Monday, October 13, 2014

Christ: The Exemplary Servant (Jn 13:12-17)


In the early 20th Century, Irish-born explorer Earnest Shackleton made three journeys to Antarctica in an attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole and cross Antarctica by way of the Pole. As is so often the case with legendary people of history, the passage of time has made it difficult to separate fact from fiction in the details of his adventures. For many years people have often quoted an advertisement allegedly placed by Shackleton himself in the London newspapers. Now it seems that the ad never existed except in the mythology surrounding the man. We know that he recruited an able crew, and we know that he solicited an overwhelming response of volunteers. And though these may not have been his exact words, it is certainly believable that he must have given some similar warning to those who expressed interest in his journey. According to the legend, the advertisement read something like this: “Men wanted for hazardous journey. Low wages, bitter cold, long hours of complete darkness. Safe return doubtful. Honour and recognition in event of success.”

Whether the ad actually ever existed or not, by whatever means Shackleton went about raising his crew, the story holds that he received over 5,000 inquiries. He allegedly sorted them out in three categories: Mad, Hopeless, and Possible. [1] Indeed, it seems that one may have to be mad or hopeless to inquire about such a venture. But, none of them could say that they didn’t know in advance what they were getting themselves into. I don’t imagine anyone boarded Shackleton’s ship expecting a luxurious Caribbean cruise.

Friends, the Lord Jesus Christ has recruited for Himself a people to engage in a journey that could be described in similar terms. He has called us to a life of humble, selfless, and sacrificial service. We have not been recruited as passengers on a luxury liner. We have been recruited as workers on a spiritual rescue ship. We are called to serve the Captain, and one of the ways we do that most often is by serving one another along the way. If we were to post an ad to recruit volunteers, it would read much like the one that Shackleton may have posted. It is hazardous, it does not promise abundant wages, the circumstances are often hard and unsafe, and honor and recognition are not likely to be found here on earth. It is humbling, demanding, and difficult. Would there be any takers? Maybe there would be some who are mad, others who are hopeless, and a few who would embrace the task wholeheartedly. After all, the Lord Jesus, our Captain, has given us an example that we are to follow. He does not call us to do that which He is unwilling to do Himself. He is the Exemplary Servant.

In the preceding weeks, we have explained the task of footwashing that we see demonstrated here in our passage. We won’t explain it in detail again today, except to say that in that day, it was typically a task reserved for the lowliest servant of the home as guests entered. And in our text, it is the Lord Jesus Himself who donned the servant’s towel to wash the feet of His disciples. Like several other things Jesus said and did, here He seemed to have two aims in so doing. First, as we examined last week, He intended to teach the disciples the necessity of being washed of their sins through His sacrificial death. But here in the verses before us today, we see that He also intended to give His followers an example of what it means to serve Him by serving one another.

I. The example stated: Christ is our example in serving one another (vv13-15)

The other day, I was at Subway ordering a sandwich, and the girl making the sandwiches (the “sandwich artist” as Subway calls them) was new on the job. I was about third in line, and as each one ahead of me ordered, she would start making the sandwich and quickly call out to the supervisor for help. “How many pieces of chicken do I put on this? How do I arrange the cheese? Do I toast it now, or after I put the other stuff on it?” Finally, by the time I got to place my order, the supervisor said to her, “Here, let me show you how to do this.” And she walked her through the process from slicing the bread to wrapping it in paper and stuffing it into the bag. I thought to myself that this whole process would have been a lot more efficient if the supervisor had just done that to start with. Words can be misunderstood. Instructions can be confusing. But an example sets a clear pattern for what is expected. And the Lord Jesus has not merely told us to serve one another; He is the example we look to in order learn what it means to serve.

There is a bit of reticence in some Christian circles to speak of Jesus as our example. The widely influential movement of 20th Century Christian Liberalism reduced Jesus to merely being an example. Liberal theology proclaimed Jesus as a good man who did good things, and if we would have the favor of God (assuming that such a being actually exists) and our fellow man, then we should simply follow Jesus’ example. Liberalism did not see the death of Jesus as necessary for the atonement of sin, but rather as an example of obedience in spite of difficult circumstances. Thus, J. Gresham Machen, in the early 1920’s, notably wrote that Liberalism “is not Christianity at all, but a religion which is so entirely different from Christian as to belong in a distinct category. … [D]espite the use of traditional phraseology, … liberalism not only is a different religion from Christianity but belongs in a totally difference class of religions.”[2]

In response to Liberalism, many evangelicals chose to shy away from all mention of Jesus as our example. This, however, seems to be an overcorrection. Jesus is certainly more than our example, but He is by no means less than our example. He is our Savior and Lord, and it is only by His atoning death for our sins on the cross that we might be saved. Jesus is indeed, contrary to Liberalism, fully God. But, we must not forget that by the miracle of His incarnation He is also fully man. As the one and only perfect human being who ever lived, therefore, Jesus is in fact our example. He is just not merely an example.

