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Bible Commentaries
John 13

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Verses 1-38

The Self-sacrifice of Love

John 13:1

It would seem that the washing of the disciples' feet and the institution of the Holy Communion were closely connected. Both of these actions belong to the region, as we should say, of unsupernatural actions; but they are symbolic, they are parables in action, pregnant with deep spiritual meaning, for both are revelations of the selfsacrifice of love. We see the Lord there at the last meal, fortified no doubt beforehand by prayer during those quiet hours of preparation, forgetting now His own suffering that was to come in the knowledge of His disciples' need, thinking and acting now, not for Himself, but for them. Our Lord did the menial act, and then explained to His disciples what it was that He had done. Among men the slave washes the feet of the guest; but it is not so with God.

I. The Highest Love is that which Stoops most Lowly. It was because of, not in spite of, His Godhead that Jesus Christ made Himself a servant His doing so is not Divine condescension. Men might call it condescension, but it is the Divine expression of itself. The Son of man came not to be ministered to, but to minister, and in ministering He showed He was Divine. I wonder whether we fully grasp the significance of this as applied to ourselves, that the truly Divine thing in us, the truly Divine in man, does not lie in our power and authority and greatness, as men count greatness, but in the stooping to act as servants, the washing of one another's feet service not power, responsibility not privilege. That is it. The one movement which lifts a man to true nobility, to true divinity, is the movement which brings him down to the needs and sufferings of his fellow-men. God in Jesus Christ measures the value of the gift, not by the amount of its size, but by the amount that is left when it is given.

II. It was at this Last Meal that Jesus instituted the Sacrament of His Love ; that, wishing to leave behind Him some token whereby those that knew Him might be constantly kept in remembrance of His love, He gave to them as a gift the bread and wine, telling them to take it from Him, to eat and drink His Body and His Blood, and whensoever they so did to do it in remembrance, in loving remembrance, of Him. As He gave it, so it stands today, the Holy Communion, the Saviour's legacy of love, the thing of which He commanded and requested, 'Do this'. Many things He asked us to do for ourselves and for one another, but this one thing He asks us to do for Him. 'Do this in remembrance of Me.' We cannot turn away from that request, so touching, so appealing in itself, uttered at the very moment when all other human ties were about to be severed between Him and those He loved. This new link He gave to bind the disciples at all times to Him. Is there any one outward act of love which we can do more telling in its evidence of accepted love than this when, in response to that downward coming of the Eternal Son of God to strengthen and sustain us, we lift our hearts unto the Lord?

References. XIII. 1. J. Keble, Sermons for the Sundays after Trinity, p. 451. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xiv. No. 810, and vol. xl. No. 2377. R. J. Campbell, The Examiner, 14th June, 1906, p. 577. Expositor (4th Series), vol. v. p. 183; ibid. vol. vi. p. 129. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 170.

The Motives of Christ

John 13:1-3

The principle of motives as the test by which a character is to be judged is in full view of the Evangelist when he writes these three verses. His purpose is to describe Jesus Christ in His motives, to represent to us the springs of His action, and the fountains of His speech during the last days of His earthly pilgrimage. Six of these motives he depicts for us in these verses, and so brings us into fellowship with Jesus Christ as to help us to know Him: in His habit as He lived, in the soul of Him, in the aims by which He was governed, and in the forces which made Him what He was, and enabled Him to do what He did, and say what He said. These six motives then what are they?

I. The first clearly is this That Jesus Christ is conscious that the hour towards which His thought has been directed again and again is now about to strike. This is really His last hour, and all the possibilities of His earthly life, of His life on this side of death, must be crowded into it. Men condense when they know they are going to die: men concentrate when they hear the ticking of the clock for their last hour. So there comes a concentration, an election of the very best, as the soul judges the best, of that which is really dearest to the heart. It is this pressure that Jesus Christ is now feeling.

II. This motive is made wonderfully more operative by the recognition that, in this last hour of His, He is to fight His final and decisive battle.

III. There is also in Christ as a working idea and conviction, the consciousness of a commission. Jesus Christ is sustained as He faces the tragedy of Gethsemane and Calvary by the consciousness that He came forth from God, that He is God's witness, has a Divine mandate, and therefore is bound to carry it out.

IV. Jesus is also conscious that God never sends a soldier to fight without equipping him: that the resources of those who labour in God's name and for God's glory are godlike: they are exhaustless.

V. It is love that is the strongest and most potent motive of all in the action and speech of Jesus Christ. And here it is central to John's statement, 'for Jesus having loved His own which were in the world, He loved them unto the end'.

