I hope to surprise you in today’s message. I’m just putting you on notice. Most of you are very familiar with our text. As soon as we start talking about Jesus washing the disciple’s feet we have a good idea of what the sermon will have for us. On top of that, when you read the title of this sermon, “A Lesson in True Humility,” your suspicions are confirmed. Pastor is going to talk about being a servant, about being humble, about being willing to do the hard things for each other. And you’re right…to a point. But I hope to surprise you. Because the greatest understanding of true humility is not simply to be found in serving, it is to be found in love. While most people think that Jesus was basically saying, “Serve one another,” he was really saying, “Love one another.” I hope you will see this in our text.
John 13 signals a dramatic shift in his gospel account. As we have said on several occasions during this series of messages, John’s gospel came much later than the Synoptic gospels. Approximately 25 years later than Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Because of that, there are some details the Synoptics emphasized that John ignored. He had good reason to do so because the people he was writing to already knew those facts. He didn’t need to repeat everything. He wasn’t starting from zero. He was starting with a pretty significant corpus of truth and evidence. But he had something very important to teach his church. On top of that, he wrote from a heart full of love and appreciation for all that Jesus had done for him. His writings were an overflow of that love. He couldn’t wait to see Jesus again! And he wanted his church to know Jesus the way he had known him. During the 60 years since the Lord had left them, John had spent much time savoring all that Jesus had done and all that he had taught. From that background and mindset, he had something special to say. That’s why the structure of this gospel is so important. That’s also why, as we follow the structure, we gain more insight into the heart of John. Today’s text is a great illustration of that fact.
In the first 12 chapters, John had rehearsed the numerous miracles and discourses that proved conclusively Jesus was the Messiah. Sadly, Israel repeatedly rejected the Lord, just as the prophets had said they would. Now, it was time for Jesus to turn his back on Israel in judgment and focus on his disciples to whom he would give the responsibility of establishing the church. The shift to which we refer is from Jesus’ well-documented public ministry to a focus on his private ministry. Chapters 13-17 are what we commonly refer to as the Upper Room Discourse. Just as Jesus had done in the first section of John’s gospel, offering explanatory discourses following significant miracles, now Jesus will offer private discourses endeavoring to prepare his disciples for his impending death and for their future ministries.
As we come to today’s text we must keep in mind that several things are coming together in a very dramatic fashion. Externally, Jesus and his followers had witnessed the escalation of Jesus’ popularity alongside the increasing hostility from the religious establishment in Jerusalem. One group wanted to make him king and the other group wanted to kill him. These two passionate forces would soon collide…at the cross. So Jesus began a very personal and thorough series of discussions and teachings with his inner circle of 12. Knowing what some of the external factors were from chapter 12, what were some of the internal factors? What was going on with this group of men who had been with Jesus for over 3 years? We can identify at least 5 different issues, dramas if you please, that were going on:
1. They were confused as to why Jesus didn’t accept the popular accolades of the Jews.
2. There was a certain amount of tension going on inside of the group because of a debate over who was going to be greatest in Jesus’ coming kingdom.
3. They were very confused by Jesus’ allusion to the fact that one of them would betray him.
4. They were very confused over Jesus’ teachings that he had to die.
5. They were conscious of the fact that it was the Passover and they knew how important that festival was for the people of God.
Given the tensions among the disciples it has been said that as they entered the Upper Room they filed in like a bunch of sulky schoolboys who had just had a rumble during recess. There was an issue among them. It was part jealousy, part insecurity, and part ignorance. What did they need? They needed the same thing we need. They needed, not a pep talk, but a deeper understanding and experience with the gospel. And that was exactly what Jesus led them in seeing, although it came in a way none of them could have expected.
Let’s see how Jesus guided them to this deeper understanding of the gospel:
I. The Wisdom of Jesus (vv. 1-3, 17)
A. Our text begins, “Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew…” We have to stop right there. It is not by accident that this passage is founded on the infinite wisdom of God. What did he know? Well, we could easily say, “Everything.” But that’s too general, true…but too general. There were specific things that Jesus knew and they all play an important part in the amazing scene that developing before us.
