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The Humility of God (John 13:1-17)

John Hanneman, 02/18/2007
Part of the John series, preached at a Sunday Morning service

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The Humility of God

John 13:1-17

John Hanneman

41st Message
Catalog No. 1379
February 18, 2007

The concept of grace is hard to grasp and difficult to integrate into our lives. Grace is intangible and abstract; it runs completely counter to the ways of the world. People are also confused on how to gain influence and significance in life. The world seeks influence through rising to the top, but is that how God wants us to influence others? Our text today in John 13 gives a tangible and concrete illustration of what grace and influence are all about.

One distinctive feature of John’s gospel is the upper room discourse in chapters 13-17. Chapter 13 begins the second major section of the book. The first major section is the book of signs; the second is the book of glory. Chapters 11-12 actually overlap into both major divisions (they function as Janus chapters). In the book of signs, each sign is followed by a discourse to help unpack the meaning of the sign. Now in the book of glory, the order is reversed. Jesus gives the discourse, and unpacks the significance of his departure before the event.

The beginning of chapter 13 marks a sharp break between Jesus’ public and private teaching. The action moves from the streets to the quiet intimacy of an upper room, although the actual upper room discourse does not begin until verse 13:31. Prior to the discourse, a dramatic event occurs as Jesus washes the disciples’ feet. John’s account is the only gospel that includes this story. The institution of the Eucharist is the main feature of the upper room in the other gospels.

There are two themes to the foot washing. The first is theological and points to the cross; the second is practical and instructs us in how to live in community and relationships.

Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would 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, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. (John 13:1-5 NASB)

The first three verses have several phrases that bear comment. The occasion is a supper before the Feast of the Passover. One difficulty with John’s gospel is his chronology and the apparent day difference with the synoptic gospels. If this is the last supper according to John, he has it occurring on Wednesday night. But that would put the crucifixion on Thursday afternoon, at the time of the slaughtering of the Passover lambs at the temple in preparation for the Passover (13:1, 29; 18.28; 19.14, 31, 36, 42).

There are ways to resolve this dilemma. Perhaps the foot washing took place the night before the last supper. Perhaps Jesus did not eat a Passover meal, but a meal anticipating Passover. Perhaps he followed a different calendar than the Pharisees, i.e., the solar rather than the lunar calendar. But most likely John is making a theological point. At the moment when the lambs are slaughtered, Jesus, the lamb who takes away the sin of the world, the true Paschal lamb, is slaughtered on the cross. And this is the important point. The word “Passover” is mentioned more times in John that the other gospels. Passover is linked to the exodus story and the salvation of God’s people. It is the time at which Israel expected to be restored to greatness. In reality, this would be the last Passover meal before the inauguration of the new covenant.

We are told that Jesus knew what lay ahead of him, that his hour had come to depart from the world to the Father. In the language of John, the time of day was over; night was coming. He knew that the Father had given him all things, that he came from the Father and was returning to the Father. Everything that was going to happen to Jesus was part of the Father’s plan, and Jesus was in charge. He was not a victim of a group of crazy people. He knew he only had a few more hours with his disciples, and his focus was on his last words and actions for them.

We are told that Jesus loved his own in the world to the end. The word “end” could be taken either adverbially, meaning “to the uttermost,” or temporally, “to the end of his life.” “World” is an important word in John, occurring 40 times in chapters 13-17. The world is the mass of lost humanity in rebellion against God, people who prefer to live in darkness. Jesus loves the world in order to draw people out of it to become his own. Jesus had loved his own all along; he now showed them the full extent of his love. What a great word of comfort and encouragement, that Jesus will love us too to the very end. Nothing can take us from his care and keeping. “No power of hell, no scheme of man, can ever pluck me from His hand.”

We are told that Judas was present and was committed to delivering Jesus. The devil was at work in the heart of Judas, meaning that the plot against Jesus was satanic. The devil and Judas were in a conspiracy of evil. And yet Jesus knew that this plot would only serve to further God’s kingdom and purposes. We see here the sovereignty of God in tension with Judas’s will. God could allow Satan room to operate, and yet Judas made a terrible choice. This is an important thing for us to remember: Satan is always at work, trying to put evil and destructive thoughts into our minds. The fact that the foot washing included Judas is remarkable and attests to the loving character of Jesus.

