John 13 is a jarring scene when we look at our Lord Jesus. In John 13 the twelve apostles are gathered in the upper room. Judas has not left the room yet to betray Jesus, but he has determined to do so (13:2). After finishing their meal, Jesus gets up from the table, ties a towel around his waist, pours water in a basin, and starts washing these disciples’ feet. Our Lord, the eternal God and Savior, gets down on the ground and washes his disciples’ feet. Then Jesus teaches his disciples.
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 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. (John 13:12–17 ESV)
Jesus commanded for his disciples to serve one another. Jesus gave us an example of service and reminds that we are not greater than our master. This is what we are called to do. So how can we do this? How can we be transformed from the self-centered thinking that dominates the majority of our thoughts so that we can be servants? The apostle Paul teaches this in his letter to the Galatians.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another. (Galatians 5:13–15 ESV)
Freedom Is For Serving (5:13)
The message of the letter to the Galatians is that they have been set free from the Law of Moses, which is the law of sin and death. Therefore, they are no longer slaves but sons (4:7). But just because you were set free does not mean that you are free to do whatever you want. We are not free to serve ourselves or to serve our fleshly desires. Notice the purpose God has given for our freedom: our freedom is to serve one another in love. We are not called in Christ to self-indulgence but to become servants of one another, just as Jesus exemplified in John 13. This picture that Paul gives seems like a paradox. You have been set free and I want you to use your freedom to be servants of each other. To see the paradox even more, the word for “serve” is literally to serve as a slave. Notice the NRSV on this sentence:
Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. (Galatians 5:13 NRSV)
You are free to be slaves! You are to become slaves but it is not like the slavery you had before. Before when you were enslaved to sin, you were lost, doomed, separated from God, and under his wrath. Paul has warned these Christians to not become enslaved to the Law of Moses again because it does not give life but was only in place until Christ came. But becoming slaves of each other is voluntary and a source of deep joy.
Now I want us to notice the mechanism that is in place for serving one another. Jesus does not say, “Go and serve.” So then we go and offer begrudging serve to others. Serving others must come from our love for God which will bring about love for each other. Just serving is not what God is looking for. God wants us to desire to serve each other because he served us. Paul gives a jarring statement to the Corinthians that sheds light on this idea.
If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:3 ESV)
Notice that these acts are nothing without love. This is often what we are missing when we look at these commands on how we are to treat one another. True love will overflow into serving one another. When I am truly struck by God’s love then I will be motivated to love others and therefore serve others. This is the model Paul gave to the Philippians as well.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. (Philippians 2:5–8 ESV)
Notice again that it is not just a command to be a servant but look at Jesus who acted as a servant on our behalf and for our good. Consider how Paul is not done with this picture. He does not merely tell us to serve one another in love with our freedom. Paul wants to underline this point in our hearts.
Love Your Neighbor As Yourself (5:14)
The whole law is fulfilled in this statement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Authentic Christians do more than speak about love. They model love through serving others. Let us consider the picture given to us. This is not a command to love yourself or that self-love means having good self-esteem. Paul assumes that people do love themselves and seek their own self interests (cf. Ephesians 5:28-29). The command is to take your natural, already existing love of self and make it the measuring tape for your love of others. Imagine what it would look like if we had the same zeal for the good of others and acted on it like we do for ourselves! Love your neighbor like you would love yourself. Do for them what you would do for yourself.
Friends, please consider what Paul is teaching. Serving one another is how we love one another. If we do not become slaves to each other then we are not loving each other. This is the picture Paul is tying together for us to see. Love gives. Love sacrifices. Love serves. Love forfeits. Love yields. I cannot say that I love you and show no regard or consideration for you. Love does not look at self but looks at others. You see that we willingly become servants of others.
How easy it is for us to destroy this beautiful picture in marriage, in family, and in the church! In marriage we do not think that the other is doing for us what we want them to do for us. So we complain, argue, or fight because you are not thinking about me. Yet in the process we are not only destroying love but we are not showing love to our spouse. I am thinking myself and not thinking you. We destroy families in the same way, because we are thinking about ourselves and not what is in the best interests of the other family members. We do this in the body of Christ. We pander for people to pay attention to us but by doing so we are not showing love for others, but for ourselves. I hope we can see how easy it is to destroy love when we use our freedom for selfish thoughts and acts rather than serving others.
Protecting Unity (5:15)
Please notice that this is exactly where Paul goes in verse 15. If we are not serving each other then we are destroying each other. When we stop expressing love through our actions for each other, then harmony and unity will be lost and we will devour each other. Selfish thinking destroys love. Serving promotes love. Serving one another is how we prevent against biting and devouring each others. When we do not love each other, then we will say things and do things to hurt each other. James asked this question and answered it so well in his letter.
What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? (James 4:1 ESV)
What causes fights and quarrels but that you are thinking about yourselves. Fights come because we stop serving each other. Fights in marriage come because we stop serving each other and think about ourselves. Fights in families comes because we stop serving each other and think about ourselves. Fights in the church come because we stop serving each other and think about ourselves. Look at what happens among Jesus’ disciples.
Then the mother of the sons of Zebedee came up to him with her sons, and kneeling before him she asked him for something. And he said to her, “What do you want?” She said to him, “Say that these two sons of mine are to sit, one at your right hand and one at your left, in your kingdom.” Jesus answered, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” They said to him, “We are able.” He said to them, “You will drink my cup, but to sit at my right hand and at my left is not mine to grant, but it is for those for whom it has been prepared by my Father.” And when the ten heard it, they were indignant at the two brothers. But Jesus called them to him and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Matthew 20:20–28 ESV)
Why did the sons of Zebedee ask for these positions of authority? Because they were thinking about themselves. Why were the other 10 disciples indignant when they heard about this? Because they were thinking about themselves. But listen to Jesus and what it looks like to belong to his kingdom. “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave.” You want to be great in the kingdom of God then be a servant. You want to be with Jesus in his kingdom then be a slave to others. Why? Because this is what Jesus did. He did not come to be served but to serve. He came to give his life. We are to give ourselves to each other and serve one another.
Imagine what it would look like if we had the same zeal for the good of others and acted on it like we do for ourselves! Love your neighbor like you would love yourself. Let our words and actions so reflect this love.