A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:34-35 ESV).
What does it mean to be a disciple?
In John’s Gospel, Jesus performs a sign and then explains it. Here the sign is dramatic—Jesus assumes the role of a slave and washes the feet of the disciples. He then gives them a commandment: love one another (v 34). Both the sign and the commandment are equally dramatic.
John uses the word commandment four times in his Gospel. In the first two uses, Jesus responds commands from and to God the Father: but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment– what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life (John 12:49-50). The third and fourth commandments are the same: love one another (v 34 and John 15:12). Washing feet—an attitude of service—is the sign that goes with the love commandment. Love is the only commandment in John’s Gospel.
The idea that Jesus commanded us to love one another is not in dispute. In Matthew 22:36-40, Jesus commands us to love God and our neighbor. On these two statements of love hang the law and the prophets. In other words, the double love command summarizes the entire Old Testament. Similar statements can be found in the writings of Paul, James, and Peter.
Still, the foot washing sign raises some interesting comparisons. For example, Jesus is not the first foot-washer that we meet in John Gospel—that honor goes to Mary in chapter 12. Mary anointed Jesus’ feet with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair. In chapter 12 Judas objects to Mary’s foot washing; in chapter 13 Peter objects. Was Jesus so impressed with Mary’s service that he required it of his disciples? Were the disciples so unhappy with the idea of radical servanthood that they betrayed Jesus?
The other interesting comparison is between foot washing and communion. John’s Gospel is the only Gospel account to discuss foot washing at the last supper and he neglects to mention communion which is the focus of other accounts (Luke 22:13-20; 1 Corinthians 11:23-29). By contrast, John’s miracle of the feeding of five thousand where Jesus says–I am the bread of life (John 6:35 ESV)—has the sacramental feeling of communion.
Here John appears to have provided us a radical model of discipleship which substitutes a model of discipleship focused on service both in intimate moments (the last supper) and in public moments (the feeding of the five thousand). This reading suggests that John’s communion is an outsider’s communion (the feeding of the five thousand) rather than an insider’s communion (disciples only) because it fits his model of discipleship better.
One further comparison is worth mentioning. The foot washing incident in Luke 7:36-50 involves an unnamed woman who anoints Jesus’ feet with ointment. In that incident, it is Jesus’ host, a Pharisee, who objects to the foot washing.
Jesus’ lesson on foot washing is a hard teaching–a disciple is one who serves; one who loves. Left to myself, I object. Do you?