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Note of the Day – April 11 (John 13:3-17)

John 6:51-58; 13:1-38 (continued)

Yesterday, in regard to the lack of any reference to the Lord’s Supper in John’s account of the Passover meal (Last Supper) scene, I looked at the possible references to the Eucharist in Jn 6:51-58. Today, I will examine the other major difference in John’s version.

The Foot-Washing (Jn 13:3-17)

Assuming that both John and the Synoptic are referring to the same essential historical tradition—the (Passover) meal with Jesus and his close disciples (the “Last Supper”)—it is striking that, not only has the author left out any reference to the institution of the “Lord’s Supper” (cf. the previous note), but has included a very different sort of sacramental scene. This, of course, is the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus in vv. 3-17. In order to gain a better understanding of the possible significance of this tradition (that is, why the author chose to include it so prominently), a quick survey of the structure of the episode may be helpful:

  • Narrative introduction (v. 2), which spotlights the betrayal by Judas (as in the Synoptic tradition, Mk 14:10-11 par). Verse 1 serves as the narrative (and thematic) introduction to the Passion narrative as a whole.
  • The Foot-Washing tradition (vv. 3-17) which functions as a short discourse in the style of the Johannine Discourses of Jesus:
    —The narrative description of Jesus’ act (vv. 3-5)
    —The Dialogue with Peter (vv. 6-11)
    —The Exposition by Jesus (vv. 12-17)
  • The Prediction of the Betrayal (vv. 18-30a)
  • Concluding statement (v. 30b): “And it was night”

Thus the foot-washing is one of two main components to the episode; as such, it clearly takes the place of the “Lord’s Supper” in the Synoptic tradition. Each of the three parts of the foot-washing scene provides important information as to its significance and importance for the Gospel writer (and/or the tradition he inherited).

Description of Jesus’ act (vv. 3-5)—Here the author sets the act precisely in context:

“Seeing [i.e. knowing] that the Father gave all (thing)s into his hand, and that he came out from God and that toward God he leads (himself) under [i.e. back]…” (v. 3)

This introductory statement is a veritable epitome of Johannine theology and the portrait we see of Christ in the Gospel. The entire scope of the Passion is under the guidance of God the Father, and takes place completely according to his purpose. Jesus, as the Son sent by the Father, is fully aware of this, that the process of his glorification (cf. verse 31ff)—his death, resurrection, and return to the Father—is about to commence. Seeing/knowing all this, Jesus

“…rises out of the dining and sets (aside) his garments and, taking a linen-towel, girded himself thoroughly…” (v. 4)

It is tempting to see this action as a kind of symbolic picture of the incarnation itself—in which Jesus “sets aside” his glory and takes on the role of a human servant (slave), whose duty it would be to perform such menial tasks as washing the feet of guests. Certainly, it is meant to depict the sacrificial service which Jesus’ was about to perform (i.e. his death) on behalf of those (the disciples/believers) whom God the Father had given to him. The wording suggests determination and purpose by Jesus in performing this act. Moreover, the participial labw/n (“taking…”) is also used in the Synoptic description of Jesus’ action with the bread and cup, and strongly indicates a similar allusion to Jesus’ sacrificial death.

“…then (after this) he throws [i.e. pours] water into a wash-basin and began to wash the feet of the learners [i.e. disciples] and to wipe it off with the towel with which he had been thoroughly girded” (v. 5)

Jesus’ action here reflects that of the woman (Mary) who anointed him in John’s version of the Anointing scene (12:1-11, v. 3; cf. also Lk 7:38). As that action was associated with Jesus’ coming death, so we should recognize a similar connection here. Only Jesus’ act of washing the feet of the disciples emphasizes the purpose of his death (i.e. that it is on their behalf), and that it is a sign of his willing self-sacrifice (cf. 10:11, 15, 17-18). There is an interesting parallel to this in the Synoptic tradition (cf. below).

The Dialogue with Peter (vv. 6-11)—The exchange between Jesus and Peter has always been seen as somewhat enigmatic. Is the point of it sacramental (i.e. the need for baptism), ethical (tied to repentance/penance), spiritual/mystical (participation in Jesus’ death), or something else entirely (e.g., a portrait of the need to show love)? A bit too much traditional theological and doctrinal weight has been given to the exchange. The key to it, I think, lies in the Johannine discourse format and style, which typically involves three basic components: (1) a saying or action by Jesus, (2) the person’s reaction which indicates a lack of understanding, and (3) an explanation by Jesus of its true/deeper meaning:

  1. Jesus’ action (cf. above) symbolizing his humble and sacrificial service (death) on behalf of those whom he loves (Peter and the other disciples/believers)
  2. Peter misunderstands on two levels:
    (a) Vv. 6, 8: it is not worthy of Jesus (his Lord/Master) to wash his feet (cp. the Synoptic tradition in Mk 8:32f par)
    (b) V. 9: it is a question of ordinary washing/bathing with water
    Jesus’ declares outright to Peter in v. 7 that he does not (and cannot) understand now the significance of the act
  3. Explanation by Jesus. The principal statement is v. 8b: “If I should not wash you, you have/hold no part with me”

The statement in v. 8b indicates that acceptance of Jesus’ sacrificial act is necessary in order to join and be united with him. The further illustrative exposition in verse 10 has caused commentators some difficulty, mainly, I think, because they have focused too much on the first half of the verse, rather than the second. The first half corrects Peter’s misunderstanding (v. 9)—i.e., that is not simply a question of bathing oneself with water. The true meaning is declared in the second half (v. 10b):

“…(the) whole (body/person) is clean; and (indeed) you are clean—but not all of you”

There is a clever conceptual play on words here:

  • the whole (of you) is clean
    —you [pl.] are clean
  • not all of you (are clean)

The implication is that all those whom God/Christ has chosen (disciples/believers) are fully clean; there is no need for any cleansing—physical, sacramental, or otherwise—in addition (cf. 15:3). Judas, however, is not one of the true believers chosen by God; Jesus chose him to be one of the Twelve (6:70-71), but his ultimate association is with the Devil and darkness (13:2, 30b; cf. also Lk 22:3, 53).

The Exposition by Jesus (vv. 12-17)—Here we have Jesus’ own explanation of the action. The disciples are to follow Jesus’ example, and give themselves (even their own lives) in sacrificial service to each other, as a sign of love. This comes to be an important theme in the Last Discourse (13:31-17:26) which follows the Supper scene.

Synoptic Parallel—While the Synoptics do not record the foot-washing episode as such, there is a general parallel, perhaps, in Luke 22:25-27. There, after the Passover meal (Last Supper), the author includes a block of teaching on discipleship (vv. 25-30, also 35-38). Because the sayings in vv. 25-27 have corresponding Synoptic versions in Mark 10:42-45 par, commentators have questioned their place in the Last Supper scene. However, the orientation of the Johannine foot-washing is roughly similar to vv. 25-27, with its emphasis on humility and sacrificial service. Interestingly, though Luke has nothing corresponding to it at this point, the saying in Mk 10:45 (in the context of vv. 42-44) is strikingly similar in tone and theme to what we see in John:

“For indeed the Son of Man [i.e. Jesus himself] did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his soul [i.e. life] as a (means of) loosing (from bondage) in exchange for many” (Mk 10:45)

Such a saying would have fit well in the Last Supper scene (cf. Mk 14:22-25 par).

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