It’s always good to be with you, and especially to be able to open the Word together and to learn from our Lord. If you have your Bibles, would you turn in them and to the gospel from God in the book of John, chapter 13. We’ll be reading together the first seventeen verses. Follow with me if you will in whatever translation you have:
“Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 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, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.’ Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ Simon Peter said to him, ‘Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!’ Jesus said to him, ‘The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.’ For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 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 also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.’”
Let’s pray together.
Our wonderful Lord, even as we open again Your Word, only You can open our hearts. And we pray that You would do that in us, that You would be working by Your Spirit such that we would understand You and ourselves before You and that You would help us grow in the grace that we have. And in this, Lord, we commit ourselves to You and pray this with thanksgiving, Lord Jesus. Amen.
I need to set just a little bit of a stage here as we’re looking into this thought-provoking, relatively familiar passage for many of us. It’s a somewhat amusing section of Scripture in some ways as well. This comes in the last days of our Lord’s ministry on earth. You see in verse 1, Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of the world and to the Father. He knows that He is on the glide path to the cross and to His resurrection. In verse 3 it says His knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands. That He had come from God and was going back to God. And so He’s taken the disciples with Him to Jerusalem. And there they are, in a particular context of an evening meal. They’re not guests of anyone; they have no particular place that had been prepared for them. They found a place. They’ve spread a meal that they’ve put together, having gone to the local Fresh Market, and so now they’ve come together. Verse 2 says, basically implying that they’ve finished the meal, and they’re sitting around perhaps drinking big mugs of Starbucks coffee. We’re not quite sure exactly, but we get the idea that there’s some fellowship going on, some bantering, sparring going on as well.
We’re really not told what they’re talking about, but we do see that the Lord, all of a sudden, stops and He takes off His outer garments, He wraps a towel around His waist, and I can just picture the disciples who are perhaps startled thinking, “What is He doing?” Well, when you look at this, it says that Jesus, in verse 5, poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around Him. Why did He do this? What was going on here? We’re not really sure what prompted Him, but obviously, something had happened. And perhaps with a little sanctified imagination, it's kind of easy to think, "You know, something must have been going on in the conversations that He was hearing from the people around Him." I suspect that there was a connection. It's not likely that the talk that was going on around the table was terribly edifying. If you know the disciples, you know that there was a constant spirit of competition between them, as perhaps who would be doing ministry the way that it ought to be done; who was perhaps the most favored and who would perhaps be rewarded the most.
I don't know if this really fits into your picture of the disciples and what you see them as having been, but there are many passages that Scripture gives us that give us little snippets, little snapshots in an understanding of what these men must have been like. There're several places that talk about the lack of mutual respect between them. A sense of lack of teamwork between them. I just mentioned a couple of them. Luke chapter 22 verse 24 speaks of the disciples' attitudes. It says, "There was also a rivalry among them as to which of them would be considered the greatest." Matthew chapter 20 verse 20 and Mark chapter 10 we see James and John's mother who lobbies for her sons to get favored positions for her sons in Christ’s kingdom. You talking about a busybody mother! A dysfunctional family in operation! It’s fascinating to watch. In Mark chapter 9 verse 33 it says, “When he was in the house, he” that is, Jesus, “asked his disciples, ‘What was it that you disputed among yourselves on the road?’” And it says, “They kept silent, for on the road they had disputed among themselves who would be the greatest.” What an interesting crew.
Now I’m sure no one here at First Presbyterian Church would have any thoughts like that, just like seminary students never think things like that either! I had a friend in college on time who used to tongue in cheek say, “You know, we’re all doing the Lord’s work – you in your way and I in His!” If jealousy weren’t enough, then things actually from the outside, things were really actually not doing very well. The Lord's popularity had taken a noticeable dip in the Nelson polls. People were flocking to Him to see the miracles and to hear the amazing teaching. They loved to see Him heal people. They really loved seeing Him feed them out of nothing. I mean if you want to rustle up a crowd, just feed people! And they had come and they had watched and they were amazed, but when He started talking to them about the true costs of discipleship, people started leaving. They started walking away. And then in verse 2, we see here, it says, Judas had already decided to get out himself. In some ways, you might say that Judas decided that he had been on the wrong horse, that this was not the kind of kingdom that he thought he was going to be getting. It's not what he really wanted to do, and so he's decided that he's going to get out while he could and perhaps make a little bit of money on the side by doing it.
