Christ is the Servant, the one who must (and did!) wash the feet of every disciple. The only appropriate response is to humbly receive his service and to make his service a Christian “rule of life” for the life of the Church and its mission to the world.
The “hour” has finally come - the hour of departure from this world and go to the Father.
“His own” did not know him (1:11), but he loves “his own” which at that very moment are his disciples, but Christ’ love embraces the whole world (3:16). If only, the world knew it!
“To the end” refers to the incoming cross! The death of God the Son on behalf of the world is the epitome of love (cf. 15:13).
The meal was already in process and so the foot washing took place during the meal, which is unique. The foot washing usually took place before the meal (cf. Gen 18:2–5).
Shockingly, there is a ‘presence’ of the devil on that meal - entering into the heart of Judas for the purpose of instigating the betrayal of Jesus.
Interestingly, the statement can also mean that it was the devil who ‘made up his mind’ on the matter: “the devil already having put it into the heart [his own heart][that] Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, should betray him”. But, Judas will fulfil the devil’s purpose.
It reveals the “unseen forces”, the cosmological powers that battle against God and his people (cf. Eph 6:12).
One can say, that if the Jewish authorities represented Jesus’ historical opponents, Judas is the representative of the demonic authorities opposed to Jesus - the cosmological opponents (6:70). Thus, it is not just humanity that opposes and challenges Jesus but also all the satanic powers of the cosmos.
Jesus is conscious of the universal sovereignty conferred on him by his Father, his origin and his destiny. Jesus knew that God had given him “all things” “into his hands”.
And then, he does something incredible - he dresses himself like a household servant and performs a servant’s task. But, this is a unique servant. This servant will “lay down” even his own life by the authority that belongs to him, and he will pick it up by the same authority (cf. 10:17–18).
Thus, this meal is not a usual Passover that gets its meaning from the past - the exodus from Egypt - but a meal that gets its meaning from the event that is about to come - the Cross.
It is worth noting that Luke has the dispute among Jesus’ disciples about who is the greatest right after the institution of the Eucharist during the Passover meal (Luke 22:24–27).
But, Jesus’ action reminds us that just as God became a man, so the Lord became the Servant (Phil 2:6–8).
Jesus exemplified 1 Peter 5:5 - by ‘wearing’ the “apron of humility”.
Let us explore the foot washing.
(1) In the social-cultural context of the first century.
The act of foot washing was the act of a slave and never performed by a superior. Thus, Jesus’ action has no precedence and it violates social customs.
The foot washing did not only communicate something about the person who performed the washing; it also communicated something about the recipient of the washing. It was an expression of hospitality (cf. 1 Tim 5:10). Some scholars also indicate that it serves to prepare one for specific task, experience, or relationship.
So, the Son of God shows them His own hospitality - welcomes them into His household, into communion with him, and at the same time prepares them for the task, experience and relationship rooted in his death and resurrection - which are his ultimate act of service.
Jesus’ action reveals not only who he has become - the Servant, but also who they are!
(2) Symbolic significance
Six are worth mentioning: (1) an example of humility; (2) a symbol of the Eucharist; (3) a symbol of baptism; (4) a symbol of forgiveness of sin; (5) another sacrament - St. Ambrose; (6) a sign of salvation.
Here, we can seen how deep and rich in meaning is this action of Jesus.
Augustine says that Peter was the first to be washed while Origen says that he was the last. Perhaps, he was in between.
Peter is a representative of all the disciples - even of all Christians.
Peter’s question indicates that he is shocked and perhaps even scandalised. But, the contrast between “you-my feet” seems to point to a deeper meaning. Again Peter is missing the point, still unable to grasp the message of the Gospel (Mk 8:31–33).
Here, we also have a contrast between Jesus’ “I” and Peter “You”. Jesus does not offer an explanation. His answer includes another contrast between “now” and “later” or “after these things”. Peter and the disciples will grasp everything after Jesus’ death and resurrection with the ‘help’ of the Holy Spirit.
