jesus, the son of god
In John’s gospel there is no Bethlehem story. There are no shepherds, no wise men, and no swaddling clothes or manger. There is simply John’s terse expression, ‘the Word became flesh’. John reveals an origin far more profound than Mary or the City of David. Jesus was ‘in the beginning with God… he was with God and was God’ (Jn 1:1). He was the ‘I am’ who existed before Abraham (Jn 8:58). All that the ‘I AM’ of the OT (Ex 3:14) was to the world and his people finds expression in Jesus; he is the light and life of mankind and the Shepherd of his people (Jn 10). For John, Jesus is not simply the Son of David or Son of Man, he is the ‘Son of God’. Pilate, on being informed that Jesus claimed to be the Son of God, asks him where he is from (Jn 19:9). John, or rather Jesus, has answered this question repeatedly; he comes not merely from Bethlehem or Nazareth but ‘from above’ (Jn 3:31), ‘from heaven’ (6:38), ‘from God’ (Jn 6:46). And he is ‘from God’ in the fullest possible sense of the phrase just as he is in the fullest possible sense of the phrase, ‘God’s Son’ (Jn 3:16); he has come ‘from the Father’ (Jn 16:28), is stamped by the unique glory of ‘the only Son of the Father’ (Jn 1:14), and through this Father-Son intimacy fully reveals the Father’s glory (Jn 1:18, 14:7,9). John leaves us in no doubt that Jesus is the divine Son who shared eternally the essential glory of the Father (Jn 17:5). He is ‘sent’ by the Father (Jn 3:34, 7:33) and in the glory of submissive divine-son-obedience humbles himself to become a man that the light and life of God may be seen and may save those who believe.
By John 13, the Son’s’ mission in the world is almost over. He has nothing further to say to it. He has been in the world, the world that was made by him, and it has not known him (Jn 1:10); the light has shone in the darkness and the darkness has not apprehended (grasped) who he is (Jn 1:5). The incomprehension, as always, is moral not intellectual, and provokes the judgment: ‘the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil (Jn 3:19). The world hated him because he testified to it that its deeds were evil (Jn 7:7, 8:43). As long as he is in the world he is the light of the world (Jn 9:5) but he warns that the light will be among them only ‘a little longer’ and they must trust before the darkness overtakes them (12:35, Cf. 7:33,34). The next and last time the world will see the Son in self-humbling is at the cross.
The cross in John, has a unique perspective. There is no Gethsemane sweat in John, no ‘let this cup pass from me’. Though his soul is troubled, he will not say, ‘Father save me from this hour’ for to this purpose and hour he came into the world (Jn 12: 27). Neither is there stumbling on the via dolorosa, no substitute carries his cross, and there is no agonizing cry of dereliction. The cross, in John, although a place of suffering, is less a spectacle of weakness than of power; it is where the Prince of the world is cast out and the world, not the Son, is judged (Jn 12:31). Crucified, paradoxically, Jesus will be less shamed than glorified (Jn 12:23). He will be ‘lifted up’ with all the rich ambiguity of this phrase fully intended by John for it will be where his glory is revealed through which all men will be drawn to him (Jn 12:32, 3:14, 8:28); at the cross, the Son will be glorified and God glorified in him (Jn 13:31).
But the cross in John is also intricately and inextricably connected to ‘going to the Father’. For if at the cross God is glorified in Christ then God will glorify Christ in himself (that is, along with him) and will do so immediately (Jn 13:32). Indeed, in John 13-17, it is sometimes difficult to discern if glorification refers to the cross or to the exaltation to the Father, both, for John, are so intimately connected. He had come from the Father and was about to return to the Father (Jn 16:28). He came from God and is about to return to God (Jn 13:3). He had descended from heaven and will now ascend to heaven that he might fill all things (Jn 3:13; Eph 4:10). For John, he is a divine person on earth, the Son, who fully knows where he came from and where he is going to, all is under his control, including his death where he personally dismisses his spirit (Jn 8:14, 19:30); no-one takes his life from him, he has authority to lay it down and to take it again (Jn 10:18).
