John Alfred Trench.
Article 2 of 19 from 'Truth for Believers' Volume 1.
(New and Enlarged Edition 1906.)
It is helpful to the true understanding of the blessed instruction of the Lord Jesus before us to note the place it holds in this gospel. We can all see that it is very marked. John 10 gives us the result of the testimony of the words and works of Jesus in the nation. Responsible long since to receive Him as the Christ, they only waited for the full revelation of the glory of His person, as one with the Father (ver. 30), to take up stones to stone Him. How infinite the grace that had brought the Son of God within their reach! This was their estimate of it! "Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?" John 11 and John 12 bring out for us His glories as Son of God (ver. 4), King of Israel (John 12:13), and the Son of man (Ver. 23, 24). Blessed answer of God to the stone-throwing of the rabble on earth! But the nation's rejection of Him is the nation's judgment. He had been presented to them in the grace of Isaiah 53, and they had seen no beauty in Him that they should desire Him; and now God has judicially closed those blind eyes that they could not see, according to Isaiah 6. Judgment having been thus pronounced upon the rejecters of His testimony, Jesus turns His back upon a cold, heartless world to shut Himself in with the little company of His own whom He has been given out of it.
From John 13 on to the end of chapter 17 we find Him alone with His disciples, free to make known to them the full depth of the place they had in His love, now that He was about to leave them and go back to the Father, and how that love would be in exercise for them. This is what makes these chapters so peculiarly precious to us, beloved; for we have all our part in what is unfolded in them as surely as we are His.
Mark the opening words of the Holy Ghost, for they are the key to all that follows. They give us the new position of things on which depends the action of Jesus in this chapter for its full significance. "Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father" — such is the place He now takes anticipatively — "having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end." He is gone to the Father; we are left in the world without Him! How dreadful to have to return to the scene out of which He has been rejected; to pursue our path through it alone? — to be forgotten? Oh, no! But to be to Him what our hearts could never have conceived. Listen! He calls us "His own!" Far more than if He had said, "His own friends," or even "His brethren!" "His own" speaks volumes to us.
The human heart has a peculiar joy in having something it can call its own. It is not so much the value of what is possessed, as the simple consciousness that it is mine. Now it is just thus that Jesus speaks of us. He tells me that I am His, and that He delights in its being so. He would not occupy us with ourselves, nor with our poor, feeble estimate of Him. He would have us lose ourselves at last, and lose ourselves in His thoughts about us.
Are you prepared for this, beloved — prepared for divine love, speaking and acting from its spring which is wholly in itself, without a question of what you are being raised from first to last? Oh, this is rest! He knew you, and yet He loved you. He died, not merely in pity and compassion that would save you from hell, but in love that had set itself on you as its object, and now He calls you "His own," as well He may. We are His by more than all that by which one ever belonged to another, and it is ours simply to own it. Do you stand overwhelmed in presence of such love? It is well; you will never look again to find the reason of it in yourself; but be content that the only reason for it should be found deep in that love itself.
But listen — "He loved them unto the end." Do you ask to the end of what? To the end of our path in the world, till we shall need the assurance of it no more. But what an assurance for our heart! He knows my path through to the end. He knows the failure that marks every step of it, the oftentimes coldness and faithlessness and treachery of my heart, and yet He loves me to the end! Was ever love tried like His? And oh, how it stands the heaviest strain put upon it! What a strain that was, that was to be put upon it that very night, known before to Him too (ver. 38), and yet Peter was by, to hear the blessed words and know his part in a love that could never change. Now it is because we have so deep a place in His love that He delights to have us near to Himself in the enjoyment of it. True, it is our joy to be there; but that is nothing to His joy in having us there. He died that we might know and take our place there, and now He lives to secure and maintain us in unhindered enjoyment of it. He will not easily give up what He has acquired for Himself at so infinite a cost. "His own" is still the spring of the service He enters upon in this chapter — the object of it, to secure our hearts for Himself while He is away. The love of Christ delights to be in exercise about its objects; but He has an interest in it as well as we.
Verse 2 stands in terrible contrast with all that we have been considering. But the heartless treachery of one that has been the companion of Jesus, but who never believed on Him (John 6:64), will not deter the grace of Jesus from the service that alone could meet the need of those whom He is about to leave in the world.
