“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his hour had come that he
would depart from this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world,
he loved them to the end” (John 13:1, all scriptures from NASB).
by Kome Ajise
The 13th chapter of John’s gospel opens with clear confirmation of our Lord’s awareness of his impending death on this final night with his disciples. John also indicates in the very first verse the Master’s great love and care for his disciples, “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” John wrote many words to reflect our Lord’s care and love for his disciples on this final night — over five chapters, while the other three Gospels contain less than one. John records both Jesus’ mood and his sentiments on that last night as he instituted the Memorial and then went to Gethsemane. At Memorial time, these experiences and lessons from the last days of our Lord and Master are very meaningful to us.
It seems that our Lord’s awareness of his impending death was with him throughout his entire ministry. “Now My soul has become troubled; and what am I to say? ‘Father, save Me from this hour’? But for this purpose, I came to this hour” (John 12:27). Jesus was aware of his impending suffering and death when he stated that it was for this cause that he was born. To give his life as a ransom for Adam was the reason that he was born as a man. However, it was only weeks before his death that his disciples would find out. “From that time Jesus began to point out to his disciples that it was necessary for him to go to Jerusalem and to suffer many things from the elders, chief priests, and scribes, and to be killed, and to be raised up on the third day” (Matthew 16:21).
This was the beginning of our Lord’s last journey southward from the region of Galilee.
Now he began by separating his disciples from the masses in order to prepare them for
this final night. He had taken them north to Caesarea Philippi, by the headwaters of the
River Jordan, to spend time with them, then they made their way south to Jerusalem along the Jordan valley.
During their last night together, the thought that he would soon leave his disciples weighed heavily on our Lord. During their travel toward Jerusalem, Jesus would have learned their state of readiness for his crucifixion and separation from him. We envision that there were many lessons along the way and Jesus witnessed that the disciples were unprepared for the trials to come. We know that the disciples did not fully appreciate these lessons that Jesus shared until they received the holy Spirit, “These things his disciples did not understand at the first; but when Jesus was glorified, then they remembered that these things were written of him, and that they had done these things for him” (John 12:16).
One such concern occurred on their last night as recorded by Luke: “And a dispute also developed among them as to which one of them was regarded as being the greatest” (John 22:24). They were having a self-absorbed argument about position and status when they could have been attending to Jesus and comforting him as he faced death. They could have learned from the example of the woman who washed our Lord’s feet with her tears (Luke 8:37-50). If that was a distant memory, they also had an example just a few days prior in Bethany, when Mary anointed our Lord’s feet with expensive perfume and wiped them clean with her hair (John 12:3).
The Example of Feet Washing
It became necessary for our Lord to provide yet another lesson, taught by his own example. Jesus stood up from the supper table and laid aside his outer garment. He took a towel, poured water in a basin, and began to wash his disciples’ feet. Understandably, they were confused at the role reversal and the outspoken Peter challenged the Master. Jesus, of course, understood well the resistance. He told them that they would soon realize what he was doing, but Peter still resisted, “Never shall you wash my feet!” (John 13:8). From Peter’s perspective, there could never be a reason for the Master to wash his feet. We may find ourselves in the same “never” frame of mind when we do not understand how things should be. But in verse 7, Jesus said “What I am doing, you do not realize right now, but you will understand later.”
After washing all the disciples’ feet, Jesus put on his garment and returned to the supper table to explain what had happened. “Then, when he had washed their feet, and taken his garments and reclined at the table again, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’; and you are correct, for so I am. So if I, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example so that you also would do just as I did for you. Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (John 13:12-17).
We see three lessons in our Lord’s words. First, it was about a call to serve as leaders. The act of washing the feet of others requires consideration of the needs of others and selflessly meeting those needs. “Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please himself, but as it is written: “The taunts of those who taunt you have fallen on me” (Romans 15:1-3).
Meeting the needs of our brethren for their edification is the example our Lord provided. To lead is to serve, which then requires humility, the second lesson. Laying aside the garments of position and status to serve in humility furthers the quality of our service to the truth and our fellow brethren as we “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor” (Romans 12:10).
“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility consider one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:3-5).
Our Lord’s example and our full appreciation of the privilege of service should compel such love and humility that defers to the brethren’s preferences for their edification and the advancement of the gospel. In contrast to the disciples’ concern for position and status, Jesus demonstrated true leadership through service to the brethren. He showed that to serve was indeed the best example of love and leadership.
The third lesson could easily be overlooked. Jesus was aware that Judas was his betrayer. In verse 11, he noted that not all disciples were clean. Yet the evidence suggests that he also washed Judas’ feet. Was this from the same love and care, while knowing that Judas would betray him? Jesus taught us to love even our enemies. “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may prove yourselves to be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous” (Matthew 5:43-45).
Jesus was very clear about the lesson on the washing of feet and charged them to wash each other’s feet. He confirmed this as an example to follow, saying, “For I gave you an example so that you also would do just as I did for you” (John 13:15). He closed this lesson by holding them accountable for what they now knew, saying, “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them” (verse 17). As footstep followers, we know these are lessons for us, too. We are called to wash each other’s feet because we love the brethren and seek to serve by building up the body of Christ.
Jesus knew of his impending death, but he was keenly aware of all that would lead up to his death, including his arrest and Judas’ betrayal. The supper setting was one of the most intimate gatherings our Lord would have with his disciples. Yet not only was there the burden of the impending death but in addition, the treachery of one he loved. Jesus hinted at the betrayal at supper and while he washed their feet, but the disciples did not understand. Although he could have exposed Judas on the spot, he focused his attention on the fulfillment of the will of the Heavenly Father.
Perhaps there was another reason for giving subtle hints of Judas’ betrayal. After the events of that night had passed, the disciples would be reminded of them and come to understand the prophecies as confirmation that Jesus was truly the son of God. “From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it does happen, you may believe that I am He” ( John 13:19). The disciples were puzzled, not knowing to whom Jesus was referring (verse 22). It was such puzzlement that Peter even asked John, who was close in proximity to Jesus, to ask who it was. Jesus answered, “That man is the one for whom I shall dip the piece of bread and give it to him. So when he had dipped the piece of bread, he took it and gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. After this, Satan then entered him. Therefore Jesus said to him, What you are doing, do it quickly” (verses 26, 27).
As obvious as this exchange between Jesus and Judas was, the rest of the disciples assumed they were discussing the Passover feast and that Judas left to make those arrangements. Throughout the evening’s conversations, it is striking how individual our Lord’s relationship was with each of his disciples. It would suggest that our call, and walk as well, is also an individual one. Our Lord did not need others to be aware of Judas’s heart condition and, similarly, we are not privy to the heart conditions of our brethren. All are under the same grace of God.
The 13th chapter of John closes on the same note of love that it opened with — how Jesus loved his disciples to the end. Now, however, he called on them to have similar love for each other. The intervening lessons helped them understand the importance of service and love for one another. “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples: if you have love for one another” (John 13:34, 35).
On the same night he instituted the Memorial, our Lord gave us a new commandment to love one another as he loved his disciples. This is a reflection to “all men” that we are his disciples. As we celebrate the Memorial of our Lord, the true celebration is to be mindful of the lessons he left us with that last night, and especially to recommit to serve and love the brethren, the Lord’s people.