• Apologetics

    This web log is about missions, evangelism and defending the faith. They are, it seems to me three aspects of the same task - to make disciples of all nations. Some divide the theological discipline into Apologetics (defending the faith from unbelievers' attacks) and Polemics (those differences between members of the Body of Christ). I prefer to deal with all differences about the faith (from inside or outside the Church) under that same heading.

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Major and Minor

The modern assumption that biblical doctrine is simple is an attitude towards Scriptural doctrine which can lead us astray. Not every doctrine in Scripture can be reduced to either this” (the assumed truth) or that” (the supposed contrary error). The approach is easy to understand. We want to have firm answers to the questions we are asked. So when, for example, someone asks: “Does the Bible teach free will?” we expect the answer to be “yes” or “no.” Anything else is often treated as suspect. Sometimes the fault lies in the question asked. If we look at the example just mentioned the problem is lack of precision. The question is not clear enough to answer with a “yes” or a “no.” It all depends on what we mean by the expression free will.”

Sometimes the problem is that we are dealing with complex, spiritual, realities. The question is sometimes asked: “Is sin disobeying God?” The concept sin does not refer only to doing things that God forbids. In Proverbs we are told “A proud look and a haughty heart and the lamp (or plowing) of the wicked is sin.” The verse teaches us sin may be seen in the things we do (looking proudly) or way we think (haughtily) or even in the intent which leads us to do what is otherwise a neutral activity. Other passages of Scripture reinforce the idea that “sin” is not just a synonym for “disobedience.” The Shorter Catechism’s: “want of conformity to or direct transgression of the Law of God,” if limited to mere disobedience, does not fully describe the complexity of sin.

Sometimes the problem lies in word usage. Most words have a range of meanings possible according to the context. In John 1: 10,1 for example, the word “world” may be used in at least two different ways. John could be using the word first of all created things and then of mankind. Or he might be speaking of mankind in general and then of the Gentiles (contrasted with the Jews – the “his own” of the next verse). The way the word is used by interpreters of this passage will depend on what they assume is John’s purpose in using just this particular phrasing. It is seldom true that any particular word has only one meaning in the Bible.

By noticing odd things about the way the author makes his point we can be led to find unexpected insights. The leads to the idea behind the title of this article. The major point of a particular passage in Scripture may be made in such a way as we can legitimately draw a minor conclusion from the same passage. Please remember that this does not change the meaning of the passage but it does mean that differences in application do not necessarily mean it has been misinterpreted. It is often in these minor points that we find the explanation of the sermon variety as we listen to different preachers. It is not always that they interpret the same passage so differently but that each places a different emphasis on what may be minor elements in it.

By washing the disciples’ feet, the point Jesus was making was that the greatest among them would be the one who was servant of all.2 He made this point because of a recurring concern the disciples had shown throughout his ministry about which was the “greatest” among them. The point is made absolutely clearly by Peter’s first response. He knew it was not the accepted practice that the leader of the group should be taking on a role usually delegated to a slave. So he is unhappy that his Lord should be the foot washer After that, whenever the disciples were tempted to exalt themselves over one another, both the Lord’s actions and his response to Peter would stand as a reminder of the way it ought to be among fellow believers.3

But, while this is the major point of the passage there is more recorded than just Peter’s first response. When Jesus says to him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me,” Peter replies: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” To which the Lord responds, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” This interaction contributes to the major point by reminding them that they all equally share with Christ because they have all been washed by him. As his fellow-heirs – those he would sent into the world as his witnesses, they are all equal. Since he who made them clean served them all, then, their leaders also should be expected to do the same.

His response, however, to Peter’s request to having his hands and head washed as well his feet provides us with a principle which has a more specific application than merely the way we ought to consider our role as leaders of a congregation. Honor is by service, that is true but it is also true that even those who have been washed by Christ may not be truly of him. It is significant that Matthew Henry does not miss this aspect of the passage in his commentary on the Bible.

“III. Christ washed his disciples’ feet that he might signify to them spiritual washing, and the cleansing of the soul from the pollutions of sin. This is plainly intimated in his discourse with Peter upon it, John 13:6-11, in which we may observe,

“1. The surprise Peter was in when he saw his Master go about this mean service (John 13:6): Then cometh he to Simon Peter, with his towel and basin, and bids him put out his feet to be washed. Chrysostom conjectures that he first washed the feet of Judas, who readily admitted the honour, and was pleased to see his Master so disparage himself. It is most probable that when he went about this service (which is all that is meant by his beginning to wash, John 13:5) he took Peter first, and that the rest would not have suffered it, if they had not first heard it explained in what passed between Christ and Peter. Whether Christ came first to Peter or no, when he did come to him, Peter was startled at the proposal: Lord (saith he) dost thou wash my feet? Here is an emphasis to be laid upon the persons, thou and me; and the placing of the words is observable, su mou – what, thou mine? Tu mihi lavas pedes? Quid est tu? Quid est mihi? Cogitanda sunt potius quam dicenda – Dost thou wash my feet? What is it thou? What to me? These things are rather to be contemplated than uttered. – Aug. in loc. What thou, our Lord and Master, whom we know and believe to be the Son of God, and Saviour and ruler of the world, do this for me, a worthless worm of the earth, a sinful man, O Lord? Shall those hands wash my feet which with a touch have cleansed lepers, given sight to the blind, and raised the dead? So Theophylact, and from him Dr. Taylor. Very willingly would Peter have taken the basin and towel, and washed his Master’s feet, and been proud of the honour, Luke 17:7, Luke 17:8. “This had been natural and regular; for my Master to wash my feet is such a solecism as never was; such a paradox as I cannot understand. Is this the manner of men?” Note, Christ’s condescensions, especially his condescensions to us, wherein we find ourselves taken notice of by his grace, are justly the matter of our admiration, John 14:22. Who am I, Lord God? And what is my father’s house?

