John 13:1—17

John’s Gospel divides up in a very interesting way.  In the first 12 chapters, it is clear that that the subject is light.  Jesus is the Light of the world, for example; His ministry is out in the open and He is seen teaching great numbers of crowds.  Here, beginning with chapter 13, we might say the main subject is love.  Jesus loves His own, and much of His teaching is done in private, with His disciples.  The last handful of chapters, 18—21, the subject switches to life.  Jesus came to bring us life.  Jesus is life.  Our life comes through His death.

As we study the life and teachings of Jesus as revealed in all four Gospels, we see that Jesus really only gave four major discourses.

  • The Sermon on the Mount (how to live in the Kingdom);
  • The Mystery Parables (explaining the Kingdom of Heaven) (Matthew 13);
  • The Olivet Discourse (explaining the end times) (Matthew 24, 25)
  • The Upper Room Discourse (private and personal teachings to His disciples) (John 13—17)

The Upper Room Discourse is the longest teaching our Lord gave, and it is arguably His greatest.  Of all His teachings, this one probably has the most relevance to Christians because Jesus gave it only to His closest friends—His disciples.  By the time of the Passover Feast, He had been pretty much rejected by those who used to follow Him; He had become an enemy of the state and it was now risky being associated with Him.  Jesus is on His way to the Cross, and He knows it; He knows His time is short and He chooses to spend His last hours away from the crowds, with His close friends.

1.  Theological setting, verses 1—3

This private meal took place before the Passover feast, but John gives us no more details.  There is no suggestion that this meal is the Last Supper as found in the Synoptics (Matthew 26:17—20; Mark 14:12—16; Luke 22:7—12), although most Bible scholars believe it was.  What John records about this meal is a kind of review and summary of some basic theology of Jesus’.

  • Jesus knew His hour had come;
  • Jesus was in total control of the events about to occur;
  • Jesus loves His own and that love had brought Him to this hour;
  • Jesus was keenly aware of the relationship He had with His Father.

The theological setting also mentions Judas—

the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. (verse 2)

Up till now, it was “the Jews” who had been in opposition to Jesus and who wanted Him dead.  But now, we learn two things:  the real power behind the Jew’s hatred of Jesus was Satan; and one of Jesus’ inner circle had been compromised and had become an enemy.

2.  Jesus’ self humiliation, verses 4—20

Jesus washing His disciple's feet

After making sure the reader knew that Jesus knew He was no innocent victim of anybody’s schemes, John describes what we call Jesus’ self-humiliation:  He washed His friend’s feet.  Why did He do that?   Why didn’t one of the disciples do it?  It was a menial task and not an unusual one.  It was very common at meals for feet to be washed as the guests entered the  house.  It has been suggested that there had been some “place seeking” going on among the 12 (Luke 22:24) and that’s why the job went undone.

However, Jesus was the only One who could perform this ordinary task in order to demonstrate the extra-ordinary symbolism:  Jesus was the only One clean enough in the theological and moral sense to cleanse others.  He came, as He was demonstrating for His disciples this night in a practical way, to make people clean and holy.  He was not teaching His disciples how to wash feet; He was not teaching them to wash each other’s feet; He was teaching them what HE was doing for them in a simple way they could relate to.  Some churches have made the “foot washing” ceremony a third ordinance, usually celebrating it during the Communion service.  The rationale of these churches is that Jesus wants His followers to demonstrate their humility as He demonstrated His.  However reasonable this rationale may see to some, it ignores the real reason why Jesus washed His disciples’ feet (and therefore robs the passage of its power):  He was not concerned about their humility per se, He was teaching them about HIS humility.  The whole event was choreographed to point them to the Cross, the ultimate expression of humiliation.

However, Peter wasn’t getting it at all—

Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”  (verse 7)

Peter completely missed Jesus’ point.  The other disciples were probably as bewildered as Peter was, but they kept their thoughts to themselves.  As he had always been in the past, Peter was once again the “mouthpiece” for the whole group.

Our Lord was washing feet as just one part of all the events of this night and the hours that would follow it.   The time of the Son of God’s humiliation had arrived, and that humiliation started with His washing feet; it would end with His death on the Cross.   The spiritual significance of what Jesus was doing was so deep; it could only be comprehended after the outpouring of the Holy Spirit.

Verse 8 is important for believers to understand—

“Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

What did Jesus mean by that?  Was He referring to His foot washing?  Simply put, only by an action of Jesus Christ can anybody—disciples and modern believers alike—be cleansed of their sins making fellowship with God possible.

