Jesus, the Servant: The night before the cross, when he washed the feet of his disciples, Jesus modeled the type of humble service he called his followers to do. As the Son of God, Jesus was the greatest — but he wasn’t afraid to become the least to meet our greatest spiritual need. Ever since, humility has been one of the highest virtues for the followers of Jesus. Recorded on Jan 28, 2024, on John 13:1-17 by Pastor David Parks.
Finding Life in Jesus’ Name is a sermon series on the gospel according to John in the Bible. Have you ever felt unsatisfied with your life? Or, even when things were going well, something was still missing? Many people sense there must be something more. But what?? John, one of the closest friends of Jesus, believed that Jesus came into the world so that we may have life and have it to the full. Jesus turned John’s life upside down, and John claims this new life — marked by God’s power, presence, and purpose — is available for all who believe.
All year, we’re working through The Gospel According to John in a series called Finding Life in Jesus’ Name. Today, in John chapter 13, we’re considering the humility of Jesus. And this aspect of Jesus’s character (maybe more than anything) is so compelling to modern people. We love it when someone who’s rich or powerful or famous is humble. One of my favorite bands is Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Maybe 6-7 years ago, I was able to see them play, and the way Tom Petty thanked us for coming out and told us what an honor it was to be able to entertain us, even for just a few hours, demonstrated a level of humility that was so impressive. Now, I don’t know if he was that humble or if it was just part of the act, but it really made an impression on me. Humility is a powerful thing. But to be honest, humility is also a tricky thing to work on. Because as soon as you think about it, as soon as you notice it, it disappears. You might do something or say something and then think, “Wow, that was really humble of me to respond in that way or to do that thing for that person, and I don’t even like them!” but then, poof! The humility’s gone; it disappeared! Pride is still pride, even (or maybe especially) if it’s generated by your own humility. But this is a broken world, and we are sinful people, so pride/ego/self-centeredness, these things are the default mode of the human heart. I’ve noticed that it’s become popular on social media to talk about narcissists. But narcissism is nothing new. It’s just selfish pride. And it doesn’t take too much observation to see some narcissistic tendencies in our own lives. Am I the only one who looks at myself first in a group photo to see if the group photo is good? Or maybe I’m the only one who struggles with this? If you have a Bible/app, please take it and open it to John 13:1. We’ll unpack this as we go.
John 13:1–5 (NIV), “1 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.” Let’s pause here briefly. So, everything in John’s gospel has built up to this point. John has been alluding to the hour of Jesus since chapter two, but even before that, Jesus was described by John the Baptist as the sacrificial lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. And now, that time had finally come. For the past several weeks, we’ve been working through the events of the week leading up to the cross, starting with his anointing by Mary in Bethany, then being welcomed into Jerusalem as a king, and last week, we saw at the end of his public teaching ministry the difficulty of faith. Now, here, and for the next four chapters of John’s gospel, we’ll cover the Last Supper and all the events leading up to the arrest of Jesus. So, understandably, Jesus had a lot on his mind here. He knew his hour had come. Knowing or understanding is mentioned six times in this passage. John says that he knew his hour had come, the hour of his suffering and death on the cross for the sins of the world. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power (lit. He knew the Father put all things into his hands). He knew he had come from the Father as the one and only Son of God, and he would return to his Father in heaven after his resurrection from the dead. But despite the fact that Jesus was about to sacrifice himself to be the savior of the world, despite the fact that his actions in the next few days would change the course of human history, Jesus wasn’t only thinking about himself and what he would accomplish. He was thinking about his disciples, too. John says Jesus knew that he had loved them and would continue to love them to the end, even though one of his disciples was going to betray him. John says the devil prompted, or had put it on Judas’ heart, to betray his friend, Jesus. The idea of selling out Jesus, a man who had never sinned and who here only continued to love and serve Judas — to betray Jesus to his enemies for only thirty pieces of silver, was literally satanic. Of course, this is almost always how the devil works: by planting the seed of an idea that is terribly destructive but wrapped in a lie to make it seem right. I’m sure Judas felt justified in betraying Jesus even though it was pure evil. And God took that evil betrayal and turned it into the greatest good thing anyone could ever imagine. But still, if I were Jesus, at the very least, I wouldn’t have washed Judas’ feet. But Jesus was humble. And he didn’t just tell us to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us; this was his way of life. He loved Judas and served Judas, despite the fact that Judas would reject his love and his service for the sake of money. At any rate, knowing all this, what would Jesus do? John says that knowing all this, and with all the weight of the world on his shoulders, Jesus did something totally unexpected. He got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, probably a cloak, so it wouldn’t get dirty, wrapped a towel around his waist like a servant, and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel around his waist. Can you imagine being there? What would you have thought if you saw Jesus start to do this? Would you have felt uncomfortable? Why was he doing this? Was he not the Messiah, the promised one sent by God to save his people? Was he not the King of the Kingdom of God sent to reign and to rule over all the earth? Why was he acting like a common servant? We see the confused response of Simon Peter starting in v. 6. Let’s continue.
