23. Washing the Disciples' Feet, Love One Another (John 13:1-38)

Audio (41:44)

Ford Madox Brown (British Pre-Raphaelite painter, (1821-93), 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet' (1852-56), oil on canvas, 1167 x 133 mm, Tate Gallery, London.
Ford Madox Brown (British Pre-Raphaelite painter, (1821-93), 'Jesus Washing Peter's Feet' (1852-56), oil on canvas, 1167 x 133 mm, Tate Gallery, London.
I suppose that the account of Jesus washing his disciples feet is one that comes to mind perhaps more than any other of Jesus' acts -- with the exception of the cross. Humble service! It is so important, and yet so difficult to perform consistently from the heart!

Though parables as "stories with a point" are not prominent in John as in the Synoptics, John's Gospel does include parables, in particular, the acted parable of washing the disciples' feet.

Timing of the Footwashing (13:1a)

"It was just before the Passover Feast... The evening meal[281] was being served...." (13:1a, 2a)

There is difficulty dating Jesus' betrayal and crucifixion in John's Gospel because of differences from the Synoptic accounts.[282] But the footwashing described here apparently took place the same night as the Last Supper, since the incident of Jesus predicting Peter's betrayal (tied to the Last Supper in the Synoptics) takes place during what seems to be the same evening. John doesn't include any mention of the Last Supper, since he assumes that his readers are acquainted with one or more of the Synoptic Gospels that were circulating among the churches by the late first century. Instead, he relates another teaching from that night that the Synoptic Gospels omit.  For further information, see Appendix 7. The Chronology of Holy Week in John's Gospel.

Prologue to the Footwashing (1:1-3)

Up to this point, John has related Jesus' public ministry of signs and discourses. Again and again we see Jesus saying something like, "My hour has not yet come" (2:4; 7:6, 8, 30; 8:20; ). But now the situation changes; Jesus knows that the hour is upon him, the time has come.

"1 It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. 2  The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 3  Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God...." (13:1-3)

John makes two assertions to introduce this transition in his Gospel.

  1. Jesus knows that his time had come to be crucified -- that he has come from God and is returning to God.
  2. Jesus knows that Judas will betray him, but it is under the Father's rule.

Knowing these two facts would cause you and me to panic, but Jesus acts deliberately in full assurance that this night will play out precisely according to his Father's will.

The Setting of the Last Supper

Peter and John had been tasked with securing a room in Jerusalem and preparing for the meal (Luke 22:7-13). The remaining disciples now enter with Jesus. They are arranged around a very low table, reclining on their left arms and supported by divans or cushions, leaving their right hands free to feed themselves. Their feet, sandals removed, are splayed out behind them, with some space between their feet and the walls so those serving the meal can bring the various dishes to the table.  

This traditional Passover would be like the twenty or thirty Passovers each of them had experienced before, except that, instead of gathering with their extended families, they gather tonight as a spiritual family of Jesus' followers.

Who Is the Greatest? (Luke 22:24-27)

We know from Luke's Gospel that even at this holy meal, there is an undercurrent of unrest among the disciples.

"A dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest." (Luke 22:24)

This wasn't the first time the subject had come up, but here it is again at this most holy meal -- perhaps sparked by the seating arrangements at this meal, with John on Jesus' right, and perhaps Judas to his left (John 13:23-26). Jesus uses this dispute as a "teachable moment."

Washing the Disciples' Feet (13:4-5)

It is at this point, I believe that Jesus gets up from the table to perform an outrageous act of humility -- Jesus, the One they believe to be the Christ, the Messiah, their Rabbi (Hebrew "great one"), their Teacher ("Master," KJV).

"4  ... He[283] got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5  After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying[284] them with the towel that was wrapped around him." (13:4-5)

Since feet clad only in sandals tend to get dusty on the unpaved roads of Palestine, it was customary for a host to provide a basin of water so guests could wash their own feet.[285] Washing someone else's feet was a task reserved for the most menial of servants. A Jewish commentary on the Book of Exodus suggests that Jewish slaves could not be required to wash the feet of others, that it was so demeaning it should be reserved for Gentile slaves or for women, children, or pupils.[286] A wife might wash a husband's feet; a child might wash a parent's feet. Rarely a disciple might honor a distinguished rabbi by washing his feet. But for a superior to wash an inferior's feet was unheard of! It was never ever done!

