THE GOSPEL ACCORDING TO JOHN - PART XVI
OF THE LAST SUPPER
I. The scene is just before the Passover, with the Apostles gathered around Jesus.
A. Instead of emphasizing the events of the final week, as the other Gospels do, St. John focuses on the Last Supper discourses. The overall themes of the discourse are:
1. The glory
of God about to be shown forth, precisely by the sacrifice of Jesus
2. Jesus telling
His disciples that His hour has come, and that He will be taken away,
but that the sacrifice result in the sanctification and joy of His disciples
giving thee Apostles His life as an example and a new commandment for
the disciples to follow and live in Him.
sending of the Spirit, which will lead the followers of Christ, especially
in the truth.
opposition of the devil and the world, but also call to bring the world
back to God.
B. The Passover sacrifice of Christ contrasts with: (1) the good will, but confusion of eleven of the Apostles, who will be purified, receive the Spirit and therefore be transformed; and (2) the betrayal of Judas, who stands for all the opposition for Christ, human and demonic.
1. The Synoptic Gospels describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal, although it may not have been celebrated of the day of Passover. St. John does not describe the Last Supper as a Passover meal, but rather focuses on the preparations for the Passover.
- In both cases,
Jesus is described as the fulfillment of the Passover Lamb. On
the final day before the first Passover, when the Chosen People were
freed from slavery in Egypt, a Passover lamb was slaughtered for each
family. During the night, the family would eat the Passover Lamb
and put its blood on the doorposts. The eating of the Passover
Lamb would mark the Chosen People as such, and the blood would cause
the angel of death, which killed the firstborn of the Egyptians, to
pass over the family. See Ex. 12:1-13.
- Thus, the blood
of Christ frees us from sin; and receiving Him into ourselves marks
us as His new Chosen People. See 1 Cor. 5:7, 1 Peter 1:19.
2. The betrayal of Judas bears a remarkable similarity to the betrayal of Ahithopel, an advisor of King David, when David's son Absolam rebelled against him.
- Ahithopel was
a close advisor, possibly the leading advisor, of King David, and received
divine assistance. But he turned against King David when his son
Absolam seemed on the ascent. King David was driven from the throne
temporarily, and went up first weeping to the Mount of Olives.
However, when his advice was later rejected and he realized that the
rebellion would fail, Ahithopel hanged himself, as Judas would do later.
See 2 Sam. 15:12-17:23. Psalm 41, especially verse 10, could describe
- It would appear
from the events of the Last Supper, and especially from the fact that
Christ probably gave Judas a morsel of food without the other Apostles
noticing, that Judas was seated just to the left of Jesus, in a place
of honor. It appears that Jesus several time tries to appeal to
Judas to abandon his plot without revealing it to the others.
- John emphasizes
Judas' betrayal and rejection of Jesus over and again, especially
in chapter 13, as well as the demonic influence over him.
C. When Moses, Joshua,
and King David were about to die, they also gave lengthy speeches.
But in their cases, it was more a reminder of God's promises and commands
of the past, rather than a promise of something in the future.
The point of those speeches was that those figures would no longer be
with their people. Jesus, by contrast, is promising to be with
them in love and in the Spirit.
II. The Gospel according to John begins the description of the Last Supper with an account of the washing of the Apostles' feet.
A. At one level, this action is an astonishing act of humility.
1. With the dry,
dusty environment, people's feet got very dirty, and it was customary
for the host to provide water for washing one's feet. See Gen.
18:4. However, only a foreign slave might be told to perform this
service; a Jew, even a servant, would never be told to do so.
The one exception is the wise Abigail, who calms David's wrath against
her husband Nabal and, when her husband dies, becomes David's wife.
See 2 Sam. 25:41. See also 1 Tim. 5:1. Their son Chileab
is obscure but seems to be the only faithful among David's first several
2. Jesus is giving
an example to His disciples of the humility that is necessary at the
core of ministry. This form of self-sacrifice will be, as a practical
matter, more often called for than more dramatic heroism.
3. St. John presents
this act as a part of Jesus loving His disciples "to the end," which
could mean completely, to Jesus' death, and/or to the end of all things
on earth. He also presents the action, not despite the fact that
Jesus knew He is from the Father and returning to Him, but rather almost
because of it.
B. The action may also be a sign of the cleansing from sin.
1. Jesus says that the disciples have already "bathed,' a term that New testament writers sometimes us in referring to baptism and/or the call fo Christ. See Acts 22:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Heb. 10:22; Titus 3:5. The Apostles have already either been baptized by Christ or received the equivalent through their calling. They have certainly already been sent to baptize in Jesus' name. See John 4:2.
2. There is also
a reflection of the fact that the Levitical priests had to wash their
hands and feet before approaching the altar, on penalty of death.
See Ex. 30:20-21. In addition, Isaiah had spoken about the blessed
feet of those who bear the glad tidings of salvation and of the cleansing
of the ministers before the great restoration that the suffering servant
would bring. Se Is. 52:7, 11.
3. In response to Peter's understandable objection, Jesus tells the Apostles that they must be washed, but only their feet because they have already bathed.
- St. Augustine
and St. Thomas Aquinas, among others, take this reference as an image
of the forgiveness of sins committed and the purification from sinful
influences after baptism. The idea is that the feet become unclean
from contact with the dust of the world, and therefore, must be cleansed,
as even a person of good will must be cleansed by Christ.