1. He knew the time (v. 1). In our previous chapter, chapter 12, Jesus had already publically declared, “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified (12:23).” Many times previous in John’s gospel the attempts by the Pharisees to capture and kill Jesus had failed because it was not his time. But now, his hour had come. That is the testimony of v.1, “He knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father.” As he then approached helping his inner circle, he did so with the full knowledge of the fact that his hour had come. It was his time.
2. He knew the traitor (v. 2). The workings of Satan are not hidden from the Lord. He was keenly aware of the working of Satan and the role that foolish Judas would play in our Lord’s eventual betrayal, arrest, and death. We read back in chapter 6 that when Jesus chose his 12 disciples he knew that Judas would one day betray him. John 6:70-71, “Jesus answered them, ‘Did I not choose you, the Twelve? And yet one of you is a devil.’” He spoke of Judas the son of Simon Iscariot, for he, one of the Twelve, was going to betray him.” In today’s text there are some variations as to how the Greek text should be translated. In the ESV we read, “When the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas…” That is common to most English translations both ancient and modern. We tend to view the event from the standpoint of what Judas was doing. But the Greek text actually indicates that the emphasis here is on what was set in Satan’s mind. Judas, as infamous and insidious as his role was, was merely a pawn of Satan. He had given himself over to the dark side and he paid a terrible price for that. He is in hell today. But the real enemy in this scenario was Satan. He would endeavor to bring all the forces of evil against Jesus. But his defeat was already promised. Genesis 3:15, “he shall bruise your head” was God’s declared promise to one day defeat Satan. Jesus was fully aware of the traitor in their midst and the intent of Satan.
3. He knew the truth (v. 3) Moving from Jesus’ complete knowledge of what Satan was trying to do, he also was anchored by the knowledge of what God was going to do. “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God…” Everything Jesus had ever done during his earthly ministry was for the purpose of exalting the Father and to complete the Father’s plans. Jesus was content with the Father’s plan and knew that through it he would be glorified and his Father would also be glorified.
B. All of this significant knowledge would come full circle when Jesus would conclude this simple lesson with the words of v. 17, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” Jesus’ knowledge was complete. All wisdom belonged to him. Therefore, his teaching was grounded in that which was true. In this sense, Jesus was purposefully drawing his disciples deeper into the truth of the gospel. The cross and the call of the Christian life of selfless discipleship were not evidence of failure but of success. The cross would be where God’s glory would shine brightly. It was important for his disciples to learn this and to stand in the truth. That is the heart of the gospel. But also inherent to the gospel is the message of love. We will discover that this emphasis is central to both Jesus’ actions as well as his words.
II. The Example of Jesus (vv. 4-11)
A. We commented at the beginning of this message that there were several mini-dramas going on in the lives and hearts of the disciples. Of this, Jesus was fully aware. Probably closest to the surface and the one immediately affecting the atmosphere in the room was the debate over who would be greatest in the kingdom. Some of the disciples were confused and some were angry. (see Luke 22:24-30) They were growing in their suspicions of one another. It was in this atmosphere that Jesus surprised them beyond description.
B. Our text simply states that Jesus quietly arose (they were all reclining around the table as was the custom for the Passover dinner) removed his outer clothing, wrapped a towel around his waste and quietly began to wash each of the 12’s feet. By removing his outer garments Jesus not only was acting like a slave in doing such a menial task but he looked like a slave! Evidently, the disciples were speechless. It wasn’t until he got to Peter that anyone said anything. Leave it to Peter to be the one to speak.
C. Many preachers and teachers are critical of Peter but we must bear in mind that his actions and words were born out of his deep devotion to Jesus. Was he still ignorant of the fact of Jesus’ impending death? No question. Was he reactionary in his words and actions? Yes. But never forget that he was moved because of his deep love. As Jesus approached him, Peter was puzzled, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” This was totally unheard of. There was never a case where a master would wash the feet of his followers. Not one! In Jewish culture, the act of foot washing was considered so lowly that even a Jewish slave wasn’t required to do it. Only Gentile slaves would suffice. To see Jesus looking like a lowly slave and performing a lowly task was just too much for Peter.
