John (Part 48): Footwashing (ch 13)
In verses 2 and 3 of the chapter, John seems to be giving us necessary thoughts to bear in mind as we continue into the scene. Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into his hands, that He had come from God, and that He was going back to God. But, didn’t he know that before? What exactly had the Father given into his hands now that had not been given into his hands a few chapters back? He also knew in previous chapters that he had come from God and was going back to God. So what is new here?
The point of Jesus's mission was to provide the way for God’s relational kingdom to be built. He was there for people—to take captivity captive as Paul says in Ephesians. Psalm 2:8 tells us that nations (people) are his inheritance. In John 18:36, Jesus said his kingdom was not of this world, indicating that it was not structured as a nation of this world with political and kingly alignment. It was a relational kingdom crossing political lines with the purpose of people coming to the embrace—not the submissive subjection to—their king. (Note again, I am not denying that we do submit ourselves to God and acknowledge him as sovereign Lord. I am saying that that point does not define the kingdom and is not the picture we should see characterizing the kingdom. The picture is a loving embrace of king with subjects so that he calls them friends and children rather than slaves. That’s the difference between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of Christ.) First Corinthians 15:20-24 also tells us that this kingdom of people that Christ obtains is turned over to God.
Now Jesus had learned this idea through his life. He did not have omniscience from his birth. We do see that he knows at times what others do not. In John, he knew Nathanael’s thoughts in 1:48, Mary’s thoughts in 2:4, the Jews hearts in 2:24, Nicodemus’s thoughts in 3:3, the Samaritan woman’s private life in 4:17-18, and even that one of his disciples would betray him in 6:70. But we also know that at times he didn’t know everything. As a boy he listened to the rabbis and scribes, asking comprehending but searching questions in Luke 2:46. He grew in wisdom (Luke 2:52). Even toward the end of his earthly ministry, he did not know when he would return (Matthew 24:36).
The point of this all is that Jesus knew only as much as God revealed to him as he moved along in relationship with him. And God revealed only what was necessary for him to know for his good and the good of the Zion purpose. In other words, Jesus followed and trusted God in his development in knowledge and wisdom, unlike Adam and Eve who left the trust of God to seek knowledge on their own. What then we see in John 13:3 is that God had reached a point in which all revelation has been given to Jesus, and Jesus realized it. This revelation included the knowledge that this now was his hour—the time of his sacrifice for humankind. And he knew (as we can see by the juxtaposition of verse 2 with verse 3) that Judas would be the one betraying him that evening.
Thus, with all this revelatory knowledge in place, verse 4 begins, “So He got up from supper.” That word “so” is not actually in the Greek, but the thought is implied. The idea is that because of what Jesus knew, rehearsed in verses 2 and 3, he then got up to wash the disciples’ feet. Again, he knew that the hour of his death had come, and he knew that that death would come about through Judas’s betrayal. Therefore, he got up so as to start that program in motion. Recognize how much the talk of his death is intermixed in this footwashing episode. He knows in verse 2. He knows in verse 11. He knows in verse 18. He knows as he is washing the feet.
We—of this world—may think that to get the ball rolling Jesus would have to insult Judas. Maybe we’d think he should slap him, call him some name, or do something mean to make Judas mad so that he would go to betray. But that would be complicit. Jesus would then share in the sin. God would then share in the sin. That’s not how God works his will in this world. God, as we discussed last time, works through his love. Jesus set the movement toward his death in motion by performing an act of loving service. So, the first thing we should see about this footwashing incident is that it is meant for Judas.
