In John 13, Jesus gives the disciples two different “one another” commands. He tells them to wash one another’s feet and to love one another. In both cases, he says, do these things in the same ways that I have done them.
He says, just as I have washed your feet, so you wash one another’s feet. Just as I have loved you, so you love one another.
The way we as followers of Jesus are to love one another is entirely different than what most people would consider love. The common understanding of love within human relationships is mainly related to affection. It is an expression of fondness or attraction toward another person.
We love our significant other, our parents, our children, our grandparents, our grandchildren. We may love a friend or close relative.
We express our love in words, or by spending time with them, or by buying gifts. But we generally don’t speak about love for our boss, or teacher, or neighbour, unless it is an expression of gratitude or admiration for something they have done or do for us.
The book titled, The Five Love Languages, is based on this concept of love. It is not wrong or unbiblical, it is just an incomplete understanding of what Jesus meant for his followers. Unfortunately, however, many Christians think that expressions of affection toward someone they have a fondness for is enough to prove we are loving people.
Biblical love means that we actively seek to meet the needs of others in order to provide them with the same things that we desire for ourselves, things that provide us with joy and satisfaction, regardless of our feelings toward them.
The ultimate act of Jesus’ love was his death on the cross. There are other ways we can see his love, but the most powerful and important act of love is his offering of himself as a sacrifice for our sins.
Jesus’ death on the cross demonstrates love for us in this way. Being the Son of God and part of the eternal Trinity, he has always enjoyed fellowship with the Father and communion with the Holy Spirit. This fellowship provided Jesus with ultimate joy and satisfaction.
His love for us was demonstrated by doing what it took to give us what gave him the greatest joy and satisfaction: fellowship with the Father and communion with the Holy Spirit. So, this understanding of love, which is that we actively seek to provide for others what provides us with the greatest joy and satisfaction, is seen in Jesus because he actively sought to provide us with the source of his greatest joy and satisfaction.
Jesus says, love one another, wash one another’s feet in the same way as I have loved you and washed your feet. He is telling his disciples to offer one another that which will provide for them true and complete satisfaction.
If we live in this way, in the way of Jesus’ self-sacrificing love, we will offer to the world the true gospel, the true light of God.
Wash One Another’s Feet
Jesus said that his disciples should follow his example by washing one another’s feet. My guess is that mostly everyone here immediately recognizes that washing feet is not literally what Jesus was commanding them to do.
But why is that? After all, the command to wash one another’s feet is in the same context as the command to continue remembering him by drinking wine and eating bread. For some reason, John did not include the account of the Lord’s Supper in his Gospel, but it seems that the foot washing event happened during the same meal as the Lord’s Supper.
In Luke, some of the same events are recorded during the Lord’s Supper as were recorded during the meal when Jesus washed the disciples’ feet. It is generally accepted that this is the same evening, the evening when Jesus was arrested.
So, why is the Lord’s Supper something we practice today, and foot washing isn’t? And if it’s not literal, then what is it?
In typical Jewish homes, they would have had a servant wash the feet of the guests as they entered the house. This was a practical way of showing honour and respect, and it also kept the house clean from all the nasty stuff in the streets. Jesus was sitting down with his disciples. They were his guests.
Normally, a host would have called a servant to come and wash their feet. But he did the washing himself. The act of foot washing was an act of extreme humility for a Jew, and not in a good way, as it was seen as unclean.
Peter immediately recognized that this wasn’t just about getting their feet clean. He saw that Jesus was intentionally putting himself lower than them. When we read this, it strikes us as symbolic because the act of foot washing is a cultural thing.
It is not necessary in our society, and so we automatically consider foot washing to be a symbol for something that can be applied universally in all societies.
There are two things the foot washing symbolizes. It is a symbol of Jesus’ washing our sins away and it represents is the act of humble service toward another person.
One of the marks of Jesus’ teaching that set him apart among Jewish teachers was that he expected leaders to be the servants. He pointed to himself as the primary example of what a true servant-leader will do for others. (See Matt 20:26-28 and Luke 22:24-27)
This is how we are to love one another. Jesus set us an example to consider others worthy of our respect and honour, regardless of social status.
A New Commandment
The second “one another” statement in this passage is described as a new commandment. Jesus said, “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.”
Why is this a new commandment? In short, it’s because until Jesus came, there was no perfect example of love.
The Greek verb for love most commonly used in those days was used to describe affection for something or someone desirable, similar to how we use the word today. But, Jesus’ definition of love was entirely different than the definition used by the world around him. It is entirely different than how most people think of it today.
Even the Israelites, although they had the law, which provided them with the description of what love looks like, was never followed perfectly.
The law had become heavy and burdensome. It had become a source of self-righteousness.
The new commandment to love one another was a command to follow the example of Jesus. This is what made it new. Jesus came because of love and to demonstrate what love looks like.
His kingdom is a kingdom of love.
Disciples of Jesus will be known by the way we love one another. By the way we pass on the life of Jesus through our behaviour. We, as followers of Jesus, are examples of what life is like for those who belong to the kingdom of God.
So, how do we do this? What does it look like?
In Luke 10, Jesus told the parable of the Good Samaritan. He told it because a lawyer wanted to know who his neighbour was. He quoted Leviticus 19:18, which says to love your neighbour as yourself. Jesus said that this is the greatest commandment along with loving God.
So, Jesus told the lawyer this parable, in which a Samaritan man rescued someone who had been robbed and left to die on the side of the road.
He said that the one who inherits eternal life is the one who loves the way the Samaritan loved the person in need. It wasn’t the Levite or the priest who loved the person. It was a Samaritan. The neighbour is the person you see as being in need.
The kingdom belongs to those who actively pursue the good of others in need. Those who show mercy and compassion. Jesus told the lawyer, go and do likewise. Show mercy to those who God puts in your path.
As we continue in John, we read more about Jesus’ description of love. The word love appears 12 times between chapters 14-17, which is mainly Jesus speaking to the disciples about the identifying marks of his followers.
Nearly all of the references to love are related to the most clear proof that we love Jesus: obedience to his commandments.
Here we see why Jesus said that loving God and loving others are the two greatest commandments. Loving Jesus (God) is demonstrated through obedience.
And what is the greatest demonstration of obedience? Loving others. They cannot be separated.
And here is how I think this works. I wrote earlier that the definition of love is when we actively seek to provide for others what provides us with the greatest joy and satisfaction. Now, the flaw in this definition is that it assumes we all seek what is best for ourselves. But, in fact, we don’t. Not exactly anyway.
It’s true that we all seek self-preservation and self-satisfaction. We all do this in our own way. When we seek self-preservation and self-satisfaction in anything or anyone but God, we are actually not loving God or ourselves.
Our obedience to Jesus demonstrates our love for him and for ourselves. Obedience to Jesus is the way we become the sort of people who desire what is truly best for ourselves. When we are obedient to Jesus, we become people who seek God as our greatest source of satisfaction.
Then, we take our definition of love, which is the pursuit of providing for others what we most desire for ourselves, and it actually becomes an act of increasing others’ faith in Jesus. Do you see how this works?
If I want to follow Jesus and enjoy fellowship with God, I will actively seek to understand how to obey him so that I can demonstrate my love for him, and so that I can help others enjoy fellowship with God. This is how to love God, love others and love ourselves.