The thirteenth chapter of John’s gospel begins a new section of teaching. Jesus has completed his public ministry and has withdrawn himself from the Jerusalem crowds (12:36). John 13-17 describe the final teachings of Jesus to his disciples, the day before his death. There are so many messages that John wants us to see in this scene that we will spend a few lessons examining this great act of Jesus for his disciples.
The Love of the Servant (13:1-3)
Read the amazing introduction John gives to this scene. Jesus knew his hour had now come to depart this world. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. He loved them to the end. These are beautiful, moving words. His love for his own people is what motivates these final days. Jesus is loving his people to the fullest extent which leads him to go the very end with love — the end of his life. Jesus is fully aware of the cost of this love. His death is the price to be paid to love his people. Jesus loves his people and this is why this hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.
The death of Jesus is going to come about in a very painful way. Verse 2 tells us that it would be one of Jesus’ own disciples, Judas, who will be the betrayer. The closest of his companions will now become his enemy. During the supper, the devil puts it into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. This is the method of Satan. Satan puts the temptation into Judas’ heart. Satan gives these impulses to our minds. He is the giver of the bad thoughts that race into our minds. Now there is no such thing as “the devil made me do it.” We are still the cause of the problem. James 1:14 tells us that we are enticed and lured away into temptation by our own desires. The devil incites the desires that are already within us. This is why we must attack the ungodly desires in our lives and submit them to Christ. There is a desire within Judas that Satan seizes upon and puts it into the heart of Judas to betray Jesus. Perhaps it was the greed of Judas that Satan uses as the opportunity for betrayal. Perhaps it was discontentment that Satan used. Whatever it was, Satan reads our desires and uses those desires against us and against God to tempt us to sin. We must know the mechanism of sin, understanding what Satan doing against us, so that we can be prepared to fight those temptations with the strength God supplies. When temptation arises, we must not only fight the temptations but also address and change the desire that Satan is using against our walk with Christ.
Verse 3 is powerful. Jesus knows exactly what is going on. Nothing that is about to transpire is a surprise or out of the knowledge of Jesus. But notice even further that the point is made that Father gave all things into Jesus’ power and authority. Jesus can stop what is happening at any time. Read it again: “The Father had given all things into his hands.” Everything that Jesus does is according to the free, voluntary will of Jesus. Jesus can change these events. Jesus can walk away from the suffering. Jesus has the power to walk away from the cross. Jesus can stop these next two days. Everything is under his power and authority. Keep this great truth in mind as we read these final days of Jesus’ life.
The Life of the Servant (13:4-11)
Knowing that he has all authority and power, Jesus rose from supper, laid aside his outer garments, took a towel, tied it around his waist, and prepares to wash the disciples’ feet. All things are given into the hands of Jesus. He has all authority. Jesus is the one who should be served. By all definitions and standards Jesus should and must be served. He has all authority. Rather than receive the honor and service that he deserves, Jesus volunteers for a lowly and degrading task. The washing of feet was a demeaning task in that culture. Only slaves washed feet. Otherwise you would wash your own feet when coming into a house. Peers never washed each other’s feet in that time. The lowest slave performed this duty. Jesus accepts voluntary humiliation. This did not have to be done. They would have all had dirty feet. No big deal. They would have taken care of their own feet. Jesus’ voluntary humiliation rebukes the pride that any disciple may ever carry within themselves.
The supreme authority over all creation grabs a towel! Jesus pictures all we need to see concerning love. Verse 1 told us that Jesus loved his own to the end. In this passage we learn that love serves. Love ignores one’s own position, status, and power. Love serves. Love gives oneself. Is there anything that we can consider “beneath us” when we see Jesus do this? Is there any act of service and sacrifice that is too much for us when we see Jesus volunteer himself for this act of humiliating service?
