Serving Like Jesus
Series: The Gospel of John
We admire selfless service, but we are afraid of being forced to serve. In this text, we learn how to serve like Jesus.
If you ever watch tv shows from past time periods like Downton Abbey, there are commonly household servants in the show. That’s a strange thing to most Americans, but it was common in the world until more recently and is still common in some places and among some people to have household servants. In these arrangements, there is a clear and formal delineation between the servant class and the “served” class. In Downton Abbey, the servants all eat downstairs, while the landowner, his family, and guests eat the meal the servants prepared and served upstairs. We instinctively revolt against such a sight as Americans, while at the same time, we can develop a great admiration for those servants. It’s clear that in some of their cases, they really want to serve another’s interests, and we sense there is something right about that, even though there is something wrong with the arrangement. Many of us probably wish we were more selfless and willing to serve the interests of others, but such arrangements are typically predicated on the idea that the owner of the house is somehow “naturally” a ruler, while the servants are “naturally” servants. The servants are forced into their roles; they’re told by those in power, “You’re a servant; now serve me.” In the passage on which we’re focusing today, Jesus does require his disciples to serve, but he doesn’t require them to serve him. Instead, as their master…Jesus serves them. And then he tells them to serve one another. Nobody is treated as inherently inferior to one another in Jesus’ kingdom, AND, nobody is exempt from serving one another. So serve one another as Jesus served, and here’s how: See the love of Jesus, see the humility of Jesus, receive cleansing from Jesus, and follow the example of Jesus.
See the love of Jesus
The first verse of our text today is an introduction to the whole. It gives the setting: The events about to be narrated took place before the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father. He was going to die, rise again, and ascend into heaven to be with His Father, but what about his disciples? These disciples left their families of origin, their hometowns, and their jobs to follow him. They became outsiders to their native community to follow Jesus. Now the hour is coming for him to leave this world and return to the Father, while they remain in this world, at least for a little while longer. What is happening? Is he abandoning them? Does he not love them?
John anticipates such a misunderstanding of what Jesus is doing, and so tells us in verse 1 that Jesus returns to the Father having loved his own who were in the world. He loved them to the end. For many of you it is probably not a new thought, but it is one worth repeating: Jesus loves his own who are in the world. He was not under any kind of external compulsion to do anything for them. He did everything he did for them because he loved them. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us because he loved his own who were in the world. The light of the world came into the world because he loved his own who were in the world, and his own loved him, and came into the light, while those who loved the darkness hated him. He patiently endured such hatred, because he loved his own who were in the world. He went and called his own out of the world by name, calling one even from the dead, to form them into a new flock around himself, because he loved them. Then as he faced the cross, his soul was greatly troubled at the thought of bearing the sins of his own, and suffering under the wrath of God for them. Yet that’s what he did. And in this way especially he loved his own to the end. From the beginning of his life when he took on flesh, to the end of his life when he died, all that Jesus did, he did because he loved his own who were in the world.
And it is no less true today. Though Jesus is not in the world now, he loves his own who are in the world. He loves them before they love him; he died for them when they didn’t love him! So if you are here today and you do not love Jesus, do not be afraid to come to him. He came into the world for people like you; he loves people like you. Turn from your sins and believe in him today, and he will pour his love into your heart. And even after you first come to know and believe the love he has for you, he will love you to the end. We have in this passage an example of Jesus’ ongoing love for Peter, despite Peter’s repeated failures. It gets worse as the story continues, too: Peter even denies Jesus, and the rest of his own abandon him in his hour of greatest need. Yet even still, he loved them to the end. Jesus’ own who are in the world always have some sense, whether very often or infrequently, whether very deeply or only lightly, that they aren’t very good followers of Jesus. They see their hearts still running after other things at times, still doubting, still fearful, still stuck on self, and it bothers them. Yet even these, Jesus will love to the end. John Newton once wrote, “Ah, what a poor cold, confused, inconsistent creature! I am a poor servant, indeed! and my only comfort springs from thinking (which yet I do too seldom and faintly) what a wondrous Master I serve.” If you want to serve one another as Jesus served you, don’t start by looking at the quality of your service. It’s inconsistent at best. Start by looking at the love of Jesus. And then, see the humility of Jesus.
See the humility of Jesus
John continues the setting by telling us that the events took place during supper, and he lets us know that this was when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ disciples, to betray Jesus. But such a threat was nothing to fear for Jesus. John tells us in verse 3 that Jesus knew that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God. What could the devil, or Judas, really do to Jesus, then? All things were already in Jesus’ hands. The Father granted him to have life in himself, and Jesus ultimately had authority to lay down his life and take it up again. No one can take it from him unless Jesus wills it. He already came from the Father; no amount of lies the devil could tell about Jesus could change that fact. And even if and when the devil’s plot “succeeded,” and Jesus died on the cross, all the devil was doing was sending him back to his Father, where Jesus wanted to go anyway.
