Washing the Disciples’ Feet, 1-17

Sinclair Ferguson (Love Came Down at Christmas, p118f) notes that John’s Gospel is in two sections: chapter 1-12 and 13-21.  Each has a sort of prologue.  The first (see esp. Jn 1:1,14) is in lofty theological terms; the second in down-to-earth, human terms (esp. Jn 13:3-5).  But both convey the message of Christ’s love and grace.  In this second prologue,

‘Jesus was enacting the story of his incarnation – his coming from his place of honour at the table of heaven to kneel in a world of dirty feet for his disciples.  He was stooping down for them.  Faced with their sin, and with his impending sacrifice for it on the cross, his love lasted “to the end” (v1).  He was ready to do whatever it took, whatever it cost.  The footwashing was a dramatic picture of how much he loved his disciples.  His love never fails.  It never falls.  It never ends.  It lasts.’ [Cf. 1 Cor 13:8]
13:1 Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now loved them to the very end.

Just before the Passover Feast – Lit. ‘before’ (i.e. not indicating how long before.  An hour? A week?).

Father – This word is used over 50 times in Jn 13-17.

13:2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus.

The evening meal was in progress – The bulk of chs. 13-17 suggests that this was the last night of Jesus’ life.  However, the meal is not here defined as the main Passover meal; nor are the words of institution recorded.  A number of scholars think that John has reshaped his material so that he can make the crucifixion occur at the precise time that the Passover lambs were slaughtered for the celebratory meal in the evening.

But ‘the presence of Judas, Jesus’ prediction of his betrayal, Judas’ departure from the table (implicit in the Synoptics, explicit in John), the affirmation by Peter of unswerving loyalty to Jesus, and Jesus’ prediction of his denial – all of these circumstances together form solid lines of connection between the meal in John 13 and the Synoptic account of the holy supper’ (Cullen Story, cited by Blomberg).

The solution proposed by Humphreys (The Mystery of the Last Supper) is that John and the Synoptics are describing the same meal.  This is regarded in the first three Gospels as a Passover meal, but celebrated according to the pre-exilic calendar.  John does not name it as such, because he wishes to show that Jesus was crucified at the same time that the Pascal lambs were killed.

13:3 Because Jesus knew that the Father had handed all things over to him, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 13:4 he got up from the meal, removed his outer clothes, took a towel and tied it around himself. 13:5 He poured water into the washbasin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel he had wrapped around himself.

Because Jesus knew… – This knowledge is presented as the reason for Jesus’ servant-like behaviour.  However, a further reason could be given; and because this is to be found in Luke’s Gospel it amounts to an undesigned coincidence between the two Gospels:

Lk 22:24-27 ‘A dispute also started among them over which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.So Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’  Not so with you; instead the one who is greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is seated at the table, or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is seated at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.”‘

This dispute arose on that same night – the night of the Last Supper.  See McGrew, Hidden in Plain View.

In a rare insight into the psychology of Jesus, this verse tells us that he knew three things:-

  1. His authority – ‘that the Father had put all things under his power’.
  2. His identity – ‘that he had come from God’.
  3. His destiny – ‘that he was returning to God’.

‘I venture to say that we never understand Jesus Christ and His work until we recognize this as its prominent purpose, to cleanse us from sin.  An inadequate conception of what we need – shallow, superficial views of the gravity and universality, and obstinacy of, the fact of sin – is an impenetrable veil between us and all real understanding of Jesus Christ.  There is no adequate motive for such an astounding fact as the incarnation and sacrifice of the Son of God except the purpose of redeeming the world.  If you do not believe that you – you, individually, and all of us, your brethren – need to be cleansed, you will find it hard to believe in the divinity and atonement of Jesus Christ.  If you have been down into the depths of your own heart and found out what tremendous, diabolic power your own evil nature and sin have upon you, then you will not be content with anything less than the incarnate God, who stoops from heaven to bear the burden of your sin and to take it all away.  If you want to understand why He laid aside His garments and took the servile form of our manhood, the appeal of man’s sin to His love and the answer of His divine condescension are the only explanation.’ (Alexander Maclaren)

13:6 Then he came to Simon Peter. Peter said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 13:7 Jesus replied, “You do not understand what I am doing now, but you will understand after these things.” 13:8 Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!” Jesus replied, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 13:9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” 13:10 Jesus replied, “The one who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean. And you disciples are clean, but not every one of you.” 13:11 (For Jesus knew the one who was going to betray him. For this reason he said, “Not every one of you is clean.”)