The usual translation “never” actually means “unto age/eternity”. The phrase is preceded by double negative.
Peter’s ‘false’ humility is actually here an attitude of self-righteousness. He seems to know better what is fitting for the Lord.
Jesus offers a stark response to Peter’s bold objection that gives insight into the significance of the foot washing. The foot washing is part of being brought into the relationship with Christ, with God.
Apparently Peter still does not understand the nature of the washing about which Jesus speaks and he offers a modification to Jesus’ washing - not only my feet.
Peter moves from stopping Jesus from serving him at all to suggesting (or commanding) Jesus to serve him even more: “but also my hands and my head”.
What Jesus offers is more than enough.
There are some textual difference within this text, namely [except for his feet], which is not present in some manuscript - Origen and St. Jerome apparently did not know it. But it is present in other manuscripts and at very early stage. So, it is now being preferred and retained in most of the translations.
There are two overlapping in meaning verbs “bathed - λελουμένος” and “to wash - νίψασθαι”. The former is primary used in a more general manner to refer to the whole body, while the latter is primarily used in a more specific manner to refer to one part of the body, such as the hands or feet.
What is the spiritual meaning of this two-fold nature of bathing and washing?
The usual explanation is the sacramental one: “bathing” refers to Baptism and “washing” to another sacrament - the Eucharist or confession or still a unique sacrament practiced during the time of St. Ambrose.
The point is that baptism is given only once in life - it cannot be given again - and it entirely washed from all stains of sin the one being baptised. On the other hand, the other sacraments - the Eucharist and the confession are being repeated - like the washing of feet.
The moral explanation: the foot washing was intended to be an example to be followed (13:15), an imitation of the humility of Jesus - a humble service and self-denial.
Jesus speaks to Peter in the perfect form as “one who has been bathed” (Ὁ λελουμένος), referring to his sacrificial and sin-atoning death on the cross. By the time of the Gospel was written, this saving work was already completed.
Second, the “foot washing” is part of the hospitality of God, and the necessary preparation for the specific task, experience and relationship. Only Jesus can “bath” but the disciples can “wash” one another to be co-participants in the new covenant and the mission of God.
Jesus ends his statement with an indication that “not everyone is clean”.
Judas is contrasted with Peter. One was already cleansed, the other was not - he was about to betray Jesus.
In this part (13:12–20), Jesus in his monologue offers an explanation of the foot washing and an exhortation to its recipients. Jesus completed the foot washing and returns to his place at the meal.
It begins with a question: “Do you understand …?” - Did they understand? But, Jesus already stated to Peter that he could not understand it yet (13:7), which applied to all the disciples. Now he is going to explain the significance of his action (cf. Mk 10:45).
Some commentators point to the fact that in 13:10, Jesus explained the theological meaning of the action. The foot washing symbolises Jesus’ humbling himself to endure the death of the cross and the cleansing efficacy of his death for the believer. On the other hand in 13:12–20, Jesus explains its practical character: Jesus has washed their feet in order that from his example they may learn to perform similar service one for another (again cf. Luke 22:24–27; Mk 10:35–45).
“The teacher” - a respectful way of addressing a religious teacher. “The Lord” points to the divinity of Jesus (20:2, 18, 20, 25, 28), as in the LXX.
See Luke 6:46. Calling Jesus the teacher and the Lord is not enough. We ought to do what he did (1 John 2:6).
It is shocking indeed, that he - the superior - serves them. But was the Incarnation not something unimaginable? And so will be the Cross!
Jesus made a logical connection between what he has done and what he expects his disciples to do.
Jesus explains that his action is given as an example for them. Perhaps, it should be understood as Jesus giving them a rule of life.
Only the man whom Jesus has served can see him as the example!
13:16 - cf. Mt 10:24; Luke 6:40
Jesus is the master and the one who sends. His disciple is a “servant” and the one being sent. In this view, we understand why Paul introduces himself as “a servant of Christ” and as being sent to preach the Gospel (Rom 1:1). The apostles will be sent after the encounter with the risen Christ (20:19–23).
