This is the beginning of the second section of John’s Gospel; there are no more scenes of Jesus teaching the crowds. The pattern of chapters 2-12 where there is a miracle or sign followed by Jesus giving an explanation are replaced by Jesus explaining the greatest sign of all, His death, burial and resurrection before it happens. These are called the “Farewell” or “Upper Room Discourses”. The scene opens just before the Passover meal on the night that Jesus would be betrayed. Jesus demonstrates an act of humility that would normally be done by a slave; the washing of the feet of the dinner guests.
John uses these verses to set the scene by placing the time at the very beginning of the meal. They had not yet begun to eat, Judas had already been prompted to go astray, and yet Jesus was confident in his destiny and had received all power from God. It is particularly pointed that John mentions this fact: Jesus had received all power, had everything placed in his control and was about to return to God… when all of the sudden what did He do?
Jesus gets up from the table, takes off his clothes, grabs a towel and begins washing the feet of the disciples. It is important to note that even though the NIV adds the word “outer” to garments, there is no such indication in the Greek. Commentators rise to this and many describe Jesus as in his “undergarments”. Undergarments for men were invented around the time of George Washington and were not widely worn until the late 19th century; they did not exist in ancient times. If Jesus had indeed removed an outer garment, then it would have been a cloak, comparable to a modern-day coat, and obviously this is not likely. I do not join the NIV in protecting modern-day sensibilities here because it is vital that we get an accurate picture of exactly what was going on in order to get the full value of what Jesus is demonstrating in this act of humility, for it is in total and complete contradiction to what was stated in verse 3, and it actually becomes the whole point of this incident. Jesus was not only washing the feet of men who weren’t qualified to carry his briefcase (so to speak) but he had utterly and totally humbled himself in the process! (Can you imagine yourself doing this?) The NIV also states that He had a towel wrapped around him, while the KJV says he “girded” himself with the towel. Was the towel providing a modesty covering, and at the same time being used to dry their feet after washing?
HOMEWORK: Do an experiment at home. Wrap a towel around yourself, as to cover up, get down on the floor and try to dry something also on the floor in front of you. You will discover the answer. Once you have the answer, then remember that Jesus also washed the feet of the one whom he knew was about to betray him: Now you will understand what this scene means; you will also have some real insight into the metaphor of being naked before God.
Peter seems to have understood that he was not worthy to be treated in this way by Jesus who was so much greater than he. Jesus’ reply to him is also understood… sort of. Well, in that case, how about washing my hands and head too. Peter believed Jesus when he told him that he must be “cleaned” by him, but he still didn’t quite grasp the metaphor that was playing out in that room.
Jesus’ comments in verses 10-11 refer to the fact that a person attending a dinner would bathe before leaving their house, so that when they arrived at the dinner, only their feet would have gotten dirty on the walk to the dinner venue; thus the custom of having your feet washed by a slave prior to reclining at table. Remember that dinner tables were not like the ones we use today, and the “reclining” was literal. The comment that not all were clean gives us a hint that Jesus is not really concerned about hygiene, for He knew what was afoot with Judas; His concern was that they be spiritually clean.
Jesus gets dressed and resumes His seat; then He explains what He has done. He has set for them an example, a twofold example. First, we as His servants must be willing to humble ourselves in His service. Do we dare humble ourselves as He has done? Second, our service must be to clean the filth of sin from one another, to help one another to obey all that He has commanded us, and to be willing to dirty our hands in the process. We can never do this by glorifying ourselves; we can only accomplish this mission by humbling ourselves: We are to follow His example.