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.”—John 13:3–5
The opening scene of the Book of Glory is one of the most humble in the life of our Lord. John is divided into two parts. The first half is known as “The Book of Signs.” Seven signs drive the narrative forward and are central to the express purpose of the fourth gospel.
“Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (John 20:30–31).
Chapters 11 and 12 have prepared you for what lies ahead in the second half of John where the cross of Christ is chiefly in view. Why have theologians referred to this portion of John, where our Lord hangs cursed and shamed on the tree, as “The Book of Glory?” Because the one who journeys to the cross is the Resurrection and the Life (11:25). Because this is the hour of His glorification (12:23). Because by the cross the Christ will conquer (12:31–33).
And so it is fitting that the opening episode of the Book of Glory would be one of striking humility. The washing of the disciples’ feet is not simply an overflow of Jesus’ love (13:1). It is no mere demonstration that Jesus loves them. It is an illustration of the love of Christ that will love them to the end. This act is a kind of sign of the sign of signs—the death and resurrection of our Lord. Our Lord’s taking on the form of a servant at the feast doesn’t shock when you realized how low He has already stooped in the incarnation. When one has already knelt so low, what is it to then reach the hand just a little lower?
“[He] emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Philippians 2:17–18).
Jesus’ action at the feast perfectly illustrates what it means for Jesus to empty Himself. He didn’t become less in His being when He took of the towel. He humbled Himself. Likewise, when Jesus took on human flesh, He didn’t empty Himself of His divinity, but His dignity. All of Jesus’ earthly days He wore the towel of a servant in the wearing of His flesh. And now, that towel of flesh is soon to be rent so that sinners might be made clean.
After cleansing them, Jesus resumed His place. Having resumed His place, He again acts as their Rabbi and Lord, instructing and commanding them. Jesus’ actions here anticipate His ascent into glory, from whence He will send the purchased Spirit to redeem the elect children of God and guide them into all truth (12:16; 13:7; 14:26; 16:13).
In all of this, the service of Jesus is something utterly unique; something that cannot be replicated. And yet, because it is unique, it may be emulated. If the death of Jesus is simply an example, it is a horrid one. It is not loving to say to someone, “I love you so much I could die for you!” and to then kill yourself without meaning or purpose to prove your love. The love of Christ is not like that. And it is because it is not like that, in a unique sense, that it is exemplary for us in another. Because Jesus served us, we may serve others. We cannot serve so that sins are washed away, but we may serve to tell them of such a service. We cannot give our lives to make an atonement, but we may give our lives to tell of the atonement that was made.
Without penal substitution, Christus exemplar is meaningless. Both are true. One is paramount. Because Christ has served, we may serve. The cross of Christ that informs our service, empowers our service, and shapes our service is the message of our service. We are not to serve simply for the sake of serving. We are to serve for the sake of Christ. We are to serve because we have been served by Christ. We are to serve telling others of His service.