Grace Teaching by Example (John 13:1-17)
There is another lesson in grace in this passage. After Jesus had washed the disciples’ feet He said, “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” (John 13:14,15). This act of self humiliation thus becomes a rule of life for all believers. Not that there should be literal washing of feet, but self humiliation before others.
It is well to notice the language that Jesus used in setting forth His own act as an example for the disciples. He said, “ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The words of the law are “Thou shalt” and “Thou shalt not.” The words of grace are “ye ought to.” It is an appeal or admonition and not a demand. This language is not peculiar to this passage. It is characteristic of all grace teaching. “I beseech you,” (Rom. 12:1). “Let not sin… reign in your mortal body” (Rom. 6:12). “… ye ought to walk and to please God” (I Thes. 4:1). These are but illustrative expressions. To trace these words by the use of any good concordance is an impressive study. All this means that there is no guilt attached to failure to comply. It could not be for then it would not be grace.
This, however, in no sense means that compliance is not honored by God and neglect is not likewise taken into account. All of this has a bearing on rewards, for the saved one, but not loss of eternal life. Now taking up the consideration of the act itself; it has already been seen that the passage is introduced by a statement of the unlimited love of the Lord for His own. There is a further statement concerning Jesus which is directly related to the act itself. It is important to notice that there is no period at the end of the third verse. In that verse it is said that Jesus had knowledge of three things:
1. The Father had given all things into His hands.
2. He was come from God.
3. He went to God.
The knowledge of these three facts is directly and inseparably related to rising from the supper, laying aside His garments and girding Himself with a towel. To separate the first three from the last three is to rob the act of its motive and of its enablement. Jesus knew that power had been given Him by God. He knew that He had come from God. He knew that He was going to God. There was not the slightest doubt in His mind concerning these three things. Because of this it was possible for Him to humble Himself and take upon Himself the form of a servant, and to do that most menial service. But all of this speaks of grace. Power provided by God; life issuing from God, and a future in the presence of God.
If this was needed by Jesus in order to perform that deed of self humiliation, that labor of love as it was, does He ask His disciples to follow His example without a like knowledge [of the three motivations]? He does not. All the teachings of grace speak of God’s provision on behalf of those who depend upon Him to do that which He asks. Paul prays for believers that they may know what is the exceeding greatness of God’s power on their behalf (Eph. 1:15-23). All believers are born of God (Joh. 1: 12,13) and everyone may know on the basis of God’s word that he has eternal life that has issued from God. It is equally certain that all believers are going to God. Jesus said: “If I go … I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (John 14:3). These then are the three cardinal truths upon which is based God’s appeal to believers to live a self denying life. To omit these divine motives is to lower the appeal of grace to the level of the commandments of the law. To omit or even to weaken anyone of them is to weaken Christ’s appeal to believers to follow His example.
Why is it then a well nigh universal practice in presenting the claims of Christ upon believers (all of whom are under grace) to omit the divine incentive and enablement which always precedes the appeal? There seems to be at least one good explanation. It is this. Grace teachings are usually approached from a legal background. As the law knows nothing of such motives and enablements, they are not recognized as important.
The law is addressed to the flesh, the natural sinful man descended from Adam. It is not for the one who is born again. It knows nothing of a divine power operating on behalf of man. The only power that the law knows of is that of the human will. But the power to will to do good and carry out that which is willed, was forever lost to man when Adam broke the first command given to man. As to a future in the presence of God the law has nothing to offer. Being the ministration of condemnation it demands everlasting separation of both body and spirit from God, for all who fail to obey it.
Herein then is an essential difference between appealing for godly living on the basis of law and on the grounds of grace. And herein lies one of the great dangers, though not the only one, of teaching that the moral standards of the law are an obligation upon Christians. To so teach is to demand a high standard of life without a corresponding incentive and enablement. It is as it were to expect a stream without a fountain.
There is then a second lesson in grace as taught by Jesus in washing the disciples’ feet. That which is done under grace finds its motive in love and is made possible by the knowledge that one has come from God’, that God’s omnipotence is operative on one’s behalf and that one is going to God.
Part 2 of 2 from Grace and Truth (a devotional commentary on the Gospel of John) by J.F. Strombeck. Moline, IL, 1956 (chapter 17). Italics added.
 See 1 Tim. 1:8,9; Gal. 3:23-25; 5:5,6; 2 Cor. 3:7,8
 The author gave further clarification on the place of moral law in the Christian life: “‘A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another’ (John 13:34)…to insist upon the law as a guide to godliness under grace is to lower the popular concept of godliness. Insistence upon the purer and higher divine rule does not let down the bars but rather raises them. Nor does it do away with the morals of the law for surely all the good that issues from human love is a part, but only a small part of that which issues from divine love” (p.106). For further consideration on this complex issue see Grace Note: The Believer and God’s Moral Law.
graphic by www.heartlight.org