John 13:6-12 (NIV), “6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” 7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” 8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” 9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” 10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean. 12 When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. “Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them.” Ok, let’s pause here one more time. So, clearly, at least Peter doesn’t understand what Jesus has done for him, but none of the other disciples speak up either, so we can assume they probably missed the point, too. But let’s dig into Peter’s response. At first, he seems horrified at the thought of Jesus washing his feet. “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?” How many of you would feel that way? No way am I letting anyone touch my feet, much less you, Lord! Especially in the hot, dusty Middle Eastern climate of the city of Jerusalem, no one would have clean feet. But Jesus, again, despite having the weight of the world on his heart/mind, is so patient with Peter. “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.” Doesn’t that sound like a parent? You’ll thank me later. But Peter only escalates, saying, “No,” to Jesus. Have you ever told Jesus no? It’s never a good idea. If Jesus is who he claimed to be, then he was/is both infinitely wise and perfectly good. So, it would never be a good idea to say no to something he wants to do in your life or something he wants you to do for him, right? But Peter says no. “…you shall never wash my feet.” But Jesus gently rebukes him, saying, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” And watch how quickly Peter changes direction. “Then, Lord, not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” I love Peter. He was quick to speak, quick to get in trouble, and quick to repent even if he still didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. I resonate with Peter. Jesus responds that Peter doesn’t need a bath, which implies that none of this is really about personal cleanliness; this is symbolic. But if it wasn’t really about clean feet for dinner, then what was Jesus doing? What was the lesson? Jesus explains himself starting with v. 13.
John 13:13-17 (NIV), “13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” This is God’s word. So I love that Jesus starts his explanation by saying, “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.” I am your rabbi/teacher. You follow me, and I show you the way. You listen to me, and I teach you what is true. But I’m also your King/Lord. I command, and you must obey. And what am I teaching/commanding here? Well, “now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” And the amazing thing is that Jesus didn’t simply tell them to do this (which he could have done); he modeled this behavior for them. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Jesus never commands something he wouldn’t do himself. He goes first. He models the behavior and way of life that he calls us into when we put our faith/trust in him. But again, he isn’t teaching a lesson in hygiene here, so what’s the lesson? What Jesus models is like a little picture of the cross. It’s humbly serving the needs of others. It’s humility almost to the point of humiliation, but Jesus didn’t care. This was his way. In Mark’s gospel, he says, “For even [Jesus] the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mk 10:45). If Jesus was the King with all the authority in heaven and on earth, then no one would deserve to be glorified/honored/respected, no one would deserve to be served more than him. But that’s not why Jesus came. Just the opposite. He came to give his life to meet our greatest needs. And this is so radical, so different. How could anyone make this up? Before Jesus, nobody valued humility. No one talked about servant leadership like it was a good and noble thing. The fact that servant leadership is a value in our secular culture today is a testimony to the remaining influence of Jesus. None of the ancient lists of virtues included humility. Ancient Greeks/Romans valued wisdom, courage, self-control, and justice (which are great virtues, too) — but they never included humility as something for individuals or a whole society of people to aspire to. Humility was something servants or slaves had to have because of their humble position in life. So no one would choose to be humble, would they? “Very truly I tell you,” says Jesus. And remember this phrase was his way of saying what I’m about to say is important, so pay attention. “…no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” In this scenario, Jesus is the master and we are the servants; he is the one who sends and we are the ones sent with a message. And if Jesus is ok with humble service, then we must be ok with it, too. If the Son of God wasn’t afraid to get his hands dirty, then who are we to think we’re above this sort of thing? In a sermon on the humility of Jesus, Tim Keller said, “Most of us feel inferior and act superior to compensate for it. And Jesus Christ knew he was superior and acts the inferior. He puts all of his power and glory under the interests of other people.” And Jesus did know it, didn’t he? John makes that clear in this passage. As I said, knowing is a major theme of this passage. Six times, John refers to what Jesus knew or understood compared to what the disciples did not yet know or understand. Jesus didn’t wash his disciples’ feet because he was confused about his status or identity. And yet, Jesus teaches that it isn’t only about what you know. The blessing is found in doing what you know is true. Growing as a disciple of Jesus isn’t just about learning more and more information. It’s about transformation. It’s about repenting from your old way and turning to a new way of life lived in alignment with the gospel. And one of the main themes of the gospel is humble service. The greatest becomes the least. The master of all becomes the servant of all. This is why Jesus told Peter that if he refused to let Jesus serve him, he would have no part with him. The message of the gospel is not steps to make yourself a better person. The gospel says there’s nothing you can do to save yourself. You need a savior. You need the humble service of Jesus. And if you refuse to receive the gospel as a gift of God’s grace to you, then you’ve missed it completely. So, “Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”
So how do we do these things? How can we apply the example of Christ to our lives and grow in our humility? First, we must see that the problem is not just out there but that it’s in here. We are all way too focused on ourselves and our opinions and our preferences and getting our way. Of course, our culture doesn’t help. But wherever we might live or whenever in history, this has always been a problem. Followers of Jesus must regularly repent of the sin of pride. But then, in repentance, we must turn from our way and turn to the way of Jesus. The Apostle Peter says (1 Peter 5:5), “In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. [this could apply to kids to their parents or to younger people in general to those who are older here in the church] All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.” The Apostle Paul says (Philippians 2:3–4), “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Why? Not to prove how spiritual you are. That would be spiritual pride. But because this is the way of Jesus. And humility is just one of the things that the gospel produces in the life of a believer. We love because he first loved us. And we humbly serve the needs of others because he humbly served our greatest needs first. But what a countercultural place this would be if we all, as a church, committed ourselves to be humble toward one another, like Jesus. What a blessing. Let us pray.