A Life of Humble Service


A Life of Humble Service

John 13:1-17

Main Idea: The way to follow Jesus is to serve others humbly.

  1. Jesus Gives Us an Example of Humble Service (13:1-5).
  2. Jesus Gives Us the Ability to Serve Humbly (13:6-17).

Religion is focused on what I’ve done, what I do, and what I have the capacity to do in the future. When that’s the case, every action I make is judged on the basis of what it does for me. Even my works of mercy and compassion will be attempts to balance my ledger sheet. The motivation stems from my desire to be a better person or my hope to remain in God’s favor.

Jesus shows us a different approach. We are not the focus; in order to love and serve others selflessly, we need to look beyond our own lives. What he does, that Confucius or Ghandi cannot, goes beyond teaching what we should do and how we should live and actually gives us the power to live differently. Religion says, “Look inside yourself, and you will find the strength to live a life of service to others.” Jesus says, “Look to me. I will show you the path to serving others, and I will give you the strength to live selflessly.”

The Gospel of John calls us to follow Jesus. Following him is not a path to human greatness or man’s acclaim. Following Jesus means we will put down the respect and riches of this world and pick up a wet, dirt-stained towel and use it to clean someone’s muddy feet. The way to follow Jesus is to serve others humbly.

Jesus Gives Us an Example of Humble Service

John 13:1-5

These verses are reported in shockingly simple language. It’s almost like reading a newspaper report about last week’s weather. But this isn’t an average peasant from the streets of Jerusalem who’s washing the dirty, smelly feet of these uneducated and illiterate fishermen. This is the Lord of all Creation; he simply speaks and universes are created from nothing. One word from his mouth and Saturn with all of its rings bursts forth. What is he doing scrubbing these guys’ toes?

The previous few verses make this act even more shocking. Verse 1 introduces the second half of the book. It locates the following events in the middle of the Passover celebration, but it’s more than a chronological reference. It points us to the upcoming sacrifice of the Lamb of God. When Jesus burst on the public scene, John the Baptist cried out, “Here is the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (1:29). The Gospel of John has been building to this point, when the Lamb would take his place on the altar and his blood would spill out, bringing forgiveness of sin. We are marching deeper and deeper into the shadow of the cross; everything from this point on is leading us directly to that moment when Jesus would be suspended on that cursed tree for our sakes. For him to stop in the middle of that journey to wash the feet of his disciples is noteworthy. We need to feel the gravity of what he’s teaching us.

Jesus’s love for his disciples becomes one of the driving themes for the rest of the Gospel (13:1). This act of service demonstrates his love for these men, but it goes beyond that. In this example Jesus teaches us no one is above serving. Jesus doesn’t deny his character by serving these men. His character makes this act of service even more profound. What follower of Jesus has the right ever to refuse serving? If our Master will humbly serve others, we are not exempt (v. 16). We have no standing to say, “I’m too good to do that.” We need to beware the excuses we make for not serving others. We need to trace them back to their source. Is this excuse I’m making a legitimate reason, or is it a conscience-soothing way of saying, “I’m too good to serve them” or “I’m too important to serve in that way”? The service Jesus desires springs from humility. Nothing kills selfless service like pride.

In this example of humble service, we learn another vital lesson: No one is below being served. In this chapter we’re reminded repeatedly about the upcoming betrayal by Judas. How many pairs of feet did Jesus wash? Twelve. Jesus even washed the feet of Judas, knowing full well what he was going to do (v. 2). Judas is in league with Satan at this point, but Jesus still stoops before him as a humble servant and slowly washes the caked dirt and grime off his feet. Would you have washed Judas’s feet? I’ve decided I would have cleaned his feet with some paint thinner and a match. Not Jesus. He carefully washes the feet of a traitor, just as he washed the feet of Peter and James and John. Is anyone going to do worse things to you than Judas did to Jesus? No.

Though no one is below being served, in verse 14 Jesus narrows the focus of our humbleness to the family of God. Our brothers and sisters are to be the primary recipients of our selfless acts of kindness. We don’t turn a blind eye and deaf ear to the needy outside the church, but our first order of business is to meet the needs of one another in the church. We have a unique bond with one another, namely that we are servants of the same Master. We all call Jesus “Lord.” Our shared allegiance to Jesus is the root of our service to one another.

A trait of humble service, which simply cannot be counterfeited, is the willingness to be inconvenienced for someone else’s benefit. Imagine a Christian woman who is the evangelical version of Martha Stewart. She loves to throw big events and have people into her home as long as she can plan and prepare for weeks in advance. Being inconvenienced for her might mean noticing a sister is struggling one Sunday morning, walking over to her, and inviting her and her family over for dinner even though she has nothing prepared. Or picture a man—spontaneous, outgoing, the life of the party—who sees a brother dealing with a problem that will take months of work, months of tedious and difficult effort. Being inconvenienced for him may mean spending weeks and weeks doing the tiresome labor necessary to help him through the situation.

