Transitions in life are extremely painful but necessary for new chapters to begin. One of the most significant transitions is when we lose someone we love. Jesus knew that His time was at hand in the final week of His earthly life. He knew He was about to leave and therefore in John chapters 13-17, He is preparing His disciples for His death and resurrection and their new role in God’s kingdom. Jesus knows there will be sorrow before joy will be restored. Jesus will be leaving them, but another comforter will come and empower them to take on a greater role in the life of the new institution which we call the church, God’s called out people.

In this introduction to the Upper Room teachings, we see how Jesus models for us how we ought to love and serve one another. Yet, there is a need to define a term that we think we understand but it is often abused and loses its fundamental meaning, and that is the word love. If we look at the biblical definition of God’s kind of love, what we will discover is that it is a self-giving action. But love is not a wimpy idea of letting people do whatever they want, as if that is the loving thing to do. Paul describes love to a church that tolerated sin and thought that meant they were loving. Listen to how he describes the nature of love.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.

It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.[i]

Jesus, in this chapter of John, is going to address some of the unloving issues that the disciples were struggling with, namely pride and self-seeking behavior, that needed to be exposed and addressed for them to mature into the kind of leaders that the early church would desperately need.

Jesus begins by taking on the role of the lowliest servant, the one who washes the feet of the guests. Not only is this an opportunity to demonstrate true Christian leadership, but also to correct a misconception of Christian leadership. Luke gives us the context of what was transpiring at this final Passover meal.  

Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be the greatest.[ii]

While they were arguing about position, Jesus was demonstrating and explaining to them that position is not the issue.  Jesus is about to leave this movement of God and entrust that responsibility upon the lives of these men. How were they to lead? This question is just as relevant today. How are we to lead others? How are we to lead our families?  

In John’s gospel we have an incredible insight into what led Jesus to the cross. During that last meal with His disciples before His death, Jesus did something that embarrassed His disciples. He rose up and washed their feet.

What we are to learn from Him is that leadership is accomplished through loving, self-giving service. Though we may understand that, what we may have lost sight of is the motivation for serving. When God uses our lives, we may become puffed up and proud, forgetting that it is the life of Christ flowing through us, a faulty and unworthy conduit.

We could frame the question, how is God’s love flowing through us? Is our earthly life solely about us and what we get out of it, or is it about Jesus and how we lay down our lives on behalf of Christ and others? Here in John 13, we find a dramatized sermon, a symbolic expression of the kind of love that ought to be motivating our lives. There are three elements to what Jesus is conveying to us in how we can experience a love that will change our lives and the lives of others.   


Jesus demonstrates for us in a selfless manner the way we ought to serve one another. So, how does Jesus teach this important lesson in a rather unforgettable way to his early followers.?

A. Jesus washes the disciples’ feet.

It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.[iii]

Regardless of the failures and weaknesses of the disciples, Jesus loved them. To be like Christ means I love and accept imperfect people. How many realize that the disciples had a few blemishes in their lives? We read that they even deserted Jesus in his greatest hour of testing. Even though they were unfaithful, He was still faithful to them and loved them to the very end. He didn’t just write them off. He spoke personally to them about those issues and addressed them, but He demonstrated His love to them by dying on the cross for their weaknesses and sins. He demonstrated this in the midst of known betrayal. To die for friends is one thing, but to die for people who are turning against you is another.

The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.[iv]

It is interesting when our lives are adrift that they are open to the prompting of the enemy to betray Jesus.

…the devil had already made up his mind that Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, should betray him (the execution of the devil’s plan is then recorded in verse 27).[v]

This does not excuse Judas’ behaviour. We are all tempted by the enemy, but we need to resist and submit to God. What is really happening when we yield to temptation?

The idea, then, is not that Judas was not responsible, for a heart incited by Satan actually wills what the devil wills.[vi]

B. Jesus’ action flowed from his sense of self-identity.

When we know who we are, we stop trying to prove ourselves. Jesus knew who He was and what He had come to accomplish. In other words he was comfortable in his own skin as we would say and had nothing to prove. 

Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.[vii]

Jesus not only knew the hour of His earthly journey, but also what the Father had put all things under His power, and he was preparing to go back to heaven.

D. A. Carson states that his response was dramatically different than how a person in power might respond.

With such power and status at his disposal, we might have expected him to defeat the devil in an immediate and flashy confrontation, and to devastate Judas with an unstoppable blast of divine wrath. Instead, he washes his disciples’ feet, including the feet of the betrayer.[viii]

The idea of taking off His outer clothing and taking on the posture of the lowest of slaves and putting a towel around his waist was shocking to the disciples, but here John intends that we understand that the same word ‘taking off’ or ‘laying aside’ his outer garments is used for the ‘laying down of his life.’ It is this imagery that John wants us to understand. Jesus is laying down His rights in order to express His love in humbling service.

