Audio Only (with the Old Testament Scripture Reading)
More to the Morality
This morning, we’re taking a second week to consider this very familiar story wherein Jesus washes his disciples’ feet, and calls his disciples to do likewise. It’s a very catching story, isn’t it? The master, the Lord—even God in the flesh—is humbling himself to do a very humble service for his disciples. This is a shocking image, folks, and we need to understand just how shocking it is. It’s not a nice story. It’s not a nice image of a nice Jesus who calls us to go and be nice to one another. I think that’s how we often approach this story. We tend to moralize this story and think that it’s calling us to go and be nice to one another. Folks, do you understand what Jesus is doing, here? That’s literally what he asks his disciples, there in verse 12. “Do you understand what I have done to you?”. This takes thinking, folks—and, lest we miss it, it takes a little bit (not much, but a little bit) of cultural awareness into this whole matter of foot washing. When Jesus says “you must wash one another’s feet”, he’s not simply saying “go be nice”. He’s saying “forget yourself”. He’s saying, “render yourself a worthless slave, the lowest of the low, die to your reputation and ego, and serve one another in that slave-like self-forgetfulness and humility.”
I said it last week, but I’ll say it again lest we miss an important point in this story. Foot washing was the work of slaves in the culture of Jesus’s day, and it was only the work of slaves. It was an important work. People didn’t have nice, cushy Hoka or Nike shoes back then. They
wore simple sandals as they walked about on dusty, hot, sweaty Roman roads. So, what do you think you might want to do when you enter someone’s home? You’d want to wash up—and literally, that was a cultural norm of the day. A standard mark of hospitality involved making the household servant (which was a slave, or a bondservant) available to wash your feet before you entered the home. If you didn’t have a household servant, I imagine the host would arrange an opportunity for you to wash your own feet before entering. But you wouldn’t find anyone of any worth, any dignity, offer to wash someone else’s feet. I even read this week that some rabbis of the day taught that washing another person’s foot was so demeaning to a person that it was unacceptable to have any Jew do it, even if it was a Jewish slave. So, some in that day may have even said “this isn’t even the work of a Jewish slave, this is above a Jewish slave, lest we diminish the integrity of the slave’s Jewish blood. This is only fit for a gentile slave”. I’m not convinced that was the predominate view in Jesus’s day, but you get my point.
Even today, in many parts of the world (especially as you get further into eastern cultures), feet or the dirty bottoms of shoes are regarded as indecent and offensive. To show the bottom of your shoes, or your feet, to someone is akin to giving them the middle finger.
Folks, Jesus voluntarily humbles himself, puts on a slaves’ garb, and washes his disciples’ feet. This isn’t just service. This is complete self-forgetfulness in his service. Then he says words which should grind us to a pulp— “I have set for you an example that you should do just as I have done to you.”
Folks, he’s calling us to follow his example of complete self-forgetfulness in our service to one another. Does that make you squirm? It should. Really—how is this even possible, to follow such an example? I know me—I like myself. I like my dignity. If you’re honest, you’ll probably say the same about yourself. Yet here, Jesus is calling us to a slave-like, radical self-forgetfulness in our service to one another. He’s calling us to follow him in this—even as he’s knowingly washing the feet of Judas! “Love your enemies”, right? Jesus didn’t just say it. He did it. The more you think about what Jesus is calling us to in his example, the more piercing this passage should be. He’s calling us to completely forget ourselves, to die to ourselves, let go of ourselves, and render ourselves as undignified slaves in service to one another. There’s to be nothing beneath us, as we would serve one another. Seriously. How do we follow this example? How do we serve our spouses this way? Our aging parents? Our siblings? Our friends and people at work? Our church? Our enemies? This is what Jesus calls us to, folks. We’d better think about it.
As we press into this story, we’ll see two assumptions for this call to self-forgetfulness and service, and then we’ll consider three encouragements for this call to self-forgetfulness and service.
Two Assumptions for Self-Forgetfulness and Service
So, how do we approach this kind of self-forgetfulness in our service to one another? How do we follow Jesus’s example, here?
In the Christian life, whenever we get into “how do I do this” or “how do I do that”, we must always understand certain, necessary assumptions lest we fall into utter ruin. Before we get into matters of Christian practice, or Christian morality, or Christian ethics and service, we must understand Christian assumptions about who we are, and who Jesus is.
Assumption 1: He Washes First
What do you think Jesus is assuming when calls his disciples to this sort of humility and service? There are two of them that I think are reasonably obvious in this passage.
He already gave us the biggest assumption in the verses we looked at last week—and I think they’re well worth considering again this week. What did he said to them in verse 10 before he called them to follow his example in verse 15? This is so big, folks, and we greatly miss the glory of Jesus in this story if we don’t see this first.