Finally, in verses 4 and 5, Jesus does something so shocking that the disciples could never have anticipated it. He got up, put aside his garments, and wrapped himself with a towel, the dress of a slave, and washed the disciples’ feet. They would have been reclining at table on a thin mat, leaning on one arm, usually the left, with their feet spreading out from the table.

Foot washing was a task normally reserved for the lowliest of menial servants. Peers did not wash one another’s feet, except very rarely and as a mark of great love. The Jews insisted that Jewish slaves be kept from foot washing; it should be a job for Gentile slaves, women and children.

Once a month, our elders have dinner together and share with one another. Last week, while we enjoyed a wonderful meal, the intimate setting naturally led into sharing and prayer for each other. Because I was studying this passage, I imagined what it would have been like if one of the elders had taken a towel and water and washed our feet. It might have seemed weird, embarrassing and beautiful all at the same time. Certainly it would have captured our attention. That is what Jesus’ actions accomplished, and the disciples would never forget it.

The act of Jesus laying aside his garments is symbolic of the Son of God laying aside his divinity and taking on human flesh (Phil 2:6-7). Laying aside garments points to the cross, where four soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ garments. The word “laying aside” is the language of the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep: “I am the good shepherd; the good shepherd lays down His life for the sheep, even as the Father knows Me and I know the Father; and I lay down My life for the sheep. For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father” (John 10:11-18).

The washing of the disciples’ feet is an action symbolic of the spiritual cleansing through the blood of Jesus shed on the cross. This is how he loved his own. He became the lowest of servants and sacrificed his life.

But as Jesus begins to wash Peter’s feet, an interesting interaction results.

So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?” Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.” (13:6-7)

Most of the disciples are embarrassed, stunned and silent, but not Peter. Like many of us would have done, Peter objects to what Jesus wants to do: “Are you mad? Are you going to wash my feet?” Jesus tells Peter that he won’t understand until later, after his death and resurrection, or perhaps the day of Pentecost.

Peter said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.” (13:8)

Peter’s objection turns to outright refusal. He lacks understanding, because he is only thinking about what is socially fitting. Jesus responds by telling Peter that if the apostle does not allow him to serve him, he can have no part with him. This is similar to Jesus’ word to Peter in Matthew’s gospel, “Get behind me, Satan.”

Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.” (13:9-11)

Suddenly Peter makes a 180-degree turn: “Wash my hands and my head.” His earlier refusal becomes exuberance. “Hands” could be indicating the parts of our body that become most unclean; “head” could be a figure of speech for the whole body. But it’s likely that Peter was just excited: “Give me a bath!”

Jesus’ response is difficult. He could be saying that the foot washing is a symbol for the complete washing of the cross. One cannot add to the symbol in the same way that one cannot add to the cross. However, it is more likely that Jesus is making another point regarding spiritual cleansing. The words for “bath” and “wash” are different, but John often uses different words synonymously for stylistic reasons (know - oida and ginosko; send - pempo and apostello; love - phileo and agapao).

The initial and fundamental cleansing that Christ provides is a once-for-all act, one that cannot be repeated. But individuals who have been cleansed by Christ’s atoning work will doubtless need to have subsequent sins washed away. This would be consistent with 1 John 1:9 and the idea of confessing sins: “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and righteous to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This would also be consistent with practical experience. If a person takes a bath and then dirties his feet with a short walk, he only needs to wash his feet.

Again we see a reference to Judas. He is not clean even though Jesus washes his feet. This means that no rite, even if performed by Jesus himself, ensures spiritual cleansing. “There is treason in the very heart of the Church, and Jesus knows it and has known it from the beginning.”1

What Jesus does for the disciples by washing their feet amplifies, intensifies and magnifies the meaning of the cross. The fact that God came in the person of Jesus to sacrifice his life for our cleansing is made more dramatic and profound by this scene where God gets down on this hands and knees to wash dirty feet, an act of such humble service that it is was culturally and socially repulsive.

