October 22, 2020

Holy Week 2015: The Yes or No (Michael Spencer)

The Washing of the Feet, Howard

The Washing of the Feet, Howard

Then 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. So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” 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.”Simon Peter *said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”

• John 13:5-9 (NASB)

• • •

John’s account of the washing of the disciples’ feet is an important part of the Christian celebration of Holy Week. No more beautiful picture of the Gospel can be found anywhere in the Bible. Jesus acts out the profound truths of Philippians 2, where God becomes a servant, even to death on a cross.

No one disputes that the washing of the disciples’ feet is a picture of the work of God in Christ. Here is the forgiveness of God, the justification of sinful human beings, regeneration by the work of the Holy Spirit and sanctification by grace.

Prominent in this passage is Peter’s “No.” No- you will not wash my feet. And Jesus’ reply that if Peter does not consent to such a washing, he has no part in him.

What a stark reminder that we add nothing and contribute nothing to our salvation or to the work of God that accomplishes it, but there is still a “yes” or a “no” from Peter. Scripture does not hide or obscure that “yes” or “no,” but places it where any hearer will know that the same choice is before every person to whom Jesus offers himself as gracious savior.

If Christ offers Peter all, even to wash his feet while Peter does nothing, why is Peter struggling to say “yes,” rather than a prideful “no?” There is something about human beings that does not want to admit the need for being saved or to admit the kind of God who would offer to save us completely through his own gracious power and provision. Peter’s “No” echoes every “no” said to a condescending, kind and patient God throughout history.

Peter is showing that part of every person that strangely wants to say “Leave me alone,” rather than say “Yes, love me, wash me, save me, make me your own.” It is the moment of autonomy; the moment when self sees the conqueror coming to vanquish and runs into its fortress.

Of course, Jesus is persistent, not in weakly “knocking on the heart’s door,” but in speaking the Gospel. The Kingdom is here, and all that is required is your surrender. Calvinism or Arminianism aside, it is a very real, very personal surrender that the King demands, even in the form of a slave. “Yes,” and the servant King’s salvation baptizes you into those who belong to him. “No,” and you have no part in him, or his kingdom.

C.S. Lewis and Timothy Keller make it plain in their respective expositions of hell that, in the end, hell is full of people who prefer to be left alone. Hell is the extension of Peter’s “No, you will never wash me.” Hell is the place where the older brother withdraws in resentment over the kind of grace that would wash a prodigal of his mud and receive him back into the family.

The Washing of the Feet, Howard

There is that momentary, illusory pleasure of autonomy, and then the alone-ness. Some of us know it already and know it well. It is the ultimate drug of a fallen race.

For some years, my theology took away from me this “yes” and “no” that is such an important part of the Gospel. Speculations on sovereignty and predestination brought every discussion around to all the reasons why we can’t “make a decision.” An over-emphasis on total depravity erased the Biblical emphasis on what it means to be human before God.

Yet the simplicity of “yes” or “no” to the offer of Jesus with the basin and trowel cannot be hidden behind a stack of theology rhetoric. Jesus still says “Come to me and drink,” and we say “yes” or “no.” Speculations on causation are not on the agenda in this passage. Peter’s real, personal, completely authentic “yes” or “no” is, and we should be careful to never lose it.

In many ways, Jesus’ offer to Peter raises as many questions as it resolves, especially for a person who believes that the salvation we have in Jesus is sacramental and not a transaction. I don’t know the answer to those dilemmas. What I do know is that Jesus kneels before his disciples, with the shadow of the cross appearing on the horizon. He says he loves us and we will one day understand something of how much, but for now, he does all and is all for our salvation. Such a salvation is perfect in the mediator, and we give nothing for it nor do we prompt its completion. But our “yes” or “no” are present, real and essential to our humanity. To eliminate Peter’s “Yes” or “No” is to do enormous damage to what matters deeply in our relationship with God.

We say “Here I am. Wash all of me,” or we say “No. Not me. Not now. Not this way.” No amount of theology or interpretation can take away that moment when the basin and the towel come to us, and Jesus himself says “If I do not wash you….” There is no extensive footnote explaining how Jesus is making an offer that we are unable to accept. The basin, the towel and the question: these remain before us this Holy Week.


  1. Beautiful. I was just having this conversation with someone today. I suspect I’m not the only one who has trouble receiving, or who knows how easy it is to default to ‘No’ when someone offers to serve us for nothing in return. How happy are we to have a saviour who didn’t throw up his hands at Peter’s first protest.

