All four gospel writers record the events of that evening. One of the important events of the night and the one which we today usually mention is the institution of the Lord’s Supper. It is when Jesus gave the teaching of eating the bread in remembrance of his body slain for us and drinking the wine in commemoration of his blood shed for us.
But there were also other very significant teachings that evening, one of which is recounted by the apostle John. This teaching involved an action by Jesus which was totally unexpected by the disciples.
The Washing of the Feet of the Disciples
Here is how John explains what Jesus did:
It was now just before the Passover Feast, and Jesus knew that His hour had come to leave this world and return to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the very end. The evening meal was underway…Jesus knew that the Father had delivered all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was returning to God.
So He got up from the supper, laid aside His outer garments, and wrapped a towel around His waist. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and dry them with the towel that was around Him. (John 13:1-2a, 3-5 BSB)
We usually think of the Lord’s Supper as being mostly symbolical; that is, when we eat the bread and drink the wine, we receive very little in the way of nutritional value for our bodies. We are taking this “communion” only as an observance—a remembrance of the price that Jesus paid in his own body and blood to redeem us from our entrapment to sin.
The washing of the feet is also symbolical, but it also did actually fulfill a real and practical purpose in that day. Walking on the dusty roads with sandals caused one’s feet to become quite dirty, especially in the hot weather when the feet also became damp with perspiration.
The washing of the feet of the disciples that night in the upper room was not the first time that they would have had someone wash their feet after arriving at a home. This was a custom that was quite common. What was uncommon about that particular night was who was doing the washing.
This was a task that was normally done by the household servant. Although I hesitate to use the word never, but I may even go so far as to say that this task of washing the feet was something that was never done by the master of the house.
But that was not the case on this night. Jesus, the master of the house on that evening, knelt down to the feet of his followers. I am quite certain that this made all of the disciples a bit uncomfortable, and it is perhaps understandable that when Jesus came to Peter, he objected to Jesus washing his feet.
But Jesus was doing more than fulfilling a practical and mundane task. He was instilling a lesson for the disciples that would have wide implications. The response that Jesus gave to Peter’s objection demonstrated part of what he was teaching the disciples that night, even though they would not understand it fully for some time.
John continues with his account:
Never shall You wash my feet!” Peter told Jesus.
Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me.”
“Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!”
Jesus told him, “Whoever has already bathed needs only to wash his feet, and he will be completely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you.”
For He knew who would betray Him. That is why He said, “Not all of you are clean.” (John 13:6-11 BSB)
Jesus spoke of the one who would betray him. This was of course Judas Iscariot. In verse two of this passage we learn that the devil had already put into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. Judas was still in the room with the other disciples, and presumably, Jesus washed his feet as he did the rest. However, we shall see that Judas would soon leave the room in order to carry out his disloyal and deceitful task.
After all of the disciples had had their feet washed, Jesus again put on his robe and reclined at the table. He had already given a lesson to Peter of the meaning of the foot washing, but he had more to teach.
“Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asked them. “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:12b-15 NAS).
The Greatest Disciple
Luke, in his gospel, does not write about the foot washing, but he adds another detail of the evening that the other gospel writers do not mention. Usually, when we think of the events of that took place in the upper room, we picture the entire Last Supper affair as having a sacred and rather subdued atmosphere, a time when Jesus quietly imparted some important words to his followers on the night before his crucifixion.
But the entire evening was not completely solemn. Perhaps much to our amazement, Luke tells us about an argument that actually erupted during the meal.
Since Luke does not write of the foot washing, it is difficult to say if this argument occurred before or after Jesus washed the feet of the disciples. It would be interesting to know for certain. Since washing the feet of guests normally was done immediately when they arrived at a home, one may assume that this argument occurred after Jesus had given the disciples the lesson on the washing of the feet of one another.
However, John’s account says that Jesus “got up from the supper” to wash the disciple’s feet, so this foot washing did not take place immediately when they all entered the room. It is actually impossible to pinpoint at what time during the evening that the disciples began to argue.