13:17 - cf. Mt 7:21, 24; Luke 6:47–48
Jesus began this monologue with a question: “do you understand … ?” (13:12). Now, they “know” the meaning of Jesus’ action and are called to act upon it.
It is not enough to hear, and know. The blessing is connected with acting upon one’s own knowledge. Moreover, this beatitude can be experienced here and now (cf. Mt 5:3, 10). When a disciple of Jesus serves others, he or she experiences “blessedness” as a divine gift.
13:18 - cf. 6:70
Jesus goes back to the betrayer mentioned in 13:10.
The fact that Judas participated in the meal and had his feet washed by Jesus indicates that he was also chosen (6:70) but he was the only one among them not clean (13:10–11). What happened? Why he?
The Evangelist says that Ps 41:9 actually spoke about him. Later on Peter will explain the betrayal of Judas with the help of two other Psalms (cf. Acts 1:16, 20 - Ps 69:25; 109:8). Matthew (26:15; 27:3–10) sees in the payment and return of the ‘thirty pieces of silver’ the interpretation of Zech 11:12–13.
But, here is a point to consider.
Even if Jesus’ betrayal by one of his intimate companions was foreseen, it was by Judas’ personal choice that he, and not someone else, eventually filled that role.
Eating of “my bread” indicates intimacy and hospitality.
By lifting up his heel against Jesus, Judas rejects the one who chose him and offered his hospitality towards him.
Jesus now explains that he speaks about the event that is going to happen - he predicts it - so when it takes place, the disciples may believe that “I Am” (again think about Ex 3:14; Is 41:4; 43:10, 13 LXX).
The one who ‘spoke’ creation into existence (1:3) now speaks about what will take place within it. By this fact, the disciples and the reader should realise and believe that Jesus is the Son of God.
13:20 - cf. Mt 10:40
Now, Jesus moves to describe the intimate relation that exists between himself and his disciples.
Just as Jesus is representative of the Father (1:18), so also the disciples are representative of Jesus. Just as Jesus is the agent of God, so also are the disciples agents of Jesus.
The mission of God is the mission of the Church. That is why Jesus is the “example”, model, and pattern for ministry, the Servant who both serves and sends his servants.
Even at his betrayal, Jesus communed with his disciples. Christians - “beloved disciples” of Jesus - should find their rest in his person, reclining on his chest and remaining in permanent communion with him and his church.
13:21 - cf. 11:33
Jesus is in a similar emotional state as at the time of the death of Lazarus. Then, Jesus announces openly that there is a betrayer among them.
Jesus - and the reader - had been ‘prophetically’ aware of this moment (see 6:64, 71; 12:4; 13:2, 11). But the disciples had only been told cryptically that one of them was the devil (6:70; cf. 13:18).
Here, we see the failure of the disciples so vividly portrayed by Mark in his section “on the way” (Mk 8:22–10:52; 8:31–33; 9:31–34; 10:32–41).
Jesus’ words made them look at each other. Their look says it all. The narrator describes it as “perplexed or be at loss (mentally)”.
The Evangelist focuses his attention on one of them in particular. No name is given but a description “the one whom Jesus loved”. This is the first of several occurrences of the Beloved Disciple in the Gospel (19:25–27, 35; 20:1–10; 21:1–7, 20–24; cf. also 1:40; 18:15).
After the last mention of the Beloved Disciple (21:20–24), a note is added making this disciple the authority for the narrative. Thus, the anonymity of the Beloved Disciple can only be intentional. Since the meal took place in the upper room and only the Twelve participated in it, then the tradition draws a conclusion that it can be no other but John the son of Zebedee.
But, there is something more to his anonymity. While he is a “real” disciple, by using anonymity the Gospel establishes the Beloved Disciple not only as a figure in history but as a character in the narrative. In this way, the anonymity functions as a literary device that forces the reader to engage with the Beloved Disciples primarily by his identity in the Gospel.
