Water is essential to life.
Washing, to the Jew familiar with the law and the traditions of the religion of his ancestors, symbolized purification. It had always had a place in the practice of religion, from the cleansing rituals of the priests before they entered the holy places to the bitter water drunk by the woman suspected of adultery. Amazingly it took more modern generations a long time to realize just how important washing was to the prevention of disease and contamination. It wasn’t until the 1800s that physicians began to make the connection that the Bible had always illustrated through its historical record. Even today, in some parts of the world, that truth is still unknown. I remember hearing from missionary nurses in Pakistan what a difference it made in the statistics on live births when they were able to teach village midwives some basic “best practice” when it came to such things as washing their hands and instruments.
In the Scriptures, water has huge symbolic meaning, but never more than it does in John 13. The scene: the upper room on the night that Jesus was arrested. The Passover meal is about to be served and the Lord takes on the role of a household slave. He removes His outer garment, wraps a towel around his waist, prepares the water and the basin and goes around the room washing the feet of His disciples.
When Jesus gets to Peter, the disciple finds his voice and questions what the Lord is doing (13:6). Then he objects to what Jesus is doing (13:8). This gesture on the part of their Rabbi, their Messiah, is so unexpected, that the disciples are stunned by it. The Lord’s answer to Peter’s objection is this: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (13:8).
Obviously there is a lot more to this than simply washing the dust off feet that have been on the road all day. The gesture is a physical one; the message is spiritual. There is no salvation apart from Jesus Christ. Only He can wash away the stain of sin. Only He can purify us and make us acceptable to a Holy God. No religion or ritual, no church or catechism, no pastor or program, can save. Only Jesus. It takes One who is completely pure to make pure those who aren’t.
Peter got it.
After Pentecost, as he and the other disciples went about preaching the good news of the Gospel, Peter said: “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given by men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).
It’s funny, and sad, how a simple truth like this one can be so hard to understand. But then, we still have trouble with the benefits of washing our hands, don’t we?