Why had not one of the disciples served the others by taking on this task?

The reluctance of Jesus’ disciples to volunteer for such a task is, to say the least, culturally understandable; their shock at this volunteering is not merely the result of being shamefaced, it is their response to finding their sense of the fitness of things shattered.[ix]

We need to remember that this is a shame/honor-based society. While Jesus’ action is shocking, it is also a moving display of His self-giving love on their behalf. It is really a portrait of what he is about to do, by laying down His life for not only them but all who become His followers, by willingly dying on the cross.

Why are we serving Jesus? True service comes from a transformed life. Unfortunately, there are some who serve out of a sense of guilt. Others serve concerned about what others will think. If I don’t do this, then people will think less of me. Some serve because of what they get from it. Their motive is what they will gain. Jesus served, motivated out of a heart of love. When we are free from the opinions of others, we can do tasks others believe that are beneath them.


The response of the disciples is best reflected in Peter’s response and attitude, which called for an answer from Jesus.

He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’

Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’

‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’

‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’

Jesus answered, ‘Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.’

For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not everyone was clean.[x]     

But it is quite clear that Peter voiced for the disciples the sense of shock by his question, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ (13:6). That was not merely a question. It was more like a challenge based on a confusing set of circumstances. It did not make sense to the disciples.[xi]

There is a subtle interchange of words which English doesn’t pick up but is brought out in the Greek language. Jesus stuns Peter by replying that if he does not allow Jesus to ‘bath’ him, he will have no relationship with Jesus.

Jesus’ play on words thus suggests that Peter misunderstood the meaning of the foot washing to be a mere washing of feet, whereas the washing was, in fact, much more. It actually refers to Jesus’ bathing of the disciples with a new perspective (i.e., humble love). Therefore the disciples had actually been significantly bathed in the foot washing experience.[xii]

Jesus is making the point that this washing symbolized the washing away of sin. This speaks to the issue of our self-sufficiency to address the issues in our soul apart from the work of Christ in our lives. All human efforts leave us entangled in our sin. Only as we humble ourselves and allow Jesus to wash our lives through His sacrificial death can we be cleansed from sin and all of sin’s affects. We need Jesus to cleanse us from our sins. Jesus, while washing the feet of Judas, is fully aware that he is the betrayer; yet, Jesus gives every opportunity for Judas to respond to Christ’s gift of grace and love. 

B. Moving our vision from self to Christ.

In the broader context, we need to ask and answer to our own satisfaction the larger question; Do I truly understand what Jesus has done for me? He has given Himself for me. Jesus gave up heaven for me and for you. To be like Jesus means I realize that He did not come to be served but came to serve (Mk. 10:45), and so I must have the attitude that I’m here on this planet to serve and not be served.

What Jesus is challenging is human pride that is focused on ourselves. In looking at the ancient virtues, one that is notably absent as a positive social virtue is humility. Jesus makes us aware that humility is a foundational virtue that is critical in our lives. Humility is not self-depreciation but a proper understanding that apart from Christ, we can do nothing. We need Jesus’ empowering grace in our lives to be free to serve in love. 

In light of this vital area of life, “to serve or not to serve”, other questions come to mind.  So, who are we serving? God or Myself?! Why am I serving? In other words, what is my motive? Is it truly for God’s glory or for personal gain?

Other questions follow on their heels. How am I serving? Am I effective or ineffective in my service to God? What am I really doing? It’s important at various times in our lives to stop what we are doing in order to ask some of these basic questions. One of the great traps is to be so busy doing, that we lose sight of why we are doing it.   


Jesus challenged or exhorted his disciples to copy his example of self-giving love. Who are we emulating and patterning our lives after? Jesus is the perfect human being and his motivations and actions are to be embraced by allowing God’s Holy Spirit to be in control of our lives so that we can live out the life of Christ.

A. After serving, Jesus now challenges the disciples.

When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them.

‘You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am.

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.

I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.

Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.’[xiii]

Is Jesus telling us that we ought to literally wash one another’s feet, as some do? Or does this action need to be placed in its cultural setting? This was a model of the kind of action that we would be willing to do to demonstrate love for one another by willingly humbling ourselves to serve them. Jesus is obviously addressing a heart attitude that we must cultivate toward other believers.

That the servant does not surpass the master, nor does the “sent one” (apostolos, the only use of this term in this Gospel) surpass the sender. This agency statement here thus provides perspective on the servant’s ability and responsibility in mission. Similar statements are found elsewhere in Gospel settings (cf. 15:20; see also Matt 10:24–25; Luke 6:40), but the force of the statement here is to remind the followers of Jesus that there is no reason to become puffed up over their calling, accomplishments, or spirituality, a problem that plagued the Corinthians (1 Cor 4:6–7; 5:6; etc.) and is not unknown in Christian communities today.[xiv]

Borchert is reminding us that we are simply God’s servants and that what transpires through us does not come from us, but from God. To be filled with self-importance is sinful and causes many heartaches. However, when we learn to serve out of a heart of love, a love that originates from God, we become a blessing to others.