If you think about it for just a moment, you think about these men, you begin to get a picture of who they were and what they were really like. After three years of walking with God on earth, Jesus, what kind of attitude did they have? What was their relationship with each other and before the Lord? These were the people that would be left with the charge and that God would use to build His kingdom. These would be the Spiritual Seal Team 6. These were the rangers. These were the best of the best in some ways. Surely that is who they would have been if God had chosen them to walk with Him. Just like us, they struggled with motives in ministry as well. And apparently, they don’t get along terribly well with each other, certainly at times. I picture in my mind a bunch of alley cats in some ways being tied up in a burlap bag. They might be calm a little while, but then they’re going to break out. Something’s going to happen. It’s a lot of, perhaps, what’s going on behind the scenes.
Teaching by Example
And then all of a sudden you notice that Jesus does not butt into the conversation. Jesus doesn’t argue with them or He doesn’t interrupt them. There’s no harshness in His words. There’s no confrontation. “Peter, would you please grow up?” Someone made the quip one time. They said, “Do you know what the difference is between an American man and a US savings bond?” And the answer is, “Eventually a savings bond will mature.” You notice our Lord, even these last hours of His ministry on earth, He’s still living out His character. He’s still living out His calling. He’s not ringing His hands over these men in their immaturity and their self-centeredness. He continues to teach them and He does it in the most powerful way that there is to teach. Really, in the long run, it’s the only way to teach. And that’s first by example and then by instruction.
We all know, and most of us are relatively familiar with this passage, but we know that the custom, the practice of washing feet was something that was done usually before a meal. And it usually was provided by the host of the meal before the honored guests were served. But it was done by someone, most likely a child or an impaired servant, something that they could do, perhaps not able to do other things. And likely all the disciples knew that this is something that would have been good to have done, but no one in their mind was quite frankly “little enough” to do it. Or, no one was “big enough,” if you want to put it that way – comfortable enough in His own skin to not care what other people thought about him so that he would take the initiative to do it. But what we do see is, most likely to the embarrassment of the disciples, Jesus is the one who gets up and He starts washing their feet.
Peter Does Not Understand
And it leads to a most interesting exchange. Verse 6, it says, "He came to Simon Peter." Now you know when it comes to Peter it's not going to be boring if you know much of Scripture! I can't wait; I've told my wife many times, I would love, I would love when I get to heaven to have the opportunity to go into the editing room floor of when God put together the Bible and pick up all the little pieces on the floor of the conversations and the things that would be fascinating to see that got left out. Nothing is recorded about what the other disciples say at this particular time. Not one of the disciples even is recorded as saying, “Thank you.” And Jesus has been washing the feet of these disciples. But now He comes to Peter and Peter, if you want to put it this way, regains his footing and he, in his composure, usually has something to say. And he does here as well. Verse 6, and then again in verse 8, Peter says to Him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet? You shall never wash my feet!” Perhaps he’s verbalizing what other disciples might have been thinking to themselves. But Jesus, in verse 7 and 8, says to him, “What I’m doing, you do not understand now. But afterward, you will understand. Peter, there’s something else that’s going on. You don’t understand yet, but you will.”
Verse 9, Peter is attempting, I guess in some ways, to sound spiritual. But this statement that he says, “Lord, not my feet only but my hands and my head!” A lack of perception never stopped Peter from saying anything, did it? Peter doesn’t understand. He’s great, though, at saying the right things when everybody is watching, as if to say, “If there’s anyone here, Lord, that’s going to be doing any serving, I’m going to be the one serving You!” I really think that Peter was convinced in himself that he was a humble servant. I really think that he believes that he understands. But it’s not going to be but a few hours before the rooster is going to crow on que. And all of a sudden it’s going to click in Peter’s mind that he’s not the man that he’d like for other people to think that he was. That he wasn’t the one who would be the faithful servant. That he wasn’t willing to sacrifice himself any more than anyone else. And in fact, he’s humiliated by his own self-deception and his lying to himself.
Jesus had every reason to be sarcastic; would not have been. But now He turns their attention from the personal demonstration and He takes time to talk to them, to explain, to put out before them things to think on. In verse 12, when He had washed their feet and put on His outer garments and resumed His place, He said, “Do you understand what I’ve done for you?” And there’s silence. Crickets, as young people say. Nobody wants to stick their neck out. Nobody wants to say something and get called down. And Jesus says then in verses 13 through 15, “You call Me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example that you should do just as I have done for you.”
