John 13:1-38

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With the approach of the Festival of Unleavened Bread preceded by the observance of Passover, Jesus knew that his “hour” or time had come to leave the world in which he had lived and to return to his Father. He was fully aware that it was the time for him willingly to surrender his life, not resisting or seeking to avoid being executed like a criminal seditionist. By laying down his life, he would express his great love for his disciples and for the world of mankind, as his sacrificial death would provide the basis for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with his Father. (13:1)

Jesus’ death would also serve to reveal his Father’s boundless love for mankind. By not sparing his dearly beloved Son from sacrificing his life, the Father reached out to the human family in a manner that should have left no doubt about his love. He thereby extended to all the opportunity to respond in faith or trust in him, appreciatively accepting his arrangement to be forgiven of their sins and to become his dear children.

As for his disciples, Jesus had always loved them and he “loved them to the end.” This could mean that his love continued to the very end or that he loved them to the limit, completely or utterly. The ultimate expression of his love proved to be the surrender of his life for them. (13:1)

In the evening, Jesus and the apostles arrived at the house in Jerusalem where they would be partaking of the Passover meal. The reference in Mark 14:17 to the “twelve” may indicate that, after having completed the preparations, Peter and John returned and that thereafter Jesus and all twelve apostles departed. Another possibility is that “twelve” functions as a collective designation for the apostles, meaning that Jesus arrived with the company of apostles numbering ten at the time. This included Judas Iscariot (the son of Simon) who had already, in his “heart” or deep inner self, yielded to the devil in the determination to betray him. (13:2)

Ancient Jewish sources provide background for understanding developments in connection with the Passover meal. The eating did not begin until after dark and all had reclined at the table. Four cups of wine were to be available. (Mishnah Pesahim, 10:1) The meal itself was to end by midnight. (Tosefta, Pesahim, 5:13) The head of the household or the one officiating pronounced a blessing over the first cup of wine. (Mishnah, Pesahim, 10:2; Tosefta, Pesahim, 10:2, 3) In conjunction with the second cup of wine (if the celebrants were part of a household), the son would ask his father about the significance of the event. If the boy was too young to ask questions, the father would teach him as much as he could comprehend. The head of the household would then begin a recitation of the Hallel, either all of Psalm 113 or both Psalm 113 and 114. The mixing of the third cup of wine was followed by a blessing for the food. When it came time for the fourth cup, the Hallel was completed. (Mishnah, Pesahim, 10:4, 6, 7) After the meal, the entire night would be spent in consideration of the laws of the Passover. (Tosefta, Pesahim, 10:11, 12)

Probably early during the course of the meal and likely before the introduction of the third cup of wine, Jesus, fully aware that his Father had given all things into his hands and that he had come from him and would be returning to him, undertook the task of a lowly servant. Not one of the apostles had thought to serve his fellow apostles by washing their feet, which would have become dusty during the course of their walk. (13:3)

Jesus, however, stood up, laid his outer garment down, girded himself with a towel, poured water into a basin, and commenced washing the feet of the disciples. To Peter it seemed inconceivable that his Lord, the Son of God, would wash the feet of a disciple, prompting him to say by way of objection, “Lord, are you washing my feet?” Jesus told Peter that, though he did not then comprehend this action, he would later come to understand it. Still, Peter protested, “You will never wash my feet.” He simply could not understand that Jesus, whose greatness he recognized, would perform the task of a lowly servant; it did not seem right to him. “If I do not wash [your feet],” said Jesus to Peter, “you have no share with me.” Immediately Peter stopped objecting. Highly valuing his relationship with Jesus and not wanting to jeopardize it in any way, he declared himself ready to submit to more extensive washing. “Lord, not my feet only,” Peter said, “but also the hands and the head.” (13:4-9)

Jesus pointed out that one who had bathed only needed to have his feet washed. Whereas the hands and the head were not in contact with the ground as one walked about, the sandals did not keep the feet clean. Therefore, as Jesus said, the bathed person who had his feet washed would be completely clean. Making an application to more than physical cleanness, he continued, “And you [apostles] are clean, but not all.” Jesus said this because he knew the one who would betray him and, therefore, the one who was not morally clean. He had treated Judas just like the other apostles, washing his feet and in no way acting in an unloving or resentful manner toward him. Nothing in Jesus’ words and actions gave a hint to the other apostles as to who the betrayer could possibly be. (13:10, 11)

Viewed from a moral standpoint, Jesus’ washing the feet of his disciples seemingly revealed the necessity of completely relying on him for cleansing from sin. Whereas believers have been forgiven of their sins on the basis of their faith in Christ and his sacrificial death for them, they still commit sins. Accordingly, they continue to need Jesus’ washing or cleansing from the transgressions committed in their daily walk. (1 John 1:8-2:2)

