"Come and See": A Web Commentary on the Gospel of John: Section 12. The Last Supper and Farewell Discourses

12.1 Jesus Washes His Disciples' Feet (Jn 13.1-20)

General Comments

Subsection 1: Dating of the Last Supper

With this section we begin a major unit of the gospel: the story of the Last Supper and the discourses and prayers that accompanied it. There are a number of differences between the acccount of the Last Supper in the Fourth Gospel and in all the others, including at least one event that is found in no other Gospel, Jesus' washing of his disciples' feet, which we will discuss later. But the major one is the apparent dating discrepancy between the Synoptic Gospels and John.

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the meal that Jesus shared with his disciples the evening before his arrest, trial, and execution was the Passover meal, and the Sabbath began at sunset on the day of the crucifixion. The official date of Passover in the Jewish religious calendar was the fifteenth day of the month of Nisan, which was also the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which ran for seven days, until the twenty-first day of Nisan.1 The Passover meal or seder is eaten on the evening of 15 Nisan. The Gospel of John agrees with the Synoptics on the days of the week: the Last Supper was eaten on a Thursday evening and the Crucifixion was on a Friday afternoon. But the Fourth Evangelist apparently thought those events happened on a different day of the month than the Synoptic evangelists did. John appears to say that the Passover began on the evening of the day on which Jesus was crucified.

The Synoptic Gospels say that 15 Nisan, the day of Passover, ran from Thursday evening to Friday evening, and the following day was the Sabbath (running from Friday evening to Saturday evening). John appears to say that the Last Supper was held on 14 Nisan, which ran from Thursday evening to Friday evening, and then 15 Nisan ran from Friday evening to Saturday evening. According to this reading of the evidence in John, neither the Last Supper or the Crucifixion happened on the Passover, 15 Nisan. Instead they happened on the previous day, 14 Nisan, the day on which the Passover lambs were slaughtered in the afternoon. Both the Synoptic date and the Johannine date, then, would be rich with symbolism, but the character of the Last Supper is completely different if it was not the Passover meal.

Scholars and exegetes tend to deal with this in one of two ways. They may use harmonisation, that is, they may argue that the disagreement is only apparent and the four evangelists are actually in agreement that the date of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion was 15 Nisan which ran from Thursday evening to Friday evening in that year. Or they may accept the discrepancy, but argue that the nearness of Passover cast its influence over the occasion, and caused the Last Supper to take on some of the character of the Passover meal, even though it was not.

But was it the intention of the Fourth Evangelist to assign a different date to the Last Supper and the Crucifixion than the Synoptic Gospels? That is the opinion of the majority of commentaries (Carson 1991 is the principal exception), but it is not clear to me that it is the right one. Carson 1991 pp 455-8, Smith 1991, and Köstenberger 2010 argue fully and, I think, convincingly that the chronology of all four Gospels is instead in harmony on this point, and that John agrees with the other three evangelists in making the Last Supper a Passover meal. It is important to note that John contains many details (for example. that the meal took place at night, that they prepared and ate the meal not in Bethany where they were staying, but in Jerusalem, and so on) suggesting that the meal was a seder. (See Smith 1991 pp 31-2, and Köstenberger 2010 pp 40-1 for discussions of this point)

Two verses from John have nevertheless seemed to completely rule out harmonisation: Jn 18.28 and 19.14. In Jn 18.28, the authorities refuse to enter Pilate's praetorium on the grounds that they must not be defiled and so prevented from eating the Passover (to pascha, τὸ πάσχα). If "the Passover" here refers to the paschal lamb, eaten only at the meal on 15 Nisan, then Jesus' trial and crucifixion must have taken place on the afternoon of 14 Nisan, and the Last Supper can't have been a Passover meal as it is presented in the Synoptic Gospels and as is implied by John's Gospel. However the wide range of writers cited by all three scholars shows that at this time "to pascha" was not used as strictly as it is in the Torah or as it came to be used in later times and could in fact refer to the sacrifices eaten during the Feast of Unleavened Bread which began on 15 Nisan. In fact Smith shows that "Passover" and "Feast of Unleavened Bread" could be applied loosely to the whole eight-day period from 14 Nisan when the lambs were slaughtered to the end of the Feast of Unleavened Bread (pp 35-39). The authorities' desire to avoid ritual uncleanness that might interfere with their eating the Passover cannot be considered an absolute indication of date; it is compatible with a date on the afternoon of 15 Nisan, and hence with the Last Supper as a Passover meal on the preceding evening (also 15 Nisan).