Now you probably know that there are groups of Christians who believe in foot washing. Years ago, I was actually asked to speak at a retreat for a group that I really didn't know very well. I knew they were Baptist, and it turns out they were foot-washing Baptists. And so we were off on this retreat upon the mountains, isolated, no place to go, not knowing. That was fine, but at a particular point in the retreat everyone paired off, men with men, women with women, and everyone washed each other's feet. I had never done anything like it before and honestly have not done it since. But I can tell you, it's a bit embarrassing and it's a bit awkward, especially when you have size 13 feet! What I have! But it did leave me with a lasting impression, and the impression was, "You cannot stand upright and wash someone else's feet." You either have to bow or kneel in order to do it. And it’s something I hope I never forget. I’m not so sure that it wouldn’t hurt us occasionally to do that, but if you get nervous, you can relax. I’m not going to suggest that we do that at this particular moment.
To Love is to Serve
I think there are principles in this and I think this is what the Lord is leading His disciples to see – principles that are involved in this passage as a part of the call of the command of what it means to be a follower of Christ; of what the Lord calls us to do as His disciples. I want to break that down into three areas as I sort of draw conclusions out of this particular passage and apply them to our own thinking and our lives. The first thing I'd like for us to realize is that Biblically, to love is to serve. That's number one. To love is to serve. In this very same discourse recorded for us in John chapter 13 verse 35, it says – you could probably quote this with me – "By this, all people will know that you are my disciples if you…tithe." There's nothing wrong with that. "If you…memorize vast sections of Scripture." Certainly nothing wrong with that. Both are good, but what does He say? "All will know that you are believers if you have love for one another."
You know some of us, I really believe as I have watched the landscape, and particularly in circles that tend to be around us, quite frankly, some of us think that our greatest calling in Christian living is to set each other right; to correct each other at fine points of theology. And quite frankly, that can be a part of loving people. Bad theology can get you killed. It is important. But I remember the words of Vance Havner, the evangelist, who made a comment once. He said, “Some people are theologically as straight as a gun barrel and just as empty too.” Francis Schaeffer, who had a great influence on my life as a young adult, used to say, “The greatest apologetic is love.” You can’t argue with it. Biblically defined, directed love, first of all to those who are in the family of God. You think about people who are in love, couples who are in love. They can’t wait to do for each other.
With permission, I use the example of our older daughter, Katie, and her husband, Nathan. Many of you ask about them. They're doing well. They've been married four years. They are hilarious to watch, whenever we're around them. "Well let me do this for you." "No, let me do this for you!" "I'll be glad to do it." "No, no, no! You don't do that!" Literally, folks, it's disgusting to watch them! Love cannot wait to give. And in contrast to that, young people remember this, lust cannot wait to get. Love cannot wait to give; lust cannot wait to get. Let me put it a different way. You can give without loving, but you cannot love without giving. "For God so loved the world that He gave" the most precious thing – Himself, His Son – "that who should believe on Him would not perish, but have everlasting life."
You notice in verse 1 of this passage it says, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” It’s easy for us to look at this passage and think, “Oh, He’s talking about the fact that He’s going to the cross.” That is His ultimate love – that He would sacrifice Himself for us. But that’s not all that He’s talking about in this passage too. He’s talking about showing great love in little things, practical things, tangible things. Little actions like washing dirty, nasty disciples’ feet. Little things matter. Someone has said, “The smallest deed is worth infinitely more than the greatest of intentions.” To love is to serve.
To Lead is to Serve
Secondly, to lead is to serve. To love is to serve. To lead is to serve. I think of Henri Adameers, one of my heroes – she-roes if you want to put it that way. She was the director of Christian Education at Hollywood Presbyterian Church. Had a tremendous impact on thousands of men and women through many years. She had been a Ph.D. chemist. Left the field in order to serve in that way. And I’ve listened to tapes in that booming, amazing voice, and I remember in one of them she was talking about being a leader. And she said, “The man who keeps busy helping the man below him won’t have time to envy the man above him.” Matthew chapter 20 verse 26 and following says, our Lord was talking about, “Whoever desires to become greatest among you, let him be your servant. And whoever desires to be first among you, let him be your servant. Just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, even to give his life as a ransom for many.” And in this passage, verses 15 and 16, “For I have given you an example that you should do as I have done for you. Truly, truly I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” You know, one of the most amazing, wonderful aspects about our Lord is that He never asked His disciples to do anything that He wasn’t willing to do Himself. 1 Corinthians chapter 11 verse 1, Paul says, “Be a follower of me, as I am of Christ Jesus.”
