Learning to Serve from the Master

In John 13, we get an inside look at a personal ministry of Jesus to his disciples. Altogether, this time spent with them took place in less than a day. Yet, from John 13-17, John records many things that Jesus taught them in those hours. As John 13:2 mentions, this happened after the disciples had observed the Passover meal (from which we get the Lord’s Table). That same night, Judas would betray Jesus and the religious leaders would arrest him. He would die on the cross within hours. But though the shadow of these ominous events moved over him, he focused on teaching his disciples some very precious lessons to prepare them for lives of fruitful service. In summary, the truth about Jesus enables you to be a servant.

Though the shadow of these ominous events moved over him, he focused on teaching his disciples some very precious lessons

Consider what Jesus said and did at the beginning of this special time in his ministry. You should pay close attention, because anyone one who is a disciple of Jesus should learn the same lessons that Jesus was teaching his first twelve followers.

Jesus served as no one else would do.

John tells us that after they had eaten the Passover meal together, Jesus did something that was forever etched into the memory of John. “Jesus … rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.”

The way that John writes this, you get the impression that he was focused on what Jesus was doing from the moment he rose to prepare himself for foot-washing. From the moment Jesus stood up, he had captured the attention of John and the other disciples.

What Jesus did was remarkable and shocking. As we have already learned from the example of Mary, when she washed the feet of Jesus, foot-washing was a task that only the lowest servants would do. In fact, the Jewish people would only require Gentile servants to do this, not Jewish ones. (Servants were usually people hired on a contract-basis to do work for someone else.) For whatever reason, the disciples had eaten the entire Passover meal, but no one had washed their feet, so their feet were still dirty from walking the streets of Jerusalem in their sandals. Any one of them could have volunteered to do this, but no one did – until Jesus did.

Any one of them could have volunteered to do this, but no one did.

Have you ever been in a situation like this before? You’re together with other Christians and something needs to be done, but no one is volunteering to do it? How do you respond?

We fail to comprehend the significance of what he did.

Notice what happened next. “Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, are You washing my feet?’ Jesus answered and said to him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.’”

When Jesus came to Peter, to wash his feet, Peter said what every other disciple was already probably thinking: “Why are you washing my feet?” Peter was not asking this question because he felt sorry for Jesus. He was asking this question because he believed that Jesus would soon become the king, and he wanted to have a powerful government position in that kingdom. But if Jesus was going around doing things that only the lowest servants would do, what would happen to the prospects of Peter?

Peter asked this question for selfish reasons. It is also intriguing to notice that he did not offer to wash feet in the place of Jesus, for he was not trying to solve the problem or meet the need. He was merely looking out for his own selfish interests.

Jesus answered Peter by telling him that he did not comprehend the significance of what he was doing. In fact, no matter what Jesus would do or say, Peter (and the other disciples) would understand only after Jesus had died and rose from the grave. So, he taught them in the present knowing that they would understand what he said in the future.

Sometimes teaching people the truth about Jesus and the Christian life is like that, isn’t it? You teach things today hoping that the people you love will remember and understand what you said in the future. Or, in a more personal way, you look back at what other people taught you from the Bible in the past, and you remember and understand it finally today.

He illustrated spiritual truth about salvation.

Notice how Peter pretended to understand what Jesus was saying (even though he did not). “Peter said to Him, ‘You shall never wash my feet!’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.’ Simon Peter said to Him, ‘Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ For He knew who would betray Him; therefore He said, ‘You are not all clean.’”

Here Jesus refers to spiritual cleansing. First, he refers to initial salvation, or being “born again.” He teaches that the only way to receive salvation from sins is to come to him for cleansing.

Jesus would repeat this lesson later that night, when he said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). This truth about Jesus would become the hallmark of the Christian faith. Paul preached the same message in Acts 4:12, “Nor is there salvation in any other, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.”

This truth about Jesus would become the hallmark of the Christian faith.

Second, Jesus also refers to the need for ongoing cleansing and renewal in the Christian life after believing on Jesus for salvation initially. That is what he means when he said, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean.” Once you have been cleansed by Jesus Christ, you will always be cleansed in the sight of God, eternally and completely. Nevertheless, to maintain a vibrant daily relationship with God, you need him to “wash your feet.”

John teaches about this later in his first letter when he says, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Just as it is important for you and me to wash our hands from time to time, it is necessary to name our sins to God so that Jesus Christ can restore to us a healthy, vibrant relationship with God and one another.

It is necessary to name our sins to God so that Jesus Christ can restore to us a healthy, vibrant relationship with God and one another.

Knowing this, Jesus said that those twelve men were already “completely clean.” He meant that they were already born again and had already believed on him for salvation. Yet he qualified what he said, saying, “You are not all clean.” He said this because Judas was not genuinely converted, though everyone else thought that he was.

He gave you an example to follow.

Apparently, Jesus taught the first lesson while he was washing the feet of his disciples, but he taught a second lesson after his washing was finishing. “So, when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’”

Now he explains a crucial lesson he was attempting to teach them. First, he made it clear that by washing their feet, he had not contradicted the truth that he was the Lord. “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am.”

On the basis of this fact – that he is the Lord and we are his followers – he emphasized that his disciples should not expect to do less than he had done in that moment. “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 should do as I have done to you. Most assuredly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master; nor is he who is sent greater than he who sent him.”

Friends, here is the plain and simple fact. If Jesus, who is the Lord of the universe, was doing the right thing when he did the work of the lowest servant, then you and I need to stop insisting on better for ourselves. Jesus was not doing something inappropriate and unusual to teach this lesson. He was doing the right thing to teach a lesson. It was the right thing, not the wrong thing, for him to do when he washed the disciples’ feet.

