Summary: Jesus on the last night of his life teaches his disciples to love one another. But the chief point of the text is the love of Jesus, a love that fulfills certain themes from the feast of Hanukkah (explicitly mentioned in John 10:22).
In thinking about our Gospel text this morning I was reminded of the movie 300. This 2006 movie was quite the success. Men liked the battles and I’ve been told that many women liked the abs. Whatever exactly the case, the film grossed about 450 million dollars. The movie is loosely based on the Greco-Persian Wars from the first half of the 5th century BC. The movie tells the story of King Leonidas of Greece who commands an elite bodyguard force of 300 men. Leonidas and his men have a brilliant strategy against the huge invading Persian force of about 300,000 men. Leonidas and his men repair a wall that forces the Persians into a narrow pass that is ideally suited for the Greeks with their hoplite warfare and long spears to defend. Leonidas inflicts heavy casualties on the Persians for two days. But then a local Greek resident named Ephialtes betrayed her fellow Greeks by revealing to the Persians a mountain path that led behind the Greek lines, outflanking them. Nevertheless, the courage of the 300 was a thing of legend, and helped strengthen the will of the Greeks to defeat the Persians. Without this victory we here today likely would have a quite different Western world to live in. In our Gospel text this morning there’s also some battle themes. We’ll entitle the sermon with the words of Jesus: A New Command.
At first glance we might not think to associate our text with battle. After all, doesn’t Jesus say to love one another? But we’ll see there’s battle imagery all over the place in our text and its context. We’ll begin with the context. Last week I briefly alluded to the fact that in the middle third or so of John Jesus is engaged in intense skirmishes with his opponents. This contrasts in some ways from the other Gospels where Jesus in the middle of those Gospels tends to train his disciples for ministry and serve the crowds, although there is some resistance by opponents too. But in John the resistance is palpable. For example, after the feeding of the 5000 at the time of the Passover feast in John 6 we hear “After this Jesus went about in Galilee. He would not go about in Judea, because the Jews were seeking to kill him.” And then in connection with the feast of Tabernacles in John 7–9 we see that Jesus’ opponents send officers to arrest Jesus (7:32), and then after a long and heated debate where Jesus says, “Before Abraham was, I am,” Jesus’ opponents attempted to stone him (8:58). And then at the feast of Hanukkah Jesus’ opponents again attempt to stone him for saying that he and the Father are one; here they also have an ongoing order to arrest Jesus (11:57), and they even plot to put Lazarus back to death because Jesus had raised him from the dead (12:10). In the midst of the Hanukkah feast Jesus’ disciple Thomas also said to his fellow disciples, “Let us also go [to Jerusalem], that we may die with [Jesus] (11:16).” In light of all these things there certainly were battles going on between Jesus and his powerful religious opponents. These things also seem to reflect the ongoing hostility of much of Judaism towards Christianity at the time John wrote his Gospel.
What then about our text itself? Does it show some signs of a battle between Jesus and his opponents? I believe that it does. Our text begins by saying, “When he [Judas] had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” Judas had just betrayed Jesus and would soon procure a band of soldiers and some officers from the chief priests and the Pharisees (18:3). Thus Judas was preparing for battle. Jesus himself seems to be preparing for battle as well. Jesus has huddled together with the Twelve, who are now the Eleven with the betrayal of Judas. It kind of reminds you of the 300 Greeks from our opening illustration staring down the 300,000 Persians. Or more in keeping with John’s Gospel, it reminds you of Judah Maccabee with his small group of 800 faithful Jews who were hunkered down in Jerusalem defending it from the 20,000 infantry and 2,000 cavalry sent by the Greek general Antiochus Epiphanes. Ultimately Judah would bravely and honorably give up his life in this fight. So too is Jesus hunkered down with his men, well aware that the great fight and his own death were immanent. Thus Jesus in our text is in the midst of washing the feet of his foot soldiers in the context of Hanukkah. Here John’s Gospel downplays the connection to Passover on Maundy Thursday, for example by mentioning that it was still before the Passover feast and by simply saying Jesus was at a supper, omitting a reference to a Passover meal and omitting the Words of Institution. Jesus has shed his outer clothing, as if for battle. The warrior Jesus is giving his disciples their orders, which he calls a new command.