    Also, the last shall be…

  2. I know that alone-ness. It frightens me even as I cling to it. It involves a desire to hide, and an unwillingness to step into the light of day, the light of Jesus. For me, this post is profoundly, painfully, frighteningly true.

    Help me to say Yes to you, Lord.

  3. I love my alone time. It really isn’t that I love as it is I need it. Time to be alone to reflect. I am never really truly alone.
    Jesus, here, walked to the top of a mountain to be alone as was His custom. I understand. I was late the other day to reply to the Merton piece. It’s there though just the next day. I saw today Michael wrote about it being the worst drug we have. I’d have to agree. I would have to say it truly is the one that can kill us. It is wrapped up into every other kind of drug and addiction out there. It is also the one I fall with so often. No matter how hard I try. I can’t do it, that is to stop it on my own. My course is to not give up but to press on. Someday all the questions here will be answered. In fact there will be no reason left to ask. I think Michael found that place a few years back. I look forward to meeting him.

    That day on the highway battle of rude people in the hour plus ride home from the construction site all of us in our own worlds going to places that seem so important I dwelled on the pride that I felt rising in each situation of the passing day. Right before crossing the big river to get to my home a lone truck was park beside the six lane and a deer that had been all busted up had it is head up and couldn’t move and a man waited for it to die not knowing what to do because he had nothing to put it down. I know that feeling. I remember saying I hate this place Lord.

    Why is it when I was young with other boys that my first instinct was to throw rocks and try to kill the animals. Why after finding a frog by the little stream where I needed to get water to do my work in a new house and how he was brightening my day and the little boy showed up with his mother and I asked do you want to see him. First thing the toddler did was pick up a rock and try to smash him. Why isn’t it the other way. Thousands of years of killing and then the one who was perfect. God was the first to hope in Christ. All my life and now I grow tired an awful lot and my heart hurts. Is this the suffering of Christ. No really I want to know.

    • Christiane says

      “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, And our sorrows He carried . . . ”
      (from Isaiah 53:4)

      W, your writing brings me to tears
      . . . I have children who work voluntarily for the good of helpless animals and my children have spoken that they suffer the heart-pain that comes from their compassion for those animals that have been abused and abandoned .

      . . I have thought about this, and I suppose, if we are going to be able to love what is injured and broken, then we must be ready to bear the pain inherent in our compassion . . . to take that pain within us and share it while giving loving kindness and care . . . that is a kind of serving that is so far different from being aloof to the world, and although this pain is experienced as a great loneliness, it is neither selfish nor set-apart, but is immersed into that part of us that deeply wishes only healing for the suffering of another . . .

      • If our hearts break at the plight of some suffering animal how much more, then, does God look on us in our sufferings? And when we try to help that poor, abused animal and it snaps and snarls at us in pain and fear, how much more does God regard US when He reaches to us with the offer of succor? This, to ME, is just a bit of “God light” that shines through us, and our pain in our compassion is but a pale glimmer when compared to God’s when we say “NO!”.

      • Christ’s love overcame no then and it does now. It is always love and the no Peter was saying was out of respect of who he thought Jesus was. Jesus brought Peter up a notch in an instant with a simple sentence. The same one who would deny Him. This is the context in which I read it. Yes and no’s are they really the end of it all. The Kingdom Jesus was talking about was here and now. The washing in the blood which is the life is done out of love not turn or burn. Which by the when when presented turn or burn just adds to rebelliousness so why wouldn’t an enemy want it that way. No the message is turn and be loved beyond anything you could ever imagine. He overcame death with love.

        The hurts I describe in just one case above have been apart of my life always here. Humans doing things out of choice to just be mean all be it a very uninformed choice are the things I have the worst time with and they include my own. Jesus said how long must I suffer with you. It would seem a very long time in my world. I have not given up hope it is the only thing I have left. My favorite song being In Christ Alone…….my hope is found.

        • w, Barth has also said (and I paraphrase), No merely human no is greater than God’s Yes in Jesus Christ….

          • I don’t know this Barth or his sayings. I’m really not the book type as I just don’t have time. This is twice now and I am going to be looking this Barth up. You seem to think highly of him Robert.

          • w, Most of the time Barth wrote in dauntingly dense theological language meant for other theologians. Most of his work can be impenetrable for non-theologians like you and me; now and then, however, a pearl of distilled, pellucid beauty and wisdom untangles itself from the language of specialization. These Barthian pearls, a sentence here, a paragraph there, have come to mean much to me; they have the ability to turn what often seems to me like a grim biblical landscape into a garden filled with hope, and they do this not by changing the biblical testimony, but by subtle and insightful reworking and reinterpretation of some of its key terms and themes. In other words, Barth was a good biblical gardener.

