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The twelfth chapter of John completes Jesus’ public ministry insofar as His public teaching is concerned. The stage was thereby set for the religious leaders to crucify Him and for Judas to betray Him into their hands. When evening came, Jesus met with the disciples for the “Last Supper.”
John 13:1 says,
1 Now before the Feast of Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end.
The term Passover had a variety of meanings. It could mean (as here) the preparation day for Passover, Abib 14, the day in which the lambs were killed. The actual day of Passover was Abib 15, which began at sundown of Abib 14. At other times (Luke 22:1) it included the entire week of the Unleavened Bread (Abib 15-21). We must look at the context to see how the term is being used in any given place.
The New Testament sometimes uses the term to mean the season of Passover, beginning with the removal of leaven and killing of the lambs on Abib 14 through the seven-day feast of Unleavened Bread.
These various meanings of the term Passover have brought about a lot of confusion when people have tried to figure out the precise date of the Last Supper. By misreading Luke 22:7, 8, some have thought that it took place on the afternoon of the Preparation Day (Abib 14) and was actually a Passover celebration, rather than a Fellowship Meal.
7 Then came the first day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. 8 And Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and prepare the Passover for us, so that we may eat it.”
Luke seems to say that the first day of Unleavened Bread was on Abib 14, rather than on the 15th. But Moses’ instructions in Exodus 12:17 says,
17 You shall also observe the Feast of Unleavened Bread, for on this very day I brought your hosts out of the land of Egypt…
Israel left Egypt on the morning of Abib 15 after the night wherein the firstborn in Egypt died. Luke must have known this, having spent many years in Judea prior to Jesus’ crucifixion. So we ought to understand Luke 12:7 to mean that the first day of Unleavened Bread came near or drew near, not that the day had already arrived.
We should understand the same with Matt. 26:17,
17 Now on the first day of Unleavened Bread, the disciples came to Jesus and asked, “Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?”
Again, we should keep in mind the broader use of the term Passover, or, in this case, its synonym, “Unleavened Bread.” The Greek text actually reads, “the first of Unleavened Bread.” The word “day” is supplied by the translators. But since Abib 15 (the day of Passover) was also the first day of Unleavened Bread, it was too late to be the day (evening) of the Last Supper.
Mark 14:14 says that Jesus told the disciples to find “My guest room in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples.” Mark 14:16 says “they prepared the Passover,” which makes it seem like the Last Supper was actually a Passover meal on the evening of Abib 15. Exodus 12:6 (KJV) instructs the people to kill the lambs in the afternoon of Abib 14 and then eat it after sundown, which was the evening of Abib 15. If they were still looking for a place to keep the Passover, when did they have time to kill a lamb to prepare for this feast? None of the gospel writers say that the disciples killed a lamb.
The apparent contradiction between the Synoptic Gospels and the Gospel of John have caused difficulty among scholars since the beginning. I believe that the difficulty lies in the broad usage of the terms Passover and Unleavened Bread. I believe that Jesus died on the cross precisely at the ninth hour of the day on Abib 14, when the people killed their lambs for Passover, because He was the true Passover Lamb that was to be slain. He died while the people were killing the lambs.
The time to kill the lambs, given in Exodus 12:6, literally reads, “between the two evenings,” i.e., between noon (when the sun began to go down) and the actual sunset. I believe that this instruction prophesied the moment that the true Lamb of God would die for the sin of the world.
Of necessity, then, the Last Supper took place the previous evening and was not a true Passover feast but more of a Fellowship Meal that took place as the Feast of Passover drew near. In fact, later John again makes it clear in John 13:29 and 18:28 that the Passover was still future.
Likewise, the law commanded that the Passover lambs should be killed and roasted in the afternoon of Abib 14 and that the blood of the lambs should be put on the doorposts and lintel of each house. This was to cover those who were inside, both Israelites and foreigners. Thus, the people were to remain in their houses throughout that night, and Exodus 12:46 says of the Passover meal, “you are not to bring forth any of the flesh outside of the house.”
Yet after the Last Supper, Jesus went out to the Mount of Olives with His disciples. As the true Passover Lamb, surely He would not have left the house and contradicted this prophecy. We may only conclude, then, that the Last Supper was not eaten the night after the lambs were killed but rather the previous evening.
John 13:2-4 says,
2 During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, 4 got up from supper and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself.
This is a very long sentence where John summarizes the background leading to the event where Jesus washed the feet of the disciples.
First, John notes that Judas was already intending to betray Jesus. Recall that Judas had become angry with the supposed waste of money when the unknown woman anointed Jesus’ head two days before the Passover (Mark 14:1), that is, on Abib 12. We read in Mark 14:10,
10 Then Judas Iscariot, who was one of the twelve, went off to the chief priests in order to betray Him to them.
Secondly, John notes that Jesus knew “that the Father had given all things into His hands.” The context makes this a reason (or justification) for washing the feet of Judas. More than that, Judas is set forth as a prime example of the “all things” that had been given into Jesus’ hands. As the Victim of betrayal, Jesus had victim’s rights.
The reference is obscure, of course, but it is clear that Jesus’ love for Judas was being contrasted by Judas’ betrayal of Jesus. In other words, Jesus’ love extends even to those who betray Him, hate Him, or reject Him. For this reason, He died not only for “our sins,” that is, for the sins of believers, “but also for those of the whole world” (1 John 2:2).
The love of God, then, is more than a mere desire or wish. His love compels Him to save the whole world, for His blood was actually effective for the whole world. Though most will be saved through corrective judgment, all things have been given into His hands. By what law? By the law of victim’s rights. In the law, victims are given the right to forgive, and because Jesus was about to become the Victim of every sin ever committed, the Father gave all things into His hands. It was His right to forgive or not to forgive. We know that He chose to forgive (Luke 23:34).
The third factor providing the setting for Jesus washing the feet of the disciples was “that He had come forth from God and was going back to God.” This takes us back to the beginning of John’s gospel. John 1:1 says that “in the beginning… the Word was with God.” Subsequently, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). This means that Jesus pre-existed from “the beginning” prior to His conception and incarnation on the earth.
One cannot return to a place where one has never been. Jesus was not merely going to God; He “was going BACK to God.”
So Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, in part, because He knew that He had come from the Father and was soon to return to Him at His ascension. It appears that He was playing the role of our great High Priest by washing the feet of the disciples. More than that, He seemed to be consecrating the disciples as priests of God, much like Moses did with Aaron and his sons (Lev. 8:6).
But would Jesus consecrate Judas to the priesthood as well? Why not? The precedent was set by Moses himself when he consecrated all of Aaron’s sons, including Nadab and Abihu, who were almost immediately put to death for offering strange fire (Lev. 10:1, 2). Just because one is called to the priesthood does not mean that he is exempt from divine judgment—or even that his heart is right. In fact, being a priest makes him more liable.
So Jesus, in effect, consecrated His disciples and cleansed them for ministry, much as the Levitical priests were required to wash their feet at the laver in the tabernacle of Moses. Exodus 30:17-21 says,
17 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 18 “You shall also make a laver of bronze, with its base of bronze, for washing; and you shall put it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and you shall put water in it. 19 Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet from it; 20 when they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water, so that they will not die; or when they approach the altar to minister by offering up in smoke a fire sacrifice to the Lord. 21 So they shall wash their hands and their feet, so that they will not die…”
Jesus washed the feet of His disciples at the end of His discipleship training program, but the long-term lesson was to show them that they are cleansed by the washing of the word (John 15:3). Water represented the word itself. It was necessary for them to align their works (“hands”) and their course of actions (“feet”) with the word of God in order to be able to minister to the people according to the will of God.