“You will understand after these things” – In 1 Pet 5:5b-6 Peter gives good evidence that later he did understand.

“You have no share with me” – ‘You are not in fellowship with me’ (NEB).

13:12 So when Jesus had washed their feet and put his outer clothing back on, he took his place at the table again and said to them, “Do you understand what I have done for you? 13:13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am. 13:14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you too ought to wash one another’s feet. 13:15 For I have given you an example—you should do just as I have done for you. 13:16 I tell you the solemn truth, the slave is not greater than his master, nor is the one who is sent as a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 13:17 If you understand these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

Jesus…washed their feet – ‘The God who washes feet! It is the greatest vision of God ever given to mankind. The God who became flesh, who dwelt among us, who made Himself nothing, who washes feet. Think the way Christ thought! If He had thought differently there would have been no incarnation, no cross, and no salvation.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

Handling this text today

John Stott discusses this passage under the heading of ‘cultural transposition’:

‘In Jesus day, foot-washing was a common cultural practice.  If we had been invited to a meal in a friend’s house, we would have walked there barefoot or in sandals through dusty streets, and on arrival a slave would have washed our feet.  Today, however, at least in the West, the whole culture has changed.  We visit a friend by car or public transport.  On arrival, there is certainly no slave to meet us and wash our feet.  Instead, our host or hostess will probably ask us, “Do you want to wash your hands?”‘

Stott suggests that we have three options for handling this text today:-

  1. We could ignore it, on the basis that foot-washing has no place in our culture.
  2. We could follow it literally (as the Mennonites do, and some African and Asian churches have ritual foot-washing as part of their communion service).
  3. We could seek to culturally transpose it, by asking, ‘What was Jesus getting at, what was the essence of his instruction?’  The answer, says Stott, is not difficult: ‘He was teaching that if we love one another, we must serve one another, and no service will be too dirty, menial or demeaning for us to perform.’ (The Contemporary Christian, p200f)

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and do so correctly, for that is what I am”

In the school of Christ

‘Every Christian is a pupil in the school of Jesus Christ.  We sit at the feet of our Master.  We want to bring our minds and our wills, our beliefs and our standards, under his yoke.  In the Upper Room he said to the apostles: “You call me ‘Teacher” and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  That is, “Teachers” and “Lord” were no mere courtesy titles; they bore witness to a reality.  Jesus Christ is our Teacher to instruct us and our Lord to command us.  All Christian people are under the instruction and the discipline of Jesus Christ.  It should be inconceivable for a Christian ever to disagree with, or to disobey him.  Whenever we do, the credibility of our claim to be converted Christians is in doubt.  For we are not truly converted if we are not intellectually and morally converted, and we are not intellectually and morally converted if we have not subjected our minds and our wills to the yoke of Christ.’

(Sott, Authentic Christianity, p39)