If Jesus, who is the Lord of the universe, was doing the right thing when he did the work of the lowest servant, then you and I need to stop insisting on better for ourselves.

Sadly, too many believers like you and me want to do either nothing at all (because we’re lazy) or only big, grand, and great things (because we’re proud). But friends, that is not the way of our master. Jesus came to serve, not to be served, and Jesus is the Lord of the universe. You are certainly not the Lord of the universe, but like the disciples that evening in the upper room, you naturally tend to look at something like foot-washing that needs to be done and refuse to do it because it is below you. That’s the wrong perspective, isn’t it? Are you willing to change that?

Are you willing to see a need and meet it?

  • Will you try it when you go home today with your family?
  • Will you try it at work this week?
  • Will you try it when you hear about someone in our church who needs some help?

It’s easy to see a need, but anyone can do that. It’s easy to criticize when other people don’t step forward to meet a need, but no one should do that. It’s important to meet a need, and every one of us should do that, but we don’t.

He was confident in the plan of God.

How could Jesus do take the role of the lowest servant, when he was the Lord of the universe? Wouldn’t this behavior threaten his prospects of future glory and promotion? Would this look bad on his resume and spoil his forward momentum? That’s what this world teaches, doesn’t it? It says to promote yourself. It says to look for a big break and take it to get ahead. It even says to cut some corners and be willing to cheat a little bit to get the edge on your competition.

But this is not the way of our master. Jesus looked at a crowd chanting for him to become their king on one hand, and he looked at a bucket of water and some dirty feet on the other. He chose the bucket, and I’m supposed to do the same.

Jesus looked at a crowd chanting for him to become their king on one hand, and he looked at a bucket of water and some dirty feet on the other. He chose the bucket.

How could Jesus make this choice? John tells us. “Knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God.”

Jesus knew – that is he fully comprehended and understood – all that God had promised and planned to do. He knew his mission. He knew his purpose. He knew the reason for his existence as a man, the strategic importance of his death on the cross, and the unchanging plan of God to provide salvation to the world.

He also knew with complete certainty that God would raise him up from the grave, then raise him up to the throne of the universe and give him authority and power over all things. He knew that in the end he would be granted the opportunity to bring complete and final justice over all things, banishing evil into the Lake of Fire forever and bringing in his kingdom people saved by his blood forever.

Knowing these things, Jesus was able to take the position of the lowest servant with confidence. He had nothing to lose. After all, the way up is down in the kingdom of God, and the way to life is death. Jesus knew this, and today Jesus does sit on the throne of God waiting to judge the world and to make all things right.

Jesus was able to take the position of the lowest servant with confidence. He had nothing to lose.

But what about you? Do you feel the overwhelming pressure of this world to promote yourself and to avoid doing little things while you chase after big things? This principle applies to your life in at least two ways.

An employee in the working world

First, your life as an employee in the working world – whether blue collar or white collar, green collar or gold collar, gray collar or orange collar, no collar at all or a student – goes in the right direction when you follow this principle. Learn to take the little opportunities that present themselves, the jobs and tasks that no one else will take because they are somehow “below them.”

Take on those tasks voluntarily and do them with all your heart. No matter what collar you are in life, you must learn that God is your boss, your manager, and your CEO. He is your king, your master, and your Lord. You work for him, no matter what other person he has placed in your manager’s chair (Eph 6:5-8; Col 3:22-24).

You need to learn that God, not bosses and supervisors, is the one who promotes people. The future is in God’s hands – therefore, you can be a servant. For exaltation comes neither from the east nor from the west nor from the south. “But God is the Judge: he puts down one, and exalts another” (Psa 75:6-7). You can do the most insignificant of things with all your heart for the glory of God and know that if God means for you to get a promotion, then he’ll give you one. Period.

You can do the most insignificant of things with all your heart for the glory of God and know that if God means for you to get a promotion, then he’ll give you one. Period.

A citizen in the kingdom of God

Second – and most importantly – learn that the way God builds his kingdom in this world and reaches hearts with eternal life is through the lives of his disciples who learn the way of the master, who learn to serve rather than to be served. It is through people who learn to see little things and do them, no matter how insignificant those things may be, that God will influence the world.

As disciples of Jesus, we need to understand that God is not looking for Christians like you and me to do great, big things for him. He is looking for you and me to be willing to do the little things around us that we see every day.

  • The dishes that need to be washed.
  • The gentle words that people need to hear.
  • The doors that need to be opened.
  • The trash that needs to be taken out.
  • The nursery or classroom that needs a teacher.
  • The phone calls that need to be made.
  • The tears that need to be wiped.
  • The floors that need to be scrubbed.
  • The discouraged hearts that need to be lifted.

These are the things – the opportunities – that the disciples of Jesus need to embrace. You should not wait for someone to tell us to do them. You should not criticize when others fail to do them. You should not complain when we do these things and receive no appreciation as a result. You see, it is through opportunities like this that Jesus builds his kingdom and spreads the message of eternal life.

One man, Michael Horton, says this: “Everyone wants to save the world, but no one wants to do the dishes.” What about you? Jesus said it best: “You also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you.”

This is the pathway to follow. In the end, those who learn to serve like the Master will be called great in the eternal kingdom of God. Do you believe that? Perhaps you remember what Jesus said near the end of the previous chapter. “If anyone serves Me, let him follow Me; and where I am, there My servant will be also. If anyone serves Me, him My Father will honor” (John 12:26). This is still true today.

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