In the previous two parts of this study, I have addressed, first, the logic and reasoning of those who assert that the ‘Law of Christ’ is a collated set of commandments/commands which are binding upon believers in Christ, and my reservations about that. Second, I attempted a more positive, straight exposition of the only place where that strict phrase is used in Galatians 6. Here, I want to whisk us back to the beginning, the place and the occasion when Jesus institutes the new covenant on the night before His cross. I have asserted that the law of Christ, as referred to by Paul, is no more and no less than the single ‘commandment’ Jesus gives to His disciples on that dark, troubled night. That needs some ‘unpacking’. I will attempt that now.
The Deep, Deep Desire of Jesus
John gives us much detail of what transpired before, at and after they all reclined at that table – the synoptic gospels less so. However, there are insights to be gleaned from all directions. Here is one from Luke:
“When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”” (Luke 22 vs 14 – 16)
Sometimes our translations need a little ‘assistance’. This statement of our Lord’s is doubly powerful. Literally, He says, “With deep desire, I have deeply desired …” In other words, this specific meal is of extremely important significance. The way he phrases it, He would not think of going to the cross until He has eaten this meal with them – this Passover. This alone should alert us to the fact that what is about to take place is fundamental and foundational in our understanding of what Jesus is about to do.
John reminds us of two things:
“Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
So he emphasises that
- Jesus knew what He was about to suffer and that He would be leaving His disciples to return to His Father. He knew that this was His ‘hour’.
- Jesus’ love for these disciples was uninterrupted and absolute.
In what state would He leave them? Abandoned? Deserted? Having taught them so much about the love and the closeness of God in His own person, would all of this fall to the ground now that His earthly ministry was done? As we view this, and we get the sense of the disciples’ increasing bewilderment (because they did not understand what was about to happen, let alone why), and their concern and sadness (because at least they had begun to understand that Jesus was talking about going away, and to a place they could not go). And we can ask questions they did not know how to, or even that there were concerns here they were not aware of. If Jesus had begun so much, done so much, whilst He was with them, how would this continue? Having challenged their core beliefs in the Mosaic system again and again, when He had gone, would they just revert to what had gone before? Would Jesus just be to them the man/God who ‘was’, but was no more? Was this spirituality He had woken them to to vaporise with His parting? Little did they know of the full glory of what He would yet do. And we need to wrestle in order to grasp its greatness to. For this night, and what Jesus did in its few, short hours, is the equivalent in covenant terms of what God did on a smoke-filled mountain in the desert of Sin, with all of its fearful heralding, forbiddings and warnings over a period of weeks.
This small-sized conference room in Jerusalem is the new covenant Sinai, the place of covenant institution. And here is the substantially-invisible reality of that which the shadowy-visible old covenant whispered its promises.
The Washing of Feet
“Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, so …” (John 13 vs 3 – 4a)
We know from the other gospels that the disciples had been bickering, even on their way here. Who was the ‘greatest’ among them? Maybe, this was to decide who would take the place nearest the Master at table – this decided the seating order at Jewish feasts – but they had had such discussions before. The more important you were, the higher up the table you sat. So intent are they in their argument, that the servant’s chore of washing the dust of the road from soiled and smelly feet doesn’t occur to any. And thus, there they are, all ‘reclining at table’ with dirty feet, uncomfortable, but too proud and too late for anything to be done about it.
Who is ‘the greatest’? JESUS is the greatest! The Father has subjected all things to Him – nothing is excluded. And He knows that when He dies, He will be returning to the bosom of the Father. No sin to be dealt with, no disobedience to be sorted, no stain to be cleansed. Without doubt, He is the greatest. He knows it – and these men would have no hesitancy at all in admitting it. But it is Jesus, even in the light of this, who takes up towel and bowl and proceeds to do for them what they would not do for each other.
But wait! There is more to this than just a lesson in humility. Yes, there is that salient, sobering, stinging lesson that they ‘got’ then, there. But Jesus says there is more. For He tells Peter, when he objects,
“You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”
Something is going on here beneath the immediately obvious. Something these men did not see directly, but would see afterwards – after Jesus had risen and ascended. We get a further glimpse when Jesus tells Peter:
“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
And then, when Peter changes his mind and asks for an all-over wash,
“Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.”
