In his classic work, ‘The Cross of Christ’, John Stott writes that if we want a definition of love we should not look in a dictionary, but at Calvary. Our chapter tells us that he had loved his disciples during his ministry on earth, and now he loved them to the very end (showed them the full extent of his love). Of course this love is not simply demonstrated by his washing of their feet, but what this washing symbolised—the crucifixion that would soon take place.
The cross sets the example for service (1-20)
Imagine the atmosphere. The disciples had gone up the outside stairs and into to the upper room. They expected to be greeted by a non-Jewish slave who would wash their feet. That was the custom. It was a hot climate where people wore open sandals, and walked long distances on dirty roads. But there was no one there to do that lowest of all tasks. They thought that they were being polite by not drawing attention to this omission. But it didn’t occur to any of them that they might perform the task. Equals did not wash each other’s feet!
Jesus offers the traditional prayer of thanksgiving, and then does something shocking. He gets up, wraps a towel around his waist, takes a basin of water and heads to the nearest disciple. This is the man they thought of as their master. No one had ever thought of the term ‘servant leadership’ before Jesus showed it in action. As far as they were concerned, he was the least suited person to perform this task. Conversation stopped. It was all a little embarrassing. But surely they already knew that following Jesus is never comfortable.
One of the things you notice about Jesus, as recorded in John’s Gospel, is his divine ability to know what people are thinking. What amazing love to wash the feet of Judas—who he knew would later betray him! Jesus teaches us to love our enemies, and he does not command us to do things that he was unwilling to put into practice.
We know that Peter is the one who blurts out what is on his mind. ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘what I am doing you do not understand now, but afterwards you will understand.’ This chapter began by telling us that the hour had come for Jesus’ departure from this world to his Father. It will be after they have witnessed Jesus returning to the Father by way of the cross, resurrection and ascension that they will understand what Jesus is doing here. This is an acted parable that shows us that as Jesus dies for our guilt and is raised for our justification we are washed from our sin. Of course that promise is for those who truly love Jesus. Judas would later leave that room with clean feet and a hard heart.
‘The others might let you humiliate yourself like this, but you will never wash my feet.’ Jesus replies with a gentle rebuke, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ So Peter says, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus explains, “the one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.’ The picture may be of a man who has bathed before going to a feast. When he arrives he doesn’t need another bath, but one the dirt washed off his feet from the journey. ‘And you are clean.’ The picture may be that of a person who has bathed before going to a party. On the journey they pick up dirt on their feet. When they arrive they are clean. They only need their feet washed.
We need to be clear what Jesus is teaching here. Through his death on the cross we are cleansed from all of our sin. There is now no condemnation for those who in Christ Jesus. Even though we fail him daily our status as God’s beloved children never alters. We never need to be bathed again, except for our feet. Daily we are to go to God confessing how we have let him down and delighting in the fact that the blood of Jesus goes on cleansing us from all sin. Our status is secure but that does not mean that we are complacent about the numbing effects of disobedience.
Having washed their feet, Jesus wipes his hands, and puts on his outer garment. But the awkwardness of the evening has only just begun. ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should also do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not above his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’
Read this command in light of the cross to which foot-washing points. This foot-washing pointed ahead to the crucifixion. It doesn’t matter if you never wash anyone’s feet, but being willing to serve one another central to what it means to follow Jesus. The apostle Paul would later write to the Christians in Philippi and tell them that Jesus’ humility in going from heaven to the cross is the reason why we should consider others as being more significant than ourselves.
The cross is central to Jesus’ mission (21-30)
Jesus becomes troubled in spirit. ‘One of you will betray me.’ The disciples look around the table at each other. The tension must have been unbearable. I am sure that they all stopped eating.
Peter has already earned a rebuke for speaking out of turn, so he motions to John, who reclining close to Jesus, to get him to ask who the betrayer is. ‘Lord, who is it?’ ‘It is the one whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.’ He then takes a piece of bread, dips it and gives it to Judas. Judas who had never been given a reason to hate Jesus; Judas who had been respected enough to be appointed treasurer; Judas who had long since despised the Lord, stealing from the purse; Judas who had already put in place his plans to hand Jesus over. I suppose Jesus wasn’t the sort of Messiah he had been hoping for. He wanted someone who would free the nation from the hated Romans, not someone who told people to go the extra mile when a Roman soldier forced you to carry his equipment. Maybe the whole foot-washing thing had served to confirm that Jesus was not his sort of leader. Judas takes the morsel, and Satan takes hold of him.
Remember that Jesus voluntarily goes to the cross. This was the hour for which he came. The cross is the centre-piece of his mission. Jesus was not simply some great moral example or wise teacher. He is God the Son coming down from heaven to die to make rebels dearly loved children of God. He even commands Judas to go and do what he is about to do. Judas leaves immediately. ‘And it was night.’
The cross must inspire us to love (31-38)
No sooner had Judas left than Jesus began to teach the remaining disciples about his departure. He speaks of being glorified—while the world would mock him, the Father would be honoured, and his people will celebrate this death forever.
He speaks of the centrality of love. He will soon tell them that greater love has no man than to lay down his life for his friends. The cross is the proof of Christ’s love for you and the inspiration to love each other. Love is the key to our witness. ‘By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.’ John would later write, ‘we love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God”, and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this is the commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother (1 John 4:19-21). If we refuse to love; if there are people we won’t take to; if we are holding a grudge, then we may say that we are born again, but our life is declaring something different.
If the cross is the model of Jesus’ love then surly we should be willing to lay down one’s life for one another. But don’t tell people you are willing die for them if you are not willing to serve them in a thousand smaller ways!
The disciples were alarmed at Jesus talk of departure and poor Peter can contain himself no longer. ‘Lord, where are you going?’ Jesus replies, ‘Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.’ Jesus goes alone to the cross, but history tells us that Peter would later die a martyr’s death. Then Jesus again displays his foreknowledge and predicts Peter’s denial. Thankfully Peter’s failure will end with a beautiful picture of restoration.
Bible commentator Don Carson points out that one of the most impressive things about Jesus on this night before the crucifixion is that while he is troubled in spirit and should be ministered to by the disciples he actually ministers to them because they can only think about what a loss it will be for them if Jesus departs. On the night when all they can do is be absorbed with their own worries be now begins a major teaching which begins, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled.’