John 13:1-17 Jesus Sets the Example

Next week officially begins the Lenten season, but since we are celebrating our 50th anniversary as a church during lent this year, we are starting our Lenten preaching series today.  Some of you may be wondering, “What is Lent?”  Lent is a period of 7 weeks of preparation before the coming of Easter.  It has historically been a time for prayer, penitence, alms giving and self-denial for the Christian.  It is a time to reflect on one’s life in order to gratefully remember the gift of Christ celebrated at Easter.

Some think this a waste of time because Christians are commanded to live this way all the time.  And they are true, but there is wisdom in paying attention to the church seasons, for life always has a way of running along and losing some of us along the way.  Lent is a wake-up reminding us of who we are and what we are to become, which is why we are going to focus on the last section of John’s Gospel this year.

Unlike the synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) which have Jesus teaching all throughout his ministry, John chooses to set almost all of the teaching of Jesus in the context of the final night our Lord spent with his disciples.  In doing this, John is making a bold theological statement for the Christian church: The teaching of Jesus can only be understood in light of his death and resurrection.  All of Jesus’ teaching is Easter teaching.

George Washington[1]

During the American Revolution a man in civilian clothes rode past a group of soldiers repairing a small defensive barrier. Their leader was shouting instructions, but making no attempt to help them. Asked why by the rider, he retorted with great dignity, “Sir, I am a corporal!”

The stranger apologized, dismounted, and proceeded to help the exhausted soldiers. The job done, he turned to the corporal and said, “Mr. Corporal, next time you have a job like this and not enough men to do it, go to your commander-in-chief, and I will come and help you again.”

It was none other than George Washington.

Today in the Word, March 6, 1991

Salvation Army[2]

In 1878, when William Booth’s Salvation Army was beginning to make its mark, men and women from all over the world began to enlist. One man, who had once dreamed of becoming a bishop, crossed the Atlantic from America to England to enlist. Samuel Brengle left a fine pastorate to join Booth’s Army. But at first General Booth accepted his services reluctantly and grudgingly. Booth said to Brengle, “You’ve been your own boss too long.” And in order to instill humility in Brengle, he set him to work cleaning the boots of other trainees.

Discouraged, Brengle said to himself, “Have I followed my own fancy across the Atlantic in order to black boots?” And then, as in a vision, he saw Jesus bending over the feet of rough, unlettered fishermen. “Lord,” he whispered, “you washed their feet; I will black their shoes.”

There are 2 main parts to today’s sermon: and Samuel Brengle’s experience illustrates one part, the ethical but there is also a theological part.  I want to start with the ethical part, which means we need to begin at the end of the story.  Beginning in verse 12, Jesus interprets his action of washing the disciples’ feet as an example they are to replicate.  He says it is an image of service and servant hood.  In this didactic explanation Jesus welds knowledge and action, knowing and doing, being and serving.


Like Jesus was sent to serve the world, our teacher sends us his students to do the same thing- serve the world and one another.  And if we are stubborn learners, like I am, then Jesus changes the language on us from teacher-student to master-servant.  Our master is sending us out into the world to serve in menial ways

Service isn’t hard.  It isn’t difficult, but it is humbling.  It will call us to open our eyes and see what need to be done. Whether it is picking up the trash in the building or in a parking lot, taking a meal to someone in need, cleaning the church bathroom when you see it is dirty or something else.  All of these things humble us and we readily reject serving in these ways when it doesn’t get us anything.  To this line of living Jesus says, Consider my life, what did I get by serving a bunch of sinful humans.  I was crucified and then I inherited a bunch of misfits who don’t get it most of the time, but I did it anyway because servant love is who I am and who you are to be.


Bob Deffingbaugh[3] made a series of wonderful observations about the ethical aspect of Jesus’ servanthood in this passage:

(1) Our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet was service. Our Lord did the work of a servant as He served His disciples.

(2) Our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet was a necessary, beneficial service.

(3) Our Lord’s washing of the disciples’ feet was menial service.

(4) Our Lord’s service of washing the disciples’ feet was a voluntary act, motivated by love.

(5) Our Lord’s service of washing the disciples’ feet was a task which someone else could have done.

