having your “[heart] sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and [your body] washed with pure water”? (Heb 10:22) What greater encouragement could you have to come and be cleansed than to see the Son of God bowing down to wash the feet of wicked sinners? What could possibly keep you from coming to Him? Has He not already demonstrated that He’s not ashamed to wash the most filthy part of a sinner’s body? Or better yet, does His bloody cross not prove to you that he is willing to wash the most filthy soul? He will take you, sin and all, if you will just come to Him.
“What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus; What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. Oh! precious is the flow That makes me white as snow; No other fount I know, Nothing but the blood of Jesus.”
So after the Son of God condescends to wash their feet, He takes His seat again and gives the disciples an application of what He just did to them. Look at verses 12-20.
Example of Service Applied (13:12-20)
“(12) 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? (13) You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. (14) If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. (15) For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. (16) 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. (17) If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (18) 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.” (19) 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. (20) 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 13:12-20 )
So after putting His clothes back on, Jesus sits down among the disciples and begins to explain to them what he had just done to them. He begins to drive home some of the implications of the fact that he just washed their feet. And the logic of His argument is simple. If a slave is not greater than his master, and the Master became like a slave, what does that make the slaves? What a humble and divinely brilliant way to absolutely destroy the disciples’ bickering over who was the greatest! What possible grounds could anyone have for imagining themselves to be worthy of the most honor when the Master had taken the most ignoble posture imaginable? Jesus’ actions render their constant struggle for superiority utterly inappropriate. Were they greater than Jesus, the Messiah? Absolutely not! What, then are the implications for the disciples? What should their response be? Jesus tells them in verse 14. Look there with me:
“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
Jesus completely pulls the rug out from under the feet of their arrogant competition for glory. I wonder how much “buy-in” this picture actually inspires in the disciples. I think they’re probably very shocked by it, and embarrassed to continue exalting themselves, but I don’t think they really feel the full weight of our Lord’s actions yet. Regardless, whatever their initial heart reaction to this foot washing was, they certainly will understand it in the coming months.
I cannot even fathom being one of the ones present in that room that night, and having the image permanently fixed in my mind of the Messiah washing my feet. Can you imagine being one of the Disciples and feeling the gratitude that fills your heart once you came to understand the picture Jesus was illustrating as He washed your feet? Can you imagine what they feel after Jesus rises from the dead and explains to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures? (Lk 24:27) What are they thinking as Jesus ascends and sends His Holy Spirit, and it begins to dawn on them what the Son of God has done?!? How He leaves His glory for a fallen Creation to live in perfect righteousness on their behalf? How he bears their sin on the cross so that they might be reconciled to God? How He has risen from the dead, that they might live in Him! As the picture grows in their minds of the glorious depths of the mercy of God in the cross of Jesus Christ, can you imagine having the memory of the Messiah bent down over a bowl, washing your feet?—That precious picture of this work Jesus had come to accomplish in washing our souls? I hope you can imagine it; and I hope you see the Son of God washing your own feet, and I hope that, like the disciples, you spend the rest of your life washing others’ feet in response!
But yet again, our Lord addresses Judas as one to whom this object lesson and its application don’t apply. Look with me at the first part of verse 18:
“I do not speak of all of you. I know the ones I have chosen;”
So why exactly is it that Jesus says this command to wash each others’ feet doesn’t apply to Judas?
I believe what our Lord is getting at here is that this picture of Jesus washing feet, and the implied responsibility for us to do the same, derives its force and blessedness from the faith of the observer of these things.
By implication, then, Jesus is excluding obedience to this principle from bare human effort. He’s not interested in foot washing with the motive of gaining His favor! If you’re not moved by faith in Christ to wash the saint’s feet out of a principle of love-fueled imitation, Jesus says this blessing is not for you! Don’t hear me saying that if you have no urge to follow Christ that you have no moral responsibility to obey Him. No, an unbeliever is not excused from this because of his inability to perform moral action from a godly heart. Instead, what you must see is that since the Lord is not interested in your good works, you must repent! You must cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the Living God (Heb 9:14), and bear fruits in keeping with repentance (Lk 3:8)! Jesus says that the blessings of washing one another’s feet are not for those rendering feigned obedience because they have a form of godliness but deny its power (2 Tim 3:5), like Judas.
No, the only proper obedience to the Lord Jesus is obedience that is born of faith! Like Jeff Noblit said, “we don’t need to try harder for Jesus, we need to fall in love with Jesus!”
So our Lord turns yet again to instruct His disciples about the one who was about to betray Him. Jesus wouldn’t leave His disciples to think that Judas’ betrayal took Him by surprise! Jesus speaks verses 18 and 19 to bolster the faith of His disciples in light of the coming betrayal. Look at them with me:
“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.” (19) 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.”
The wickedness that’s getting ready to come upon our Lord has been planned from all eternity! It’s not taking Jesus by surprise! In fact, just a few verses after our text, the Lord Jesus is the One who sends Judas out! Jesus chose Judas to be His disciple for this very reason! Judas’ going out to betray Him is according to His decree and Jesus is telling the disciples beforehand for the good of their faith! He says, “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.” Yet we must not loose sight of the fact that what Judas does, he does so according to his own desire! He is fully responsible for his own wickedness.
Our Lord ties this whole lesson together with His words in Verse 20. Look at it with me:
“Truly, truly, I say to you, he who receives whomever I send receives Me; and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.”
We would do well to learn the lesson here! The manner in which we receive the body of Christ is the manner in which we receive Christ Himself. Though we would probably never articulate this, we might be tempted to look at the imperfections of those in our local body of believers and feel that they’re unworthy of our time and attention. But the Lord Jesus has made it clear that as we receive those whom He has sent, stinky feet and all, we receive Him, and as we receive Him, we receive the One who sent Him.
So what does that look like for us? Let’s consider again the questions I asked at the beginning. Do you feel unsatisfied with your position in your church? Do you feel like you’re under appreciated for your talents and gifts? Do you desire that others would show you more respect and recognition? I ask those things because I think that if we will get really honest before God, many of us, including myself can be tempted to think like this. For those of us who have been called of God and equipped to serve Him, it can be frustrating not to have the position of leadership we desire. Even if our motives are right, and we desire to have leadership so that we might engage in the noble work of a self-sacrificial undershepherd, we can still be tempted to some form of bitterness and dissatisfaction in our current situation.
The answer to this sinful impulse is to refresh our view of the God who bent to wash our feet, and realize that if He gladly took the lowest position possible, we must do the same! If we’re in our right minds, we will be more than happy to fill the lowest position, alongside our Servant-King!
The truth is, as Christians, God has called us to a vocation of foot washing! So, out of love for our God, train your mind that when you feel that fleshly desire to rise above anything other than the lowliest servant, the only response can be to put that passion to death by the Spirit! Such lust is nothing more than your sinful flesh desiring to raise yourself above the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. When such wickedness rears its head, repent of it, get back down, and keep scrubbing those dirty feet. And be content with the glorious task of washing the saints’ feet, because as we do so, we’re being conformed to the image of the One who washed us!
So whether that looks like handing out bulletins in a church in your home town, teaching the children in your church, or planting churches on the other side of the world, our faithfulness will always look like washing the feet of the saints, and it will always be glorious labor. Like Jesus said in Verse 17.
“If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”
Seeing Christ as Lord and Savior by faith and washing the saints’ feet in response is the blessed life!