In Jn 19.14 the evangelist refers to the time at which Pilate brings Jesus out as the day of preparation of the Passover (paraskeue tou pascha, παρασκευὴ τοῦ πάσχα). It would appear that this refers to 14 Nisan, the day on which Passover preparations such as the slaughter of the lambs took place. But normally in John's Gospel, 'paraskeue' is the day of preparation for the Sabbath, that is, the Friday beforehand. So it is reasonable to assume that it means the same thing here, that is, that the evangelist is referring to the day of preparation for the holiday Sabbath, which fell on 16 Nisan. The day of preparation would then be 15 Nisan, the same day as the trial and condemnation by Pilate takes place in the Synoptics. So in fact it is both possible and indeed likely that the Synoptics and John are using the same chronology, according to which the meal at which the footwashing (to which we will shortly turn) occurred was a Passover meal, a seder (See Smith 1991 pp 39-44 for a full discussion of these two verses).

Knowing it was a Passover meal provides possible answers to at least two other questions about the occasion. First, how many people were present? Second, when in the meal did the footwashing occur?

We can't know for sure how many people were there in the room -- acording to the Synoptics, it was the upper room of a house in Jerusalem. According to the historian Josephus, 10 people was a normal number for the group that would share the Passover meal, though as many as 20 might do so (Jewish War 6.423-5). So if all the Twelve were there with Jesus and the Beloved Disciple, that would make 14.2 There were certainly more people in the room, since someone or ones must have served the meal, and there may have been a few others at the table.

When a meal was taken reclining, as for a festival, people were arranged on mats or couches around tables arranged in a square open at one end, like so:

Diagram of Last Supper table arrangement

I have suggested an arrangement for 15 guests but of course this is purely speculative! The arrangement of tables and mats or courches would depend on factors such as the size of the room and whether it was normally used as a formal dining area. The suggested placement of some of the guests is based on hints in the gospel itself and what we know about the arrangement of guests according to their rank or importance. We will be saying more about this in the comments on Jn 13.21-30 in the next section.

There are not many clues in the Gospel about the timing of the footwashing. However, what we know about festival meals and the seder meal in particular in the first century CE suggests that there would be two occasions during the meal when hands were washed, one of which was a ritual washing of one hand at the beginning of the seder. So it seems possible that Jesus "repurposed" the towel and basin for that ritual washing and made them the instruments whereby he washed not the hands but the feet of the disciples.

Subsection 2: The significance of the footwashing

The footwashing is the central action in this section, and its meaning is complex. In fact there seem to be at least three strands of symbolism and significance in the act of washing the disciples' feet. First Jesus demonstrates graphically the words that Luke attributes to him at the Last Supper when the disciples quarrel over status: "For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one at the table? But I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22.27 NRSV). What could more emblematic of service than footwashing, a repetitive, unpleasant daily task normally delegated to slaves? This is a demonstration of servant leadership, that is, of the leader as servant. And it is intended to be exemplary: "[I]f I, your lord and teacher, washed your feet, you ought also to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do for one another just as I have done for you. Amen, Amen, I say to you, the slave is not greater than their master nor is the messenger greater than the one who sent them" (Jn 13.14-16). Disciples of Jesus should not only serve one another, but they must also not even think or imagine that there is any service to others that is beneath them, since Jesus did not imagine that footwashing was beneath him.

But there is more signified by the footwashing than lives of Christian service. Jesus appears before his disciples in the form of a servant or slave here, thus linking our text from John's Gospel with Isaiah 52.13-53.12. This Servant Song describes the sufferings the Servant must undergo to carry out the work that God has given him, and it also describes the purpose of that work:

Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.

When you make his life an offering for sin,

he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;

through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.

Out of his anguish he shall see light;

he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.

The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous,

and he shall bear their iniquities.

Therefore I will allot him a portion with the great,

and he shall divide the spoil with the strong;

because he poured out himself to death,

and was numbered with the transgressors;

yet he bore the sin of many,

and made intercession for the transgressors. (Isaiah 53.10-12 NRSV)

Earlier, in chapter 12, Jesus also linked together his works of atonement with his death, and called on his servants, that is, his followers, like the disciples, to be where he is also. Taking that passage (Jn 12.23-33) together with this passage about footwashing and rereading/recalling them in light of the common elements between them and Isaiah 52.13-53.12 is illuminating. It remind us how Jesus' atoning death is closely linked to his role as the Lord's servant. The disciples gathered for the Passover meal must have also seen the link with the Suffering Servant, and seen the direction toward which Jesus was pointing them in calling for them to imitate his example!