Look again, back at verse 10. Jesus has just washed their feet and told them that “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” So, Peter being bold and spiritual as he often was, said “Lord not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”. Remember that response? I love that. “You’ll have no share with me and my kingdom if I don’t wash you”—and Peter gives a very appropriate response out of zeal and desperation for Jesus’s kingdom. “Lord, bathe me! Wash me whole, Lord!”
Jesus’s response in verse 10 is where we find his assumption we’re looking for. He won’t say “follow my example” without making this assumption clear first. Jesus says “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean…”.
Jesus says “you are clean, already. I’ve already cleansed you, so now you follow my example of humility and self-forgetfulness in service.” You’re clean, therefore you serve after Jesus’s example.
Folks, that’s the gospel. That’s the good news of God’s free grace. He cleanses you. He makes you clean, holy, sanctified, forgiven before God. The Scriptures use all kinds of language to refer to this cleansing—the word cleanses, the Holy Spirit cleanses, Jesus’s blood cleanses. Never will you find Scripture saying that good works perfectly cleanse a sinner before God—although that’s what we naturally want to believe. We naturally want to believe that we can cleanse ourselves by doing the right things. Have you ever tried to cleanse your guilty conscience by weighing the balance scale with an extra good work? You know you did wrong, your conscience is bothering you, so you try to cleanse your conscience with due penance—with some extra good things? Folks, I’ll tell you that the Bible says it won’t stand before God’s perfect holiness. God has given his word, his Spirit, and his sacrifice of Jesus on the cross to cleanse you, and it’s a freedom. It’s a mercy, folks. You don’t need to appeal to your good works to cancel out your bad. You don’t need to play that game of balancing your conscience, or trying to cleanse yourself. Think First John 1:9, for example—
9 If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.
Confess your sins, give them to Jesus, and he’ll cleanse you. That’s it, folks. That’s the gospel. Or you could think of 1 Corinthians 6—
Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practice homosexuality, 10 nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. 11 And such were some of you. But you were washed [i.e., cleansed], you were sanctified [i.e., made holy, pure, clean], you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.
We present ourselves, our sin, our pride, our weaknesses to God, through Jesus’s cleansing blood, and God renders us clean and holy.
So, that’s Jesus’s first assumption in this passage. Before he tells his disciples “go do”, or “follow my example”, he first tells them “you’re clean”. Folks, that’s so freeing. It means you can forget yourself. You don’t need to hold onto guilt and sin, and try to cover it all up. You don’t have to hold onto it and do works of penance to clean yourself up. That’s all self-centered, looking in at yourself. Jesus is calling you to be self-forgetting, humble, looking away from yourself—and you do that first by looking to him for cleansing. From there, folks, you can be freed from yourself, freed to serve others, and freed to serve God out of gratitude rather than out of guilt or penance.
The first assumption before calling his disciples to follow his example: “You are clean”, so go serve freely without sin and God’s wrath hanging over your head.
Assumption 2: This is Contrary to Your Nature
Now, what’s the second assumption Jesus might have in mind, as he’s calling his disciples to follow his example in slave-like, self-forgetting service?
This one, I think, is more or less implied through just about everything Jesus is saying. Just consider the first few things he says in our passage, starting there in verse 12. I love this. He opens up with a really telling question.
Do you understand what I have done to you?
That’s what he opens up with. When would a teacher ask that sort of question? When does a good teacher double check with his students, “hey, I know what I just said is a bit crazy, but do you understand?”. You say that when you assume a student isn’t completely getting it.
Folks, Jesus is presenting to them a summons to service and humility that is entirely contrary to the wisdom of this world and the desires of the flesh. Jesus is calling them to forget their ego; forget their honor; forget their worldly wealth and status; forget their good reputation. “Die to all that, and regard yourself as a menial slave just as I have done”, Jesus says.
Folks, does Jesus expect that to be easy? Does he expect that to come naturally to us? The second assumption, here, is hard-line “no”. He’s assuming this teaching and following his example will be completely contrary to their nature. “Do you understand what I’ve done to you? Do you understand what just happened, here?” Jesus is very much assuming the answer, here, is “no”. Verses 13–14—
13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
You have to wonder what the disciples were thinking at this point. “Oofda”, as my Swedish kindred would say. “Oy vey!”, “ohhhh man”.
Folks, this must have been piercing, frustrating, and incredibly hard to hear for these disciples. I almost wonder if you could’ve heard a pin drop.
