After the introductory expressions of courtesy: the greeting, and the kiss, the Eastern guest was offered water for cleansing the feet. Traveling down country roads made it hard to keep clean. So it was customary for a host to provide this courteous ritual. Servants would pour water upon their feet over a copper basin and then wipe them clean using a towel. The best place to see this custom in action is in the upper room scene in John 13.
It was the evening of the Passover meal when the disciples entered the room selected for the occasion. The memories of Bethany behind them now, the circle of disciples gathered to dine and wonder at the Savior’s intentions.
The table was set, and Jesus’ followers reclined around the triclinium. Everything seemed ready. The food was on the table and the evening seder was in progress ( καὶ δείπνου γινομένου). Candles held back the darkness gracefully. But where was the servant? The pitcher was on the table near the entrance. The water basin waited, untouched next to the linen cloth (λέντιον) used for drying the feet.
But where was the servant? A long and uncomfortable silence settled over the disciples. It was the custom for a servant to wash their feet before they ate. There was no servant. No one moved. How could they? This task demanded a slave. They were the future rulers of the new kingdom of Jesus.
They grew impatient. Furtive glances left and right brought no relief. Someone would have to act, to go and find the tardy slave.
Scripture is majestic in its brevity here. The text says simply that at this moment of crisis, in the servant’s absence, “Jesus rose from the supper.” He knew His hour was here. The Cross confronted him. Time was accelerating now and the years of preparation thrust Him forward for life’s final crescendo.
Having yet to feel the cut of the spear’s cold edge and the calloused cries of the Roman soldiers, he knew these atrocities were near. He knew yet He rose from supper and laid aside His garments. He rose to gird Himself for this menial yet meaningful expression of spiritual intimacy.
The disciples noticed His preparation for the menial task immediately. They knew His intentions, but no dared to stop Him at first. Jesus removed His tunic. He wrapped the long linen towel about His waist. No one protested. The light splash of water in the copper basin elicited no outward outrage. The Son of God and right King of Israel became the absent servant. In the flicker of the candle light, Jesus passed from king to servant.
Peter protested but quickly learned the higher lesson and relented embracing the touch of His master. With a tenderness natural in solemn farewells, Jesus lingered before each man. He poured the water, rubbed and dried the feet of each disciple. And in this intimate expression of a Savior’s love for His closest friends, He pledged Himself anew to them all. No words or oaths were sworn. But there was a commitment extended that would span the ages. In this solemn act, Jesus confirmed each disciple and conveyed the same love He offers to us each day.
David R. Denny Ph.D