It was the night before Jesus was to be crucified. It was the Saviour’s night of trials. That night on the way to the cross the Lord Jesus passed through three stations.
Jesus and His disciples had gathered to keep the Passover—the commemoration of Israel’s exodus from Egypt. It was compulsory for every Jew to celebrate this event that was foundational to the nation. God told the Israelites that anyone failing to keep the Passover would be cut off from the Jewish community (Num. 9:13).
While Jesus was growing up at home, He developed the habit of going to Jerusalem to keep the Passover. That’s what Mary and Joseph did with their family. When Jesus started His mission, He went to Jerusalem for the Passover, but without having any plan (see Jn. 2: 13). However in His last year on earth, Jesus planned the Passover observance (Lk. 22: 7-12).
Jesus had obviously discussed matters with a personal contact and arranged that a room would be available to enable Him to keep the Passover with His disciples.
Contrary to Leonardo Da Vinci’s depiction of the Last Supper, Jesus and His disciples didn’t all sit on one side of the table as though posing to have their picture taken. Another thing wrong with Da Vinci’s painting is that anachronistically he portrayed all of them sitting with their legs tucked under the table, whereas in Jesus’ time, Jews and others reclined on couches around low tables. That explains the need for feet to be washed before a meal. When people walked on dirt roads with open sandals on their feet (not with socks and closed shoes), their feet would get very dirty, and when they reclined to eat, their feet would be on level with others. It sounds strange, but mothers must have said, “Children don’t forget to wash your feet before you come to the table.”
It is in the gospel according to John that we are given the most details of what Jesus did and said that night at the Passover meal.
Servant (John 13)
Whenever people gathered for a meal, usually the task of washing feet was done by a slave or the youngest person present. But in the Upper Room, all the disciples of Christ were equal. None of them was really higher or lower. However the question about who among them would have the most power and privilege was something they argued a lot about. Jesus had clearly taught them that the quest for power was not to be a pursuit for His followers (Matt. 18:1-4).
This was a hard lesson to learn. Absolutely no one else in the world thought that power and the perks of high position were undesirable. Jesus was the only philosophy and ethics teacher who taught this kind of thing. But boys will be boys, men will be men, and humans will long to have a little more power and privilege than neighbours and friends, and so, James and John, knowing that Jesus was considerate toward women, unlike other rabbis, got their mother to try to extract a promise from Jesus that they would be the ones to sit on either side of Jesus. Once again Jesus had to teach that His Kingdom was an upside down one in which the last would be first, the greatest would be the servant (20:20-28), and then again Jesus had to teach it in a one-line slogan, that there is only one Master and all the rest are brothers (23:8).
Don’t we have to be taught again and again, and do we always learn the lessons of godliness? The disciples were just like us. Though they had been taught this lesson about not serving Jesus with an eye on position, they still desired it. And so it was, that while the room had been readied for the Passover observance, no one was assigned to do the washing of feet.
Even that night they were quarrelling about who would be greatest (Lk. 22:24). Jesus waited. There were no signs that anyone was going to wash others’ feet. They quickly took their places around the Passover meal. They acted as if there was no custom to wash feet. Sadly, because no one wanted to wash the feet of the other disciples, each of them failed to honour even their Teacher. Each thought, “If I pick up the basin, I will be out of the race. All the others will take advantage of me and form a line to have their feet washed after I wash the Lord’s feet. I would like to honour the Lord, but I had better not do it, if I want to be at the top.”
When we refuse to pick up basin and towel in the service of others, we ignore the Lord too. When our aim is to get to the top, somewhere along the way we do step past Jesus.
As the food was brought to the table, Jesus got up, stripped off his outer garment and wore a towel around His waist. Dressed that way He resembled a slave. Jesus picked up the basin and started to wash the disciples’ feet and dried them with the towel around his waist. While Peter protested the enormity of what Jesus was doing, the others were just too stunned, and maybe frightened, to react (Jn.13:1-17).
Jesus drew their attention to the fact that He had been a slave among them (Lk. 22:27). Jesus, as the Teacher of the group, had the power of life and death over them. That is the kind of power teachers had in olden days. In India we have the story of how Eklavya asked Dronacharya to teach him archery. Dronacharya had refused to teach the low caste Eklavya the skills that were to be the exclusive domain of the high caste. Eklavya made a clay image of Dronacharya and bowing before it as to his teacher, Eklavya taught himself archery. One day when it was discovered that Eklavya had excelled Dronacharya’s high caste student Arjun in archery, Dronacharya demanded that Eklavya give him his right thumb as guru dakshina (the teacher’s payment given in abject homage. Eklavya did as ordered and of course lost the ability to shoot. That is the kind of power that teachers had long ago. Jesus had that kind of power that night. But He refused to exercise it. He could have given an order or humiliated anyone of them—from the eldest to the youngest, or the one who felt most important or the one who felt he was closest to Jesus. But Jesus does not do that. Instead
- He stepped down from His position above them.
- He stripped down and dressed up like a slave.
- He knelt like a slave before them.
- He took their dirty feet in His hands.
When we read through the book of Acts, we find that the Apostles do not seek office or cling to power. Peter who took the lead at the beginning (1:15; 2:14), submitted to being questioned by the commonality of the Church (11:2), and remained answerable to them (v.4). Later Peter readily allowed a newcomer to take over the chair at the first all church council meeting (15:13, 19-21).
