We will deal with the text in two steps. First, what I want to do is point to the more up-front, straightforward, what-you-see-on-first-reading meaning of John 13:1–20. Second, I want to go back and point to a more under-the-surface, indirect, look-deeper meaning.
For You — Intentional, Personal, Effective
The whole section — indeed all the rest of the Gospel of John — has the banner of verse 1 flying high and wonderful over it. “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.”
So as Jesus’s public ministry closes, and John turns now to the last day before Jesus dies, he looks back and says: in all his ministry, Jesus has been showing peculiar, revealing, saving, forgiving, patient, confirming, guiding love to his own. Verse 1b: “Having loved his own who were in the world. . . .” That’s what he’s been doing. And John looks forward from this point and says that Jesus will now love them to the end. Verse 1c: “He loved them to the end.”
He’s not denying that Jesus loved the world. John 3:16 says he did. But John is talking here about his unique and special love for his people — like a husband has a unique love for his wife. “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” Everything we see him doing new in chapter 13 is part of this love. And if you belong to Jesus, feel everything he says and does here as said to you and done for you in a very intentional, personal, effective way.
Who Represents Jesus?
Now what does he do in these 20 verses? I think he is giving them an example of the kind of person they should be if they are going to represent him. In the last verse of the section, verse 20, Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
In other words, he’s saying something like this: When I send you out in my name, under my authority, and with my word, you represent me. You represent me in such a way that if someone welcomes you and your message, they welcome me. And if they welcome me, they welcome my Father. Indeed, he becomes their Father as I have promised: “To all who receive me, God has given the right to become children of God” (John 1:12). That’s how I planned it: receive my representative, receive me, receive my Father, become his children.
So realize this, my disciples, I am preparing and authorizing you for an unspeakably high calling. If someone receives you, they receive God. There isn’t a higher human calling than to represent me in this way.
That’s what he’s saying. That is where this passage is going. To the climactic, weighty words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”
Who Qualifies for This High Calling?
Now what kind of person ought they to be in order to carry out this highest calling? And the crystal clear answer — the answer that lies on the surface for all to see at the first reading is: they are to be the kind of person who goes low in humble service, not the kind of person who is puffed up by his amazing rank and the great privilege of his calling. That’s the main point of the text: I am giving you a spectacularly high standing as my representatives — the one who receives you receives God(!) — and I am showing you that the only people who qualify for this high-standing are those who go low in humble service.
“Christians of high standing should give themselves gladly to lowly serving.”
So we could state the general point like this: Christians of high standing should give themselves gladly to lowly serving. I’ll come back later to explain why I say “gladly.” It’s here in the text, but more on that shortly. For now, the point is: if God has called you to something high, go low. And we will see by the end that he has called every Christian to something high. And so every Christian should go low.
Jesus Has the Highest Rank Imaginable
So let’s watch Jesus make this point with an acted-out lesson. In verses 2–3, John describes how high Jesus is. And the higher one is, it is often the case the more embattled one is. That’s the case here.
During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him, 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. . . .
This point here is that Jesus has the highest rank imaginable. Verse 3a: “All things given into his hands.” “From God and going to God.” Opposed by the god of this world. So the point is: Jesus is very high. His rank is supremely high.
Contradicting the World’s Standards
Then verse 4 describes how he goes low:
[He] rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 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.
Now go to verses 12–16. Here, Jesus gives a crystal clear explanation of what he was doing in washing the disciples’ feet.
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? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. [In other words, I have a high standing, a high rank in relation to you.] If I then your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet [If I, from my high standing, I have gone low in serving], you also ought to wash one another’s feet [You should go low, too]. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 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.
So this is really clear. Jesus is high. His rank is high. His standing is high. And therefore, by ordinary standards of this world, he should be served. But instead, he contradicts the ordinary standards of this world and serves. From his height, he goes low. From his high standing, he goes to lowly serving.
This Is Your Example
And then he says in verse 15: “I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.” Since you are not above me, as he says in verse 16 (“a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him” — note the relationship to verse 20), therefore, you have no ground to say my action doesn’t apply to you. If I, the highest, have gone low, then you, the lower, from whatever high standing you have, should go low also.
Now remember, he is trying to show them the kind of person who is qualified or suitable for the high calling of verse 20: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.” In other words, he’s saying something like this: I am going away (verse 1), and you are about to become my representatives, my ambassadors, on the earth to take my words, and my salvation, and my own presence to the world on my behalf. If people receive you, they receive me.
