The opening verse of chapter 13 sets the scene for the whole of chapters 13–17. Love is one of the key terms in chapters 13–17, occurring thirty-one times in these five chapters as compared to only six times in chapters 1–12. Jesus now shows his disciples the full extent of his love. Love is the laying down of one’s life, and therefore to love completely means to love to the end of one’s life. The love that has been evident throughout continues right up to the end. At the end, in the crucifixion, we will see the ultimate revelation of that love, that is, its full extent.
This is now the third Passover mentioned. The shadow of the cross has been evident from the very outset through the references to Jesus’ hour. Jesus now knows that his hour has arrived. John emphasizes the context of the Passover, for the lamb is about to be sacrificed for the sins of the world. That is part of the story, but it is also the occasion for Jesus to pass over from this world to the Father. This theme of departure and return to the Father will be developed at length in the teachings that follow.
While this first verse introduces the whole section through chapter 17, it also introduces the account of the foot washing in particular. For the love that is evident in the laying down of life at the crucifixion is also demonstrated in the laying down of life in humble service in the foot washing. In the foot washing we have “an acted parable of the Lord’s humiliation unto death”.
The next three verses (13:2-4) introduce the foot washing itself. Jesus got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. The verb used for took off is not the usual word for this idea. Perhaps John intends an allusion to Jesus’ imminent lying down of life, since this verb is used for that idea elsewhere. Similarly, the word used for taking up his garments was used to describe his taking up his life again. So perhaps through the language he uses, John is connecting these two events of great humility.
John notes that the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. This is the first of several references in this section to the betrayal, which will be the focus of the next section. It is extremely important to realize that Jesus is going to wash the feet of one who is considering betraying him. Judas has not yet given in to the temptation, but the devil has prompted him, or more literally, “put it into his heart.” This is the first step in a sequence that temptation follows, according to the teachers of the ancient church. This is known as “provocation,” the initial idea. It is wise to reject the thought at this point because the temptation is at its weakest and one is not yet guilty of sin. If this salesman is at the door, it is best to ignore the knocking.
Jesus’ own awareness and knowledge is also an important part of the context of the foot washing. He knew that the Father had put all things under his power and that he had come from God and was returning to God. This knowledge does not simply give Jesus the security to wash the disciple’s feet–his sharing in the divine essence is what leads him to wash their feet. Jesus said that he only does what he sees the Father doing (5:19), and this foot washing is not said to be an exception to that rule. John’s introduction to the event ensures that we understand God’s glory is revealed in Jesus in this sign. This is what God himself is like–he washes feet, even the feet of the one who will betray him! Thus, the foot washing is a true sign in the Johannine sense, for it is a revelation of God.
Having taken off his outer garment, Jesus was left with his tunic, a shorter garment like a long undershirt. Slaves would be so dressed to serve a meal. Jesus tied a linen cloth around his waist with which to dry their feet, obviously not what one would expect a master to do. A Jewish text says this is something a Gentile slave could be required to do, but not a Jewish slave. On the other hand, foot washing is something wives did for their husbands, children for their parents, and disciples for their teachers. A level of intimacy is involved in these cases, unlike when Gentile slaves would do the washing. In Jesus’ case, there is an obvious reversal of roles with his disciples. The one into whose hands the Father had given all now takes his disciples’ feet into his hands to wash them.
Slaves were looked down upon in the ancient world, and Peter cannot stand the thought of his teacher doing the work of a slave. It would have been appropriate for one of the disciples to wash Jesus’ feet, but the reverse is intolerable. In the Greek both pronouns, you and my, are emphatic. This response expresses Peter’s love, but his is a defective love. It lacks humility, which is one of the essential attributes of discipleship according to this Gospel. Indeed, humility is the very thing illustrated in Jesus’ present action. In Peter’s response we see the pride and self-will that is at the heart of all sin and that is the very thing for which the cross will atone and bring healing. Peter is working from a worldly point of view, and not for the first time.
Jesus realizes this act is scandalous and mystifying, given their current ignorance: You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand. On one level, Jesus’ act is an example of humility, and they are expected to grasp this point. But as with most of what Jesus has said and done, they will fully understand this event only after the cross and resurrection and the coming of the Spirit, who will lead them into all truth.
