Scripture readings: Ex. 12:1-4, 5-14; Ps. 116:1-2, 12-19; 1 Cor. 11:23-26; John 13:1-17, 31b-35 Sermon by Ted Johnston (from John 13) (drawing on commentary by Warren Wiersbe in The Bible Expository Commentary, Michael Card in The Parable of Joy, and F.F. Bruce in The Gospel of John)
Lessons from the Upper Room
Our Gospel reading this evening is from John 13. The events there occurred on Thursday evening during Holy Week in the Upper Room in Jerusalem. There Jesus met with his disciples and conveyed his farewell message. The part of the message in John 13 addresses four progressive topics from the perspective of four relationships. Let’s prayerfully examine what the Spirit is saying to the church concerning Jesus and our life in him.
1. Humility: Jesus and the Father (John 13:1-5)
It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (John 13:1-5)
Jesus entered Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, then on Monday he cleansed the temple. Tuesday was a day of conflict as the religious leaders sought to trip him up and get evidence to arrest him. Wednesday was probably a day of rest, but now it is Thursday evening and he meets in the Upper Room in Jerusalem with his disciples for a meal, intimate fellowship, and important instruction. The end is near. Jesus is aware that “the time had come.”
What was this divinely appointed “time”? It was the time when Jesus would be glorified through his death, resurrection and ascension. From the human point of view, it meant suffering. But from the divine point of view, it meant glory. Jesus would soon leave this world and return to the Father who sent him, having finished his work on earth (John 17:4). They could not even arrest Jesus, let alone kill him, until the right time had arrived.
Jesus seems aware of what was about to transpire. For example, he knew that Judas would betray him. He also knew that the Father had given him all things (John 13:3). This statement parallels John 3:35. Even in his humiliation, our Lord had all things through his Father. He was poor and yet he was rich. Because Jesus knew who he was, where he came from, what he had, and where he was going, he was complete master of the situation.
What Jesus knew helped determine what Jesus did (John 13:4–5). The disciples were, no doubt, shocked when they saw Jesus rise from supper, lay aside his outer garments, wrap a towel around his waist, take a basin of water, and wash their feet. Jewish servants did not wash their masters’ feet, though Gentile slaves might. It was a menial task, and yet Jesus did it!
The background to this foot washing is found in Luke 22:24-30 where Jesus is addressing the competitive spirit in the hearts of his disciples who seemed fond of disputing over which was the greatest. Their self-serving attitude was the opposite of the self-less spirit of Jesus. So Jesus gives them an object-lesson in humility, which rebukes their self-centeredness.
Think about this: The Father had put all things into the Son’s hands, yet Jesus, the Son of God, picks up a towel and a basin! His humility was not born of poverty, but of riches. He was rich, yet became poor voluntarily for our sakes as Paul notes in 2 Cor. 8:9. John highlights Jesus’ humility even while magnifying his deity: “The Son can do nothing by himself” (John 5:19, 30). “I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me” (John 6:38). “My teaching is not my own” (John 7:16). “I am not seeking glory for myself” (John 8:50). “These words you hear are not my own” (John 14:24).
Jesus was Sovereign God, yet he took the place of a servant. He had all things in his hands, yet he picked up a towel. He was Lord and Master, yet he served his followers. True humility grows out of our union with Christ, the truly humble one. In that union, we share Jesus’ desire to know and do the Father’s will so that the Father’s name is glorified.
Note: if you are conducting a footwashing ceremony during this service, you could place it here in the sermon.
2. Service: Jesus and Peter (John 13:6–11)
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. (John 13:6–11)
As Peter watched the Lord wash his friends’ feet, he became more and more disturbed and could not understand what Jesus was doing. The Greek word here translated “wash” means “to wash a part of the body.” Jesus contrasts this with one who has been bathed all over. The distinction is important.
Jesus says to them, “unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). The Greek word translated “part” carries the meaning here of “participation, having a share in someone or something.” God “bathes us all over” in salvation by baptizing us into Christ—by bringing us into union with Christ; and that is a settled relationship that cannot change (the verb had a bath in John 13:10 is in the perfect tense—it speaks to something that is accomplished once and for all time). However, our ongoing participation with or communion with Christ depends on our ongoing fellowship with him, and that fellowship involves Jesus’ continuously cleansing (washing) us through the Spirit. We participate in that washing as we confess our sins and our continual need for him (1 John 1:9). Sin hinders our walk with the Lord; and through confession we participate in Jesus’ ongoing washing of our “feet,” which are symbolic of our lives.
This basic truth of our life and ministry with Christ, by the Spirit, is beautifully illustrated in the old covenant priesthood. When the priest was consecrated, he was bathed all over (Ex. 29:4), and that experience was never repeated. However, during his daily ministry, he became defiled; so it was necessary that he wash his hands and feet at the brass laver in the courtyard (Ex. 30:18–21). Only then could he enter the holy place and trim the lamps, eat the holy bread, or burn the incense.
