John 13:8–11 (ESV)
8 Peter saith to him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou shalt have no part with me. 9 Simon Peter saith to him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. 10 Jesus saith to him, He who is washed needeth not to wash more than his feet, but is altogether clean; and you are clean, but not all. 11 For he knew who it was that should betray him;1 therefore he said, You are not all clean.
8. Thou shalt never wash my feet.
Hitherto Peter’s modesty was excusable, though it was not free from blame; but now he errs more grievously, when he has been corrected, and yet does not yield.2 And, indeed, it is a common fault, that ignorance is closely followed by obstinacy. It is a plausible excuse, no doubt, that the refusal springs from reverence for Christ; but since he does not absolutely obey the injunction, the very desire of showing his respect for Christ loses all its gracefulness. The true wisdom of faith, therefore, is to approve and embrace with reverence whatever proceeds from God, as done with propriety and in good order; nor is there any other way, indeed, in which his name can be sanctified by us; for if we do not believe that whatever he does is done for a very good reason, our flesh, being naturally stubborn, will continually murmur, and will not render to God the honour due to him, unless by constraint. In short, until a man renounce the liberty of judging as to the works of God, whatever exertions he may make to honour God, still pride will always lurk under the garb of humility.
If I wash thee not.
This reply of Christ does not yet explain the reason why he resolved to wash the feet of his disciples; only by a comparison drawn from the soul to the body, he shows that, in washing the feet of his disciples, he does nothing that is unusual or inconsistent with his rank. Meanwhile, the reply points out the folly of Peter’s wisdom. The same thing will always happen to us, whenever the Lord begins to contend with us. So long as he remains silent, men imagine that they have a good right to differ from him: but nothing is easier for him than to refute, by a single word, all the plausible arguments which they employ. As Christ is Lord and Master, Peter thinks it inconsistent that Christ should wash his feet. But the evil is,1 that, in refusing such a service, he rejects the principal part of his own salvation. There is also a general doctrine contained in this statement, that we are all filthy and abominable in the sight of God, until Christ wash away our stains. Now, since he claims for himself the exclusive right of washing, let every man present himself to be cleansed from his pollution, that he may obtain a place among the children of God.
But before proceeding farther, we must understand what is the meaning of the word wash. Some refer it to the free pardon of sins; others, to newness of life; while a third class extends it to both, and this last view I cheerfully admit. For Christ washes us when he removes the guilt of our sins by his atoning sacrifice, that they may not come into judgment before God; and, on the other hand, he washes us when he takes away, by his Spirit, the wicked and sinful desires of the flesh. But as it will shortly afterwards be evident from what follows, that he speaks of the grace of regeneration, I do not absolutely maintain the opinion that he included here the washing of pardon.
9. Lord, not my feet only.
When Peter heard that he was ruined, if he did not accept the cleansing which was offered to him by Christ, this necessity proved, at length, to be a sufficient instructor to tame him. He therefore lays aside opposition and yields, but wishes to be entirely washed, and, indeed, acknowledges that, for his own part, he is altogether covered with pollution, and, therefore, that it is doing nothing, if he be only washed in one part. But here too he goes wrong through thoughtlessness, in treating, as a thing of no value, the benefit which he had already received; for he speaks as if he had not yet obtained any pardon of sins, or any sanctification by the Holy Spirit. On this account, Christ justly reproves him, for he recalls to his recollection what he had formerly bestowed on him; at the same time, reminding all his disciples in the person of one man, that, while they remembered the grace which they had received, they should consider what they still needed for the future.
10. He who is washed needeth not to wash more than his feet, but is altogether clean.
First, he says that believers are altogether clean; not that they are in every respect pure, so that there no longer remains in them any stain, but because they are cleansed in their chief part; that is, when sin is deprived of its kingly power, so that the righteousness of God holds the superiority; just as if we were to say, that a body was altogether healthy, because it was not infected with any universal disease. It is by newness of life, therefore, that we must testify ourselves to be the disciples of Christ, for he declares that he is the Author of purity in all his followers.
Again, the other comparison was also applied to the case in hand, that Peter might not set aside the washing of the feet as foolish; for, as Christ washes from the head to the feet, those whom he receives as his disciples, so, in those whom he has cleansed, the lower part remains to be daily cleansed. The children of God are not altogether regenerated on the first day, so as to aim at nothing but the heavenly life; but, on the contrary, the remains of the flesh continue to dwell in them, with which they maintain a continued struggle throughout their whole life. The term feet, therefore, is metaphorically applied to all the passions and cares by which we are brought into contact with the world; for, if the Holy Spirit occupied every part of us, we would no longer have anything to do with the pollutions of the world; but now, by that part in which we are carnal, we creep on the ground, or at least fix our feet in the clay, and, therefore, are to some extent unclean. Thus Christ always finds in us something to cleanse. What is here spoken of is not the forgiveness of sins, but the renewal, by which Christ, by gradual and uninterrupted succession, delivers his followers entirely from the sinful desires of the flesh.
And you are clean.
This proposition may be said to be the minor in the syllogism, and hence it follows that the washing of the feet applies to them with strict propriety.
11. But not all.
This exception is added, that everyone may examine himself, if Judas may perhaps be moved by a feeling of repentance; though he intended by it to take an early opportunity of fortifying the rest of the disciples, that they might not be perplexed by the atrocity of the crime, which was soon afterwards to be made known. Yet he purposely abstains from naming him, that he may not shut against him the gate of repentance. As that hardened hypocrite1 was utterly desperate, the warning served only to aggravate his guilt; but it was of great advantage to the other disciples, for by means of it the Divinity of Christ was more fully made known to them, and they likewise perceived that purity is no ordinary gift of the Holy Spirit.
John Calvin and William Pringle, Commentary on the Gospel according to John