John in his gospel after concluding his record of the Lord’s public ministry to the nation (12:50) continues his narrative with an extensive coverage, compared to the synoptic gospels, of the Lord’s private ministry to His disciples on the eve of His crucifixion (13-17). Somewhere off one of Jerusalem’s crowded and narrow streets in an upstairs guest chamber the Lord Jesus met with His disciples for the final time before the cross to keep, what was for Him, His last Passover. All of the twelve were present, that is, until Judas departed after receiving from the Lord Jesus the piece of bread which He had dipped in the dish and handed to him. This sign identified Judas as the betrayer and indicated that the time had arrived for him to leave the company and commit his act of treachery. “What you do, do quickly” Jesus told him (John 13:27) and upon hearing these words this sad and satanically motivated individual went out from the presence of Christ into the night leaving behind the other eleven disciples, who remained to hear their Master’s words of comfort and instruction.
Chronology and Location
It is important to see how John’s record of the Lord’s final ministry to His disciples before the cross corresponds with the other gospel accounts regarding as to when and where this ministry took place even though it is clearly very different in content from them. John records how the Lord entered Jerusalem at the commencement of Passover week riding upon the colt (12:12-15) as does Matthew, Mark and Luke (Matt 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44). This event is then followed in the first three gospels with a similar account of His ministry during that Passover week (Matt 21:12-25:46; Mark 11:12-13:37; Luke 19:45-21:37) with Matthew’s coverage being the most extensive. John however, limits his narrative to relating how, at the commencement of that week, the Lord responded to certain Greeks who sought an audience with Him (12:20-36), highlighting the unbelief of the nation (12:37-43) and concluding his account of the Lord’s public ministry by recording a final appeal from Him to the Jews (12:44-50). John focuses instead upon the Lord’s last hours with His disciples before the cross and in his unique and extended account of this time he records how Jesus washed their feet, discoursed with them in view of His imminent departure and offered a parting prayer to the Father in which He interceded for them (13-17). Interestingly, John does not actually mention the upper room by name, but the other gospels do and though they give a much shorter and different account of this same period, they clearly identify it as the place were the Lord Jesus kept the Passover with His disciples and instituted the Remembrance Supper (Matt 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-20). It does, however, seem reasonable to suggest, as others have, that only the content of John 13-14 occurred while He and His disciples were in the upper room whereas the details of chapters 15-17 unfolded as they journeyed to the garden of Gethsemane. The reason for this division is based upon the Lord’s words to His disciples, “Arise, let us go from here” (14:31) which do appear to indicate that the company left the upper room at that point and made their way, under the light of a full moon, along the path toward the Kidron valley and eventually into the place of the olive groves, Gethsemane. John records the arrival and arrest of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane without detailing His sorrow and prayers(18:1-11) whereas Matthew, Mark and Luke, describe both with only Matthew and Mark identifying the garden by name (Matt. 26:36–56; Mark 14:32–52; Luke 22:39–53).
Events in the Upper Room
Regarding how John arranges the material of the Lord’s final and private ministry to His own before the cross, Andreas J. Köstenberger writes: ‘Within the context of chapters 13-17, 13:1-30 constitutes a sort of preamble, with 13:31–16:33 representing the actual farewell discourse, and chapter 17 serving as a closing prayer that provides the transition to the subsequent passion narrative ’. This makes good sense and within this ‘preamble’ John describes how and why the Lord washed the disciples’ feet (13:1-20) and the way He identified and exposed Judas, prompting him to leave the upper room (13:21-30).
The Omniscient Christ Introduced (13:1-3)
John then introduces the upper room scene in 13:1-5. He observes firstly, that it was ‘before the Feast of Passover’ (13: 1) and then notes how that ‘during supper’ (13:2 ESV ) or when ‘the evening meal was being served’ (NIV ) the Lord ‘rose … to wash the disciples’ feet’ (13: 4-5). Also, along with these two time markers he emphasizes three particular things regarding the Lord Jesus - His divine knowledge, His faithful love and His imminent betrayal (13:1-3).
Before considering these in a little more detail, it is important to mention the difficulty raised by the opening time-note - ‘Now before the Feast of Passover’ (13:1) after which some place a full stop and consider it to refer ‘not simply to the words immediately following but to the upper room narrative as a whole and indeed to the record of the crucifixion which follows, as is made plain from John 18:28 ’. Since the first three gospels plainly record that the Lord kept the Passover with His disciples (Matt 26:17-29; Mark 14:12-25; Luke 22:7-18), how are we to understand John’s statements about the same subject (13:1; 18:28; 19:14)? See The Feast of Passover and the Last Supper for a consideration of this question.