(6) Our Lord’s service of washing the disciples’ feet was His gracious ministry to those who were undeserving, and even to him who would betray his Lord.

(7) Our Lord’s service was the meeting of a need that no one else was willing to meet.

(8) Our Lord’s service does not appear to be very “spiritual” nor very “significant.”

(9) Our Lord’s service was selfless, sacrificial service.


Appling today:

You don’t have to look for this kind of ministry opportunity; it will find you.

We need to focus our attention on those undone things which we have come to expect someone else to do.


Why would we want to live a life of service?  Why would we as Christians be motivated to such a life of menial sacrifice for others?  This is where we move into the theological aspect of today’s sermon and that is why we are returning to the start of chapter 13.  To understand this story and all its implications, we must start by interpreting the story in light of Good Friday and Easter Sunday.  John begins by telling us it is the season of Passover.  In fact, according to 11:55 many went up from the country to Jerusalem for their ceremonial cleansing before the Passover.


Passover was one of the three great feasts when all the nation of Israel was commanded to gather together and worship.  There were to become ceremonially clean, to have taken a bath, washed their clothes and refrained from sexual contact and contact with the dead.  It was a time the Jews celebrated their freedom from slavery in Egypt and a time they relived that freedom by sacrificing animals and allowing the blood to be placed over their homes and on their doorposts.  The cost of the freedom had been the shed blood of many lambs which the angel of death passed over when travelling through the land and slaughtering the firstborn sons of Egypt.


Passover was huge; in fact, it is the only festival that can be celebrated late if someone was out of town during the season. Num. 9:10-11 “Tell the Israelites: ‘When any of you or your descendants are unclean because of a dead body or are away on a journey, they may still celebrate the LORD’s Passover. 11 They are to celebrate it on the fourteenth day of the second month at twilight. They are to eat the lamb, together with unleavened bread and bitter herbs.  Given these realities, we must pay attention and ask, “What does the Passover season have to do with the washing of the disciples’ feet?”


The Next thing John tells us is that Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father (John 13:1b).  Jesus knew that the “very hour” was upon him.  The summation of his life on this earth was about to come.  We have all heard statements like, “She was born for this” or “That is exactly what he was made to do.”  Those statements were never truer than for Jesus Christ.  Jesus was made for the Passover, or in a more accurate theological language, The Passover was made to reveal Jesus.


His hour had come.  The hour when he would glorify the father’s name (12:27).  The hour when the Son of man would be glorified by falling to the ground and dying as a piece of wheat (12:23-25).  The hour when judgment would come on this world and the prince of the world would be driven out (12:31).  It was the hour when the Lamb of God would be offered as the Passover sacrifice and save those in his house and covered by his blood.  It was the hour when the full extent of his love would be shown to a dying, sinful world living in rebellion to the commands and decrees of the Lord of heaven and earth.

The hour had come, and it was pictured in a meal and the acts, which surround it.  There are many who make a lot of hullaballoo about John’s omission of the Eucharistic meal, but could it be that the same reality the pictured in the breaking of the bread and the sharing of the cup is really the very same thing John is picturing in the washing of his disciples’ feet?  I believe it is.


Picture with me what is happening and keep communion in your minds as you do it.  Jesus gets us and removes his clothing and proceeds to attire himself in the clothing of a slave.  That is a fairly shocking picture to begin with, it is like the president of the USA taking off his Armani suit and putting on a pair of coarse white burlap pants like the slaves in America wore.  Then performing a task that only slaves ever performed.  That is exactly the picture we get when Jesus starts to wash the disciples’ feet.  Jewish males were forbidden to wash feet.  It was an act that only slaves, children and women were allowed to perform according to the rabbis.


Jesus was illustrating his life.  A life of humiliating service.  A life of sacrificial service.  In the words of Philippians 2:7-8, “taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death — even death on a cross!” Jesus is illustrating his death and its effect for the believer as he lives out this radical parable of humble service.


And then we come to Peter, who like so many of us, questions the wisdom and the ways of our Lord.  Peter is dumb-founded.  He literally sputters over his words, “Master, you…my…”  He can hardly believe what he is seeing.  The image and its meaning is incomprehensible.  It is fantastic, but even more so, it is shocking.  And isn’t it the case for many today, the idea that God would die is brazen, but that he would die for me is not acceptable at all.


