Humble Servant
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Humble Servant

John 13:1–17  (ID: 2787)

One of the most striking examples of Jesus’ humility occurred on the night He was betrayed: the Creator washed the feet of the disciples He had created—including His betrayer. Reflecting on this meaningful act, Alistair Begg examines Christ’s humility as He began His journey to the cross. To be like Christ, we too must be willing to stoop down and serve those around us, friend and enemy alike.

Series Containing This Sermon

To Know Christ

Selected Scriptures Series ID: 26201

Sermon Transcript: Print

I invite you to take your Bibles and turn to John chapter 13. We began on Sunday morning by considering what it is to be in Christ. We sought to establish yesterday morning the fact that it is God’s eternal purpose to make us like Christ, that that eternal purpose has an existential dimension to it insofar as it is an ongoing process, and indeed that it is also God’s eschatological purpose insofar as, ultimately, one day when we see him we will be like him. And the remainder of our time—this being Tuesday, so we have Wednesday and Thursday and Friday—the remainder of our time we’re going to spend thinking about characteristics that are represented in the Lord Jesus Christ himself. And this morning we come to the notion and the nature of what it means for Jesus to be a humble servant—to be a humble servant. And in chapter 13 of John, beginning at verse 1, we read these words:

“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.

“The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. 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. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

“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, ‘A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his 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 every one was clean.

“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. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.’” Amen.

Well, just a prayer once again.

“Be like Jesus, this my song, in the home and in the throng; be like Jesus all day long! I would be like Jesus.”[1] Help us to this end as we study your Word, gracious Father, we pray. In your Son’s name. Amen.

The events of the Gospel of John from about the nineteenth verse of chapter 1, which is the end of John’s prologue, all the way through to the end of chapter 12 cover a period of some three years. From chapter 13 to the end covers a period that essentially is that of the Passion week. In other words, the Gospel of John is disproportionate. Clearly, John has determined under the direction of the Spirit that all of the sequence of description as he writes this gospel should be slowed down purposefully now insofar as the public, if you like, extensive ministry of Jesus has come to a close, and having received this great declaration concerning his identity from the lips of Peter, he now is explaining to his disciples that the Son of Man must suffer and die, he must go up to Jerusalem, and at the hands of cruel men be put to death, and on the third day rise again.

And the opening three verses of the chapter that we have just read provide an important and significant context for the significance of the events that are about to unfold. Jesus is clearly aware that the time of sorrow, as he puts it here, the time of darkness and of difficulty is under the control of God the Father—hence verse 3: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, … that he had come from God [, that he] was returning to God; so he got up from the meal” [2] and took this basin of water, and so on. It’s a reminder to us, isn’t it, that if we’re not very careful it will be possible for us to disengage often what we might regard as purple passages from the context of the Scriptures and say right things and true things with them and make application from them, but if we do not have them set firmly in the context, then we may miss actually the entire point as to why they’re present in the Bible. And I say this this morning because we want to focus on the fact that Jesus is revealed to us here as a wonderful, humble servant. But it is possible for us to deal with John chapter 13 simply to make that point, and if we do so, we actually miss what is being said in this chapter. We will deal with it only as a lesson in humility, which of course it is—but as it is important for us to find out, it is more than that. It is the story of Jesus’ final submission to death, and this foot washing which takes place is, if you like, an enacted drama; it is a parable illustrating the great principle of lowly service which finds, of course, its ultimate expression in the cross of the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is only in the shadow of the cross that we can understand the nature of the cleansing of which Jesus speaks.

So I want you to pause for a moment and just get that clearly in your mind as I must get it in mine. It is only in the shadow of the cross that we can understand the nature of the cleansing of which Jesus speaks. It is only in the shadow of the cross that we will get this. Otherwise what we will do is we will turn it into a story which goes something like this: “There are certain things in life that can only be sorted out with a bucket of water and a towel.” And you get this wonderful story about, “Well, all you need is a bucket of water and a towel, and that’s what today is about,” and so on. Well it is about this basin of water and a towel, but they signify something far more significant than that which is expressed in this incident. So, if you like, there are two levels at which we’re tackling, or being tackled by, this passage this morning.

