Holy of Holies
“Unless I was you, you have no part with me.”
“Do you understand what I have done for you?”
Everything depends on the “I” when Jesus says, “Unless I wash you. . .” This simple assertion depends on nothing less than the highest understanding of Christ. The deep truth of the atonement depends on Jesus being fully God and fully human. This singular magisterial “I” corresponds to the seven “I am” sayings in John. Jesus transposed the action of foot-washing into a parable of the atonement centered on himself. He is the one upon whom this parable of sacrificial love turns. The soul-cleansing power of the atonement is symbolized in foot-washing. Jesus washed his disciples’ feet with water, but in a matter of hours he would shed his blood on the cross for the remission of our sins. The author of Hebrews expressed it this way:
“Since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain of his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.” Hebrews 10:19-22
On the night that Jesus washed feet and broke bread in the upper room, he transformed the upper room into the Holy of Holies. He gave the disciples a sign of his redemptive cleansing and a promise of his partnership with him in and through his death and resurrection. Outward foot-washing pointed to inward soul-cleansing by his blood. He miraculously turned water to wine at the wedding feast and he sacrificially turned water into blood at the cross. John expressed it graphically in his short letter when he wrote, “the blood of Jesus cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). In the Book of Revelation, he pictured the great company of worshipers in heaven, who “have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb” (Revelation 7:14).
Dr. Paul Brand along with author Philip Yancey teamed up to write an extraordinary article entitled, Blood: The Miracle of Cleansing. They showed how the physiological function of blood corresponds perfectly to the theological meaning of blood in the New Testament. What blood does in our physical bodies is analogous to what the blood of Jesus does in the body of Christ. Blood literally cleanses the body of toxins and waste and serves as a metaphor for the cleansing promised in the new covenant. When Jesus instituted the Last Supper, he said, “This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). William Cowper’s hymn makes for both good theology and good biology:
There is a fountain filled with blood drawn from Emmanuel’s veins;
And sinners, plunged beneath that flood, lose all their guilty stains. . .
Jesus’ response to Peter’s ill-conceived “no” was decisive. Jesus said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” In a second Peter flipped his position. He went from foot-dragging resistance to cheer-leading enthusiasm: “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” To paraphrase Peter, “You’ve sold me, Jesus, I’m in it all the way!” But Peter’s enthusiasm was not all that helpful. His response compounds his failure to understand what Jesus is saying and what the Master is about to accomplish on the cross. One suspects that Peter was motivated out of personal loyalty rather than his need for soul-cleansing. He is the picture of a well-intentioned but clueless believer who fails to comprehend the truth. Peter substitutes an enthusiastic and shallow interpretation of what it means to follow Jesus. His emotional and relational experience is not grounded in understanding but in the feeling of the moment. He had an existential reason, but he still had not grasped the redemptive power of Jesus’ shed blood.
Regardless of the situation Peter seems intent on drawing attention to himself. Of all the disciples, he presents himself as the most loyal and the most enthusiastic. Yet for all of his bravado he pays little attention to Jesus. He is caught up in his own reality distortion field. First, he resists the Lord’s overture to wash his feet. Then, he is obnoxious about being the most enthusiastic: “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Peter’s instinctive reactions, like my own, tend to be wrong.
Precisely at this point his spirituality is typical of many well-meaning believers who insist on being in the emotional spot-light. “Spiritual theology,” writes Eugene Peterson, “ is the discipline and art of training us into a full and mature participation in Jesus’ story while at the same time preventing us from taking over the story.” Peter wants to take over the story, but the story is not about him. Nevertheless, Jesus deals with Peter and the rest of us in love and patience.
Upper Room Reflection
How does Jesus’ foot-washing object lesson transform the upper room into the Holy of Holies?
What makes physical blood work as a redemptive analogy?
Why is Peter’s reaction a warning to us all?
How have you been tempted to make the Christian life all about you?