VI. There is yet one other motive suggested by John. It is the imperilled position of these men, 'Having loved His own which were in the world '. He was going out of it: soon He would ascend to His Father. They are in the world. Does not John indicate to us there the way in which the coming perils of the disciples inflamed the affection of the Christ, and become a fresh force in Him for His selfsacrifice, and a fresh controlling influence as to His acts and as to His words?

References. XIII. 1-5. F. L. Wiseman, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lvii. p. 349. XIII. 1-17. Expositor (4th Series), vol. vii. p. 300. XIII. 2. Ibid. vol. i. p. 18. XIII. 3. W. H. Evans, Sermons for the Church's Year, p. 309. J. H. Jowett, British Congregationalist, September 6, 1906, p. 133. XIII. 3-5. W. E. Barton, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lii. p. 403. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxv. No. 1499. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 180. XIII. 4. G. Hill, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xliv. p. 230. Expositor (6th Series), vol. iii. p. 396. XIII. 4, 5. H. S. Holland, Christian World Pulpit, vol. li. p. 345. A. Maclaren, After the Resurrection, p. 182. XIII. 4-6. W. P. Balfern, Glimpses of Jesus, p. 210. XIII. 5. C. Stanford, The Evening of our Lord's Ministry, p. 21. XIII. 6. J. S. Bartlett, Sermons, p. 247. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xi. No. 612.

John 13:7

The words suggest the consideration of the place of authority in teaching. They convey the lesson contained in the saying 'oportet discentem credere'. In different ways and degrees it is true of us all. We are all beholden for what we know to assistance external to ourselves. The principle is clearly stated, and rightly balanced in the words of the inhabitants of Sychar to the Samaritan woman, 'Now, we believe, not because of thy speaking, for we have heard for ourselves'. The words of these simple people express for us the necessary correction which the saying ' oportet discentem credere ' requires, by adding the saying that should accompany it, ' oportet edoctum judicare '. The men of Sychar were beholden to the woman in the first instance for telling them, but afterwards they could judge for themselves. The truth is not merely true because we have been told it, but our own faculties know it to be so.

Bishop Edward King, The Love and Wisdom of God, p. 170.

The Interpreting Influence of Time

John 13:7

The words of the text have special and primary reference to the meaning of the washing of His disciples' feet by our Lord. The 'hereafter' of the text, therefore, is the 'hereafter' of a few minutes. There was in it, as it was originally used by the Lord Jesus, no direct allusion to the future life, though the principle applies, with even greater force, to the hereafter that is beyond the grave; and my purpose is to set before you the meaning of the principle itself, the area which it covers, and the influence which it should exert upon us in our daily lives.

I. First let us look at the principle itself. Briefly expressed, it is that the difficulties of the present are often explained by the lapse of time, so that what may be hard to unravel today may be easily disentangled after a few months, or it may be years, have gone. (1) There is something in the very fact that an event is past which enables us to understand it better than we did when it was happening. When we are in the midst of any movement, we are too close upon it to judge of it aright, and so we either overestimate its importance, or fail to recognise its full significance. (2) But while this interpreting result may be produced by the lapse of time taken merely by itself, it is intensified by what that passing of the present into the past may bring. (a) Thus, for one thing, it brings a growth in the individual's own intelligence, which helps him to an explanation of what before was difficult, (b) Still again time carries in it the educating influence of experience, and that contributes to the better understanding of what was obscure in the past. (3) Finally, here we must remember that the lapse of time gives opportunity to the individual for the enjoyment of the teachings of God the Holy Spirit.

II. Now let us look at the area which this principle covers. (1) It applies first to the mysteries that are found in Scripture. As the years revolve, the mystery may diminish, and may finally disappear; or at least cease to trouble us. (2) But the principle in the text applies also to the dispensations of God's providence. There are few of us past middle age who cannot attest the truth of my declaration when I say that in the 'afterward' of our trials we have had their interpretation.

III. What may we learn from this subject in our daily life? (1) It may well teach us patience. (2) It encourages us to combine hope with our patience. There is an explanation coming, therefore we may be the better upheld as we wait for it. I have dealt with the text as relating to the hereafter of time. But true as it is in that, its original application, it is even more so of the hereafter of eternity. The dark things which time has left unillumined will be brightened in eternity.