Judas was angry. He had come to this supper angry. Judas was upset because Jesus was not the kind of Messiah he had in mind. Way back at the feeding of the 5000, when the crowd wanted to make Jesus king, and Jesus sent them away and hid from them, we talked about the disciples’ anger—probably led by Judas. And think of receiving the message from Mary and Martha, calling for Jesus. Judas may have laughed thinking, “as if we’d really go back there where they want him dead!” Imagine his face as Jesus said they would go and as Thomas chimed in saying they’d all join him in death. That’s not what Judas had signed up for. But then they marched into Jerusalem on that one Sunday with palm branches waving and people shouting Hosanna! That was more like it. Jesus was going to be made king! But … but the next day he goes into the temple and started overturning tables?? He was supposed to be challenging Rome not overthrowing their home-base headquarters! Perhaps somewhat sullen about the turn of events and how Jesus had once again managed to turn everyone against him, Judas sat at dinner in Bethany only the previous night. And in walked Mary—that one that interfered in the first place bringing them back to Judea. And she cracked open a jar of nard and started pouring it over Jesus?! Judas reacted from his already angry state and told her what a loser she was. But Jesus stopped him. Jesus took the side of this woman and rebuked him! That was it! That was the last straw. This Jesus didn’t know anything about becoming a king. He’d never bring them to power and fortune. The very next day they all walked into Jerusalem, but Judas slipped away to go straight to the temple priests and offer Jesus to them. Maybe at least he could get a little something out of this.
Judas going to the priests happened that very day of the supper. Mark 14:10-11 tells us that Judas made the deal with the priests and began immediately to look for ways to betray Jesus. And that was just that afternoon—just a few hours earlier. He had come to this supper with betrayal in his heart. He was angry.
And we find just a few verses later during that evening that Judas was still angry. Jesus mentioned that he would give the sop to the betrayer. He handed it to Judas. Judas didn’t refuse it. He took it, maybe even staring back at Jesus in defiance, and by eating it in this manner, he told him, “Okay, then, I’m doing this, and you’re not going to be able to stop me.” Jesus told him to do it quickly. And Judas—not even pretending he didn’t understand what Jesus was saying—got up and stormed out to do exactly that. He was angry.
So, Judas came angry, and he left angry. And sandwiched in between, Jesus washed Judas’s feet. There was no softening as Jesus did this. Judas perhaps was thinking, “Yes, okay, if you don’t know how to be king, maybe this is better. Just be a slave. Go ahead, wash my feet. Look there, you missed a spot!” What confirmed the betrayal occurring that very night? Jesus acting in loving service hardened Judas’s heart. We’ve seen this before. Paul in Romans and Moses in the Torah tell us that God hardened Pharaoh’s heart. How did he do that? Was it that Pharaoh wanted to be kind but, no, God changed Pharaoh’s kindness into meanness? No. Notice that in each instance it is when God is merciful—when God STOPS the plagues—that’s when Pharaoh’s heart becomes hard. It is not God twisting Pharaoh’s heart toward evil. It is God’s kindness—his act in love—that the evil Pharaoh rebels against. And just so, Jesus’s act of love sent Judas storming out of the room breathing betrayal.
But besides being the means to set his death in motion, the footwashing provides another purpose. The need for footwashing was not something that Jesus just happened to notice and wanted to teach the disciples a quick, easy lesson about not being proud. The primary point of the lesson is to emphasize that it is Jesus who is not proud. It is Jesus, the one and only righteous one, who demonstrates what the kingdom is about. In humility Jesus will give of himself for others. This deed pictured his giving his life for his people on the cross. And he meant for the disciples to follow that idea. They should give of themselves for each other in that one characteristic communicative means to manifest the glory of God (truth, goodness, and beauty)—and that was through love.
So, this footwashing was an example of Jesus humility as we should be humble. Jesus was humble even in the face of death, and likewise we should be. But this humility was not a self-focus on how one should be. It was self-effacing—not concentrating on self and your own qualities, but rather concentrating on others. Jesus gave of himself not for his own sake but for the sake of others. And finally, we must realize in that in his humility and giving of himself for others, he gave of himself even for the one who was enraged at him and would betray him; he washed Judas’s feet too! And so should our love (reflection of God’s truth, goodness, and beauty) spread to all those about us—not just our close friends who may then reciprocate and do something nice for us. Jesus gave of himself for Judas knowing full well that Judas would never be one of his own.
Notice, then, that in this footwashing scene, which is meant to image Jesus’s humility in giving himself on the cross, we find a giving for those (Judas) who would never accept him. This flies in the face of the Calvinist idea of limited atonement (aka particular redemption). Jesus didn’t die (give himself) just for the elect. Jesus died for the world, knowing full well that not all the world would embrace him—that some would deny and reject and forever be apart.