Jesus’ washing the feet of the apostles served as a vital object lesson for them about the way in which they should conduct themselves as unassuming servants. After having finished washing the feet of all twelve men, Jesus put on his robe and then reclined at the table. His question (“Do you know what I have done for you?”) served to draw to their attention the important lesson they should learn from his example. They rightly called him “Teacher” and “Lord,” for he indeed was such. Since he as their Teacher and Lord had washed their feet, they should have been willing to perform lowly tasks for others in imitation of his example. With a repetition of a solemn “amen” (truly), Jesus continued, “I say to you, a slave is not greater than his lord [master] nor is the one being sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, happy are you if you do them.” (13:12-17)

It would have been contrary to the sense of propriety for underlings to refuse to render the kind of service a master or one with authority to commission was willing to perform and to consider the service as beneath their dignity. With a proper understanding of their position as fellow servants, the disciples would be happy to act in that capacity. They would find joy in serving others in ways that could be considered as lowly. (13:16, 17)

Jesus’ words about experiencing happiness from doing what he had taught were not directed to everyone. He fully knew the ones whom he had chosen, not being blinded by any outward appearances. Among them was one whose actions were portrayed in the treachery described in Psalm 41:9(10), “The one who ate my bread has lifted up his heel against me.” The expression “lifting up of the heel” evidently signifies base treachery, the figure apparently being of a raised foot that is ready to kick. (13:18)

The quotation in John 13:18 from verse 9(10) of Psalm 41(40) conveys the basic thought of the Septuagint rendering (“the one eating my bread has magnified [his] treachery against me”), but the words are not identical. In the Septuagint, the Greek word for “treachery” is pternismós, a term incorporating the word ptérna, meaning “heel.” The related verb pternízo basically denotes “to bite someone’s heel,” to go behind someone’s back, to deceive, or to outwit. The quotation in John 13:18, however, says “heel” (ptérna), contains a different Greek word for “eat,” and uses a term for “lifted up,” not “magnified.”

Jesus explained why he had revealed that he would become the object of base treachery, saying, “When it happens, you may believe that I am [the one]. Amen, amen [Truly, truly], I say to you, Whoever receives anyone I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” The fulfillment of Jesus’ prophetic words would provide additional confirmation that he was indeed the Son of God. This would serve to strengthen the faith of the loyal apostles, for this development would be part of the cumulative evidence for their belief in him. All who would accept those whom Jesus had sent would recognize them as trustworthy witnesses about him. Therefore, the acceptance of those sent would constitute acceptance of Jesus as the sender, the one to whom the testimony of the messengers would have led all who embraced it. Acceptance of Jesus also signified acceptance of his Father, as he was his Father’s representative. (13:19, 20)

After Jesus referred to the words of the psalmist, he became greatly disturbed in spirit, or inwardly, and solemnly declared, “Amen, amen [Truly, truly], I say to you, One of you will betray me.” In great perplexity, the apostles looked at one another, with none of Jesus’ loyal apostles having any idea about who the future betrayer could possibly be. Among themselves they discussed regarding whom Jesus might have been speaking. His words distressed them. Not being able to imagine that they would make themselves guilty of betrayal, they asked, “Not I, [is it]?” (13:21, 22; see also Matthew 26:21, 22; Mark 14:18, 19; Luke 22:21-23.)

Peter must have wanted to ask Jesus personally who the betrayer would be, but he appears not to have been close enough to do so without being overheard. He then got the attention of the disciple whom Jesus particularly loved (John), requesting him to raise the question. John seems to have been reclining on Jesus’ right side, with his head being in close proximity to Jesus’ breast. This would have made it possible for him to lean back to speak to Jesus (doubtless in a subdued manner or whisper) without any of the other apostles being aware of it. (13:23-25)

In response to the question about who the betrayer would be, Jesus said, “It is the one for whom I shall dip the morsel and [to whom] I shall give it.” He then took the morsel, dipped it, and gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot. It would appear that Judas was within easy reach of Jesus, probably reclining on his immediate left. Thus, to the very end, Jesus treated him with kindness and even favored him with being in his close proximity. The account says that, as soon as Judas took the morsel, “Satan entered into him.” This suggests that, despite the love Jesus had shown him, Judas completely yielded to the satanic inclination that made him a traitor. Jesus then told him, “Quickly do what you are doing.” The other apostles did not know why Jesus said this to Judas. (13:26-28)

