John 13:1-17. 
 The Call to Humble Service

Copyright © 2008, American Journal of Biblical Theology   Scripture quotes from KJV

There are many attributes that characterize the body of Christ.  In the three short years of Jesus' ministry He placed much of the emphasis of His instruction on this subject.  Rather than set down a set of laws, as Moses had done under God's direction, Jesus set forth a pattern of behaviors and motives both by command and by example that are appropriate for His followers.  Had Jesus set up another set of laws, He would have set us up for failure, just as God's law served to prove that no person can be justified by the law alone, since no person can keep it.   In addition to His establishing characteristics of His followers, Jesus sent the Holy Spirit to the church to empower it.  When the Church is empowered by the Holy Spirit, its behaviors, attitudes, and motives will be a natural expression of that Power.  It is when people in the church remove the Holy Spirit from His rightful place and replace Him with their personal desires and biases, the Church fails.  When the sin of personal pride and desire enters the body of Christ, the result is disunity and conflict.  Each of the gospels describes the events of John 13, as Jesus provides a very significant object lesson on how Christians are to relate to one another.

1. Service Founded with Love 13:1-2

John 13:1.

Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. 

This passage of scripture describes events that took place early on Thursday night, less than twenty-four hours before Jesus' crucifixion.  The events that are about to take place are weighing heavily on Jesus' heart, and there are only a few more teaching moments before He will be taken prisoner.  What do you teach at a time like this?  What is one of the most important lessons that the disciples still need to learn?  These circumstances alone give a very special significance to the nature of these events.  As we remember that Jesus was fully human, we realize that He is subject to the entire range of emotions that we all share.  As we remember that Jesus is also the Christ, the Eternal Messiah, we also realize that He is fully aware of every nuance of suffering He is about to endure at the hands of evil men, as well as the purpose for that suffering.  He has spent three years preparing the disciples for this moment, and as they enter the upper room that has been prepared for their evening meal, the disciples, having sensed that the coming kingdom is near, are engaged in an animated discussion:

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. (Luke 22:24)

This was a recurring argument among the disciples.  They fully believed that Jesus was about to come into His Kingdom, but misunderstood the nature of that Kingdom.  They envisioned Jesus as the King of the Jews who would depose the Herodians from the throne, replacing them with Himself and His disciples.  They then were speculating as to what positions of authority they would be assigned, and who would be closest to the new King.  With only a few more hours with which to instruct the disciples, Jesus' humanity must have given Him cause for tremendous frustration.  However, as Christ, He also knew that there would come a time when they would fully understand the nature of His Kingdom.  Their responses would be led of the Holy Spirit, and would be quite appropriate.  It is this contrast between their motives, attitudes, and behaviors before and after Jesus' passion that we see among members in the Church today.  There always seems to be a faction that asks the question, "Which of us is the greatest."  Some seek to be the Masters of the Church, making its decisions, and very willing to create conflict in the body in order to keep their positions of power.  This is not the model of faith that Jesus ordained.  This is not the Church that Jesus established.  With such potential for pride within the body of his closest disciples, Jesus gave them, and us, an object lesson in leadership.

In this verse we also see Jesus' motive.  He would never give up on these disciples because He loves them and knows that they will follow Him in the sufferings He is about to endure.  The love he has for them is unending and without measure.  Though the word, "end" is used in the KJV, the text is literally, "to the uttermost."  The love He had was for all of His disciples, even the one who would foolishly betray Him.

John 13:2.

