At this point in the Gospel we move out of the streets into the quiet of a room. “The noise of the cosmos has died away: the stillness of night prevails” (Bultmann). And yet, in [that] quiet room, Jesus is preparing his disciples for the mission to the world on which he will send them. And the word cosmos occurs no less than forty times in the five chapters [13-17] which begin here.
Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel, Eerdmans, p.167.
Summary of the Text
Maundy Thursday, An Introduction: When I (Stu) first began attending a Protestant Church (I grew up Catholic), and heard about something called “Maundy Thursday”, I assumed folks were mispronouncing the word “Monday”, saying “Monday Thursday.” “Why would they call Thursday Monday,” I wondered? “Are we repeating Monday?” My guess is I am not alone in this error, but it does bring up the question, what exactly is Maundy Thursday?
Maundy is the english translation of the word “Mandatum.” “Well that’s helpful.” Mandatum is Latin for “command,” which specifically refers to Jesus’ words in John 13:34 “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. We will get into further detail in our summary of this command, but suffice it to say, it is inextricably linked to Jesus’ actions at the beginning of our passage, where He washes the feet of His disciples.
Setting the Stage: There is a significant transition that takes place in John 13, from the triumphal entry and it’s very public nature to the intimacy of a private dining room, the “upper room” provided a place for Jesus to set the stage for His final weekend on earth (before his resurrection of course). Jesus knew his “hour” (vs.1) had come, and this last meal would serve as an opportunity for Jesus to remind the disciples what kingdom living looks like.
This scene will also describe how one of Jesus’ disciples has been prompted by the devil (diabolos) to betray Jesus, setting up the events that will unfold on “Good” Friday, where Jesus will die on a cross for the sins of the world. (See the word study section for more on Judas’ betrayal) But backing up just a moment, John tells us that the last supper took place “just before the Passover Festival.” John seems intent on connecting the great rescue/salvation of the Israelites from Pharaoh to Jesus’ rescue/salvation moment as well.
The Foot Washing: On the surface, Jesus’ decision to wash the disciples’ feet might seem straightforward. But once you get a firm grasp of the historical context, it becomes clear that Jesus was engaging in extremely strange behavior in light of contemporary social norms. Colin Kruse, in his Commentary in the Tyndale series, sets the stage well:
Jesus’ action was unprecedented. A wife might wash her husband’s feet, children might wash their father’s feet, and disciples might wash their master’s feet, but in every case it would be an act of extreme devotion. Footwashing was normally carried out by a servant, not by those participating in the meal, and certainly not by the one presiding at the meal. According to later Jewish tradition, a Jewish slave would not be asked to wash people’s feet.
That task was assigned to a Gentile slave. Presumably, there was no servant at the venue where Jesus ate the Passover with his disciples. There must have been a period of embarrassment as the disciples realized there was no-one available to do the foot washing, and none of them was prepared to carry out this menial service for the others. The consternation of the disciples would have been palpable as they realized Jesus was preparing himself to carry out this lowly service. (Tyndale Commentary, p.276.)
Peter’s Response: As has been the case before, Peter speaks up for the rest of the disciples by saying, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” In other words, this is insane Jesus! If anyone should be washing feet, it should be one of us, your disciples. Jesus responds by saying essentially, “this doesn’t make sense right now, but it will later.” (vs.7) Peter then doubles down, “you shall never wash my feet!” But Jesus pulls the ultimate trump card: “Unless I wash you, You have no part of me.” This might seem somewhat of an odd statement, but it serves as a clue that this footwashing is not really about cleanliness, but is rather an initiation into communion with Jesus. Again Colin Kruse is quite helpful:
Such a response by Jesus makes no sense if all that was involved was footwashing. In fact, Peter’s refusal was commendable. At least he recognized the inappropriateness of a disciple allowing his master to wash his feet. The meaning of Jesus’ response, therefore, must be sought at a deeper level.
Jesus’ self-humiliation in washing his disciples’ feet symbolized his self-humiliation in accepting death upon the cross to bring about their cleansing from sin. In this respect, Peter and the rest of the disciples must accept what Jesus did for them, for if they did not, clearly they could have no part with him. ‘To have a part with Jesus’ means literally ‘to share things with Jesus’, or, less literally, to have fellowship with him. Jesus was saying to Peter that unless he was prepared to accept what he would do for him on the cross, there could be no relationship between them.
