A Life of Humble Service
John 13:3–10, 14–16
John chapters 13–18 take place on the night before Jesus is crucified. Verse 1 introduces this section and makes it clear that Jesus was aware His earthly ministry was soon to be over. Chapters 13–16 comprise His last teaching before His crucifixion. Certainly, He chose every word carefully.
Jesus models humble service. (3–5)
These verses show an extreme contrast. Jesus is the one who possesses all things; He is the supreme example of lord and master. Yet He took the role of the lowest of servants to wash His followers’ feet.
People with privileges of fame, power or money often have a difficult time serving. The more advantages they have, the more they expect to be served rather than to serve. In contrast, Jesus readily served His followers rather than expecting them to serve Him.
Can you imagine the vivid picture this painted for the disciples? It was so vivid for John that he recorded it in detail decades later. As the disciples watched their Lord remove His outer garments, take the towel and prepare the water, they probably felt a mixture of bewilderment and embarrassment.
Jesus forgives and makes us completely clean. (6–10)
The exchange between Jesus and Peter had to be awkward. Jesus is trying to imprint upon His disciples the necessity of service and Peter misses the point entirely. It is a testimony to the divinity of Jesus that He did not give up in frustration.
There are three parts to the conversation. First, Peter expresses his astonishment at the idea of Jesus washing his feet. Peter clearly doesn’t understand what Jesus is modeling. His gentle response is in essence, “Trust Me.”
Second, Peter refuses to accept this service. There is a sense of arrogance wrapped in false humility. Peter demurs because Jesus is above him, so Jesus could never be expected to kneel before Peter in service. If that is the case, Peter could never be expected to kneel in service before anyone lower than himself. Jesus’ answer is that if Peter truly wants to follow Him, he must learn to accept the principle of service.
John saw a timelessness in Jesus’ answer that applies far beyond the setting of that evening. Everyone who wants to follow Jesus must accept the cleansing of forgiveness He was about to offer on the cross.
Third, Peter, in typical reactionary fashion, asks Jesus to wash his whole body. Jesus answers that if one has bathed regularly, one needs only cleansing from the dust of sandaled feet. Some interpret a larger meaning in this response, with “bathing” representing believers’ baptism and the washing of feet representing forgiveness and repentance from subsequent sins.
Jesus calls us to humbly serve others. (14–16)
After providing a tangible model of servanthood, Jesus tells the disciples plainly that He expects them to do the same. As a master teacher, Jesus engaged their eyes, ears and tactile senses. The new life Jesus is bringing to His people is typified by humility and service.
When Luke records the same evening, he notes that the disciples argued about who was the greatest of them. Humility is such a difficult practice for humans that even after Jesus’ demonstration the disciples still struggled to understand. Humility and service are difficult, but when we belong to Jesus, He will help us follow His example.
By Daryl Watts
Watts is a church consultant in Fresno, California.