Studies in John (Lesson 11: The Last Supper)
Throughout the first twelve chapters of John, we have noticed a definite pattern: Jesus performs a miracle, and then gives a discourse that brings out the spiritual significance of that miracle. In the second portion of John's gospel (chapters thirteen through twenty-one), the same basic pattern occurs, but in reverse, and on a larger scale. Here, the first segment (chapters thirteen through seventeen) brings out the significance of the greatest act of all that Jesus performed â€“ his substitutionary death on the cross, together with the corresponding resurrection and giving of the Holy Spirit. And the following chapters (eighteen through twenty-one) relate those events in detail. And so, as we look more closely at the text for this week and the next week, we must keep in mind exactly what they are teaching us about the events which would follow, Jesus' crucifixion, resurrection, and final acts before his ascension.
II. Jesus washes the disciples' feet (John 13:1-20)
We saw last week that, after emphasizing throughout the course of his ministry that his hour had not yet come, Jesus finally announced the opposite, in the period after his triumphal entry. Now, at the beginning of the next chapter, John makes the same point: the hour has come, and it is now time for Jesus to undertake that for which he had been sent to the world, namely, the redemption of men. Specifically, this is the night of Passover, and hence, the night when Jesus would celebrate his final supper with his disciples before going to the cross as the passover Lamb on which they would feast. Some expositors suggest that John is speaking of the night before the Passover, or Wednesday night, instead of the Thursday night Passover meal, because verse one states that this is â€œbeforeâ€ the Passover Feast (and for a few other reasons which surface later in the text). However, this chronology would put John at variance with the parallel accounts of the synoptic gospels; and furthermore, it is really not necessary, for John could simply be saying that Jesus' foot washing, and not the entire night, was â€œbeforeâ€ the Passover feast. All in all, it is certainly less problematic to accept the traditional view that Jesus' last supper with the disciples was in fact on Passover night.
The first point that John would have us understand, as he relates this account, is how poignantly it displays the love of Jesus for his disciples. Yes, he certainly loved them throughout his ministry, and was constantly expressing his love in always providing for them that which was ultimately in their best interest. But now, Jesus' soul is deeply troubled, and the weight of the impending trial and crucifixion, and, what must have been a thousand times more distressing, the unmitigated wrath of his own Father, which was soon to be poured out upon him, must be unimaginably difficult to bear. So how does Jesus respond to this unspeakable trial? By forsaking all around him and pouring out his broken heart in bitter solitude? No, at this very time, when Jesus' hour of death has arrived, he is serving and ministering as never before. Truly, he loved his own to the very end of his life; or, as one could also translate the expression, he loved them to the uttermost. How fitting is this second sense! Love has never reached its ultimate expression, it has never once been poured out to the infinite â€œuttermostâ€ which can be reached by an infinite God, except in one time and at one place â€“ and that was on Calvary, in the hour for which Jesus had come into the world!
But even now, we have not reached the end of the amazing love which Jesus displayed on this Passover night; for the next circumstance which John relates is that, these events took place after the devil had already put it into Judas' heart to betray Jesus! The humility and condescension that Jesus demonstrated when, as the Lord and Master, he stooped down to wash the feet of his servants, is certainly amazing; but that he also washed the feet of the man who was about to betray him for thirty pieces of silver is, to John, virtually incomprehensible. So it is today, when he showers with many gifts and graces, even tastes of the doctrine and power of the gospel, those who are imposters and reprobates. Oh, let us be certain, if we have grown up with the privilege of hearing the gospel and seeing the power of truth and grace, that we do not despise our heritage, as Esau despised his birthright, and so put the Son of Man to an open shame (see Hebrews 10:26-31; 12:15-17; 6:4-6)! Great will be the final misery and punishment of such a man, even as it was with Judas Iscariot.
So what exactly was Jesus demonstrating in this act of humility and service? Here, it is vital to remember the timing of this event, and John's pattern of joining to the accounts of Jesus' great acts, passages which draw out the true meaning and significance of those acts. As John has already emphasized, this is the hour for Jesus to go to the cross â€“ and what is the significance of that final and greatest of all of Jesus' acts? Only this, that by the deepest humiliation which has ever been met with, men who are servants and beggars were cleansed from their filth. If Jesus were wanting to demonstrate just what he would be doing that next day, he could not have chosen a better example than this. He, their master, stooped to undeserving men, and humbled himself in order that they might be cleansed. So the next day, he would stoop more than could ever be known, stoop from his throne of glory to the gruesome and humiliating death on the cross, so that we, sinners and beggars though we be, might be cleansed. This is humility indeed! How can we who have received such shocking grace refuse to humble ourselves for the good of those around us?