But Jesus does it. John describes the scene. Jesus takes off his outer clothing[287], and wraps[288] a towel[289] about his waist -- typical servant attire (Luke 12:37; 17:8[290]). His disciples are dressed in their best for the Passover Meal while Jesus looks like a servant. It is humiliating for the disciples.

But Jesus goes further. He pours some water into a basin[291] and proceeds to gently wash the feet of the disciples, whose feet are splayed out as they recline around the table.

If you've ever participated in a footwashing service, you know that most people's feet aren't soft and pretty -- especially older people whose toes have been broken numerous times and whose feet are often bony and calloused. These disciples are relatively young, but have spent their lives in sandals or bare feet, and have suffered many minor injuries -- not to mention the dust of the day.

Jesus takes the feet of each disciple in his hands, washes them gently, then dries them with the towel that is around his waist. Finishing, he goes to the next and to the next. I imagine that the room is absolutely still, except for softly spoken encouragements of love from the Master. His disciples don't know what to say. It is painful for them to see him like this. To submit to this intimate service from him. It is awkward in the extreme!

Simon Peter's Objection (13:6-9)

But when he comes to Peter, the bold fisherman can't stop himself from protesting.

"6  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, 'Lord, are you going to wash my feet?'
7  Jesus replied, 'You do not realize[292] now what I am doing, but later you will understand.[293]'" (13:6-7)

Peter and Jesus have so much history together. Peter has confessed him as "the Christ, the Son of the living God."[294] Jesus had called him to fish for men alongside him.[295] Jesus caught him when he started to sink,[296] rebuked him and the other disciples numerous times, called him a friend,[297] invited him out of the band of twelve to be a witness to his transfiguration[298] and the raising of Jairus' daughter.[299]

Peter loves this man, and he can't stand this, so he blurts out, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" I can't stand seeing you like a menial servant! It offends my sense of rightness and order! And I don't deserve it from you!

Jesus gently replies that later he'll understand why this is necessary. But Peter will have none of it.

" 'No,' said Peter, 'you shall never wash my feet.'" (13:8a)

The Greek here is extremely strong, literally, "not ever unto the age," the double negative ou mē, with the idea of "to eternity, eternally, in perpetuity"[300] tacked on for good measure.

Washed by Jesus (13:8b-10a)

Jesus' response is equally strong:

"8b Jesus answered, 'Unless I wash[301] you, you have no part[302] with me.'
9  'Then, Lord,' Simon Peter replied, 'not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!'" (13:6-9)

Jesus insists that he must wash Peter. But here, Jesus moves in meaning from physical footwashing to spiritual cleansing from sin that is absolutely necessary for any person to have fellowship with Christ the Lord, symbolized here by footwashing and elsewhere by baptism (Acts 22:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Ephesians 5:26).

Peter's response is immediate: Then wash me from head to toe!

"Jesus answered, 'A person who has had a bath[303] needs only to wash his feet[304]; his whole body is clean[305].'" (13:10a)

What does Jesus mean by this? Jesus is using the analogy of taking a bath vs. footwashing and salvation. It is necessary for every believer to experience full salvation and cleansing from sin (depicted by taking a bath). After that, all that is necessary is washing away the occasional dust of the road, the sins that we commit day by day. John wrote about this in his First Epistle.

"If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive us our sins and purify us from all unrighteousness." (1 John 1:8-9)

"My dear children, I write this to you so that you will not sin. But if anybody does sin, we have one who speaks to the Father in our defense -- Jesus Christ, the Righteous One. He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world." (1 John 2:1-2)

Sometimes, like Peter, we resist this frequent need for cleansing -- whether out of false pride or a sense of unworthiness or vulnerability We don't want to let the Holy One this close, this intimate. And so we resist him. How foolish of us! He knows us and our sins and wants to restore to us his full cleansing and fellowship. And we must let him!

Q1. (John 13:10) Jesus seems to speak to Peter in symbolic language here. In what sense does a "full bath" represent baptism? If this is so, then what kind of needed cleansing does "footwashing" symbolize?

The Betrayer (13:10b-11)

Now, on this night in which he was betrayed, Jesus extends this teaching to inform his disciples that he knew Judas would betray him. Judas is the exception in this band of cleansed men.