But going to the Father means leaving the disciples and the disciples are his own whom he loves (13:1). They will be left ‘in the world’ (Jn 17:15), and ‘sent into the world’ (Jn 17:18) to live as their Lord, ‘not of the world’ (Jn 17: 14), indeed as those united with him ‘out of the world’ (Jn 17:6-19). He, of course, will be ‘out of the world’ literally when he returns to the Father (Jn 13:1) but his own are to be ‘out of the world’ morally for they will be united to him through the Spirit, who will focus their hearts on him where he is (Jn 16:14).
This dangerous future without the immediate presence of Jesus comes as a total shock to his disciples. Thus, in 13-17 we have the heart of Jesus poured out in love for these he loves preparing them through word and action for this dismaying and completely unexpected turn of events. They expected him imminently to set up the kingdom in Jerusalem and reign. They envisaged a rosy future. They did not grasp that his kingdom was not of this world and did not require Peter’s sword (Jn 18:10, 36). Thus, although they will not immediately grasp the enormity of what is about to happen, he teaches these uncomprehending disciples he loves knowing they will understand afterwards and so be confirmed and consolidated in faith (Jn 13:7, 12:16). It is not his own Passion but his passionate concern for his own whom he loves that concentrates his mind; having loved his own which were in the world he loves them to the end (Jn 13:1; Cf. 18:8). His heart is keen to prepare them for his ‘going to the Father’ that they may not be so inordinately dismayed and dislocated when events overtake them that they fall away (Jn 14:1,27; 16:1-4; Cf. Jn 6:52-66; Lk 7:23)
The feet-washing by Jesus in Ch 13 is a an integral part of this loving preparation for future-shock.
Foot-washing, as we can imagine, was no pleasant task. It was usually undertaken by a servant or slave in a house and the most menial one at that. Little wonder the dismay when Jesus takes a towel and prepares himself to wash his disciples feet. No wonder Peter protests so vigorously. For Jesus, their Lord and Master, to wash their feet was inappropriate, and massively so. John underlines the incongruity when he writes,
John 13:3-5 (ESV2011)
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.
Yet, it is the very sense of his identity (the one who has come from God and is going to God) and his destiny (the Father had given all things into his hands) that apparently prompts Jesus to wash his disciples feet. What is he teaching?
literal or metaphoric
Some take it that he is teaching that his followers they must serve each other in self-humbling love by literally wash one another’s feet as he has literally washed theirs. Undoubtedly, he is teaching his followers the need when he is gone to serve each other in self-humbling love. However, while there is no reason to exclude literal feet-washing as on occasion an appropriate application, it would be a mistake to understand Jesus call for his followers to emulate him literally and insist on it legalistically, not least since we have no record of feet-washing practised by his disciples in Scripture (though godly widows washed the feet of believers 1 Tim 5:10).
More cogently still, the text itself leads us to believe Jesus had something other in mind than literal feet-washing or even a general call to self-humbling service. Peter who initially resists the washing is told by Jesus, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ (Jn 13:8) He then goes on to distinguish between an initial bathing they have already received and on-going washings (13:10,11). It is clear he sees both as symbols of spiritual realities.
The disciples (Judas apart) had experienced complete initial bathing, the washing of regeneration (Jn 13:10, 15:3, 3:5; Tit 3:4) but as those bathed and clean they live and walk in a polluted world and the pollution so easily sticks. Thus, just as bathed people found the dirty roads of Palestine meant they needed to regularly rewash their feet to remain clean so Jesus followers while already spiritually bathed need regular spiritual feet-washing by Jesus to remain clean. And so by this act of feet-washing Jesus instructs his own to the role he would perform on their behalf when he returned to the Father as the one controlling all things. He was about to leave them but he would not cease to serve them. He would give himself when glorified to this self-humbling task of spiritual foot-washing; his love would make him a servant forever (Ex 21:5,6 Cf. Lk 12:37).