So here is the urgent question. What kind of cleansing ministry of the Son of God to these men who were already His called and committed disciples could possibly mean that without it, they would not be a part of Him at all? That is a crucial question and not to be lightly passed over.
There is, of course, an immediate lesson. Jesus explains it. He, the Lord and Master, has washed the feet of His disciples, His servants. He sets us an example. No task, no end should be beneath us as we, who are in Christ, seek to similarly serve one another ‘as He has served us’. We should wash each other’s feet. Jesus tells us that in this is great blessing, great happiness. The ‘not every one of you’ is added because Jesus knows the black heart of the one who would betray Him, and even now, was about this business. Later, He will say to them,
“You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.” (15 vs 3)
Quite evidently, this speaks of more than just physical hygiene. The Lord is talking about the state of hearts before God. The disciples were already sanctified – set apart for God’s use – by the words He had spoken, the truths He had taught them. Their acceptance of these things had changed them in ways they had not realised. There had been a dealing with inner wickedness, a washing of the soul, a renewal of the spirit, all in His great love. They had been brought this far by His protection and prayer. Their eyes had been opened to Him and His truth. Perhaps sometimes they had perceived it. Many times they had not. But here they were, on this last night that was to be both an end and a beginning. And their Lord insists they must have their feet washed. By Him. Without which, they would have ‘no part’ in Him. That is a drastic thing to declare, all dependant on a towel and a bowl of water. What could He possibly mean?
I think we have failed to grasp the importance of a rather simple element in the Jewish world – water. Fresh, new, clean water was used for more than the removal of dirt from the body. The Mosaic covenant gave explicit instructions for many, many ‘washings’ – ablutions, and these were ceremonial. That is to say they signified the cleansing from inner wickedness. These preparations were required for priests and people. Before they came to the Temple. Before they offered sacrifice. In all kinds of circumstances, the Jew thus prepared his heart for approach to the holy God. Throughout – particularly in the immediate vicinity of the Temple – there were the Jewish baptisteries, the mikveh, which required meticulous total immersion of the whole body, right to the last hair of the head. These baths had to be supplied with fresh, not stored, water. The body had to be clean before – before, note – this ceremonial immersion was performed. A couple of quotes to help us along:
“Though there are no extant laws for laymen in regard to washing the feet, such laws for priests are given in Ex. xxx. 19-21. There mention is made of brazen vessels, placed between the Tabernacle and the altar of burnt offering, in which the priests had to wash their hands and feet on entering the Tabernacle or before approaching the altar of burnt offerings: hence at all their priestly functions. Just as no one is allowed to approach a king or prince without due preparation, which includes the washing of the hands and feet, so the Israelite, and especially the priest, is forbidden in his unclean condition to approach Yhwh, for he who comes defiled will surely die.”
“—In Rabbinical Literature:
The priests were not permitted to minister unless they had performed their ablutions, among which the washing of the feet is especially mentioned (Zeb. 17b). According to Tosef., Men. i.e, the priests were accustomed to rub and wash their hands and feet in the basin twice, to insure the proper degree of cleanliness.
… and from another source:
“In the Torah, priests are required to wash their hands and feet before entering the holy place of the tabernacle to offer sacrifice on the altar. Moses receives these commands in Exodus 30:17-21. Exodus 40:30-32 describes these instructions. 1 Kings 7:38 and 2 Chronicles 4:6 mention ten basins(40 baths) in which the priests were to wash. Also, the high priest is expected to wash his hands and feet on the Day of Atonement (Lev. 16:24). “
So we see how necessary the washings of hands and feet were to priestly service, as well as for common use – and this cleansing thus effected was ceremonial. And this is what I think Jesus is about here. As these men approach the real Day of Atonement, as they recline in the presence of this Great High Priest, who is also their sacrifice, all of the pictures – the shadows – of ceremonial preparation that the old covenant had painted were now fulfilled. Jesus prepares His disciples in completion to serve as the first of the ‘priesthood of all believers’. They are not Levites, not from Aaronic families, thus in the old order, they do not even qualify as priests. But the new covenant is not of that order, and fishermen and tax collectors may now serve. And to do so, they must have their feet ceremonially cleansed. Their feet must be washed by none other than the hands of their Saviour. And because their hearts are already His, that is all that is necessary. They have already been thoroughly heart-cleansed by ‘the washing of water with the word’ – the word of the Son of God.