In response to Peter’s rejection Jesus says cryptically, Unless I wash you, you have no part with me. The word for part can be used of one’s share in an inheritance, though other words are more commonly used for this idea. If Peter is to have a share with Jesus in his community and the eternal life that comes through faith in him, then Jesus must wash him. Since this is Peter’s greatest desire he responds, Then, Lord, . . . not just my feet but my hands and my head as well! Again we see his love, but again there is still a strong element of self. He is not simply receiving with humility what the Lord is saying and doing. Peter at this point is an example of religious enthusiasm that is really a manifestation of the unregenerate self rather than of genuine discipleship. He has not discovered the depths of his own brokenness and selfishness and thus does not have a solid foundation in reality to build on. His denial of Jesus, soon to be predicted by Jesus, will tear down his pride and clear the way for the genuine humility that is necessary for any real spiritual life.
So Jesus must further correct Peter and thereby give more insight into his scandalous act: A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you. People would bathe before going to a special meal, but their feet would get dirty on the way since they wore sandals. Here, as in verse 8, Jesus is addressing Peter as an individual, but by implication he is also addressing each of the disciples. Jesus must wash him, or else he is not clean and has no share with him. What does this washing refer to? Some think it is a reference to his death, which will make possible a sharing in eternal life with Christ. The foot washing would then be a symbol of the cross. Others think that the bathing is the cleansing from sin on the cross and that the foot washing would refer to the forgiveness of one’s daily sins. Many, both in the ancient church and today, note that the word wash is from a word family commonly associated with baptism (Acts 22:16; 1 Cor 6:11; Eph 5:26; Tit 3:5; Heb 10:22) and thus take this washing as baptism.
But how can these disciples be said to be clean when the sacrifice for sin has not yet been offered and the Spirit has not yet been given? Perhaps Jesus is speaking as if the crucifixion and resurrection have already been accomplished. Or perhaps Jesus is referring to being made clean by his word. Such cleansing would refer to their receiving the light of revelation that Jesus has offered, accepting him and his teaching as having come from God and thereby becoming one with him to the extent that this is possible before the cross, resurrection, ascension and coming of the Spirit. They are “with him” as members of his community, though Peter’s attitude in this very passage shows they are not yet fully of Jesus’ spirit. The foot washing would then symbolize further teaching. Indeed, the foot washing would itself convey something of the further teaching of which it was the symbol: they have received him as the one come from God, and now he reveals more clearly the love that characterizes the Father.
Although Jesus is speaking to Peter he is also speaking to the disciples as a group. They have formed a community with him as their head. It is as if, as Paul spells out, they are his body and his own body needs to have its feet washed. He has cleansed his body of disciples through his teaching and deeds that have attracted some and scandalized other. But his body is not yet entirely clean: For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. Judas was unclean himself in the sense that he has not received Jesus with true faith, and he is himself an unclean presence among the body of believers that has yet to be cleansed. Judas’s cleansing from the body of believers is about to take place.
Jesus’ reference to his betrayal is an act of judgment toward Judas, who must know he is the one, referred to since the thoughts are already in his mind. As such it is also an act of grace. It reveals clearly the nature of the deed he is contemplating, thereby perhaps giving him a chance to think again.
After Jesus finishes washing their feet, he puts his outer garment back on and returns to his place, asking, Do you understand what I have done for you? They will not completely understand until they have seen the cross, but they can at least grasp his act as an example of humility. The cleansing word that they have received includes the recognition of Jesus as Teacher and Lord. Jesus affirms that this is indeed his identity. The humility he is exemplifying is not a false humility. True humility is always grounded in the truth. But although they have grasped something of Jesus’ identity, they now need the further cleansing that comes through a revelation of the nature of Jesus, whose authority they recognize. Jesus’ understanding of the characteristics of a teacher and a lord is quite different from those of the disciples and their culture.