The first thing Jesus did in this action was to lay aside his garments (13:4). This was a picture of Jesus laying his life aside for them. It was, in fact, the same expression that Peter uses in 13:37 to claim that he would lay down his own life for Jesus. But of course, Peter denied his Lord rather than do this. Connecting the phrase once again with the cross, Jesus said later that evening, “No one has greater love than this, that someone would lay down his life for his friends” (15:13). In the scene we see that Jesus tied a towel, a linen sheet, around himself so that he is dressed only as a slave. The picture recalls to mind Philippians 2:7 which tells us Jesus “emptied himself [or laid aside the form of God] by assuming the form of a slave.”
But then notice again that Jesus took up his garments again (13:12a). Just so, he took up his life (relationship with God) again. This is the same double expression as used in John 10:18: “No one takes [my life] from Me, but I lay it down on My own. I have the right to lay it down, and I have the right to take it up again.”
The disciples were probably surprised as Jesus walked back into the room in this fashion with only the linen sheet tied around him and as he carried the bowl and pitcher for the footwashing. Peter’s surprise seems normal in the flow if Jesus walks up to him first. His statement shows he sees incongruity. The placement of words in a Greek sentence is important. The first and last words in the sentence show emphasis. Words are also placed next to each other to present contrast. This statement has both. Literally in the Greek it reads, “Lord, you [of] me washes the feet.” The emphasis of Lord and feet at opposites ends show Peter’s understanding that this is odd. Additionally, placing you and me next to each other says that Peter realizes the Lord is greater than he.
Jesus’s next statement is important to understanding this scene. Jesus said that he [Peter] and they [disciples] did not understand what he was doing just yet. But they would understand afterward. Of course, this speaks to the metaphorical meaning. But it is not simply a matter of understanding how to perform random acts of kindness. That could easily be understood or guessed at in this instance. But Jesus says you won’t understand until afterwards, indicating that they wouldn’t understand until after the incident of the cross.
First, it ties the act to his death. Second, it enforces the idea that love means giving of yourself for others. But third, it also shows a picture of true kingdom living—not merely in being kind but with focus on others without interference of self even if one is greater than the other. Here is where we can understand Jesus’s earlier words in Matthew 18 as they were coming to Jerusalem when he said the greatest in the kingdom would humble himself or herself as a child. The first will be last and the last first means that humble service will characterize the great. This is unlike the kingdoms of this world in which the great are served by the least. And it is this that they would truly not understand until after the cross and after they received the Spirit to lead them into all truth.
Note also in this the last time we saw footwashing. It was only the night before. They were in Bethany and Mary anointed his feet and wiped them with her hair. Jesus said she did that in preparation for his burial. Therefore, the connection of footwashing with death is brought forward to this scene in which the footwashing is a lesson about Jesus giving himself for them.
Peter misunderstood. He recognized Jesus’s greatness. He wanted to show him undying loyalty. So, thinking in line with the kingdoms of this earth, Peter said no. Jesus should be served, Peter thought, not himself serve. As soon as Jesus responded, Peter probably had a flashback to their trip to Caesarea Philippi. It was there that, after Jesus had spoken of his death, Peter just as strongly said no. That, he argued, would never be. Jesus responded, “Get behind Me, Satan!” (Mt 16:23). Here again, to Peter’s words, Jesus responded, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with Me.” The meaning is the same. Jesus is explaining his mission—the giving of himself for Peter, the disciples, and the world.
While we can understand Peter next jumping to show his love and loyalty by asking for his head and hands to be washed as well, but he still missed the point. His comment linked the washing with a ritual baptism, which was also not Jesus’s intent. And so Jesus told Peter that there was no ritual aspect to his act. If you wash at home you’re clean enough. If you walk down the street, your feet will get dirty and it is therefore practical to have your feet washed. This is not some ritual he was designing.
However, although rejecting the action as a ritual (which would have changed the symbolism to the benefit of the receiver rather than the action of the doer), Jesus returns to his original metaphorical meaning of the act in linking it with his coming life sacrifice. In that context, Jesus tells them that they are not all clean.