John's Gospel Commentary by Robert Brow (www.brow.on.ca) 2000
In the Synoptic Gospels the account of the last supper is very brief. Their main interest is in recording the words "this is my body" and "this is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins" (Matthew 26:26-28, Mark 14:22-24, Luke 22:19-20).
These words of institution were already being used in communion services wherever Christian communities gathered every Sunday (as they did with Paul in Troas, Acts 20:7, see comments on the three Sundays of the resurrection in 20:19, 26, 21:1). Writing to the Corinthians (about AD 55) Paul indicates that sharing in communion was an established practice among them. "The cup of blessing that we bless . . . the bread that we break" (1 Corinthians 10:16). And in the next chapter Paul uses exactly the same words of institution as in the Synoptic Gospels (11:23-26).
I assume that while Paul was imprisoned in Caesarea (AD 58-60) he had sent Luke to collect information from Mary and other eyewitnesses for the compiling of Luke's Gospel. And since Luke used Mark's outline and parts of the material in Matthew's Gospel, my guess is that Mark was asked to write his Gospel as early as AD 50 (perhaps as a result of the Council of Jerusalem, Acts 15:6-37).
Since there is no hint in John's Gospel of the fall of Jerusalem (AD 70, see Matthew 24 and Mark 13) John must have written it soon after the publication of the Synoptic Gospels say about AD 66. Peter and Paul were martyred under Nero in AD 64, and that made it urgent to write and collect as much early Christian history as possible.
With the other Gospels before him John did not need to repeat what they had written. As in many other situations throughout his book, John found himself reflecting on the events of the last supper. And the first memory that surfaced (and which the other Gospels omitted), was the way Jesus had washed Peter's feet before the last supper, and how Peter had wanted to refuse this unthinkable reversal of what was proper.
Matthew and Mark had both recorded Jesus' words about servant ministry. "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom (a means of freeing) for many" (Matthew 20:25-28, Mark 10:42-45).
Paul explained the theology of servant ministry in this way. "Let this mind be in you that was in Messiah Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death - even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:5-8).
What Paul had set out theologically, and the Synoptics had recorded in Jesus' words, John now intends to recall as the supreme acted parable of what servant ministry was about. Some take this parable as a ritual for us to enact each year during holy week. It seems more likely that we should apply it in every situation where we must avoid the superior and inferior attitudes of hierarchy. In Jesus' kingdom greatness is measured by our willingness to serve others (Matthew 20:25-28).
All four Gospels (Matthew 26:5, 27:62, Mark 14:2, 15:42, Luke 23:54, John 19:14, 31) agree that Jesus was crucified on the Day of Preparation (Thursday evening to Friday before sundown), so this meal cannot have been the Passover meal. A Passover meal would in any case require the whole family to be gathered with the mother and the children having parts to play. This was therefore a chaburah gathering of a rabbi with his close disciples the evening before a major feast to rehearse the meaning of the ritual which they would engage in the next day with their family..
Jesus had previously told the disciples that his hour had not yet come (see notes on 7:6, 8, 30, 12:23, and also at the wedding in Cana, 2:4).
13:2. The best Greek texts read "as the meal was beginning." Normally the first thing (before they reclined and began eating) would have been a servant coming with a basin to wash the feet of the guests who had walked through the dusty streets. They would have bathed their bodies before coming (see 13:10).
Judas had already decided to betray Jesus and settled on the amount of what the priests would pay him (Matthew 26:14). John remembers how the betrayal was obviously on Jesus' mind throughout the meal (13:10, 18, 21, 26, 27, 30).
13:3 Paul captures the fact that Jesus, knowing his divine origin and supreme power as Son of God (Philippians 2:6), deliberately humbled himself to take birth and live among us.
13:4-5 Before beginning to eat Jesus took off his outer garment, put a servant's towel around his waist, took a basin, and filled it with water. This made the disciples realize with horror what was happening. They should have taken care of the necessary foot washing. "Why on earth didn't someone remember to do this?" But now their Teacher (13:13-14, the word Lord indicates the reverence that Jewish disciples had for their teacher) was doing the servant's work.. Peter perhaps remembered this occasion when he wrote "All of you must clothe yourselves with humility in your dealings with one another" (1 Peter 5:5).
13:6-9 Peter first questioned what was happening, and then said flatly "You will never wash my feet." But then when Jesus told him that "unless I wash you, you have no share with me," Peter asked to have his hands and head washed as well.
13:10 Jesus now moves from the physical washing of feet to the metaphorical meaning of what baptism signified. Peter had been baptized when he became a disciple of Jesus. Baptism signified that he was accepted and forgiven once for all. But the day to day defilements of life (like the dust from the street on the way to the meal) needed to be washed away. As John explained in his Epistle, "If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we keep confessing our sins (a Greek present continuous), he is faithful and just to forgive the sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness" (1 John 1:8-9 literal translation).
13:11 There was an exception in the case of Judas. He too had his feet washed his teacher. But instead of the daily cleansing of wrong attitudes, Judas had set his face to betray the Messiah.
13:12-15 Then John remembers the application that Jesus gave. The word upodeigma translated "example" could be used of a line which was written out for a child to copy. Just as our Lord and Teacher, gave the example of cleansing away the dust of our journey, we should do that for each others as members of his church.
Loving includes forgiving those we love. This will become an essential theme of John's teaching (see 1 John 3:11, 16, 4:7, 11-12, 19-21). And as the meal goes on John is careful to record Jesus' own words about love for our brothers and sisters in the church (13:34-35, 15:12, 17:26).