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John xiii. 12-15. So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
HERE are some fanciful interpreters of Scripture,
mysteries in every
who affect a supereminent regard for man's reasoning powers, banish mysteries altogether, and say, "Where mystery begins religion ends." These are equally distant from the true method of interpreting the sacred oracles; and are almost equally adverse to the interests of religion: the former bring the truth into contempt; the latter utterly discard it. The proper medium evidently is, to follow the direction which the Scripture itself gives us. The fundamental doctrines of the Gospel are professedly mysterious, even "the wisdom of God in a mystery." There are many of the historical parts also, to which a mystical interpretation is given by the inspired writers: and, of the actions of our Lord there are some, into which a deeper insight is given us than into others; to which therefore we may safely assign a more mysterious import. The action referred to in the text was very significant, and may, with the greatest propriety, be considered,
I. As illustrative of his character
[No one can behold Jesus washing his Disciples' feet, without feeling a reverence for his august character: and the more we contrast his dignity with their meanness, the more are we constrained to admire his condescension and love.
But we shall have a very partial and inadequate view of this action, if we regard it merely as a single and detached instance of humility. To understand it aright, we must see it as exhibiting in a very lively manner his general character.
What a beautiful illustration does it give us of his incarnation! Behold him laying aside his robes of majesty, and clothing himself in our flesh, and coming, "not to be ministered unto, but to minister" to our guilty race!
How aptly does it represent to us the whole tenour of his life! From the cradle to the grave his humility was uniformly conspicuous. Born in a stable, and of mean parents, he wrought at the trade of a carpenter till the age of thirty: then, submitting to baptism, as though he had been a sinner, he entered on his ministry, and prosecuted it in the midst of temptations, of want, and ignominy, till his obedience was consummated in the accursed death of the cross. And to all this he condescended for our benefit, for our salvation.
Nor does this action less fitly characterize him in his present exalted state. "Though he is high, yet hath he respect unto the lowly" though "he is that high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy, yet will he dwell with him that is of an humble and contrite spirit." There is no one upon earth so mean and vile, but this exalted Saviour is ready to visit him, to dwell with him, and to minister unto him nor is there any office which he will not gladly execute for the good of our souls.
Even the character he will sustain among the glorified saints in heaven is also represented in this significant action: for though he will ever be the head of his people, yet will he gird himself as their servant, and minister unto them in the most humble and affectionate manner, while they are partaking of the feast which his heavenly Father has provided for them.
How admirable does this action appear when considered in this extensive view! and in what endearing light does it exhibit our blessed Lord!]
But this action is further to be considered,
II. As emblematical of his work
a Phil. ii. 6-8. Matt. xx. 28.
b Ps. cxxxviii. 6.
d John xiv. 23.
Mark x. 45.
c Isai. lvii. 15.
e Luke xii. 37.
[Our blessed Lord himself shews us that there was a mystical signification in what he did to his Disciples: for, when he had washed them, he asked them, "Know ye what I have done unto you?" for which question there could have been no room if there had been nothing mysterious in the transaction. He also said to them, "Ye are clean; but not all;" because the traitor, though washed equally with the rest, was yet under the power and guilt of all his sins.
So particularly were the circumstances of this event ordered and overruled, that they marked in the most striking manner the nature, the necessity, and the excellency of that work which Christ came to accomplish.
Its nature is declared: for he came to wash men from the guilt of sin by his blood, and from the pollution of it by his Spirit. In this very view the prophet spake of him long before as a fountain that should be opened to cleanse men from their sin and uncleanness: and the Apostles represent the great end of his incarnation and death to have been, "to sanctify and cleanse the Church with the washing of water, by the word h."
Peter's inconsiderate, though well-meant, opposition to his Master's will, gave occasion for that solemn declaration, whereby our Lord has made known the universal necessity of submitting to him, and to the method prescribed by him for the salvation of our souls. His words may be applied to every child of man, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me:" there is no other way whereby we can obtain a saving interest in Christ: we must be washed in his blood; and we must be sanctified by his Spirit: "he came not by water only, but by water and blood;" and we must experience the virtue of both, if ever we would participate the blessings of his kingdom.