Jesus, then, was in a position of absolute power. So what would you expect him to do with that power? Rebuke the devil, right? Blast Judas, right? That’s how the world often thinks of power, but if Jesus had done that, he would only have proven how afraid he was of them. We know that, right? When people are afraid, what do they do? They fight, or flee. But Jesus does neither. Instead, he serves. We read in verse 4 that he rose from supper, took off his outer garment, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. He’s willingly taking on the position of a servant.
To wash the feet of another was such a humble position of service in the ancient world in part because the feet of ancient people would get so dirty. Even around here if I walk around all day in my sandals, my feet aren’t exactly clean at the end of the day. Now imagine that none of the streets are paved, and there is no regular street cleaning or city-wide trash service. The dirt turns into mud as it mixes with the sweat on your feet and whatever other unsavory things end up on the ground. So it’s a dirty job, washing feet. It’s also spatially or visually humbling. You literally must get lower than someone else to wash their feet. You put yourself beneath them. You can see this even today at shoe-shining stations, though I feel like I rarely see people use them anymore. They’re still there at 30th St station or the airport, though, and every so often you catch a well-dressed businessman sitting high up on one of the thrones while another shines their shoes, a ritual which indicates the lower social standing in the world’s eyes of the one shining the shoes. This scene would be more like a group of businessmen traveling together, when the President & CEO, the boss at the head of the whole company, has his workers sit up on the thrones, while he kneels to shine their shoes.
It’s been said that humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. We see that here in Jesus’ humility. He doesn’t have an inferiority complex. He doesn’t think, “Oh I’m such a bum, I guess I should be the one to wash these disciples’ feet.” In fact, later he points out in verse 13 that they call him teacher and Lord, and he says there that they’re right, for that’s what he is. Real humility is not thinking less of yourself; it’s thinking of yourself less. It’s not feeling a need to boast of having all things in your hands, or of being teacher and Lord. Instead, it’s seeing dirty feet, and lowering yourself to wash them, even those of the one you knew would betray you. That’s the humility of Jesus. Next we encounter a kind of counterfeit humility, the humility of Peter, and through him we learn that if we are to serve one another as Jesus served, we must first receive cleansing from Jesus.
Receive cleansing from Jesus
So Jesus comes to Peter in verse 6, and Peter says to him: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus tells him in verse 7 that though he doesn’t understand this now, he will later, but Peter still says in verse 8, “You will never wash my feet.” Is that humility on Peter’s part? Not exactly. It looks like it though, right? The opposite response would certainly have been wrong, wouldn’t it? What if Peter had said, “Ah; of course you would come to wash my feet. I’m special, and I deserve good things in life. Time for me to treat myself to a nice foot washing.” That would obviously have been prideful of Peter. Arrogance and entitlement like that are the most obvious and overt forms of pride. But there is another form which disguises itself as humility, and we can sense some of it in Peter at first. It’s a pride so focused on self that those who are controlled by it refuse to be served by others, least of all by their Lord. It’s a pride that says, “I can do it. I don’t need help.” It’s a pride that wants to be in the driver’s seat, that says, “You can love me, but only if I earn it.” It’s a pride that shows itself in us when people ask us how they could pray for us, and the answer is always, “Oh; nothing for me. I’m doing fine. But pray for my cousin; she’s not feeling well.” Occasionally people ask you if they can pray for you and you can’t come up with anything off the top of your head; I get it. But when that’s the normal answer, you probably have pride issues. And what it does is it pushes people away. When people come over for dinner and ask what they can bring, and you always say nothing, that’s probably pride in you. When you’re going through something you really can’t bear alone, and you refuse to ask for help or even just let others know, that’s pride. And it’ll keep people at a distance.
Jesus spoils Peter of such pride pretty quickly when he says, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Here’s the catch with that kind of pride: It not only keeps you away from people generally; it keeps you away from Jesus. He came not to be served but to serve, so if you refuse to be served, guess what? You’re refusing him. It’s the impulse of the flesh to always want to do something for Jesus, to show him we’re worthy of his love before we’ll receive his love. But he didn’t come to love the worthy; he came to cleanse the dirty. The way to get Jesus, to have a part in him, is not first to serve him. It’s to let him serve you. It’s to admit that your sins have made you unclean, and to believe that he died for your sins so you could be cleansed. If you say to him, “No Lord, I don’t need that. I’m not that dirty. I’ll make it up to you” or if you say to him, “No Lord, I don’t deserve that. I’m too dirty,” you have no part in him. Neither is humility. One is the pride of thinking you’re better than you are and therefore you don’t need cleansing; the other is the pride of thinking Jesus isn’t as great as he is, and therefore he can’t cleanse you. You need cleansing, and unless Jesus washes you, you have no share with him.