The Humility that Christ Displays

Well, let us begin first of all by noting, if you’re taking notes, the humility that Christ displays—the humility that he displays. We might summarize it in three statements. First of all, we find the Creator washing the feet of his creation. He who has created the universe, he who has established the very properties of H2O, is about to take the very water that he himself has created and use it in this particular way.

It is vital that we recognize that the first twelve chapters precede the thirteenth chapter, and that all the way through these first twelve chapters, we have been confronted, as John has painted the picture, with the wonder of Jesus, not only summarized in the prologue, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God,”[3] but then worked out throughout all that follows. Quickly into chapter 2, and Jesus, this Jesus of Nazareth, takes water and turns it into wine. In chapter 4, a Roman official comes and says that his son is sick to death, and Jesus takes care of the issue and raises up the boy. Chapter 5, you’re at the pool of Bethesda, and a man who has been an invalid for thirty-eight years is dramatically healed. Chapter 6, the five thousand sit down and are fed from five loaves and two fish. Chapter 6, Jesus of Nazareth walks on the water. Chapter 9, he heals the man who is born blind. And chapter 11, he stands outside the tomb of his good friend Lazarus and calls for him to come out. What manner of man is this that even the winds and the [waves] obey him?[4] That he stands in the face of death and declares himself victorious. Surely this man should already be removed from the everyday vicissitudes of life. Surely this man, of all men, should be shepherded around. Surely this character should live in a palace. Surely this man should be feted and applauded everywhere he goes. Yes, that’s the man.

Now look again: “So”—verse 4—“he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.” The Creator washes the feet of his creation. He who in Wesley’s words is “Our God contracted to a span, incomprehensibly made Man;”[5] whom Phillips, in his rendition of the prologue, describes him in this way: “All creation took place through him, and none took place without him.”[6] This is the one who does this.

If you like, we really need to read John chapter 13 in light of the hymn in Philippians chapter 2. We won’t delay on it, but let me just remind you of it so that you can consider this as the day unfolds. Philippians chapter 2, you remember, the words of Paul quoting a Christian hymn, it would seem, maybe one that he wrote, maybe one that had been written by somebody else, and he says, “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: ‘Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in the likeness of man, found in appearance as a man, humbled himself, became obedient to death, even to death on a cross.’”[7] And what you have in this scene, as he takes this towel and wraps it around him, as he takes this basin is, if you like, is almost a parable, an enactment of the vastness of what is there described in poetry by Paul in Philippians chapter 2. Indeed, there is actually no adequate analogy to convey the wonder of what is taking place here.

What is happening? The hymn writers have done their best with it, conveying only in descriptive terms what is happening—rewriting it, if you like, in poetic form. So, for example, in the hymn that reads,

The Son of God his glory hides
With parents mean and poor;
And he who made the Heavens abides
In village home obscure.
He in whose sight the angels stand,
Around whose throne they meet,
Now stoops, prepared on bended knee
To wash his followers’ feet.[8]
There’s nothing like this in all of human history. There’s nothing like this in the stories of world religion—nothing—that the Lord of glory stoops in this way.
By emptying himself into humanity, by adding to himself something that was not previously there—namely, humanity—he expressed his humility.

There’s nothing like this in all of human history. There’s nothing like this in the stories of world religion—nothing—that the Lord of glory stoops in this way. Indeed, when we think of the notion of him emptying himself—a phrase over which some people stumble—we ought to understand it not in terms of a deficit, but in terms of an addition; that the question is not, “Of what did he empty himself?” but rather, “Into what did he empty himself?” By emptying himself into humanity, by adding to himself something that was not previously there—namely, humanity—he expressed his humility.[MOU1]  In other words, the expression of his emptying is not in what he laid aside, but in what he took to himself—which, just in passing, is a reminder that those of us who are so stuck on ourselves and on our humanity and who we are and how we look and what we’ve done and everything else, for the Lord of glory to assume humanity was a step down. And he stepped down into our world. You know, the Christmas carol comes to mind—I can’t remember which one it is, but—that “he who came from highest bliss should come to such a world as this.”[9] And especially when you’ve got twelve fatheads who are your core group sitting down to dinner with their dusty, smelly feet, unwilling to lift their hands in the service of one another.