He sets the example of Christian service here in His humility. He did not consider Himself to be too great to do a menial task for His disciples. He served them. They had a need, and He met their need, even though the service required was typically that of the lowliest servant. Jesus gave no thought either to His proper station or that of His disciples, nor did He consider the difficulty or lowliness of the task. He is the One who said, “I am among you as the One who serves” (Lk 22:27), and proclaimed that He had not come to “be served, but to serve” (Mk 10:45).

He says here in v13, “You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for I am.” Notice the order of those two titles. The order here reflects the order in which they had come to know Him: first as Teacher, and then subsequently as Lord. But then notice in v14 how He changes the order: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” It was as the Sovereign Lord that He could command obedience from them, and as their Teacher that He could instruct them by word and by example in the way of obedience. Nowhere in the New Testament does Jesus ever demand the obedience which He deserves as Lord from any who had not yet come to know Him as Lord, or from those who only knew Him as Teacher. But for those who have come to know Him as Teacher and as Lord, He has the right to instruct and the right to demand obedience. But He does not demand that obedience apart from teaching, nor apart from demonstrating the example of obedience in how He served. Here He has given them an unparalleled example in His own act of service, and urges us to follow the example.

II. The example explained: No act of service to one another should be considered beneath the one who is a servant of Christ (vv14-16).

One of the great blessings I have enjoyed as a pastor is the opportunity to mentor a few young men who have served as interns alongside of me. I’m always refreshed by their zeal for ministry. They say, “Pastor, are we going to prepare sermons today? Are we going to discuss the great works of systematic theology?” And I enjoy telling them, “Perhaps, but first, there is a person in the hospital we must visit, and a funeral service to prepare, and then there is a toilet that needs cleaning, some trash that needs to be picked up, and a few other things we have to do first.” A few years ago, Lisa found a huge ziplock bag in the office full of keys, all unlabeled and unmarked. Brian Davis was serving as our pastoral intern at that time, and I said, “Brian, I need you to take these keys and go around the building and see what locks they fit.” A little while later he texted me and said, “Pastor, this is not my spiritual gift.” I replied, “Nor is it mine, but it still has to be done.” A pastor friend of mine recently sent me a picture of several of us that was taken at a conference, and he had inscribed the caption below the picture, “Toilet Unclogging Team.” Young men entering ministry do not envision spending hours doing these sorts of things; I know I didn’t. But these things must be done. And there are countless other ways that we all must serve one another in humble, inglorious roles day to day as we follow Christ.

Jesus said, “If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” Now, this statement has given rise to “a third ordinance” in some denominations and churches. In those churches, foot washing takes place along side of baptism and the Lord’s Supper as biblical ordinances. You may have noticed, we do not do this, and you may wonder why. We do not believe that Jesus was here instituting a third ordinance for all of His followers, and we believe that there are only two such ordinances that He did institute for all members of His church: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. We come to this conclusion by two lines of reasoning. First, unlike Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, nowhere else in the New Testament do we see foot washing being practiced by the church or commanded for the church. Second, the intention of the Lord Jesus here was not to institute a new observance, but rather to give His disciples a pattern of humble and selfless service to follow. The practice of washing another’s feet could easily be done in a perfunctory, ritualistic way, entirely divorced from the humility and selflessness that is the point of what Jesus had done. It could even become a parade of the very opposite of humble and sacrificial service – pride and self-centeredness. And therefore, in the next verse (v15), Jesus says plainly, “I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Notice He did not say to do what He did to you, but as He did to you. Quite simply, He is saying that the example is not for a ritualistic performance but for the genuine giving away of oneself in the service of each other.

So the point is, will you serve each other in humble and sacrificial ways? Will you meet the needs, whatever they may be, of your brother or sister in the Lord? John Calvin said, “He who is the Master and Lord of all gave an example to be followed by all the godly, that no one might think it a burden to stoop to a service, however mean and low, to his brothers …. The reason love is despised is that everyone elevates himself too much and despises almost everyone else. … There is no love where there is not a willing slavery in assisting a neighbor.”[3]

What is it that stops us from doing whatever it is that our brother or sister needs? Is it not pride? On that very night, a dispute had arisen amongst the disciples about which of them was the greatest. And Jesus told them that the key to greatness in His Kingdom is our willingness to serve one another. Then He showed them how it is done by washing their feet. But we have such an upside down view of this, do we not? Our inclination toward pride is pervasive in our hearts. We feel that greatness should equate to our being served by others, and to having our needs met by them. So, Jesus explains further in verse 16, “Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him.” Who is who here? Jesus is the Master, we are His slaves. He has purchased us in redemption by the price of His own shed blood. Jesus is the Sender, we are those whom He has sent. Would we dare to say that any task of service to our fellow Christians is beneath us? The Lord Jesus Christ washed the dirty feet of His disciples when no one else was willing to stoop to the menial task. As Carson writes, “No emissary has the right to think he is exempt from tasks cheerfully undertaken by the one who sent him, and no slave has the right to judge any menial task beneath him after his master has already performed it.”[4]