References. XIII. 7. A. S. Geden, Preacher's Magazine, vol. v. p. 385. H. J. Wilmot-Buxton, Holy-tide Teaching, p. 136. J. A. Alexander, The Gospel of Jesus Christ, p. 34. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxii. No. 1293. J. M. Neale, Sermons Preached in a Religious House, vol. i. p. 166. John Kelman, Ephemera Eternitatis, pp. 254, 260. XIII. 8. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xvi. No. 926. J. Vaughan, Fifty Sermons (9th Series), p. 318. XIII. 10. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 127. H. Bonar, Short Sermons for Family Reading, p. 87. D. Fraser, Metaphors in the Gospels, p. 341. XIII. 12. Expositor (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 57. XIII. 12-15. Expository Sermons on the New Testament, p. 120. XIII. 12-20. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 142.

Jesus Christ As Master

John 13:13

I. Jesus Christ has proved to be the Master in this world, because He can produce the greatest effects by the simplest means and out of the most unpromising material. When Christ came to the world, if I may so say, there was a philosopher who was in possession, the great Greek philosopher Plato. What did he say? He said: 'Bring me your best minds, your most intellectual souls, all the first-class material in the world, and I will show you what I can do with it'. But what is the use of that to the average man who is not first-rate, intellectually speaking? Jesus Christ was distinct from every other philosopher and teacher, from the fact that He said: 'Bring me your worst, and I will show you what I can do with it'. Jesus Christ stands acknowledged as the Master because of what He can make out of other people's leavings. Why, till Jesus came no one ever thought of seeking in the gutters to make saints; it is not the sort of place you expect to look for them in. But that is where Jesus found them.

II. All power lies in being mastered by Christ. Do you remember what Paul said? He said: 'I was apprehended that I might apprehend'. Do you know what the word 'apprehend 'means? To lay hold of, to grip. No minister ever grips a congregation who is not first of all gripped by God. And that is what we want for all power does lie in being mastered by Jesus Christ.

C. S. Horne, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lxx. p. 268.

John 13:13

All that I have wrote for near thirty years has been only to shew that we have no master but Christ.

William Law.

Reference. XIII. 13. Expositor (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 83.

Character and Creed

John 13:13-14

'Master and Lord' that is what the disciples called Jesus; that is what men call Him still. This is the great fact of history. Take Christ for what you will, define His person as you please, there is nothing to parallel the universal homage paid to Him. To one paying his first visit to the Continent there is nothing, perhaps, more impressive than this, that everywhere men call this Jesus 'Master and Lord'. And if we look at our own land, amid whatever conflicting signs, the same fact of the sovereignty of Christ grows more and more unmistakable to all clearsighted observers. Look outside the Churches, and the facts are even more significant. But I need not go outside our own lives. In all our days there is a difference because, if not we ourselves, at least, the family, the community of which we are members, has learned to call Christ 'Master and Lord'. What does Christ say to them that so name Him?

I. He accepts the title; 'Ye call Me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am'. Mark that calm, unhesitating acceptance of these great names, and consider what it means. There are two strands interwoven all through the life of Christ; humility the most perfect and beautiful, such as the world had never known before, and side by side with it the most tremendous self-assertion. No man, however great or good, ever spoke concerning himself as Jesus did.

II. But Christ further declared and this is what I want specially to emphasise that they that confessed Him as 'Master and Lord 'thereby placed themselves under manifold moral obligations; 'Ye call me Lord and Master... and ye ought '. We may disregard for the moment the particular duty mentioned by Christ; the point to catch is this, that while it is right to call Christ 'Master and Lord,' it is not enough so to name Him; we cannot stop there. If we call Him 'Master and Lord,' then 'we ought '; you may fill in the blank a hundred ways, but remember, the confession carries the obligation along with it. We Christians cannot too often or too sharply remind ourselves of the moral obligation which is the other half of faith. We call Christ 'Master and Lord'; is His great 'ye ought' sounding through our souls? No man's theology is safe that is not brought into constant contact with actual life. Is there anything the Church so urgently needs today as the filling-up of this gap between what we profess and what we are? Oh, the mock homage that is paid to Christ!

G. Jackson, Table Talk of Jesus, p. 67.

References. XIII. 13, 14. T. Arnold, Sermons, vol. ii. p. 111. XIII. 14. J. Martineau, Endeavours after the Christian Life, p. 16. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 133.

The Imitation of Jesus

John 13:15

'Imitation 'is not the first nor the last, nor the deepest word of the Christian Gospel. Indeed, the imitation of Jesus is itself possible only as a result of some more vital process. Nevertheless, imitation has its place among the Christian duties. 'Be ye imitators of God, as beloved children,' says St. Paul. 'imitators of me, even as I also am of Christ.'

