Sermon on John 13:1-17 – “A Servant Example”

Mailed out for: Sunday, May 17th, 2020 at First Presbyterian Church at Unionville, NY (BPC)

Old Testament reading:

[Gen 18:1-15 ESV] 1 And the LORD appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on–since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.” 7 And Abraham ran to the herd and took a calf, tender and good, and gave it to a young man, who prepared it quickly. 8 Then he took curds and milk and the calf that he had prepared, and set it before them. And he stood by them under the tree while they ate. 9 They said to him, “Where is Sarah your wife?” And he said, “She is in the tent.” 10 The LORD said, “I will surely return to you about this time next year, and Sarah your wife shall have a son.” And Sarah was listening at the tent door behind him. 11 Now Abraham and Sarah were old, advanced in years. The way of women had ceased to be with Sarah. 12 So Sarah laughed to herself, saying, “After I am worn out, and my lord is old, shall I have pleasure?” 13 The LORD said to Abraham, “Why did Sarah laugh and say, ‘Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?’ 14 Is anything too hard for the LORD? At the appointed time I will return to you, about this time next year, and Sarah shall have a son.” 15 But Sarah denied it, saying, “I did not laugh,” for she was afraid. He said, “No, but you did laugh.”

New Testament reading:

[Luk 22:24-29 ESV] 24 A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. 28 “You are those who have stayed with me in my trials, 29 and I assign to you, as my Father assigned to me, a kingdom,

Gospel reading and sermon text:

[Jhn 13:1-17 ESV] 1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 3 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, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 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. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.


We now come to a passage in John’s Gospel that is easily marked out as a unit of its own. While it still has doctrinal content—like the sections of Jesus’ teaching that I’ve recently preached on—here we also have a narrative story providing context for the teachings. It is the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples.

And I’ll be looking this passage in two parts: (1) “The Servant Jesus” and (2) “The Servant Christians.” We shall see that Jesus is providing a grand example of how to be a servant. He explicitly says “For I have given you an example.” Thus my sermon title is “A Servant Example.” As Jesus served others so shall we serve others.

Let’s look first at “the servant Jesus.”

I. The Servant Jesus

Last week I mentioned that Jesus, who is to be the judge of all, was judged by the people though he had not sinned! Now, we have Jesus, the king over all, who should be served by all, being yet the servant of men! Oh how our Lord’s ways are not our ways! Who would ever think to make up a messiah that is not a powerful ruler, but a humble servant who provides an example of how we are to serve others?!

Jesus, we find in our passages, loved the disciples even to the end. As his death was soon approaching he did not give up his love for his people, but showed his love in this humiliation as a servant.

Jesus and the disciples had gathered for supper in the upper room. And, having traveled from Bethany, their feet protected only by sandals, they had arrived filthy. In our day, no mother would allow a child arriving at home in that state of dirtiness to walk about house without being washed. And for the Jews, the cleanliness rules were all the more strict.

The feet, of course, are the quickest to get dirty and the part of the body most needing to be washed. I’ve noticed a certain hierarchy of smalls myself when it comes to hikers. While the smell of a hiker can be quite strong, it little compares to the smell of their footwear. Boots might be the worst, but even hiking sandals—as some do wear today as they traverse streams—can quickly develop their own funk. When it comes to smells, it is the feet that are the worst. And so, the job of washing feet is very undesirable.

As the Jesus and the disciples gathered for supper, there was no servant present to wash their feet. And this was not something they disciples quickly volunteered for! It is said that the Jews would not even demand of their Jewish servants (or slaves) to be foot-washers. It was a job they relegated to the gentile slaves – to the lowest in society.

The disciples had been too busy wondering who among them was the greatest; too busy to consider serving as a foot-washer. Twice in Luke’s Gospel the disciple found to be asking that question to Jesus, “Who among us is the greatest?” (Luke 9:46-48 and Luke 22:24-29.) And Jesus answered them, “let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves.” The same message is at the forefront our our passage in John’s Gospel.

While the disciples were hesitant or even unwilling to assume that role of the servant, Jesus displayed his love for “his own who were in the world” by taking on the role of the servant, and washing the feet of the disciples.

This began the humiliation of Jesus Christ. Humbling himself as a servant, he washed the feet of the disciples, and humbling himself as a servant he went to the cross for his people.

The Westminster Larger Catechism explains Christ’s humiliation as “that low condition, wherein he for our sakes, emptying himself of his glory, took upon him the form of a servant, in his conception and birth, life, death, and after his death, until his resurrection.”

