So begins the second half of John’s gospel…where Divine love is showcased in the final hours of Jesus’ life, and verse one reveals much about God, grace dominating the profile.
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He should depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” —John 13:1 (emphasis mine).
Jesus knew He was going to die, not like a person contemplating their golden years aware death is a lot closer than when young, more like a condemned prisoner imminently facing a bloody and violent execution. John and Jesus were familiar with Roman punishment, and the cross casts a dark shadow over the biblical landscape of John 13.
I wondered what it would be like to be confronted with violent death. A survey of prisoners facing their execution day has myriad responses from Nick Burg’s heart-rending screams to the condemned stoically, calmly going to the death chambers even cracking jokes with their last words. Nowadays, it’s rare for condemned prisoners to scream and struggle against their death moment. The B-movie, Angels with Dirty Faces (1938), portrays James Cagney, a condemned man, thrashing uncontrollably, maniacal, howling, begging for reprieve as he’s forcibly ushered to the electric chair. Such a reaction is extremely uncommon.1
Yet, witness Jesus’ Gethsemane struggle (Mark 14:32-39), acutely distressed and bleeding from His pores. See Him shudder from unspeakable fear, pleading escape, indicating unthinkable suffering as He stared down impending death. Exactly what it was like for Jesus in the Garden we know little. We have the written biblical account, various Christian and non-Christian historians, authors, including prophets, but Words are approximations, symbols of a mystery eluding our best comprehension. We casually talk about the Garden experience, we reverently ponder His absolute suffering, yet humanly speaking, we can barely scratch the impenetrable depth of such a transaction, a mystery of mysteries: God’s ineffable god-ness. Imagination is our best attempt. Yet incredibly, He knowingly proceeded to Calvary because He loved His own to the uttermost with a Love also ineffable.
Capital punishment now is nothing like it was in the Roman Empire. Cruelty is avoided by today’s “compassionate standards,” but Rome cared nothing for compassion when it came to execution.
In a morose moment, I wondered how I would react if faced with a brutal and horrifying death just moments away? Consumed by uncharted terror and thrust into horrific unrehearsed reality, what would I do? How does one respond to an existential nightmare literally about to slaughter you? Breathing labored, my heart rate racing, my blood pressure soaring, could I alleviate uncontrolled spasms as adrenaline and cortisol pumped unutterable fright and sheer panic through my veins? Faces of family and friends flashing through my mind fueling acute agony. Tormented, taunted by searing fear, would I remain serene? Cagney’s portrayal speaks to me.
Roman crucifixion was employed as a popular and frequent form of crowd control in and around Jerusalem. And it worked. The blood-curdling agony of the victim produced spine-chilling terror in the populace. The purpose of the Cross: social conformity.
The Romans borrowed crucifixion from Carthaginians, and perfected its killing effect to new levels of cruelty. Here are some eye-witness accounts:
“He was whipped until his bones showed.” (Josephus, 37-100 AD, Wars of the Jews, 6.5.3).
“Every day Roman soldiers caught 500 Jews or more. The soldiers driven by their hatred of the Jews nailed them on crosses, they nailed them in many different positions, to entertain themselves and to horrify the Jews watching this spectacle from inside the walled city of Jerusalem. In time, the soldiers ran out of wood for crosses, and room for crosses even if they had found more wood.” (Josephus, 37-100 AD, Wars of the Jews, 5.11.1).
And this: “Is there such a thing as a person who would actually prefer wasting away in pain on a cross dying limb by limb one drop of blood at a time – rather than dying quickly? Would any human being willingly choose to be fastened to that cursed tree, especially after the beating that left him deathly weak, deformed, swelling with vicious welts, and struggling to draw every last agonizing breath? Anyone facing such a death would plead to die rather than mount the cross.” (Seneca, 4 BC–65 AD, philosopher, writer, and advisor to Emperor Nero, Epistulae Morales (Moral Letters), 101. 14).
“Some hang their victims upside down. Some impale them through their private parts. Others stretch out their arms on forked poles.” (Seneca, 4 BC–65 AD, to Marcia on Consolation, 20.3).2
The macabre served Rome well.
Humanity’s most loathsome acts created the stage upon which Love would unveil its most exquisite performance. Having plunged into the squalid swamp of decaying and perishing humanity, Love dawned flesh and blood and identified with those It cherished. Love embraced the human family from our vulnerable onset to our decadent worst displaying His all- encompassing compassion and redemption, a mystery forever beguiling.
John 13:1 chooses to ignore the ghoulish details of the crucifixion. John was not interested in pursuing gore as the main argument for the price Jesus paid. John instead highlighted the transaction of Divine love embodied in Jesus sharing the plight of humanity to save it. Jesus went the distance, sacrificing all, not allowing anything or anyone to deny Him the utmost quest of Love: our redemption. This is John’s Gospel.