When our girls were little, we enrolled them in the Suzuki method for playing violin. Some of you may be familiar with that. I had not been. It was fascinating to watch. They start off, the little widgets when they’re little small children, with these Cracker Jack boxes and a tongue depressor that’s glued onto it and it’s stuck up under the chin so they get used to that feeling of what it’s like to have it. And then they graduated to literally functioning little tiny violins where they start learning how to play violin. And for the things that you might not think are good about it, we watched them as they grew and as they learned how to play these violins. And as they grew, the violins got larger. And what I really remember were the concerts that we would go to because we, as all the adoring parents, would sit out in the audience and everybody that played in the Suzuki program, all of them, scores of them, sat up on the stage and they all stood up and they all played to start off the concert, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” And if that’s as much as you’d learned and if that’s as far as you’d gone, then you sat down and everybody else stayed standing. And they played the next piece. And if that was the limit, then you sat down. And then it went all the way to one or two who could play incredible music. But the point was, no one ever was so important or so great that they didn’t start off with everybody else playing, “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.”
I had a friend who had several franchises of McDonald’s and he required that all of his senior executives worked at least a week to ten days every year behind the counter saying, “Serve you please,” so that they would never forget what it means to interface directly with their customers.
I remember Elisabeth Elliot telling the story years ago – you know she was married three times. Her first husband, Jim Elliot, was martyred. And she went there with her daughter. And then she later married a second time. She married a man named Addison Leitch. He was the Dean of Students at Grove City College. And she would tell the story about Addison because he later would die himself, but she told the story about Addison Leitch as the Dean of Students who one time was being called out because, in the middle of the night, wonder of wonders, the men’s dorm was in chaos with a food fight and they needed the Dean of Students. And so he got up out of bed, he got dressed, and he walked very unhappily across campus towards the men’s dorm in the middle of the night, lights blazing on the dormitory. Obviously, there was a lookout, because when he gets to the door it’s a graveyard. Nobody to be seen. Lights are still on. Walks in the door, food is all over the floor, the walls, the ceiling – ketchup, peanut butter, you name it! She said that Addison thought at first, “I’m going to start grabbing these boys and pull them out and make them start cleaning up these things!” Then he thought, “No, that’s going to make a bigger mess. I’ll get the cleaning crew to come in tomorrow and they’ll clean it up.” And then the more he thought about it, he decided, he walked over to the janitor’s closet, he opened it up, he got a bucket and a sponge and some water and he went out into the hallway without saying a word, and started washing down the walls. And after just a little while, one of the doors cracked open and there was an eyeball on the other side of it. And this quiet, young man walked out and also got a bucket and started to wash, followed by another, by another, by another. Serving leadership.
Example in Crisis
You know, serving is easy if there’s a crisis. If it’s sickness or an accident or a natural disaster, but you notice here the example our Lord sets is not an example of a crisis. It’s a simple need. It’s a creature comfort. Taking care of them, one at a time. Little things. When I was a student at the seminary back in the 70s, Sam Patterson – some of you remember Sam – we would have brown bag lunches with him often and sit around the table in the back of the white house. We called him Mr. Pat and we said, “Mr. Pat” – one day I remember specifically asking him. I just said, “Mr. Pat, what does the president of a seminary do?” And without batting an eye, he looked at me and he said, “I make the coffee and I turn out the lights.” And I remember laughing. I was caught off guard. And then I looked at him and I said, “I think you’re telling the truth.” And he said, “Yeah, I really am.” He said, “I do the things that help people work together and then I do the things that other people don’t think about doing like turn off the lights.”
Well, that's not everything that a president does, but I do remember having been taken from the first position when I came there to becoming the president. After our ceremony in the chapel and they had lunch and I had forgotten my notes and I went back into the chapel, I walked in and the lights were all still on, there wasn't a soul in there, and I went and I started turning off the lights and I remember thinking to myself, "Thank you, Mr. Pat. Thank you." What an example.
Serving the Difficult Ones
Serving others is not so bad until you’re called to serve problem people. Is that not true? You know, the difficult ones. And the truth is, we’re all problem people at some point or another. Aren’t we? Don’t look so pious. The truth is, we’re all problem people. The more that people do for us, the more we kind of expect them to do for us. There’s a saying that says, “Give people a little bit more than they expect and pretty soon they’ll come to expect a little bit more.” There are always difficult people to deal with. The disciples were difficult people to deal with too; not a whole lot different from folks in churches today. A well-known pastor told me one time, tongue in cheek again, he said, “Nothing wrong with my church that a few choice funerals couldn’t cure!” He told me he was kidding, but I’m not so sure he was kidding! Jesus served the difficult people just as much as He served the deserving ones.
