I Gave You an Example - John 13:1-17
I want you to imagine for a moment that you have the ability know the day you will die. What would you do the night before? Spend time with friends and family? Do that one last thing you always wished you could do? If we’re honest, we would likely focus on ourselves. In contrast, do you remember what Jesus did the night before he died? It is right here in John 13.
Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
John tells us that these events took place before the passover, that Jesus knew his hour had come, and he was going back to the Father. Yet, notice this important line “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” This story then has many facets to it, but at the foundation it was an act of love that Jesus had for all his disciples - even for Judas who was about to betray him (v 2).
Further, notice verse three - Jesus knows now that everything has been given into his hands, he had come from God, and was going back to God. Just stop right there. If you knew all of these things were true what would you do? Tell everyone about it? Command the obedience of others? Make it all about you and your glory? That’s what you and I might do. Jesus on the other hand lays aside his outer garments, takes a towel and ties it on his waist, pours water in a basin, and washes the disciples feet. What a powerful illustration! Jesus, instead of focusing on all his power and authority takes the position a servant and washes his disciples feet.
The reaction of Peter tells us something about how stunning this was. Peter says “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Other versions say “Lord, are You going to washing my feet?” And in verse 8 Peter adds, “You shall never wash my feet.” This sounds like there was shock and surprise to this action. This is inappropriate! This is what the lowest slave would do, not Jesus! Yet, obviously, there is more to what is going on in this story than Jesus' cleansing of the disciples and what would happen with the betrayal of Judas. This is an act of love meant to teach.
But why did Jesus do this? Context helps us here. John 13:12-17 makes it clear this is an act of love meant to teach. He wants them to understand the symbolism of this action. All of this is to give powerful lessons for them. So what were they (and us) to learn from this stunning account?
We learn about the nature of God (v 13)
Many people are mislead about the nature of God. When they look at the world around them, or when they misread parts of the old testament, they come away with a picture of God that is very judgmental, harsh, overbearing, cruel, and uncaring. Then, when they look at this they may end up blaming God for the evil in the world or even walking away from God entirely.
However, John’s gospel is about how Jesus is God (John 1:1-3), that he came in the flesh, dwelt among us, and that we have seen his glory (John 1:14). In fact, John goes so far to say in John 1:18 “No one has ever seen God, the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known.” What is this gospel about? Part of it is about Jesus making the Father known.
In addition to this, the context around this story makes the same point. In John 12:45 Jesus said “…whoever sees me sees him who sent me.” In John 14:8-9 when Jesus speaks of his return to the Father, Philip said “Lord, show us the Father and it is enough for us.” And Jesus said to him “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father?’” What is Jesus doing? He is revealing the Father to them and to us!
That’s part of what makes this story so incredible. This would have been dirty and humiliating work. This is not the work of kings or God! These feet would have likely been filthy from dirt or excrement on the road. Yet, in amazing humility, Jesus lowers himself like a loving parent that cleans their children’s feet.
Who is God? What is heart like? It is loving service. He is the God of the girded towel humbly serving others on the night before his death. And if that was not enough, he even washed the feet of the very one who would betray him. This is the God of the Bible revealed in stunning glory to all of us. Here we have a God that is holy, righteous, and loving, that deserves my full service, worship, and trust. This is the one that created you and me.
Do you have an accurate concept of God? One of the most critical and foundational parts of being a follower of Jesus is to have an accurate picture of his identity. We become what we worship (Psalm 115:8) and if our image is inaccurate we will become like it. It is by looking at the glory of God revealed in Jesus that we are transformed (2 Corinthians 3:18). It was that glory that Isaiah saw (John 12:41, Isaiah 6:1-13) and that allowed him to see the gravity of his sin, receive forgiveness, and be commissioned to work for God. It will do the same for us.
We learn about the nature of Leadership (v 14)
Now, since this foundation is laid, Jesus says that if he as Lord and Teacher washed their feet, they ought to wash one another’s feet. If the master did this, how much more should those who have an equal standing wash one another’s feet?
However, that is not human nature. Earlier we asked, “Why did Jesus do this?”, we have more insight into that question if we look at Luke 22:24-27. This account records the parallel events to John 13 with an important addition. We see that there was a dispute among them as to which of them would be regarded the greatest. These verses have a new ring to them if we put it in contrast to what we saw in John 13. It’s possible that Jesus is responding to their disagreement by washing the disciples feet.
What was the problem? The problem was that they had a misunderstanding of leadership and greatness. They had received their concept from the world and not from God. This was a perennial problem among the disciples. In Mark’s gospel, Jesus introduced the message of his death, burial, and resurrection three different times. In each case there is a story of the disciples misunderstanding and Jesus responding with strong teaching on the nature the kingdom (Mark 8:31-9:1, 9:30-37, 10:32-45). In each case Jesus stresses things like denying themselves, taking up their cross and following Jesus, being a servant of all, and not being like the gentiles around them. Instead, to be first, was to be servant of all like Jesus (10:45).
