In his two-volume commentary on the Gospel of John, scholar Raymond Brown describes John 13’s footwashing scene as prophetically symbolic of Jesus’ death. Brown is, of course, alluding to the fact that some of God’s OT prophets engaged in actions with underlying theological meaning. For those with eyes to see, then, Jesus washing his disciples’ feet grants us a window into a deeper truth: the cleansing work of Calvary.
The more common interpretation of John 13:1-11 is that Jesus models humility for the believer. Yes, that is true (13:14-15), but there is much more going on here than just an example of meekness and service. In fact, Jesus told Peter, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand,” which indicates that the meaning of the footwashing is not apparent to the disciples. But it will be…later (after the cross and resurrection?).
Several clues cue the cross throughout the passage. Here are 7 examples:
(1) The opening of John 13 begins, “It was just before the Passover Feast” (13:1). According to the four gospels, Jesus died during Passover. So the opening of John 13 sets the context that prepares us for the coming cross.
(2) Jesus knew that “the time” had come (13:1). Until this point, the “hour” or “time” was “not yet” (e.g. 2:4; 7:6). The “time” that had now arrived was the glorification of Jesus through his suffering and death.
(3) It was time for Jesus “to leave this world” and “go to the Father.” Leaving and going to his Father occurred through the cross and subsequent resurrection. The suffering on the cross equaled Jesus “going” where the disciples “could not follow” (13:33, 36b). Therefore, Jesus’ statement about leaving this world should conjure up the cross for the reader.
(4) The devil had enticed Judas with betraying Jesus (13:2b). That coming reality, narrated in John 18:1-11, connotes the events of Jesus’ passion–since Judas’ betrayal precipitates the events that follow.
(5) “Laying down” his garments (13:4) and “taking them up” again (13:12) echoes “laying down” his life (10:18) and “taking it up” again (10:18). This indicates that the full meaning of laying aside his garments and taking them up again would be understood when he laid down his life and took it up again.
(6) Jesus must wash us if we are to be clean (13:8b). Therefore, something more than an example of humility is occurring. Jesus is pointing to the promise of sharing in his life through his work on the cross and vindication through resurrection. Jesus did not tell Peter, “Unless I wash you, you won’t understand humility.” He said, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”
(7) The preceding narratives create a flow of cross-connotations. In John 10, Jesus depicts the cross-work as a shepherd laying down his life for his sheep (10:11). In John 11, the dying and rising of Lazarus foreshadows the dying and rising of Jesus. Also in John 11, Lazarus’ resurrection is a catalyst for the Jewish leadership’s final plots against Jesus’ life (11:50, 57). In John 12:1-11, Mary anointed Jesus at Bethany with perfume that Jesus tied to “my burial” (12:7), denoting his death. In J0hn 12:23, Jesus announced that the “hour” of his glorification “has come”–which was the hour of his death. Therefore, since the reader encounters “death” words and symbols throughout John 10–12, it is appropriate that the action of footwashing in John 13 also speaks ultimately to Jesus’ death on the cross.
Paul said it well in Philippians: “And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death–even death on a cross!” (2:8).