And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simonís son, to betray him; 

The recorded events of the last supper actually take place when the meal has been completed.  Some have argued that this was the Passover meal, but since it is Thursday, this meal would not yet have been celebrated.  However, since Jesus would not be sharing the Passover meal with them, it is evident that He did conduct the meal with the elements of the Passover meal.  However, at this point in the evening attention is drawn to the acts of Judas Iscariot, the disciple who would betray Jesus.  As we become familiar with Judas, we find that his personality is characterized by his self-centeredness.  Even though he spent a great deal of time with Jesus, it is evident that he never embraced Jesus' teaching.  Satisfied to serve as the treasurer of the band of disciples, a position from which he could steal from their purse (Ch. 12), Judas never gave himself to Jesus as the others had done, instead looking forward to his own position in the coming kingdom.  Much speculation has been presented concerning Judas' motives for betrayal, but one thing is obvious:  Judas went out of his way to profit from it.  Some have argued that Judas, believing that Jesus would overthrow the Herodians, simply took it upon himself to accelerate the process and profit from it.  Others would argue that Judas knew that Jesus would be captured anyway, and would suffer at the hands of the religious leaders since He had already told them of this.  Judas saw an opportunity for profit by accelerating that capture.  We see clearly that Judas' act was not one that was led of the Holy Spirit, but one that was led of the spirit of Satan that had a firm grip on Judas.  By carrying demons of greed and self-centeredness, Judas was blinded to Jesus' message and was used of Satan to bring about the crucifixion of Jesus, an ending that Judas never believed would actually come.

Just as the body of disciples contained a member who was not motivated to seek the betterment of the Kingdom, the Church also has members who are more concerned with their own self over the needs of the body.  Satan uses these people to create strife in the body and to diminish the work and witness of the church.  Surely there are few in the church who would consider themselves as self-centered and greedy as Judas, but remember that Judas never believed that Jesus would be killed.  When people express their selfish and prideful motives in the body, they do not typically realize that their actions serve to destroy the work of the Holy Spirit in it.  Instead, they think that by exercising their control over the Church they are making things better, leading the body in the direction that they think is best.  In many ways, this is exactly what Judas was doing.

Who is the greatest in the body of Christ?  How does one exercise their gift of leadership in the body?  What we find out is that God's definition of leadership and the world's definition of leadership are quite different.  

2. Service Practiced with Humility 13:3-5

John 13:3-5.

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; 4He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. 5After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciplesí feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. 

What Jesus did next astonished the disciples.  There is no doubt that the disciples held Jesus in very high esteem.  They were prepared to follow Him as their King, subjected to Him in every way that such a relationship requires.  At the same time, they were thinking of themselves as the greatest men in the Kingdom, those who would rule most closely with the King.  They had been dreaming about how such positions of power and authority would be.  They were ready to be the movers and shakers of Judah.    However, as they watched, Jesus first disrobes.  This was not an appropriate action for a "King."  For them to see the King without his ceremonial garb would be an embarrassment at best and demeaning at worst, to be disrobed among those of lower state would be humiliating.   Furthermore, people defined themselves by what they wear, much as they do today.   By disrobing, Jesus was shedding that definition.  Then surrounding Himself with a towel, He filled a basin with water and washed the feet of the disciples.

Foot-washing was a common service in first-century Judah.  Most people wore sandals as they walked the dusty streets and roads, and upon entering a home it was common for a servant to wash the feet of entering guests.  This chore was considered the lowest of all chores and fell to the servant with the lowest esteem.  Since the disciples had finished eating and their feet were yet unwashed indicates that there was no such servant or slave available to have done this task when they entered the house.  It is important to recognize that there was nothing ritualistic about the foot washing, as it was simply a practical service to perform when a guest entered the home.  It is also important to note that the task was considered so low and demeaning that no person of respect would do it.  There are probably few examples in modern Western culture of such an act of humility.

3. Service Offered with Grace 13:6-11

John 13:6-8a.

Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?  7Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. 8Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet.