The anonymity of the Beloved Disciple depicts the “ideal disciple”, one having special access and intimate relationship with Jesus. He is portrayed in a position that indicates a privileged relationship - “reclining on the chest of Jesus” (cf. 1:18 - there the Son is in the chest of the Father).
It is important to note that meals in the ancient world did not involve tables with chairs but involved reclining on couches around a low table. Participants would support themselves on their left elbows and eat with their right hands.
Although some indicate that this only applied to special meals such as parties, wedding feasts and that a normal posture at table was sitting and not reclining.
The position of the Beloved Disciple is not to be understood as resting “on top of” Jesus, but as reclining “by the side of” Jesus - close to Jesus on the right.
The Beloved Disciple is also in a unique relationship, at least in the narrative, with Peter (13:24). Most of the appearances of the Beloved Disciple are in direct connection with Peter. This is not to be viewed as a competition but as a depiction of the different roles of disciples.
This is the first of four (comparison-like) depiction of Peter and the Beloved Disciple (13:22–25; 20:3–9; 21:7; 21:20–23).
Finally, Jesus “loved” this disciple. But, he is not the only one loved by Jesus - the Bethany family (11:5; 36) and all his disciples (13:1; 15:19) are “loved” by Jesus, and most of all the world is loved by God (3:16).
The relationship and (also the position of Peter) is made evident by the response Peter gives to him in regard to Jesus’ statement. It is nonverbal communication - nodding - but immediately understood by the Beloved Disciple - this also shows the level of their relationship - communication without words.
Leaning on the chest of Jesus reveals the kind of intimate closeness the Beloved Disciples is able to express with Jesus. At this moment a disciple of Jesus, a mere man, has immediate and personal access to God himself.
He asks the question because, he is so near to Jesus that some indicate that he is “in Christ”.
The word translated “piece of bread” (morsel) is not used elsewhere in the New Testament. A similar word is used in the LXX of Ruth 2:14, where Boaz invites Ruth to dip her cereal in his wine.
Jesus does not reveal the betrayer by his name but by the action he performs. Only the narrator gives the name of Judas, son of Simon of Iscariot, to the reader.
Some commentators say that for the host of the feast (Jesus) to offer one of the guests a particularly appetising morsel was a mark of special favour. They also say that the dish or bowl (cf. Mk 14:20) may have contained the sauce of dates, raisins and sour wine - a regular feature of the passover table.
In the first-century context, social gatherings, meals especially, were intimate affairs. A person did not just eat with anyone. To eat with a person was to show approval and equality. This explains why Jesus was denounced by the Pharisees and scribes for eating with sinners (Luke 15:2).
Thus, Judas’ action shocks the more - invited to such intimacy with the Lord, he betrayed the trust of Jesus and the other disciples.
Some commentators indicate the fact that Jesus was able to give ‘morsel’ to Judas suggests that Judas was also close to Jesus - perhaps to Jesus’ left.
That Jesus does not call him by the name indicate that Judas becomes a model in the Fourth Gospel for disbelief, for breaking away from Christian fellowship and intimacy and becoming an agent of Satan (13:27).
This is the only place in the Gospel that Satan is mentioned by name. The narrator explains for the reader what happened after Judas received the ‘morsel’ - a thing that could not be seen with physical eyes.
The offering of the ‘morsel’ is seen by some as the last ‘plea’, the last call to Judas to abandon his plans (cf. 13:2). But apparently, he did not change. It was at that very moment that the fatal decision in his heart (his will) took place.
Like the Spirit of God entering those chosen by God in the OT, so Satan “entered into” Judas.
Jesus’ statement to Judas stems from his authority (10:18). As much as Jesus has been serving Judas (washing his feet), even in the betrayal Judas is technically serving Jesus.
The urgency Jesus demands befits the significance of “the hour” in the Gospel.