While they are reeling from this embarrassing event, Jesus spells out the implications for their own lives of what he has done: 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. What does Jesus have in mind? Some have established a foot washing ceremony, either as a separate service or as part of the Maundy Thursday service. Jesus, however, does not say to do “what” he did but “as” he did. The cleansing and the further foot washing are symbolic of the revelation that Jesus gave of the Father, and thus the disciples are called upon to embody this same revelation. The disciples are to pass on the same teaching that he, their teacher and Lord, has done by conveying as he has, both in word and deed, the selfless love of God. The community Jesus has brought into being is to manifest the love of God that he has revealed through serving one another with no vestige of pride or position. There will be recognized positions of leadership within the new community, but the exercise of leadership is to follow this model of being a servant.
If Jesus takes the role of servant, then the slave of such a master should expect to do the same. Jesus does not add nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him, bringing in the theme of mission. Jesus is the one sent by the Father, and Jesus will send the disciples. Jesus has been submissive to the Father, and the disciples are to be under the authority of Jesus. The pattern of life exemplified in the foot washing is true blessedness, contrary to what the world, which is centered in pride and selfishness thinks. Accordingly, he says, Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. The Gospel is a life to be lived and not just an ideal to be contemplated.
Jesus then makes another allusion to his betrayer: I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. Some think Jesus is referring to the election to eternal life, but he is referring to his historical choice of the Twelve. John shows us that the betrayal need not raise doubts about Jesus’ identity for he knows the character of each one. The betrayal is not going to catch him by surprise. Indeed, it has been spoken of in Scripture: But this is to fulfill the scripture: “He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me”. As with most fulfillment texts, this is not an explicit prophecy that has now been fulfilled; rather we have a pattern from the Old Testament now repeated. The figure of David as the sufferer in Psalm 41 is seen as a pattern, or type, of Jesus. The psalm describes betrayal by a close friend. Lifting up the foot to expose the sole is an especially offensive gesture even today in the Middle East. Not only does the betrayal by Judas not cast doubts on Jesus’ identity, it actually affirms that he is a fulfillment of the Davidic type.
The betrayal itself does not begin until verse 27, so Jesus gives the psalm as a prophecy. Jesus’ foreknowledge of the event is emphasized and is even evidence of his divinity, that he is the I AM. The common Old Testament idea that God and his true prophets are known by their ability to foretell events is seen to be true of Jesus. He continues to give the word that cleanses his disciples by revealing himself to be the revealer of God. Thus the betrayal story itself bears witness to Jesus in three ways, namely, through his preternatural knowledge of his disciples, through the witness of Scripture and through his own prediction.
After his use of the divine name in reference to himself, his return to the theme of mission is striking: I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me. To accept the messenger is to accept the sender, following the principle that “a man’s agent is like to himself”. Jesus gives his own mission and that of his followers “an absolute theological significance; in both the world is confronted by God himself”. Seen in the context of the foot washing, this statement of the dignity of the Christian witnesses is not an expression of power and authority in any worldly sense. The one who represents Christ by bearing the same self-sacrificing love of God will meet with the same response Jesus met but will also be the agent of the same eternal life that comes through knowledge of the Father in the Son by the Spirit. Each disciple should walk through his or her day with a consciousness of being on such a mission, which is only made possible through the closest intimacy with Jesus.
In the story of the foot washing, then, we have the most profound revelation of the heart of God apart from the crucifixion itself. We also learn more of the relation between Jesus and his disciples, the relation of the disciples with one another in humble service and the mission of the disciples to the world. These themes are similar to those of the Eucharist developed earlier. The community that Jesus has been forming here takes more definite shape, revealing more clearly “the law of its being”, which is a humble and self-sacrificing love.
Being loved is the greatest motivation in the world! Our ability to love is shaped by our experience of love. We usually love others as we have been loved. One who has been shown love since birth, finds it much easier to truly love others. Although Jesus showed his disciples much love and understanding, he was about to be deceived. Jesus stated what one of his disciples was about to do. When asked who it was, He stated the “next one to take bread with him”. It was Judus. Jesus told Judus to do quickly what he had to do. Jesus also predicted Peter’s denial of Him. Unlike the other disciples, John’s story is told throughout the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation.