John 13:1-17, 31b-35
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John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Biblical Commentary:
JOHN 12-17. THE CONTEXT
In chapter 12:
• Mary anointed Jesus with expensive ointment, and Jesus interpreted that as an anointing “for the day of my burial” (12:7).
• The Jews plotted to kill Lazarus, because “because on account of him many of the Jews went away and believed in Jesus” (12:11).
• Jesus entered Jerusalem triumphantly (12:12-19).
• Some Greeks came wishing to see Jesus (12:20-26)
• Jesus spoke about his death (12:27-36a) and the unbelief of the people (12:36b-43).
• Jesus summarized his identity and mission (12:44-50).
In chapters 13-17:
• Jesus washes the disciples feet (13:1-20), foretells his betrayal (13:21-30), gives a new commandment “that you love one another” (13:31-35), and foretells Peter’s denial (13:36-38). In the midst of that, Judas will go out to betray Jesus (13:21-30).
• Jesus’ Last Discourse (speech) begins with 13:31 (some scholars start it at 14:1, but there is no natural break there) and extends through Jesus’ High Priestly Prayer in chapter 17.
The lectionary reading breaks after 13:17, but most scholars treat 13:1-20 as a unit.
JOHN 13:1. INTRODUCTION TO THE BOOK OF GLORY
1Now before the feast of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that his time had come that he would depart from this world (Greek: kosmou) to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world (kosmo), he loved them to the end (Greek: telos).
Scholars often refer to chapters 13-20 as the Book of Glory, because it is in these chapters that Jesus’ glory is fully revealed through his death, resurrection, and ascension.
“Now before the feast of the Passover” (v. 1). In this Gospel, the supper that Jesus shares with his disciples is not the Passover meal as it is in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew 26:17-25; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-13). In this Gospel, Jesus will die on the Day of Preparation for the Passover (19:31) at the time that the Passover sacrifices begin in the temple. In this Gospel, Jesus is the lamb—the Paschal Lamb—the Passover Lamb—”the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world” (1:29).
“Jesus, knowing that his hour had come that he would depart from this world to the Father” (v. 1). Until now, we have been told repeatedly that Jesus’ hour has not yet come (2:4; 7:30; 8:20; cf. 7:8), but now we learn that his hour has come at last. Jesus’ hour is the time of his glorification, which in this Gospel means his death, resurrection, and ascension. It is in this hour of his glorification that he will “go to the Father” (v. 1), just as he earlier came from the Father (8:42; 16:27; 17:8; and see also Philippians 2:5-11).
“Having loved his own who were in the world (kosmo), he loved them to the end” (v. 1). The word kosmos (world) is very important in this Gospel—used some forty times, in most cases unfavorably:
• The kosmos came into being through the Word, but the kosmos did not know the Word (1:9).
• The Lamb of God has come to take away the sins of the kosmos (1:29).
• God loved the kosmos, and sent his Son to save the kosmos (3:16-17)—but the people of the kosmos “loved the darkness rather than the light; for their works were evil” (3:19).
• Jesus will give his flesh as bread for the life of the kosmos (6:51), but the kosmos hates him “because I testify about it, that its works are evil” (7:7; cf. 15:18).
• Jesus’ disciples are “of this kosmos“ but Jesus is “not of this kosmos“ (8:23).
• Jesus has come into this kosmos for judgment (9:39). However, the Pharisees fear that “the kosmos has gone after (Jesus)” (12:19).
• The kosmos cannot receive the Spirit of truth, “for it doesn’t see him, neither knows him” (14:17).
• Jesus prays for his disciples, who must remain in the kosmos while Jesus returns to the Father (17:11 ff.). Jesus’ kingdom “is not from this kosmos“ (18:36).
The New Testament in general and this Gospel in particular portray the kosmos (world) as under the rule of Satan (12:31; 14:30; 16:11). This is because the kosmos, although created by God, is in rebellion against God. However, God has not given up on the kosmos, but has instead sent his Son to save the kosmos. When the Son leaves the kosmos to return to the Father, he leaves his disciples in the kosmos to witness to the kosmos so that the kosmos might believe in him and be saved from its sins.
