Wash Those Feet (John 13:1-17)
The story is told of some Europeans who came to visit a quite famous American college president in Massachusetts in the late 1800’s. Following the European custom of the time, each guest put his shoes outside his room to be cleaned by the hall servants overnight. But, of course, this was America and there were no hall servants.
Walking the dormitory halls that night, the president saw the shoes and determined not to embarrass his guests. He mentioned the need to some of the students in the dorm, but he was met with only silence or excuses of one kind or another. The gentleman returned to the dorm, gathered up the shoes, and, alone in his room, he began to clean and polish the shoes. Only the unexpected arrival of a friend who caught the president cleaning the shoes revealed his secret.
When the foreign visitors opened their doors the next morning, their shoes were shined. They never knew by whom. The president told no one, but his friend told a few people, and that is the only reason we know of this incident.
While the college president had no desire to share with others what he had done, Jesus Christ wants us all to know what he did at the Last Supper. I know Jesus wants us to know, for he told the disciples that they were to do as he had done. I also know Jesus wants us to know, for the Holy Spirit, whom Jesus sent to lead the disciples in remembering what Jesus did and spoke, saw fit to guide John to record this narrative.
The elders and I met the other night, and we discussed the need to talk about service here among us. I know of no better text with which to begin than one where Jesus truly becomes the “Suffering Servant.”
It is possible that the Jewish concept of the “Suffering Servant” stands behind John’s structure in this text. Isaiah often spoke of a servant who would come and suffer for Israel; e.g., “Out of the anguish of his soul he shall see and be satisfied; by his knowledge shall the righteous one, my servant, make many to be accounted righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities” (Is 53:11). In John 13, we see Jesus as both a servant and one about to suffer to “make many to be accounted righteous.”
Whether Isaiah’s imagery is purposefully woven into this text or not, we know that Jesus’ actions certainly are the backdrop for this morning’s text. We learn here how Jesus served. How did the Lord serve? Let’s take a look.
Jesus Served in Devotion, v 1
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.”
Jesus served the disciples out of his love.
The text says that Jesus loved his own who were in the world, and he loved them to the end. Some have been quite puzzled that we find the verb “love” occurring twice int eh same tense in one sentence. As you look at the Greek, it’s really quite easy to see what’s going on. The first verb shows the cause of his motivation—It was because Jesus loved the disciples that he washed their feet. The second verb stresses the footwashing as part of his love. In other words, “having loved” refers to Jesus’ entire ministry, and “he loved them” refers to the specific act of footwashing.
Jesus loved the disciples “to the end.” The New International Version translates this phrase as “he now showed them the full extent of his love,” and the King James Version translates it as does the English Standard Version: “He loved them to the end.” Both ideas are likely intended: Jesus is showing love to the disciples at the very end of his earthly ministry (this is the night of his betrayal and arrest) and he is demonstrating just how much he loves them by serving them.
As I have said so many times, true love always demonstrates itself in actions. “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). We have a very clear example of love equaling service and action in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7.
What does all that have to do with us in this congregation? Quite simply, if I love you, I will serve you. If you are in the hospital and need someone to watch your children, I’ll be more than happy to do what I can. If you need the leaves raked in your yard and you’re not able to do it, I will be more than happy to do it. If you’ve been teaching in the classrooms and you’re at your wits end, I’ll step in and help. I’ll do whatever I can for you whenever you need it because I love you.
If I refuse to serve, it demonstrates a lack of love. You might think those are strong words. You might be thinking, “Justin, I’m not able to watch kids or rake leaves or teach. There’s not a prescribed way that we’re to serve one another, except to look for opportunities to do what we can with what we have where we are. The Scriptures teach quite explicitly that if we don’t serve, we don’t love: “If anyone has the world’s goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes his heart against him, how does God’s love above in him? Little children, let us not love in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (1 Jn 3:17-18). Sometimes folks will say, “Well, he didn’t ask for help.” The text doesn’t say, “If someone asks for help and you shut up your heart against him.” The text says, “If anyone sees his brother in need.”
William Gladstone, in announcing the death of Princess Alice to the House of Commons, told a touching story. The little daughter of the Princess was seriously ill with diphtheria. The doctors told the princess not to kiss her little daughter and endanger her life by breathing the child’s breath. Once when the child was struggling to breath, the mother, forgetting herself entirely, took the little one into her arms to keep her from choking to death. Raping and struggling for her life, the child said, “Momma, kiss me!” Without thinking of herself the mother tenderly kissed her daughter She got diphtheria and died some days afterward.
That is true love—forgetting about ourselves and doing what we can to help. Are we really loving one another? Are we serving because we love?
Jesus Served in Distress, vv 2-4, 10b-11
“During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all tings into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. . . . Jesus said to [Peter]. . . ‘You are clean, but not every one of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’”
Stan had already put it into Judas’ heart to betray Jesus when the Lord got up from his supper, tied a towel around himself, and began to wash his disciples’ feet.
Think about the implications of that for a second—Jesus served Judas with the full knowledge that Judas was about to hand him over to die an excruciatingly painful death. It seems that it is so very hard for us to serve our friends—we’ve become so egotistical in our society—but to serve our enemies! We won’t even go there!