D. Jesus’ words to Peter, although very prophetic, were not comprehended. “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” It is truly amazing that Jesus would speak so directly to Peter’s need for knowledge and yet Peter missed what our Lord was communicating. We have noted frequently through our study in John’s gospel that it documents the many things that the disciples did not understand until later.
E. Peter’s second response to Jesus was even stronger. “You shall never wash my feet.” The word translated “never” in this verse actually means “even into eternity.” Peter was adamant that Jesus should never wash his feet. He was insistent. But our Lord had a simple response. “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Literally, your won’t be a part of my life, my mission, or my kingdom. That was a sharp rebuke although worded so simply. In typical Peter fashion he exclaimed, “Oh! Well, not my feet only but my head and my hands!” You can’t help but smile at Peter’s sudden reversal in desire. And that’s exactly why I say that to understand Peter we must understand his deep devotion to the Lord. He wanted the Lord more than anything but his devotion was going to go through a testing that he could never have anticipated.
F. Clearly, Jesus was teaching his disciples the importance of cultivating a servant’s heart if they were to understand the distinction of his kingdom. There, the first will be last, the foolish will confound the wise, and the greater will serve the lesser. It was all contrary to normal human reasoning but Jesus had a message they needed to understand. Guiding them lovingly he would simply say to them, “As you have seen me do, you do also.” Serve.
G. We cannot move on the final emphasis of this text without noting that clearly there was a connection between the washing of the disciple’s feet and the cleansing we all need from sin. When Peter basically asked to be given a complete bath Jesus responded, “That’s not necessary because you are already clean.” Then he drew a sharp distinction between Peter and Judas when he said twice, “But not all of you are clean.”
H. Some teachers want to use this text to make a case for baptism being necessary for salvation. That is not to be found in this text. That’s not to be found anywhere in Scripture. Jesus was simply using the “cleansing” concept to make a distinction between the disciples who were redeemed and Judas who was lost. It’s nothing more than that.
I. The Lord knows those who are his. This truth is emphasized over and over in John’s gospel. It was a bedrock truth of the message John preached. The Lord knows his own. In chapter 17 Jesus will celebrate the fact that he had not lost even one of those whom the Father had given him. The distinction between the lost and the saved in God’s mind is unmistakable.
III. The Love of Jesus (vv. 12-17)
A. In the closing paragraph Jesus further explained what had been declared about him in v. 1. Having loved his own he loved them to the end. Literally, he loved them in a complete and wondrous way. He loved them to the fullest. He loved them with an eternal love. He loved them to the point of sacrifice. This lesson of foot washing was not only about serving. It was also an explanation of the nature of true love. The kind of love that Jesus has for his own. We call it agape love. Unconditional love. But to fully understand this love we have to see it in the context of sacrifice. When Jesus laid aside his robes and took on the form of a servant he did so in order that he might not only teach how to serve but also how to love. This is a truth that rarely gets explored in this text. But to miss it is to miss the heart of our Savior.
B. This sets the tone for all of chapters 13-17. For five wonderful chapters Jesus will demonstrate his deep love for his disciples and for every believer who would ever trust in him. That is an amazing legacy of love! But his love was only possible because his sacrifice was so great. It is only through humility and sacrifice that completely unconditional love can be demonstrated. Jesus was calling his disciples to sacrificial service in order that they might experience and demonstrate true love. Love that costs us nothing is not love. Love that is all about gratification and about fulfilling our needs is not love. But love that is born in sacrifice is love most like that of the Savior.
C. What was obvious to the disciples was that Jesus had broken all the rules. No master had ever humbled himself in such a manner. What he had done was unmistakable. And his surprising example was designed to take them deeper into the wondrous truths of the gospel. The fact that salvation is ours because of Jesus’ sacrificial death on a cross. The fact that as believers we are called to model this same sacrificial spirit in all that we do. Love…even to the point of sacrifice.
Conclusion: True love flourishes in sacrifice. That’s because true love isn’t about gratification or indulgence. That’s more the way of human love. True love, the kind of love that God desires from a Christian, grows out of adversity and humility. It is the nature of agape love to be selfless, sacrificial, and self-giving. Only absolute humility can generate absolute love. And Christ stands as the greatest example of this love. May we love the way he loved!