Of course, as we have noticed before, the disciples would not understand the depth of these truths until after Jesus had been raised from the dead. But Jesus, when he told Peter, â€œWhat I am doing you do not know now, but you shall know afterwardsâ€ (vs. 7), was indicating that there was more to this act than first met the eye. It was not merely an example of humility (although it was that too) â€“ because that much was obvious, and Peter would have understood it immediately. But what he did not yet understand was how this event pictured what Jesus was about to do that next day, when he humbled himself and so washed away the sins of his people forevermore.
At this point Peter makes his famous objection, â€œYou will never wash my feet!â€, and so gives opportunity for a second point of instruction. Jesus responds to his first objection by saying that, unless he washes someone, that person will have no share with him. By this, he is indicating that one must accept the humble cleansing work of Jesus if he would share in the gospel-inheritance. But when Peter responds with misdirected exuberance, â€œThen wash my head and my hands also!â€, Jesus takes the opportunity for further instruction. When one has once been cleansed by the humble cross-work of Christ, he is fully and finally clean, and will never again need that cleansing to be repeated. And yet, Christians often stumble and fall into besetting sin, and dirty their feet, as it were, on their journey home. For these wayward but repentant believers, the promise has been given, â€œIf we confess our sin, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sin, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousnessâ€ (I John 1:9). The true believer is positionally clean now and forevermore, and Jesus' once-for-all act of cleansing may never be repeated â€“ but Jesus is ever in the process of cleaning off the day-to-day grime of indwelling sin in his people, through his Spirit which he has sent to dwell in them. This was not the primary point that Christ was making on the occasion of his foot washing, but he took the opportunity that Peter's ignorance provided to give his disciples added instruction, which they would understand later, after they had seen the resurrected Jesus.
And then, finally, Jesus makes a penetrating application. If he, their Master and Lord, had humbled himself so deeply for the good of the disciples, then they also ought to humble themselves and serve their fellow-believers. After all, the slave is not greater than his master; and so we, the slaves of Jesus Christ, should not consider any task too lowly for us, when he considered nothing too lowly for him. The apostles certainly learned this point well, as the letters which they wrote to the churches after Jesus had ascended are filled with admonitions to humility and service. Perhaps the best illustration of an exhortation to follow in the example of Christ's humility is found in Philippians 2:5-11, verses which ought to be constantly on the mind of every believer!
John has already told us what Judas was about to do; but now, at this last supper, Jesus tells the rest of the disciples the same thing, so that when it actually happened, they would not stumble at the shocking reality of it, but instead remember what Jesus had told them, and believe in him. Far from being a cause for doubt, it was in fact necessary that Judas should do what he was about to do â€“ for the scriptures prophesied that this would happen. In Psalm 41, David, speaking as a prophet, lamented his betrayal by his close friend, who ate of his bread. This lament was ultimately over the betrayal of Jesus, the Son of David, and had to be fulfilled in his life.
The reason that John found it necessary to emphasize that Judas' act of treachery was prophesied in the scriptures was no doubt due to his understanding of the doctrine of the election and preservation of all believers. Earlier in his gospel, he had emphasized again and again that all whom the Father had chosen to give to Jesus would certainly come to him; and of all who came to him, he would cast none out, nor lose any of them for all eternity. If God had chosen Judas, and Jesus lost him, then can we really be certain that he will never lose us? But from the beginning, Jesus made it clear that Judas' apostasy was predicted by scriptures, and that God had known and planned from the beginning what his end would be. In fact, when he prayed for all who should believe in him, that God would bring them to his eternal glory, he intentionally excluded Judas (see John 17:12). Above all, Jesus wanted his true followers to be sure of his unshakable intention to keep them forever, and so he taught them of the prophetic necessity for Judas' betrayal before it happened, so that they would not be shaken in their own faith.
And then, in verse twenty, Jesus reminds his disciples of a truth that he had taught them many times before: that anyone who received him, was receiving the One who sent him. In this way, he confirmed to them once again the security of their position. They belonged to the Father, as well as to Jesus, and they would never be lost. Only here, he also gives an additional element, namely, that anyone who should receive the one whom Jesus sent, would be receiving Jesus himself. This was certainly to begin preparing them for the great commission which he would soon entrust to them, that they should evangelize the nations.
III. The Treachery of Judas (John 13:21-30)
Jesus has already prepared his true disciples for this event; now, he brings it about in actuality. First, in deep distress of spirit, Jesus tells all the disciples plainly, so that there could be no more room for doubt, that one of them would indeed betray him. The depth of the eleven disciples' love and dedication to Jesus may be seen in their response: stunned silence and amazement. How could it be that one of them, who had seen the goodness and greatness of this Messiah, the true Son of God and Man, ever betray him? Even impetuous Peter is so taken aback at this revelation that he does not dare to speak openly, but motions for John, reclining at the breast of Jesus, to whisper the question in his ear, â€œWho is it?â€
Jesus' answer once again shows the depth of his mercy; for he would show who it was, not by giving some sign of condemnation or curse, but by displaying to this traitor the honor of a dignified guest; and so he hand-selected for him a choice morsel. But the greatest act of love is met only with the most perfidious heart of treachery, and so, having taken the morsel but having despised the love which proffered it, Judas, then fully and finally persuaded by Satan to do his unspeakable deed, finds no other mercy from Jesus, but only the sorrowful command not to put off any longer that which he had devised to do. And so he went out forever from the presence of the Lord. O sinner, if you have put off the many proffers of free grace and divine love, and chosen instead the false and fleeting comfort of this world's silver, be certain that the day of salvation will not tarry forever! One day, you will meet no more comfortable words of hope from the Savior you despised, but only the stern command to hasten to your everlasting torment. O, do not be like Judas, and find yourself, at the end of your life, with no room left for repentance!