Here is Luke’s description on what was said during that discussion:
A dispute also arose among the disciples as to which of them would be considered the greatest. So Jesus declared, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them call themselves benefactors. But you shall not be like them. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:24-27 BSB)
Another Argument about Greatness
It would be easy to assume that it was a misunderstanding of the lesson of the foot washing that gave rise to this argument—that the disciples missed the lesson on being a servant, and instead wanted to be the greatest in rank. But this is not the first time that the disciples had had this discussion about greatness.
Both Mark and Luke tell of another occasion when the twelve talked about this (Mark 9:33-34; Luke 9:46-48). This particular discussion arose at a time outside of the hearing of Jesus, when the group was walking along the road on their way to Capernaum. Jesus must have been just out of ear-shot of the animated whispers of the disciples.
Mark writes that Jesus asked the disciples, “What were you discussing on the way?” but out of shame, the disciples did not answer him. They were ashamed to answer because they had been arguing about which of them was the greatest—or as we might put it today, which was the “g.o.a.t.” (greatest of all time).
Both Mark and Luke mention in their writings that prior to this argument, Jesus had told the disciples that “The Son of Man will be delivered into the hands of men. They will kill Him, and after three days He will rise” (Mark 9:31).
At the time when Jesus first said this, the disciples did not understand the impact of what Jesus was indicating. Luke said that it was “veiled” from them, or “hidden” from them. But even though they did not understand, they were afraid to ask Jesus what he had meant by his statement about being delivered over to evil men, killed and then finally rise from the dead.
In the upper room on the very night when he spoke of the same thing, they still did not understand. It was when he mentioned the fact that it was one of them who would betray him that this discussion arose as to which of them was the “greatest” disciple.
It is interesting to see that on both occasions when the disciples argued about who was the greatest, the discussion came after Jesus spoke of one of them who would betray him. It would also be interesting to know more of the conversation and how this information of betrayal by Jesus gave rise to arguing about greatness, but it must have been in some way connected to how each disciple could not see how it could possibly be he who would deny Jesus. Each would think of himself that he was too loyal, too “great.”
One disciple after another questioned Jesus, “Surely it is not I”?
Then they began to question among themselves which of them was going to do this. When it came to the disciples trying to determine who the betrayer would be, one can only imagine the finger pointing that may have taken place.
Demonstrations of Greatness
In the upper room, it was the foot washing that Jesus did to show that the “greatest” is really the one who serves. On the other occasion when the disciples had this argument, when they were walking along the road, Jesus gave a different illustration. Again quoting Mark:
Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all.”
Then He had a little child stand among them. Taking the child in His arms, He said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in My name welcomes Me, and whoever welcomes Me welcomes not only Me, but the One who sent Me.” (Mark 3:34-37 BSB)
And now to again quote Luke as to what Jesus told the disciples in the upper room after they had their discussion about which of them was the greatest:
The greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who leads like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who reclines at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines? But I am among you as one who serves. (Luke 22:25-27 BSB)
Yet Another Argument about Greatness
On yet another occasion this discussion of the “Greatest Disciple of All Time” came up. This time, it was initiated by a proud mom of two of her boys, James and John, who happened also to be two of the twelve disciples of Jesus. Interestingly enough, this request of greatness also came just after Jesus spoke of his own coming death.
I will quote now from the book of Matthew, the twentieth chapter:
Then the mother of Zebedee’s sons came to Jesus with her sons and knelt down to make a request of Him.
“What do you want?” He inquired.
She answered, “Declare that in Your kingdom one of these two sons of mine may sit at Your right hand, and the other at Your left.”
“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus replied. “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?”
“We can,” the brothers answered.
“You will indeed drink My cup,” Jesus said. “But to sit at My right or left is not Mine to grant. These seats belong to those for whom My Father has prepared them.”
When the ten heard about this, they were indignant with the two brothers. But Jesus called them aside and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their superiors exercise authority over them. It shall not be this way among you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must be your slave— just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:20-28 BSB. See also Mark 10:35-25)
The culture of the day in which Jesus gave all these teachings of “greatness” has largely changed in western cultures of our own day. Perhaps there are still some portions of the societies of our day where this idea of “greatness” still exists, such as in professional sports where certain self-acknowledged “superstars” want to be known as the g.o.a.t, or in the elite business world of the Forbes 500 where the owners are rated by how many billions of dollars they are worth.
