(John 13:1-2 NET) Just before the Passover feast, Jesus knew that his time had come to depart from this world to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now loved them to the very end [finish]. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, that he should betray Jesus.
John sets up a powerful contrast. Jesus loved his apostles to the end. “End” (telos or “finish”) looks ahead to –
(John 17:4 NIV) I have brought you glory on earth by finishing the work you gave me to do.
(John 19:28 ESV) After this, Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, said (to fulfill the Scripture), “I thirst.”
(John 19:30 ESV) 30 When Jesus had received the sour wine, he said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.
Jesus loved his own to the end of his life, even at the cost of his life. Judas, however, after three years with Jesus, faltered near the finish.
It’s not entirely obvious why the authorities needed Judas to identify Jesus. After all, he had become a celebrity. The crowds were ready to make him king. How hard could it be to find him?
But this was an age without communications. No phones. No radios. And the city was filled with Passover pilgrims from all over the Empire. Jesus evidently wore clothes that looked like everyone else’s. He looked like everyone else. And the authorities were tired of waiting. After all, if the Romans caught wind of his claim to the throne, there’d be a brutal retaliation. There was no time to wait!
(John 13:3-4a ESV) 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, 4 rose from supper.
This is one of the most amazing passages in all of the Bible. Why did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet? Well, the text says it’s because “the Father had given all things into his hands.” That’s right. Because he is King of the universe, he washes feet — because this is the nature of a godly king.
There is no “despite” or “even though.” There is no contrast between being God and washing feet.
It’s not just that he wants to set a good example. It’s the nature of God. He was being true to his essential self, revealing what it means to be God.
(Luk 22:25-27 ESV) 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.”
Jesus was not just teaching a lesson on how apostles should behave. This was for all of us. We should all be footwashers — willing to do the work of a slave for our brothers in Christ, utterly without glory or praise from anyone other than the Father.
(John 13:4b ESV) He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.
Leon Morris, in the New International Commentary series, concludes that Jesus stripped down to a loin cloth — just as a slave would. Imagine this: The Savior of the world, co-creator of the universe, strips down to his underwear, wraps a towel around his waste, and begin to clean the filthy feet of this apostles — including Judas Iscariot.
(John 13:5 ESV) 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.
The parallel with Mary’s early act has to be important. Mary used her hair and perfume, but Jesus acted the part of a slave. It is as though Jesus was saying: “Yes, it was right that Mary anoint me and wash my feet, but that’s only because of this unique moment in history. Otherwise, the way we should all — myself included – act toward one another is as a slave. And slaves do their work expecting no reward at all from those they serve.”
The obvious parallel is –
(Phi 2:5-8 NET) 5 You should have the same attitude toward one another that Christ Jesus had, 6 who though he existed in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself by taking on the form of a slave, by looking like other men, and by sharing in human nature. 8 He humbled himself, by becoming obedient to the point of death– even death on a cross!
Notice how Paul associates the work of a slave with the cross. Some commentators make the same connection, concluding that the footwashing was a demonstration of the meaning of the cross that was to come.
The NET translators comment –
Traditionally, “servants” or “bondservants.” Though δοῦλος (doulos) is normally translated “servant,” the word does not bear the connotation of a free individual serving another. BDAG notes that “‘servant’ for ‘slave’ is largely confined to Biblical transl. and early American times…in normal usage at the present time the two words are carefully distinguished” (BDAG 260 s.v.). The most accurate translation is “bondservant” (sometimes found in the ASV for δοῦλος), in that it often indicates one who sells himself into slavery to another. But as this is archaic, few today understand its force.
Slavery in Roman times was different from American pre-Civil War slavery. It was not racist. A Greek slave might work for Greek master. It was usually possible for a slave to gain his freedom through payment of a redemption price. And slavery was often voluntarily undertaken, typically to pay off debts.
Wayne Grudem explains it this way –
[I]t was an institution far different from the horrible abuses of slavery in the 18th and 19th century in North America, in the Caribbean, and in Latin America. A “bondservant” in the first century could normally earn his freedom by age 30, was protected by an extensive set of Roman laws, and owned private property. These “bondservants” often had significant responsibility as teachers, lawyers, physicians, managers, shopkeepers, and so forth.
In the parable of the talents that Jesus tells, the master entrusts one “bondservant” with one talent, another with two, and another with five, which in modern equivalent terms would be equal to $400,000, $800,000, and $2,000,000 in U.S. currency today (or £210,000, £420,000, and £1,050,000). Then the master went away for a long time and these “bondservants” were left with the responsibility to manage the resources well. Such “bondservants” were in a much better situation than the day laborers who had to go into the market square and look for work each day (see Matthew 20:1-7).
Nonetheless, slaves were sometimes beaten and treated with great cruelty. They weren’t considered subhuman, but they had very little in the way of rights. They had to do what they were told or the master could legally kill them — even could have them crucified.
When Jesus makes himself into a slave, he asks us to imagine that he has surrendered everything, relying on the good graces of his master — not law or rights — for his protection. He doesn’t do what he does for a negotiated price. He can’t bargain. He just obeys.
An excellent metaphor would be that of a sheep to his shepherd. The sheep has no rights. Indeed, the shepherd could slaughter and eat the sheep! But because the shepherd cares for the sheep, the shepherd keeps the sheep safe — at times, even against the desires of the sheep.
For a First Century Hebrew or Greek to sell himself into slavery would have been an act of great trust and faith in his master. He had to count on the master to treat him well, but if the master did not, the slave was utterly without recourse.
(John 13:6-9 ESV) 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 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.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Peter, characteristically vocal, questions the rightness of Jesus’ actions. After all, Peter had just seen Mary wash Jesus’ feet. Jesus is the Messiah! He is King! Peter, very understandably, felt unworthy to have his feet washed by the Redeemer of Israel.
Jesus replies that if Peter refuses to submit — or more precisely, refuses to let Jesus submit — “you have no share with me.” In other words, to enter the Kingdom, one must let Jesus wash your feet — and you must be willing to do the same for others.
Peter, still not understanding but knowing that he wanted to be with Jesus, responds, “Then wash all the more!” Peter, at this point, was no great theologian or ethicist, but he understood who Jesus is — and wanted nothing more than to be just like the rabbi.
Jesus’ point about the necessity of accepting the washing would seem to be much the same as saying we must accept the cross. We must accept that we are saved by grace, through faith. We know we don’t deserve it, and figuring that we’re wiser than God, sometimes insist on refusing the sacrifice, wanting to be saved by works instead. But that, of course, misses the point entirely. Indeed, to refuse grace as grace is to lose one’s share in the Kingdom.