A lesson on humility – John 13:1-5

22 May

We all can relate to Linus in the “Peanuts” cartoon strip when he shouts in frustration, “I love mankind; it’s people I can’t stand!” It’s easy to love the human race in the abstract, but when it comes to loving specific irritating people that we can’t avoid, the process becomes a lot more difficult!

In our text we see the Lord Jesus loving men who did not deserve it. Luke 22:24 tells us that at the Lord’s Supper, just after Jesus announced that one of them would betray Him, the disciples got into a dispute about which of them was the greatest.

But sometime during the supper, Jesus got up and performed a task, which normally was the job of servant-slaves.

Not only were the disciples bickering; also Jesus knew that Judas was about to betray Him, Peter was about to deny Him, and all the disciples would desert Him (John 13:2, 38; 16:32). All of these show that the disciples did not deserve Jesus’ love.

They dirty feet reminds us of their need for cleansing from sin. And, we’re just like them. We all have dirty feet that Jesus needs to wash. In fact, the very reason Jesus came was to die in the place of dirty sinners so that they can be cleansed.

Also, His example of humility in washing the disciples’ feet gives us a practical example of how we can love those who do not deserve it, even as He has loved us.

From time to time, we are faced with the task of “saying goodbye” to a congregation, some employees, or even our employee of many years. It is never easy.

All of us have had our share of “dirty work,” and I doubt that we have really enjoyed it. Some of those “dirty work” experiences could range from “changing dirty diapers” to “cleaning grease traps” while in the military.

John’s mention of the Passover draws attention to the fact that Jesus is our Passover lamb. Just as the Jews put the blood of the Passover lamb on their doorposts and lintel to protect them from the angel of death, so Christ’s blood protects us from the wrath of God. The mention that Jesus knew that His hour had come reminds us that God ordained the cross.

While the sinful men who crucified Jesus were responsible for their awful deed, at the same time the cross was predestined by God (Acts 4:27-28).

It didn’t take Jesus by surprise. He deliberately laid aside His glory, just as here He laid aside His garments. He took on the form of a slave and became obedient to death on the cross.

Then, after His resurrection from the dead, He returned to the Father in glory. But don’t miss the point: Unless Jesus is your Passover lamb, unless you have applied His shed blood to your heart by faith, then you are under the curse of death, which means, eternal separation from God.

John also emphasizes that Jesus’ disciples were “in the world.” Jesus was about to depart from this world, but His disciples were still in it.

As Jesus will pray (John 17:15-18), He doesn’t ask the Father to take these men out of the world. That is the sphere of ministry to which He sends them. But they are to be distinct from the world. But walking in this world means that you get your feet dirty. Thus the need for cleansing.


Two verses out of five focus on the actual washing of the disciples’ feet by our Lord. Three of the five verses provide us with background information, which John believes his readers need to know in order to properly understand the Lord’s actions.

Verses 1-3 provide us with information that gives us insight into all of their “state of mind.”

John emphasizes that Jesus knew His earthly mission was nearly complete, and that He was returning to the Father in heaven. He knew that everything had been given over to Him by the Father.

In other words, He knew that everything was as it should be, and that He was in complete control. It is our Lord’s sovereignty that is being stressed here, and not His suffering.

When John the Baptist desired to give expression to his feeling of unworthiness in comparison to Christ, he could think of no better way to express this than to say that he deemed himself unworthy of kneeling down in front of Jesus in order to unloose his sandal straps and remove the sandals (with a view to washing the Master’s feet).”

Apparently, they were so shocked that they sat in stunned silence, until Jesus came to Peter.

He probably verbalized the thoughts that the others had been afraid to say when he protested (John 13:8), “Never shall You wash my feet!” But as Jesus will go on to explain (John 13:14-15), He did this to give us an example of how we should humbly serve one another.

When men find themselves in this position, they are tempted to behave very differently: “Jesus called them and said to them, ‘You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and those in high positions exercise authority over them’” (Mark 10:42).

In spite of who He was; in spite of the fact that all authority had been given to Him, Jesus washed the feet of His disciples.

In spite of the fact that He could have required men to minister to Him, catering to His every whim, Jesus humbled Himself by washing the feet of His disciples.

Humility requires thinking of others more highly than of yourself. The disciples hadn’t washed one another’s feet because they were arguing about who was the greatest.

Two women in the church in Philippi were having a dispute. Paul wrote to that church (Phil. 2:3-4), “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others.”

He went on to cite the example of Christ, who willingly took on the form of a servant and went to the cross for our sakes. So many quarrels in the church and in our homes would evaporate if we would, with humility of mind, regard the other person as more important than ourselves!

It is Christ’s example of humility that Paul appeals to in his exhortation to serve one another: Philippians 2:3-8: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. {4} Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.  {5} Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: {6} Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, {7} but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. {8} And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!”

* He got up from the meal–just as He’d left the throne of heaven

* He took off His outer garments–just as He’d divested Himself of heaven’s robes

* He wrapped a towel about His waist–just as He’d clothed Himself with humanity

* He poured water in a bowl, got on His knees and began to wash feet–just as he would pour out His life on the cross.

Jesus in effect said: “I’m God. I spoke the universe into existence. I have all power and glory, yet I came to serve! And if you’re to follow me, you must emulate my example.”

Humility requires getting your focus off your rights and your needs and onto others’ needs.

He wasn’t focused on His needs or His rights, but rather on their needs. They not only needed their dirty feet washed, but they also needed this lesson in humble service.