“he loved them to the end” (telos) (v. 1). While this Gospel said earlier that God loved the world and sent his Son to save the world (3:16), here it says that he loves “his own”—his disciples (v. 1).
He loved them to the telos—a word with two meanings—”to the fullest degree” or “to the end.” “To the fullest degree” emphasizes the intensity of Jesus’ love, and “to the end” means until the end of Jesus’ life on earth. We need not choose one meaning or the other, because both are true. This Gospel is known for words that leave themselves open to more than one meaning—such as pneuma, which can mean wind or Spirit (John 3:5-8). There is richness in these words that can be found only by getting out one’s pick and shovel and prospecting through the Greek.
JOHN 13:2-4. INTRODUCTION TO THE FOOTWASHING
2During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he came forth from God, and was going to God, 4arose from supper, and laid aside his outer garments. He took a towel, and wrapped a towel around his waist.
“During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him” (v. 2). The Greek in this verse can be read either of two ways. (1) The devil has put it in the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. (2) The devil has put it in the devil’s own heart that Judas should betray Jesus—i.e., has decided to tempt Judas to betray Jesus. The first meaning seems most likely, but that is not certain. In any event, Judas will betray Jesus very shortly (13:21-30).
The fact that the devil has chosen to tempt Judas in no way relieves Judas of responsibility for betraying Jesus. The devil tempts each of us daily, but accomplishes nothing without our cooperation. That is not to say that resisting temptation is easy—it is not! It is to say that we are responsible for our sins—regardless of temptation.
“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands” (v. 3a). Jesus is aware that he is moving toward the cross, so it seems odd to hear that the Father has “given all things into his hands” (v. 3). It would seem instead that the Father is giving Jesus into the hands of his enemies. But Jesus has been trying to prepare his disciples for the cross for quite some time (8:21-30; 12:7, 27-36), and has willingly moved toward Jerusalem and his cross. We must remember that the cross will not represent defeat for Jesus, but victory. It is the place where he will accomplish the work for which he has come into the world. It is the place where his glorification will begin.
“and that he came forth from God, and was going to God” (v. 3b). Earlier we read, “the Word became flesh, and lived among us. We saw his glory, such glory as of the one and only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth” (1:14). Jesus came into this world from God for a purpose, and once his purpose has been fulfilled, he will return to God (see also Philippians 2:5-11).
JOHN 13:4-5. THE FOOT WASHING
4(Jesus) arose from supper, and laid aside his outer garments. He took a towel, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5Then he poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Jesus “arose from supper, and laid aside his outer garments. He took a towel, and wrapped a towel around his waist” (v. 4). The meal has started (v. 2b). The usual time for footwashing is when guests arrive at their destination. Jesus, however, chooses to wait until the meal is in progress to wash his disciples’ feet, thus intensifying the drama of his action. Taking off his outer robe, he would be clothed only in a loincloth. When he ties a towel around himself, he is dressing in the garb of a slave prepared to render service.
The disciples would be reclining around the table with their feet pointed away from the table. Their feet would be readily accessible to Jesus once he got up from the table.
“Then he poured water into the basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (v. 5). Washing the feet of another person is considered so menial a task that only Gentile slaves and women are required to do it. Disciples might on occasion wash their rabbi’s feet of their own volition, but cannot be required to do so. Footwashing is a gracious act of hospitality for guests who have walked dusty roads to their destination—but an act of hospitality seldom rendered personally by the host.
Luke, in his Gospel, records an incident in which the disciples were arguing among themselves concerning which was greatest. Jesus responded by saying, “The kings of the nations lord it over them, and those who have authority over them are called ‘benefactors.’ But not so with you. But one who is the greater among you, let him become as the younger, and one who is governing, as one who serves. For who is greater, one who sits at the table, or one who serves” (Luke 22:24-27). In this Gospel, his service of footwashing demonstrates what he means and gives his disciples a lesson in servanthood that they will not soon forget.