Christian Service Defined: Thus it is important for the preacher to recognize that this is not some weak-kneed allusion to humility on the part of Jesus’ followers. Rather, it is an invitation to a kind of death, death to self-centered religion and into a revolutionary new life that will be marked by the sacrificial love that Jesus himself evinced in both the foot washing and his ultimate death on a cross. Gail O’Day in the New International Version Application Commentary series, puts it this way:
The call of vv. 12–15 is to embody the love and service of Jesus for one another. In the community’s embodiment and enactment of Jesus’ love, the community [Vol. 9, p. 728] reveals Jesus’ identity to the world. It is critical that this christological dimension be understood as definitional for the foot washing. Jesus does not simply issue a general call for service; he issues a call to give as he gives, to love as he loves. (p.727)
This is the takeaway of John 13. We are called to serve as Jesus served, and to love as Jesus loved. May we find concrete opportunities throughout our lives to show the world this love.
Word Study: Paradidomai
In the second verse of John 13, the NIV translates the action of Judas as “to betray”, but this is a translation decision that loses some of the original context of the passage. As Dale Bruner comments, paradidomai means to literally hand over” It is the word used in the Old Testament for God’s great historical acts of “handing over” his people, peoples, or individuals to judgments of chastisement and discipline;
There are multiple handovers in our Gospel, especially during the Passion: by the Father of his Son for Atonement, by the Son of himself for his Father and world, by the “disciple” Judas of his Rabbi to death, by the people’s leaders to the people’s judgment [and by the people to their leaders judgment], by the people’s leaders to the Roman authorities, by Pilate to the leaders’ judgments and so to his soldiers’ execution, by the soldiers to the Cross, and finally by Jesus of his Spirit to his at the-Cross Church [19:30]. The old translation of the verb paradidomi as “betray” misses the juridical and even gospel sense of these several “handovers.” (Dale Bruner, The Gospel of John: A Commentary, p.754)
Stuart Strachan Jr. is an ordained Presbyterian Pastor as well as the founder and lead curator of the Pastor’s Workshop. His primary passion is equipping the saints for the ministry of the church (Ephesians 4). He loves preaching, teaching, and helping churches cast vision for what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st Century. He has served churches in a variety of capacities in California, Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Washington.
Stu is married to Colleen, who currently serves as a spiritual formation lead at Compassion International in Colorado Springs. Stu and Colleen have two children (Jack and Emma) whom they love deeply.
In his free time, Stu enjoys gardening, golf, reading a good book, and watching baseball.
He who wraps the heavens in clouds wrapped round himself a towel. He who pours the water into the rivers and pools tipped … water into a basin. And he before whom every knee bends in heaven and on earth and under the earth knelt to wash the feet of his disciples.
Severian of Gabala (fl. ca. a.d. 400), “Homily on the Washing of the Feet,” in ACCS NT 4/b:86
These Impious Galileans
A passage often referred to in order to describe the sacrificial, countercultural quality of the early church comes to us interestingly enough, from one of its strongest critics, known later to history as Julian the Apostate, the last non-Christian (or pagan) Roman emperor (serving from 361-363 AD).
Julian had begrudgingly acknowledged that the Christians, or the “Galileans” as he referred to them, took care of the needy far more so than its pagan counterparts, which led to many new converts. This concerned the emperor because it threatened Julian’s attempt to restore the supremacy of the Roman pantheon. Most importantly, the passage describes just how powerful the Church can be when it models the sacrificial love of Christ to its neighbors:
These impious Galileans (Christians) not only feed their own, but ours also; welcoming them with their agape, they attract them, as children are attracted with cakes….Whilst the pagan priests neglect the poor, the hated Galileans devote themselves to works of charity, and by a display of false compassion have established and given effect to their pernicious errors.
Such practice is common among them, and causes contempt for our gods (Epistle to Pagan High Priests). Those in the early church lived in a conflicted but beloved covenant community in peaceful opposition to the militaristic, materialistic, racist, and sexualized culture of the Roman Empire. The church was distinct, noticeable, and uncompromising. This type of prayerful resistance and faithful witness is needed today.
Introduction by Stuart Strachan, Source Material from Julian the Apostate, quoted in Michael Craven, “The Christian Conquest of Pagan Rome,” Crosswalk.com, November 8, 2010.