"'And you are clean[306], though not every one of you.' 11  For he knew who was going to betray[307] him, and that was why he said not every one was clean." (13:10-11)

John will return to Judas' evil role that night in verses 21-30.

Rabbi and Lord (13:12-13)

The acted parable is over. Now Jesus takes a few minutes to explain part of its meaning to the disciples.

"12  When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned[308] to his place. 'Do you understand what I have done for you?' he asked them. 13  'You call me "Teacher" and "Lord," and rightly so, for that is what I am.'" (13:12-13)

Jesus acknowledges their feelings of inappropriateness at such an exalted figure as Jesus humbling himself so. They think of him as Rabbi and Lord -- and appropriately so[309], "for that is what I am," Jesus says.

Rabbi. The word translated, "teacher" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "master" (KJV) corresponds to the title of Rabbi.[310] Ordination at the completion of one's studies gave a person the exclusive right to be called Rabbi. In Jesus' time, well-known Jerusalem rabbis or "teachers of the law" were surrounded by their devoted disciples. Disciples treated their rabbis with great deference. When a famous rabbi passed by in the streets, people stood. They were offered the best seats at banquets. They were addressed as Rabbi ("great one"), Master, Father. From Jesus' time, we hear the names of great rabbis Hillel, Shammai, and Gamaliel.[311] The apostle Paul was a trained rabbi, which opened doors for him in synagogues across the Mediterranean.[312] Unlike the rabbis, however, Jesus spoke with authority, not quoting the wise words of previous rabbis, but accurately transmitting the teaching of his Father. Yes, Jesus was rightly called Rabbi -- ordained, not by men, but by his Father.

Lord. But Jesus is more than their Rabbi. He is their Lord, the One to whom they belong and owe obedience. The Greek word is kyrios, generally, "lord, master." It can refer to "one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner," then, "one who is in a position of authority, lord, master."[313] But even more significantly, the Greek word kyrios was used in the Septuagint to translate the divine name Yahweh, spoken when it was read aloud by Jews as Adonai (Hebrew for "Lord"). Thus, the title "Lord" in our verse takes on associations of divinity.

Jesus is Rabbi, teaching the Father's words. And Jesus is Lord, one with the Father. The Logos or Word who was with God in the beginning is God (1:1-3).

An Example of Humble Service (13:14-17)

Jesus has established his right to be served. Now he takes that right and turns it on its head.

"14  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. 15  I have set you an example[314] that you should do as I have done for you. 16  I tell you the truth, no servant[315] is greater than his master[316], nor is a messenger[317] greater than the one who sent him. 17  Now that you know these things, you will be blessed[318] if you do them." (13:14-17)

If Jesus the Lord and Rabbi sets an example of humbling himself to serve, how much more should we, his disciples, do so, rather than touting our own self-importance. In Mark's Gospel Jesus taught his disciples:

"Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many." (Mark 10:43-45)

Q2. (John 13:14-15) Why do you think Jesus went to such an extent to break all social norms in washing his disciples feet? What value did he establish in his Kingdom by this dramatic act? How are we to live this out in the Christian community?

To Be Seen by Men

How much we like titles and adulation. How much we like the best seat, the corner office, the designated parking space. It makes us feel important, significant, powerful. It feeds our pride. Even before this night, Jesus had taught his disciples the danger of pride -- using the Pharisees as his prime example.

"5  Everything they do is done for men to see: They make their phylacteries wide and the tassels on their garments long; 6  they love the place of honor at banquets and the most important seats in the synagogues; 7  they love to be greeted in the marketplaces and to have men call them 'Rabbi.' 8  But you are not to be called 'Rabbi,' for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. 9  And do not call anyone on earth 'father,' for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. 10  Nor are you to be called 'teacher,' for you have one Teacher, the Christ. 11  The greatest among you will be your servant. 12  For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matthew 23:5-12)

Luke tells us that on the occasion of the Last Supper, Jesus corrected their arguments about who was greatest:

Luke tells us:

"25  Jesus said to them, 'The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. 26  But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. 27  For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves.'" (Luke 22:25-27)

Our culture expects Great Men to exalt themselves and allow others to serve and exalt them. But in the Kingdom of God it is different. Here the greatest serves the least, with Jesus leading the way.