JOHN 13:6-10a. INTERPRETATION BY DIALOGUE WITH PETER
6Then he came to Simon Peter. He said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”
7Jesus answered him, “You don’t know what I am doing now, but you will understand later.”
8Peter said to him, “You will never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part (Greek: meros) with me.”
9Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!”
10Jesus said to him, “Someone who has bathed (Greek: leloumenos—from louein) only needs to have his feet washed, (Greek: nipsasthai) but is completely clean.”
“Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” (v. 6). As usual, Peter acts as the spokesman for the disciples, all of whom are surely discomfited by this turn of events. His question suggests indignation—and, perhaps, a challenge—rather like, “You don’t think that you are going to wash my feet, do you?”
“You don’t know now what I am doing now, but you will understand” (v. 7). Peter will understand Jesus’ action later—after the resurrection.
“You will never wash my feet” (v. 8a). Peter’s response, challenging in verse 6, hardens in verse 8. He implies that he is not worthy to have Jesus wash his feet—and at the same time defies Jesus. It is reminiscent of the account in Matthew 16 where Peter stated that Jesus is “the Christ, the Son of the living God”—but when Jesus began to teach the disciples that he must suffer and die, Peter “began to rebuke him, saying, ‘Far be it from you, Lord! This will never be done to you'” (Matthew 16:16-22). Peter is headstrong and forceful. Only after the resurrection will he settle into dependable discipleship.
“If I don’t wash you, you have no part (meros) with me” (v. 8b). Jesus responds decisively to Peter’s refusal. Unless Jesus washes him, Peter will have no share (meros) in Jesus. This word meros is used in the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) to translate the Hebrew word that describes the “share” of land that each tribe of Israel is given in the Promised Land—a heritage with spiritual as well as economic significance (Brown, 566). Therefore, Jesus is telling Peter that he is in danger of eternal disinheritance if he refuses to allow Jesus to wash his feet.
It should be clear, then, that there must be something more going on here than simple footwashing. Jesus is giving the disciples an example of humble service—a kind of service that he will want them to render to each other (v. 14). However, scholars agree that there is something more as well—something larger even than the humility and service to which Jesus is calling his disciples by way of this dramatic action.
The deepest meaning of this footwashing has to do with the cross. Jesus is preparing the disciples for his cross, and his humble service at this table is a foretaste of the larger act of humble service that he will render there. Morris calls it “a parable in action” (Morris, 544).
“Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (v. 9). In his usual “over the top” way, Peter turns around and begins running full force in the other direction. If being washed by Jesus is essential to his relationship with Jesus, Peter wants to be washed from head to toe—in all his various parts—from head to hands to feet.
Of course, Peter has not really understood Jesus, but who can blame him. Peter cannot fathom the event that is coming—the event to which this footwashing points—the death of Jesus on the cross. It will not be until later—after the resurrection—that the light will begin to dawn for Peter. As Jesus said earlier, “You will understand later” (v. 7).
Even knowing about the resurrection, the casual reader of this Gospel today is hard pressed to understand the nuances (and therefore the real meaning) of Jesus’ words. One almost needs a theological education and a dozen commentaries to plumb the depths of this Gospel. While Peter, prior to seeing the risen Christ, often seems a bit of a buffoon, the only way most of us could have improved on his performance would have been to keep our mouths shut. But we wouldn’t want Peter to have kept his mouth shut. Even acting impetuously and a bit foolishly, he plays the role of a foil for Jesus. He keeps stepping up to the plate—and swinging—and missing—and giving Jesus opportunity after opportunity to explain further. It matters not that Jesus’ explanations go over Peter’s head and ours most of the time. As Jesus said, Peter will understand later (v. 7)—after the resurrection. We, too, can understand if we will devote ourselves to understanding. And who can doubt Peter’s great heart! What an enthusiastic disciple! Would that there were more like him!
“Someone who has bathed (Greek: leloumenos—from louo) only needs to have his feet washed, but is completely clean” (v. 10a). As a practical matter, this is clear. The person who bathed (louo) but has then walked through dusty streets to get to his destination does not require another bath. It is quite enough to have his feet washed (nipto)—a much more modest cleansing than a full bath. On a spiritual level, the person who has bathed (a holistic cleaning) does not need to be bathed again and again, but needs only a minor washing now and then.