The Lord has cleansed us through the sacrifice of his life including his death on the cross—a work we become aware of through the revelation of his word, by the Spirit (John 15:3; Eph. 5:25–26). The “water of the word” keeps our hearts and minds clean so that we will avoid the pollutions of this world. But when we sin, we have a loving High Priest in heaven who hears our confession, extends the forgiveness that is already ours and so by his word and Spirit cleanses us (1 John 2:1–2).
Peter did not understand what Jeus was doing; but instead of waiting for an explanation, he impulsively tried to tell the Lord what to do. There is a strong double negative in John 13:8: “You shall by no means wash my feet, no, never” (Wuest translation). Peter meant it! Then when he discovered that to refuse the Lord would mean losinv the Lord’s fellowship, he went in the opposite direction and asked for a complete bath!
We can learn an important lesson here: don’t question the Lord’s will or work, and don’t try to change it. Jesus knows what he is doing! Peter had a difficult time accepting Jesus’ ministry to him because Peter was not yet ready to minister to the other disciples. It takes humility and grace to serve others, but it also takes humility and grace to allow others to serve us. The beautiful thing about a submissive spirit is that it can both give and receive to the glory of God. John was careful to point out that Peter and Judas were in a different relationship with Jesus. Yes, Jesus washed Judas’ feet, but it did Judas no good—he had not been bathed all over.
It’s a wonderful thing to deepen your fellowship with Jesus and your participation in his ministry. We need to allow him to continually wash our feet so that we may wash the feet of others with him.
3. Happiness: Jesus and the Disciples (John 13:12–17)
When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13:12–17)
Jesus addresses a third topic here with a beatitude: “Now that you know these things [the importance of humility and service], you will be blessed [“happy” KJV] if you do them” (John 13:17). It’s not enough to hear, understand and approve of humility and service—one must follow through in action and that will bring a blessing (happiness) to the doer. True happiness is a life lived out of our union with Christ—a life joined to Christ as he does his Father’s will through the direction and power of the Spirit. This is the life of humbly participating with Christ, by the Spirit, in serving others.
In John 13:12, Jesus asked the disciples if they understood what he had done for them by washing their feet. Because he knew that they didn’t understand, he explained what he had done and why: he had given them an object lesson in humble service—an example of the spirit and approach they were to follow in their ministries and lives. The world thinks of happiness as the result of others serving us, but real joy comes when we serve others in the name of Christ.
Because Jesus was their Master, he had every right to command their service. But instead, he served them! He gave them an example of true Christian ministry. On multiple occasions during the previous three years, he had taught them lessons about humility and service; but now he demonstrated those lessons, showing in graphic terms that the servant (slave) is not greater than his master; so, if the master becomes a slave, where does that put the slave? On the same level as the master!
By becoming a servant, our Lord did not push us down: he lifted us up! He dignified sacrifice and service. This was unusual in a culture where Romans had no use for humility, and Greeks despised manual labor. Jesus combined these two when he washed the disciples’ feet, then told them to do likewise—to become humble servants of others.
4. Hypocrisy: Jesus and Judas (John 13:18–35)
“I am not referring to all of you; I know those I have chosen. But this is to fulfill the scripture: ‘He who shares my bread has lifted up his heel against me.’ I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am He. I tell you the truth, whoever accepts anyone I send accepts me; and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.”
After he had said this, Jesus was troubled in spirit and testified, “I tell you the truth, one of you is going to betray me.” His disciples stared at one another, at a loss to know which of them he meant. One of them, the disciple whom Jesus loved, was reclining next to him. Simon Peter motioned to this disciple and said, “Ask him which one he means.” Leaning back against Jesus, he asked him, “Lord, who is it?” Jesus answered, “It is the one to whom I will give this piece of bread when I have dipped it in the dish.” Then, dipping the piece of bread, he gave it to Judas Iscariot, son of Simon.
As soon as Judas took the bread, Satan entered into him. “What you are about to do, do quickly,” Jesus told him, but no one at the meal understood why Jesus said this to him. Since Judas had charge of the money, some thought Jesus was telling him to buy what was needed for the Feast, or to give something to the poor.
As soon as Judas had taken the bread, he went out. And it was night. When he was gone, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will glorify the Son in himself, and will glorify him at once. My children, I will be with you only a little longer. You will look for me, and just as I told the Jews, so I tell you now: Where I am going, you cannot come. A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:18–35)
A dark shadow now fell across the scene as Jesus dealt with Judas, the traitor. At this pivotal moment, his life now hanging in the balance, Jesus had two great concerns: to fulfill the word of God (13:18–30) and to magnify the glory of God (13:31–35). Included in these concerns was his concern that Judas’ treachery not weaken the faith of the other disciples. This is why he related it to the prophetic word of Scripture: when the disciples saw all this fulfilled, it would make their faith stronger (John 8:28). Judas had been disloyal, but Jesus expected the other disciples to be loyal to him.
