What’s love got to do with it? (John 13:18-38)

Love.  It’s the subject of countless songs.  It’s the center of countless films.  But in many ways “love” has become a bankrupt word.  I can love anything—or at least say I do.  Like, I don’t know…tacos.  I love tacos, but somehow I doubt that the love I have for tacos is anything close to the width and depth of the love expressed on today’s Top 40.

Then again…maybe it’s not that far off.  These days a marriage is considered a success when it lasts past the honeymoon.  Celebrity marriages epitomize the way we’ve become far too comfortable with transient, insubstantial forms of love.

In the religious world, love is a pivotal virtue.  Though best known for his Narnia series, C.S. Lewis used his classical training to provide a thorough analysis of love in his book The Four Loves.  There’s more than one kind of love, he says.  Need-love, for instance, is the love of a child for a parent.  And the word “need” is not used lightly.  Children born in the poorest of countries have actually died from a lack of a mother’s love—a condition called marasmus.  Gift-love, by contrast, is the love of God for humanity.  It’s the love most fully expressed in the arrival of Jesus, and His sacrifice on the cross.

The sad news, however, is that there will always be those for whom God’s gift-love does not satisfy.  Judas was such a person.  Countless writers have speculated as to why he chose to betray Jesus.  Was it money?  Was he angry that Jesus wasn’t there to overthrow the oppressive government?  John doesn’t answer these questions for us.  Instead, John points his finger past these questions and into the shadows of the human heart.


Jesus and His followers reclined at the table—in some cases leaning on one another—as was the custom for that culture.  This wasn’t the first Passover meal they’d spent together, but tonight as the oil lamps lit the room the air hung thick with smoke and heavy with meaning.  The cross loomed on the horizon;  Jesus now turns to the realities that faced all of them in the days ahead:

John 13:18-38   18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’  19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.  20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

21 After saying these things, Jesus was troubled in his spirit, and testified, “Truly, truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me.”  22 The disciples looked at one another, uncertain of whom he spoke.  23 One of his disciples, whom Jesus loved, was reclining at table close to Jesus,  24 so Simon Peter motioned to him to ask Jesus of whom he was speaking.  25 So that disciple, leaning back against Jesus, said to him, “Lord, who is it?”  26 Jesus answered, “It is he to whom I will give this morsel of bread when I have dipped it.” So when he had dipped the morsel, he gave it to Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot.  27 Then after he had taken the morsel, Satan entered into him. Jesus said to him, “What you are going to do, do quickly.”  28 Now no one at the table knew why he said this to him.  29 Some thought that, because Judas had the moneybag, Jesus was telling him, “Buy what we need for the feast,” or that he should give something to the poor.  30 So, after receiving the morsel of bread, he immediately went out. And it was night.

In the ancient world, to “eat and run” was the ultimate insult.  But this would hardly be the worst thing Judas would do to Jesus.  John tells us that “it was night.”  Throughout his biography of Jesus, John uses the imagery of light and dark—sometimes to refer to good and evil, sometimes to refer to ignorance and understanding.  Here, John seems to allude to the fact that Judas’ life had become defined by moral darkness—by evil.   In our lives, we will meet people like Judas—people who live apart from the love of God.  But as we take a step back, we see that even an act of betrayal is not outside the plan of God.

Jesus is now left with the rest of His followers—and He turns more specifically to the subject of love.  In my counseling courses, I can remember learning that one of the hallmarks of emotional maturity is the ability to both give and receive love.  It seems that an essential part of our life with Jesus is our ability to give and receive love—though not our own love, but the kind of love the Savior demonstrates.


31 When he had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.  32 If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once.  33 Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’  34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

A “new” commandment?  Surely this isn’t the first time that Jesus had given this kind of command.  Jesus’ other biographers all record Jesus echoing the Biblical command to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 19:19; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27).  But in John, Jesus gives His followers a command that is even more radical: to “love one another just as I have loved you.”  Jesus sets the standard for love.  In the immediate context, the command refers to the servant’s heart demonstrated through the washing of feet.  But in the whole of John’s story, we see that Jesus refers to the way He stepped from the throne of heaven to the dusty roads of our humanity.

Do you see how radical this kind of love is?  And don’t miss this “minor” detail: Judas had been there earlier.  Jesus washed the feet not only of the faithful, but also of the faithless.   It’s easy to love those who love us back. But that’s not real love.  That’s a shallower, self-serving kind of love.  What Jesus calls us to is a deeper, self-sacrificing kind of love.

We can see this expressed as we return to Lewis’ book.  Lewis comments on the writings of a man named Augustine, who mourns the loss of a friend.  Augustine concludes that the pain he feels is the consequence of loving anything except for God.  Lewis can’t disagree more.  Pain is a part of the process, he insists.  Lewis writes:

“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything, and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even to an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries, lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that coffin–safe, dark, motionless, airless–it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. The alternative to tragedy, or at least to the risk of tragedy, is damnation. The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”  (C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

Self-protection and self-defense are the greatest and surest barriers to self-sacrifice.  To follow in the steps of Jesus is to experience betrayal and loss alongside the experience of joy.  As we learn to love people, some will bless us, others will curse us.  All will be used to shape us more and more into the image of Jesus.


36 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?” Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.”  37 Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”  38 Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.