John’s emphasis is Divine love in the midst of a world gone mad and dark with unspeakable cruelties and deep-seated hatred. Such a context seems to be the fertile ground Love pursues to exhibit its heart. It meets us in whatever circumstance it finds us, loving us in the extreme.
No, the Roman Empire was the perfect place for God to display His compassion and goodness. Rome’s well-oiled environment of depravity and malevolence contrasted the blinding brilliance of flawless Love and underscored how willing Jesus was to engage and redeem what creation had become.
Under the strain of this reality He reclined with His disciples in the upper room then washed their feet like a lowly servant demonstrating the nature of Love. Jesus knew His disciples intimately, their fractured characters never escaped His notice, and He loved them to their core. The crowning highlight of chapter 13 is His new commandment to love one another as He loved them. They would all abandon him, one would stridently deny him, another would “stab Him in the back” for loose change. It was this bickering motley band of blemished disciples that Jesus loved to the utmost, like the Father (12:45 and 14:9). The cross is Grace’s ultimate demonstration.
Verse one also says, “… He should depart out of this world to the Father…” (NASB), inferring death, as horrible as it would be, was not the end of the story. On the cross Jesus as suffering humanity would soon be reunited with His Father to celebrate His mission, Divine purpose fulfilled. “Weeping may last for a night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psalms 30:5).
I saw my vacillating self, my moldy faith, my character full of contradictions, hounded by personal demons, undone, and skeptical standing among them wondering why He ever chose me. A mistake? Oil lamps dimly burning tossed liquid shadows across the small room, the air smelled pungently human unwashed and sweaty, something was up as we scurried to secure the best seat. I remember the awkward momentary silence as the bread was passed and the wine poured. We shared small talk about the upcoming Feast and questioned the dinner’s purpose. I was surprised when Jesus got up and started washing our feet like a common slave. When He got to me, I was embarrassed not daring to look up. I saw his cloth and basin of water, He looked directly into my face. His gaze was welcoming, His penetrating eyes humane and receptive, His hands on my feet firm with devotion. My emotions stirred at His touch. I felt a bond with Him like never before. The Savior? The Son of God washing my feet? If this was Love, I was moved, no, overwhelmed. “Wash me all over.”
The floor squeaked as He moved from one disciple to another. In the solemn quiet I could hear water splashing, the pan of water scraping along the wooden floor as He made His way to each of us wayward acolytes missing no one.
Peter suddenly blurted out he wanted his whole body washed. I remember thinking the same. All of us were clueless. Washing our feet was a somber moment and where was the servant? Why was He doing this menial task? Very unusual. Then He gave us His new commandment (verse 34) to love one another. His selfless kindness was to be replicated. Service was our mission, our life-style. My obstinate selfishness felt challenged to benevolence and generosity as I longed for His approval. I realized I could be in no other place at that moment than in that room…with Him. He spoke with us what seemed like elongated moments of startling news, incomprehensible and other-worldly. He said it was time to go. I got up to leave with the others uncertain where we were going and unaware, I too, would desert Him.
John 13 is a mini-portrayal of the Incarnation, a condensed version of the cosmic reality stuffed in a small room like a miniscule universe being loved and served by the Creator Himself. The upper room is filled with uncertainty, misunderstanding, and doubt, and Jesus is in the thick of it. Our self-centered lives still eating the fruit from the Forbidden Tree, our natures soiled and tattered sharing life’s angst, suffering under the pall of a still broken creation, needing redemption. All of us sit in that upper room. Our aspirations and self-absorption, our timidity and treachery, our depravity and tyranny, our deep-rooted doubt and delusional self-deception, all need their feet washed. Then as now, humankind’s condition remains unchanged. We need to return to the upper room frequently, the microcosm of the Incarnation, where we can be our transparent selves in the reflective presence of Divine compassion and embrace. There in the midst of our rabble He prepared us for the worst culture has to offer explaining Love as the cure, the Incarnation as evidence.
Today is our version of ancient Rome, with a concentration of nihilism mixed in shaping the topography of our planet. With fewer years ahead than when I was young, the end of life reminds me to count my moments carefully. Existence can be brutal, confusing, wonderful and frightening, hallowed and absurd. My faith is not challenged by doctrine, but by experience with a wonderful God who is invisible and says nothing. I need a Savior from unbelief. My fickle faith views the foot-washing experience as a glimmer of promise that perhaps the unseen God is still in my upper room. God knows I want it true. “I do believe, help me in my unbelief” (Mark 9:24, NASB).
Notes & References:
1. Alderhof, Kent, ‘How do People React on the Day of Their Execution?’ Quora (online), April 24, 2017.
2. Miller, Stephen M., What Romans Said About Crucifixion, (YouTube video), August 12, 2015.
Greg Prout is father of three, grandfather of three, and has been happily married for 34 years to Mary Ventresca.
Photo by Thanti Nguyen on Unsplash
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