John 13 - God as servant

Erkki Koskenniemi
Reija Becks

At the beginning of the thirteenth chapter we move on to the Upper room to look at the significant events of the Passion Week.

John deals with his sources in a magnificent way. It also gives rise to quite a few problems, and we shall examine the two most important of them before discussing the chapter.

Firstly, John’s story does not seem to fit in with the Synoptics because the date of Jesus’s death seems to deviate from theirs by one day. Secondly, John does not tell us anything about the institution of the Lord’s Supper. John and the Synoptics give similar testimonies that Jesus was crucified on Friday (Mark 15:42 and John 19:31:42). However, the date of the Passover feast seems to differ in them. According to the Synoptics, Jesus and his disciples ate the Passover (e.g. Mark 14:12-17), whereas John says that the Jews were only getting ready to eat it (John 18:28).

In my view, there are two possible explanations. The first is that it is just the way, by now familiar to us, John deals with his material. His stylizing and theological manner suits well with his emphasis on the fact that Jesus died for us as the Lamb that was slain. According to the chronology presented by John, Jesus dies at the very moment when the Passover lambs were being sacrificed in the temple.

The other explanation may be more likely. In Judaism at the time of Jesus, there was no consistent uniformity, under one authority, in all issues; people had diverse viewpoints in many questions. Thus there were also several festival calendars. It may well be that Jesus and his disciples were following the Essenes’ festival calendar and ate the Passover meal a day before the Sadducees. This is also the basis for the following explanation: that year, the Sabbath and the Passover happened to be on consecutive days, so some people ate their Passover lambs earlier than others to avoid profaning the Sabbath.

John does not say anything about the institution of the Holy Communion but immediately moves on to tell us how Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. For long, efforts have been made to find the reason for this, and the conclusion has much to do with how we answer the preceding question. It is most likely that John simply presumes that the issue is familiar to his readers.

His way of speaking about the baptism and about the Lord’s Supper is special. He speaks about both of them in a veiled and yet explicit way. The words he uses with the Supper in 6:11 are, in fact, nearly the same as the ones that are used in the institution of the Holy Communion.

Jesus washes his disciples’ feet 13:1-20

At his last meal, Jesus humbles himself and becomes the lowest servant of all his disciples. He takes the cloth of a servant and washes everyone’s feet in turn. No doubt the story serves two significant purposes. The washing of feet at the last meal speaks of Jesus’s unfailing love and care for his own. The cross already casts its shadow over the small fellowship, but the Son of God does not grow weary of serving, not even the one who in the end will betray him. The task of a slave boy is not too menial for him, who in the beginning was with Father in his glory.

Viewing the issue from his own perspective, Romanos Melodos, the great Byzantine poet, declares that the angels were shocked as the Creator himself was on his hands and knees before those he had created.

Another purpose of this event is given by Jesus himself in verses 12-17. The Son of God has given his own an example. If he was not too high to do the most menial duties of a servant, the people who are his own should not feel superiority and turn away from helping their neighbours. It is a fundamental law in the Kingdom of God that no one lords it over another. The more significant the person is, the more humble servant of others he or she is – this is the clear message that the foot washing done by the Lord conveys to the church of Christ.

As regards Judas, there is no mention by John of any conflict taking place. Peter, on the other hand, was too strong a person to just sit still. Breaking the silence, he refuses to accept it that Jesus should serve him. The profound words by Jesus show man’s place before God: even if it would feel humiliating, no one can stand if Christ does not serve him/her. And this ministry is not distant or abstract, but very concrete. Jesus is the suffering servant of God, who, only a couple of hours later, is to be scourged, crowned with a crown of thorns, and nailed to the cross, bleeding.

Peter knows his position but in a wrong and naïve way: the more Jesus would wash him, the better. Jesus’s words are clearly a reference to Christian baptism. Even if these words relate to a specific situation, we understand the message. In baptism, it is given to us that we may share in Jesus. And just like Paul in his letters (Romans 6) indicates that to share in Christ presents also an obligation for us, so John, too, links Christ, who is the gift, with Christ, who is the example to us.

The last words of this section prepare the hearers for what lies ahead. The prophecy in Psalms 41:9 is about to be fulfilled. Sharing a meal together is holy in the Middle East. The psalmist tells how someone is breaking this particular closeness with a scornful gesture by lifting up his heel against the host. Judas betrays Jesus, but this brings forward two things: God’s holy Scriptures are being fulfilled, and Jesus may explain things to his own in advance, so that they might know that “he is who he is” –Jesus is again using the name ‘I am’ by which God refers to himself.

Judas’s moments of horror 13:21-30

We can scarcely imagine Judas’s horror, when Jesus continues speaking about the betrayal. This is followed by some events that are deliberately vague.

At the meal, Peter motions to the person sitting next to Jesus to ask him – apparently in whispers – who the traitor is. Jesus does not answer in such a way that the listeners might understand. He continues developing the theme of Psalm 41 by saying that the traitor is the one to whom he has given a piece of bread. Right after this, and following a Jewish tradition of demonstrating very close friendship, he dips some bread in a sauce and gives it to Judas.

Jesus thus showed him to be the closest of friends, which made Judas cross the border of no return. Satan tempts him into something that will make the name of Judas unforgettable. Not knowing what happened, the disciples think that the one in charge of the purse went out to do some last-minute shopping or to give alms to the poor, which was a Passover custom. Incidentally, these few words show that also according to John, Jesus’s last meal was the Passover meal, because normally it was not possible to buy anything at night.

Judas leaves the fellowship, to whom God had given to see the light brought by Jesus. It is no coincidence that John ends this scene with the words “It was night”.

In the same scene where Judas finally went his separate ways, there emerges a mysterious figure, “the disciple whom Jesus loved”. No only when he and Peter were running to the empty tomb (20:1-10), but on other occasions, too, he is always a couple of steps ahead of even Peter. At the meal he holds the place of honour, next to Jesus. He has the courage to come to witness Jesus’s death on the cross, and Jesus entrusts his mother, Mary, to his care (19:25-27). When the disciples went fishing, he is also the first to recognize the Lord (21:7). But who is he?

If he is a real person, it is easier to identify him. Apparently there were only twelve disciples at the last supper. There were only seven who went fishing, and, naturally, Peter is not counted in. In the first chapter (1:35-40) there is, conspicuously enough, no mention of a certain disciple. This and the church tradition suggest that the beloved disciple was John, the son of Zebedee.

In another scenario, this disciple is no real person at all but a character through whom the reader sees the Passion of Christ. Maybe these two ideas can also be combined: as Peter’s influence was vital behind the Gospel of Mark, the tradition behind the Gospel of John likewise relies on John, a giant of the early church.

On the way to the cross 13:31-38

When Judas leaves to carry out his deed, it is the last signpost for Jesus. Now ahead of him, is the way of suffering and, at the end of it, is the cross. On his path of suffering, the Son radiates the glory of the Father, glorifying Him. It is this glory that Jesus’s warm and loving words now radiate to his own. Incidentally, the term ‘little children’ – that Jesus uses here, appears in other New Testament texts only in First Epistle of John (1 Joh. 2:1, 12, 28). It reflects the love Jesus gives to his own as their hallmark.

Jesus can see clearly the way ahead for him. Peter’s case is totally different. He does not know what the future holds for him. And he does not know the way for Jesus, nor even for himself. When the Son of God fulfills the mission given to him by the Father, he does it alone and without any help from people.