It begs an analogy, doesn’t it? This is trivial, but it gives a sense of it, I think. Andrew Martinez is one of the great caddies on the PGA tour. He caddied for Johnny Miller, caddied for John Cook who just came second in the Senior British Open in Royal Troon this weekend. He has caddied for a considerable time now for Tom Lehman. Andrew Martinez is in his fifties, he’s fit, he’s handsome, he’s a good golfer, he’s a better tennis player, and he’s a phenomenal backgammon player. If you see him dressed in his civvies driving his car through the community, you would say, “Hey, there goes Andrew Martinez.” But as soon as he pulls into the car park of the golf course where his boss is playing and goes into the caddy shack, he puts something on over his outer clothes, depending on where he is: white overalls. And in the putting on of those white overalls, in the adding to himself, he loses himself. He’s still Andrew Martinez, but the name on his back is “Lehman.” He exists solely for the service of his boss, despite all of his own giftedness, all of his own capacities. Now, I know the analogy is trivial, but I’m just trying to get something into our minds of what is happening here.

The Creator washes the feet of his creation; or, we might say, the Teacher washes the feet of his feuding followers—the Teacher washes the feet of his feuding followers. Luke, in his record of the events leading up to the Lord’s Supper—indeed, immediately surrounding the Lord’s Supper—tells us that when they were gathered in the room and Jesus was dealing with the Passover and distributing the bread and the wine, right in that very context, “a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be [the] greatest.”[10]

You may have gone to communion with a bad attitude, but you perhaps have not approximated to this. It is a reminder to us, is it not, that here in the establishing of the communion service, those who are his core group are sitting there in the immediate context of communion saying, “You know what? I’m more significant than you. You know what? I’m more gifted than you. You know what? I deserve more than you.” In other words, it is the ongoing story of the followers of Jesus right down to your last deacons’ meeting, right down to your last church meeting. It is the story of division and dispute and heartache and chaos, which is the very denial of the principle that is described to us here as the Teacher washes the feet of his feuding disciples.

Those who are preoccupied with prominence are taught a lesson that they would never forget and one of which we are in constant need of reminder. How much trouble arises as a result of my fat head? A great deal. And perhaps yours too. Standing on dignity: “Don’t these people know who I am? Don’t they know where I’ve been? Haven’t they heard of what I’ve accomplished? Surely of all the people in this meeting, there ought to be a special seat for me.” Really? Well, not if we’re going to be like Jesus, no. If we want to just be like ourselves, yes—if we want to believe we’re the center of the universe. I’m so glad Bruce Narramore is helping us with our children, the little emperors of the twenty-first century. No, make no mistake about it: the idea of a graduation from kindergarten is just …

My third point: the Creator washes the feet of his creation, the Teacher washes the feet of his feuding disciples, and the Lord washes the feet of his betrayer. Verse 11 tells us that Jesus was aware not simply of the fact of his betrayer, but also the identity of his betrayer. I wonder what we would have done? Skipped him? Ignored him? Well, verse 5 tells us what he did: he washed his feet. And when that was all over and the disciples reflected upon the ministry of Jesus, how the words of the Sermon on the Mount must have been riveted in their minds as they contemplated what their master had said, and now what their master had done—for example, just one quote from the Sermon on the Mount: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”[11] The Lord of glory washes the feet of his betrayer.

The Clarity that Jesus Provides

Well, let’s move on from the humility that Jesus displays to the clarity that, if you like, Jesus provides. We won’t delay on this, but we need to understand the custom of the day. I’m sure many of us are familiar with it, therefore it’s just tedious when you have to listen to the fellow go and take about fifteen minutes describing something that could be described in a sentence. So let’s just try and get right through it, shall we? The roads of Palestine were unsurfaced, they were uncleaned. In dry weather the travelers’ feet would be dusty. In wet weather they would squelch through the mud, and they would be quite challenging. Consequently, the wearing of open sandals would bring their feet, at the end of a journey, into the context of a home in need of attention before they went very far. As a result of that, there were water pots at the door. The water pots were there in order to be used for the washing of the feet. Along with the water pots, there was often a servant. The servant would then know what he was supposed to do: take the water, wash the feet, let the people in for the meal. If the servant wasn’t present, then the person who was responsible for the home would then exercise due humility in fulfilling the role of the servant so that you, having been welcomed to the house, would enjoy the privileges. We’ve been doing much the same in enjoying the hospitality of someone around the lake: we’ve actually had one of those coolers with water in it all week so that when we come up off the beach, we stand in the cooler and shake around a little so that our feet may then be presentable when we go into the house. Half the time the water has been so cold, it’s been a challenge all of its own, but nevertheless—and despite how much I’ve asked my wife just to stand there and wash my feet for me, it just hasn’t happened.

