The Example of Humble Service
Leonard Bernstein, American conductor, was once asked, “What is the hardest instrument to play?” Without any hesitation, he replied, “Second fiddle. I can always get plenty of first violinists. But to find one who plays second violin with as much enthusiasm, now that’s a problem. And yet if no one plays second, we have no harmony.” Matt. 20: 28 reminds us of the only reason why Jesus came to this world - “...just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many." Our Saviour never sought to be first in line, no He was willing to be the least, to play the second fiddle.
John 13 marks the beginning of the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry. Verse 1 tells us that Jesus knew the time had come to leave this world. You will remember that at the wedding in Cana, Jesus told Mary that his time had not yet come, but now, three years later with everything our Lord fulfilled, His time had come. “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, what did He do? Did He get up and declare in a thunderous voice that all must kneel before him? Did He stare down at the Jewish leaders who opposed Him and were plotting to kill Him, and told them all off? No, He did something that got the attention of His disciples, and in particular Peter. No, more than that – He got the attention of all people of God for generations to come.
The first thing we learn from Jesus washing His disciples feet is that No One Is Above Any Task. We read in verse 4, “so, He got up from the meal, took off His outer clothing and wrapped a towel around His waist.” John continued, “after that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet.” That wasn't an act of a king, but the act of a servant. It was an act of someone Who was prepared to lower and debase Himself so that others might be raised up and exalted. What Jesus did was to show through His servant-hood that He went as low as a person could go. It was the lowly task of the servant of the house to wash people's feet. Sometimes a slave was brought in to do that. On this occasion, there was no servant – not that one couldn't be found. Jesus wanted to make sure that His disciples learned a lesson on servant-hood. Years ago, a government official in Poland went to a building site to see what the progress was of the new development. Workers were sitting around and the foreman explained that the sewer backed up and that they were waiting for a plumber. Unfortunately a plumber could only come later in the day. But the fix was quite simple. Any person could by just putting his hand in the sewer line adjust a valve. But you see, none of the workers were willing to do that. So, the government official took off his jacket, and the next thing he did was to go on his knees and reach down in the line. The foreman cried out, “You shouldn't be the one doing this. It can wait.” After the valve was adjusted, the government official commented, “No one is above this kind of work.” What Jesus demonstrated was far more extensive. He, the Prince of heaven, to Whom heavenly hosts sing praise, became a Servant of people and gave the perfect example by wrapping a towel around His waist and washing His disciples' feet. He was the last Person anyone could expect from doing something like that.
John wrote also about The Reaction To Jesus' Example Of Service. We read in verse 6, “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.” Peter felt uncomfortable with the Lord washing His feet – and you can probably understand why. But what he didn’t understand then was the necessity of this washing. “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me”. Jesus wasn’t a Person Who had issues with dirty feet. No, He was talking about something far more fundamental. Jesus was talking about the cleansing of sins. He was and is the only One Who could wash sins away. David Berkowitz fatally shot 6 people in New York City in 1976. His past was very dark, but in prison another inmate reflected the light of Jesus on him. He shared Psalm 34: 6 with Berkowitz, “This poor man cried, and the Lord heard him, and saved him out of all his troubles.” Tears ran over Berkowitz's cheeks and he said, “I waited so long for my guilt and sins to be washed away.” But how does Jesus cleanse us from this guilt? Let’s look back to verse 1. It was just before the Passover Feast, just before the Festival which commemorated when the Israelites sacrificed a lamb so that the angel of death would pass over their homes in Egypt. Jesus knew that His time had come 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. What was the full extent of Jesus’ love? How far would He go for His people? The story we get directly after that verse is about washing some feet, but Jesus went much further than that. He went all the way to the cross. It was by that cross that Jesus washed away all the sins of the world. No matter what your sins were – theft or murder or deception – it all had been covered in the blood of Jesus. We have to understand, it wasn't to cover it up, but a complete washing away of sins. It transformed the life of David Berkowitz, just as it transformed lives before and after him. We too were included my friends. Because, Jesus didn't want us to live all our days with guilt. No, He transformed us.
Peter came to the deep longing of being transformed and to have Jesus to fully have a part of Him, when he said in verse 9, “...not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” And when Jesus told him in verse 10 that those who already had a bath and they only needed to wash their feet, He wasn't talking about a little splash with water. He was talking about being fully immersed in the blood of Christ. That’s how we were washed, that’s how we were purified, that’s how our guilt was taken away. You know my friends, if we were Peter, our response would have been exactly the same. “Lord, my hands and my head as well.” Yes, our reaction too would have changed from “Never Lord! Never will you wash my feet!” to “Lord, I can't get enough of the cleansing of my sins in Your precious blood.”
And then Jesus confronts us with the words in verses 14 and 15, “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.” The example of Jesus has to become reality in our lives as we demonstrate the same humility to serve rather than to be served.