What kind of a God is this? The gods that have been worshipped throughout history have been known by their grandeur and greatness, their power and magnificence. No other god duplicates this kind of humble service. Every king, dictator or president sits in a seat of honor and is served by others, waited on hand and foot. Jesus is a king, but his kingship is like no other: He washes his subjects’ feet. Washing feet reveals the shocking, incredible humility of our God.

The interaction with Peter is indicating that unless we humble ourselves and accept this act of humility, of menial service, then we can have no part in the kingdom of God. The term “having a part” is regularly used with respect to inheritance, and in Jewish thought to eschatological blessings. The dialogue indicates that unless Jesus washes a person and takes away his sin, he or she can have no part with him. True purity depends on identification with Jesus. The principle is that when dealing with forgiveness of sin, mankind is completely impotent, powerless and helpless and totally dependent and reliant on the actions of God.

But this interaction with Peter also demonstrates that accepting what Jesus has done for us is not easy. The encounter indicates that it is easier to wash someone else’s feet than to have our own feet washed. To be served in such a menial way is embarrassing and awkward, in the same way that a teenager feels when he is seen in public with his parents. Pride is a problem we face when we have to accept God’s humility. It is pride that keeps us from the grace of Jesus. It is our pride that refuses the cleansing work of the cross for our sin.

I find it difficult to accept an extravagant gift. Over the years my wife has bought me presents that I returned because I didn’t think I deserved or needed them or I found them too extravagant. God had to teach me a lesson about that. One Christmas, my wife gave me a Christmas tie, with a Santa Claus and footballs – right up my alley. I really liked the tie, but thought it was too much. I asked her to return it, but before she could do so, she mislaid and lost it. Now it was a double whammy. I didn’t have the tie and didn’t have the money it cost. Every Christmas since I wish I could have that tie, but it could have no part with me since I wouldn’t receive the gift.

Life in Christ begins by submitting ourselves to his service for us on the cross. It takes an act of no action, of letting something be done for us. The identity of the church is not based on programs, social causes, political movements or even doctrine. What distinguishes the church from the world is that we have been cleansed by the blood of Jesus for our sin. Once we have been cleansed, we continually confess our sins because even though our body is clean, our feet get dirty.

The second theme of this text today is very practical. Jesus is an example for the disciples and us to follow.

So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” (13:12-17)

When Jesus finishes washing the feet of the disciples, he returns to his place and asks a question: “Do you understand?” The answer is that the cross creates a new, cleansed people who are to follow the Lord’s example. But Jesus has to spell it out for his men. The context for his teaching may well have been the argument the disciples had about who was the greatest, which we read about in the other gospels.

The disciples call Jesus “Teacher,” a term equivalent to the word “Rabbi,” the word used by the disciples when addressing their teachers. The disciples call Jesus “Lord,” a term of respect that later would take on a deeper significance as the “name that is above every other name.” If the disciples esteem Jesus and he washes their feet, then they should do the same for one another.

What Jesus did in the upper room was an example or a pattern of what the disciples should do as well. A slave does what his master does, and the one who is sent does what the one who sends him does. If the superior one does it, then the inferior one should do it as well. The master is the slave and the slave is the master. Jesus leads by example, and we as his disciples and slaves are to follow his lead, humbly serving one another.

To be humble means that no matter our position, status, title or degree, we are willing to lay aside these things to serve other people in a very earthy, lowly sort of way. It doesn’t mean that we can’t have status or positions of honor; it means that serving others is never beneath us.

The act of stooping to wash another’s feet, to humbly serve them, reverses the order of the world’s ideas of greatness, rank and significance. It turns the world upside down, because its authority comes from position, title, power and control. Can you imagine Donald Trump getting on his hands and knees and washing the apprentice’s feet, instead of saying, “You’re fired”? Can you imagine Bill Gates making coffee for the secretaries? Can you imagine the disgruntled receiver Terrell Owens helping to pass out towels to the other players? Or how about Tiger Woods cleaning the clubs of tour rookies? This isn’t how the world operates, but it is how God operates.