The act is so staggering and so mind-blowing that Peter refuses to let Jesus wash his feet. “You shall never wash my feet!” Peter grasps the absurdity of the Lord and Master washing his feet. Peter understands the external part of what Jesus is doing and rightly balks at this. Friends, if Jesus were here, how uncomfortable would be for the Lord to look to wash your feet? Would not each of us get up and tell Jesus to sit down and we will take care of his feet? But Jesus refuses to be served. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, and give his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28; Mark 10:45; 1 Timothy 2:6).
The Glorious Servant
We have noticed in John’s gospel that there is often another layer of meaning. Often there is a deeper symbolism behind the signs, teachings, and events that are recorded. Remember that John told us that he wrote these things so that we would believe that Jesus is the Christ and by believing have life in his name. John clues us in that there are many significant meanings in this serving act of Jesus. Notice verse 12: “Do you understand what I have done to you?” If all that Jesus did is wash feet, then the question would be ridiculous. The answer would be, “Of course. You washed our feet.” But there are many deeper teachings that are going on here that must be examined.
Notice that Jesus does something that was unnecessary and John highlights it as he records this event. Start back in verse 4. Jesus lays aside his outer garments, ties a towel around his waist, and begins to serve. Jesus did not have to do this. Jesus did not have to take off his outer garments. Further, Jesus did not have to look like a servant by tying the towel around his waist. Now look at verse 12. After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus puts on the outer garments again and resumes his place. Jesus does not take off his outer garments merely so they do not get wet while he does the task. Jesus goes out of his way (and John goes out his way to highlight this) to look like a servant. The symbolism is intense. Jesus lays aside his glorious garments to look like a servant. Then, once he is done being a servant, he puts back on his garments and resumes his rightful place. This is exactly how Paul described the humility of Jesus.
6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:6–11 ESV)
Jesus empties himself. Jesus denies himself and gives himself. This is the taking off of the outer garments. Paul continues that Christ took on the form of a servant. This is the tying of the towel around Jesus’ waist. Jesus comes and looks like a servant. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. Go back to John 13:1. Jesus loved his own to the end and that is why he has come to die. Paul says that be found as a servant, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. What happens next? When Jesus is done washing their feet, he puts his garments back on and resumes his place. Paul says God therefore highly exalts him and every knee bows at his name because he has resumed his rightful place. What Jesus has done is representative of the cross. The washing of the disciples’ feet foreshadows the cross itself. “Do you understand what I have done to you?” (John 13:12).
The Attitude of a Servant
Before describing the great humility of Jesus, Paul said these words.
3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. 5 Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus… (Philippians 2:3–5 ESV).
Jesus teaches us the necessity for humility in our thinking. Jesus shows us the attitude of his servants. Satan will put ideas into our hearts that we should not serve. He will put ideas in our heart that people should be doing things for us. We deserve other people to do things for us. My spouse should serve me. My children should serve me. My parents should serve me. My co-workers should serve me. My boss should serve me. I should not be giving myself! These are Satan’s lies. We are commanded to have the same mind that we see in Jesus. Humility cannot begin until we change our thinking. Love means I will not act on my own interests, my own ambition, or own pride and arrogance. Who are we to demand service? Who are we to even desire service? We must not be thinking about why others are not thinking about us! We so easily fall into self-centered thinking. People need to pay attention to us, worry about us, and do certain things for us, according to our standards. The example of Jesus transforms everything about our thinking. Jesus, whom the Father had given all things into his hands, gave himself and served.
The mind of Christ is to go low, volunteering for the opportunity to serve others rather than self. We must look for the opportunity to tie the towel around our waists and serve others. As we conclude this lesson I want us to consider changing our thinking. We will look at our actions in a future lesson. But let us start today with changing our thinking. Jesus thought of you, not himself. Jesus loves his own and therefore gave himself. Think like a servant. Lay aside any attempts of self-glory, self-seeking, and self-promotion. We are not here to be served but to serve. Let the thinking of Christ be our thinking also.