But for most of us, we are not prone to this same sort of ranking. Certainly this tendency exists in all of us, but I don’t think any of us would consider arguing that we are the greatest because of our net worth of several thousands of dollars. We know that no one would be impressed.
The “Tall Poppy Syndrome”
And I can also say that here in Northern Wisconsin, our culture is more subdued. Most of us were raised with the notion that we should not be braggarts, and that if anyone would start to exalt himself or herself, the rest of us would busy ourselves in “bringing him down to size.”
When we lived in New Zealand I heard someone refer to this type of arrogance and smugness as the “tall poppy syndrome.” I guess they also use that phrase in Australia. People in those places, like here, are also usually raised to be a bit self-depreciating and to be humble.
Thus, the tall poppy syndrome is the practice of mocking people who think too highly of themselves, or as they say there, “lopping off the tall poppy.”
“Fairness” instead of “Greatness”
To us, instead of having this issue of “greatness” be thought of as self-exaltation, it may be better framed as an issue of “fairness.” In our isolated community of Wisconsin, instead of greatness, fairness to us is an important attribute.
“If you want something, you should work for it,” we say.
“Don’t expect something for nothing.”
And this is actually a healthy perspective to a certain degree. Even the Apostle Paul wrote, “If anyone is unwilling to work, he shall not eat” (1 Thessalonians 3:10).
Fairness is important to us, but before we become too proud of our humility, we should listen to another story told by Jesus. This also is from the twentieth chapter of Matthew.
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.
At about nine o’clock he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing.
“You also go into my vineyard,” he said, “and I will pay you whatever is right.”
So they went.
Then at about noon, and again at three in the afternoon he again went and did the same thing.
Even at five o’clock he went out and found still others standing around. “Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?” he asked.
“Because no one has hired us,” they answered.
So he told them, “You also go into my vineyard.”
When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, “Call the workers and pay them their wages, starting with the last ones hired and moving on to the first.”
The workers who were hired about five o’clock came, and each one received a denarius (a full day’s pay).
So when the original workers came, they assumed they would receive more. But each of them also received a denarius.
We are not alone in our thinking. I continue with the story Jesus told:
On receiving their pay, these who worked all day began to grumble against the landowner.
“These men who were hired last worked only one hour,” they said, “and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden and the scorching heat of the day.”
But the landowner answered one of them, “Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Did you not agree with me on one denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give this last man the same as I gave you. Do I not have the right to do as I please with what is mine? Or are you envious because I am generous?”
The answer that the landowner gave may not be satisfying to us because it does not address our sacred belief of fairness. But it is important to see that our own notion of fairness is based only upon what is apparent to us. In the example of this story of Jesus, the people who were hired at five o’clock did not work for only one hour because they had stayed in bed for most of the day. They were in the market, waiting to be picked up for day labor. It was just that they had waited the entire day without being hired.
Like those “greater” workers who had worked all day in the vineyard, neither do we know the entire story of the ones who arrived later. You may have been a Christian for most of your life. Are you greater than someone who has only recently come to know the Lord?
Beware, for as Jesus ended the story, “The last will be first, and the first will be last.”
I think that the Apostle Peter was at first a bit of a “tall poppy.” He could not foresee any possibility that he could waver in his dedication to Jesus. “Even if all fall away on account of You, I never will…Even if I have to die with you, I will never deny you,” he told Jesus on that night in the upper room.
Later that very night, this tall poppy was lopped off. In a span of only an hour or so, Peter denied Jesus not only once, but three times. When he realized what he had done, he ran off and wept bitterly.
It was the beginning of a long lesson of faith for Peter, but it was one that he took well, and with which he continued for the rest of his life. As an older man, this once tall poppy wrote these words:
“Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.’ Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.” (1 Peter 5:5-6 ESV)
Need a Lopping Off?
What is your present lesson of faith? In what area of your life do you need to humble yourself, and submit yourself to the mighty hand of God? Do not worry what others may think of you—or not think of you. They are not your concern.
Concern yourself only with God. Like the landowner in the story that Jesus told, God also wishes to be generous with you. He will exalt you in the proper time.
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