Of course, the disciples did not really grasp this at the time, only later (after the Spirit is given) is the Advocacy (1 John) and High-Priestly activity of the reigning King-Priest-Son understood (Hebrews). Thus Jesus says, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ (Jn 13:7). Tragically, the church in the West has often been dim in its understanding too. Jesus teaches here initial complete cleansing and ongoing cleansing. The Roman Catholic Church grasp the need for ongoing cleansing but seriously downplay initial complete cleansing: the Protestant Church has sometimes so stressed the initial cleansing that it has left little room for ongoing cleansing. All too often, ongoing cleansing is decried as pietistic and an insufficient grasp of justification. This is a serious mistake. We must maintain Jesus’ teaching in the balance he does. There is initial cleansing that is absolute and complete. Complete bathing is the moral expression of being a partaker of the divine nature; it is the new birth (Jn 3:5; Tit 3:4). But there is also a necessary ongoing cleansing from the contaminating of sin in this world. There is an ongoing need to come to our Lord in heaven confessing our sins and receiving his spiritual foot-washing (1 Jn 1:9). Indeed, Jesus goes so far as to say that unless this takes place we have no share in him (13:8). He is not saying that the first initial washing is insufficient but perhaps he is saying that those who feel no need for regular ongoing washing have never been washed in a complete way (bathed) in the first place. At any rate, he insists both cleansings or washings are integral to of the life of faith and having a part in him.
We need to grasp this. Purity is necessary for the presence of God. It is ours once-for-all in the cleansing at the cross through the blood of Christ (2 Pet 1:9; Cf. Acts 15:9). It is this that enables us to enter his presence and live. Indeed this cleansing gives us confidence to enter the holiness (Hebs 9:18-21). Our bodies have been washed with pure water (Hebs 10:28). Thus, our conscience is robust and we can be in God’s presence with sins forgiven, a purified people (Hebs 9:14). We have been sanctified by the offering of the body of Jesus once-for-all (Hebs 10:10) and as such are assured we are God’s children, God’s sons.
For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.For he who sanctifies [Christ] and those who are sanctified all are one [believers]. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers
Incidentally, the Hebrew writer does not mean that we become one with him in this incarnation but in his exaltation. In incarnation, Christ becomes one of us that he may die for our sins but it is in exaltation that we become one with him and share in the results of his death. Jesus, Son by nature and declared to be so in power by the Spirit of holiness in his resurrection (Roms 1:4) unites us to him by the same Spirit, who makes us alive with Christ constituting us God’s sons by adoption and so Jesus is not ashamed to call us brothers. Similarly, Jesus’ foot-washing is not, as some suggest, a symbol of his self-humbling service on earth but his self-humbling service exalted in heaven. Thus, to repeat, believers have a bathing, a cleansing, a purifying that is once-for-all (Cf. 1 Cor 6:11).
But as soon as bathed believers step into the light of God’s presence they become aware of the contaminating sin they have picked up in daily life. They are aware they have dirty feet. They know this is unbecoming in God’s presence. They are embarrassed by it and shamed by it. Indeed, to be indifferent to known sin would be offensive to God. If dirty feet are offensive in our houses how much more so God’s house, his heavenly temple. Our defilement prevents fellowship and cleansing is needed. This awareness of sins defilement may come through the word (Eph 5:26) or through the Spirit for both are used by the risen Lord as he seeks to daily wash away our defilement. The Word and Spirit alert us to our sins and impress upon us the need for ongoing cleansing fostering within our hearts the desire for such cleansing (2 Cor 7:1; Jas 4:8;1 Jn 3:3). And so, as sons aware of our defilement, we confess our sins and immediately there is nothing between us and God. We walk in the light as he is in the light and enjoy fellowship with him and each other. All this seems to be the meaning of the foot-washing by Jesus in John 13.
We should note too that Jesus involves us all in the task of foot-washing (Jn 13:14,15). No longer were the disciples to leave all to Christ, they should each look to the needs of the other. They are not rivals for a place in the kingdom but runners in the marathon of faith who strengthen and support each other in the race (Hebs 12:13,14). We do this when we bring God’s Word to each other. When I bring the truth of God’s Word to my fellow believer whether in encouragement, rebuke, training in righteousness, promise etc (2 Tim 3:16) I am foot-washing. Don’t leave foot-washing to the Sunday sermon; we are all called to minister the Word into each other’s life.
And so, in John 13, Jesus, the divine Son, teaches his own visually what he will develop verbally through the following chapters, namely why he is going away and how he will serve them when he goes to fit them for where he is. These chapters (13-17) assumes his ascension. If he has in love served them before in self-humbling love then when glorified he will do so more than ever. For love delights to serve (Lk 12:37). Having loved his own who are in the world he will love them utterly (which is, I believe, the meaning of the expression in the ESV, ‘to the end’).