You need to know something about these disciples, at this point in Jesus’s ministry. All this foot washing and teaching is happening at a feast—and, particularly the feast of Passover which the other gospels describe. This is literally the night before Jesus was betrayed. If you read of this feast in the other gospels, you’ll see a little bit more insight into what the disciples were discussing at this feast. Luke 22:24 tells us, very simply but very profoundly, “A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.” Can you believe that? These disciples were bickering and quarreling nonstop over these last days of jesus’s life—even up to the moment of this feast—and, they were bickering over which of them was greater. They were bickering over “When Jesus, the Messiah, takes his throne, who of us will be his number 2? Who is the greatest among us?” Meanwhile, Jesus is taking off his clothes, putting on servant’s garb, washing their feet, and calling them to do likewise.
“Do you understand what I have done to you?!”, Jesus says. Folks, he was speaking to bull-headed, self-seeking disciples as he’s literally putting on a display of what kind of humble, self-forgetting service he’s after. But again, he’s very much assuming that it’s not going to sink in. He knows it won’t sink into Judas—that much is clear by the end of this story. He knows it won’t sink into Peter. Chapter 13, here, at this same feast, ends with Jesus predicting Jesus’s death. “You’re going to deny me, Peter, in pursuit of your own self-seeking pride and reputation. I’ll literally be serving you to the death, and you still won’t forget about yourself.”
Folks, what’s our hope? You know yourself. I know myself. This sort of self-forgetting, humble, slave-like, dying-to-yourself kind of service is hard. I seek my own interest every day, even in menial circumstances. The disciples literally had the benefit of seeing and walking with Jesus everyday for 3 years, and they still couldn’t get it right. This sort of stuff is completely contrary to the sinful flesh within us, which always seeks its own desires. What’s the hope? Folks, the hope is Jesus. Remember, assumption #1 before Jesus commends us to follow his example, “you are clean”. You’re clean, so fight the fight of faith, in the freedom of grace, and forget yourself.
But this second assumption on Jesus’s part is also encouraging. This second assumption, again, is that Jesus assumes that our sinful flesh is contrary to the example he’s calling us to. He’s assuming we’re going to struggle to understand and live by his example, so long as the flesh is waging war against us. Positionally before God, yes, we’re clean. Experientially, we still struggle. That’s a huge distinction in the Christian faith. Positionally in God’s courtroom and his holy temple, we’re forgiven and clean and holy through faith in Jesus’s completed work on the cross. But experientially, God has seen it fit to leave us wrestling and waging war against our sin, by faith. Jesus knows and assumes this example will be hard for us. So (and here’s the encouraging part), he helps us. He helps us and serves us in our fight against the flesh and sin and our pride. He helps us be more self-forgetting, and by God’s grace we’ll be much better for it over years of growth in the faith.
Perhaps you remember the distinction we made last week about Jesus’s foot washing. In the same breath, Jesus said “you’re clean” and “I must wash your feet”. He said “I don’t need to wash your whole body, you’re already clean. But I do need to serve you. I do need to wash your feet”. Remember how we teased that out? John Calvin helped us out when he said—
Feet, there, is [representing] all the passions… by which we are brought into contact with the world… [B]y that part in which we are [still] carnal, we creep on the ground, or at least fix our feet in the clay, and, therefore are to some extent unclean.
So, Calvin is teasing out the imagery Jesus used when he said “you’re whole body is clean, except you still need a good foot washing. Insofar as you’re in contact with the flesh, with the world, you still need to be cleansed.” Calvin continues to say—
Thus Christ always finds in us something to cleanse. What is here spoken of is not the forgiveness of sins, but the renewal, by which Christ, by gradual and uninterrupted [progression], delivers his followers entirely from the sinful desires of the flesh.
Folks, Jesus is assuming that we’re going to keep struggling in the flesh and that following his example is going to be hard for us. So, through this foot washing, he’s showing us his commitment to serve us and cleanse us and purify us overtime. He’s your high priest, interceding on your behalf, sanctifying you and teaching you and convicting you through his Spirit and Word. Here, he’s even stooping so low as to show himself to you as your slave, committed to washing your feet insofar as you get stained by the passions of this world.
So no. Jesus isn’t just saying “follow my example, and be humble”. He’s not leaving us in the dust. He’s not giving us rules. He’s giving himself to us as the sacrifice by which we are cleansed, and he’s giving himself to us as a servant at our feet, keeping us cleansed from the world.
So, those are the two assumptions in this passage. (1) you are clean, so follow my example; and (2) his example of humility is contrary to our nature, so he serves us to that end.
Three Encouragements for Self-Forgetfulness and Service
Now, let’s keep reading and consider a two brief encouragements which might deal more directly with actually following his example.
He Stooped Lower
Look again at what Jesus said in verses 11–13,
13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.
Think about how he’s arguing, here. He’s making a “lesser to greater” argument. He’s making an argument that says, “if the rule and standard of self-forgetfulness and humility and service applies to me, your teacher and Lord, then it certainly applies to you, my disciples. In other words, Jesus is saying “there’s no wiggling out of this one”. It’s like being in a business where the rules are consistent across all positions. If the CEO can’t wiggle out of a company policy, there’s no way a new hire in the warehouse would wiggle out of it.