      • Oh yes Christiane, thank you for your response I have reread it quite a few times so far and probably will many more before days end. You do have a way to make me think as do so many here.

    • I, too, love my alone time. But I’m a writer, so I need it, and not in just a psychological sense.

      I wonder, though, if Michael missed something here. Initially he talks about a sort of prideful aloneness, which is how I view the Jesus/Peter conversation, but then changes it to “Leave me alone,” which seems a bit less prideful to me. Is there a difference between a prideful “I can go it alone so leave me alone” and a more psychological “Leave me alone, I need to be alone”?

      • I can’t answer your concluding question, but I’m not sure I think Peter’s resistance to having his feet washed by Jesus came out of pride. I think he was aware of his own imperfections and sin, as he expressed elsewhere in the gospels, and also of Jesus’ goodness and purity; he was aware of the unseemliness of having Jesus, whose feet he should be washing, washing his feet. This same unseemliness exists in the fact that Jesus has died for us; I would argue that if we don’t feel that unseemliness, then the problem is with our pride, not Peter’s.

        • That is, I think Peter’s resistance is a psychologically balanced and morally appropriate one; but I think Jesus is telling Peter that he must give up that balance and appropriateness to be heir to the kingdom that Jesus rules.

          • I think I see what you’re saying, and I think I agree. Let me see if this fits. I have a friend who never takes communion, always saying that she’s not sinless and thus doesn’t feel like she can approach the table and drink His blood and eat His body. I keep telling her that none of us are sinless, that “worthiness” isn’t a requirement for participating in communion. Although I know participation in communion is a personal thing and between a person and God/Jesus, it seems like she’s kinda like Peter is in his initial reaction.

  4. Disillusioned says

    “Gospel” = turn or burn.

    “Here I am kneeling before you (not really but in your mind) ready to love you. And if you don’t “accept” that (and I’ll be watching to see if your life demonstrates this “acceptance”) then I will eternally sustain your being in a place called hell which will be unbelievably torturous. After all, that is what you deserve you worm, and it’s an acceptable outcome. And (wink, wink) secretly I might not even want you to “accept me” but we’ll tuck that skeleton away – I might be more glorified if you ended up in the other place anyways. Don’t blame me if you end up there though (shrugs shoulders) you had your chance. The choice is before you.”

    I really wish it wasn’t this way – “mercy” offered on threat of pain, torture, and ultimate irrevocable tragedy – but it is what it is. People are a mess, including me, and the Christian message is that, for most, that mess and our own non-acceptance WILL have the last word. I envy those of you who can look past this.

    Someone give me a better gospel.

    • I hear you.

      It seems to me that the only reason that anyone would ever say “no” to God (and I get the abstract nature of this “yes” and “no”) is precisely because we’re messed up, afraid, selfish, blind, unable to know what’s best for us in a world of confusion and ambiguity. What we most need saving from is all that generates our “no”. Is God helpless or unwilling to meet us in that place? Does God throw up his hands in disgust and abandon us to self destruction? I don’t think so. I hope not.

    • I think if we’re being honest, most of us have felt what you have before, including the strongest professed-Christians. What I try to remind myself of is this: we don’t put our faith in the gospel itself, or some abstract literary message; we put our faith in an actual person: God Himself. While I don’t always necessarily “feel” it, I do genuinely know deep down that God is good and God is love, and I trust in His goodness that whatever He does is ultimately good and right. There are many things that don’t rational or fair or just in the Christian faith, things that go against our intuition, including theological dilemmas of all different kinds. I am confident that as we grow in our ability to see things from His perspective, things will continue to become clearer. (As an analogy, even many scientific/secular truths that have been learned over the course of history seemed crazy and outlandish at first, but over time have become easier to accept as we have grown in our knowledge of how things really work). Sometimes I have to be real with myself and acknowledge “who am I kidding, what do I know?” when it comes to a question of “why does it have to be this way?” On a related note, there is also a sense of peace that comes with putting my hope in the One who knows all things and has a perfect perspective (vs. what seems right in my own limited, tunnel-visioned mind). So I don’t think there’s an easy answer to your struggle, seeing as it is one many of us will most likely continue to have for quite some time, but hopefully, if nothing else, it will serve to drive us even more towards God in humility and faith.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      “Here I am kneeling before you (not really but in your mind) ready to love you. And if you don’t “accept” that (and I’ll be watching to see if your life demonstrates this “acceptance”) then I will eternally sustain your being in a place called hell which will be unbelievably torturous.