This a true picture of the nature of leadership for his disciples. Yet, tragically, the same problem continues in disciples today. The selfishness and jealousy present in many groups is the source of disorder and every evil (James 3:16, 4:1). Because of our pride and selfishness, we refuse to serve one another and instead we end up destroying our relationships with each other.
This pattern repeats itself in every area of our lives where leadership is present. How many churches have been destroyed by men like Diotrephes (3 John 9)? How many marriages have been ruined by men like Nabal (1 Samuel 25)? But it’s not just there, the same pride and selfishness destroys relationships between parents and children, friendships, work relationships, everything. When leadership is self-focused it is destined for disaster. It is the anti-thesis of Love and the anti-thesis of God.
The answer then is for people to understand the nature of God and the nature of leadership. In our world, many want to be leaders but not many want to be servants. It’s been said “If serving someone is below you, then leadership is beyond you.” Service isn’t glamorous or full of earthly glory. That’s the point! Service is about doing what needs to be done, alone if necessary, and with no focus on earthly reward because we love others. This is what is acceptable in the eyes of God and he will reward us for those choices.
We learn about the nature of Discipleship (v 15-17)
Lastly, Jesus also gives us a proper understanding of discipleship. Discipleship is not simply acknowledging certain truths like a belief in God or certain core doctrines. Discipleship is not optional. Discipleship is for anyone who serves and follows Jesus. This text is about what it looks like to be a disciple of Jesus. In 15 he said this “that you also should do just as I have done to you.” We are not greater than Jesus, and if Jesus is willing to do this we should be willing as well. And when we do, Jesus says there is a blessing for us.
Now, what would motivate us enough to do something like this? Love. In John 13:33-35 Jesus gives a new commandment to his disciples - to love another as he has loved them. This would be the way the world would identify they were his disciples. Just as Jesus had loved his disciples till the end, and was willing to serve them. If they were his disciples they would practice the same love and willingness to serve.
What changes us first is the love that Jesus has for all of us. Then because of that love for us and our brethren, we love each other. But it’s more than that, Jesus emphasizes that the way that we treat the least of these our brethren is the way we treat Jesus (Matthew 25:40, 45). This is the power that transforms all disciples of Jesus. When we look at each other and realize that whatever I do for them I am doing for Jesus it changes me. My service to my brethren is service that I offer to Jesus because of his great love for me.
See, when we think serving others as something I am offering to Jesus it changes things. Instead of thinking about all the flaws of the person, or if there will be sufficient appreciation, we focus on that being done for Jesus. And further, if Jesus cares for that person so much, I can grow to see and love them like Jesus.
What does Jesus want from you? He wants you to love others, to wash their feet, to put others first, to look our for the interests of others, to be patient and kind to others, to live and love like he did with you. See, the solution isn’t just try harder. The solution is to have your affections changed and to be shaped by the love and life of Jesus.
But, if we’re honest, we regularly fail to serve and love others like Jesus wants to. However, this story is surrounded with stories of failure by Jesus’ disciples. We have the story of Judas betraying Jesus despite his love and the prediction of Peter denying Jesus. Think about that, even though they have been loved like this by Jesus they still betrayed him. Doesn’t that sound like you and me?
But how was Peter changed? Something even more amazing was going to happen that outshines even this wonderful moment: Jesus would go to the cross. It’s one thing to gird yourself with a towel and wash the feet of those who would betray and deny you, it’s another thing to go to the cross and die for them.
Philippians 2:5-11 tells us that Jesus was so concerned about others instead of his earthly glory that he emptied himself for this purpose. He understood the will of the Father so clearly, he was so humble, and loved others so well that he became obedient even to the point of death, even a death on the cross. It’s that mindset that caused him to be glorified by His Father. He did all of that to conquer sin and death for everyone of us.
It is that moment that changed Peter after he denied Jesus. In John 21, Jesus asked Peter three times if he loved him - once for each of those denials. Now Peter loved him like he should. And what did Jesus want in response? To care for his flock, to serve, to wash those feet. From that moment Peter was changed to love and serve like Jesus wanted.
The same is to be true of us: Philippians 2:3-5. If we have received encouragement in Christ, comfort from love, participation in the spirit, affection and sympathy, then we are to have the same mind, love, and unity that Jesus wants. Our pursuits are not for selfish ambition or conceit, but rather humility, counting others as more significant, and lookout for the interests of others. When we do that, we will serve others like Jesus taught and we will receive the blessing Jesus promises (John 13:17).