Humble Service

Biblical Truth: Jesus wants His followers to serve others humbly as He did.

The Perfect Example: John 13:1,3-5.

[1]  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. [3]  Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God, and was going back to God, [4]  rose from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself about. [5]  Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.   [NASU]

In the Synoptic account of the events of this evening we read of a dispute among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. John does not record this. But he does tell of an action of our Lord’s which rebuked their lack of humility more strikingly than any words could have done. Yet we should not take the feet washing, standing as it does at the head of the long section of the Farewell Discourse, as no more than a reaction to the petty-mindedness of the disciples. It is a significant action, setting the tone for all that follows. It foreshadows the cross itself: the voluntary humility of the Lord cleanses His loved ones and gives to them an example of selfless service which they must follow. That this was a significant action is further indicated by the act taking place during the meal instead of on arrival when the feet would normally be washed. This shows that it was an action undertaken deliberately, and not simply the usual act of courtesy. It is a parable in action, setting out that great principle of lowly service which finds its supreme embodiment in the cross, setting out also the necessity for the disciple to take the Lord’s way, not his own. It is important that we see this. Many take the story as no more than a lesson in humility, quite overlooking the fact that, in that case, Jesus’ dialogue with Peter completely obscures its significance. But those words, spoken in the shadow of the cross, have to do with cleansing, that cleansing without which no man belongs to Christ, that cleansing which is given by the cross alone.

[1]  John thinks of Jesus as in complete command of the situation. His hour did not take Him by surprise. He knew that the hour represented His purpose in coming and acted accordingly. The hour is thought of now not in terms of glory [as in 12:23], but of leaving this world and going to the Father. It marks the decisive end of Jesus’ ministry. This leads John to a characteristic emphasis on the love Jesus has for His own. They were in the world and He had loved them there. To the end means “to perfection”, with perfect love. God loves the world and sinners with compassion and common grace, but loves His own with perfect, eternal love. The whole verse with its emphasis on love may be meant to set the tone for the lengthy section it heads. Up till now Jesus has had a ministry to men in general. From this point on He concentrates on those He loves intimately.

[3]  Again John stresses Jesus’ command of the situation. He knew what was taking place. Here we have the unexpected saying: knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands. The threshold of Calvary seems an unlikely place for a statement of this sort. But John does not see the cross as the casual observer might see it. It is the place where a great divine work was wrought out and the divine glory shown forth. So he describes it in terms of the Father’s giving of all things to the Son. The reference to the Father is important. He is no idle spectator at the Passion, but He works out His will there. John further refers to what is about to take place as a return to God of Him who had gone out from God. This is the consummation of His mission. Both from God and to God receive a certain emphasis from their position. John is about to describe an act in which Jesus takes a very lowly place. But he does not lose sight for one moment of the truth that the highest possible place is His by right.

[4-5] The preparations are detailed: the rising from the table, the putting off of the garments, the taking of a towel, the girding of Himself, the pouring of water into the basin. Then Jesus began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel about His waist.

The Natural Response: John 13:6-11.

[6]  And so He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” [7]  Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you shall understand hereafter.” [8]  Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” [9]  Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” [10]  Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” [11]  For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.”    [NASU]

[6-7]  There is no mention of any comment until Jesus came to Peter. Apparently there was dead silence. In the Greek the You is emphatic and is followed immediately by my, thus placing the two in sharp contrast: “Lord, do You my feet wash?” Jesus’ reply put I and you in emphatic contrast. Hereafter is an indefinite time note. Jesus does not say when it will be. In part Jesus may be referring to the explanation that He was about to give [verse 12 and following]. But in view of the later teaching in this section of the Gospel we may fairly infer that the primary reference is to the illumination of the Holy Spirit which was necessary, and which would be given [14:26; 16:13].

[8]  Peter’s reaction is characteristically vigorous. He brushes aside Jesus’ suggestion that something is going on whose significance he does not yet know. To him it is unthinkable that Jesus should ever engage in the menial activity of washing His servant’s feet. So he says that this will never happen. He will have no part in such an activity. Peter is humble enough to see the incongruity of Christ’s action, yet proud enough to dictate to his Master. His words evoke the reply that if our Lord does not wash Peter then Peter has no part with Him. Wash in the Johannine manner will have a double meaning. In the context it must refer to the washing of the feet. Unless Peter submits to the feet-washing he may not eat with Jesus. But Jesus means more. A literal washing of the feet is not necessary before a man can be a Christian. The words point us to a washing free from sin which only Christ can give. Apart from this a man will have no part in Christ.