How many quarrels at church and in our homes would stop before they started if we would take our eyes off ourselves, our rights, and our needs, and instead think about the other person’s needs!

A husband thinks, “I’ve worked hard all day, putting up with hassles at work so that I can provide for my family. Don’t I have a right to some peace and quiet when I come home at night?”

Maybe, but that’s the wrong focus. Your focus should be on how you can serve your wife and children.

The wife thinks, “I’ve been changing diapers, shopping for groceries with screaming kids, cleaning up messes all over the house, and trying to get dinner in time. Don’t I have a right for a little time by myself?” Maybe, but that’s the wrong focus. Humble service requires getting your focus off yourself and onto others’ needs.

Jesus knew that “His hour was come.”

It was the time when He would be glorified through His death, resurrection, and ascension.

* Jesus also knew that Judas would betray Him.

Judas is mentioned eight times in this gospel, more than in any of the other gospels. Satan had entered into Judas (Luke 22:3), and now he would give him the necessary thought to bring about the arrest and crucifixion of the Son of God.

* Jesus knew that the Father had given Him all things.

There are at least two reasons why Jesus chose this activity:

  • Their feet were dirty.
  • Their hearts were proud.

Jesus’ disciples were ready to fight for a throne, but not for a towel. He gave them an unforgettable lesson in humility, and by His actions rebuked their selfishness and pride.

The more you think about this scene, the more profound it becomes. Confucius called humility “the solid foundation of all the virtues.” The Greek word means “low” or “to stoop low,” and it carries the idea of serving another person.

It might be explain by a Malay proverb: “the fuller the ear is of rice-grain, the lower it bends.”

It has well been said that humility is not thinking meanly of yourself; it is simply not thinking of yourself at all! We need to be careful that we’re not filled with a worldly spirit of competition or criticism.

Humility is unannounced.  It is also willing to receive without embarrassment. It is not a sign of weakness and it does not play favorites (in the example of Judas).

Humility requires receiving, not just giving.

It’s easy to serve or to give to those in need out of pride. Peter’s unwillingness at first to let Jesus serve him did not stem from humility, but from pride. It embarrassed him to think of Jesus washing his feet.

That implied that his feet were dirty and in need of washing! It would have served Peter’s pride much more if he had washed Jesus’ feet. But Jesus explained that if He didn’t wash Peter’s feet, then he had no part with Him.

Many people are offended by the gospel or don’t see their need for it because they’re proud of their good works. They’re proud of all that they do for others. They view themselves as having clean feet.

It would embarrass them to admit that their feet are dirty and that Jesus needs to wash them.

But to receive the gospel, you’ve got to recognize that your feet are filthy and that no one gets to heaven by washing his own feet or by washing others’ feet. You only get to heaven when you let Jesus wash your feet.

Cleansing is necessary because of who Jesus is.

Limiting ourselves to our text, we see that Jesus is the eternal, omniscient one. He knew that His hour had come and that He would shortly be returning to the Father, with whom He had dwelled before the foundation of the world (John 13:1). He knew that Judas would betray Him (John 13:11). He knows each of us thoroughly.

Also, Jesus is the loving one. In spite of our failures and sins, which He knows in advance, He loves us as His own children.

Further, Jesus is the sovereign one. The Father has given all things into Jesus’ hands. He was in complete control of His own death. Neither Satan nor Judas could thwart God’s sovereign plan through the cross, but rather inadvertently fulfilled it.

Lastly, Jesus is the suffering servant who died for our sins. When you come into the presence of the Holy One of God, you instantly recognize your need for cleansing. With Peter, you fall down at His feet and cry out (Luke 5:8), “Go away from me Lord, for I am a sinful man, O Lord!”

Cleansing is necessary because of who we are.

We all are guilty sinners in need of cleansing: “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). Jesus is saying, “I must wash away your sins by My atoning death or you have no part with Me.”

Cleansing is necessary because of where we walk.

We walk in this sinful world, so our feet get dirty. Again, if you have trusted in Christ through being immersed in water so your sins can be forgiven, you are never so dirty that you need a complete bath again.

But at the same time, although you have trusted in Christ, you are never so pure that you don’t need to get your feet washed again. It’s an ongoing process to maintain your relationship with the Lord.

Sometimes, your feet get dirty because of deliberate sin. You choose to do what you know God’s Word forbids you to do. At those times, you need to confess your sin and appropriate the forgiveness that Christ secured for you by His death.

At other times, you just feel defiled because of contact with this dirty world. Maybe you’ve been bombarded with sensual advertisements or just the magazine covers at the supermarket checkout.

Perhaps you’ve had to deal with worldly people at work, so the lusts of the flesh, the lusts of the eyes, and the boastful pride of life (1 John 2:16) have left you feeling defiled. Those are the times to open your Bible and let “the washing of water with the word” (Eph. 5:26) cleanse and refresh your soul. Let Jesus wash your feet!

Conclusion. So ask yourself three questions:

(1) Do I consistently experience Christ’s undeserved love? If not, you need to figure out why not and get that problem resolved.

(2) Do I consistently follow Christ’s example of humble service? If not, jot down some specific ways that you can begin this week.

(3) Do I consistently come to Christ for cleansing from my sins and from the filth of this dirty world? If not, He’s waiting with the basin and the water of His word to wash your feet!

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Posted by on May 22, 2023 in Upper Room Discourse


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