The vehemence of the same ardent Disciple was yet further overruled for the making known the excellency of Christ's work. When told, that he must submit, he exclaimed, "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head." Our Lord informed him, that, as a person who has been bathing, needs no more than to wash his feet from the defilement they have contracted in coming from the bath: so they who have been washed by his blood and Spirit, need a partial purification indeed every day and hour, on account of the defilement they contract every step they take in this polluted world; but they never will need the same universal cleansing as before, seeing that they are purified from all their former guilt, and are "renewed in the spirit of their minds:" in respect of such an h Eph. v. 25, 26.
f ver. 11.
Zech. xiii. 1.
universal washing, "he hath perfected for ever them that are sanctified'."]
We shall have a very incomplete view of this action, unless we still further consider it,
III. As explanatory of his will
[A declaration to this effect is made by our Lord himself. He tells us that he intended, in what he now did, to set an example to all his Disciples; and to teach them, that they should not affect a superiority above each other; that they should rather delight themselves in all offices of love; and that they should account nothing too humiliating or self-denying, if by any means they might promote each other's welfare.
The Disciples had been disputing which of them should be the greatest and he had told them, that they ought not to resemble the Gentiles, who loved to have pre-eminence, and were applauded in proportion as they gained an ascendant over others on the contrary, they should measure their honours by the degree in which they stooped for the good of others, and by the exertions they made in administering to their fellow-creatures. How happy would it have been for the Church, if all its ministers, and all its members, had attended to this rule! How happy if, instead of being "lords over God's heritage," they had submitted themselves one to another in the fear of God", and had striven only, who should be least of all and servant of all!"
To abound in offices of love is an ambition infinitely more worthy of the followers of Christ. Love is the fulfilling of the law: love is that which above all things characterizes the true Christian love is the image of God upon the soul: love is the antepast of heaven. To inculcate the necessity of love, to exemplify it in his own conduct, to impress it on the hearts of his Disciples, and to stir them up to a holy imitation of his example, were the more immediate objects of our Lord's solicitude: nor will our admiration of his conduct profit us at all, if it have not this effect on our hearts and lives.
In many instances much self-denial is required, in order to impart any substantial benefit to our fellow-creatures. The visiting of the sick, especially when poverty and disease combine to render our access to them unpleasant, is an irksome task to those whose hearts are not penetrated with love to God and man. This indeed is less felt when humanity stimulates us to assist in the recovery of their bodies; but when we have no view but only to benefit their souls, then to instruct them, then to pray with them, then to repeat our visits, when perhaps
1 Heb. x. 14.
m Luke xxii. 24-27.
n 1 Pet. v. 3, 5.
see scarce any prospect of doing them good, or any desire in them to receive benefit; and then to persevere in our endeavours, when they madly say, like Peter, "Thou shalt never wash my feet;" this is the love we are called to manifest; and in comparison of this, the most liberal bestowment of alms is as nothing: it is far easier to give away thousands of silver and gold, than to spend our lives in such acts of kindness to man, and of zeal for God. But this is to "love others as Christ has loved us," and "to do to others as Christ has done to us:" and to exercise less love than this, is to "love in word and in tongue only, instead of loving in deed and in truth"."] As an IMPROVEMENT of this subject our Lord suggests
a most solemn warning; " If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them":" and this would I also adopt as my monition to you from
1. In allusion to its mystical and emblematic import
[Instructed as you have been, few can be ignorant of the efficacy of Christ's blood to cleanse from sin, or of his Spirit to renew and sanctify the heart. But what will this knowledge avail you, if you do not experience both the one and the other in your souls? I pray you to remember, that our Lord does not say, 'if ye know these things, happy are ye :' No: an unproductive knowledge of them will only aggravate your guilt and condemnation: it is then only that ye can be accounted happy, "if ye do them."]
2. In allusion to its spiritual and practical import
[It is intimated that some know these things, but do them not; but that others both "know and do them."
How lamentable is it that any should know the character of Christ, and profess to experience the benefits of his salvation, while yet they bear no resemblance to him in their spirit and conduct! Alas! whatever they may imagine," they have no part with him!" without a conformity to him in the unfeigned exercise of love, we are only as sounding brass, or as tinkling cymbals.
To those who delight in every office of love we say, "Happy are ye:" for it is a most unquestionable truth, that the more lowly we are in our own eyes, the higher we are in God's; and the more we delight in doing good to others, the more richly will the blessing of God rest upon ourselves'.]
• 1 John iii. 17, 18.
q 1 Cor. xiii. 1. Jam. i. 27.
P ver. 17.
r Isai. Iviii. 10, 11.