Verse 3. "Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God." The time has not come yet for His taking possession of the "all things" that have been given into His hands; but He rises to secure that which is more precious to Him than all beside — uninterrupted and unrivalled possession of our hearts, against all that would dispute it with Him.
Verse 4. "He rises from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded." The action of the Lord here is eminently symbolic, beloved brethren. To gather merely from it the lesson of humility is, I do not hesitate to say, to miss the point of the instruction. We see that it must have a deeper character by reading from verse 7 to verse 10. It is essential to having part with Christ. It is, in fact, the Lord's present service in the Father's presence for His people in this world.
Water is the well-known symbol of the Word of God applied by the Spirit. Here we find a double application of it, the force of which is much obscured in our translation, but which you will understand better if you read, observing a distinction of the Spirit of God, "He that is bathed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit." What, then, is the first application of the water of the Word that needs never to be repeated? It is that spoken of in John 3:5, "Except a man be born of water and of the Spirit, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God." It is the word of God brought home by the Spirit to the conscience in that moment when first we rested on a word from God for our salvation. Thus were we "born of God," "begotten of the incorruptible seed of the word," and made "partakers of the divine nature." All previous remedial measures have but revealed more fully the extent of man's ruin. But now, what man could never do — that is, cleanse himself — God has done by His Word received into the soul. We are clean in His sight — aye, clean every whit. Sins, and the nature of sin within us, have received their doom in the death of Him in whom we have believed, and we have received His life beyond the reach of judgment and death. Meanwhile we are found in a sin-polluted world. One only ever passed through it without contamination.
Temptation abounds on every side and finds too ready an answer in the flesh within us. Just as the feet contract uncleanness in a dirty path, so are our consciences liable to contract defilement at every moment as we pass through the world. Sin never again can come upon us for judgment and wrath; but it can and must necessarily, if allowed, cloud enjoyment of the love of Jesus, break up communion and put us in a place of practical distance from Him. This is what He cannot bear. We must remember that there is nothing that the eye can rest on or the imagination be occupied with in the things of nature that has not this tendency. For all that is in the world is not of the Father, — and all that is of the flesh — of the nature and life of the first Adam — is that that God has had to exterminate in judgment for the believer in the cross of Christ.
How great and real, then, is our need, beloved, and how sweetly the love of Jesus engages Him for us in the very service suited to it! For this is what is symbolised in the washing of the feet. It is the second application of the Word given us in verse 10. We find it again in Ephesians 5:26, "Christ loved the church, and gave himself for it, that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot or wrinkle, or any such thing." If, then, we are to have part with Jesus, He must apply the water of the Word to detach us from all that would hinder communion with Himself. Note well, that it is not something He leaves us to do, or it would never be done. It is, "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me."
I think we do not well to confine the service of the Lord as symbolised here to the restoration of communion when it has been broken. Assuredly there is this; but there is more besides — even all that is needed to maintain us in even, uninterrupted enjoyment of His presence. For the Word of God, as applied to us by the Lord, judges all that is incompatible with this, and thus marks off for us a clean path, separated from the defilement round us, where the Lord Himself can be with us. This is His object in the ministry of the Word, beloved. And do we not bless Him for it? What more is wanted for the fulness of joy?
But then, are we prepared to submit ourselves to the Lord Jesus that He may wash our feet? Ah, this is a question for our consciences! The Word being the Revelation of Christ to us must unsparingly judge all that is unlike Himself. Christ is the only measure of its judgment. O beloved, is there a single thing you would like it to spare? Search out and see if you are yielding yourselves honestly to the Word's searching action upon heart and conscience. Think of the terrible cost at which you reserve aught that it would judge — even of forfeiting fellowship with Him! And what have you gained with the loss of this? Where can the heart find aught to satisfy it away from Him? True, He will never rest for the love He bears you till He has led you back to His side; but oh, how grievous and terrible a thing is the defilement of sin! None but the Son of God could undo its effect, and it needs that He should stoop to wash your feet. "If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me." But the action of the Word of God is not simply negative in judging and leading us to judge the evil. Nay, it is this, just because it is the full, positive revelation of Christ Himself to us. Thus, by all He teaches us — slowly, it may be, because of our sluggish hearts, but surely — He is leading us with wondrous patience and grace into a deeper knowledge of Himself. And there is an irresistible power in the knowledge of Christ to attach to Himself and so to detach us from all that is not Christ. Is it that He would tear you away from all your little interests and leave you but an empty void? No, no; far from it. He knows that nothing can fill your heart but Himself; therefore He brings you to judge with Him all that would create or maintain a cloud between you and Him: and He does it in His own sweet way. He does it by the revelation of what He is in Himself to us until our hearts become taken up with Him as their object. Then easily, and without room for regret, we drop what only enfeebled for us the power of heaven's richest joy. For if the effect of every truth when duly received is separation from the things of the flesh and the world, it is only separating to still closer fellowship with the Lord Jesus: and this is at once precious to Him and necessary to us now that we have tasted of its joy.