Authority in the kingdom of God comes from being a servant. The church is designed to be anti-world in its ways and methods. The way to be great and truly influence others is to become the servant of all. “Christian zeal divorced from transparent humility sounds hollow, even pathetic.”2

What keeps the church from following the example of Jesus? Again, it is pride. Pride often keeps us from taking the lower role. We actually want to keep the proper pecking order. If we submit to those over us, then we can bear down on those beneath us. How often do we want to first in line to get the best piece of steak, to maneuver for the best seat at the table, or to ride with all the fun and interesting people? Jesus tells us to go to the back of the line, take the seat at the end of the table, hang out with the people who really need mercy and grace. John Stott writes: “At every stage of our Christian development and in every sphere of our Christian discipleship, pride is the greatest enemy and humility our greatest friend.”3

Jim Collins studied what made good companies great in his book Good to Great. After five years of research, he concluded that the CEOs in really great companies shared two character qualities. C.J. Mahoney in his little book on humility writes, “The first was no surprise: These men and women possessed incredible professional will – they were driven, willing to endure anything to make their company a success. But the second trait these leaders had in common wasn’t something the researchers expected to find. These driven leaders were self-effacing and modest. They consistently pointed to the contribution of others and didn’t like drawing attention to themselves. ‘The good-to-great leaders never wanted to become larger-than-life heroes,’ Collins writes. ‘They never aspired to be put on a pedestal or become unreachable icons. They were seemingly ordinary people quietly producing extraordinary results.’”4

Jesus concludes by saying that humility yields a blessing. When we fail to keep Jesus’ words, we are condemned (12:47-48), but when we are obedient to his words, we will receive a blessing. This blessing will most likely not be material in nature – wealth, status, and power. However, it will be rich indeed. The blessing is that in laying aside your garments, you experience eternal life. As Jesus said in chapter 12: “He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will

keep it to life eternal” (12:25 NAS95S).
The blessing is that you attract the attention of God: “But to this one I will look, To him who is humble and contrite of spirit, and who trembles at My word” (Isaiah 66:2 NAS95S).

The blessing is that instead of facing into the wind, you experience the wind of God at your back, filling your sails: “and all of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, for God is opposed to the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5b).

The blessing is that you do not have to seek your own glory; God will do it in his time: “Therefore humble yourselves under the mighty hand of God, that He may exalt you at the proper time,” (1 Peter 5:6 NAS95S).

The blessing is that God can lavishly bless you with his grace and love and joy – and the Christmas ties your wife buys for you.

Perhaps God is inviting you to receive his cleansing grace this morning. Perhaps he is inviting you to be a fellow servant of his grace to others. Don’t let pride stand in the way. Keep you eyes fixed on the cross. Think about God on his hands and knees serving you, and then follow his lead.

I would like to close by sharing with you a poem, written a few years ago by a young man in our body.


Lord, why do I turn away from you
and do what I want not to do?
Countless times I’ve left your side
and pained you and me, beside.
Take me now, I’m at your throne
For I need you, and you alone.

Forgive me, Father, for my sin
for that is not my Christ, within.
Shower this broken man with grace
Lead me back to your warm embrace.
Renew my faith, make me complete
You’ve washed my heart, now wash my feet.

I know my heart is clean and pure
and my salvation, it’s secure.
For my sin, my Savior died
and now with Him, I do reside.
But I still wander from His way
When I choose not to obey.

Father, for my sin you’ve paid the price
with Jesus, the perfect sacrifice.
Many times I still need to repent
and bow low to you, and lament.
Take away my sin, make me complete
And with your mercy, wash my feet.
– Justin Frederickson

1 Lesslie Newbigin, The Light Has Come (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982), 169.
2 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 468.
3 Pride, Humility and God (Sovereign Grace Online, September/October, 2000).
4 C. J. Mahaney, Humility: True Greatness (Sisters, Oregon:Multnomah, 2005), 18.

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