The year 2013 saw the election of Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio as Pope of the Roman Catholic Church. Though a Jesuit, he took the name Francis I after St. Francis of Assisi, who had revolutionized the church of the thirteenth century by his humility and refreshingly simple obedience to the commands of Christ. Pope Francis, known in Buenos Aires for living simply and taking the bus to work, brought the same kind of humility to Rome. He insisted on paying his hotel bill, declined to wear red papal shoes in favor of priestly black, and refused to live in the lush papal apartment in favor of a two-room guest-house on the Vatican grounds. His first act as Pope was to kneel before the people gathered in St. Peter's square and ask people to pray for him. Setting an example of simple, humble living is gradually changing a tradition-bound, hierarchical religious organization into one that focuses more directly on Christ's mission. Pray for our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters -- and our own congregations where pastors and leaders too often get away from simple lives of humility.

When we exalt others -- or allow others to exalt us -- we go contrary to Jesus' remarkable example and express teaching.

Q3. (Luke 22:25-27) In the world, Great Men have others serve them and exalt them with great titles. How is the Kingdom of God to be different than that? How has Roman Catholic Pope Francis I set an example of humility before his flock?

Washing One Another's Feet (13:14)

"Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet." (13:14)

What does Jesus' instruction mean? It means to serve others humbly, rather than expecting them to wait on us.

In one church where I served on the staff, the senior pastor always made it a point to help at potlucks, to be the last one to fill his plate, and to lead in clean-up. He set the example for others to follow.

It also means to have the humility to clean up after people whose lives have been trashed by their sins, as well as brothers and sisters who have fallen into some sin or another. Paul wrote,

"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. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ." (Galatians 6:1-2)

If we feel we are too good to deal with the messy people and difficult situations, we must remember that our Lord wasn't. He took upon himself all our messy, disgusting sins and bore them on the cross that we might be made whole! Humility and love, service and the cross. Living like this is living the Good News!

One of You Will Betray Me (13:18-30)

John had mentioned Jesus' betrayer in verses 2 and 10-11. But now Jesus reveals to his disciples the terrible fact that he will be betrayed by one of them around the table, one who has shared his bread, one who been included in the trusted circle of his disciples.

"I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: 'He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.'" (13:18)

Jesus is quoting from the Psalms, where David recounts being surrounded by enemies, but not overcome.

    "Even my close friend, whom I trusted,
    he who shared my bread,
    has lifted up his heel against me." (Psalm 41:9)

Jesus continues.

"19  I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. 20  I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me." (13:19-20)

Jesus doesn't want the fact of his betrayal to crush his disciples' faith. So he tells them ahead of time so that they know that this is part of God's plan, prophesied ahead of time, that is working to its final completion.

In verse 20 Jesus is underscoring his own solidarity with the apostles, the sent ones, the ones he is sending. They, too, will experience rejection, betrayal, and death on his account -- and the joy of seeing people come to faith.[319]

Now Jesus tells them outright of his impending betrayal.

"21  After he had said this, Jesus was troubled[320] in spirit and testified, 'I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.' 22  His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant." (13:21-22)

They are stunned. In Matthew we read,

"They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, 'Surely not I, Lord?'" (Matthew 26:22)

They have no idea who Jesus is talking about. Jesus knows. Judas knows. But no one else has a clue. Judas has hidden his duplicity well.

But Peter wants to know who it is.

"23  One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. 24  Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, 'Ask him which one he means.' 25  Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, 'Lord, who is it?' 26  Jesus answered, 'It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.' Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon. 27  As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him." (13:23-27a)

John seems to be seated to Jesus' right, reclining on his left elbow. He leans back and whispers to Jesus and Jesus answers him.

Jesus tears off a small piece of bread (what the KJV terms a "sop")[321], dips[322] it in the common pot from which they are eating, and hands it to Judas, probably reclining just to Jesus' left.

"As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him." (13:27a)

Satan has already "prompted"[323] Judas to betray Jesus (13:2). Luke says that prior to making an agreement with the chief priests to betray Jesus, "Satan entered Judas" (Luke 22:3). But here, at the Last Supper, in the intimacy of receiving bread from his Master, Judas could have broken down and confessed his evil plot. But he didn't. He received the bread from his Master with a straight face. He had determined to go through with it. His love for Jesus was a sham, and his betrayal was later sealed with a sign of affection for the one he was betraying, a kiss.