And so Judas leaves; but the disciples still cannot understand that Judas, whom they had loved and trusted for so long, would stoop to betray their Lord. Instead, they devise possible (if far-fetched) reasons in their heart as to what this whispered exchange of words between Jesus and Judas should mean, and why he hastened out so quickly. Soon, they would understand all.
Mine own Apostle, who the bag did beare,
Though he had all I had did not forbeare
To sell me also, and to put me there:
Was ever grief like mine?
For thirtie pence he did my death devise,
Who at three hundred did the ointment prize,
Not half so sweet as my sweet sacrifice:
Was ever grief like mine? â€“ George Herbert
IV. Jesus gives a new commandment (John 13:31-35)
At this point, Jesus begins his final instructions and teachings before he goes to the cross. The next four chapters, until the end of chapter seventeen all compose one great block of instructional material which Jesus gives to his disciples, so that they might understand exactly what his death would mean, and why it must come about. Immediately, as he begins to instruct his disciples, he brings out the one foundational principle that he will continue to develop and elaborate upon; and that is, that his impending death is for the glory of God. This must have been almost unthinkable to his disciples. If there was one thing in the history of the world that did not conjure up thoughts of glory, it was death on a Roman cross. That was the most shameful, despised, and humiliating process the world of fallen men could possible devise. Yet here Jesus was, saying that it would be for the glorification of himself, the Son of Man, and likewise of the Father. Such is the wonder and the foolishness of the gospel! The greatest act of humility and condescension in all history is at the same time the greatest act of self-glorification that God would ever perform. It's accomplishment was the one great design of God from before time began, a design which brought all three members of the Godhead into a marvelous and mutually-glorifying work, the Father planning, the Son purchasing, and the Spirit applying the redemption of man the rebel! There we see God's glorious character revealed more clearly than at any other time and place. Would we see his wrath against sin? Look how he is pleased to crush his own dear Son because of it! Would we see his free, redemptive love? Look to what unimaginable lengths he goes to be able to have mercy on those for whom he has desired mercy! Would we see his grace, his justice, his sovereignty, his inter-triune relationships of love and mutual glorification? They are all there, and a thousand more wonders beside them, displayed on the cross as we could never have seen them in any other way. Truly, in this horrible act of injustice, the Father glorified the Son, and the Son glorified the Father.
And besides this foundational principle, we have here a foundational application. The servant is not greater than his master; and so, if Christ so loved us, we ought also to love one another (see I John 4:7-11). This is the one great commandment that will henceforth govern all Christian ethics and practice throughout the age â€“ a commandment which was certainly not foreign to the heart of the Old Testament law, but which is here brought into a sharpness of relief that the old shadows could never have realized. Verse thirty-five must give us pause for serious and sober-minded reflection: do we truly love the brothers? In such a sacrificial and Christ-imitating way that the world takes note? But this is what it means to be a Christian. Spirit of God, apply this truth to our hearts!
V. Jesus predicts Peter's denial (John 13:36-38)
How sobering is this next paragraph! Judas has just gone out to betray the Lord, an act inconceivable to the true disciples and indeed to all of us who love our Savior in truth. How many of us would readily say with Peter, â€œI would die for you,â€ how many of us feel it unimaginable that we should ever refuse to die for the one who gave his life for us? And yet, for all of his noble intentions, even Peter, who truly did love Jesus, would deny him, not once, but three times! How many times have we, in our words, thoughts, or actions, done the same thing? But if there is one thing that we may learn from the case of Peter, it is that no sin is beyond the reach of the infinite grace of God. Would God display the illimitable depths of his free mercy, or the resoluteness of his purpose to bring to final salvation all whom he has chosen, even the weakest and most wavering? How could he have done it better than to allow this staggering act of treachery, and then to forgive all, and restore the offender to holiness and purity of practice? If sin anywhere abounds, let us be certain that God's grace is deeper yet (Romans 5:20)! And here, as well, Jesus declares it before it happens, that the disciples might know, after Peter is restored, the depths of Jesus' love, who would die for Peter even while he was aware of his impending act of treachery. Is it not the same with us, who were loved by God even when we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8)?