His Divine Knowledge
We would expect John to emphasis the Lord's divine knowledge throughout his gospel since his purpose in writing was to show that Jesus is the Son of God (20:31). He writes about the Lord’s knowledge of man (2:24-25), of His Father (7:29), of His sheep (10:14), of His betrayer (13:11), of His suffering (18:4) and of His cross work (19:28). Here, just as John is about to describe the Lord performing an act of humble service, he again is highlighting what Jesus knew as the Son of the Father. Firstly He knew His hour to depart to the Father had arrived, the hour that would mean the deepest experience of suffering for Him yet would finally lead to the joy of glorification at the Father's right hand (John 12:23-28). The cross, resurrection and ascension was for the Lord Jesus the way back to His Father. Also, He knew the extent of His personal authority for ‘the Father had given all things into His hands', He knew His true identity for 'He had come from God' and He knew His ultimate destiny for 'He was going to God' (John 13:3).
There was no vagueness in His mind about the circumstances that were even then unfolding not far from were He was in Jerusalem, nor did He lack understanding about the cross and all that it would mean for Him. The future to Jesus was abundantly clear and remarkably, under His control for He knew the Father’s will and He knew everything that He would experience as He perfectly obeyed and fully submitted to that will. It was because of who He is and what He knew that He was able, in this time before the cross, to comfort, assure and strengthen His disciples. He could truly say to them "Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me" (John 14:1). He wasn't about to let them down, rather it was at this trying time that they really needed to trust Him even though they were anxious about the future and didn't understand all that was happening.
What comfort and assurance there is in Christ for every believer, but it will only be as we recognize His greatness and sovereignty that we will appreciate the blessing of His peace in our hearts (John 14:27). Often the circumstances of life can make us afraid, uncertainty about the future can leave us feeling anxious and sometimes through our own lack of understanding we can be confused in our thinking. Wherever we find ourselves or whatever our fears, remember there is one who not only knows everything, but He is in control of everything and He will never fail His people. But just as He told His disciples that night before the cross to trust Him, He expects us to do the same.
His Faithful Love
‘Having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end’ (13:1) or ‘Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love’ (NIV). This latter translation helps to give us the sense of what John is conveying about the Lord’s love for His disciples. While it is certainly true that the Lord loved His own right up to the time of the cross, John is telling us something more than that. He is pointing out that by His ministry on the eve of His suffering the Lord Jesus was demonstrating the fullness of His love toward His dear disciples, a love that would ultimately and completely be expressed in the sacrifice of the cross.
Love is of course a prominent theme in John’s gospel and probably the greatest and best known text of the Bible is John 3:16 as it expresses the reality, extent and purpose of God’s love towards the world, but here the focus is upon Christ’s personal and intense love for His own eleven disciples, those who had believed in Him and who He had called out of the world unto Himself. They were also representative of the wider community of His own people all of whom are the recipients of His love and are assured of His deep interest in them (John 17:20-23). Now in these final hours with the disciples before the cross He expresses the extent of His love to them by washing their feet, by telling them of His care and provision and by praying to the Father on their behalf. Yes, Judas had his feet washed by the Lord but Judas was never a friend of Christ nor did he ever personally appreciate Christ’s love for as a thief and traitor his heart was never opened to receive it. But the other eleven were truly the Lord’s friends and as such He not only cared for them but He shared with them what He was doing and where He was going (John 15:14-15), above all, reminding them that “greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13). Many throughout history have nobly demonstrated the reality of this timeless truth, but it was the Lord Jesus who not only said the words but who uniquely Himself fulfilled them. The disciples, we know, didn’t completely comprehend either the fullness of the Lord’s love or all that He taught them until the other side of the cross and the coming of ‘another comforter’, the Holy Spirit, who, Christ promised, would proceed from the Father (John 14:16-17), nevertheless His words were words of peace intended to comfort their hearts (John 14:27) and increase their appreciation of His person (John 16:33) in light of the events soon to unfold around Him and them.