This is not a way of thinking that is peculiar to John the Evangelist. Consider Philippians 2.5-11:

5May this thought be yours which was also that of Messiah Jesus,

6Who, although in the divine mode of existence,

did not think of being equal to God

as a prize to grab,

7but poured his self out,

taking on a slave’s mode of existence;

being in human likeness

and found in the form of a human being

8he humbled himself

becoming obedient to the point of death:

death on a cross!

9Therefore God has also highly exalted him

and freely given him the name

that is above every name,

10so that at the name “Jesus”

every knee shall bend

on heaven and on earth and beneath the earth,

11 and every tongue confess that

Jesus Messiah is Lord,

to the glory of God the Father.

Whether this is a hymn that Paul has incorporated into his letter or his own composition, it reflects an attitude toward Jesus and his saving work which links that work with his servanthood. The Jesus described in Philippians as taking on the mode of existence of a slave is recognisably the same as this Jesus, who wraps a linen towel around him and serves his disciples in what would have been perceived by them as a slave's role. So within a comparatively short time after Jesus' death and resurrection, this linkage of ideas (being a servant, carrying out the work of atonement even in death, emulation of Jesus' service) was already well-established.

The third strand to do with the significance of the footwashing involves both concepts of purity and participation. It is found particularly in the dialogue between Peter and Jesus in vv6-10. When Peter objected to the inversion of roles (that is, that the teacher and lord would serve his followers rather than the other way round), Jesus had two answers, both of which point beyond the events of that evening. He answered the first objection Peter makes by saying that he doesn't understand what Jesus is doing then, but he will understand it later. We have seen the motif that an event will only be understood later or afterward before: in Jn 2.22 the disciples will only understand what Jesus said about rebuilding the temple of his body after his resurrection and in Jn 12.16, the disciples will only understand the events of Palm Sunday after Jesus is glorified. So here it likely indicates that Peter will only understand the full meaning of the footwashing after Jesus' resurrection.

But when Peter pressed on with his refusal, saying that Jesus will never wash his (Peter's) feet, Jesus also doubled down on his insistence to do so. He told Peter that without the washing, Peter would have no part (or share) in him. So for Peter to participate in Jesus and his saving work, he must be washed by him. That this implies some sort of purification of his followers by Jesus is undoubted, but it is not precisely clear to what Jesus is referring in v10. There Jesus replies to Peter's overenthusiastic desire for Jesus to wash his hands and his head too by saying that someone who has bathed doesn't need any further washing, except perhaps his feet. Does this refer to baptism? If so, it does not seem to be a very clear allusion by the evangelist. In any case, we can say that Jesus's actions are making his followers clean, and that is part of what is signified by the footwashing.


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Comments on Specific Verses

"Before" here is sometimes taken as a dating reference to the footwashing which is about to be described, thus muddling an already confusing dating problem. It seems more likely that this whole verse should be taken as resumptive. After the discussion of the meaning of Jesus' signs in Jn 12.37-43 and the attempt to sum up Jesus' teaching in Johnannine terms in Jn 12.44-50, Jn 13.1 resumes the narrative that the evangelist paused at Jn 12.36. This verse reminds us that before the Passover, before the events about to be described, Jesus had already seen that his hour had come, as depicted in Jn 12. 20-36. And so, "since he loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end". This latter part of the verse looks ahead not just to the Last Supper, but to the saving work of Jesus on the Cross.

These first four verses (which are two sentences in the Greek text) are very unlike John's usual style. Instead of his usual clauses and verbs, there is a cascade of participles tumbling over one another until they reach a conclusion, a main verb. I have tried to adapt these participles to more natural English, by turning them into temporal or causal clauses, that is, clauses beginning with 'when' or 'since'. But that doesn't convey the headlong effect of John's style, or the emphasis it puts on the two main verbs in these sentences: Jesus loved his own to the end and Jesus stood up and wrapped a linen cloth around his waist like a belt. The actions that follow are the expression of that love and the cloth belted round his waist is the symbol of his Servanthood.

