preaching study: john 13:31-38, pt 1

In “preaching study” posts, I’m really interested in fostering a “community” approach to study and prep for the sermon, so please interact as much as you like. All Scripture quotes are from the TNIV unless otherwise noted. Thanks!
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I’m back in the preaching cycle at my church for the next 4 weeks, 3 in contemporary and 1 in traditional. The text for this week is John 13:31-38. We are focusing our messages around questions for the season of Lent and the question for this week is: “Will you lay down your life?”

Here are some thoughts in my beginning reading and study this week. (update: here’s part 2 and part 3 as well)

1. Literary Structure: Two sections in this short passage — (a) vv31-35, primarily on the “love commandment”, (b) vv36-38, a conversation with Peter on Jesus’ journey ahead. The first section is dominated by a recurrence of “glory/glorify” language and “love” language. What connects these two paragraphs literarily is the theme of journey that is introduced in 31-35 and intensified in 36-38. In v33, Jesus tells them that they cannot come where he is going, then gives them the love command. In v36, Peter is interested in getting back to this business of where, in fact, Jesus is going . It reads something like Jesus trying to casually drop the bomb that he is headed somewhere they cannot yet follow him in order to press the point he’s more interested in, which is the commandment to love each other as he has loved them. But that comment now dominates their attention (since Peter is quite often the representative voice of the disciples as a whole). It’s like they’ve got conversational whiplash. Peter says, “Hey! Hold on a minute! What’s this business about going someplace? Where are you going?”

Broadening out a bit, chapter 13 is the larger setting, narrating a meal with the disciples in which Jesus has washed their feet, teaching them in word and action that his love (and really, the person and nature of God) is demonstrated most clearly in acts of humble service and that they are to imitate him in this sort of love. After that initial passage (13:1-17), Jesus speaks about his betrayal. It comes to light, privately between Jesus and Peter and the “disciple whom Jesus loved,” that the betrayer was Judas Iscariot, who gets up and leaves at that point (13: 18-30). So, our text begins just after Judas’ exit (“When he was gone…”). Immediately following our text is the long discourse of chapters 14-17 just prior to Jesus’ arrest in chapter 18.

2. Cultural Cues: There are 2 items that make me curious about potential cultural cues in this text. First, in v33, Jesus calls the disciples “my children.” From context, it seems like something that comes from their relationship as Teacher and Disciples. Still, just curious to see if there’s any more to it that might provide some insight into the setting of the conversation between Jesus and Peter. Second–and this is mostly curiosity rather than radar about something with great interpretative significance–what’s the story behind the rooster crowing? I’m sure this is pretty elementary, but to gain a sense of the story setting, I’d like to know. In the larger setting (chapter 13 up to this point), this is a dinner, which means there is the cultural ethic of hospitality, and more specifically in this instance, Table Fellowship and the “rules” associated. Would help to refresh on that beyond just a generic sense of the cultural context from the number of times I’ve heard 13:1-17 preached. I’d like a fresh look.

3. Canonical Echoes: The narration of Jesus as humble servant, uncomfortably for the disciples, calls to mind Philippians 2:1-11, of course. Paul’s purpose is similar–to lift up Jesus as the model for how to live in order to nurture and build up the fellowship of the community of faith (see vv1-5). And a second echo I hear is to Leviticus 19:2, in which God commands Moses to tell the assembly, “Be holy because I, the Lord your God, am holy.” There also, the basis and ground of the people’s ethic was centered in God, his nature and character.

So it seems to me that this theme of journey is really important. The reason that Peter gives for his case for following now, his fitness for following Jesus now, is because of his devotion to the point of laying down his life for Jesus. But the driver is this business of where Jesus is going, that the disciples are not yet ready follow Jesus in this last trying leg of the journey, and that they will follow him at some point in the future.

Thoughts so far? How do you read the text?

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2 thoughts on “preaching study: john 13:31-38, pt 1

  1. First literary point that strikes me is the contrast between what Jesus has to say and what Peter would like to believe. Throughout all of John 13, Peter and Jesus are at odds (in a friendly way). “Don’t wash my feet.” “Wash more than my feet.” “Tell me who betrays you.” “You can’t leave us.” “Let me go with you.” “I will die for you.” Each time Jesus disputes Peter’s claims and requests (at least directly).

    This leads me into a thought about applying this to me. How are we like Peter in John 13? When we begin our faith journey, we want to love the Lord (with all our mind, heart, and soul, as we should). But the newness and weakness of the faith may limit our authority over our flesh, as Peter finds out after Jesus’s arrest. This doesn’t change our potential in Christ. Jesus didn’t rescind “you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18). Instead he continued to try to teach the disciples and direct them towards paths which would develop them more fully.

    We should take comfort in Peter’s predicament. For while we are sinners in varying places on our faith journey, if we believe and keep our minds on Christ, our potential is unlimited. Present day weakness doesn’t necessarily limit the future.

    Don’t know if this is where you wanted to take this, but that is what hit me today. Maybe different tomorrow! (Perhaps I will read the NRSV translation then!)

  2. Good thoughts, Jay. I’m thinking along a similar vein in terms of Peter’s passion outrunning his maturity and self-knowledge, not to mention listening to Jesus.

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