It is vitally important and the Lord’s desire that each believer know and be assured of His personal love for them through all the changing scenes of life. When we received the gospel and trusted in the Lord Jesus for salvation we did so because we understood something of God’s love toward us through Christ and therefore we were not afraid to call upon Him for salvation. However, many a dear believer because of life’s trials, or personal failure, or times of depression can begin to wonder does the Lord really love me? Or can the Lord really love me? It is in such times that we particularly need reaffirmed in and reassured of His unchanging love even as the disciples did on that evening before His death. When the Lord Jesus said, “Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13) He was teaching that there is no greater expression of love than the sacrifice of self for the benefit of others. The Lord Jesus by giving Himself upon the cross could not have demonstrated His love more fully to us and it is through understanding this truth afresh that a deeper appreciation of His love will be rekindled in our hearts. True, the eleven disciples were already His friends before the cross, but from our perspective we rejoice knowing that He died to make us His friends and now as a friend of Christ you and I should appreciate daily and continually the proof and greatness of His love for us.
Paul wrote in words so succinct and powerful: ‘The Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself for me’ (Gal 2:20) and how precious it is to know that His love will never release us from its embrace as the Church of Scotland minister, George Mattheson (1842-1906), expressed in his hymn which he penned after a personal experience of mental suffering:
O Love that wilt not let me go,
I rest my weary soul in thee;
I give thee back the life I owe,
That in thine ocean depths its flow
May richer, fuller be.
O Cross that liftest up my head,
I dare not ask to fly from thee;
I lay in dust life’s glory dead,
And from the ground there blossoms red
Life that shall endless be.
His Imminent Betrayal
The story of Judas Iscariot is a tragedy. Though numbered with the twelve and accompanying the Lord throughout His public ministry, he has went down in history as a sad example of the deceitful depths of wickedness that dwell in the human heart and how capable it is of utterly rejecting the love of God. The kingdom of darkness was operating in full force that night in Jerusalem and one of the poor pawns in the strategy of its prince was this imposter and thief, Judas (John 13:2) who had already sold his soul to the Devil‘s service before coming to the upper room by promising the enemies of Christ that he would perform the deadly deed of treachery at an opportune time for a mere thirty pieces of silver (Matt 26:14-16).
The Lord was fully aware of Judas’ plans and of the presence of evil in the upper room that evening which caused Him to be ‘troubled in spirit’ (John 13:21). The time had come for the betrayer to be exposed and removed from His presence and so the Lord spoke specifically to the company: “Most assuredly, I say to you, one of you will betray Me” (John 13:21) to which He solemnly added, “The Son of Man indeed goes just as it is written of Him, but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born” (Matt 26:24). Strangely, none of the other disciples seemed to suspect Judas and indeed, it would appear, saw themselves as potential betrayers (Matt 26:22), but the Lord and Judas knew exactly who it was and after hearing the words of Jesus: “What you do, do quickly” (John 13:27), Judas went out into the night under the control of his real master – the Devil.
When the Lord was betrayed and arrested in the garden of Gethsemane He reminded His captors that “this is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Luke 22:53). They were being allowed by divine permission to fulfill their wretched and diabolical intentions as God brought to fulfillment His great plan of redemption through Christ. What all this meant for the Lord is clearly told in the record of the gospels as they relate His experience from the garden to the cross, but nothing that happened to Him came as a surprise for as observed previously, He knew ‘all things that would come upon Him’ (John 18:4). He knew fully the treachery of Judas and the dreadfulness of all that He faced, but He also knew and anticipated the final outcome. Yes, there would be the agony and shame of the cross but it would be followed by the glory and triumph of His resurrection. The Devil was working with all his power, energizing and using his pawns to put Christ on the cross only to experience his ultimate defeat.
Today we witness the power of the Devil, the ‘god of this age’ (2 Cor 4:4) operating so destructively upon the moral and spiritual fiber of our societies. The corruption and violence of our time is both shocking and frightening. Many countries, so privileged over the centuries with the gospel have largely rejected it and the ‘tide’ of apostasy across this world is rolling on and rising higher. But let us take courage, even in such days, by remembering that our Lord has triumphed over the powers of darkness and defeated the arch deceiver, Satan. He knows all about the work of the enemy and at some point in the future He is going to ‘evict’ the Devil and all who are in his kingdom from this world through a process of judgment that will lead to the establishment of God’s glorious kingdom upon this earth. This world belongs to God both by creation and redemption and the Lord Jesus will, in God’s own time, triumphantly exercise both those rights.
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The Omnisicent Christ - John 13:1-3