The Apostle John introduces the account of Jesus His disciples’ feet with these words:
Jesus knew that the time had come for Him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love…Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God (vv. 1,3).John is right. Inspired by the Holy Spirit, John wrote that Jesus had such tremendous confidence in His Father, that Jesus didn’t feel He had to guard His status and pride. And, His love came with no restraints and limitations. He didn’t hold back.
Just as He loved His disciples, Jesus wanted them to love one another. He said that if love was the mark of their lives then people would know that they belong to Him and would follow Him (vv. 34-35). God has poured His love into our lives without any limits. When God gives us anything, we need not fear that what we have been given will be exhausted. It won’t. When God gives us anything, He actually gives us Himself, and we will never exhaust Him or His power.
Saviour (John 14)
Jesus said that it was time for Him to return to His Father. With Jesus having gone ahead, no one need fear when it is time to leave this earth. We will be going to Jesus, who will escort us when it is time to enter the huge mansion of His Father. If you wonder what lies ahead, just remember Jesus will be there, and He has been preparing for our arrival so that once we get there He can spend all the time with us (vv.1-3).
Jesus told His disciples that the only way anyone could reach the Father was through Jesus alone:
I am the way, and the truth, and the life. The only way to the Father is through me (14:6, NCV).Not knowing what the Father looks like, we need someone who knows Him intimately to show Him to us. As John said, “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (1:14, NRSV). Without Jesus our fear of God will keep us from getting close to Him.
Jesus emphasised that when people keep His commandments the Holy Spirit comes into lives and takes residence (14:15-16). That’s because our obedience proves that we love Him (v.21). It is in this relationship with Jesus that we discover God’s love for us. (v. 22), and the Father and our Lord will feel at home with us (v.23).
Jesus made it clear that God wants to relate to people. What God is looking for is love for Him. God wants a relationship with us. That’s why there is no other way to experience God. He will remain distant, until we discover Him in and through Jesus.
Sustenance (John 15)
When Jesus had fed the five thousand, He had announced that He Himself was the Bread of life:
I am the bread of life…Those who come to me will never be hungry; those who believe in me will never be thirsty…I am telling you the truth: he who believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life…the bread that comes down from heaven is of such a kind that whoever eats it will not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats this bread, he will live forever. The bread that I will give him is my flesh, which I give so that the world may live…I am telling you the truth: if you do not eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you will not have life in yourselves. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them to life on the last day. For my flesh is the real food; my blood is the real drink. Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood live in me, and I live in them. The living Father sent me, and because of him I live also. In the same way whoever eats me will live because of me. This, then, is the bread that came down from heaven; it is not like the bread that your ancestors ate. They later died, but those who eat this bread will live forever” (6: 32-39).What this means is that just as we need food and drink to sustain life, we need Jesus to help us live the life of godliness. We can’t live lives that please God without Jesus feeding our resolve.
On His last Passover night, Jesus once again made it clear to His disciples that their spiritual life depended on them drawing sustenance from Him. He took the bread and said that it would aid their memory of Him, that He gave His life for them (Lk.22:19) and the cup of wine would remind them that He restored the covenant-relationship with God through the forgiveness bought by His blood (Matt.26:2).
Jesus explained that like branches of a tree His followers must remain connected to Him who is the source of life for us (15:1-8). Without Him we cannot live connected to God or draw on God’s life-giving power.
Spirit (John 16)
Jesus assured His disciples that they would not be abandoned like orphans (14:18). He would send another Counsellor (v.16). Jesus’ use of the word “another” is significant. He clearly indicated that the Spirit would be different from Him, but would be like Him. That means that the Spirit would not be less in status and power than Him, but the equal of the Lord Jesus. That is why the Spirit would be His substitute.
What the Spirit would teach would be what Jesus Himself had taught. The Spirit would turn their attention toward Jesus reminding them of things Jesus taught. (v. 26; 15:26; 16: 12-15). In fact Jesus spelt it out that the Spirit would not teach something different and new (16:13).
New Testament writers occasionally referred to the Holy Spirit as “Spirit of Jesus” (Acts 16:7; Phil. 1:19). It is when they consider the Holy Spirit without reference to Jesus erred in their understanding and conduct. While many Pentecostals seem to think of the Spirit as taking them beyond Jesus to new horizons, many in non-Pentecostal churches, in a knee-jerk reaction to the excesses of Pentecostalism think of the Spirit as the rival of the Lord Jesus. There is a desperate need for us to get back to what Jesus said about the Holy Spirit. What He said is basic. When we ignore what Jesus taught, we are great danger of losing the way to God.
Supplication (John 17)
Probably the only time the disciples heard the words of Jesus’ prayer was that night. Earlier on they had only seen Him pray. They observed the ease with which He prayed. They noted that He was regular in prayer. They asked Him to teach them how to pray.
That night for the first time they heard Him. They must have been in awe as they heard the emotion in His voice, the intimacy of how He talked to the Father, and the longing that He had for them to reach what He desired for them.
Jesus gloried in the fact that He had been able to introduce the Father to His disciples He rejoiced that they had already started on eternal life, because it is the quality of our life in relationship with God is what eternal life is (v.3).
As He left them behind, He prayed for their protection (vv.11-15), their holiness (vv.16-17) and their unity so that by their oneness they will be effective in their proclamation that Jesus is the only one who has come from God (vv.20-23).
What a night! Jesus was Servant to His own followers. That was the way to be the Saviour, and become our Sustenance, and give us the Spirit to keep us connected to Jesus, and in the end, way back then He supplicated even for us today (v.20). Let all God’s people say, Amen.