Thus, everything and everyone (including Satan) fulfil God’s plan of salvation and in reality serve the King of glory, Jesus Christ.
The narrator now explains to the reader that at that time, the other disciples did not understand Jesus’ symbolic action and words. They focused on the words of Jesus, not on his action, and put two interpretations of Jesus’ words: (1) to buy something for the feast; or (2) to give something to the poor (cf. 12:6).
What is significant here is the fact that the disciples remain “reclining” - in the intimate relationship with Jesus, while Judas alone is going to leave them (13:30).
Judas departs from the intimate communion of Jesus and the other disciples. Again the departure is connected with the giving of the piece of bread (13:27). Judas “immediately” left the “one flock” and the “one Shepherd” (10:16).
Notice, the stress of the actions in this part of the story (13:23–30).
“And it was night”. Even the “night” - the time of the day - serves as a “wordless” communication to the reader!
The literal darkness into which Judas disappeared from the upper room was a symbol of the spiritual darkness which enveloped him as he left the others to carry a plan to lead Jesus’ enemies to the place where he would be found (18:12).
It is important to note that Judas does not leave the meal of his own accord - it is a “forced” exit; Jesus orders; Judas to exit.
This insight serves two significant functions. First, such an exit sends someone offstage to prepare for future action. In order for Jesus properly to address his disciples, Judas the outsider needed to leave.
Second, the action of Jesus removes from the scene a character whose presence would disrupt its natural flow. Judas was not fitted to hear what Jesus was about to reveal to his disciples. Thus, the reader is being prepared for what is about to come - the farewell discourse proper.
Out of Christ’s love for Christians they are given the commandment to love one another. Christian discipleship is grounded in the work of God (not one’s own work) and is an expression of the nature of God himself.
Judas’ exit is referred here again - it draws a line between the scene of the dinner (13:1–29) and the discourse that follows the dinner until 18:1.
Jesus’ pronouncement echoes John 8:54; 11:4; 12:23, 28. This is the last time in the Gospel that Jesus refers to himself as the “Son of Man” - a title that is used to depict the power, authority and glory displayed in the person and work of Jesus.
The “now” points to the present circumstances, moments after the betrayal.
The glorification of Christ is connected with what appears to human understanding as the very opposite of glory. The cross is not shame but glory. The exaltation of the Son of Man is on the cross. And it is not only the glory of the Son but also the Father, who is glorified in the Son.
It is the acceptance of the death of Jesus by the Father that makes the death not a scandal but the supreme manifestation of glory.
The cross is the expression of the love of God for the world (3:16).
This statement of Jesus - not included in some of the early papyri - offers further explanation of the Father’s confirmation of the glory of the Son.
The mixture of the two pasts forms of the verb “to glorify” (13:31–32) followed by two futures forms of the verb “to glorify” (13:32) creates a situation where a future event is transported to the present.
Since Jesus made up his mind and accepted the suffering and death which lie still ahead, and so he can refer to the passion and the glory in the past tense - they are as good as accomplished.
The glorification of the Son of Man is therefore the past, present and future.
Jesus would die on the cross and would be raised (“immediately”) on the third day.
The meaning of the cross and the resurrection/ascension can be viewed as a singular event.
What the world saw as “shame” the Son received as “joy” (Heb 12:2).
A diminutive “τεκνία” - ‘little children’ (my dear children) is used (cf 1:12). (It is used seven times in 1 John and once in Gal 4:19). God addresses his children.
That Jesus is going to be with them “only a little longer” does not seem to them a good thing. On the historical level it will only be few hours more.
They will seek him but they cannot go where he is going (cf. 7:34; 8:21). But, if for the Jews it was a warning and the last call to believe in Him, for the disciples it has more consolatory meaning. Jesus lets them know ahead of time that a change in his presence and the manner in which they relate to him is about to take place (cf. 14:19; 16:16). This new mode of existence will be explained in 14:1–14.
