Summary: Jesus comforts his disciples with the promise of persecution: if the world hates me, it will hate you too because you are with me.
To properly interpret anything from John 13-17 we’ve got to keep the whole section in mind. The focus in these four chapters is surprisingly narrow as John works toward his stated goal: “these are written, that ye might believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God; and that believing ye might have life through his name” (20:31). Everything before chapter 13 describes how God became flesh, came to earth, and performed miracles to prove himself. He turned water into wine, healed the sick, cast out demons, and even raised the dead.
Most people were amazed and followed him until he revealed his true identity, and then he was largely abandoned and abused. There were, however, several who believed and continued with him, and some of these are present in chapters 13-17. What they don’t know is that the hatred against their master is so complete that the Jewish leaders intend to crucify him the next day. The disciples hang their hopes on him as God’s Messiah, and they believe he’ll establish his kingdom on the earth and restore David’s rule, so they’re going to feel particularly defeated and alone when things don’t go as planned.
Jesus knows this, and he wants to prepare them and give them confidence, so he brings them into this private guest chamber and begins to explain some of the things they haven’t been able to understand. He wants them to know that his death is both planned and necessary. He wants them to know that it doesn’t mean failure and to see that it’s just one step in the plan. There’s much more to follow, and the result is their salvation; “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again, and receive you unto myself; that where I am, there ye may be also” (14:3).
This salvation is his purpose in coming, but he has to find a way to tell them how it’s achieved. He has to take them past earthly things and help them see the spiritual.
To do this he takes off his robes and washes their feet.
That might sound strange; how will this help them? What spiritual truth is revealed in foot-washing? Consider what he says immediately after: “Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. 14If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet” (13:13-14). In his example Christ defines a divine principle: servants follow their masters. In another part of the book he teaches the same thing to the Pharisees:
Ye do the deeds of your father. Then said they to him, We be not born of fornication; we have one Father, even God. 42Jesus said unto them, If God were your Father, ye would love me: for I proceeded forth and came from God; neither came I of myself, but he sent me. 43Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word. 44Ye are of your father the devil, and the lusts of your father ye will do. He was a murderer from the beginning, and abode not in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he speaketh a lie, he speaketh of his own: for he is a liar, and the father of it. 45And because I tell you the truth, ye believe me not (Jn. 8:41-45).
Slaves follow their masters, and children follow their fathers. The Pharisees wanted to murder and they hated truth because that was their nature and what they received from their father and master. The disciples, however, have a different father, so their desires are different. Their master loves God’s children so much that he would come and lay down his life for them. He would turn the whole slave and master paradigm on its head and wash their feet saying, “the Son of man did not come to be served, but to serve” (Mt. 20:28). His example will be followed by his disciples because it’s our nature to do so.
How does this explain him as the source of spiritual life? How does it comfort the disciples and teach them about salvation? Look at 13:20: Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. We’ll read in chapter 17 about the unity that exists between God and his disciples. That unity is so complete that Christ can say, “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father,” and “Anyone who accepts you also accepts the Son and the Father by default.”
Go on a little further into the next chapter: Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him (14:23). The world won’t perceive the risen Christ, but his disciples will because he and the Father live inside of them! How much more unified can we be with him if he lives inside of us?