In the letter to the Philippians, Paul is writing to a church that is dear to his heart, but which is on the brink of a rupture in the fellowship because of the arrogance of two women in particular, whom he names in Chapter 4: Euodia and Syntyche. And he says to the entire church, not just to those women, these words in Chapter 2:
1 Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, 2  make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. 3 Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4  do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. 5  Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, 7 but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. 8 Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Phil 2:1-8 (NASB)

How can we best serve Christ? By considering the example of Him who humbled Himself. The Lord of Glory, who became a man, took on the role of a servant, and He humbled Himself and served His disciples by laying aside His garments and washing their feet. And He humbled Himself and served us all by laying down His life to die for us on the cross. Shall we ever say that meeting the need of our brother or sister in Christ is too menial a task? Shall we act out of selfishness and empty conceit? Or shall we have the mind of Christ and emulate the example of our Lord Jesus, who showed us the way to serving one another?

Now finally,

III. The example commended: The blessing of God comes upon those who not only know these things, but who do them. (v17).

I suppose we all know a lot of things, and we all do a lot of things, but my hunch is that it is true for most of us that there are a number of things that we know that we do not do anything about. Every time I go to the doctor, he asks me, “Are you exercising regularly and eating right?” Now, I absolutely know I should exercise more often and eat better. I don’t need to read more statistics about that. But thus far, I haven’t done much with the knowledge I have. And I suppose this is true for us all in a myriad of ways when it comes to our spiritual lives as well. We know we should pray more; we know we should study our Bibles more; we know we should be more faithful in our giving; I could go on and on. And we know that we should serve one another more faithfully, more humbly, and more selflessly. You didn’t come in here today not knowing that, did you? Often when we think of our sins, we think of the sins of commission – the forbidden things we have done. But do we often think of our sins of omission – the things we do not do that we know we should? After all, James 4:17 says, “To one who knows the right thing to do and does not do it, to him it is sin.” And I suppose that every one of us to some degree has considered ourselves to live under the blessing of God, giving no though to the sins of omission that deprive us of the fullness of His blessings.

Jesus says here in verse 17, “If you know these things ….” Which things? The things He has been showing and telling—namely, that we must follow His example in serving one another in humble and sacrificial ways. “If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them,” He says. He does not say you are blessed if you know them. He says you are blessed if you do them. To be “blessed” in the sense of which Scripture speaks is to be highly favored by God. It is to have His approval upon yourself. It is to live, as it were, beneath the smile of God. And one way to have that blessing is to give ourselves away in the service of one another.

There are some who would take issue with thinking of it this way, as if we were promoting a mentality of “give to get.” Certainly, it is not my intention for you to think of Christian service to your brothers and sisters as a means to an end. It would be entirely self-serving and manipulative for you to serve others merely for what you could get out of it in return. Yet still, there is something to this, is there not? You do want the blessing of God on your life, do you not? Jesus is not asking you to serve others solely for what we will get in return, but to serve others because it is the right thing to do as His servants – to follow His example! Do some do this for the wrong reasons? Certainly, but if someone is doing the right thing for the wrong reasons, the solution is never to stop doing the right thing! The solution is to ask God to purify the motives and intentions of your heart. Ask Him to help you love the task of humble service! Ask Him to help you to do it for no other reason than for the love of the Lord and for your brothers. And as He shapes your heart in those ways, you will not be serving just for what is in it for you, but you will certainly enter into a state of blessedness.

Francis Schaeffer, in his powerful book No Little People, says, “We should ask ourselves from time to time, ‘Whose feet am I washing?’” Now, certainly he is not trying to institute a literal act of foot washing here, but he is pointing us to humble and sacrificial service. Whom are you serving? You may say, “I am waiting for the grand and glorious opportunity to come!” Friends, there are not many grand and glorious tasks to be done in Christ’s Kingdom, at least not in the way we view those things. No, in His Kingdom, the most grand and glorious thing we can do is to humble ourselves and give our lives away in the service of one another. As Schaeffer says, “Doing the Lord’s work in the Lord’s way is not some exotic thing; it is having and practicing the mentality which Christ commands.”[5] And I would add, “which Christ Himself models for us as our example in Christian service.” So, will you ask yourself that question today? “Whose feet am I washing?” Whom am I serving? When was the last time you joyfully volunteered for a task that you might otherwise consider to be “beneath you”? When was the last time you did something inconvenient, something costly, something difficult, for no other reason than because your brother or sister in Christ was in need? When was the last time you put their needs above your own and served them, following the example of our Lord Jesus?

He is our example. He has called us to follow Him. And He has promised His blessing on those who do.


[1] http://www.antarctic-circle.org/advert.htm. Accessed October 8, 2014.
[2] J. Gresham Machen, Christianity and Liberalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1923), 6-7.
[3] John Calvin, John (Crossway Classic Commentaries; Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 1994), 323.
[4] D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Pillar New Testament Commentary; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 468.
[5] Francis Schaeffer, No Little People (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2003), 69. 

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