The God Who Kneels – Day 7

Deep Theology

“Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”

                                                                                                       John 13:1


The meaning of Jesus’ death is the focus of John’s descriptive details. John framed the scene to underscore the significance of the cross. Yesterday we reflected on John’s first redemptive marker, the Passover. The second deep meaning indicator, is his reference to the hour, God’s kairos-timing. Jesus is aware “that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father.” Throughout his gospel, John tracks the expectation of the hour (2:4; 4:21-23; 5:25,28; 7:6,30; 8:20; 12:23). This is the hour in which the Son of Man will be glorified and the will of the Father will be accomplished. This is the hour that finally arrived on Thursday night. The passion narrative had begun. God’s grace-filled-timing was set in motion. It was the final countdown to the Cross and the Resurrection.

The third marker is John’s reference to Christ’s love, which clearly shows that there is much more here than a morality play or a random act of kindness. This love is the enduring, eternal redemptive love of Jesus. This love extends from foot-washing to the cross. “Having loved his own who were in the world,” recalls an earlier line from John’s prologue, “He came unto his own, but his own received him not.” Christ’s love prevails in spite of rejection. The timing is right for Jesus to show the full extent of his love, not just to his immediate band of disciples, but to all of “his own who were in the world.” The limitless nature of this love is captured in the ambiguity of the meaning of telos. The sentence can read,“He loved them to the end.” or it can read, “He loved them to the utmost.” Either way, we hear echoes of John 3:16, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son that whosoever believes in him shall not die but have everlasting life.” This is the deep, soul-cleansing love of sins forgiven, guilt removed, and righteousness bestowed.

The fourth deep meaning indicator is John’s matter-of-fact reference to the devil. Whether moderns are embarrassed or shocked doesn’t matter, the reality stands, the devil is influential, persuasive, and determined. The personal presence of supernatural evil manipulating the heart and mind of Judas is acknowledged by John as a fact. The devil’s prompting plays on Judas’ sin-induced vulnerability. Upper room access is no guarantee of immunity from evil’s infection. On bended knee, Jesus is heading to the cross. Everything has been set in motion. The momentum is building and even the forces of evil are unknowingly governed by God’s sovereign redemptive will.

John’s fifth theological truth offers a behind-the-scene-explanation. He frames the passion narrative with the very highest view of Christ. “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 . .”  John shapes the reader’s upper room understanding with post-resurrection perspective. Sometime during the forty days before the Ascension the risen Christ briefed the disciples on what he knew and how he felt leading up to the cross. The abiding presence of the Father and the purpose of his will never left him. John remembers observing this confidence and calmness. Jesus’ serenity and certainty in the midst of hostility and confidence was manifest in the upper room. The bond between Father, Son and Holy Spirit brings the highest glory of heaven down to earth. Martin Luther said, “He thought of His glory which he had with the Father from all eternity and which He would now assume as to his human nature.”[1]

The sixth indicator may seem implicit to us, but it was deliberate in the mind of John. When he said that Jesus laid aside his outer clothing, he recalled Jesus’ description of the good shepherd as the one who “lays down his life for the sheep” (10:11; see 10:15, 17, 18). The language of laying aside or laying down makes a significant connection between the foot-washing and the death of Christ.

The seventh and final indicator is the word “finished” – “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place” (John 13:12). It is the same word Jesus used at the very end, when he cried from the cross, “It is finished” (John 19:30). The word “finished” links foot-washing and crucifixion as one continuous divine action.

All seven elements are woven into the tapestry of this scene, helping the church see what she might otherwise miss. The issue in the foreground is not admiration but atonement. Luther believed that the foot-washing scene focuses on the person of Christ and “the washing from sin by His blood shed upon the cross.” Luther continued, “Such washing is no example; for we cleanse neither ourselves nor others from sin. The Son of God, the Lamb of God, who bore the sins of the world, can do it, and He alone.”[2]

Jesus turned foot-washing into a preview of the cross. The mundane act of washing feet is transformed into a redemptive analogy. The story is not about a great man condescending to do something nice; it is about God incarnate descending and dying for the sake of our salvation. The moralistic angle doesn’t work and best business practices miss the point. Luther described this act of the foot-washing “as a parable of the stooping of the Son of God to the self-sacrifice on the cross.” This isn’t about random acts of kindness. This is about the mercy of God, eternal salvation, and costly discipleship. Jesus has the cross in mind and so should we.


Upper Room Reflection

Does foot-washing lose its spiritual force if we see it as a metaphor for self-denial?

How does John make the case for a metaphoric meaning of foot-washing?

Which deep meaning indicator had the greatest impact on you?

What are the implications of the passion narrative beginning with foot-washing and ending in crucifixion?

[1] Martin Luther, Sermon for the Thursday Before Eater: Jesus Washes the Feet of His Disciples, Sermons on the Gospels for the Sundays and Principal Festivals of the Church Year, Matthias Loy, ed. Vol. 2. Second ed. (Columbus, Ohio; J. A. Schulze, 1884), pp. 24-41

[2] Martin Luther, Sermon for the Thursday Before Eater: Jesus Washes the Feet of His Disciples.