Was Judas Demon-Possessed?

Was Judas demon-possessed? Demon-possessed implies that a person's will is entirely taken over by a demonic power. My own mental model is not either-or, but one of degrees -- demonic influence, temptation, habitual sin, then oppression, and at the far end of the scale, possession, where the demonic power entirely controls the will.

We know from 12:6 that Judas was tempted with money, that as treasurer of Jesus' band, he stole from the money box. Though in recent years some have tried to paint Judas in a more sympathetic light, it's pretty clear that the temptation of 30 pieces of silver played a large role in motivating him to betray Jesus. Greed. Perhaps Judas could see that Jesus wouldn't be able to escape the plots of the chief priests and the Pharisees anyway, so why not profit on the inevitable?

When we sin, we open ourselves to greater temptation. We becomes slaves of sin in the sense that we "obey" its temptations more and more frequently (8:34; Romans 7:12, 25). We get stronger by saying "no" to temptation. We get weaker by saying "yes." Judas had opened himself to the sin of greed and its hold grew stronger and stronger in him.

But our text says,

"As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him." (13:27a)

The common verb eiserchomai means, "to move into a space, enter," here it is used in the sense of "enter into someone."[324] The verb is used of evil spirits entering people (Mark 9:25; Luke 8:30) and animals (Mark 5:12 = Luke 8:32), as well as Satan entering into Judas (Luke 22:3 and John 13:27). So the Scripture indicates some level of demon-possession of Judas. But it is not against his will; it exploits his existing weakness for greed. Can Judas resist it? I suppose so, but Scripture indicates that he did not; the foreknowledge of prophesy tells us that he would not. Certainly, he is held responsible for his actions; he is not innocent. Matthew's witness to the Last Supper includes Jesus' words:

"The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born." (Matthew 26:24)

Judas Went Out. It Was Night (13:27b-30)

After Jesus hands Judas the bread, Jesus tells him to get on with the betrayal. And Judas does -- knowing full well that Jesus knows of his betrayal.

"27b 'What you are about to do, do quickly,' Jesus told him, 28  but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. 29  Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor. 30  As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night."

Judas took the bread and immediately went out.[325] John's observation, "and it was night," is pregnant with meaning. Judas had made his decision and entered into outer darkness. John has constantly come back to the theme of the conflict between light and darkness (1:3-5; 3:19-20; 8:12; 12:35-40, 46). Judas has chosen the dark of night to carry out his evil deeds. But this isn't the last word. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it" (1:5, ESV).

Q4. (John 13:27-30) Judas gave into his temptation to greed by stealing from the mission's money bag. How does habitual sin tend to open us to greater influence from Satan in our lives? How did Judas eating Jesus' bread illustrate the magnitude of his betrayal?

Now Is the Son of Man Glorified (13:31-33)

"31  When he was gone, Jesus said, 'Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. 32  If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews[326], so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come." (13:31-33)

With Judas gone, Jesus explains that his death will result in his glory. In the Synoptic Gospels, Jesus three times tells the disciples that he will be betrayed, crucified, and rise from the dead (Matthew 16:21; 17:22; 20:18). By this time in the Last Supper, they have partaken of the Bread and the Wine, where Jesus has spoke of the breaking of his body and the shedding of his blood. John's readers know this. But what John believes they need to understand in addition, is that Jesus' death ends not in tragedy, but in glory. For more on this theme, see Appendix 6. "Glory" and "Glorify" in John's Gospel. John develops this theme further in the great High Priestly prayer in John 17.

A New Command: Love One Another (13:34-35)

The Last Supper has been a time of incredible teachings, no doubt more than the disciples could absorb and process at one time:

  1. Humble service vs. self-exaltation
  2. Jesus' betrayal by one of his own disciples.
  3. His body as broken bread, his blood as poured out wine.
  4. The glory of his death, and, in a moment,
  5. The prediction that Peter himself will disown him this very night.

But now we reach perhaps the apex of Jesus' teaching, in what he calls "a new command," circling back to his acted parable of humble service towards one another at the beginning chapter 13:

"34  'A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so[327] you must love one another. 35  By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.'" (13:34-35)

It is so important, it is repeated in 15:12 and again in 15:17. In verses 34 and 35, we find a number of elements:

  1. Love as a command.
  2. Love as a new command.
  3. Jesus' love as the standard and source.
  4. Love as an indicator of discipleship.