What about the destructive ones? You know, the Judases who are out to get you. Verse 2, “The devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him.” Verse 11, “Jesus knew who was to betray him.” He was there. Looking for all the world like a devoted disciple, actually, he's angling for his exit. But he’s looking the part! And how does Jesus treat him? What do you think Jesus is thinking in His mind as He’s there, washing the feet of the man who is going to betray Him? What do you do with these people? You know what Jesus did? He served him. He washed his feet as well. If Jesus is your model and your mentor, it’s something to know. Jonathan Edwards made a comment in his diary. He said he used the occasions of learning of other people’s sin not to, as he put it, decry their sin, but as an occasion to lament his own wicked heart, his own tendency for sinfulness. To love is to serve. To lead is to serve.
To Last is to Serve
And last, well, to last is to serve. I want you to notice verse 17. It says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if they do them.” The King James Version puts it this way. “Happy are you if you do them.” Wouldn’t it have been sufficient if the Lord had just left them with the command to serve? If you have any problems with it, just deal with it! Do it! He doesn’t do that. But He does know that they and we are created to serve. We need to serve. We need to get out of ourselves. Many years I spent as a professional licensed counselor on the staff of churches, almost fifteen years alongside church ministry staff members. And the most unhappy people I seemed to run into continually were those who were full-time, non-contributors. We know from empirical students that retired people who stop doing their regular routines and work and do nothing are very likely to shorten their lives. We need to have something that we do that is productive. Dr. Paul Long, Sr. used to talk about, “I don’t want to retire, I want to re-thire!” And he did it until the end when God called him home.
Even people dealing with depression, and there’s a whole range for all these things, and we obviously know the help that we sometimes need from medications and good things that God provides, but to get people involved with others. I just watched this past week, Tucker Carlson, on the Fox News, was interviewing a man, a fellow by the name of Johann Hari. He’s just put out a book that’s considered quite the sensation right now. The title of it is, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression and the Unexpected Solutions. And wonder of wonders, he says, with all the medication that can be good, we need people to be involved. They need to be connected. They need to be doing. And the impact in their own emotional state in their life is so much better. We were created to serve, to contribute – in our homes, in our church, in our community. Whatever our age, whatever our stage in life is, ultimately seeking to serve the Lord as we seek others.
I’ll close with one last story. When our daughter, Joy, was in high school many years ago, she thought she wanted to be a veterinarian. And so she wanted to go to the Veterinarians Day, the sort of the big hoo-hah they put on at Mississippi State for those interested in veterinary studies. And it was quite an impressive thing. I’m sure they do it. It was really, with posters and all kinds of animals on display and things that people could actually touch and see. But I remember, having never seen before, I remember, perhaps you’ve seen it many times, they had a demonstration of a sheepdog with its master. And it was simple. They’ve done it at many rodeos since then that I’ve seen, but I had never seen it before. And the master was there with his dog and there was this little fake herd of sheep that they had there and it was taking them from one pen to another pen and the dog did all the work. But the master would whistle or he’d give hand signals and I watched as this dog would herd these sheep across this field to the other pen. But as he would do it, the master would send a signal and the dog would run around and do this and do that and constantly and then it would crouch down and you would watch him and that tail was just wagging. And the dog was about to come out of his fur he was so excited about the opportunity to do this work for his master!
And I remember watching that dog and I remember thinking to myself, as literally tears started coming to my eyes, I remember thinking, “God, would You please make me like that dog? That I would be willing to go as You call me and not outrun what You tell me to do. To wait on You and then do for You as You call me to do, such that Your plan and Your work will be done for Your honor and for Your glory.” And in doing that, there’s great satisfaction. “The joy of the Lord is our strength,” Nehemiah 8. To love is to serve. To lead is to serve. And to last is to serve.
Lord, as You have given us Your Word, we pray that by Your Spirit You will drill it deep into our hearts that out of that will flow the practicality of living before You in ways that truly honor and serve You as You call each one of us in our place. That our hearts would be lifted; that we would anticipate that You would do great things, even through us, and in this, Lord Jesus, we recognize that You receive all the glory and all the honor. And it is truly our joy to be able to do as You call us to do. And so we give ourselves again to You. And this we pray in Your precious and wonderful name, Lord Jesus. Amen.