You say, “Well but don’t we exist for God, not God for us? Aren’t we supposed to serve him for his glory, not let him serve us?” Yes, we do exist for God, not God for us, and yes, we are supposed to bring him glory, not seek glory for ourselves, but do you see that serving us is one of the main ways God is glorified? How is God supposed to display His glorious love and humility if you never let him serve you? Listen to this from Psalm 50:15, this is God speaking: “and call upon me in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall glorify me.” You see the progression? God says you call upon me in the day of your trouble, and then I will deliver you. Isn’t that selfish of us to call on God to help us? No, because look how it ends: “You shall glorify me.” And now do you see the pride of refusing to let Jesus cleanse you? You’re trying to keep the glory for yourself. You’re trying to preserve a scenario where you can always say, “I did my best” instead of a scenario where you say, “Jesus did it all.” How many have said, “I’m too bad to come to Jesus” thinking they’re being humble, when all they’re doing is trying to keep glory from Jesus for themselves? You must follow him as Savior, not even merely as a good example (though we’ll talk about that in a bit). You must follow him as the one who washes you, or you have no part with him at all.
In Peter’s response, he demonstrates that he truly is one of Jesus’ own from out of the world. Once he’s threatened with having no share with Jesus, he changes his tune real quick. He doesn’t know much, but one thing he knows: He wants Jesus. So he says, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Again, an imperfect and confused response, but he’s failing in the right direction. So Jesus reassures him: The one who has bathed has no need to wash, except for his feet. You’re already clean, Peter. If someone took a bath in the ancient world, they wouldn’t need to bathe again at day’s end, except for their feet. Through this, Jesus teaches Peter and the disciples an important lesson: Once you have Jesus, you are already clean.
He died for all the sins of whoever believes in him, and therefore the moment you receive him, all your sins are washed away. No one can bring any charge against you in God’s courtroom any longer. Even the new sins you commit after coming to Christ are powerless to condemn you. God already judged Jesus for them; it would be unjust of him to judge you for them. No new sins can condemn you. No new sins can change your legal status before God. But they can defile your conscience, and create distance in your experience of relating to God. So what is needed, then, when you sin after coming to Christ, is not a total do-over of your conversion, another shot at praying the sinner’s prayer, or another sacrament. What is needed is a simple, honest, confession of your sin, and a fresh application of the blood of Christ to your conscience as you respond in faith to Jesus and his work on the cross on your behalf once again. Your whole body is already clean, but your feet have been dirtied, and Jesus stands ready to wash them again.
So when you sin and your conscience is defiled, the one place you want to go is to Jesus. And yet how often is it the case that it’s when we sin and feel guilty that we stay away from Jesus? Or perhaps we tell ourselves we’re good with Jesus, but we stay away from his church. What a warped picture of Jesus and his body. Jesus is not a Lord you have to work your way up to. He’s a Lord who came low to wash your feet. If you’re dirty, he’s the one you want. And his body is no different. When you feel the weight of sin and its guilt, and you wish to be free of it, the church is here to wash you with the word of Jesus and embrace you with the love of Jesus. Will you let Jesus wash you? Will you let his church serve you? If you keep saying once you put yourself back together you’ll pray, or once you put yourself back together you’ll come to church, you have no share with Jesus. That’s pride, once again refusing to let Jesus be glorified in cleansing you of your sins once again. Thomas Brooks once wrote, “That sorrow for sin that keeps the soul from looking towards the mercy-seat, and that keeps Christ and the soul asunder, or that shall render the soul unfit for the communion of saints, is a sinful sorrow.” Or, back to Newton, consider his counsel to someone who told him he was too bad for Jesus to forgive him:
“You say, you find it hard to believe it [is] compatible with the divine purity to embrace or employ such a monster as yourself. [In thinking this, you] express not only a low opinion of yourself, which is right, but too low an opinion of the person, work, and promises of the Redeemer; which is certainly wrong….
Satan transforms himself into an angel of light. He sometimes offers to teach us humility; but though I wish to be humble, I desire not to learn in this school. His premises perhaps are true, that we are vile, wretched creatures—but he then draws abominable conclusions from them; and would teach us, that, therefore, we ought to question either the power, or the willingness, or the faithfulness of Christ. Indeed, though our complaints are good, so far as they spring from a dislike of sin; yet, when we come to examine them closely, there is often so much self-will, self-righteousness, unbelief, pride, and impatience mingled with them, that they are little better than the worst evils we can complain of….”