Some people think that the washing/cleansing language of this verse is an allusion to baptism, but that is open to question. There is no record of the disciples having been baptized at this point—although there is a brief note that they baptized others (4:2). The better clue to the meaning of Jesus words about cleansing here is what he says later: “You are already…clean because of the word which I have spoken to you” (15:3).
The phrase, “only needs to have his feet washed,” is found in some but not all of the better manuscripts. It is possible that copyists added the phrase later in an attempt to clarify that Peter needed to participate in the footwashing, but that is not certain. Some scholars would delete this phrase, but others would retain it.
JOHN 13:10-11. NOT ALL OF YOU ARE CLEAN—AN ALLUSION TO JUDAS
10b“You are clean, but not all of you.” 11For he knew him who would betray him, therefore he said, “You are not all clean.”
“You (plural) are clean, but not all of you” (v. 10b). Jesus reassures the group of disciples (not just Peter) that they are clean. Again, note that Jesus will soon tell the disciples, “You are already…clean because of the word which I have spoken to you.” (15:3). He notes, however, that they are not all clean—an allusion to Judas, who will betray him (13:21-30).
“For he knew who would betray him, therefore he said, “You are not all clean'” (v. 11). Jesus knows that Judas will betray him, but he chooses not to expose him, at least for the moment. In fact, Jesus almost certainly washes Judas’ feet as he washes the feet of the other disciples (v. 12). Later, Jesus will raise the issue of the betrayal and give a piece of bread to Judas as a sign that Judas is the betrayer (13:26).
JOHN 13:12-17. INTERPRETATION BY DISCOURSE
12So when he had washed their feet, put his outer garment back on, and sat down again, he said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you?13You call me, ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord.’ You say so correctly, for so I am. 14If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. 16Most certainly I tell you, a servant is not greater than his lord, neither one who is sent greater than he who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
After Jesus washes the disciples feet, he gives two interpretations of his action—the first by way of his dialogue with Peter (vv. 6-10a) and the second by way of his discourse (vv. 12-17—a discourse is a speech, usually lengthy). Scholars differ in their treatment of these two interpretations. While some think that they are the work of two distinct authors, more recent scholarship tends to favor that they come from the same hand—although, perhaps, by way of two separate source documents.
“So when he had washed their feet, put his outer garment back on, and sat down again, he said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?'” (v. 12). Jesus has obviously performed an act of humble service but, beyond that, his disciples have no idea what he has done. They cannot understand that the footwashing constitutes an overture to the cross—an act of humble service for the cleansing of others—for the salvation of others.
“You call me ‘Teacher’ (Greek: didaskalos) and ‘Lord’ (Greek: kurios). You say so correctly, for so I am” (v. 13). The disciples and others often refer to Jesus as Rabbi, a title meaning teacher that is reserved for religious leaders (1:38, 49; 4:31; 6:25; 9:2; 11:8). Didaskalos (teacher) has a similar meaning but without the religious overtones.
Kurios can mean Lord, master, or sir, and is often used to address ordinary mortals—although the Septuagint (the Greek version of the Old Testament) uses Lord to refer to God. The disciples use Lord to address Jesus, whom they regard as the messiah, even though they do not yet regard him as deity. After the resurrection, they will come to understand the Lord Jesus to be God incarnate.
“If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v. 14). There are two senses in which this is true. For one thing, disciples naturally want to follow their Lord’s example—learning by example is what discipleship is all about. For another, the person who has received generously usually responds by wanting to give generously.
“you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (v. 14). This is troubling! Jesus says clearly that his disciples should wash one another’s feet, but footwashing is not observed in most churches. There is not even an optional footwashing service following the main service for the few who might want to participate. In most churches, people would mob the exits if challenged to practice footwashing.