- The humility
of Christ in taking on humanity, and the form of a slave, in order to
cleanse us, see Phil 2:7, is therefore symbolized by the humility of
- However, one
must be of good will for this cleansing to work. Thus, Jesus also
says that not all of them are clean, even though He has presumably cleansed
all of their feet. Jesus is giving a warning to Judas, but also
to all who would approach the sacraments in bad faith.
4. Jesus then
presents His action as a model for believers, especially those in authority,
whether by reason of governance (master) or teaching.
III. Jesus then proceeds without a break to the next theme, that of Judas' betrayal, although He will not identify him by name.
A. Part of
the implication is that the humility of Christ is shown in part by enduring
the betrayal, but still trying to reach out to the betrayer. He
warns that such will also be the lot of the servants of Christ.
See also Matt. 10:24.
B. Jesus Himself quotes Psalm 41, which describes one whom God delivers from mortal illness and betrayal from false friends. The Psalm does not directly refer to death from persecution, but does indicate that Jesus is joining in the fullness of the human condition and is with all who are suffering physically or emotionally.
- But Jesus also makes it clear He is predicting His own passion and death, indicating that He is also in control of the situation. To emphasize the point, He says they will believe "I AM," again reflecting the name God gave Himself to Moses.
- The prediction does
not necessarily mean that Judas' betrayal is final. Negative
prophesies can be reversed with prayer. See, e.g., Num. 14:12;
C. Then, as the Synoptic Gospels do, this Gospel records Jesus telling the disciples directly that one of them will betray Him.
- St. Peter signals to St. John, who is apparently to the right of Jesus to ask who it is.
- Jesus' reply would
seem to make it obvious who the betrayer was, but the Apostles apparently
do not get the hint. The most likely reason is that Jesus does
not give the morsel to Judas until some time later, and then does so
subtly. It is also possible that Jesus made this reply only to
John, and he did not tell the others. However, Matthew records
a similar statement made to all the Apostles; and it appears from the
text that Judas knew the message.
D. Once Judas takes the morsel, Satan enters his heart, and it appears that the decision is final, although the road to repentance is presumably still open.
- The actual morsel may not itself have been the Eucharist, for all of the Apostles received the Eucharist. However, taking the morsel (which in ancient times was considered a symbol of honor and friendship) has often been compared to receiving communion in a state of mortal sin.
- The refusal to take the morsel would have been a sign of repentance, as refraining from communion would be today, but Judas refuses it.
- Once Judas accepts the morsel, Jesus stops trying to get him to repent, and it seems that He does not wish for Judas to be present any more.
- John's statement
"It was night" emphasizes the darkness of Judas' soul and the
darkness coming over all the world. See John 9:4, 11:10.
IV. Jesus then introduces the rest of the Last Supper discourse with the greatest commandment and a subtle indication of the Apostles need for the Spirit and for joining in Christ's sacrifice.
A. Jesus gives in quick order four of the themes of the Last Supper discourse.
1. Jesus begins
by describing the glory God the Father will show forth through Him as
the Son of Man, the glory that will also shine in Jesus Himself.
The prophesies of Daniel regarding the overthrow of the kingdom of darkness
by one like a son on Man are about to be fulfilled. See Dan. 7:13-14.
2. Jesus then tells the disciples that He will soon be taken from them. He gives them this prediction so that they will know it was intended. Jesus means both His death and then, after His resurrection, His ascension into heaven.
- Jesus refers
to them as "my little children" (teknia.) One gets the impression
of an elder brother who has cared for the family now leaving, at least
physically, but still providing for the family. In 1 John, the
letter uses this term for Christians repeatedly. See 1 John 3:7,
18, 4:4, 5:21. Earlier, the Gospel has used a term meaning more
fully grown children (tekna) to refer to those who are more fully in
God. See John 1:12. Part of the idea may be that, when they
receive the Eucharist and later the Holy Spirit, they will be more mature
children of God, although even that status is only an image of what
they will be. See 1 John 3:2.
3. However, as
if to say that it will help satisfy their longing for Him, Jesus gives
them the "new commandment," that is, to love one another as He has
loved them. For, because God is love, we must have love to experience
God. See 1 John 4:7-21. The commandment to love one's
brethren is itself not new. It was in the Levitical law, and extended
by Jesus to all of humanity. See Lev. 19:18; Matt. 22:39; Mark
12:31; Luke 10:27. Here, He adds to the commandment, "as I have
loved you." This addition indicates both that it is in Christ
that we are able really to love one another, and also that His ministry,
leading up to His sacrifice on the Cross, is the model for Christian
love. See 1 John 4:10.
4. Jesus indicates
that the love of the Christian community will be most persuasive to
B. In this portion of the Last Supper discourse, Jesus does not speak of the sending of the Holy Spirit. However, there is an indication of the need for the Spirit. For Peter, probably saying what all the faithful Apostles wanted to say, declares his willingness to lay down his life for Jesus. But Jesus makes it clear that he is not yet strong enough to do so. However, as Jesus will indicate later in the Last Supper discourse, when the Spirit does come to them, they will be able to give this witness (martyria.) John 15:27; see also Acts 2.