Jesus: Servant King (13:1-17)

Bible Passage: John 13:1-17

Chapters 13 to 19 of John give a detailed account of the last night of Jesus’ life. There are large blocks of teaching, descriptions of his betrayal, arrest, trial and crucifixion. In this passage the events of the evening begin during the last supper. Unlike the synoptic gospels, John does not focus on the moment during the meal where Jesus instituted communion but tells of the event a little earlier in the day when he washed the feet of his disciples and then taught them that he wanted them to do likewise for each other.

Jesus the Servant: In the culture of the day, foot-washing was an important and necessary part of hospitality. People would typically wear open sandals, the climate was hot, and most travel was on foot over dry and dusty ground. As such, when people went outside they usually ended up with feet caked in sweat and grime. It was typically the responsibility of a host to ensure that their guests could have their feet washed before coming into the home, and the task was usually delegated to a servant. Where there was no designated host and no servants present, the person with the lowest social rank would be expected to assume the responsibility. On this occasion nobody wanted to take on the job. It was a grim chore to do, and whoever did it would be conceding their status as the least significant disciple. Because they all thought of themselves as more important than this, none of them took on the job. Jesus had a different view. He did not see servanthood as something that diminished him, and though he was the leader of the group he chose to do the job himself and he washed the feet of his followers. In doing this Jesus shows that he is not the kind of king who lords it over others, but the kind of king who serves them and uses his power for their good.

Humility to be Served: When Peter saw what Jesus was doing, he understood the implication of the action. He knew that in washing their feet, Jesus was putting himself in the lowest place, and in Peter’s opinion this was not right. He argued with Jesus, no doubt believing that this was beneath Jesus, but Jesus told him in no uncertain terms that it was necessary. Peter’s response to being served is not an unusual one. Often we can feel uneasy about the idea of allowing somebody else to serve us, and this can come down to a lack of humility to be willing to receive from them. In the conversation that follows, Jesus explains how he has already cleansed them (referring to their salvation). There is a humility to receive the work of Jesus for us on the cross, and this humility is reflected in our willingness to let others serve us in a whole variety of ways.

Humility to Serve: In verses 12-17, Jesus turns the situation into a teachable moment. As the leader of the group Jesus has shown the humility to serve others, and now he explains that he wants them to do the same. This shouldn’t be understood as a literal instruction that is limited to foot-washing (although some people find it helpful in a symbolic way to occasionally do this) but it is rather an instruction to serve in whatever unpleasant ways are necessary and to put meeting the needs of others as a higher priority than establishing our own status.

Potential Applications:

  • There is a very direct challenge here about our attitudes to serving others. What opportunities are there to meet the needs of others around us?
  • There is also a challenge about our willingness to be served. Some people are only comfortable when they are the ones meeting the needs of others, but this robs those around us of opportunities to apply this teaching. Are we humble in receiving the serving that others graciously offer?
  • Jesus speaks about cleansing, referring to the grace that he offers. You could invite people to receive this cleansing if they have never done so before.