We can always depend upon Peter to bring clarity to a situation.  We can see the astonishment and confusion experienced by the disciples as Jesus is washing their feet.  When Jesus comes to Peter, unlike the others, he is ready with something to say.  Literally, Peter commands Jesus not to wash his feet.  Peter was both prideful within himself and held Jesus in appropriately high regard.  He could not accept Jesus' act of humility performed on him any more than he would be willing to do so for someone of lesser status than he.  It is this paradigm of social level that stratifies and separates society.  When such a prejudice enters the body of Christ, the ministry of the church is particularly diminished.  Peter had a particularly acute sense of social strata, and even after Pentecost, and after he became the more prominent of Christian leaders, he still had a very hard time bringing the gospel to the Gentiles.  Ultimately, Peter never fully overcame that prejudice and left the evangelism of the Gentiles to Paul and several other apostles. Even when Jesus attempted to comfort Peter by explaining that he would soon understand the purpose of Jesus' act, Peter still refused to let Jesus wash his feet.  He was so adamant that Jesus not humble Himself on his own behalf that he rebuked Jesus, stating that, though Jesus purposed to do so, Peter would "never" allow Him to do so.

John 13:8b.

Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.

How often do we pick and choose which areas of our life will come under the Lordship of Christ?  I once heard a statement quoted, "Jesus is Lord of All or He is not Lord at all."  By the very definition of Lord, Jesus has dominion over all that we are and all that we have once we turn to Him.  If we keep any part of ourselves away from Him, then Jesus is not truly our Lord, and we do not fully trust Him.  Peter was picking and choosing the areas of Jesus' Lordship in his own life.  Peter would not allow Jesus to humiliate Himself on his behalf, so by his own choice, he rebuked Jesus, and would not let the King of the Jews minister to him.  What was Jesus' response to Peter's rebuke?   Jesus literally told Peter, "If you do not allow me to serve you, you have no part in me."  Our faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord is not to be filtered by our pride or prejudices.  When Jesus calls upon a Christian to take on a task, what is the appropriate response?   If Jesus is Lord, there is no choice but to respond in obedience, and trust Him.  Peter did not trust Jesus.  However, Jesus' rebuke of Peter was not what he expected.  Peter did truly desire to be obedient to Jesus, and when Jesus expressed the consequence of the pathway he was choosing, Peter did a complete about face, exposing his desire for obedience, but also his ignorance concerning Jesus' purpose.

John 13:9-11.

Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. 10Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. 11For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. 

Again, Peter responds with his characteristic impulsiveness, unaware of Jesus' true purpose.  However, His purpose is revealed in His answer to Peter.  Peter has been "washed," and only needs his feet cleaned, unlike Judas who is unwashed, the reference by Jesus' "but not all," indicated in verse 11.  Jesus is, for the first time, separating Judas from among the apostles, implying that he had never accepted Jesus for who He is as the other eleven apostles had done.  Some have speculated that Judas was a faithful and saved apostle who simply made a mistake.  Jesus' reference to Judas in this passage makes it clear that he never made a decision of faith in Jesus Christ.  Though Jesus knew of this, the apostles did not.  Likewise, it is probable that within any Christian community, there are members who are not yet saved.  In my own experience I have met pastors who were saved through their own preaching.  Certainly, our children need to come to a point in their lives of choosing Christ.  However, we often overlook the adults and simply assume that all have given their hearts and lives to Jesus.  Because of this, it is always useful to continue to preach the gospel, and continue to provide opportunities for discipleship to all of our members.  When such a church member is placed in such an environment of love,  it is not difficult for them to turn to Christ. 

4. Service Shared with One Another 13:12-17

John 13:12-17.

So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? 13Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. 14If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one anotherís feet. 15For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. 16Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. 17If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.