Teacher and Lord

‘The Christian is under both instruction and authority.  He looks to Jesus as his Teacher to instruct him, and as his Lord to command him.  He believes what he believes because Jesus taught it, and he does what he does because Jesus told him to do it.   He is our Teacher to instruct us, and we learn to submit and to subordinate our minds to his mind.  We do not presume to have views or ideas or opinions which are in contradiction to the views and ideas of Jesus Christ.  Our view of Scripture is derived from Christ’s view of Scripture, just as our view of discipleship, of heaven and hell, of the Christian life, and of everything else, is derived from Jesus Christ.  Any question about the inspiration of Scripture and its authority therefore resolves itself to: ‘What did Jesus Christ teach about these points?’   We would say, without any doubt, that he gave reverent assent to the authority and inspiration of the Old Testament.  There is no indication anywhere in his teachings that he disagreed with the Old Testament writers.  He regarded the words of the Old Testament writings as being the words of God.  He submitted to them in his own life, he believed them, he accepted their statements, and sought to apply their principles.  He regarded Scripture as the great arbiter in dispute.  He said to his contemporaries, ‘You make many mistakes, because you don’t know the Scriptures.’   We find in the New Testament that he invested the apostles with authority to teach in his Name.  He said that the Holy Spirit would lead them into all truth, would bring to their remembrance what he had spoken to them, and would show them things to come.  He evidently expected that in the providence of God there would be others to interpret, expound, and bear witness to the revelation given in himself, just as there were prophets raised up by God and inspired to bear witness to what he did in Old Testament days.   To sum up, the authority of Scripture is due to the inspiration of Scripture.  The Old and New Testaments are authoritative in our lives, because they are in fact inspired.   And therefore, since Jesus Christ is our Teacher as well as our Lord, the authority of Christ and the authority of Scripture stand or fall together.’

(John Stott, Decision, March 1965)

An example of service

“I am among you as one who serves,” said Jesus in Lk 22:27, and this passage visibly demonstrates that.  But Jesus goes further, by setting this as an example for his disciples.  In a sense, then, all Christ’s followers are called to the ‘diaconate’, because all are called to serve.  ‘The opportunities for diakonia, for a ministry in which Christian people may serve both God and man, are extremely numerous.  There is the vocation of parents, especially of the mother, to bring up the children “in the discipline and instruction of the Lord”, Eph 6:4, and to make the Christian home a place of love, hospitality and peace.  There is a Christian’s job, to be regarded primarily neither as a way to earn his living nor as a contribution to his country’s economic stability, nor as a useful sphere of witness and evangelism – not in fact as a means to these or any other estimable ends – but as an end in itself, the diakonia of a Christian man, who is seeking to co-operate with the purpose of God in securing the welfare of men.  There are also abundant openings for alert Christians in public service, through voluntary organisations, and among underprivileged and unwanted people in the neighbourhood.  But apart from the home, the job and the neighbourhood, most Christians will wish to be of service also in and through the local church to which they belong.’

(Stott, Authentic Christianity, 245f)

The Announcement of Jesus’ Betrayal, 18-30

13:18 “What I am saying does not refer to all of you. I know the ones I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture, ‘The one who eats my bread has turned against me.’ 13:19 I am telling you this now, before it happens, so that when it happens you may believe that I am he.

Study of ‘me’ in John’s Gospel

  1. To meattraction, Jn 12:32
  2. Against metreason, Jn 13:18
  3. Through meaccess, Jn 14:6
  4. Without mefailure, Jn 15:5
  5. In mepeace, Jn 16:33
  6. With meglory, Jn 17:24

(Picking, 1,000 Subjects, slightly adapted)

13:20 I tell you the solemn truth, whoever accepts the one I send accepts me, and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”
13:21 When he had said these things, Jesus was greatly distressed in spirit, and testified, “I tell you the solemn truth, one of you will betray me.” 13:22 The disciples began to look at one another, worried and perplexed to know which of them he was talking about.
13:23 One of his disciples, the one Jesus loved, was at the table to the right of Jesus in a place of honor. 13:24 So Simon Peter gestured to this disciple to ask Jesus who it was he was referring to. 13:25 Then the disciple whom Jesus loved leaned back against Jesus’ chest and asked him, “Lord, who is it?”
13:26 Jesus replied, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread after I have dipped it in the dish.” Then he dipped the piece of bread in the dish and gave it to Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son. 13:27 And after Judas took the piece of bread, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are about to do, do quickly.” 13:28 (Now none of those present at the table understood why Jesus said this to Judas. 13:29 Some thought that, because Judas had the money box, Jesus was telling him to buy whatever they needed for the feast, or to give something to the poor.) 13:30 Judas took the piece of bread and went out immediately. (Now it was night.)