This is the Passover Feast, which speaks of Christ’s death.  Jesus arose from the Feast, which speaks of His resurrection and Ascension into heaven.  After He got up, He tucked His robe into His belt and grabbed a towel, speaking of His continued work on the believer’s half.  To this day, He is still cleansing sins and making the sinner fit for fellowship!

How are believers cleansed and continually cleansed today?  Consider the following Scriptures—

  • Psalm 119:9—How can a young man keep his way pure?   By living according to your word.
  • John 15:3—You are already clean because of the word I have spoken to you.
  • Ephesians 5:25—26—Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word.
  • 1 John 1:9—If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness.

Verse 10 is difficult to understand—

Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.”

There are two different Greek words being used in this verse.  The first one, louo, has been correctly translated “bathed” by the NIV.  The second word is nipto, translated as “wash.”  What Jesus is telling His friends is this:  At the Cross, all who believe in Him are “bathed” all over.  In other words, all their sins are cleaned away (louo).  But walking through life, one can get dirty (falling into temptation, for example), like one’s feet get dirty walking on dirt roads.  So, even though you take a bath in the morning, you will probably have to wash your feet at supper time (nipto), as He was doing now, for His disciples.   This truth, which makes so much sense to us after the fact of the Cross, was rightfully indiscernible to the disciples before the Cross.  After the Cross, and especially after the infilling of the Holy Spirit, all that Jesus taught this night was revealed to them.

Finally, Jesus gives His disciples the application of the truth of His foot washing—

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.  (verses 14, 15)

Jesus had made a general application when He and Peter were talking; all this foot washing was a symbolic shadowing of the work of the Spirit, which would be made possible with His outpouring.   But now, He gives a more specific application with verses 14 and 15.

The disciples looked at Jesus as their “Teacher and Lord,” but from now on, Jesus would be their “Lord and Teacher.”  Notice that Jesus reverses the order so that He can make an argument from the greater to the lesser.  The main thrust of His argument is this:  “ If I, even I who is your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then surely you also should continually (present tense) wash each other’s feet.”  What is Jesus doing here if not instituting a third ordinance?  Has He not just told His disciples that they ought to wash each other’s feet from now on?  No, not at all, and here is why.

First, note the use of the present tense of the word “wash” when Jesus said, “you should wash one another’s feet.”  The present tense means “all the time” or “constantly.”  If you believe Jesus wants you to wash your brother’s feet, then you should be doing it every time you see him, not just once a month at the Communion Service!

Secondly, if the Son of God could take a towel and wash the dirty feet of people far lower in stature than He is, then it should be easy for the disciples to offer loving service of any kind to each other in the spirit of true humility.  The “loving service” should not be limited to foot washing!

Jesus is not giving a new commandment here to do exactly what He has done.  What He did was for illustrative purposes only; He had given them an example in order that they, on their own, may do what He had done.  That is why He added, “I have set you an example.”   Jesus has shown them what real humility looks like, and humility is essential if one is to be His friend.

In fact, the only other allusion to foot washing in the New Testament is 1 Timothy 5:10, where it is not seen as a church custom or ordinance, but seems to allude to an act of charity.  No, what Jesus is pointing to here is not an outward action, but an inner attitude that reflects His.  It was many years later that the apostle Paul gave an excellent teaching and provides an excellent application on precisely what Jesus meant.

Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:  Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.  And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!  (Philippians 2:5—8) –> the meaning behind the foot washing

Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted.  (Galatians 6:1) –> an application of the deeper spiritual truth behind foot washing

If Jesus could go to the Cross for the purpose of restoring a sinner to a right relationship with God, then we (the disciples specifically, us in application) ought to be willing to do the same.  It is an act of humility for those who are right with God to work with one who is not in an effort to restore them, thus being in obedient to Him as He was obedient to His Father.

So far this evening, everything that happened and every word Jesus spoke, was intended to teach His disciples the essence of what He was doing.  He was being obedient to His Father.  His obedience would result in His humiliation and eventually His death, suggesting that our obedience, as His,  would not always be easy or fun.  This is something we, as Jesus’ followers, need to be reminded of time and again.  Obedience should be a way of life for all of us, whether we enjoy it, look forward to it or not, or understand it fully.  We may find it hard or humiliating doing what God wants us to do, but if we would be Christ’s followers, we will be obedient even as He was.

(c)  2010 WitzEnd

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