In a real sense, love has been Jesus' theme throughout his ministry. When asked what was the greatest command in the Bible, Jesus points to two:

"'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.' This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: 'Love your neighbor as yourself.' All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments." (Matthew 22:35-40)

The idea of love isn't new to Judaism. Indeed Jesus quotes from the Pentateuch itself to establish these two commandments. When someone asks, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responds with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with the point that the neighbor to love is one who is in need, not just one's close friends (Luke 10:29-37).

Love as a Command

We might think of love as a spontaneous, voluntary expression of care and concern for another's welfare. Can love be commanded? I suppose it can. By framing it as a commandment, Jesus puts at the very top of what it means to live as his disciple. It is not a lifestyle suggestion, it is a lifestyle requirement.

Love as a New Command

Jesus speaks of this as a "new command." In what sense is it "new"? Loving one's neighbor as oneself is an old command (Leviticus 19:18). Some have suggested that it is new in the sense that loving one's neighbor has been elevated to be second only to loving God. Others see the newness in the new standard, to love as Jesus loves us, rather than as we love ourselves.[328] But probably the idea of newness comes from the New Covenant instituted at the Last Supper that night (1 Corinthians 11:25; Luke 22:20; Jeremiah 31:31-34),[329] with "the new order that both mandates and exemplifies."[330]

Indeed, this "new command" is "the Law of the new order."[331] Paul calls it "the law of Christ" (Galatians 6:2), the "fulfillment of the Law" (Romans 13:9-10). James calls it "the royal law" (James 2:8). It is no exaggeration to say that love is the theme of the entire New Testament.

Jesus' Love Is the Standard and Source

These verses also teach that Jesus' love for us is the standard and source of our love. Too often I have heard the humanistic truism that "you have to love yourself before you can love others." Yes, in a sense it is true, but it is at best the love-yourself mantra of pop psychology. It is not what Jesus teaches. What Jesus teaches is that the extent of his love for us -- laying down his life for us -- is to be the standard by which our love is measured. And that is a high standard indeed!

Our love is a result of his love:

"We love because he first loved us." (1 John 4:19)

There is a sense in which Jesus is both the standard and the source of our love. We imitate his love:

"Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." (Ephesians 5:1-2)

Q5. (John 13:34) Why is love exalted to the level of a command? How does love characterize Jesus' life? In what way does love fulfill the law and the prophets?

Love Is an Indicator of Discipleship

Finally, Jesus teaches that love for one another is an indicator that we are truly disciples of Jesus.

"By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (13:35)

Some people measure discipleship by purity of doctrine, precise orthodoxy. But the indicator here is love for one another. Indeed, in his First Epistle, John states that this kind of love is an essential indicator of true love for God (1 John 2:9; 4:8, 19-21). It's absence is a red flag that a person's faith is suspect. Again and again we are exhorted to have "love for the brothers" (Romans 12:10; Hebrews 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22).

Q6. (John 13:35) In what sense is love for one another an indicator to all of our status (or lack of status) as Jesus' disciples? Why do we sometimes avoid living in an intimate Christian community in favor of only a large-meeting expression of our faith? Why is it so difficult to love people in an intimate Christian community? How does your church or group measure up by the indicator of love for one another? How do you measure up?

Before the Rooster Crows You Will Disown Me (13:36-38)

This passage ends with Jesus' prediction of Peter's denial. Jesus had been saying, "Where I am going, you cannot come." (13:33). Peter picks up on that and asks where Jesus is going.

"Simon Peter asked him, 'Lord, where are you going?' Jesus replied, 'Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later.'" (13:36)

But Peter is unwilling to accept "No" for an answer.

"37  Peter asked, 'Lord, why can't I follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.'
38  Then Jesus answered, 'Will you really lay down your life for me? I tell you the truth, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times!'" (13:37-38)

When we come to the point of full surrender to Christ, we say things like, "I will lay down my life for you," as Peter did. But lest we become too impressed with the fullness of our surrender, we must be aware of our own brokenness and weakness. Surrender is the beginning. But standing under pressure is the test of that surrender. Thank God for his understanding and his mercy towards our sometimes pathetic protestations of faithfulness.