Alas! I fear that too often, like Peter, we resist the wholesome water of the Word; and more culpably than he. He might have pleaded ignorance of the intention of Christ; but not so we. We know now that He would only form us by it for deeper intimacy with Himself for we are His own; but we love too well something that He must detach us from. And yet it is Jesus stoops to wash you! My brother, my sister, can you say to Him, "Thou shalt never wash my feet"? But we virtually say this if we are afraid of the truth, and seek to turn away its edge from us and our ways. Thus it is that the clouds come — we refuse the word of the Son of God, and the conscience becomes defiled by what it would have purged us from.
Peter refused it, for he had yet to learn his need of the Lord's loving service. Confidence in the flesh was the root of it in him, as in many another of us since. How soon and terribly he made experience of it — but, may we not also say, of the Lord's restoring grace? He who had said, "I will lay down my life for thy sake," that very night, with cursings and oaths, denied that he ever knew Him. "And the Lord turned and looked upon Peter." What a look that was for Peter! No wonder it broke his heart, for it told him that Jesus loved him still: he might change to Jesus, but Jesus never to him. I have little doubt that look was enough to assure Peter that he was forgiven; but this was not enough for the Lord. There was yet sad effects of his fall remaining. The communion of Peter with the Lord had been broken. A heavy cloud still hung over him. What a witness of this was — "I go a fishing." (John 21:3) He had once counted all this loss for Christ, but that was when his heart was filled with Christ. Ah, he had denied Him now, and the poor heart of Peter sought in vain to fill up the void that was there by resuming his old occupations; but I am sure it was listless, wretched work. Which of us have not known something of such terrible experience?
And all this shows us that forgiveness is one thing, communion with Christ, as the object that fills our hearts, quite another. Beloved, have you learned to apprehend the solemn difference? Many of us have got all we could from Christ, and gone away to walk at an even distance from Him in the world and its interests; others of us have tasted of the joy of walking with Him, and if the cloud has intervened — never, never can rest be found until it is broken up. And Jesus never can rest until it is broken up. Mark His ways of love with Peter. "What I do thou knowest not now" Jesus had said (John 13:7), "but thou shalt know hereafter." And the time had come when Peter should know, in the reality of its blessing, the action of the washing of the Word, and welcome the love of Jesus that stooped to do it. For, get on and prosper as Peter might at his fishing, the Lord Jesus could not bear the distance that had come between them. But restoration is no light work. The conscience must be probed, and the root of failure laid bare. "Lovest thou me more than do these" will do its own work. It will bring to mind the boast, "Though all shall be offended because of thee, yet will I never be offended;" and then, that his was the deepest fall of all. Sad, painful experience, but needed, that he should know himself. Painful work, too, to have it opened up again in presence of the Lord and of all, but to result in the full judgment of the evil that had been at work, that not a cloud might remain upon his joy. "Simon, son of Jonas, lovest thou me?" three times repeated as he had three times denied the Lord, draws out his heart to confide in Him as he could not in another on earth — John only knew that he had sworn that he never knew Him — "Thou knowest all things, thou knowest that I love thee." The Lord Jesus answers by confiding to him His most precious interests on earth, "Feed my sheep."
