John 13:1-20

Jesus’ Hour Begins

John 13:1-2     The Hour has Finally Come

1 It was before the festival of Passover.  
Jesus knew that the hour had come
for him to pass from this world to his Father.  
He had loved his own in the world.
Now he loved them to the utmost.

The comment of the Gospel served to introduce readers to the change of mood that would become obvious as the narrative would finally focus on the death and resurrection of Jesus. At last, his hour had come.

Jesus had spoken frequently of this hour [2:4; 7:30; 8:20; 12:23,27]. His movement towards the Father, which had gradually unfolded across his life, was about to reach its climax. What had already been clearly promised in the narrative was about to climax: God loved the world so much that he gave his only son, so that whoever believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life [3:16].

The time of Passover was significant theologically. Passover presented the context of liberation – of God’s commitment to set humanity free. 

The Gospel wanted to indicate clearly that the motivating force behind all that was to follow was love, love to the utmost. The phrase to the utmost can be taken to mean that Jesus loved, either with total intensity, or up to the very last moment. The text may have been deliberately ambiguous.

Jesus’ last meal with his disciples would happen before the festival of Passover. Though it would take place on the Thursday evening, it would not be a Passover Meal. According to the dating of this Gospel, the Passover of that year would be celebrated on the Friday evening and Saturday (and would coincide with the Sabbath). In stating this, the text clearly departed from the timing of Passover given in the other Gospels. All four of them agreed that the meal happened on the Thursday evening. However, for the Synoptic Gospels, the Thursday evening was the evening that began the Passover Festival; the meal was clearly a Passover Meal; and Jesus was killed on Friday, which was the day of Passover. The Beloved Disciple’s dating was probably correct, but his intention was theological: Jesus’ death would happen on the Friday afternoon of the day of Preparation [18:28; 19:14, 42], and would coincide with the moment when the paschal lambs were being killed in the temple in preparation for the Passover Meal that evening. By doing this, it would clearly portray one of the clear meanings of Jesus’ death in the light of the liberating death of a Lamb of God (already alluded to by John the Baptist [1:29]).

2 Dinner had begun.  
The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Simon Iscariot
to hand him over.

The devil was at work. What was to follow would be nothing less than the cosmic struggle between good and evil. Human persons would be involved, but they would be the unknowing (though not unwilling) agents of a greater conflict. Human treachery, the sin of the world, would seek to overshadow the beauty of Jesus’ love, but, in fact, would serve to highlight it: The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness did not overpower it [1:5].

Jesus’ Last Meal with Disciples

John 13:3-20     Washing the Disciples' Feet 

3 Jesus knew that the Father had given everything into his hands,
and that he had come from God and would go to God.
4 He got up from the meal,
removed his outer garments,
took a towel and tied it around himself.
5 Then he put water into the basin
and began to wash the feet of the disciples
and dry them with the towel around his waist.

 By its solemn statement about Jesus’ knowledge, origin and destiny, the Gospel wished to emphasise, not simply Jesus’ sense of his own identity and mission, but also his personal freedom and deliberate choice to be part of all that was about to unfold.

The words removed and tied around are the same words used earlier in the narrative, where they were translated, in a reference to the Good Shepherd, as laying down his life and taking it up again: The Father loves me, and for this reason I lay down my life so that I may take it up again.  No one else takes it from me; rather I lay it down of myself.[10:17-18].

Though the translation failed to make the connection, the Disciple intended the imagery to provide the context for what Jesus was about to do, and to indicate its meaning.

In the culture, the washing of guests’ feet was a customary gesture of hospitality and friendship. However, the host would never do the action himself; that was the work of servants. Jesus’ gesture was disconcerting.

The text observed that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. It did not mention which disciples. Readers normally assume that the twelve were present – but the text does not say so.

The Gospel proceeded to provide two reflections on the significance of Jesus’ action, both of them generated from within the community, but independent of each other. 

First Reflection – Symbol of Jesus’ Saving Action

6 He came to Simon Peter,
who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

Peter’s reaction indicated a deep discomfort at being humbly served by Jesus. He could not cope with such self-effacing hospitality. Jesus' gesture expressed a degree of intimacy to which Peter was not yet open.

7 Jesus answered him, “Right now you do not know what I am doing,
but you will know later on.” 
8 Peter said to him, “You will never ever wash my feet.”  
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you can never share with me.”

Obviously, the gesture had a hidden meaning and pointed beyond itself to something else. Like Mary’s gesture of anointing Jesus’ feet with nard and wiping them with her hair [12:7], this gesture of Jesus signified and anticipated a future that Peter did not yet know.

What did Jesus’ action signify and anticipate? It signified Jesus’ service of humanity to the point of death – an act of hospitality motivated by sheer love that would soon find expression through death and resurrection. Jesus would save the world [3:17] and break forever the stranglehold of evil. Were Peter definitively to refuse that love, that hospitality (as Judas would seem to be intent on doing), he would shut himself off from an eternity of loving intimacy with Jesus: you can never share with me.

