The Power of Humble Sacrificial Love
Setting the Scene
The first twelve chapters of John’s Gospel record multiple years of Jesus’ life and ministry. But starting in chapter 13, the story slows down and chapters 13-17 record the night before Jesus’ death on the cross. Jesus and his disciples are celebrating the Passover, a dinner known in Christian tradition as the Last Supper.
In a few short hours, Jesus is going to be arrested by Jerusalem’s religious leaders, falsely tried for treason, and nailed to a cross. Jesus is using these last moments with His disciples to teach them things that He thinks are important for them to understand.
In the middle of their dinner, Jesus does something strange: He gets up, takes off his outer clothing, wraps a towel around his waist, and begins to wash the disciples’ feet. That is where we pick up the story.
“When he had finished washing their feet, he put on his clothes and returned to his place. ‘Do you understand what I have done for you?’ he asked them. ‘You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 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.
Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them’” (John 13:12-17 NIV).
What does it mean to be blessed?
There are many things worth focusing on in this passage, but we will zoom in on verse 17, where Jesus tells us we will be blessed if we do these things.
When we use the word blessed in our modern English, we usually use it to talk about something nice we have been given. We might say we have been “blessed” with a nice house, a new car, or a wonderful spouse. We post pictures of our new sneakers on Instagram with the caption #blessed. But that’s not what Jesus means here.
The Greek word translated into our English Bibles as blessed is the word Μακάριοι (makaroi), which can also be translated as happy. Jesus is showing us the kind of person who possesses “the good life.” The King James Version (1611) translates verse 17 this way: “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17 KJV; emphasis added).
Happy Humble Servants
Jesus is teaching us in this passage that the secret to happiness is to live a life of humble service and self-sacrificing love. He doesn’t just talk about it as if it were nothing more than a noble concept. He demonstrates humble service by doing the humiliating, dirty job of washing his disciples’ feet.
Think about it. Jesus and His apostles are in the Middle-Eastern desert and they wear sandals, so their feet aren’t the cleanest. More than that, foot washing is a task typically done in this culture by slaves; by wrapping a towel around his waist, Jesus is imitating the appearance of a slave. Our Lord teaches us here that no task that helps others and shows love to them is above our pay-grade. As His ambassadors, we must not consider ourselves “too important” to do tasks that don’t seem glamorous or don’t receive a lot of recognition
Jesus is the King of the a cosmos and even He didn’t think He was too good to wash dirty feet! We don’t think we’re greater than Jesus, do we? If humble service isn’t above Him, it isn’t above us either.
But the most surprising thing about this passage is that Jesus teaches us that when we perform acts of sacrifice and lowly service for others, we find happiness. Jesus taught elsewhere that “it is more blessed (happy) to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35 NIV). But from the time we’re very young, we’re told by our culture that happiness comes from buying nice things, having a certain kind of career, and from romantic relationships.
But this kind of happiness simply won’t do. This kind of happiness is fleeting, it depends on circumstances that can change at any moment. The happiness Jesus offers us never leaves us. It is dependent on our deep union with Him. Our deepest longings have been satisfied by the One who loved us enough to serve us by paying the ultimate price; by sacrificing Himself, choosing to die in our place on the cross.
This love flows from Jesus into us and from us into our relationships with others, as we happily seek to serve them, even at the expense of ourselves. Later on this same evening, Jesus taught his disciples what the greatest form of love looks like: “Greater love has no one than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:13 NIV).
~Father, help us become the kinds of people that lay down our lives for others. In the days that come give us an opportunity to show your selfless love to others. Help us follow in the footsteps of Jesus, who came to wash our feet and give His life as a ransom for many. Amen.