There are many good reasons not to practice footwashing, of course. There is the issue of delicacy—and the issue of intimacy—and the pantyhose problem. There is the issue of time—if large congregations were to observe footwashing, wouldn’t it take so much of the allotted hour that there would scarcely be time for anything else? There are other practical problems as well. If we were to practice footwashing, shouldn’t we require fresh water for each pair of feet? Should we use soap? What about rinse water? Shouldn’t the containers be sanitized between uses? Shouldn’t we use a fresh towel for each person? And washcloths? How could we launder the mountain of towels and washcloths? How could we manage the logistics of such an enterprise? The only thing that could possibly commend such a practice would be Jesus’ words, “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.”
We should note that churches deal with messy problems all the time. It is problematic to provide toilet facilities for hundreds or thousands of people, but we do it. It is problematic to cook and serve dinner for hundreds of people, but we do it. It is problematic to provide facilities for immersion baptism, but churches that believe in that practice do it. In other words, if we think it is important, we don’t let problems stop us.
There are, of course, churches that practice footwashing, but not many. Not only is that true today, but it has been true throughout Christian history. This is not a modern problem—if it is a problem—but a problem that has affected the church in most times and places.
“For I have given you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you” (v. 15). The question, of course, is whether Jesus intended us to take literally his words, “You also ought to wash one another’s feet”—”—or whether we succeed in following his example and fulfilling his intent by humble service of other kinds. Scholars tend to agree that the latter is true—that Jesus intends us to render humble service to each other, but not necessarily the humble service of footwashing. They cite various reasons:
• None of the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) include this footwashing story.
• Nowhere else in the New Testament do we find footwashing raised to the status of an essential rite.
• In 1 Timothy 5:9-10, footwashing is mentioned as one of a series of good works—but not as a requirement.
• While footwashing has been practiced for certain occasions (Maundy Thursday) and by
certain denominations (Mennonites and Seventh-Day Adventists) it has never been widely accepted as essential.
• Most scholars believe that Christians who serve one another, in whatever fashion they might do so, are carrying out the imperative of this footwashing story.
“Most certainly (Greek: amen, amen) I tell you, a servant is not greater than his lord, neither one who is sent (Greek: apostolos) greater than he who sent him” (v. 16). Amen, amen emphasizes that which follows—signals the listener to “Listen up!” There are parallels to this verse in the Synoptics. “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his lord. It is enough for the disciple that he be like his teacher, and the servant like his lord” (Matthew 10:24-25a). “A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone when he is fully trained will be like his teacher” (Luke 6:40).
The point here is that the disciples should not hold themselves higher than Jesus. Jesus, by lowering himself to the lowliest of humble service by washing the disciples’ feet (and later by dying on the cross) established a ceiling above which the disciple cannot in good faith aspire to rise. It is a low ceiling—one that allows no prideful person to enter—or, at the very least, allows no prideful person any comfort.
“If you know these things, blessed (Greek: makarioi) are you if you do them” (v. 17). Understanding what Jesus wants of us is simply the first step of discipleship. It is in doing what Jesus wants that we open ourselves to receive the full measure of his blessings (makarioi).
We are familiar with this word, makarioi (blessed), from the Beatitudes, where Jesus says:
“Makarioi (blessed) are the poor in spirit…. Makarioi are those who mourn…. Makarioi are the gentle…. Makarioi are those who hunger and thirst after righteousness…. Makarioi are the merciful…. Makarioi are the pure in heart…. Makarioi are the peacemakers…. Makarioi are those who have been persecuted for righteousness’ sake…. Makarioi are you when people reproach you, persecute you, and say all kinds of evil against you falsely, for my sake” (Matthew 5:3-11).
The world counts none of these things as blessings. The blessed life as revealed by Jesus is diametrically opposite the kind of life that the world counts as blessed. The world says, “Blessed are the rich. Blessed are the aggressive. Blessed are those who can command others to cater to their needs.” But Jesus promises that, in God’s hands, the life that the world sees as unattractive can become, in fact, a fount of blessing. We see the truth of that in churches, where ordinary but faith-filled men and women transcend circumstances to live lives that any fair observer would recognize as blessed.