I. The great fact to be kept steadily in mind is this, that the standard of life set before us in the New Testament is to be found not in a code of laws, but in a character. 'We are called,' says Dean Church, 'to the study of a living Person, and the following of a living Mind.' It is not the letter, but the spirit of Christ's life which is binding upon us. Do I need to spend one moment in proving, or rather in affirming, Christ to be the Perfect Example? Alone of all the sons of men He was without sin. His was a perfection full-orbed and complete, lacking nothing.

II. How, then, can we imitate Christ? How can we become like Him. (1) If we would grow like Christ we must know what Christ was like. To your Gospels! ye Churchmen and Churchwomen, to your Gospels! One meeting a week less and one chapter a week more may not be a rule for everybody, but there are multitudes of Christian people in whose spiritual health that simple change of diet, honestly followed out, would soon work wonders. (2) If we would grow like Christ we must keep Him steadily before us. We grow like those we live with, those we love; every day beholding we are transformed; and the same law holds here.

We must be with Christ, we must learn what He is like is that all? is there no more to be said? Then can I never be like Him. I follow that life through all 'the sinless years that breathed beneath the Syrian blue,' till my whole soul throbs with the wonder of it But imitate it how can I, I with my weakened will, my besetting sins? There is the great problem, not the ideal, but its realisation. He Who is our Example is also our New Life. It is the indwelling Christ Who alone can make possible the Imitatio Christi .

G. Jackson, Table Talk of Jesus, p. 141.

Service to Man

John 13:15

The Perfect Elder Brother, who taught us that love to God was the true impulse of service to man, laid down a standard by which all efforts to remove the burdens that weigh down humanity should be tested. Once only, in the course of His ministry, did He say, 'I have given you an example'; it was when He knelt down on the floor of the upper chamber and washed His disciples' feet. No action of His was trivial or without an educative purpose, and in the features of this incident He suggests that the Christian worker who would ameliorate the condition of his fellow-men, must be humble, helpful, without respect of persons, and thorough.

I. The first Divine requirement is humility. The trail of self self-gratification, self-commendation, self-assertion lies potent over much amateur remedial work, but 'He took upon Himself the form of a servant'.

II. The second necessary characteristic of the would-be reformer is real helpfulness, not fussy, useless activity; a real need was met by the action in the upper chamber.

III. His amazing revelation of grace and patience in washing the feet of the traitor, Judas rebukes the common tendency of Church workers to select amongst the poor and the unfortunate such as are grateful and attractive, and to withhold their ministrations from the coarse and the ungrateful.

IV. His action in the upper chamber was marked by thoroughness. The true discerning worker for God and humanity will be thorough.

Basil Wilberforce, Feeling after Him (2nd Series), p. 134.

The Perfect Example

John 13:15

There are moments in our existence which we are bound to call our better moments. Our thoughts are centres in better things, and we are less wrapped up in the commonplace things of life. If we grant this, what is our need at such times? I suppose it is a need of becoming better. No doubt there are some people who never feel this need, but surely they are very few. Surely in nearly every life there comes the time when this need of moral improvement is felt.

I. It is Necessary for us to have some Ideal. Many of us have felt the influence of some strong and good character, of some one into whose life we could look in times of doubt to see what our hero would have done if he had been placed in like circumstances. It may be that in the character there were many faults which were apparent to the eyes of the all-seeing God, but in those early days we could not detect them. To us everything seemed good and true and had left upon us a lasting influence.

II. A Man Needs a Perfect Ideal, a character in which no fault can be detected to show him what real, true human goodness can do. If we had asked the question, 'Where is such ideal perfection to be found before the birth of Christ?' what would the answer be? If we look to Noah or Moses, or to such great men as Socrates or Cicero, though their characters may often seem to come very near to perfection, still all of them had some fault, and some of them very great faults, but in Jesus Christ no fault is found, and the beauties of His character take their place in due proportion. He alone can satisfy our longing for a perfect ideal.

III. If Jesus Christ is the Perfect Man, then the four Gospels are the Most Sacred and Precious Books that we have. Each Evangelist has set forth the character of our Saviour in a different light; different but all in perfect harmony. They show so clearly our Lord as they knew Him personally, or as they knew of Him from the lips of others. No circumstance of our Lord's life is dwelt upon to illustrate His greatness; no effort is made to draw attention to the beauties of His character; it is as though they felt it was needless or even wrong to draw attention by word of theirs to that which shows out so clearly and so palpably. The narrative of the Holy Gospels gives us the example and the model by which we Christians should model our lives. As a great man has said, these Gospels bring back to you the living image of that Holy Man so entirely that you would see less of Him if you saw Him with your own eyes. Let us then study these Gospels with zeal and patience!