Peter is brash.  Headstrong.  But these features won’t prevent him from denying Jesus.   It’s easy to demonize Judas, to think “betrayal” is more severe than “denial.”  But what separates these two men is not some difference in the magnitude of their offense, but in the magnitude of God’s grace.   Earlier, Peter had refused to let Jesus wash his feet.  Little did he realize how much grace and love would be necessary, and he realized even less just how much grace and love he would receive.

The same is true for us.  In his commentary on this passage, a professor from Asbury Seminary writes:

“This is a story that dashes spiritual arrogance, false pride, and triumphalism which has always plagued the church.  We see a Peter resistant to foot washing, just as many of us are frequently resistant to the idea of repenting and seeking forgiveness and cleansing.  Yet this story calls us to remember that even if a Peter can deny Jesus, if even a Judas…can betray Jesus…this ought to cause us to soberly evaluate ourselves to see what sort of work the Lord still needs to do in our lives in order to remove arrogance and other un-Christlike traits.”  (Ben Witherington III, John’s Wisdom, p. 240)

Everything in our culture says that love is given and received purely on the basis of performance.  Within that system, we languish between the extremes of pride and despair.  The gospel says that love is given based not on performance but on the basis of grace.  When I realize that, it changes everything.  Only then am I able to truly receive the extravagant gift of God’s unfailing love.  Only then am I truly able to extend this love to those that seem least deserving.  And only then am I soft enough to be molded more and more into the image of Jesus.

Heart and Sole (John 13:1-17)

The first half of John’s gospel had focused on Jesus’ public ministry.  In fact, it’s the only account we have of Jesus’ ministry spanning three years.  This “book of signs” had focused on the way Jesus revealed Himself to the world.  But now the scene shifts.  Time slows.  The “book of glory” (John 13-21) focuses now on Jesus’ final week.  Chapters 13-17 even focus on Jesus’ final meal.

What can we make of this?  I can remember that when Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ was released, it was panned by countless critics who were baffled to devote so much attention to the man’s death rather than His life and moral teachings.  If Jesus was a moral teacher, then their criticism holds weight.  But if Jesus was Savior—if Jesus was God who came to give His life in our stead—then it makes more sense that we’d want to fully understand His death.  And that’s why John gives us so much detail about Jesus’ final hours with His disciples.  In John 13 we find Jesus at His final meal:

John 13:1-17  Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

John goes out of His way to connect Jesus to the Passover.  The Passover was a Jewish holiday that memorialized the day they were finally set free from Egyptian slavery.  They shared a meal—the centerpiece being a lamb, whose blood they used to mark the doorframe of their houses so that God’s horrific anger might “pass over” them.

Tonight, this house was marked by the blood of a different Lamb—not a Lamb whose blood was shed but a Lamb whose blood was about to be shed.  John gives no details of the meal itself, only that Jesus used the meal as a teachable moment—a time for an additional symbolic act.

2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him,  3 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,  4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.  5 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.  6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”  7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”  8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”  9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”  10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.”  11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you?  13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am.  14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.  15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.  16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.  17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

I actually grew up in a church tradition that took this quite literally—my church washed each other’s feet when we observed the Lord’s table.  It was…pretty weird.

I can say that with no hesitation because the act itself was radically cross-cultural—especially in Jesus’ day.  In  a world of dust and sandals, it wasn’t uncommon for servants to wash your feet when you entered a home.  It was unheard of for the master of the house to do it himself—as if we visited Bill Gates and he offered to do our laundry.  No wonder Peter objected; this was an act that seemed beneath Jesus.  It might have even been a little embarrassing.

Jesus connects the act to the idea of being “clean.”  Did you know that all cultures have strong categories of clean and unclean?  In 1965 Mary Stuart Douglas wrote a book called Purity and Danger.  It’s a fascinating book, really.  One of the things she found was that centuries before we discovered “germs,” cultures maintained strong boundaries between clean and unclean.  Douglas wouldn’t go this far, but I would take this to mean that every culture recognizes the reality of “sin,” and the way it tends to defile us.

Think of our own culture.  What do we mean by “dirty?”  I’ve often observed the way we connect this image to sexuality: dirty movies, dirty bookstores, etc.  What phrase do we use when a young woman returns home in the morning after a one-night-stand?  The “walk of shame.”  “Ah,” you say, “but isn’t this just another example of Christians trying to make everyone feel guilty?”  It’s true that Christianity has a reputation for being something of a killjoy.  But look at what’s happening: if guilt and shame are nothing more than the pointed finger of Christianity, then why is it the further we run from these values, the dirtier we feel?  Maybe we’re dirtier than we first thought, and in more need of grace than we let on.

That’s what Passover was about.  By this time in Jewish history, all blood sacrifice purified sin.  It made us clean.  And Jesus was, after all, the “Lamb of God who lifts away the sin of humanity” (John 1:29).  On this night, of all nights, He portrays Himself as a humble servant, washing the feet of His followers—even Judas (we’ll return to Him tomorrow).

His closest followers were clueless what this all meant, but we have the benefit of hindsight.  We know that the shadow of the cross looms large on the horizon.  And in that shadow we understand—as if for the first time—just how shocking this act truly is.  If a servant washed your feet, it was expected.  If the master of the house washed your feet, it was unusual.  If God Himself washed your feet, it was an act of pure grace.  Did you know that the Hebrew word for grace comes from a word that meant “to bend” or “to stoop?”  In Jesus we see a picture of what God did for each of us.  He doesn’t wait for us to “get clean” before we come to Him.  He doesn’t roll His eyes and wait for us to realize our own filth.  He stoops down, with towel in hand, to handle even the filthiest parts of our souls.