Served We Serve (John 13:1–20)

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.

Directional Challenge (Matthew 20:17-28)

Jesus is heading south to Jerusalem, down to the cross. But Matthew and Jesus tell us that He is going up to Jerusalem. Did Jesus miss His turn? No, Jerusalem is always up. Psalms 120-134 are “Songs of Ascents.” These would be sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem for the feasts. Jesus and the disciples may have very well be singing them on their journey to Jerusalem for the Passover. Remember when the kingdom divided after Solomon into the northern kingdom of Israel and southern kingdom of Judah? This gives you the lay of the land. The majority of Israelites, before the split, would head south toward the Temple, singing Songs of Ascent. This is because Jerusalem was spiritually up. It was also up in elevation, drastically so from Jericho, which, being situated near the Dead Sea, the lowest spot on earth, is one of the lowest cities on earth at over 800 feet below sea level. Jerusalem in contrast is over 2500 feet above sea level.

So down (directionally) is up (in elevation). But up (in elevation) is down (humiliation). But ultimately down (humiliation) is up (glorification). This is true for Jesus, and that is why it is true for us. At the cross, Jesus sets the standard for greatness. He stoops to serve, and He stoops to the lowest depths.

There was no abasement ever so deep as Christ’s was, in a double regard. First, None ever went so low as he, for he suffered the wrath of God, and bore upon him the sins of us all; none was ever so low. And then in another respect his abasement was greatest because He descended from the highest top of glory; and for Him to be man, to be a servant, to be a curse, to suffer the wrath of God, to be the lowest of all – Lord, wither doest Thou descend? —Richard Sibbes

Jesus does just set the standard for us, He sets it for us. The cross is not only the standard, it is the source of all human greatness. He gave His life as a ransom. His death purchased us and delivered us from our bondage. Christ set an example for us, but His example empowers us to follow. The most important thing to know about following Jesus, are the steps you cannot take. We cannot go to the cross as He did. But because of His greater service, we can do lesser acts, empowered by His, that point others to the only one who is truly great.

Many today want to emphasize the cross only or mainly as a moral act to be replicated, an example to be followed, rather than an atonement in our place, but if there is no redemption, then the example is ludicrous. Tim Keller illustrates,

Imagine that you are walking along a river with a friend, and your friend suddenly says to you, ‘I want to show you how much I love you!’ and with that he throws himself into the river and drowns. Would you say in response, ‘How he loved me!’ No, of course not. You’d wonder about your friend’s mental state. But what if you were walking along a river with a friend and you fell into the river by accident, and you can’t swim. What if he dived in after you and pushed you to safety but was himself drawn under by the current and drowned. Then you would respond, ‘Behold, how he loved me!’ The example of Jesus is a bad example if it is only an example. If there was no peril to save us from—if we were not lost apart from the ransom of his death—then the model of his sacrificial love is not moving and life-changing; it is crazy. Unless Jesus died as our substitute, he can’t die as a moving example of sacrificial love.

Underlying Christus Exemplar is penal substitutionary atonement.

For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. —1 Peter 2:21-24 (ESV)

Christ’s atoning service makes ours possible and makes it potent. The cross is the standard and the source; every lesser sacrifice points to the greatness of His.

[W]hoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen. —1Peter 4:11 (ESV)