Now when Jesus got to Peter, to wash his feet, Peter couldn’t handle it. Here was his Lord humbling himself to the low position of a foot-washer. While the other disciples apparently remained quiet, Peter “was a man who could not keep still. He did his thinking aloud.” (So comments William Hendricksen)

Simon Peter first said “Lord, do you wash my feet?” And when Jesus answered “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me” then Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

In these words of Jesus—”If I do not wash you, you have no share with me”—we see the exclusiveness of Jesus Christ as the only way of eternal life. Jesus is THE way. The only way to have a share in the kingdom of God is to be washed in the blood of the lamb. There are not “many ways to the summit of the mountain” but only one path that leads to heaven, while all other paths send the proud climber plummeting off the cliff. The washing away of sins comes by none other than Jesus Christ.

And it is for this purpose Christ came. He came from the heights of heaven to the broken and corrupted earth, and, as Philippians 2:8 tells us “being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

While the foot-washer is lowest position in society, death on the cross is reserved for criminals who cannot even belong to society. The humiliation of Jesus went from low to lowest, from servant to death as a criminal. And this, all for the love he had for his people. Not only his disciples, but for all of his people, then and now, you and me.

We all need a washing away of all of our sins, and this is provided by Jesus Christ, the servant of God.

Now let’s transition from this emphasis on the Servant Christ, to look at the Servant Christian. As he became a servant he set an example for us be servants of men and of God.

II. The Servant Christians

In a book I read a few years ago there was a story about a rural Appalachian church that needed some physical work done on it. Maybe it was painting, I can’t recall. But the pastor was unable to get any of the men to start the work. The men weren’t any busier than normal with their regular jobs, they just didn’t seem to realize the necessity of improvements needed at the church. And try as he might, the pastor could not get any of the men to show up. So what did he do? He called the women. A group of women came together and started work at the church. And the men were so ashamed of themselves, seeing their wives doing what was in their culture considered men’s work, that they immediately found the time and came to the church and worked.

So Jesus’ disciples sat around unwilling to be the one who serves as the foot-washer. But when Jesus begins washing, they are ashamed. Christ who will be far exalted above all others stooped down that he may make the proud men ashamed. That is why Peter said incredulously, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”

So Jesus provides this example for us to follow. But it is a mistake to think that this is merely about foot washing. John Calvin explains how in his time some had a once per year festival in which they washed each others feet, claiming then that their service of others is complete until the next time around. Of course, service isn’t a once-and-its-done idea. Service is to be a lifestyle.

It is a mistake to take this example of foot-washing literally. Not that foot-washing is to be ruled out entirely—for there may be a cultural time or place that it is appropriate as service to others—but here “foot washing” stands the exemplar of service in general to others.

Jesus is not calling for a yearly foot-washing festival, nor is he calling for a new ordinance for the church, but rather he is calling his people to humble themselves as servants at all times.

There was indeed a sect in England a couple centuries ago that took this command literally and would do a foot-washing ceremony and each and every church service; each and every week. But this is to mistake the example for the commandment. The commandment is not to wash feet, but to be servants of others.

There are times and places where literally washing the feet of others may be positively a bad idea. You probably don’t want to literally wash each other’s feet if you live in Siberia or the Northern Slope of Alaska. In those temperatures, foot washing wouldn’t be a service, it would be assisted suicide.

The command to be servants of others is more universal. It applies at all times and all places. As the Lord Jesus Christ served, so are you to serve others. And it is likely that Jesus washed the feet of ALL of the disciples. He did not exclude Judas Iscariot even though he knew that Judas would betray him. This service was indiscriminate, as ours is to be indiscriminate as well. We are to serve all people, not just Christians or our own families or just people we like.

Foot-washing is an example. But it does not limit our good deeds, our servanthood, to foot-washing. If we were limited to only do the good deeds explicitly commanded in Scripture, we’d have a very short list. Rather, this is an example. It sets up a principle by which many good deeds of various types should be performed by the servant Christian.


We are called then by our Lord Jesus Christ to be servants. As he served other willingly, so we should serve others willingly.

So I want to finish with this thought. With these question. Service is costly. What costs have you incurred in serving others? How much of your time have you spent on others? And what inconveniences have you taken on for the benefit of others?

As Jesus says, a servant is not greater than his master. And so we are not greater than Jesus. He humbled himself; we should not avoid doing likewise. Let us pray that the Lord gives us all a servant heart that we may live a lifestyle of service. Amen.