References. XIII. 15. H. D. M. Spence, Voices and Silences, p. 209. W. H. Evans, Sermons for the Church's Year, p. 263. A. R. Henderson, The Examiner, 31st May, 1906, p. 533. Expositor (5th Series), vol. vi. p. 380. XIII. 16. Rid. (7th Series), vol. vi. p. 286.

John 13:17

Happiness is a great love and much serving.

Olive Schreiner.

References. XIII. 17. H. Alford, Sermons on Christian Doctrine, p. 331. XIII. 18. R. J. Campbell, New Theology Sermons, p. 151. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 21. XIII. 20. J. M. Whiton, Summer Sermons, p. 71. XIII. 23. A. M. Fairbairn, Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvi. p. 97. C. Perren, Sermon Outlines, p. 316. E. A. Stuart, The New Creation and other Sermons, vol. iii. p. 137. XIII. 23-26. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xxxiv. No. 2052. XIII. 26. Expositor (4th Series), vol. i. p. 18; ibid. (6th Series), vol. vii. p. 121. XIII. 27. A. Maclaren, The Wearied Christ, p. 286. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 190. XIII. 27-29. W. C. Wheeler, Sermons and Addresses, p. 92. XIII. 30. G. H. Morrison, Flood-Tide, p. 200. XIII. 31. J. E. Page, Preacher's Magazine, vol. xvii. p. 420. XIII. 31, 32. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 199. XIII. 32. A. Barry, The Doctrine of the Cross, p. 67. XIII. 33. R. W. Church, Village Sermons (3rd Series), p. 353. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 91. Expositor (6th Series), vol. viii. p. 442. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 210; ibid. p. 217.

A New Commandment

John 13:34

Christ revealed a new idea of man and a new idea of God. His love offered a new measure of greatness 'Love one another as I have loved you'. What is the love demanded of us in this generation?

I. Our love must be thinking love. Thought and love must go hand in hand.

II. Love is sharing. Whatever good thing we have found to be the best for ourselves is that which our neighbours must also have. Our advantages confer on us no privilege; they give us no right to command; they are simply ours to share.

S. A. Barnett, Church Family Newspaper, vol. xv, p. 390.

John 13:34

To restore a commonplace truth to its first uncommon lustre, you need only translate it into action. But to do this, you must have reflected on its truth.


References. XIII. 34. Christian World Pulpit, vol. xlvii. p. 166. W. M. Sinclair, Words from St. Paul's (2nd Series), p. 196. H. H. Henson, Godly Union and Concord, p. 153. E. A. Stuart, The New Commandment and other Sermons, vol. vii. p. 121. Expositor (4th Series), vol. x. p. 50. XIII. 34, 35. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. li. No. 2936. H. H. Henson, Christian World Pulpit, vol. lx. p. 305. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 226. XIII. 35. Spurgeon, Sermons, vol. xlv. No. 2650. Expositor (6th Series), vol. x. p. 32.

John 13:35

If it be asked whether any person is a good man, it is not asked what he believes or what he hopes but what he loves.


John 13:35

Love he sent to bind The disunited tendrils of that vine Which bears the wine of life, the human heart.


Reference. XIII. 36. F. St. John Corbett, The Preacher's Year, p. 99.

John 13:36-37

His dream was still of an individual discipleship and an individual martyrdom, in the pride of which he was too willing to draw himself away from his fellow-disciples, and to forget altogether the world which he had to help to save.

Hort, The Way, The Truth, and The Life, p. 8.

John 13:37

It was the habit of Savonarola's mind to conceive great things, and to feel he was the man to do them. Iniquity should be brought low; the cause of justice, purity, and love should triumph; and it should triumph by his voice, by his work, by his blood. In moments of ecstatic contemplation, doubtless the sense of self melted in the sense of the unspeakable, and in that part of his experience lay the elements of genuine self-abasement; but in the presence of his fellow-men for whom he was to act, preeminence seemed a necessary condition of his life.

George Eliot.

References. XIII. 37. J. Keble, Sermons for the Holy Week, p. 36. XIII. 37, 38. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 235. XIII. 38. F. E. Paget, Helps and Hindrances to the Christian Life, vol. i. p. 142. A. Maclaren, Expositions of Holy Scripture St. John, p. 243.

Bibliographical Information
Nicoll, William Robertson, M.A., L.L.D. "Commentary on John 13". Expositor's Dictionary of Text. https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/edt/john-13.html. 1910.
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