9 Then Simon Peter said to him,
“Lord, not only my feet then, but my hands and my head.”

Not surprisingly, without grasping what Jesus was alluding to, Peter reacted to Jesus’ threat of exclusion with an exuberant change of heart.

10 Jesus said to him,
“People who have bathed have no need to wash anything,
except the feet.  
They are clean all over.  
And you are clean, though not all of you.”
11 He knew who was going to betray him,
and so he said that ‘not all of you’ are clean.

Scholars are divided about whether the phrase except the feet appeared in the original manuscript.

The text distinguishes bathing from washing. Bathing involves the whole body and envisages immersion in domestic or communal baths. Washing is restricted to parts of the body.

Judas would betray Jesus; Peter would deny him; the other disciples would abandon him. Yet, Peter and the disciples were clean [15:3], and Judas was not. Why the difference? Judas’s betrayal came from his loss of faith in Jesus (and loss of love). Peter and the other disciples did not lose faith (or love). Their faith (and love) were incomplete, and their behaviour inconsistent under pressure, but their actions did not come from a total loss of faith – as seems to have been the case with Judas.

Jesus’ death would provide an all-inclusive bathing.  It would not be a partial washing. It would cleanse all their sinfulness – provided they were open to its power. By his lack of faith, Judas had closed himself to its cleansing action.

Scholars discuss whether the verse as a whole was a later addition to an earlier version of the Gospel. As it stands, it may carry a sacramental reference to baptism as practised in the Christian community. (In this sacramental context, the need to wash the feet even after bathing [if the phrase is not an addition to the original text] could refer to the need for forgiveness for personal sins committed after baptism. The meaning of the text is not clear.)

Second Reflection – Example of Service

The second reflection had a more immediate and ethical, even moralistic, application.

12 When he had washed their feet, and put his outer garments back on,
he reclined again at table
and said, “Do you know what I have done to you?
13 You address me as Master, and Lord.  
What you say is true, because I am. 
14 So if I your Lord and Master have washed your feet,
then you too ought to wash each other’s feet.
15 I have set you an example
that you should do what I have done to you.”

The reflection can sound disconcerting to the modern reader: If Jesus acted precisely in order to set an example for the disciples, his motivation might indicate that his action was not primarily an expression of genuine love for them. It would detract from his integrity and introduce an element of hidden agenda and dishonesty.

The original community may not have reacted to the story in the same way. The first generation of disciples knew from experience the deep, adult and unpatronising love of Jesus. The next generation would have been equally clear from their direct experience of those who had known Jesus. They were disposed to hear the story differently.

Jesus accepted the inevitable relationship based on his role as Master (and, as far as the Christian community was concerned, as Lord), but, for him, that was not enough. The love he yearned for was not simply that of master for disciple, or disciple for master. He sought the love that is unique to peers: the love that makes possible the deepest friendship [15:15]. He would place himself at their level, and erase all difference raised by role.

There is a necessary place for symbols in any deep and personal relationship. At this vital moment of his life, Jesus wished to convey to the disciples, as forcefully as he could, just how much he loved them. Certainly, his action was dramatic. In hindsight, it would help them recognise the meaning of his death as a death in service of humanity. 

He had a further message to convey. The love between Jesus and the disciples went beyond mutual fascination, however intimate. The love was mutual, but it opened out also to others. Jesus wanted it to become a sense of truly shared vision and commitment; he wanted each of them joyfully to share in his love for the other disciples (indeed, for the whole world), and not restrict it solely to him.

He had washed the feet of all the disciples; they were to wash each other’s feet. He wanted them to reach out and to love, not only himself, but the others whom he also loved. Though his action was not primarily motivated by the desire to set an example, it nevertheless could clearly and usefully serve that purpose – and he wanted them to get the point.

Love and Service in the Christian Community

Jesus was not moralizing – telling the disciples what they should strive to do. He was simply illustrating the true dynamic of love. The indispensible starting point in the relationship was to receive love, Jesus’ love for them. Without firstly receiving his love, all their striving would lack its source of power. Yet genuinely receiving Jesus’ love would inevitably lead them beyond mere intimacy, wonderful though it might be. The end point of mutual love is the sharing of vision and commitment. Until disciples love like Jesus, they have not fully opened themselves to the reality of his love. 

The event had meaning also for the Christian community as such. Jesus was both welcoming host and caring servant at the same time. Disciples were not only to do what he had done, but were to be as he had been. Every disciple was to be both welcoming host and caring servant. Within the community, all were called to gracious hospitality and loving service. This common responsibility did not rule out personal charisms, but left no room for roles of honour and status.

16 In all truth, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, 
nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. 

The comment was added as a confirmation of Jesus’ point. (The same text would recur in Jesus’ Discourse [15:20]. It is found, in different contexts, in the Gospels of Matthew [10:24] and Luke [6:40].  Obviously it circulated in the early Christian communities, unconnected to a specific context.)