All four Gospels contain this prediction of Peter disowning Jesus three times before the cock crows (Matthew 26:34; Mark 14:30; Luke 22:34). But only John records Jesus restoring Peter to his mission, when after the resurrection, Jesus asks Peter three times, "Do you love me?", hears three times Peter's assurance of his love, and three times restores him to his ministry: "Feed my lambs" (21:15-27). Thank God for mercy.

Lessons for Disciples

John's Gospel: A Discipleship Journey with Jesus, by Dr. Ralph F. Wilson
Entire study is available in paperback, Kindle, and PDF formats.

The intimate occasion of the Last Supper has a number of lessons for us who seek to follow Jesus as his disciples. Among these are:

  1. Contrary to all social conventions, Jesus washed the disciples' feet in order to teach them that humble service is of highest value in the New Order that he is bringing. We are called to self-humbling in order to serve (13:14-15).
  2. Just as we need a full bath (baptism) to be clean all over, we need to seek forgiveness through confession of sins day by day (footwashing) to keep us in fellowship with Christ (13:10).
  3. Sin in us can fester and, if not dealt with, can increase Satan's ability to influence our lives (12:6; 13:2, 26-30).
  4. Love for other disciples is an indicator that we are Jesus' disciples (13:35).
  5. Love is the characteristic command of the New Covenant (13:34).


Jesus, thank you for setting the example of humbling yourself to serve. We need to see that. I need to see that. Help me to love like you do. Teach me, guide me, and forgive me when I fall short. In your holy name, I pray. Amen.

Key Verses

"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." (John 13:14-15, NIV)

"A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another." (John 13:34-35)


[281] "Evening meal" (NIV), "supper" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is deipnon, "the main meal of the day." It can refer to an everyday meal, or of a formal meal with guests, "feast, dinner" (BDAG 215, bα).

[282] At first glance, John seems to place Jesus' crucifixion on Passover itself, rather than the Last Supper as a Passover Meal as the Synoptics do. The issues are complex, but the difficulties can probably be resolved either by assuming a different calendar system used in John from the Synoptics, or care in interpreting the verses that regard dating. (For more details, see Appendix 7. The Chronology of Holy Week in John's Gospel.)

[283] "So" in the NIV is not in the Greek text.

[284] "Dry" (NIV), "wipe" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is ekmasso, "to cause to become dry by wiping with a substance, wipe" (BDAG 306).

[285] Brown, John 2:564.

[286] Mekhilta §1 on Exodus 21:2.

[287] "Outer clothing/garments" (NIV, ESV), "outer robe" (NRSV), "garments" is himation, "a piece of clothing," here, of outer clothing, "cloak, robe" (BDAG 475, 2).

[288] "Wrapped around ... waist" (NIV), "girded" (KJV) is diazōnnymi, "tie around" (BDAG 228), from dia + zōnnymi, "gird," in verses 4 and 5.

[289] "Towel" is lention, "linen cloth, towel" (BDAG 592), in verses  4 and 5.

[290] In both these verses the servant "girds himself" (perizōnnymi, from peri-, "all around" + zōnnymi, "gird" ) as Jesus did.

[291] "Basin" is niptēr, "(wash) basin" (BDAG 674), from the verb niptō, "to wash," used in this verse.

[292] "Know" (NIV) is eidō, "realize" (NIV), "know" (NRSV, KJV), "understand" (ESV),  here in the sense of, "to grasp the meaning of something, understand, recognize, come to know, experience" (BDAG 694, 4).

[293] "Understand" (NIV), ginōskō, "know," here, "to grasp the significance or meaning of something, understand, comprehend" (BDAG 200, 3).

[294] Matthew 16:13.

[295] Matthew 4:19.

[296] Matthew 14:31.

[297] Luke 12:4; John 15:14-15; 21:15.

[298] Matthew 17:1.

[299] Luke 8:51.

[300] Aiōn, BDAG 32, 1b.

[301] "Wash" is niptō, "to cleanse with use of water, wash" (BDAG 674, 1a).

[302] "Part" (NIV, KJV), "share" (NRSV, ESV) is meros, "share," here, "have a place with someone" (BDAG 634, 2). Robertson (Word Studies) comments, "Jesus does not make foot-washing essential to spiritual fellowship, but simply tests Peter's real pride and mock-humility by this symbol of fellowship."