“2. The immediate satisfaction Christ gave to this question of surprise. This was at least sufficient to silence his objections (John 13:7): What I do, thou knowest not now, but thou shalt know hereafter. Here are two reasons why Peter must submit to what Christ was doing: –

(1.) Because he was at present in the dark concerning it, and ought not to oppose what he did not understand, but acquiesce in the will and wisdom of one who could give a good reason for all he said and did. Christ would teach Peter an implicit obedience: “What I do thou knowest not now, and therefore art no competent judge of it, but must believe it is well done because I do it.” Note, Consciousness to ourselves of the darkness we labour under, and our inability to judge of what God does, should make us sparing and modest in our censures of his proceedings; see Heb. 11:8.

(2.) Because there was something considerable in it, of which he should hereafter know the meaning: “Thou shalt know hereafter what need thou hast of being washed, when thou shalt be guilty of the heinous sin of denying me;” so some. “Thou shalt know, when, in the discharge of the office of an apostle, thou wilt be employed in washing off from those under thy charge the sins and defilements of their earthly affections;” so Dr. Hammond. Note, [1.] Our Lord Jesus does many things the meaning of which even his own disciples do not for the present know, but they shall know afterwards. What he did when he became man for us and what he did when he became a worm and no man for us, what he did when he lived our life and what he did when he laid it down, could not be understood till afterwards, and then it appeared that it behoved him, Heb. 2:17. Subsequent providences explain preceding ones; and we see afterwards what was the kind tendency of events that seemed most cross; and the way which we thought was about proved the right way. [2.] Christ’s washing his disciples’ feet had a significancy in it, which they themselves did not understand till afterwards, when Christ explained it to be a specimen of the laver of regeneration, and till the Spirit was poured out upon them from on high. We must let Christ take his own way, both in ordinances and providences, and we shall find in the issue it was the best way.

“3. Peter’s peremptory refusal, notwithstanding this, to let Christ wash his feet (John 13:8): Thou shalt by no means wash my feet; no, never. So it is in the original. It is the language of a fixed resolution. Now, (1.) Here was a show of humility and modesty. Peter herein seemed to have, and no doubt he really had, a great respect for his Master, as he had, Luke 5:8. Thus many are beguiled of their reward in a voluntary humility (Col. 2:18, Col. 2:23), such a self-denial as Christ neither appoints nor accepts; for, (2.) Under this show of humility there was a real contradiction to the will of the Lord Jesus: “I will wash thy feet,” saith Christ; “But thou never shalt,” saith Peter, “it is not a fitting thing;” so making himself wiser than Christ. It is not humility, but infidelity, to put away the offers of the gospel, as if too rich to be made to us or too good news to be true.

“4. Christ’s insisting upon his offer, and a good reason given to Peter why he should accept it: If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. This may be taken, (1.) As a severe caution against disobedience: “If I wash thee not, if thou continue refractory, and wilt not comply with thy Master’s will in so small a matter, thou shalt not be owned as one of my disciples, but be justly discarded and cashiered for not observing orders.” Thus several of the ancients understand it; if Peter will make himself wiser than his Master, and dispute the commands he ought to obey, he does in effect renounce his allegiance, and say, as they did, What portion have we in David, in the Son of David? And so shall his doom be, he shall have no part in him. Let him use no more manners than will do him good, for to obey is better than sacrifice, 1Sam. 15:22. Or, (2.) As a declaration of the necessity of spiritual washing; and so I think it is to be understood: “If I wash not thy soul from the pollution of sin, thou hast no part with me, no interest in me, no communion with me, no benefit by me.” Note, All those, and those only, that are spiritually washed by Christ, have a part in Christ. [1.] To have a part in Christ, or with Christ, has all the happiness of a Christian bound up in it, to be partakers of Christ (Heb. 3:14), to share in those inestimable privileges which result from a union with him and relation to him. It is that good part the having of which is the one thing needful. [2.] It is necessary to our having a part in Christ that he wash us. All those whom Christ owns and saves he justifies and sanctifies, and both are included in his washing them. We cannot partake of his glory if we partake not of his merit and righteousness, and of his Spirit and grace.