Jesus Gives Us the Ability to Serve Humbly

John 13:6-17

History gives us many great examples of selflessness. What sets apart this example of Jesus is not only that he is God (and therefore is the only one who legitimately deserves worship) but that through his selfless service we are given the ability to serve others as well. In this act of humble service, we’re pointed to a greater, more powerful act of service. Jesus was showing them he had come not to be served but to serve. In just a few hours he would humble himself and serve them through his death on the cross. This becomes clearer in his conversation with Peter, in which he tells Peter they will understand “afterward” (vv. 6-7). Not after the act, but after the resurrection. Looking back on the foot washing, they would realize Jesus was portraying the necessity of humbling himself in order to serve them. He had to become a servant for them to have life.

Peter, of course, thinks he understands now. I love what Kent Hughes writes: “Good old Peter. Sometimes the only time he opened his mouth was to change feet!” (John, 314). Unless Jesus humbles himself as a servant, unless Jesus selflessly offers his life in Peter’s place, Peter would have no ability to follow him (v. 8). Jesus’s service on the cross (pictured here by foot washing) is what makes discipleship possible. That’s why when Peter then asks Jesus to wash all of him, Jesus replies that it’s unnecessary. The point right here is not the depth of Peter’s sin. The point is the necessity of Jesus’s sacrifice. His ultimate act of humble service upholds all acts of Christian service and discipleship that follow. If he had not taken on the form of a servant and humbled himself to death, even the death on a cross, then we would have no ability to follow him. If he had not done that, then his words and his example of washing the disciples’ feet would have been nothing more than a historical footnote. However, because of his humiliation, we have been made capable of walking in his steps. He doesn’t just provide the pattern for service; he provides the power to serve.

He makes this point again in verse 15. When we read those words “just as,” we think it refers simply to being an example, but there’s more to it than that.

[Just as] indicates not only similarity and adherence to a standard but also the ground on which this discipleship rests and the source from which it gains its strength . . . it directs them to Jesus’ self-sacrificial love for them as the source and driving force for their love for each other. (Ridderbos, John, 463)

We will not humbly serve others in our own strength. We need Jesus’s help. Humble service flows from the gospel. The power to serve one another is not found inside of us. We don’t tap into inner strength or discover secret power reserves. We fall on our faces before Jesus and beg him to help us serve others. We rely on the Holy Spirit to enable us to love others and put their needs before our own.

This kind of humble service has to be rooted in the gospel. What Jesus commands is not an action but an attitude. Foot washing is not the point. Some have taken this as a command to literally wash the feet of others, but foot washing can be done arrogantly. It can be performed with a cold, dead, and uncaring heart. That’s why the focus is on desire, not duty. To follow Jesus by humbly serving our brothers and sisters requires a fundamental transformation of our nature. We are selfish, independent, arrogant sinners with cold, hard hearts—what Jesus demands from us is to live as selfless, trusting, humble servants. The only way that’s possible is if who I am fundamentally changes. Unless someone performs heart surgery on me, I cannot live a life of humble service.

Thankfully, when Jesus humbly sacrificed his life on the cross in my place, absorbing the wrath of God and giving me the gift of faith so that I would turn in repentance, faith, and obedience to him, he changed my nature. He gave me a new heart. Now what was impossible—a life of humble service—is not only possible; it’s wonderful. It is the path of true joy (v. 17). Joy, happiness, and blessing come not from a life of selfish accumulation but from a life of self-denying compassion and service. But humble service is not natural. Sin, self-gratification, pride, and the desire for power and control are natural. Jesus is telling his disciples in essence, “My humble service to you on the cross, pictured by this act of foot washing, will enable you and empower you to live as you were intended to. It will change your desires and goals, your dreams and wishes. It will change your fundamental makeup. You’ll learn that as you follow me, joy and happiness will find you: not standing on the throne, issuing edicts, and receiving tribute—blessing will find you kneeling on the floor, towel in hand.”

Jesus does not call us to a life of leisure but of labor. He doesn’t call us to follow him down paths sprinkled with gumdrops and lined with lollipops but down dirt-covered, sweat-stained paths—paths that stink, paths that are not simple or clean or neat. The cost of discipleship is high, but it’s worth it. God’s blessing comes to the genuine disciple—the one who follows Jesus into a life of humble service. Of all the marks of discipleship Jesus could have highlighted, he highlighted a willingness to pick up a towel and get our hands dirty. Few things we do make the gospel more beautiful and compelling than when someone sees Christians with dirty towels and clean feet. Dirty towels and clean feet make the gospel clear—everyday people doing everyday things to serve others. That’s what humble service looks like. That’s what following Jesus looks like.

Reflect and Discuss

  1. How does Jesus show us a different path than religion?
  2. How would you respond if Jesus were to wash your feet?
  3. Why is Jesus’s washing the feet of his disciples not a denial of his character as Master?
  4. Do you find it hard to serve people you view as undeserving? What are some excuses you make?
  5. Would you have washed Judas’s feet? Why does Jesus?
  6. What are some ways you can show loving service to fellow believers through inconvenience?
  7. Describe the significance of the words “just as” to the Christian life (v. 15).
  8. How is the focus of this passage desire rather than duty?
  9. What is Jesus teaching his disciples by washing their feet?
  10. How is humble service a picture of the gospel to an unbelieving world?