Why? Why would Jesus so greatly desire to eat this Passover with them? Because – oh, because – He is about to lay the very foundations of the new covenant, the covenant in His own precious blood.
Watch and listen, and tremble and weep, and rejoice with unutterable joy. Here is the basis of your eternal salvation.
“This is my body … This is my blood”
At the centre of this stage are the words of institution. We repeat them, as we should, in obedience to His command, whenever we break bread and share in the cup, don’t we? The use of the present tense here has troubled many over time. We deny the rather fanciful idea that every time we repeat this simple process, Jesus is re-crucified, and the elements are transformed, in whatever way, into the real body and blood of Jesus, in the hands of the ‘priest’. That is just an endeavour to explain the words of Christ at a rather superficial level. What Jesus is doing here – has done – is more profound, and needs some consideration if we are not to fall into foolish traps. And yet, at the same time, is not this so simple? What could be more straightforward, more accessible than the simple consumption of bread and wine together? No elaborate ceremony, requiring the ministrations of ‘specialists’. Anyone, anywhere, any time, we may remember Him.
What is confusing here is Jesus’ use of the present tense. He does not say ‘this represents’ or ‘this symbolises’ … or anything equivalent. His use of ‘THIS IS’ is striking, and brings the cross into this upper room on this night. It is as if He is saying to them that if it would be possible for Him to preach to them what was happening when He was suspended by nailed hands and feet on tomorrow’s cross, here is what He would want them to hear. In these words, Jesus expounds His death, and it’s vital importance for their understanding of what He was to do.
Thus, for us too, whenever we repeat it, the bread and the wine are our declaration of covenant. We are saying, in what we are doing that we are in it – we ‘participate’, as Paul later puts it in1 Corinthians. That this – His death – is our life and meaning, the covenantal sacrifice; the ‘cutting’ of this God-given new covenant by which God wraps His arms around us and transports us from the kingdom of death into His very presence. We, who are sinners, deserving nothing less than judgement and hell, are redeemed by THIS body, THIS blood, and because of it, we are His forever. With such potent purchase, no power in existence shall wrench us from its grip.
Thomas Kelly writes it thus:
We sing the praise of him who died,
of him who died upon the cross;
the sinner’s hope let men deride;
for this we count the world but loss.
Inscribed upon the cross we see
in shining letters, God is love:
he bears our sins upon the tree:
he brings us mercy from above.
The cross: it takes our guilt away,
it holds the fainting spirit up;
it cheers with hope the gloomy day,
and sweetens every bitter cup.
It makes the coward spirit brave,
and nerves the feeble arm for fight;
it takes its terror from the grave,
and gilds the bed of death with light.
The balm of life, the cure of woe,
the measure and the pledge of love,
the sinner’s refuge here below,
the angel’s theme in heaven above.
Who can write such things without a heart filled with utmost praise? Do I hear an echo of that in yours, my friend?
And it is in this – let us mark it again – that the covenant given through Moses is swept into yesterday. In its place stands the new covenant ‘in His blood’, that will endure forever, and bring all the saints before the throne of God now, and into His full presence forever later. Here, here it begins.
And all the might and foreboding majesty, all the noise and flashings, all the commandments and institutions of priesthood are gathered here in the hands of the very Son of God, who fulfils, then replaces them with an order the glory of which outstrips them all. Cleansing guilty consciences. Sweeping sin away to be counted no more. Dealing with the realities of which those former things were mere shadows, great and complex and sophisticated, in their own way, though they were.
“This is the new covenant IN MY BLOOD”.
In Part 3a I will look at the new commandment, the only, single ‘covenant commandment’ which Christ gives us.
Preacher & Teacher
Studied Theology at London Bible College
Lives in Northampton, Northamptonshire UK
Serves a moderator for the New Covenant Grace Facebook group.