“What you are about to do, do quickly” – ‘Jesus gently prods Judas to go ahead and follow through with what he has already decided to do in his heart. This shows that rather than being a victim of forces beyond his control or an unwilling prey of divine child abuse, Jesus was well in control of the situation and willingly went to the cross (cf. John 10:11, 15, 16-18; and esp. Jn 18:4-11).’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

The Prediction of Peter’s Denial, 31-38

13:31 When Judas had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man is glorified, and God is glorified in him. 13:32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and he will glorify him right away.
13:33 Children, I am still with you for a little while. You will look for me, and just as I said to the Jewish religious leaders, ‘Where I am going you cannot come,’ now I tell you the same.

Klink says that

‘this verse…serves as a foundational statement for the rest of the farewell discourse, for it introduces the questions and issues that the rest of the discourse will answer and explain.’

“I will be with you only a little longer” – According to Carson, this could refer either to his death or to his ascension (being conceived as a ‘theological unity’, with both addressed in the following chapters).

Just as I told the Jews – See Jn 7:33–34; cf. Jn 8:2.  As Carson says, ‘the Jews’ refers to Jesus’ Jewish opponents, since he and his disciples were also Jewish, but are distinguished here from ‘the Jews’.

“Where I am going, you cannot come” – According to Klink, there is both warning and consolation in this saying:

‘To the Jews this was a warning to believe in him before it was too late (Jn 8:21: “You will die in your sin”); for the disciples it is more consolatory, serving to let them know ahead of time that a change in his presence and the manner in which they relate to him is about to take place (cf. Jn 14:19; 16:16).’

Matthew Henry had said as much:

‘What he had said to the Jews (ch. 7:34) he saith to his disciples; for they have need to be quickened by the same considerations that are propounded for the convincing and awakening of sinners.’


‘They could not follow him to his cross, for they had not courage and resolution; it appeared that they could not when they all forsook him and fled. Nor could they follow him to his crown, for they had not a sufficiency of their own, nor were their work and warfare yet finished.’
13:34 “I give you a new commandment—to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 13:35 Everyone will know by this that you are my disciples—if you have love for one another.”

‘There is much misunderstanding about the true nature of love.  We may be sure that Jesus did not issue commands which cannot be obeyed.  Since he commanded us to love each other (even, elsewhere, our enemies), we must conclude that he loving he meant is not the victim of our emotions, but the servant of our will.  We may not feel like loving somebody, but we are commanded to do so.  We have to learn deliberately to set our love on people whom we do not naturally like.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 221)

‘So peculiar is this blessing of the Gospel, that Christ appoints it for the badge and cognizance by which they should not only know one another, but even strangers would be able to know them from any other sect and sort of men in the world.’ (William Gurnall)

‘The sign that you followed Abraham was circumcision. The sign that you followed Moses was keeping the Sabbath. The sign that you followed John was that you were baptised. The sign that you follow Jesus Christ is that you love one another.’ (Illustrations for Biblical Preaching, 421)

The best proof that Christ has risen is that he is still alive. And for the immense majority of our contemporaries, the only way of seeing him alive is for us Christians to love one another. (Louis Evely)

‘Several years ago Johanne Lukasse of the Belgian Evangelical Mission came to the realization that evangelism in Belgium was getting nowhere. The nation’s long history of traditional Catholicism and the aggression of the cults had left the land seemingly impervious to the gospel. Driven to the Scripture, he came up with a new plan. First, he gathered together a heterogeneous group of believers: Belgian, Dutch, Americans – whoever would come. Second, he had them rent a house and live together for seven months. As is natural, frictions developed among these diverse people. This in turn sent them to prayer and, happily, to victory and love. Following this, they began to see amazing fruit. Outsiders called them “the people who love each other,” for they were living out the words and promises of Jesus: “A new commandment I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:34, 35).’ (R. Kent Hughes)

13:36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus replied, “Where I am going, you cannot follow me now, but you will follow later.” 13:37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can’t I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you!” 13:38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? I tell you the solemn truth, the rooster will not crow until you have denied me three times!