A Bible Lesson on John 13:1-17

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

This is a lesson on the first part of John 13.  The setting seems to be Thursday of Passion week and Jesus is sharing a meal with the disciples.  Jesus gives the disciples a visual aid about who He is and what He is doing, and about how they are to act and what they are to become.

If you compare the accounts of the last supper in the other Gospels to this one, you will find that John chooses to highlight different things than Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  This account is unique to John’s Gospel.

John 13:1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

John says this is before the Passover Feast.  Passover begins at sundown on Friday.  It seems from this that the last supper was not a Passover meal.  On the other hand, the other Gospels indicate clearly that it was the Passover meal.  There are various theories on this matter offering plausible resolutions of this.

“Jesus knew.”  John repeatedly says this.  Jesus is not just rolling with the punches.  He knows and is in fact in charge of what’s going to happen here in accord with the will of the Father.  Notice that this is very near the “end” in terms of Jesus’s full-time teaching of the disciples.  We might infer that what He calmly takes time to picture and reinforce here is vital.

Having loved them, He loved them “to the end,” or more literally “to the uttermost.”  He loved them both “to the end” and “absolutely.”  The word “love” is key to the whole of John, the whole of the Passion, and to this particular incident.  Jesus loves these guys, who He knows well will desert and deny Him within just a few hours, but it is His very nature that He loves them (and us) and moves ahead, knowing full well what is to come.

2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him,

Judas was there in spite of His decision to betray Jesus.  J.C. Ryle writing on this passage makes much of the warning this should be to us, that privileges and head knowledge don’t save us, and in fact only make hell more horrible when there is no real submission to and dependence upon Christ.

3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,

Again, Jesus knew.  He is calmly going about what He knows to be important, without any hint of panic over the next day’s events.  Recall John 10:18, Jesus speaking of His life says

John 10:18 No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This charge I have received from my Father.”

So in deliberate fashion, Jesus goes about a symbolic act.  What He’s about to do is symbolic in two ways.  In the first place, He illustrates for us what the cross will be about, washing us clean from sin through His own humiliation.  In the second place, He’s setting an example for the disciples and us, letting us know what we are to do for each other.

John 13:4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.

The verb rendered “laid aside” is the same one used in John 10:15 “… just as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep.”

5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

What have the disciples got to be thinking here?  Just how menial was the task that Jesus was performing?  This was so low, that it couldn’t be required of a Hebrew slave!  Certainly no Rabbi would be touching the feet of another person.  Feet were considered so unseemly that they weren’t mentioned in polite conversation.

It is revealing to hear from one of the other Gospels what was going on in the way of conversation as Jesus begins to do the work of the lowest servant.

Luke 22:24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.

25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.

26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.

27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

The disciples have been disputing about who is the greatest, and Jesus takes the opportunity to illustrate for them.

John 13:6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

The “you” and the “my” are emphatic.

7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”

Calvin said, “These words teach us that we should simply obey Christ, even though it is not clear to us why he wants this or that thing done.  In a well-organized house, the decisions are taken by one person, the head of the family; and the servants have to use their hands and feet for him.  Thus the man who refuses God’s commands because he does not know the reason for it is too haughty.”

8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”

Think what’s going on in Peter’s head here.  He’s shocked, surprised, embarrassed.  But there’s pride evident here.  He’s humble and proud of it, and in the process, he’s not afraid to be ordering Jesus around!  Peter is whole-hearted, but misguided and flat wrong.  Peter is loyal, but he’s loyal to a Jesus that he’s making up, that he thinks should be acting in accord with his/Peter’s view of things. not to a Jesus that is revealing Himself to be other than Peter expects.  In Peter’s little mind, Jesus needs some straightening out.  He does not give in when corrected.  He’s obstinate.  Calvin said, “The true wisdom of faith is to approve and embrace with reverence whatever comes from God, knowing that it is done rightly and properly. … until a man renounces his freedom to pass judgment on God’s deeds, no matter how much he may try to honor God, pride will always lurk disguised by humility.”

Jesus says “If I do not wash you.”  Jesus is not talking about foot washing at this point, but instead about washing us from sin by His blood on the cross.  He says, “you have no share with me.”  You are not in fellowship with me.

9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

Indeed, as Jesus said in verse 7, Peter doesn’t have a clue about what’s going on.  And, he’s still dictating to Jesus how things ought to go.  Morris says, “Peter is reluctant to let Jesus do what he wants.  He prefers to dictate the terms.”

10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”

Jesus makes one of these statements, half of which is meant literally and half of which is not.  The first phrase of verse 10, about a person who has had a bath, is a statement of physical fact.  People didn’t come out to dinner without washing up, especially Jews concerned with not defiling themselves with something unclean would have washed up.

“And you are clean, but not all/every one of you.”  The “all” would refer to “all” of their bodies.  That is, their feet needed washing, so their whole bodies weren’t clean.  This is probably what the disciples heard Jesus saying.  The “every one” (as rendered in the ESV) meaning would refer to “every one, the whole number” of the disciples.  That is, Jesus recognized the presence of Judas in the group and the fact that he was about to betray Jesus.

11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

Jesus has given the disciples a picture of the embarrassing, demeaning humiliation that He is about to suffer on the cross for their (and our) washing from sin.  He now states for them, in fairly explicit terms, the implications of His humility for their relationships.

Jesus has set a pattern for attitudes and action in the church.  We should hear this for ourselves, not for someone else.

12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?

13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.

14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.

16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.

17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

The standard for our willingness to do what is needed, in spite of how menial it appears and how important we think we or our time are, is the example of Jesus.

The New Testament letters amplify on this theme a number of places.  For example there is this:

Philippians 2:3  Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.

4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.

5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,

 6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped,

7 but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.

8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

This, if we would be honest about it, is a radical, shocking attitude.  Humility, both then and now was equated with weakness.  !!Obedience!!  These are more than just nice platitudes.  They constitute a challenge to our old nature of the most vigorous sort.

There are also these:

Titus 3:1 Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work,

2 to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.

1Peter 5:5  Likewise, you who are younger, be subject to the elders. Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for “God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble.”

6  Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you,

How tangible is all of this supposed to be?  It is supposed to be possible to actually SEE it worked out in practice.  Note again verse 17.  You will be blessed if you DO them.  Jesus never sanctions knowing about truth or giving mental assent to truth without action.  1Timothy 5:10 is interesting in this regard.  It is speaking in reference to the support of widows in the church.  The church is to JUDGE the good deeds and humility of a widow in the congregation.  No visible evidence of this kind of humble attitude, no support from the church.

1Timothy 5:9 Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband,

10  and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work.

What Jesus models in the foot washing must be tangible, or its not real.

Is there anything too menial for a servant of Christ?  Cleaning church toilets?  Cutting the church grass?  Physical labor?  Helping in the nursery?  Changing kids’ diapers?  Doing the grunt work of organizing some program or congregational event?  Bringing help to a harried young mother, or a shut-in old person?  If there are things that are just too low for me or my time, I am really saying that I am above my Savior, that His wishes and example are not applicable to me.

We ought to ask ourselves “In what tangible ways do I put this example into practice?” … remembering that verse 17 holds a promise.  We will be blessed if we do them.

Ryle said, “Let us note the solemn principle which lies beneath the verse.  Doing good is the only sure proof of spiritual life.  Knowledge without practice is the character of the devil.  None knows more truth, and none does more evil than he.  Let us not forget that!”

Here is a .pdf of this lesson.

Scripture taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version.  Copyright 2000; 2001, by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.  Used by permission.  All rights reserved.

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