Well, the interesting thing is that, in terms of the custom of the day, it just hadn’t happened. And you will notice that the disciples had presumably worked themselves up into such a state of competitive pride, or that they’d just grown so disinterested in one another, that the meal was already being served. It’s within the context of the meal—you’ll notice that—he got up and took off his outer clothing and engaged in these things.

Now, here’s the real issue—and at this point we have to fasten down. We need to grasp the symbolism which Peter clearly misses—we need to grasp the symbolism which Peter clearly misses. Because if we miss it with him, then we miss the whole thing, and then it can just so easily become a form of moralism: “Here’s humility; why don’t you try and be humble?” It is a lesson in humility, but that is not ultimately what it is. You’ll notice that the meal was “being served,” and “while the meal was being served”—verse 2, that is. In other words, it expresses the deliberate nature of the action of Jesus. In chapter 3, he’s spoken about the need for spiritual birth; in chapter 4, about the nature of spiritual living water; in chapter 6, about spiritual bread, he who is the Bread of Life. And now he is addressing the issue of spiritual cleansing.

And the perplexity of Peter in verse 6 is understandable in that he confronts the incongruity of what is taking place. In other words, he recognizes what John the Baptist recognized when Jesus comes towards him to be baptized by him. And John the Baptist says, “You come to be baptized by me? Shouldn’t I be being baptized by you?” And on that occasion Jesus, you will remember, says, “Let it be so now, for thus it is fitting to fulfill all righteousness.”[12] In other words, “John, just do what I’m asking you. This is the way it has to be.” Now, in a similar vein, the perplexity of Peter is obvious: “He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’”—or in the King James Version, which I love, “‘Lord, dost Thou my feet wash?’” It just kind of rings somehow, doesn’t it? “Lord, dost Thou my feet wash?” You’re going to wash my feet?

And the conversation, you see, is a classic illustration. It’s part of the dramatic irony that you get in John’s gospel all over the place. For example, you see it in John chapter 4, where the woman and Jesus are talking at cross purposes. Jesus says, “You know, if you knew who it was who was talking to you, you would ask him for a drink of water and you’d never need water again.” And she says, “Oh, I’d love to get that water, ’cause I hate coming down here in the middle of the day.”[13] Well, they’re talking at cross purposes. Jesus is talking about a water that will quench your spiritual thirst; she’s thinking purely in physical terms. Jesus here is dealing with something at a spiritual level; Peter is responding at an obviously physical level. And it is a classic illustration of the danger, of the mistakes which emerge from conceiving in physical terms of that which is clearly spiritual in significance. That, incidentally, is the whole issue of, “Eat my body, eat my flesh.”[14] We’re not going to stop on that.

And you will notice that Jesus tells them in verse 7, “You don’t realize now what I’m doing, but later you will understand.” In other words, the penny’s going to drop later on. That’s the significance, incidentally, of what you find in John chapter 16 when Jesus says to them, “I have much more to say to you, more than you can now bear. But when he, the Spirit of truth, comes, he will guide you into all truth,”[15] and so on. In other words, that is an express promise for the apostles, so that they will be guided into the truth that to this point they’ve never fully got. And when they get it, then they’ll be able to write it down so that in the letters, in the Epistles, we will have an understanding of what unfolded in the Gospels. People come to John 16 and they say, “Well, of course he’s going to guide us into all truth,” as if somehow or another that is for us. It’s actually not ultimately for us: it’s for the disciples. They were the ones who had seen it all but didn’t get it: “What do you mean, you’ll wash my feet? What do you mean, I need this? What do you mean, you’re going to suffer and die? You shouldn’t be suffering and dying.”[16] And Jesus says, “Well, you know, eventually the penny will drop. When the Spirit of God comes, he will lead you unto all truth,” and then when Peter begins to write his letter, he’s able to say, “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring [us] to God.”[17] So you have the fact plus the interpretation.