We find Jesus making this same emphasis on action in each of the Synoptics. “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter into the Kingdom of Heaven; but he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 7:21). “Everyone therefore who hears these words of mine, and does them, I will liken him to a wise man, who built his house on a rock” (Matthew 7:24; cf. Luke 6:47-48). “Whoever does the will of God, the same is my brother, and my sister, and mother” (Mark 3:35). See also James 1:22-25.
JOHN 13:18-30. NOT INCLUDED IN THE LECTIONARY READING
These verses tell of Jesus’ interaction with Judas, who will betray Jesus.
JOHN 13:31-32. NOW THE SON OF MAN HAS BEEN GLORIFIED
31When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now the Son of Man has been glorified, and God has been glorified in him. 32If God has been glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself and will glorify him immediately.”
“When (Judas) had gone out” (v. 31). Earlier, preparing to identify Judas, “Jesus was troubled in spirit” (13:21), but he does not allow that mood to set the tone for the evening. It is as if, when Judas departs, a pall lifts. Judas’ departure rids the group of his evil presence and sets in motion the events that lead to Jesus’ glorification.
“Now the Son of Man has been glorified” (v. 31a). Jesus frequently uses the title, Son of Man, to refer to himself. That title comes from Daniel 7:13-14, where the Ancient of Days (God) gave to the one like a Son of Man “dominion, and glory, and a kingdom, that all the peoples, nations, and languages should serve him: his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed.” Scholars agree that Jesus intended it as a messianic title. It has the advantage of having none of the militaristic connotations associated with the title, Messiah. People expect the Messiah to raise an army, to drive out the Romans, and to re-establish the great Davidic kingdom. They have no such expectations regarding the Son of Man.
“has been glorified” (v. 31a). Glory is characteristic of God, and refers to God’s awe-inspiring majesty. God shared this glory with Jesus. In this Gospel, Jesus’ glorification is associated with his death, resurrection, and ascension. Just as God’s glory was revealed at Sinai (Exodus 24:16-17), so also it will be revealed at the cross and open tomb.
The Spirit of truth will glorify Jesus (John 16:13-14). Jesus has given his glory to his disciples (John 17:22), and has been glorified in them (John 17:10). He prays, “Father, I desire that they also whom you have given me be with me where I am, that they may see my glory, which you have given me, for you loved me before the foundation of the world” (John 17:24). At the parousia (the Second Coming), Jesus will return “in a cloud with power and great glory” (Luke 21:27). Then “that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, those on earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father” (Philippians 2:10-11).
“The Son of Man has been glorified”—“God has been glorified” (v. 31)—“If God has been glorified”—“God will also glorify”—“will glorify him immediately” (v. 32). While Jesus’ glorification will take place in his death, resurrection, and ascension, he speaks of it as both past and future. The past tense, “has been glorified,” reflects his decision, already made, to be obedient even to death on a cross. The future tense, “will also glorify,” anticipates his retaking his rightful place with the Father through his resurrection and ascension.
The wait has been long, but now Jesus’ time has come. His sacrifice will make visible his obedience to God and his love for people. On the cross he will open the door to eternity (John 3:14-15). On the cross he will draw all people to himself (John 12:32). The disciples understand glorification in traditional terms, so they do not understand Jesus. They will not understand until they see the open tomb and the resurrected Christ.
JOHN 13:33. WHERE I AM GOING, YOU CAN’T COME
33“Little children, (Greek: teknia) I will be with you a little while longer. You will seek me, and as I said to the Jews, ‘Where I am going, you can’t come.'”
“You will seek me…. Where I am going, you can’t come.” As Jesus notes here, earlier he spoke these words to “the Jews” (7:33-34; 8:21)—by which he means his opponents, the Jewish leaders. In that context, he meant them as words of judgment, because Jewish leaders were looking for him so that they might kill him (5:18; 7:1). He told them, “you won’t find me” (7:33) and “you will die in your sins” (8:21).
Here he speaks these same words affectionately, calling the disciples teknia—little children—and omitting “you won’t find me” and “you will die in your sins.”