What perfect grace, beloved, are these ways of our Lord, as each of us have proved them for ourselves! The heart has been heavy because of distance from Christ. Some little word from the Lord has been borne to the mind. It just meets the need. You say how strange that the word so suited at the moment should have come to mind! Ah, beloved, it was the Lord Jesus that stooped thus to wash your feet, and you discerned not that it was He! But how terrible the character of failure and backsliding and sin when judged in the light of such grace! The Lord grant deep subjection of heart to His word, that we may be kept from so sorely trying His love! But the cloud is dispelled — Peter's heart has been restored to its rest in fellowship with Christ, and the Lord can give him in the power of this the path he had sought to take in the energy of the flesh, and in which he had so utterly broken down. It was His own pathway of death, which is all that He can give any of us here. (Compare verses 36, 37, with John 12:24-26 and John 21:18-19)
Yes, beloved, the path of the Lord Jesus in this world can only be taken in the power of communion with Him. Therefore it is, as it seems to me, that the Lord's precious provision for the maintenance of this while He is away precedes all the other instruction of His farewell words to us. John's place on the bosom of Jesus (ver. 23) is the place He would maintain us in the enjoyment of (with a somewhat deeper experience of the love of it), by the service of the first part of the chapter. But you may say, "Surely that place alone belonged to John, as par excellence the disciple whom Jesus loved." You wrong Christ's love by such thoughts as these, beloved. Partiality is a defect of human love. There is none in divine love. It has the one measure of love for each of us, and for all. "As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you." There is no room for degrees here, for the love for each is infinite and cannot be exceeded. Truly it passeth knowledge. Besides, if He loves one more than another, it is to say that He has found something in that one to love. Whereas there was nothing in any of us to draw forth His love. Human love is called forth by something worthy of love in its object; but this is the bright distinguishing characteristic of divine love, that its objects are alike unworthy. The source of Jesus' love is in itself — deep, deep in the secrets of His own heart. It would be terrible indeed if, after all, you would insist on the place of distance. Will you not accredit His love by taking the near place He gives you? It is all He has left you to do! Love is gratified by having its object near to itself. It delights in the confidence it has begotten, that will quietly take the place of nearness — nor fear that it should be counted intrusion. This is the response His love looks for from us. John knew it, and leaned upon His bosom, and writes himself down "the disciple whom Jesus loved!" It is but the style and signature of faith, that makes nothing of self, but everything of the love of Christ, excluding all human merit and worthiness. Peter is in comparative distance, just because so much of self still adhered to him.
Communion is, moreover, the spring of all intelligence of the mind of the Lord, now revealed to us in His Word. Peter has to inquire of it through John. John "leaned" upon His bosom before; he has only to "lie" the closer now. (Ver. 25) Perhaps some may object that none can be so near to Jesus now that He has gone to the Father as they could who were with Him on earth. Not so, beloved; the Holy Ghost has been given us since then according to the promise of Jesus (John 14:16, 20), that we may be brought into a far higher order of intimacy with Him than could have been theirs: and it is just the object of the service of the Lord Jesus in this chapter that we have been considering to maintain us in this — that not a cloud of moral distance might come in between us.
I can only note further, that the Lord Jesus commits to us a very sweet participation in this His service for us. (Vers. 14, 15) "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." Again He gives His new commandment in verse 34: "As I have loved you, that ye also love one another." If His love is the only measure of the love we are to bear to one another, He also sets us an example of the manner in which it will be in exercise. And this is solemnly important in these last days, beloved. Which of us has not witnessed with joy a drawing together of the hearts of the children of God in our common faith and blessing, such as has not been, so generally, perhaps, since Satan first sowed seeds of division in the assembly of God on earth? Old barriers of creed and ancestral religion have not been able to stand against the desire that the people of God should be together. The danger is lest Satan should prevail to mar this precious fruit of God's working among us, by intermingling the common social principle of nature, with the love to which Christ commands His people. True love has Christ for its first object, and takes in all that are His, to love, as He loved us; and it will be above all essential to it to seek to secure the joy of Christ in His people. Thus, if you truly love me, my brother, and discover in my ways or associations aught that would tend to keep me at a distance from Christ, being contrary to truth and holiness, you will never rest until you have stooped to wash me, by the ministry of some word of Christ, from the moral stain. You will have learned in sweet experience of the ways of Christ, the grace so needed for this expression of your love; and you will not be deterred by the pride that may spurn your interference, till you have led me into my place of privilege and joy. That which would consent to our each doing our own will, irrespective of Christ's, under the plea of love, has lost every characteristic of christian love.
The Lord give us, beloved, to rise more into His thoughts and desires about us. Oh, to enter into the depths of that term His love has fixed upon us, "His own!" What a rebuke to every thought that is not according to His mind! What a corrective of every tendency of things, within and around, to draw us from Him! Nowhere can rest or joy for us be found now, save in the unclouded enjoyment of nearness to and intimacy with Christ.