Well, you see, at this point, he is absolutely at sea, hence his question. Now, let’s be fair to Peter: he’s aware of the incongruity that the situation presents. But he’s dreadfully unaware of the incongruity of a disciple telling his Lord and master what he may and may not do. Right? Look at verse 8: “‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’” Peter, this is not a good start, man. You’ve got a whole chronicle of these things going. I mean, by now surely you ought to get it! You’ve had the “Blessed are you, Simon bar Jonah, for flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father [who] is in heaven”[18]—there’s an attaboy!—followed immediately by “Get behind me, Satan!”[19] And here he goes again: “And now I’m coming here to wash your feet.” “Lord, dost my feet Thou wash?” “Yeah.” “No.” “Okay, Peter, unless by means,”—and this is, if you like, the Alistair Begg expanded version of the verse—“unless by means of my entire work of humiliation, of which this feet washing is only a part, unless I cleanse you from your sins, you do not share with me in the fruits of my redemptive work.”

Now, listen as in verse 9 Peter swings with the pendulum right across to the other side. It’s standard Peter: “Then, Lord, not just my feet, but I’ll take the whole package—my hands and my head as well.” Now, will you notice that even in this, Peter is reluctant to have Jesus do what Jesus is going to do? Jesus might legitimately say, “I didn’t say anything to you about your hands and your head, clown. I’m here to wash your feet.” You know? First of all, “No, I don’t want my feet washed;” then, “I want my own program.” Peter is such a tremendous encouragement to many of us, isn’t he: big mouth plus fat head? Because he still completely misunderstands the meaning of the action. Jesus is not in this washing cleansing his disciples, but he is in this washing symbolizing that cleansing which is provided in the blood he is about to be shed.

Years ago I heard an address given by somebody, actually one of my friends, and he gave this address, and his address was, “There are some things that can only be dealt with with a basin and a towel.” And I wrote him a note, and I said, “Hey, how could you expound John 13 and leave it there? Because it’s not about water and a basin, it’s about the blood of the cross. And unless you get to the blood of the cross, you’ve completely missed the point of the water and the basin and the towel.” And he wrote back and said, cynically, “I wish I was a genius like you that understood the Bible. I’m sorry, I’m just a poor peon, and I don’t know what I’m talking about, and I don’t ever want to play golf with you again.” And it’s actually only in the last four or five years that we have been reconciled to one another and talk with one another; that’s the facts. I didn’t write it in judgment; I wrote it in a way that I want somebody to write to me (as they frequently do) and point out the missing links.

The Christian life is a life of daily repentance.

So, that’s why Jesus then uses the imagery of the man who bathes—verse 10: “A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.” In other words, he didn’t have to keep going and having a bath every twenty minutes. What is he saying? “He who is the one cleansed by the shedding of my blood, he who is justified by my grace, doesn’t need to be cleansed totally again and again, but is in need of daily cleansing by the sanctifying work of the Spirit.” That is why when sin enters into the life of the believer, we don’t have to become a Christian all over again—in the same way that when your father says, “I want you to bring the car home by 11:30 prompt,” and you bring the car home at 12:30 a.m. not prompt, the following morning at the breakfast table we’ve got a little bit of a problem. There is a cloud come down between father and son. The relationship is intact—he’s still my dad, I’m still his son—but the enjoyment of the relationship has been impaired by my disobedience. I don’t have to ask him to become my dad again; I have to ask him to forgive me for the fact that I didn’t do what he asked me to do and it spoiled my relationship with him. Hence the importance of coming constantly to God in repentance and in faith. The Christian life is a life of daily repentance. If it isn’t, then we’re not even awake, ’cause you can hardly get out of your bed without sin in your soul. So you have to come again, back again for fresh cleansing.