• Instead of saying, “you won’t find me,” Jesus promises his disciples that he will prepare a place for them and “will receive you to myself; that where I am, you may be there also” (14:3).
• Instead of saying, “you will die in your sin,” Jesus promises, “because I live, you will live also” (14:19).
JOHN 13:34. A NEW COMMANDMENT
34“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you; that you also love one another.”
“A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, just like I have loved you.” This new commandment is simple enough for a child to understand, and challenging enough that no mature Christian will claim to have obeyed it fully.
“New commandment” in the Latin Vulgate is mandatum novum, which is where we get the phrase Maundy Thursday (Bruce, 294).
The new commandment is not entirely new. Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall not take vengeance nor bear any grudge against the children of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh.”
That commandment required Israelites to love only other Israelites, but Leviticus 19:34 expanded its scope: “The stranger who lives as a foreigner with you shall be to you as the native-born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you lived as foreigners in the land of Egypt. I am Yahweh your God.”
What, then, is new about Jesus’ commandment?
• First, Jesus provides a clear model of the love that he requires: “Just like I have loved you, that you love one another” (v. 34). If we want to understand Christian love, we have only to look at Jesus’ life and actions.
• Second, it focuses on the Christian community—we are to love Christian brothers and sisters. Elsewhere, Jesus calls on us to love our neighbors, and holds up a Samaritan as an example of a neighbor (Luke 10:25-37). But here Jesus calls us to love fellow believers.
• Third, this new commandment inaugurates a new covenant (Jeremiah 31:31-34). The mark of faithfulness to the old covenant was obedience to the Torah. The mark of faithfulness to the new covenant is love for those within the community of faith (see Brown, 613-614; also Krentz and Vogel, 42).
• Fourth, this new commandment is positive and open-ended. Rather than focusing on “Thou shalt not,” it says, “thou shalt” (Gossip, 693). Where many Old Testament laws were very specific, this law is very broad. We can never claim full compliance, because there is no end to the requirement. When have we loved enough? There is always need for more love. People could respond to the old law with a bookkeeper’s mindset. Not so with this new commandment!
The focus is on loving action rather than loving feelings. In chapter 15, Jesus will repeat the commandment, saying, “This is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends” (15:12-13). In his own life, Jesus translates love into action that benefits the beloved. He calls us to do the same.
This makes it possible to obey. While it might be impossible to feel affection for some people, it is not impossible to help them. Our action-love is a gift of Christ, who loved us, showed us how love behaves, and makes of us a new people born again in his image and capable of loving with his love. We can truly obey this commandment when “it is no longer I that live, but Christ living in me. That life which I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself up for me ” (Galatians 2:20).
If you believe yourself to have a valid excuse not to love a particular person, consider the context in which Jesus tells the disciples to love one another. Jesus has just told them that one of them will betray him, and they do not know who that will be. The betrayer has departed (v. 30), but the disciples do not know that (vv. 28-29). Jesus commands them to love one another anyway—in spite of the fact that they do not know who the betrayer will be—do not know who it is that they cannot trust.
JOHN 13:35. BY THIS EVERYONE WILL KNOW THAT YOU ARE MY DISCIPLES
35“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”
Christian witness can take many forms, from street preaching to solemn liturgy, but it always involves love.
The church grew rapidly after the resurrection, in part because of the powerful witness of Christian love. “See how they love one another,” the pagans said (Tertullian, Apology). It is difficult not to respond to the witness of a loving person.
Ignoring this new commandment is not an option. Paul warns, “If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal,… If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.” (1 Corinthians 13:1-3).
But, as with all commandments, this one ultimately requires us to throw ourselves on the mercy of the court—to rely on God’s grace rather than our compliance with the law. Most of us fail daily to act in loving ways, even toward loved ones—and even more so toward people who rub us the wrong way. The Good News is that God loves us anyway! We must pray for grace to keep the commandment—and for grace when we fail.
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Smith, D. Moody, Jr., Abingdon New Testament Commentaries: John (Nashville: Abingdon, 1999)
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Copyright 2015, Richard Niell Donovan