As Judas had been entrusted with the common fund, some among the apostles thought that he was being instructed to buy something needed for the festival or to give something to the poor. Immediately after he accepted the morsel, Judas left. The account adds, “And it was night.” This reference to “night” seems to have had more than a literal significance. It proved to be a night of darkness, for Jesus was betrayed and arrested. If judged from outward appearances, the powers of darkness had seemingly triumphed. (13:29, 30)

It would not have been unusual for someone to leave during the Passover meal or for several private conversations to be carried on among those eating. The meal itself was not a hurried affair. According to the Mishnah (Pesahim, 10:8), some might even fall asleep. If not all of the group fell asleep, they could resume eating upon waking up. One rabbinical view was that if all merely drowsed and did not fall into deep sleep, they could eat again. The Tosefta (Pesahim, 10:8) refers to those who had no one to recite the Hallel for them. They would then go to the synagogue for the reading of the first part, return home to eat and drink, and then return to the synagogue to complete the Hallel. If the distance was too great for them to return to the synagogue, the entire Hallel was completed the first time. This interruption of the meal with the Hallel may provide a basis for concluding that Judas left before the introduction of the third cup of wine. (13:30)

After Judas had left, Jesus referred to himself as the Son of Man when speaking of his glorification and that of his Father “in him.” In the Greek text, the verb for “glorified” is in the aorist tense, which is commonly used to denote something that happened in the past. By willingly submitting to his Father’s purpose for him and what this would ultimately accomplish, Jesus was glorified as the unique and beloved Son of God. “In him,” or by means of everything Jesus had done and would do as one fully submissive to his Father’s will for him, the Father was glorified or honored. Jesus’ willing surrender of his life would climax an earthly ministry devoted to glorifying his Father. At the same time, his Father had glorified him through the works he had empowered him to perform. Seemingly, because his ultimate glorification (his resurrection and ascension to heaven) was an imminent reality that would complete the glorification process, Jesus introduced his reference to the past glorification with the word “now” (nyn), “Now the Son of Man has been [or, was] glorified, and God has been [or, was] glorified in him.” (13:31)

Numerous Greek manuscripts represent Jesus as saying, “If God has been glorified in him [the Son of Man], also God will glorify him in himself, and he will immediately glorify him.” The omission in many other manuscripts of the introductory phrase (“If God has been glorified in him”) does not materially affect the meaning of the words that follow. The action of God’s Son in glorifying his Father, especially in the surrender of his life in full submission to his will, would lead to his Father’s glorifying him and doing so immediately. On the third day after Jesus’ death, his Father did glorify him, raising him from the dead and granting him unparalleled authority in heaven and on earth. When Jesus returned to his Father, he did so as the exalted Son who had the right to be universally acknowledged as Lord. (13:32; also see Philippians 2:9-11.)

Affectionately referring to his disciples as “children,” Jesus told them that he would be with them only a little while longer. “You will seek me,” he continued. As he had said on an earlier occasion to the unbelieving Jews (7:33, 34), he now told his disciples, “Where I am going you cannot come.” In the case of the disciples, their “seeking” would be indicative of a strong inner desire to be with Jesus. (Compare 2 Corinthians 5:1-6; Philippians 1:23.) He, however, would be absent from them, and they, in their earthly state of existence, would not be able to join him. (13:33)

While Jesus had been with his disciples, he had shown them the kind of love that surpassed everything they had formerly experienced. Now when he was about to make the superlative expression of his love by surrendering his life for them, he gave them a new commandment, one that required their loving one another as he had loved them. All observers would be able to recognize them as his disciples by the love they had for one another. What made this commandment new is that it went beyond the law’s requirement of loving one’s neighbor as oneself. In imitation of God’s Son, the new commandment called for a love that put the interests and well-being of others ahead of one’s own. This love was a self-sacrificing love that found its fulfillment in selfless giving and serving. (13:34, 35)

In response to Jesus’ words that the disciples would not be able to come to the place where he would be heading, Peter asked, “Lord, where are you going?” “Where I am going,” Jesus replied, “you cannot follow me now, but you will follow later.” Jesus would surrender his life, be resurrected, and return to his Father. Later, Peter would also die and, upon being raised from the dead, would again be with Jesus. (13:36)

As one who deeply loved God’s Son, Peter felt that he was prepared to go anywhere with him regardless of what the circumstances might be. Even if it were to mean imprisonment or death for him, he would not hesitate to go. (Luke 22:33) Firmly convinced about his loyalty to Jesus, Peter said, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will give up my soul [life] for you.” (13:37)

“Will you give up your soul for me?” Jesus replied. Then, with a solemn introductory “amen, amen” (truly, truly), he declared that Peter would disown him three times that night before a cock crowed, probably just before dawn. (13:38)