“5. Peter’s more than submission, his earnest request, to be washed by Christ, John 13:9. If this be the meaning of it, Lord, wash not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. How soon is Peter’s mind changed! When the mistake of his understanding was rectified, the corrupt resolution of his will was soon altered. Let us therefore not be peremptory in any resolve (except in our resolve to follow Christ), because we may soon see cause to retract it, but cautious in taking up a purpose we will be tenacious of. Observe,

(1.) How ready Peter is to recede from what he had said: “Lord, what a fool was I to speak such a hasty word!” Now that the washing of him appeared to be an act of Christ’s authority and grace he admits it; but disliked when it seemed only an act of humiliation. Note, [1.] Good men, when they see their error, will not be loth to recant it. [2.] Sooner or later, Christ will bring all to be of his mind.

(2.) How importunate he is for the purifying grace of the Lord Jesus, and the universal influence of it, even upon his hands and head. Note, A divorce from Christ, and an exclusion from having a part in him, is the most formidable evil in the eyes of all that are enlightened, for the fear of which they will be persuaded to any thing. And for fear of this we should be earnest with God in prayer, that he will wash us, will justify and sanctify us. “Lord, that I may not be cut off from thee, make me fit for thee, by the washing of regeneration. Lord, wash not my feet only from the gross pollutions that cleave to them, but also my hands and my head from the spots which they have contracted, and the undiscerned filth which proceeds by perspiration from the body itself.” Note, Those who truly desire to be sanctified desire to be sanctified throughout, and to have the whole man, with all its parts and powers, purified, I Thess. 5:23.

“6. Christ’s further explication of this sign, as it represented spiritual washing.

(1.) With reference to his disciples that were faithful to him (John 13:10): He that is washed all over in the bath (as was frequently practised in those countries), when he returns to his house, needs naught save to wash his feet, his hands and head having been washed, and he having only dirtied his feet in walking home. Peter had gone from one extreme to the other. At first he would not let Christ wash his feet; and now he overlooks what Christ had done for him in his baptism, and what was signified thereby, and cries out to have his hands and head washed. Now Christ directs him into the meaning; he must have his feet washed, but not his hands and head. [1.] See here what is the comfort and privilege of such as are in a justified state; they are washed by Christ, and are clean every whit, that is, they are graciously accepted of God, as if they were so; and, though they offend, yet they need not, upon their repentance, be again put into a justified state, for then should they often be baptized. The evidence of a justified state may be clouded, and the comfort of it suspended, when yet the charter of it is not vacated or taken away. Though we have occasion to repent daily, God’s gifts and callings are without repentance. The heart may be swept and garnished, and yet still remain the devil’s palace; but, if it be washed, it belongs to Christ, and he will not lose it. [2.] See what ought to be the daily care of those who through grace are in a justified state, and that is to wash their feet; to cleanse themselves from the guilt they contract daily through infirmity and inadvertence, by the renewed exercise of repentance, with a believing application of the virtue of Christ’s blood. We must also wash our feet by constant watchfulness against every thing that is defiling, for we must cleanse our way, and cleanse our feet by taking heed thereto, Ps. 119:9. The priests, when they were consecrated, were washed with water; and, though they did not need afterwards to be so washed all over, yet, whenever they went in to minister, they must wash their feet and hands at the laver, on pain of death, Ex. 30:19, Ex. 30:20. The provision made for our cleansing should not make us presumptuous, but the more cautious. I have washed my feet, how shall I defile them? From yesterday’s pardon, we should fetch an argument against this day’s temptation.

(2.) With reflection upon Judas: “And you are clean, but not all,” John 13:10, John 13:11. He pronounces his disciples clean, clean through the word he had spoken to them, John 15:3. He washed them himself, and then said, “You are clean;” but he excepts Judas: “not all;” they were all baptized, even Judas, yet not all clean; many have the sign that have not the thing signified. Note, [1.] Even among those who are called disciples of Christ, and profess relation to him, there are some who are not clean, Prov. 30:12. [2.] The Lord knows those that are his, and those that are not, II Tim. 2:19. The eye of Christ can separate between the precious and the vile, the clean and the unclean. [3.] When those that have called themselves disciples afterwards prove traitors, their apostasy at last is a certain evidence of their hypocrisy all along. [4.] Christ sees it necessary to let his disciples know that they are not all clean; that we may all be jealous over ourselves (Is it I? Lord, is it I that am among the clean, yet not clean?) and that, when hypocrites are discovered, it may be no surprise nor stumbling to us.”4

1  “He was in the world and the world was made by him and the world knew him not.”

2  “So when he had washed their feet, and taken his garments and reclined at the table again, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you? 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. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.’” (John 13: 12-17).

3  “Then he poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. So he came to Simon Peter. He said to him, ‘Lord, do You wash my feet?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.’ Peter said to him, ‘Never shall You wash my feet!’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.’ Jesus said to him, ‘He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ For he knew the one who was betraying him; for this reason he said, ‘Not all of you are clean’” (John 13:5-11).

4  Matthew Henry, Commentary on the Whole Bible, loc. cit.


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