Commentary on John 13:1-17, 31b-35
John is famous for its “high Christology.”
Jesus is presented as the Word who was with God in the beginning and is, in fact, God (John 1:1). Jesus repeatedly does things that only God can do, boldly claims “I AM” (John 4:26; 6:20; 8:24, 28, 58; 13:19; 18:5, 6, 8), and explicitly states that whoever has seen him has seen the Father (John 14:9). He even says, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). This certainly tells us as readers something about Jesus’ identity. In the Fourth Gospel, Jesus repeatedly refers to his connection with the Father when he is asked about what he does or why he does it.1 His unity with God determines his actions and his mission. In this way, John’s high Christology can show us as readers how we might follow Jesus’ lead in understanding our own identity and mission as well.
Commissioning: “As the Father has sent me, so I send you.”
It is this same Gospel of “elevated Christology” that gives us one of the most vividly humble pictures of Jesus. In the hours before he is arrested and crucified, Jesus takes off his outer garment, takes up the servant’s towel, and washes his disciples’ dirty feet.
Let’s think for a second about how this story works to shape its readers. The Foot Washing scene is vital to the narrative plot, a turning point for Jesus as he heads to his death and for the disciples as they are commissioned for a new role. This story shows the trajectory of the disciples being brought into the unity that Jesus shares with the Father. As Jesus says to Peter: “unless I wash you, you have no share with me” (John 13:8).2
The “sent” language at the conclusion of this story (John 13:16 and 20) reinforces that the action functions as a commissioning. Later in the story, Jesus tells his followers, “As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:21; see also 17:18). While their actions in the world may differ, Jesus’ example shows that the disciples’ work in the world should flow out of their shared mission as “sent ones” of the Father.3 Just as Jesus’ deeds flow from his connection with the one who sent him, so his followers’ deeds should flow from their shared unity with God.
Call: “If I, your Lord and teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
So, what is the mission to which they are called? The act of foot washing in the ancient world symbolized not only humility but also hospitality.4 In a culture where friends reclined at the table to eat, usually after long and dusty walks, foot washing was an essential step in inviting others to the community feast. The job was a dirty one usually reserved for lowly servants, but it was extremely important. To wash someone’s feet was to recognize them as a welcome guest, to remove any barriers that might keep them from the table.
This memorable story tells us something about Jesus’ overall mission — to open up unity with God to be shared with the world at large.5 The Prologue (John 1:1-18) revealed that Jesus’ work in the world was to lead the way to God, to show the world the God they had not been able to see, and to reconcile the world back to its original unity with God. Jesus was uniquely equipped for this mission because of his complex and mystical unity with God (1:1, 18).6 The story of the Foot Washing continues the trajectory, inviting the disciples into this unity and empowering them to fulfill God’s mission for the world after Jesus’ death.
Questions to consider
We as readers of the Fourth Gospel are called to embrace our identity in unity with Jesus, to act in ways that extend hospitality, and to invite others in so that the love we share for one another might extend to the world outside. Today as you reflect on this beloved story of Jesus’ humble service, imagine Jesus bringing the basin to your feet.
What stands in the way of my own unity with God?
As I imagine Jesus washing my feet, what falls away?
Be empowered as the ritual of the water and the towel reminds you that you share in the unity with God that gave Jesus his sense of identity and mission.
Who is currently being kept away from our community?
What keeps them away?
Be challenged to take up the tools of hospitality yourself, that you might invite others into a community of mutual love and into participation in the mission to extend God’s tangible love to the world.
How can I tangibly reach out to address barriers and practice radical inclusion?
What are my tools of hospitality?
- See, for example, John 5:19, 36; see also 3:35; 4:34; 10:18, 32, 37-38; 14:10-11; 17:4. Karl Weyer-Menkhoff, “The Response of Jesus: Ethics in John by Considering Scripture as Work of God,” in Rethinking the Ethics of John, 159–74. Cf., Jan G. van der Watt, “Ethics Of/and the Opponents of Jesus in John’s Gospel,” in Rethinking the Ethics of John, 175–91.
- On foot washing as a welcome into God’s household see Mary L. Coloe, “Welcome into the Household of God: The Footwashing in John 13,” CBQ 66 (2004).
- Kobus Kok, “As the Father Has Sent Me, I Send You: Towards a Missional-Incarnational Ethos in John 4,” in Moral Language in the New Testament: The Interrelatedness of Language and Ethics in Early Christian Writings, ed. Ruben Zimmermann and Jan G. van der Watt, WUNT 296 (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2010), 168–93.
- Jo-Ann A. Brant, John, Paideia (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011), 205–6.
- This episode also directs the audience’s attention forward to Jesus’s death, another example of service to the point of extreme sacrifice. R. Alan Culpepper, “The Johannine Hypodeigma: A Reading of John 13,” Semeia 53 (1991): 133–52; Raymond Edward Brown, The Gospel according to John, vol. 2, 2 vols., The Anchor Bible 29A (Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1970), 2:551.
- Definitions of exegeomai from John 1:18 in Henry George Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon include “to lead,” “to show the way to,” “to expound,” “to tell at length, relate in full.”