Jesus’ departure is an inauguration of the way that is to be followed by the children of light (14:2, 4, 6). The disciples will also be soon transitioned into a new mode of relating with God “in Spirit and truth” (4:23).
13:34 - cf. 1 John 2:7–8
The content of this command is not entirely “new”, for love was a fundamental rule in the life of the OT people of God (cf. Lev 19:18; Luke 10:25–27). Jesus had already initiated this command by means of the foot washing - the “example” of the nature of this love (13:14–15).
The newness of this love is explained by the second part of Jesus’ statement - “as I have loved you”.
The departure of Jesus demands that God’s love for the world that Jesus inaugurated be expressed between the “children”, between those who have already experienced his love. It is the response to the love of Jesus.
The love commandment finds its source in and emulates the love between the Father and the Son (see 8:29; 10:18; 12:49–50; 14:31; 15:10).
Jesus explains further, that the purpose of this commandment is to witness to “all people” the identity of Christ’s disciples. This love, therefore, becomes the character trait and identity marker of the people of God (cf. Gal 5:6).
The love of God expressed by Jesus is now to go out into every corner of the world through the body of Christ, the Church.
“See how they love one another! How ready they are to die for one another!” (Tertullian, a testimony of the pagans about the Christians in the 2nd century).
Now, Peter ask Jesus directly (cf. 13:24) out of concern and perhaps even worry - where Jesus is going (cf. 7:35 - question of the Jews).
Jesus’ answer differs from the one in 13:33, because of the addition that Peter “now” cannot but “later” will follow Jesus.
The statement indicates the difference between Jesus and his disciples. Jesus has to go first - to pave the way, and he has to do it alone. After all, He is the unique Son of God. Only then, Peter and other Christ’s disciples can follow.
Interestingly, four disciples enter into Jesus’ words of farewell: Peter (here), Thomas (14:5), Philip (14:8), Judas (not Iscariot 14:22). Traditionally, during the Jewish Passover Eve the questions should be asked by four sons - the wise, the foolish, the simple, and the one who does not know how to ask.
Peter again does not accept Jesus’ words. He wants go with the Lord, to follow Him “immediately/now”. Moreover, similarly to Thomas in 11:16, Peter offers to die for Jesus. But, it is not Peter that needs to die for Jesus; it is Jesus that needs to die for Peter and the whole world.
By wanting to follow Jesus “immediately” and saying “I will lay down my life for you”, Peter still does not understand the meaning of the Cross - that it is the way to the Father and a means through which we all gain life.
Peter, and all of Jesus’ disciples, would understand the meaning of the cross only after Christ’s resurrection (cf. 21:15–19).
We often understand Peter’s words as over-confidence, but it is more than that. Peter again challenges Jesus’ way and wants to have it his own way (cf. Mk 8:31–33).
Jesus’ response is in a sense a rebuke of Peter’ challenge, which can be seen as an implicit attempt to thwart Jesus’ mission - to drink the cup the Father has given him to drink (cf. 18:10–11). By forcing himself to follow Christ “immediately” Peter will fail miserably - denying that he even knew Christ. That Jesus knows it ahead of time is another proof of his divinity.
Jesus responds to Peter’s question with a question, “Will you offer your life on behalf of me? Notice that the phrase ”your life" is at the beginning of the question for emphasis.
Peter, and all of us, have to learn the beautiful proclamation of Paul in Gal 2:20. It is Christ who offered his life for us, on behalf of all of us. To make it the other way around, is to misunderstand the Gospel.
The prediction of Peter’ denial begins with the authoritative “Amen, amen”.
Not only will Peter fail to offer his life one behalf of Jesus, he will even do the exact opposite: he will give up Jesus to save his own life (cf. 18:15–18, 25–27).
From that moment we do not hear of Peter until 18:10 where he again acts contrary to the will of the Father and his next words recorded in the Gospel are:
“I am not” one of Jesus’ disciple (18:17).