In Jesus’ mind, considerations of relative greatness have no place in Christian community, where all have been called to mutual service and love.

17 You know these things. Blessed are you if you do them.

This is one of only two “beatitudes” found in the Gospel (the other will occur in 20:29). Its presence highlights the overriding importance given in the Gospel to love as the source of blessedness and of personal and social harmony.

Truly knowing these things – Jesus’ love for them – would empower disciples to do them, that is, to love as he did.

18 I am not speaking of all of you;
I am well aware of those whom I have chosen. 
In this way, the scriptural word took shape literally…
‘The one eating bread with me raised his heel against me.’ 

The quotation was taken from Psalm 41:9:

Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted,
who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me.

The literal enactment of the image would occur a little later in the narrative (verse 26).

19 I am telling you this now, before it happens,
so that when it has happened,
you may believe that I am he. 

Consistently, the Gospel insisted on Jesus’ full awareness of his situation and his control of events. Despite all appearances to the contrary, and notwithstanding his imminent dehumanisation and brutalization on the cross, the disciples would be enabled to believe in Jesus’ unique relationship with his Father and his mysterious identity – I am [he].

The Gospel had already made the point that Jesus knew that one of the disciples would betray him. He would soon inform the other disciples explicitly [verse 21]. Perhaps, the fact was alluded to here in order to underline the enormity of the betrayal in the light of Jesus’ clear offer of intimate love and friendship.

Jesus was not painting an unrealistic image of life in the community of disciples. Love would necessarily coexist with human weakness. 

20 In all truth, I tell you, whoever welcomes anyone whom I send welcomes me; 
and whoever welcomes  me welcomes him who sent me.”

Though not particularly relevant, the comment connected with the point made earlier: nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them.  Like that text, it is found in the Gospels of Mark [9:37], Matthew [10.40] and Luke [9:48] – though, again, in different contexts.

Interpreting Jesus’ Last Meal and its Relationship to his Death

In the Synoptic Gospels, the story of the institution of the Eucharist interpreted and made explicit the meaning of Jesus’ death. 

Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet in John’s Gospel served a similar purpose. 

The Synoptic Gospels presented Jesus’ Last Supper as a Paschal Meal. It was celebrated in a context of remembered liberation. The Synoptic Gospel writers believed that Jesus’ death secured the definitive liberation of humanity; and the Eucharist was its ritual remembrance. They emphasised that Jesus’ body was “given for you”, and his blood was “poured out for many (or for you) for the forgiveness of sins”.

The eating of his body and the drinking of his blood was a ritual in which “all” were to participate together. The sharing of food was a powerful sign of mutual acceptance and unity, not just of the host with the guests, but of the guests among themselves. Indeed, a meal shared in common among friends beautifully symbolised the removal of the world’s sin, with its destructive self-interest, competitiveness and violence.

Luke had made even more explicit the priority of mutual acceptance and commitment to community, following the consistent example of Jesus.  In his final discourse during the supper, Jesus said there: “the greatest among you must become like the youngest, and the leader like one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves” [Luke 22:26-27].

Luke’s account had also added Jesus’ command: “Do this in remembrance of me.” This has usually been understood to refer to the ritual repetition of the sacramental meal. However, by “Do this”, Jesus may also have meant that the disciples were to give their lives for each other out of love – following, and in that way commemorating, the example he would soon set in his passion and death. 

The Gospel of John, on the other hand, has no account of the institution of the Eucharist. Many scholars believe that the reflection on the body and blood of Jesus, inserted into the longer discourse on the Bread of Life [6:51-58], may have been originally situated somewhere in this account of Jesus’ Last Supper.

In that reflection, Jesus had made the point that he would give his “flesh” for the life of the world, indeed, for its “eternal life”. Those who would eat his flesh and drink his blood would “dwell in him, and he in them”. (“Dwell” had the sense of knowing and sharing the inner world of his vision, his motivating love and his constant sense of God.) They would live “because of him”. Jesus did not use the word “liberation”. He spoke, rather, of “eternal life” – with its connotations of communion, unity, justice and equality (which would become even clearer in the Discourse soon to follow). Liberation would be the means, eternal life its ultimate purpose.

As John’s Gospel understood it, Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet fulfilled a purpose similar to the institution narrative in the Synoptic Gospels. The reflections given by Jesus after washing the disciples’ feet made it clear that

  • the ritual – the act of loving service – symbolised his death, 
  • by means of which the disciples would be enabled to have their “share with him”, 
  • and by which they would be made “clean” and liberated from the destructive negativity and sin of the world.

Though John’s Gospel made no mention of “remembrance”, Jesus wanted his gesture to be remembered by the disciples within the Christian community. They were to follow his “example”. They were to make their own, and to live out, the “cleanness” he made possible for them by “washing one another’s feet”

  • by reaching out to each other, empowered by love,
  • and by recognising and profoundly respecting each other’s equal dignity.

Next >> John 13:21-30