[9]  Now we have a characteristic response by Peter. Convinced by Jesus’ words, Peter will not do the thing by halves. Hands and head must be washed as well as feet. Peter may not have meant the words to be taken literally, but as a wholehearted renunciation of his previous refusal to be washed at all. But we should not overlook the fact that the answer is still the product of self-will. Peter is reluctant to let Jesus do what He wants. He prefers to dictate the terms. There is also a misunderstanding of the meaning of the action. It is not a way of cleansing the disciples, but a symbol of that cleansing. It is not the area of skin that is washed that matters but the acceptance of Jesus’ lowly service.

[10]  Jesus gently discourages excess. The imagery is that of a man going to a feast. He will bathe at home. Then when he arrives he needs only to wash his feet to sit at table wholly clean. Jesus applies this to the spiritual situation of His followers. He who has bathed points to permanent character; he is not simply one who once upon a time was washed, but one who continues in the character of the washed one. Such a man has no need for washing except with respect to the feet. Jesus affirms that the disciples are clean from sin, but not all of you.

[11]  John brings out the meaning of the last expression by noting once again that Jesus knew His betrayer. That was the reason that He said not all were clean. We should not overlook the fact that Jesus does not tell the disciples who the unclean person is. The rest of the disciples are kept in the dark right up until the arrest.

The Divine Blessing: John 13:12-17.

[12]  And so when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments, and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? [13]  You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. [14]  If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. [15]  For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. [16]  Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master; neither is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. [17]  If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”   [NASU]

[12]  Jesus asks, Do you know what I have done to you? The links that tie these verses to the theme of cleansing that dominates the preceding verses [12:27-50] are more than accidental. Both the footwashing and the atoning death are the supreme displays of Jesus’ love for His own [13:1b]. The footwashing was shocking to Jesus’ disciples, but not half as shocking as the notion of a Messiah who would die the hideous and shameful death of crucifixion, the death of the damned. But the two events – the footwashing and the crucifixion – are truly of a piece: the revered and exalted Messiah assumes the role of the despised servant for the good of others. That, plus the notion of cleansing, explains why the footwashing can point so effectively to the cross. But service for others cannot be restricted to this unique act. If the footwashing and the cross are prompted by Jesus’ daunting love [13:1], the fellowship of the cleansed that He is creating is to be characterized by the same love [13:34-35], and therefore by the same self-denial for the sake of serving others.

[13]  Jesus now answers the question He set in verse 12: whether or not His followers understood, He will explain what He has done. Teacher and Lord are known to have come together on the lips of rabbinic pupils addressing their masters. But on the lips of Christians after the resurrection of Jesus Christ, Lord took on richer meaning as the deepest reflections on who Jesus is took hold. Lord became one of the important ways Christians referred to Jesus as the one whom God raised and exalted with the name which is above every name [Phil. 2:9-11].

[14-15]  One of the ways human pride manifests itself in a stratified society is in refusing to take the lower role. But now that Jesus, their Lord and Teacher, has washed His disciples’ feet, there is every reason why they also ought to wash one another’s feet, and no conceivable reason for refusing to do so. Jesus says that He has set an example for His followers. The word for example means “pattern.” The pattern Jesus sets for His followers consists of humility. Christian zeal in any form divorced from sincere humility does not follow Jesus’ pattern or example.

Two factors have prevented most Christians, rightly, from institutionalizing footwashing. First, nowhere else in the New Testament or in the earliest extra-biblical documents of the church is footwashing treated as an ecclesiastical rite, an ordinance or sacrament. Wise theologians and expositors have always been reluctant to raise to the level of universal rite something that appears only once in Scripture. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the heart of Jesus’ command is a humility and helpfulness toward brothers and sisters in Christ that may be cruelly parodied by a mere rite of footwashing that easily masks an unbroken spirit and a haughty heart. Instead the example points to humility of service that belongs within Christ’s church.

[16-17]  Jesus drives the point home with a statement of a general principle (a slave is not greater than his master), one that was probably often repeated during His ministry, one that could easily be turned to several different applications [cf. Matt. 10:24; Luke 6:40; John 15:20]. Jesus deepens the teacher/pupil contrast by introducing two other pairs: master/servant and superior/messenger. The point of the contrast is that no emissary has the right to think he is exempt from tasks cheerfully undertaken by the one who sent him, and no slave has the right to judge any menial task beneath him after his master has already performed it.

Questions for Discussion:

1.      How does John describe the torture and death Jesus was about to undergo [13:1,3]? What does this tell you about John’s (and Jesus’) attitude toward those sufferings?

2.      How does the footwashing illustrate the meaning of the Cross?

3.      What lessons did Jesus intend for the disciples to learn from the footwashing? In what ways are we to “wash each other’s feet”?


The Gospel According to John, D. A. Carson, Eerdmans.

The Gospel According to John, Leon Morris, Eerdmans.

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