B. A promise of blessings.

Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.[xv]

One of the great weaknesses that we have as believers is we can place such an emphasis on the work of Christ on the cross on our behalf that the temptation is to become passive in our service.   

However, the evidence of a truly converted person to Christ is a changed life. One has only to read the epistle of James to realize that good works are a natural outflow of genuine faith. As a matter of fact, James challenges us to examine our faith. True faith is expressed through a life of service.

But someone will say, ‘you have faith; I have deeds.’ Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by what I do.

You see that a person is justified by what he does and not by faith alone.

As the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without deeds is dead.[xvi]

Yet, as we know, mere knowledge is not enough. There comes a time for action. …Indeed knowledge unapplied to living can become a stumbling stone to further truth.[xvii]

One of the reasons so many are stagnating in their faith is that there is a lack of obedience to what God is asking them to do. The exciting thing about stepping out and committing ourselves to a course of action is that we release the resources of God.

Until I am committed, there is a hesitancy, a chance to draw back. But the moment I definitely commit myself, then God moves also, and a whole stream of events erupt. All manner of unforeseen incidents, meetings, persons and material assistance which I could never have dreamed would come my way begin to flow toward me – the moment I make a commitment.[xviii]

C. The motivation of this service is love for one another.

It is when people witness love that all the arguments against the reality of God crumble. People can resist our most persuasive arguments. What people cannot write off is love in action. It is interesting how Jesus modeled servanthood to his disciples. Jesus spent His earthly ministry training others, so they in turn would serve as He had served. Even now Jesus wants to develop our lives in turn that we might prove to be a blessing to others.

Some may know the episode with Jesus at the home of Martha and Mary (cf. Luke 10:38-42). Martha became angry with her sister, because she felt Mary wasn’t holding her end up in serving a meal to Jesus and his disciples. It revealed that Martha had lost the true joy of serving. Serving, flowing from a thankful heart. The happiest people on earth are those who are free to serve. It is not how others respond, but rather the joy itself in giving to others that God blesses the servant with.           

As we examine our own lives today, the question that comes to mind is, what does Jesus want to do through us? As we personally respond to that question, we will discover a life of meaningful and loving service to others.

Robert Lavelle’s neighborhood is one of the most isolated, forgotten, and helpless communities in America – the inner city.

People tell me, ‘You’re crazy, man,’ says Lavelle, ‘but I have to do it.’ He is referring to his savings and loan and real estate operations in Pittsburgh’s Hill District, an area where wrecking balls, drug dealers, and welfare checks are a way of life. Many of Lavelle’s bank loans go to people who would be unable to obtain credit elsewhere. Though federal regulators and others have urged him to move to a ‘better’ location, Lavelle refuses.

Lavelle, who lives within walking distance of his office, is quick to tell his clients about spiritual freedom as well, but his faith is most evident by what he does, not by what he says. ‘For me,’ he says, ‘being a Christian is a matter of obedience – and that means helping people in need as the Holy Spirit leads.[xix]

There is a need for each of us to serve. We need to serve both within and outside the walls of the church. Only loving service will make the difference, in our own lives and in the lives of others. Let us commit ourselves to be a loving community of people expressing that love in tangible means. Let us pick up our wash basin and towel and serve like Jesus.

[i]     1 Corinthians 13:4-6, The New International Version of the Bible, Zondervan, 2011.

[ii]     Luke 22:24.

[iii]    John 13:1.

[iv]    John 13:2.

[v]     F. F. Bruce, The Gospel of John, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1983), 279.

[vi]    A. Schlatter, The Gospel According to St. John, trans. K. Smyth, C. Hastings and others, 3 Vols. (Burns and Oats, 1968), 82 as quoted in D. A. Carson, D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, 462.

[vii]   John 13:3-4.

[viii]   D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary, (Grand Rapids, Mi: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991), 462.

[ix]    Ibid.

[x]     John 13:6-11.

[xi]    Gerald Borchert, John 1–11 Vol. 25B, (Nashville, TN: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1996), 80-81.

[xii]   Ibid, 82.

[xiii]   John 13:12-16.

[xiv]   Gerald Borchert, John 1–11 Vol. 25B, 87.

[xv]   John 13:17.

[xvi]   James 2:18, 24, 26.

[xvii] Robert Coleman, The Master Plan of Evangelism, (Grand Rapids, MI: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1993), 81.

[xviii] John Maxwell, tape- ‘How To Get Morale up…In down Times.

[xix]   Charles Colson, Kingdoms in Conflict, (Zondervan Publishing House, 1987), 258-259.

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