Yet, that is what Jesus did, and it’s what he calls us to do. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not without your tunic either” (Lk 6:27-29). “If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.’ Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good” (Rom 12:20-21).
Are we willing to serve our enemies? What about that coworker who got that promotion we so desperately wanted? Will we help him when he’s in a bind with that big project? What about that neighbor who argues all the time about the property line? Will we take her groceries as she recuperates from surgery? How much like Jesus are we?
Not only did Jesus serve the one who would betray him, but the Lord served at a time when he was in great personal turmoil.
Can you imagine the turmoil Jesus endured at the Supper? We know that he experienced great turmoil that night; just after Supper, he told Peter, James, and Jhon, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death” (Matt 26:38). Can you imagine the turmoil of knowing one of your closest friends was about to hand you over to death?
Will we serve when we ourselves are in turmoil? What if it feels the world is crashing in around us? Will we get out of ourselves and serve, or will we throw ourselves a pity party? When we face tragedy, will we fin da way to serve others out of our turmoil?
Jesus Served in Debasement, vv 4b-6
Jesus “laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’”
We are all aware that washing feet was the work of slaves.
While the roads in Jerusalem were typically kept as lean as possible, the side roads were terribly dusty. Wearing sandals obviously provided ample opportunity for one’s feet to become quite dirty. In the ancient world, a quite common sign of hospitality was to provide water for your guests to wash their feet—When a woman washed Jesu’ feet at Simon’s house, Jesus said to Simon, “I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair” (Lk 7:44). Yet, this was the work of sales—The host did not wash the feet himself. Interestingly, this wasn’t the work of Jewish slaves—Jewish sales did not wash feet. Jewish masters would make their Gentile sales do this, but never their Jewish slaves.
Not only did Jesus wash feet, but he wrapped a towel around himself. In our culture, that makes perfect functional sense—If you’re gong to be washing feet, you might as well wrap a towel around yourself so you don’t have to keep stopping and running to get a towel. But in Jesus’ culture, wrapping a towel around yourself was a sign that you were a slave. There is an ancient Jewish commentary on Genesis 21:14 that states that when Abraham sent Hagar away, he took a shawl and tied it around her waist so “that people should know she was a slave.” Suetonius, the Roman historian, reports that the Emperor Caligula humiliated the high-ranking members of the Roman society by having them serve at a meal with towels.
Jesus totally reverses the societal norms here. Jewish society stressed humility—like we see Jesus demonstrating here—but Jewish society stressed staying within your social standing. Rabbi Juda Ha-Nasi (about AD 220) claimed to be so humble that he would do anything for others, except relinquish his superior position.
This change in roles Jesus demonstrates really confounds Peter. Unfortunately, Peter’s statement doesn’t really translate well from the Greek to English, at least not in most translations. Our translations give the impression that Peter makes complete sense here, but in reality he stutters: He says, “Lord, you—my—you shall wash—the feet?” What Jesus does here is totally incomprehensible to Peter—Here is One he has confessed as the Messiah, the Chosen of God, and he’s going to do a slave’s work! That’s just not supposed to happen.
Does true service not still call upon us to debase ourselves?
When I serve, I must forget about myself and focus on you. Paul to the Ephesian elders, “You yourselves know how I lived among you the while time from the first day when I set foot in Asia, serving the Lord with all humility and with tears and with trials” (Acts 20:18-19). When the disciples argued about who was the greatest, Jesus declares, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all” (Mk 9:35).
Is this not precisely why we have so much difficulty in serving? You see, if you’re in the hospital and I watch your kids, I might have to put my plans on hold. If I need to rake your leaves, I might have to leave something at my house undone. If I teach a quarter for you, I might have to miss a class I really enjoy.
Yet, is not putting your needs above mine precisely what Scripture calls on each of us to do? “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:3-4). “Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another, for ‘God opposes the proud but give grace to the humble’” (1 Pet 5:5).
Someone has aptly written these words: “Self-righteous service is impressed with the ‘big deal.’ True service finds it almost impossible to distinguish the small from the large service. Self-righteous service is highly concerned with results. True service is free of the need to calculate results. Self-righteous service picks and chooses whom to serve. True service is indiscriminate in its ministry. Self-righteous service is affected by moods and whims. True service ministers simply and faithfully because there is a need.”
How is your service? Is it humble or is it self-righteous?
Jesus Served in Design, vv 14-17
“If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”
Jesus did not just serve out of love, in distress, or in debasement, but he also served in design—to give us an example of how to serve one another. Jesus has provided a powerful example for us. The Lord declares, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Matt 11:29). “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ” (1 Cor 11:1).
Are we following Jesus’ example of service? Are we willing to serve in devotion, because we love our brothers and sisters and the Lord himself? Are we willing to serve in distress, regardless of how we feel? Are we willing even to serve our enemies? Are we willing to serve in debasement, to place others in front of ourselves and just serve?
Do you need to come to Jesus this very morning and commit yourself to a life of service?
This sermon was originally preached by Dr. Justin Imel, Sr., at the Alum Creek church of Christ in Alum Creek, West Virginia.