Peter signaled to John, who was the closest to Jesus at the table, and asked him to find out who the traitor was. The Lord’s reply to John was not heard by all the disciples; they were carrying on discussions among themselves about who the traitor might be (Luke 22:23). When Jesus gave the bread to Judas, it was interpreted as an act of love and honor. In fact, Judas was seated at the place of honor, so our Lord’s actions were seen in that light: He was bestowing a special honor on Judas. No wonder, after Judas left the room, the disciples got into an argument over who was the greatest (Luke 22:24–30).
John was, no doubt, stunned by this revelation, but before he could say or do anything, Jesus had sent Judas on his way. Even though Satan had entered Judas, it was Jesus who was in charge. He lived on the timetable given to him by the Father, and he wanted to fulfill what was written in Scripture. Since Judas was the treasurer, it was logical for the disciples to conclude that he had been sent on a special mission by Jesus. Earlier, Judas had hypocritically expressed an interest in the poor, so they thought perhaps Judas was on an errand of mercy to help the poor.
Keep in mind that Judas knew what he was doing and that he did it deliberately. He had already met with the Jewish religious leaders and agreed to lead them to Jesus in such a way that there would not be any public disturbance (Luke 21:37–22:6). He heard Jesus say, “Woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had not been born!” (Matt. 26:24). Yet, Judas persisted in his unbelief and treachery.
John’s little phrase “and it was night” carries a tremendous impact when you remember that light and dark are important spiritual images in John’s Gospel. Jesus is the Light of the world (8:12), but Judas rejected Jesus and went out into darkness; and for Judas, it is still night! Those who do evil hate the light (John 3:18–21).
The instant Judas was gone, Jesus began to instruct his disciples and prepare them for his crucifixion and his return to heaven. It was after Judas’ departure that he instituted the Lord’s Supper (mentioned in the other Gospels, but not by John). Judas was out in the night, controlled by the prince of darkness, Satan; but Jesus was in the light, sharing love and truth with his beloved disciples. What a contrast!
The theme now changes to the glory of God (13:31–35). From the human perspective, the death of Christ was a dastardly deed involving unspeakable suffering and humiliation; but from the divine perspective it was the revelation of the glory of God. “The hour is come for the Son of man to be glorified” (John 12:23). What did it mean for Jesus to glorify the Father? He tells us in his prayer: “I have brought you glory on the earth by completing the work you gave me to do” (John 17:4).
God is glorified when we faithfully do what he calls us to do. In Jesus’ case, the Father’s will was that the Son die for humanity, be raised from the dead, and ascend to heaven. Through all this, the Son glorified the Father and the Father glorified the Son (John 17:1, 5).
There would come a time when the Son would be glorified in these disciples (John 17:10), but they could not follow him at that time. Peter boasted that he would follow the Lord even to death (Luke 22:33), but unfortunately ended up denying him three times. Jesus had said to the Jews on two occasions that they would seek him, but not be able to find him or follow him (John 7:33–36; 8:21–24). He did not tell his disciples that they would not be able to find him, but he did say that to the unbelieving Jews. One day the believing disciples would go to be with him (John 14:1–3), and they would also see him after his resurrection. But during this time of his suffering and death, it was important that they not try to follow him.
The disciples’ responsibility was to love one another just as Christ had loved them. They would need this love in the forthcoming hours, when their Master would be taken from them and their brave spokesman, Peter, would fail him and them. All of them would fail, and the only thing that would bring them back together would be their love for Jesus and each other.
The word love is used only 12 times in John 1–12, but in John 13–21 it is used 44 times! It is a key word in Jesus’ farewell sermon to his disciples, as well as a burden in his High Priestly Prayer (John 17:26). The word new does not mean “new in time,” because love has been important to God’s people even from Old Testament times (Lev. 19:18). Rather, it means “new in experience, fresh”—the opposite of “worn out.” Love would take on a new meaning and power because of the death of Jesus on the cross (John 15:13). With the coming of the Spirit, love would have a new power in their lives.
This section begins and ends with love: Jesus’ love for his own (John 13:1) and their love for one another. It is love that is the true evidence that we belong to Jesus. The early church leader Tertullian quoted pagans as saying of Christians, “See how they love one another.” How do we give evidence of that love? By doing what Jesus did: laying down our lives for one another (1 John 3:16). And the way we do that is through a heart of humility—taking the lower place and serving. This leads us to an experience of true happiness—which is the heart of Jesus—and in sharing his heart we avoid displaying the heart of hypocrisy that plagued Judas. Amen.
Note: Following this conclusion would be a good time to offer the Lord’s Supper (Communion). Here are some notes (written by Jonathan Stepp) that might help you:
As we celebrate Jesus’ last supper with his disciples, and his washing of their feet, we are also celebrating Jesus’ institution of the symbols of the bread and wine to represent his human nature. This celebration is a good time each year to summarize all that the Son’s indwelling of our human nature means: how the bread and wine symbolize the way in which the Son has become flesh and made his dwelling among us, brought our human nature into the Trinity, said “no” to sin and “yes” to the Father on our behalf, crucified our sinful nature, raised up our bodies in his resurrection, and carried humanity into the communion of the Trinity at the Father’s right hand.