If we are to serve one another as Jesus served, we must first receive cleansing of our sins from Jesus. We must be willing to be served by him. Then we can follow the example of Jesus.
Follow the example of Jesus
So Jesus goes on in verses 12-13 to explain what he’s done. He tells them they’re right to call him teacher and Lord, but then he explains the lesson: If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. He says he has given them an example. He is the Lord and teacher, and precisely because they are not greater than he, they too must be willing to serve in the same way he served. It is not the one who knows these things, according to verse 17, who is blessed, but the one who does them. What does this mean? That we should literally wash one another’s feet? For them, it probably did mean that for a time, but today we have paved roads and closed toed shoes that make such service more perfunctory than meaningful. Nonetheless, the lesson stands, and the blessing is still for those who do it: Serve one another as Jesus served.
So be on the lookout for opportunities to serve one another in similar ways. The most obvious ways to do so will be as needs arise. No doubt part of the reason Jesus washed his disciples’ feet is because they were dirty. When genuine needs arise, that’s the place to start. Needs, however, are not the place to end. I fear that in a 21st century developed nation like America, when we think of needs, we think of someone starving who needs a meal or else they will die, someone with nowhere to sleep tonight, or someone with such severe illness that they need medical treatment right away. Certainly such people exist in the world, and as we have opportunity, we should help them. But sometimes the best way to help them is by giving money to organizations that are on the ground with them or voting differently. So if you’re just thinking kind of crassly of meeting needs, it’s hard to really get going with this, especially with one another, as members of the same church, which is Jesus’ focus here. Verse 14 specifically tells the disciples to wash one another’s feet. And if desperate need is your only category, it probably means you won’t serve one another much, and we’ll be in danger of living functionally independent lives, always at arm’s distance from one another.
What will probably help on some level is going from thinking only of needs to thinking of opportunities. Don’t skip needs, but expand your vision. In some sense, I’m sure Jesus’ disciples would have been fine if their feet had just stayed dirty for another day. They certainly didn’t need someone else to wash them; Peter was probably thinking, “Hey; I can wash my own feet.” But Jesus saw an opportunity to serve them, and he took it. I think of the time recently my family got sick and Rachel Easlea brought us dinner: chicken and rice soup, that good Aldi take and bake bread, crackers, ginger ale, Gatorade, all the stuff that’s good for sick people. She even included dessert. Did we need those things? No, not technically. We had food, and we could have gotten uber eats or grocery delivery or whatever else. But she saw an opportunity, and she took it, even though it took time out of her day, even though it put her in the position of a servant of sorts: She cooked and delivered for us. That can be another helpful way to come up with ideas: Think of the kinds of things servants have historically done. In Jesus’ day, they washed feet. Cooking, delivering food or picking up other things, cleaning, doing laundry, babysitting, and so forth. You don’t even need a reason; just ask another member if you could do something like that for them. And especially if they’re going through a hard time, even if you can’t solve the issue they’re directly dealing with, see if you could do some of these other things to lighten their load. And here’s the catch on the other end: Brothers and sisters, if someone offers to serve you in one of these ways, try to say yes. Don’t say, “Well I can do that myself” or “Oh you don’t have to do that.” Sometimes there’s a good reason to say no, but try to say yes. Don’t be like Peter was at first.
Do you find you don’t have much desire for that kind of service? You aren’t alone. Consider Jesus’ example there as well. Remember what empowered him for that kind of humble service? He knew the Father had given all things into his hand, he knew that he had come from God and was going back to God. We could say he knew three things: Who was in control, who he was, and where he was going, and you can know those things too. All things are still in Jesus’ hands. It’s ok if you get a little less work done, or get a little less sleep, or have to deal with the stress of the grocery store. Jesus is in control, and he will work it all for good. Jesus knew he was the one sent from God, so he didn’t have to prove himself. If you belong to Jesus, you too are a child of God in Him. Maybe you worry you’ll try to serve someone else and they won’t receive your service, or it won’t be good enough. That’s ok; they don’t get to tell you who you are. God does, and He says you are His child. And finally, Jesus knew where he was going: He was going to God. And if you belong to Jesus, that’s where you are going too. No matter what serving one another costs, you’re free to lose it, because you know how your story ends. Jesus laid aside his glory and took on the form of a servant because he knew he was going to be glorified one day with his father in heaven. Eventually, he laid down his life in service to us, because he knew that even through death, he would return to the Father. He loved us then, and he will love us to the end. Servants, we are not greater than our master. Though the Father has given all things to Him, he’s used his power to serve, most of all by dying for our sins, that we might be cleansed. However defiled by sin you are today, receive his cleansing, and follow his example, to serve one another as he served.