I love Jesus’ response, “you do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand” (13:7).  Jesus’ meets all of Peter’s incredulity with the promise that one-day enlightenment will come and it will be clear what has happened.  I said earlier that we must keep the Passover and the Eucharistic meal in view here, and this is where I got that point.  The understanding of Jesus’ act of service can only make sense for the disciples by looking back on the events that about to transpire over the next three or four days.  Only in being enlightened by the Holy Spirit and recalling the death and resurrection will this act of humility and sacrificial service make sense.  It is a giving of oneself completely and utterly to the Lord.


Even though Peter rejects the offer of the Lord, he eventually submits when Jesus clearly points out the fact that he alone is the way and the truth and the life (14:6).  If Peter is unwilling to submit to the service of the Lord, then he cannot be an inheritor of the Kingdom of heaven.  The Lamb of God must wash Peter if he is to participate in the joy of Christ’s life.  In fact all people must be washed by the Lamb of God otherwise they remain dead in their sins.


Those who wash in the blood of the lamb leave the great tribulation of this world and enter into priestly service in the temple of God.  And they are promised that Rev. 7:16-17 “Never again will they hunger; never again will they thirst. The sun will not beat upon them, nor any scorching heat. 17 For the Lamb at the center of the throne will be their shepherd; he will lead them to springs of living water. And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.”


The blood of Christ, symbolized by this water of washing is what cleanses us as people.

Heb. 9:14 How much more, then, will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself unblemished to God, cleanse our consciences from acts that lead to death, so that we may serve the living God!

Heb. 9:22 In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness.

Heb. 10:2,10 [The sacrifices of the law cannot make perfect those who draw near to worship.]  If it could, would they not have stopped being offered? For the worshipers would have been cleansed once for all, and would no longer have felt guilty for their sins…but through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all, e have been made holy.

Heb. 10:22 let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Why would a Christian ethically want to serve?  Because theologically that is what Jesus has done for us. This is the bath that Christ is talking about and it is the great truth we rehearse every time we eat the communion meal.  But Jesus goes on and makes a statement that has troubled many readers of the gospel for centuries, A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean, though not every one of you (13:10).  If the blood of Jesus is our bath then what is Jesus referring to when he says we need to wash our feet?  And why did Peter want to wash his hands and his head as well?  I will leave you to wrestle with these questions, though I suspect it has something to do with Peter’s understanding of the priesthood.[i]


The washing of feet is a way of saying that once a believer has made the good confession and has been cleansed by the blood of the lamb, there is still more to the Christian life.  The life involves a constant relationship with Jesus where he continuously cleanses us.  And that is done in the words of Ephesians 5:25-27, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her 26 to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word, 27 and to present her to himself as a radiant church, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.

The Christian life has 2 main parts – there is the confessional part which gets tied to justification very heavily in our reformed tradition, but there is also the constant life, the process of sanctification of which self-sacrificing service plays a vital role.


As we enter Lent preparing for the Easter Holiday let us never forget that the theological truths of Christ’s death and resurrection have practical implications – one of them being the service of our brothers.  Jesus has set the example.  Amen!

[i] What I think is going on is this.  In the Old Testament, the priests were consecrated and part of that process included taking a full bath.  Leviticus 8:6 says, Then Moses brought Aaron and his sons forward and washed them with water. From that point on whenever Aaron or his sons were involved in temple service, they didn’t need to completely wash again, they simply needed to wash their hands and feet.


Ex. 30:17-21 Then the Lord said to Moses, 18 “Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar, and put water in it. 19 Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. 20 Whenever they enter the Tent of Meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die. Also, when they approach the altar to minister by presenting an offering made to the Lord by fire, 21 they shall wash their hands and feet so that they will not die. This is to be a lasting ordinance for Aaron and his descendants for the generations to come.”

I surmise that Peter is trying to become “liturgical” on Jesus and that his exuberance misses the whole point where Jesus is trying to steer the disciples’ away from the symbolic to the real.


About Scott Roberts

pastor of Hope in Christ Church, Bellingham, WA
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