[303] "Had a bath/has bathed" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "is washed" (KJV) is louō, "to use water to cleanse a body of physical impurity, wash, as a rule of the whole body, bathe " (BDAG 603, 1b).

[304] There is some confusion with 13:10a in the manuscripts. A number omit the words "except for his feet," but Metzger concludes that the words "except for his feet" "may have been omitted accidentally (or even deliberately because of the difficulty of reconciling them with the following declaration, 'his whole body is clean'), a majority of the committee considered it safer to retain them on the basis of the preponderant weight of external attestation" (Metzger, Textual Commentary, p. 240).

[305] "His whole body is clean" (NIV) is more literally, "entirely/completely clean" (NRSV, ESV), "clean every whit" (KJV). There are two words, the adjective katharos, "pertaining to being clean or free of adulterating matter, clean, pure" (BDAG 489, 1); and holos, "pertaining to being complete in extent, whole, entire, complete" (BDAG 704, 1bγ).

[306] Katharos, "clean," here in the sense of, "pertaining to being free from moral guilt, pure, free from sin" (BDAG 489, 3a).

[307] "Betray" is paradidōmi, "hand over, turn over, give up a person,"  as a technical term of police and courts 'hand over into [the] custody [of]'" (BDAG 762, 1b).

[308] "Returned to his place" (NIV) is anapiptō, "to recline on a couch to eat, lie down, recline" (BDAG 70, 1).

[309] "Rightly so" (NIV), "you are right" (NRSV, ESV), "say well" (KJV) is kalōs, "pertaining to being in accord with a standard, rightly, correctly" (BDAG 505, 4b).

[310] Didaskalos, BDAG 241.

[311] E. Lohse, rhabbi, TDNT 6:961-965. Jeremias, Jerusalem, pp. 233-245.

[312] Paul was trained "at the feet of Gamaliel" (Acts 22:3), an honored "teacher of the law" (Acts 5:34).

[313] Kyrios, BDAG 578.

[314] "Example" is hypodeigma, "an example of behavior used for purposes of moral instruction, example, model, pattern" (BDAG 1037, 1).

[315] "Servant" is doulos, "male slave as an entity in a socioeconomic context, slave" (BDAG 259, 1).

[316] "Master" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "lord" (KJV) is kyrios, "one who is in charge by virtue of possession, owner (BDAG 572, II, 1b).

[317] "Messenger" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "he that is sent" (KJV) is apostolos, "of messengers without extraordinary status, delegate, envoy, messenger" (BDAG 122, 1).

[318] "Blessed" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "happy" (KJV) is makarios, "pertaining to being especially favored, blessed, fortunate, happy, privileged," here, "privileged recipient of divine favor" (BDAG 611, 2a).

[319] This solidarity of the master and disciples is also found in Matthew 10:40-42; 25:40; Mark 9:37 = Luke 9:48; Luke 10:16.

[320] Tarassō, "to cause inward turmoil, stir up, disturb, unsettle, throw into confusion," of Jesus, "troubled, agitated" (BDAG 990, 2).

[321] "Piece/morsel of bread" (NIV, NRSV, ESV), "sop" (KJV) is psōmion, "(small) piece/bit of bread," the diminutive of pōmos, "morsel" (BDAG 1100).

[322] "Dip" is baptō, "to dip something in a liquid, dip, dip in" (BDAG 160), a derivative of baptizō, from which we get our word "baptize."

[323] "Prompted" (NIV), "put it into the heart" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) refers to the devil's temptation.

[324] Eiserchomai, BDAG 294, 1bγ.

[325] "As soon as" (NIV), "immediately" (NRSV, ESV, KJV) is the adverb euthys, "immediately, at once" (BDAG 406, 1).

[326] John 8:21-22.

[327] Verse 34b, "As I have loved you," begins with the adverb kathōs, often translated as an adverb of comparison or degree. But it can also indicate cause: "since, in so far as" (Kathōs, BDAG 494, 3).

[328] So Carson, John, p. 484; Morris, John, p. 633.

[329] Brown, John 2:613-614.

[330] Carson, John, p. 484.

[331] Beasley-Murray, John, p. 247.

Copyright © 2024, Ralph F. Wilson. <pastor@joyfulheart.com> All rights reserved. A single copy of this article is free. Do not put this on a website. See legal, copyright, and reprint information.

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