      And make sure you Say The Words EXACTLY Right and are Really Truly Really Sincere and Really Truly Really Repentant and Certain You’re Sure You’re Certain You REALLY REALLY Mean It…

    • Read Brennan Manning’s “Ragamuffin Gospel” and Philip Yancey’s “Disappointment with God.” Those two books combined might help you realize you’re not alone, and that the Good News of Jesus is indeed Good News, despite this underlying, and I’d suggest “false,” fear of ultimate condemnation.

  5. Ronald Avra says

    Michael’s insights on this scripture are very helpful for me personally. Once again, I’m grateful for the Easter season to focus me, at least for a brief moment.

  6. OldProphet says

    Have any of you ever been in a foot washing service. I have, and have washed others feet. Talk about a humbling experience. It makes that scriptural story come to life in a personal way.

    • I have participated in a foot washing service with the Mennonites. I respect that you found it a meaningful experience, but for me it was embarrassing rather than humbling. It wasn’t a real foot washing, but a ritual splashing of the feet with a little water, and a pat or two with a dry towel. I’ve seen Muslims make their ablutions before going to prayer, and it was the same: splash a little water on and call it washing. When given the chance to participate again on another occasion, I abstained.

      • I have chosen to abstain from such services and experiences as well, because in my experience they were always performed by a group or type that wanted to do away with New Testament Christianity in favor of a more Jewish oriented Messianic faith, but somehow with all the Pentecost stuff still attached.

        So, politely, I abstained, and will probably continue to do so. Overall, it seems to have been a particular custom in the ANE and Roman world that while meaningful to Jesus’ contemporaries doesn’t quite come across as meaningful to us today.

        Which makes me ask: what modern custom would be akin to a footwashing? Sharing a cup? Passing a cigarette? Buying each other lunch every other time we meet? Not sure…

        • None of those match the utter lowering of oneself to the lowly position of foot washing. Maybe ” Honey Bucket” cleaner comes close, but not really.

        • Check that…the people who wiped my mom’s rear in the nursing home…that comes close to foot washing. Those people are special. They are now a part of our family.

        • Cleaning someone’s vomit or feces when they are too ill to do it themselves may be something like this; of course, people did those things in Jesus’ time for their own families, just as people do now. The foot washing had a special meaning, done as it was mostly by slaves, and performed on truly filthy feet. I doubt there is anything quite analogous to it today in our circumstances; Jesus was making himself equivalent to a slave. That’s what Peter resisted; seeing his master as a slave, perhaps partly because he understood that if Jesus lowered himself to performing the function of a slave, Peter and the others could do no less.

          • Yes, cleaning my mom’s rear was an admittedly poor attempt at trying to come up with something semi-analogous to foot washing. Maybe more analogous would be President Obama visiting my mom and offering to clean her rear, that is, someone in a high station putting themselves in a lowly station.

    • I participated in a “Last Supper” play once – I was apprpriately doubting Thomas – and it culminated in the person who played Jesus washing all our feet. Not a single one of us who had our feet washed walked away dry-eyed. I believe a few of us wept openly. The most humbling, profound experience I’ve ever had.

  7. Stuart, I think the reason it was meaningful in the ANE was that to get anywhere for the most part you walked and most of the roads were dirt and most likely you wore sandals. Therefore your sweaty feet would be covered with not only dust and dirt but that dust and dirt would contain a wide assortment of pulverized poop, donkey, camel, horse, sheep, goat, dog, chicken, you name it. Washing someone’s feet who had walked a distance to your house as a gesture of hospitality was a nasty job, ideally left to a slave who had to do as told, or maybe a household woman or girl. I don’t pretend to be familiar with the all niceties of the custom.

    I’m thinking a modern example might be cutting toenails for an older person no longer able to do their own. There’s an element of grossness involved, which is the point of the original story. Quite frankly the whole thing makes me intensely uncomfortable, whether giving or receiving, and I can certainly empathize with Peter’s reaction. No way!

    • Allow me to wash your feet with this Super Soaker from a good distance away…lol.

      Definitely uncomfortable. And if the Holy Spirit is what allows us to overcome that discomfort and serve, then amen. But it’s incredibly impossible to force it sometimes.