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The phrase running from "the Enemy" to "betray him" is very awkward in the original. Literally it reads, "when the Enemy had already put into the heart that Judas son of Simon Iscariot would betray him". Presumably this means when Satan put betraying Jesus into Judas' heart. The alternative is that Satan put into his own heart, that is, decided, that Judas would betray him, which does not seem to make sense, as taking too much free will from Judas. The translation I have given reflects the intended meaning as I understand it. See the short discussion in Brown 1970 p 550 and see Appendix 4 for a discussion of this passage in the context of the other "Satan" references. Here as in Jn 6.70 and 8.44, "Enemy" renders the Greek "diabolos", another name for the Adversary or Accuser, Satan.

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In vv 6-10, Simon Peter shows devotion to Jesus and his leadership but at the same time a reluctance to listen to, and obey, what Jesus actually says to him. As we have seen above, he progresses from one objection to the next until he hears a virtual threat that he will become unable to share in the fruits of Jesus' saving work as Messiah and Servant, whereupon he completely reverses course, becoming as eager (even over-eager) for Jesus to wash his feet (and hands and head!) as he had been against it before. But Peter never seems to understand that Jesus is pointing the disciples toward a life and, if necessary, a death of loving service to their siblings following Jesus' example. Just as in the Synoptic Gospels Peter chastises Jesus in the aftermath of his affirmation of Jesus as Messiah and Son for what he says about his own suffering and death in Mk 8.27-38, so in John Peter also misses the point. He will not be portrayed by any of the evangelists as either truly accepting or truly understanding until after the Resurrection, particularly in John 21 and his speech in Acts 2.

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This is the first mention in the Fourth Gospel of the betrayal of Jesus by one of the Twelve that offers an explanation. It claims that Jesus knew what he was doing, but he chose Judas to fulfil the Scripture, specifically Ps 41.10: "Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted the heel against me." It is a question for the individual reader whether this attempt to associate the choice of the betrayer as a disciple, even as one of the Twelve, with a Psalm text considered to be a prophecy is a successful explanation of the presence of Judas among Jesus' chosen followers. That such a saying of Jesus was remembered and passed on suggests that the early community of Jesus' followers was troubled by Judas and his position and wanted reassurance that indeed Jesus knew what he was doing, and had a reason for choosing Judas.

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This "it" referred, apparently, both to the footwashing itself, which led to the topic of the betrayal, and also to the prophecy from the Psalms which Jesus had just recalled and fulfilled. A key concept here is the effect of later events on the disciples' understanding. In the case of the footwashing, it simply didn't make sense to them yet; although the text is not explicit, as we have seen it is almost certain that Jesus' atoning death and resurrection is what was to make the difference. In the case of the prophecy, the very fact of its having been named by Jesus would allow his followers at a later time to understand to what it was pointing, that is, to Who Jesus Is. In these ways, the verse connects us readers back to Jn 2.22: "Therefore when he rose from the dead, his disciples remembered that he said this; and they believed the Scripture and the word that Jesus spoke.". In that verse, fulfilment, the effect of the Resurrection on Jesus' followers, and Scripture and Jesus' own sayings mingle together to create trust in the hearts of the disciples. In the same way, reflecting upon the footwashing and Jesus' fulfilment of the Psalm prophecy creates trust in their hearts as well.

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The meaning of v20 is not difficult to understand, but its placement here is. It does not immediately seem to have anything to do with the footwashing or with the discussion of Judas' betrayal which arose from it! The double-Amen introduction points to its being a traditional saying of Jesus, and it has affinities with a saying preserved in Matthew 10.40. Presumably it made sense to John as he wrote his gospel to put it in this context. Possibly the connection was suggested by the idea of service and servant ministry that is strongly associated with following Jesus and being sent by him both in Jn 12.23-33 and in the footwashing episode. Perhaps it was was a saying of Jesus that was repeated at the Last Supper which John simply wanted to preserve in that context but found no better way to do so in his version of the Last Supper.

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1 Although all the evangelists sometimes casually use the Roman system in which the day ran from sunrise to the following sunrise, there is no evidence that any of them adopted it for ritual or liturgical use. The reckoning of Sabbaths and festivals appears to follow the Jewish norm of calculating a day as running from sunset to the following sunset.

2 The Synoptic Gospels specify that Jesus and the Twelve were present; John names five men who were part of the Twelve (Peter, Judas Iscariot, Thomas, Philip, and "Judas, not Iscariot", likely the Judas son of James mentioned by Luke) as well as Jesus himself and the Beloved Disciple who was as we have seen likely not one of the Twelve.