The Redemption that Jesus Provides

Now, what we understand—and we must move to a final point and to a close—is you will notice Jesus says, “And you are clean”—“you are clean, [but] not every one of you.”[20] In other words, he says, “You are the sharers in the redemption which I am coming to provide.” “Wash me, and I [shall] be whiter than snow.”[21] That’s the picture that is here. It is that cleansing which baptism portrays but does not perform. And it is that cleansing which ought to cause us, each of us, to confront this question—namely, if this is a dramatic illustration of the cleansing that is provided by the blood of Jesus, have I been cleansed by Christ’s blood? Have I come to him and asked him to make real in my experience what he has made possible in his death? If you like, in the words of the old hymn,

Have you been to Jesus for the cleansing flood?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?
Are your garments spotless? Are they white as snow?
Are you washed in the blood of the Lamb?[22]

You say, “Well, no, my garments are not spotless.” Oh yes they are, because, remember, he gave you a robe of righteousness which you don’t deserve. He covered you over with a robe of Christ’s righteousness.[23] I have been saved from sin’s penalty. I have been cleansed. I don’t need re-cleansed, as it were. And it is this that, in this expression of humility, Jesus is making clear.

In fact, if you like, Peter’s protest displays the pride of the man or the woman who will not come to Christ in this way, confident of their own ability to clean themselves up, confident of their own ability to put themselves right with God, instinctively convinced that they are in no need of any kind of divine cleansing. They would rather do something for God than admit that they’re hopelessly and helplessly lost unless God were to intervene and do something for them. In other words, they are the Naamans of the twenty-first century—the Naamans of the twenty-first century, with their entourage: “Mm-mm, I’m not going to go and dip myself in that filthy Jordan River, no matter who says it.[24] No, I will not go to Christ and admit that I am unfit for heaven and unable to rectify it. My word, there must be other ways and other places that this entry gate of heaven may be approached.” No

No other door. No other way.
No other guide to the realms of day.
No other helper when tempted to stray.
No other friend but Jesus.[25]

Now, it is when we get all of that that we can then put the “P.S.” on and notice not only the humility Jesus displays and the clarity that he provides, but the activity that he expects. And you’ll notice his question in verse 12: “When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. And he said, ‘Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and that’s the right thing, for that’s what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I’ve set you an example that you should do as I’ve done for you. I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master. A messenger is not greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”[26]

Now the question, of course, is, is Jesus here instituting a new ordinance—that of feet washing, as some today teach? I don’t think so. It’s my opinion. It’s not a main thing or a plain thing, therefore I’m not prepared to go to the mat and die over the discussion, and I don’t want to have the discussion with you afterwards—I’ll just let you know that immediately—because it’s quite boring to me. “I tell you the truth,” he says, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” I think it’s significant that he doesn’t say that “you should do what I have done for you.” “You should do as I have done for you.” In the “as” is all of the symbolism and all of the notion and nature of humble service. I think the correct application has to be there. I know that many believe other than that, or at least some do. And this very incident has its own meaning within its own context, whether it’s repeated or not. It sits within the context and the culture of the time. I think this incident is similar, for example, to understanding 1 Corinthians chapter 8 and the food offered to idols. How do you take the story of the food offered to idols written in the context of 1 Corinthians and make application of it in the twenty-first century in America? Because there isn’t food offered to idols. What is the principle in the immediate historical, cultural expression? The principle is, don’t offend your weaker brother. So if you get all tied up in the food offered to idols, you may miss the point of application.

In the same way, we could have one of the most phenomenal disagreements about whether you should wash each other’s feet or not and all get in a huff with one another and miss the fact that the whole point of the story was that we should serve one another in a selfless way, not argue with one another about who’s right in terms of the interpretation of the foot washing. It’s fantastic, really. We have the ability to mess things up just at the drop of a hat! No, I think if we understand straightforwardly that the central focus is on humility, and God in Christ looks for that to be a mark—a hallmark—of our Christian experience, and that we understand in verse 17 that there is a blessedness that attends the life of humble service, then we’re on the right track. After all, remember Jesus says to his followers, “You know,” he says, “at the end of the day, you’re just unprofitable servants. You know, when you’ve done your best, you can only say, ‘We only did what we were supposed to do.’ You know, why do you expect applause when you’re finished? You just did what you were asked to do. Oh, it’s nice to say ‘Thank you’ and to commend one another, but that’s for them to do. Let another praise you; you don’t exalt yourself.”[27]