Recall that Jesus' act was in response to the apostles' speculation as to where each would reside in the pecking order under Jesus, their new King.  They still held the world's view of leadership, and as the anointed leaders of the new church, it was important that they understood God's definition of leadership.  Our world establishes leadership with an organizational chart that places the position of greatest authority at the top, with a descending tree of subordinates that works itself down to the lowest worker.  In this model, people in the lower strata serve those in the upper.  This method is logical, it makes sense, and it works when applied to worldly organizations.  It is this model that the apostles were expecting.  However, God's model for leadership inverts the tree.  Rather than the ones at the lower strata serving those in the higher, it is reversed.  Those in the higher strata are called to minister to the needs of those in the lower.  Often the church will organize itself like the world does, placing the pastor in as the CEO and the deacons or elders as authoritative decision makers.  This model is contrary to God's plan.  The pastor is not to be the boss, but rather is called to serve the people in the congregation, administering his gifts for the good of the church and of the Kingdom of God.  The elders and deacons are also called as ministers who serve the needs of the congregation.  The example of service that Jesus demonstrated was the act of washing of the disciple's feet.  Again, this is one of the most humiliating of services that can be rendered in their culture.  It is this type of service that Christians are called to administer one to another.  It is this type of service that deacons are to administer to the flock.  Jesus closes this teaching by stating that those who will learn and practice this form of leadership will be blessed.

Excursus.  Though the early church tended to understand and apply this model of servant leadership, it is evident from Paul's writings that there was still a strong tendency for people to ignore this model and abuse their leadership roles in the church.  The history of the church is replete with examples of what happens when its leadership rules in an autocratic fashion.  When the church was reorganized under Roman rule, the concept of servant leadership was all but lost in the autocracy of the popes, cardinals, bishops and priests who often ruled the church and its community using violence, and even warfare, to attain their own ends.  When the reformers of the early 16th century obtained written copies of the scriptures, they found the error in this model and took action to promote change.  Those who spoke against church autocracy were persecuted, imprisoned, and burned at the stake.     

We don't burn people at the stake any longer, but the tendency for us to desire to control others still remains.  When church leaders see themselves as if they were in a worldly organizational structure, they tend to subordinate those around them, making demands upon others in the church and demanding their own way when decisions are to be made.  Often these are pastors, elders, deacons, or a central core family that desires control.  My advice to those who want to use the church to exercise their need for such leadership is to join a social fraternity and use that community as an outlet for their need for control.  They can utilize their gift of leadership in the manner they wish, and can serve as salt and light in that setting as well.  The model for leadership that the apostles anticipated was likewise contrary to God's will, and if exercised, would have ultimately crippled the new church.  This pride-based model for leadership must be set aside in our congregations and replaced by a model that is based upon love and trust that empowers each individual to exercise his or her gifts of service.  In this manner, with each member of the church serving the most basic needs of one another out of genuine love, the gospel will be illuminated to all who witness the actions of the congregation.  Visitors will find themselves being ministered to by the church and will be drawn to Christ.  In such a setting the church will grow, people will be saved, and God will be glorified.

Though Jesus gave this demonstration to the disciples who would lead the new church, He was providing an object lesson for all Christian disciples.  Just as Jesus was characterized as a humble servant to those around Himself, Christians are each called upon to humbly serve one another in love.

Christians are called to imitate Christ, to take upon themselves the characteristics of ministry and service that are exemplified by Christ who has the authority to rule with an iron fist like many people would like to do, but instead, serves as the most humble of servants, a servant who is so humble that He was willing to suffer at the hands of evil men so that all could be saved.

When we look at the example of Jesus we find that His service to us is

He has called upon every believer to share this same form of service one to another.  Let us take a lesson from Jesus' example, shed the robes of our worldly identity, and serve one another in humility and love.


Beasley-Murray, George R. (1999). John, 2ed. Word Biblical Commentary, Volume 36.  Dallas, TX:  Word Books.  Pages 223-236.

Hull, William E.. (1970).  John, Broadman Bible Commentary, Vol. 9.  Nashville, TN: Broadman Press.  Page 327-329.

Batson, Jerry. (2002).  A Serving Life, Explore the Bible: Adult Commentary, Winter 2002-03.  Nashville, TN:  Lifeway Church Resources.  Pages 10-19.

Register, Dean. (2002). A Serving Life, Explore the Bible: Adult Leader Guide, Winter 2002-03.  Nashville, TN:  Lifeway Church Resources.  Pages 12-20.

Tenney, Merrill C. (1981).  John, The Expositor's Bible Commentary, Volume 9.  Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House.  Pages 134-138.