Jesus would be arrested in mere hours and crucified the following day. Intense agony awaited him, of which he was well aware. Once he had eaten the Passover meal with his disciples, he could have departed to a secluded place alone to pray, as he’d done before.
But Jesus didn’t spend that evening secluded, selfishly focused on the anguish to come. The night before he went to the cross, he focused on relationship. Jesus spent those hours deepening bonds of friendship and intimacy.
Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
Relationships were strained during the Passover supper. Judas knew he wasn’t one of them. He was betraying Jesus and everything the disciples had believed in for the past three years. Though the disciples sat in the presence of an eternal and mighty God, they had taken to arguing which one of them was greatest.
In the midst of such relational tension, Jesus rose, took off his outer garments, tied a towel around his waist, and poured water into a bowl. The disciples must have thought, “Surely not . . . ” These were the gestures of the lowliest slave, one about to engage in the lowliest of tasks.
Yet, Jesus went to the first disciple, stooped before him, and began washing dirt and grime from his feet. Then he proceeded to the next, and the next, including Judas, his betrayer. Peter expressed the shock of them all. “You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:8). But Jesus let him know there was symbolism in the cleansing. And when he’d reclined again, he instructed them as to what he’d done. He had performed an act of lowest servitude so that they could follow his example. Rather than argue who was greatest, they needed to understand that greatness lay in humility.
Jesus Expresses His Love
Over the course of three years, the disciples had heard Jesus teach on a variety of subjects, including love. But Jesus never spoke of love the way he did the night before he went to the cross (once Judas had left). He mentioned “love” more than thirty times that night — the Father’s love for him, his love for the Father, even the world’s brand of love. Yet, I imagine what rang, especially in the disciples’ hearts, were his words about love concerning those present among them.
Jesus made love personal, saying, “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” (John 13:34). Amid bickering and betrayal, relationship moved front and center. The disciples were about to experience sorrow they’d never known. They were about to be tested as never before. They needed one another. They needed to love one another. And their love would serve as a witness to a watching world that they were his disciples (John 13:35).
But once again, Jesus was not merely teaching. He was expressing the love he felt for them. “ . . . as I have loved you . . . ” No doubt, they knew that Jesus loved them. But this is the first time, as recorded in the Gospels, that Jesus openly expressed it. And he didn’t say it just once.
- “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.” (John 15:9)
- “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)
What a comfort to hearts filling with sorrow as Jesus spoke of leaving. Though he would be physically gone and though they couldn’t follow him, they could abide in his love.
And then he said this: “Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (John 15:13–14).
These are the intimate words Jesus left with them — the intimate words he gives to us. He laid down his life because of his great love for us, a love that we are to abide in and share with one another. In his love, our Lord and Savior draws us into special fellowship, calling us “friend.”
Jesus Prays for His Followers
Jesus’s hour had come, but before he prayed in the garden, he prayed for his disciples and for all who would believe in him (John 17:20). His own arrest was imminent, but his immediate concern was for his followers. He asked the Father to keep and protect us, and to sanctify us in the truth. And again, he revealed the deep desire of his heart: relationship. He prayed “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us” (John 17:21).
How incredible! The disciples’ hearts were troubled because he was leaving. But who would have thought there could be more intimacy with Jesus once he returned to heavenly glory — before he was with his followers? Now he is in us, wherever we go. And he wants to dwell in unity with us.
On Good Friday, Jesus would suffer at the hands of men and lay down his life. But the evening before, he chose intimacy and relationship. He chose to assure them, and also us, of his intense love.
For Holy Week 2016, we are publishing a series of fresh meditations, one each for Palm Sunday and Easter and two each on the other six days. Also, our new devotional book, Your Sorrow Will Turn to Joy, provides morning and evening readings for Holy Week and is available for download, free of charge.