Every verse matters in John, but we pass over a few in coming to today’s passage. In the intervening verses, Jesus talks about his forthcoming death and we see more of the deep relationship between the Son and the Father. John 13 brings us into Passover/Last Supper territory and inaugurates a section which lasts until John 17. In this feet-washing pericope, we see Christ’s love, humility, and example.
This new section begins with a remark about Jesus’ love. Often, Jesus has talked about the hour of his death (cf. John 2:4, 7:30, 8:20) and we are reminded that it has now come (13:1, cf. 12:23, 27). It is the hour of his glorification, somewhat understated as the moment where Jesus “goes from this world to the father” – more a giant leap than a small step. His death is borne out of love for those who were in the world with him, and implicitly, us who remain in the world. The phrase, “he loved them to the end” (NIV), is loaded: Jesus loved his disciples to the end of his time with them; but the expression eis telos can also be translated “to the uttermost”, thus combining the duration and depth of Christ’s love, which continues to us remaining in the world today.
Verse 3 reminds us of Jesus’ power and equality with God. Everything had been put in Jesus’ hands; he had come from the Father; he was going back to Him. Yet, he chooses to serve in humility. Everything is described in such detail and intimacy: down to how he dresses for the coming deed (v.4). The action is scarcely believable: the Teacher starts to wash His disciples’ feet (v.5). Simon Peter is understandably perplexed: “Lord, are you washing my feet?!” When Jesus confirms that he is doing this for reasons he will later discover (v.7), with characteristic verve, Peter wants everything to be washed (v.8): another baptism! On this occasion, however, Jesus explains just the feet will do (v.10).
Jesus finishes washing his disciples’ feet, then returns to his reclining position (v.12) and explains his humble actions, starting with the rhetorical question: “do you recognise what I have done for you?” He is setting an example. The Greek word hypodeigma is uncommon in the New Testament; most Greek writers prefer the word paradeigma, which gives us our word “paradigm”. Anyone who has learned a language seriously will know of verb paradigms: the patterns and structures behind verbs. Here, Jesus gives a pattern and structure. Yet, it is the inverse of the norm: no master ever serves his servant. Well, except Jesus. He confirms that he is rightly to be called Teacher and Lord (v.13), but that if he is prepared to wash his disciples’ feet, then they – and we – ought to be prepared to wash one another’s feet (v.14), following his example (v.15).
What does it mean for us today to wash one another’s feet? As a distance runner, my feet are rather rough so could probably benefit from some TLC – but washing feet is a bit weird in our culture. It could involve getting our hands dirty: literally or figuratively. One way to “wash feet” which comes to mind is good listening. Some of us are naturally good at it; others of us find it harder; but we all sometimes need to be listened to, and to listen. Is the Church known for being good at listening? Perhaps, if we worked on our listening, we would gain respect from the world, bring blessing, and receive it (v.17).