No, Peter when he finally got this, remember, he writes in his own letter in 1 Peter 5, and he says, “Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that in due time he may exalt you.”[28] Paul writes to the Romans, and he says, “Don’t any one of you think of yourselves more highly than you ought, but think of yourselves with sober judgment according to the proportion of grace and wisdom and faith that God has given you, and then go ahead and exercise your responsibilities.”[29]

Two quotes and we’re done: one from Samuel Rutherford, a Scotsman, the other from David Wells, born in Rhodesia but probably an Englishman:

Humility has nothing to do with depreciating ourselves and our gifts in ways we know to be untrue. [You know, like, “Oh no, I couldn’t play the piano. I can’t play the piano.” Okay, it’s not that.] Even “humble” attitudes can be masks [for] pride. Humility is that freedom from our self which enables us to be in positions in which we have neither recognition nor importance, neither power nor [validity], and even experience deprivation, and yet have joy and delight. It is the freedom of knowing that we are not [at] the center of the universe, not even in the center of our own private universe.[30]

Good quote, huh?

Rutherford, in his journals … and in my little black book this comes quote number one. If you listen to people preach, they very quickly will reveal their sins. This is quote number one in my black book. It reads, “Be humbled, walk softly; down … with your top sail: stoop, stoop; it is a low entry to go in at heaven’s gates.”[31] It is a low entry to go in at heaven’s gates.

Father, thank you this morning again that we can turn to the Bible. Thank you that we’re able to go out of here and read it again for ourselves and see what’s true and helpful and sensible. Grant that what is true may find a resting place in our thinking, that if anything is untrue or unclear or unhelpful, that you might help us just to banish it from our recollection. And we pray that we might be found in Christ and increasingly like Christ, and this morning particularly in terms of humble service. And now we commend the rest of the day to you, all of its exciting opportunities for friendship and for relaxation and for enjoyment, and we walk out in the strength and power of Jesus, in whose name we pray. Amen.


[1] James Rowe, “I Would Be Like Jesus” (1911).

[2] John 13:3–4 (NIV 1984).

[3] John 1:1 (NIV 1984).

[4] Matthew 8:27 (KJV).

[5] Charles Wesley, “Let Earth and Heaven Combine” (1745).

[6] John 1:3 (J. B. Phillips Paraphrase).

[7] Philippians 2:5–8 (paraphrased).

[8] Jean B. de Santeüil, “In Stature Grows the Heavenly Child,” Trans. John Chandler (1837). Paraphrased.

[9] Edward Caswall, “See Amid the Winter’s Snow” (1858). Paraphrased.

[10] Luke 22:24 (NIV 1984).

[11] Matthew 5:43–44 (NIV 1984).

[12] Matthew 3:13–15 (paraphrased).

[13] John 4:10–15 (paraphrased).

[14] John 6:53 (paraphrased).

[15] John 16:12–13 (NIV 1984).

[16] Matthew 16:22 (paraphrased).

[17] 1 Peter 3:18 (NIV 1984).

[18] Matthew 16:17 (paraphrased).

[19] Matthew 16:23 (NIV 1984).

[20] John 13:10 (NIV 1984).

[21] Psalm 51:7 (NIV 1984).

[22] Elisha A. Hoffman, “Are You Washed in the Blood?” (1878). Paraphrased.

[23] Isaiah 61:10 (NIV 1984).

[24] 2 Kings 5:11–12 (paraphrased).

[25] Author unknown.

[26] John 13:12–17 (paraphrased).

[27] Luke 17:9–10 (paraphrased).

[28] 1 Peter 5:6 (paraphrased).

[29] Romans 12:3 (paraphrased).

[30] David F. Wells, Losing our Virtue: Why the Church Must Recover Its Moral Vision (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdman’s Publishing, 1998), 204.

[31] Rutherford to Cardoness, Elder, Aberdeen, 1637, in Joshua Redivivus; or Three Hundred and Fifty-Two Religions Letters, by the Late Eminently Pious Mr. Samuel Rutherfoord, 11th ed. (Glasgow: William Bell, 1796), 214.

[MOU1]By emptying himself into humanity, by adding to himself something that was not previously there … he expressed his humility.

Copyright © 2024, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.

Alistair Begg
Alistair Begg is Senior Pastor at Parkside Church in Cleveland, Ohio, and the Bible teacher on Truth For Life, which is heard on the radio and online around the world.