This is the beginning of the second section of John’s Gospel; there are no more scenes of Jesus teaching the crowds. The pattern of chapters 2-12 where there is a miracle or sign followed by Jesus giving an explanation are replaced by Jesus explaining the greatest sign of all, His death, burial and resurrection before it happens. These are called the “Farewell” or “Upper Room Discourses”. The scene opens just before the Passover meal on the night that Jesus would be betrayed. Jesus demonstrates an act of humility that would normally be done by a slave; the washing of the feet of the dinner guests.
John uses these verses to set the scene by placing the time at the very beginning of the meal. They had not yet begun to eat, Judas had already been prompted to go astray, and yet Jesus was confident in His destiny and had received all power from God. It is particularly pointed that John mentions this fact: Jesus had received all power, had everything placed in his control and was about to return to God… when all of the sudden what did He do?
Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his clothes, grabs a towel and begins washing the feet of the disciples. It is important to note that even though the NIV adds the word “outer” to garments, there is no such indication in the Greek. Commentators rise to this and many describe Jesus as in his “undergarments”. Undergarments for men were invented around the time of George Washington and were not widely worn until the late 19th century; they did not exist as such in ancient times. If Jesus had indeed removed an outer garment, then it would have been a cloak, comparable to a modern-day coat, and obviously this is not likely. I do not join the NIV in protecting modern-day sensibilities here because it is vital that we get an accurate picture of exactly what was going on in order to get the full value of what Jesus is demonstrating in this act of humility, for it is in total and complete contradiction to what was stated in verse 3, and it actually becomes the whole point of this incident. Jesus was not only washing the feet of men who weren’t qualified to carry his briefcase (so to speak) but he had utterly and totally humbled himself in the process! (Can you imagine yourself doing this? Remember, He had taken off His clothes.) The NIV also states that He had a towel wrapped around him, while the KJV says he “girded” himself with the towel. Was the towel providing a modesty covering, and at the same time being used to dry their feet after washing?
HOMEWORK: Do an experiment at home. Wrap a towel around yourself, as to cover up, get down on the floor and try to dry something also on the floor in front of you. You will discover the answer.
Once you have the answer, then remember that Jesus also washed the feet of the one whom he knew was about to betray him: Now you will understand what this scene means; you will also have some real insight into the metaphor of being naked before God.
Peter seems to have understood that he was not worthy to be treated in this way by Jesus who was so much greater than he. Jesus’ reply to him is also understood… sort of. Well, in that case, how about washing my hands and head too. Peter believed Jesus when he told him that he must be “cleaned” by Him, but he still didn’t quite grasp the metaphor that was playing out in that room.
Jesus’ comments in verses 10-11 refer to the fact that a person attending a dinner would bathe before leaving their house, so that when they arrived at the dinner, only their feet would have gotten dirty on the walk to the dinner venue; thus, the custom of having your feet washed by a slave prior to reclining at table. Remember that dinner tables were not like the ones we use today, and the “reclining” was literal. The comment that not all were clean gives us a hint that Jesus is not really concerned about hygiene, for He knew what was afoot with Judas; His concern was that they be spiritually clean.
Jesus gets dressed and resumes His seat; then He explains what He has done. He has set for them an example, a twofold example. First, we as His servants must be willing to humble ourselves in His service. Do we dare humble ourselves as He has done? Second, our service must be to clean the filth of sin from one another, to help one another to obey all that He has commanded us, and to be willing to dirty our hands in the process. We can never do this by glorifying ourselves; we can only accomplish this mission by humbling ourselves: We are to follow His example.
Jesus has just said that if they follow the example that He set when He washed their feet, they would be blessed. Now he modifies that by saying that one of them would not be blessed; He will send Judas on his way shortly…
Jesus is concerned that His coming betrayal and death not be understood as His mission being thwarted. Instead, He attempts to convey that everything is proceeding according to God’s amazing, if counter-intuitive plan. In short, creating the community of believers, the church, was the whole point of Jesus’ ministry and not an accident or a “fall back” position.
The time for Jesus to leave subtle hints and illusions has passed; He tells them plainly that one of them will betray Him; they are shocked. It would appear that Peter asked John to find out from Jesus who the traitor was and John’s question and Jesus’ answer was in a whisper. He indicated Judas who was next to Him on the other side from John… (vv. 21-26)
Jesus gives the bread to Judas, who accepts it. It is hard to imagine that Judas has not heard what has passed between John and Jesus… and he accepts the bread when he could have repented. So completely did Satan win out in Judas’ life that John refers to it as satanic possession. Judas leaves the room immediately; it would seem that nobody other than John understands what has happened, and John keeps quiet. John ends this with a chilling sentence: “And it was night.” This has much more meaning than simply noting the time of day, for Jesus has spoken of the coming night before. It was literally the beginning of the most beastly occurrence in human history, when Satan had stolen away a disciple of the Son of God to bring about the murder of the Son of God to silence the truth and darken the light once and for all. Paul noted in 1 Cor. 2:8 that if the rulers of that time and place had understood what was going on, they would never have put Jesus on that cross!
Verses 31-32 are a little confusing for their use of “glorify” so many times in quick succession together with the indefinite pronoun “him” and it requires a little sorting out. Here’s a paraphrase: The time has come for the Son of Man to be glorified (recall that Jesus has been using this term to describe his crucifixion all through John). So then, we would say, starting over: “The time has come for the Son to be crucified and God will be glorified in him (By completing His plan for redemption). If God is glorified in the Son by what He accomplished on the cross, then God will glorify the Son by the Son’s resurrection and ascension to glory as King of kings and Lord of lords. What comes next is inconvenient for certain end of the world enthusiasts: “and will glorify him (the Son) at once”. That is to say not at a time which has still not come.
Jesus repeats here what He has previously told the Jews, that they cannot come where He is going, referring to the right hand of the Father in heaven. This is a statement that establishes His authority, and is followed by a new commandment: Love one another. As you might expect, the Greek word used here is agape which is a godly, unselfish love. It is a commitment to serve and value one another with no expectation whatsoever of anything in return. It is just what the unbelieving world will notice, for it is seldom if ever found amongst them. By this sign all will recognize the difference between the Christian and everyone else. This is the most important lesson from today’s text: We must love one another. Imagine what the reaction of the rest of the world would be if they saw this kind of powerful love at work in the lives of millions of Christians: Would you like to ‘change the world’? Love one another!
Peter doesn’t seem to soak up the new commandment and wants to go with Jesus. The exchange leads directly to Jesus’ prediction of Peter’s denial of Him. I guess there’s a little bit of Peter in all of us.