Now, think a little bit more about that. Jesus isn’t just complying to the standard. He’s setting the standard. He’s willingly, voluntarily setting the standard—and he’s doing it for our good. He’s doing it for our salvation, and yes, our example, and it should shock us that he would voluntarily set this standard and lead the way.
Folks, there’s nothing Jesus asks of you, which he didn’t do himself—but even more so. There’s nothing Jesus asks of you, which he didn’t do himself, but even more sacrificially, more humbly, more perfectly, and more steadfastly. He didn’t just set the standard of humility, generically speaking. He blew it out of the water. You will never be in a position wherein you’ll be asked to humble yourself more than Jesus humbled himself. You will never be in a position wherein you’ll be asked to empty yourself of more dignity and honor than Jesus did—and the reason is because Jesus had infinitely more dignity and honor and glory than you will ever have. He emptied himself of infinite, divine glory, folks, when he set this standard. It’s something you and I will never be able to do because we aren’t God. We aren’t Jesus, and it’s unthinkable that God of all persons would be the one to pave the path of complete self-forgetfulness, humility, and service.
When you’re asked to stoop low in humble service to your wife, know that Jesus stooped lower. When you’re asked to stoop low and work long, hard hours in selfless love for your family—know that Jesus worked more selflessly than you. When you’re job feels humiliating and thankless, go tell that to Jesus. He’ll understand far more than you ever will—and folks, he’ll remind you that it is the way to glory. The only way to glory is through humility, through death, through self-forgetfulness as we would look to Jesus and not ourselves. He paved the way through humility and suffering and sin, to glory. So lean into it. Changing the diapers in self-forgetful service and in thankfulness to Jesus for a clean heart and eternal hope is your glory, even as it glorifies Jesus.
So, encouragement #1: When you’re called to stoop low in self-forgetful service, remember that Jesus stooped lower, to bring us all higher.
He stooped indiscriminately (Judas)
Also, remember that when he stooped to serve, he did so indiscriminately. Whose feet did he wash? He washed even Judas’s feet, did he not? He did it, knowing what Judas would do. This was hinted at several times in this passage. If you look back at verse 11, you’ll see very clearly we’re told “he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’” He knew. Then we see the same mentioned in verse 18,
18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he.
Folks, sometimes humble, self-forgetful service involves serving and loving our enemies. It involves literally forgetting yourself and your ego and being willing to be wronged. Paul tells us in Romans 12:20, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Or you could think of Jesus’s words “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you”. The only way you can do that is if you can forget your desire for immediate justice, and if you resign all matters of justice and injustice into God’s hands.
That’s literally what Jesus did. He served his enemies. He blessed them. He knew what they would do—but, he humbled his soul under the Father’s plan and justice for them. My favorite verse on this is First Peter 2:23, when it describes Jesus’s example and how he endured the injustice of the cross—
When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.
In other words, Jesus said “Justice is in the Father’s hands. Right now he’s called me to serve to the death. So, here’s my humble service”.
This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t pursue justice when justice is due. It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t tell someone their fault. Sometimes confronting someone is a humble service to them. Rather, this ultimately means we should pursue God’s purposes in matters of justice—and one thing God’s will is clear about is that we ought to pray for enemies, and serve them insofar as we are able. The only way that’s possible, folks, is if we serve in self-forgetfulness, forgetting our worth and reputation and cry for immediate justice as we might desire, and focus entirely on God’s purposes and justice and hope in Jesus.
As is often said, all matters of justice will be rendered settled either at the cross, for those who are saved in Jesus, or in hell for all eternity. That’s the justice we’re talking about. Pray for your enemies, especially that they would repent and believe in Jesus (so their injustices would be settled at the cross).
Folks, Jesus is setting before us an example of radical, self-forgetful, humble service. He isn’t calling us to occasional foot washing ceremonies. he isn’t calling us to nice, pleasantries of service. He’s calling us to die to ourselves and our reputations, regard ourselves as nothing before others, and serve as we put all our trust and value and reputation in Jesus. He has cleansed us. He is helping us and keeping us unstained from the passions of the flesh, as we continue to wrestle with them. He stooped lower than you ever will, in order to bring you higher than you could ever imagine. He stooped indiscriminately. That’s the service he calls us to, as we identify all of our worth and dignity and glory with his worth and glory at the cross and his subsequent resurrection to eternal life.
As the old Jim Elliot quote goes, “he is no fool who gives up what he cannot keep [your worldly reputation and dignity] to gain what he cannot lose [Jesus’s promised glory].”