My Interpretive Assignment on John 13:1-15:
Verse 1 is an appropriate starting point for this text. It is marked by a change of setting with “now before the festival of the Passover.” In the previous verses Jesus had been speaking to crowds; now John’s narrative turns to the supper with Jesus and his disciples. Verse 15 is an appropriate end. The narration of Jesus’ “example” of foot washing concludes in that verse. Verses 16-20 correspond to vv. 1-15 but do not carry keywords such as “clean,” “wash” and “feet.” The phrase “very truly” (vv. 16, 20) sets the text apart to itself.
The opening phrase, “now before the festival of the Passover,” occurs in similar forms in 2:13; 6:4; 11:55 and 12:1. In 2:13, it opens the scene where Jesus drives the merchants and moneychangers out of the Temple. In 6:4, it comes before the feeding of five thousand people. In 11:55, it comes after Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and includes “many went up from the country to Jerusalem before the Passover to purify themselves.” In 12:1, it leads to Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet. Each time the phrase is used in John, a significant event occurs, mostly in public settings (except perhaps 12:1). This phrase could be a signal from John that a noteworthy event is taking place.
Keywords in the text are “know/knew/knowing,” “understand,” “world,” “devil,” “heart,” “betray,” “supper,” “table,” “water,” “wash,” “feet” and “clean.” “Know/knew/knowing” (vv. 1, 3, 11) refer directly to Jesus. Jesus uses “know” (vv. 7, 12) when speaking to disciples. Jesus tells Peter that he “will understand” (v. 7), indicating a future revelation of the meaning to his action. “Understand” (v. 12) is then used as Jesus offers explanation for the foot washing. “World” occurs twice (v. 1), in reference to his departing and in reference to “his own” that he would leave in it. John uses “world” in every chapter (except 2) leading up to this text. “Devil” (v. 2) is connected to words “heart” and “betray” (v. 2). “Betray” (v. 11) is also connected with “he [Jesus] knew” and “clean” (v. 11). “Supper” appears once in NRS (v. 2) but appears twice in ESV (vv. 2, 4). In ESV “supper” bookends a sentence that reveals the devil putting betrayal in Judas Iscariot’s heart (v. 2) and reveals Jesus’ knowing that God had given all things into his hands and that he came from and was going back to God (v. 3). John gives readers that information and then relates that Jesus “rose from supper” (v. 4). In NRS he “got up from the table” (v. 4), which also indicates the mealtime. The “table” or “supper” is an important cultural reference, signifying fellowship and intimacy. This “supper” is with Jesus and his disciples (the persons mentioned in the story). “Water” is poured (v. 5) and used to “wash” (vv. 5, 6, 8, 10, 12, 14) the disciples’ “feet” (vv. 5, 6, 8, 9, 10, 12, 14). “Clean” refers to the body (v. 10) and the disciples (v. 11).
The Gospel of John connects Jesus to “water” several times: Jesus turns water to wine (2:1-11), Jesus and the Samaritan woman at the well (4:1-26), Jesus heals the invalid at the pool (5:1-15), Jesus walks on water (6:16-21) and Jesus heals the man born blind, sending the man to wash in the Pool of Siloam (9:1-7). In 13:1-15, Jesus pours “water” into a basin and begins to wash his disciples feet (v. 5). Another reference to foot washing occurs in the OT when Abraham acknowledges foot washing for his three visitors (Gen. 18:4). Ceremonial cleansing happened before Passover as Jews traveled from the country to Jerusalem (11:55). This story takes place “before the Feast of Passover” (v. 1). Ceremonial cleansing takes shape in this text as Jesus gets up from his place at the table (v. 4) and begins to wash the disciples’ feet himself (v. 5).
The foot washing is an action Jesus performs with his hands. The one time Jesus’ hands are mentioned in this text is “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands” (v. 3). Presumably Jesus uses his hands to take off his outer garments, pick up the towel, tie it around his waist, pick up the container with water to pour into the basin, wash the disciples’ feet and wipe them with the towel (vv. 4-5). After John tells readers that the Father had given “all things” into Jesus’ hands, he immediately tells a story of what Jesus did with his hands: foot washing. The foot washing itself is set apart from the rest of the text with Jesus getting up from the table and taking off his outer garments (v. 4) and putting on his outer garments and resuming his place at the table (v. 12).
With foot washing, Jesus takes on a lower status, the status of a slave/servant who would wash feet. This would be a significant action in that culture. John notes only Simon Peter calling attention to it. There is no mention that other disciples said anything. There is also no mention how many disciples had their feet washed before Jesus “came to Simon Peter” (v. 6). Peter addresses him as “Lord” (v. 6), which is in juxtaposition to Jesus washing feet and Peter’s question, “Are you going to wash my feet?” (v. 6), could presume that he simply does not understand what it all means. To which Jesus answers, “Afterward you will understand” (v. 7). Jesus does give one explanation later (vv. 12-15).
Only the name Peter (not Simon Peter) appears in his reply to Jesus (v. 8), though Simon Peter again appears in his final comment (v. 9). Why does John drop his given name Simon (v. 8) for Peter, the name given him by Jesus (1:42)?
There is the element of ceremonial cleansing before Passover to this text. There is also the story that Jesus knew his hour to depart this world had come and he loved his own to the end (v. 1). Who were “his own”? In response to Peter, Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” (v. 8). So those washed by Jesus would become his own. In 13:1-15, those would be his disciples. This story is about their identification with Jesus. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (v. 12) so all present would have a “share with him.” Yet, John already revealed that devil had put the thought of betrayal of Jesus in Judas Iscariot’s heart (v. 2). John does not mention that Jesus skipped over any disciples (i.e., Judas Iscariot) or that Judas Iscariot was not present for the foot washing. What’s the implication for Judas Iscariot to be considered one of Jesus’ own but to also have the information from John that Jesus knew about the betrayal (v. 2)?
Jesus says that washing the feet is enough to signify being clean (v. 10). Those traveling to Jerusalem for Passover presumably came by foot and went through ceremonial cleansing (11:55). Did this only include physical foot washing? Participating in the ceremonial cleansing then, a Jew would be considered entirely clean and ready for Passover simply by foot washing. John (and Jesus) then takes cleansing a step further. John connects “betray” to “clean” (v. 11). Betrayal is not a physical quality but an action or decision of the mind or heart. John already connected “betray” and “heart” (v. 2). John takes the foot washing done by Jesus and makes it about the heart being clean or unclean.
In 13:1-15, foot washing is about becoming a servant to others (vv. 4, 14). It is about identification with Jesus (v. 8). It is about washing all feet, though betrayal might be within a person (vv. 2, 10, 11). It is about more than cleansing the feet; it is about cleansing the heart (vv. 10-11). Ezekiel 36:25 mentions cleansing the heart: “I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols” (NIV).