And what I want to make most clear is that your fitness for this role is that you be the kind of people who gladly go low. You step down from the privileges of your high standing, and you engage in lowly serving. Or to be more penetrating, let your whole life have this mindset: you are servants (Philippians 2:5–8). In all that you do, do it with a view to getting under others to lift them up, not getting over others to look down and feel superior.
So yes, you have a high calling. But no, you are not qualified for it if you need to hold onto the honors and the prerogatives of rank. The only people suitable to represent Jesus are the lowly. The humble. The servant-like. The self-denying.
What About Judas?
Now what about verses 18 and 19? Jesus feels the need to say something about Judas. If he is about to send out the twelve, it seems, as his representative, who are learning to be humble and servant-like, not boastful or selfish or greedy, then what about Judas? Will he be sent out when Jesus is gone? So Jesus says (verse 18),
I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, “He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am [he].
No, Judas does not contradict the point that those who Jesus sends as his representatives are to be lowly, humble, trustworthy servants. Judas is in the twelve not because Jesus slipped up in choosing them, but because Scripture must be fulfilled. There is to be a traitor at his very table. This is the plan. God designed it in eternity. He prophesied it in the Old Testament. And Jesus knew it when he chose Judas. John 6:64: “Jesus knew from the beginning who . . . it was who would betray him.”
We See More of Jesus’s Rank
But the point of verses 18 and 19 is not just that there has been no slip up in Judas’s presence in the twelve. The point also is that his presence, and Jesus’s knowledge of what he is about to do, serves to raise the heights of Jesus’s rank and standing to the very point of deity, which makes his foot-washing all the more amazing and powerful.
In verse 19 Jesus says, “I am telling you this now [that Judas is going to betray me], before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am [he].” Literally: “That you may believe that I Am.” My foreknowledge of Judas’s sinful acts is a pointer to my deity. I am one with Yahweh, the great “I Am” (Exodus 3:14).
Why It’s “Gladly”
So the most straightforward point of this whole story in John 13:1–20 is that Jesus is giving his disciples a high calling as his representatives (verse 20: “whoever receives the one I send receives me”), and to be fit for this high calling one must be the kind of person who gladly goes low in service.
And the reason I say “gladly” is because of verse 17: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” And the word “blessed” here is the one that means glad, happy, joyful. So in other words, Jesus is saying something like this: If you realize what I am saying, if you understand who I am, and how high I am, and what a privilege it is to be called up high to represent me, and led down low to serve with me, you will be glad. You will find that the deepest joys in life are not when people are hailing you in your status, but when they are helped by you in your service.
“Serving others is the most deeply joyful, satisfying life.”
In fact, I have wondered if this verse might be the place that Paul is quoting in Acts 20:35 when he says, “Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he himself said, ‘It is more blessed to give than to receive.’” It’s the same word for “blessed” — happy, joyful, gratifying. And both say: going down low, serving others, and giving yourself to them for their good is the most deeply joyful, satisfying life.
So that’s why I say, the up-front, on-the-surface point of this passage is this: Christians of high-standing should give themselves gladly to lowly serving. Be the kind of people who gladly go low.
Another Level of Meaning
Now the last thing we want to do is ask is there another level of meaning in this acted-out lesson in humility and servanthood? And if you are following closely, you probably noticed that I have not said anything about verses 6–11, namely, the part of the story where Peter objects to getting his feet washed. This is where I see another level.
Keep in mind that until now, the general point has been: if you have any high standing as a Christian (and you all do), you are only fit for it if you go down low in service. That’s if you are humble and see all your life as an effort to get under others and lift them up rather than get over them to show your power and get their praise. Foot-washing is simply an illustration of the big principle of humble service of others.
Now what happens in verses 6–11 is that Peter objects to Jesus’s role as a servant washing his feet. What does Jesus do with that objection? That is the second level of meaning.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 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.” Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 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.” For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
Don’t Be Like Judas
Peter said (verse 8a), “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus could have kept things simple by saying, “Peter, if I don’t wash your feet, my acted-out lesson is not going to work. So be quiet and cooperate with my lesson.” But that’s not what he said. Instead, he blows us away at the end of verse 8 with these words: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
In other words, if I don’t wash your feet, you are in the same class with Judas. You are not mine. This is mind-boggling that Jesus would raise the stakes so high over a mere foot-washing. Well of course he’s not. The foot-washing stands for something. This is the new level of meaning. Why would Peter not even belong to Jesus if Jesus doesn’t wash his feet?
Peter says in verse 9 — as we can imagine he certainly would — “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” To which Jesus responds in verse 10: “‘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.’ For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, ‘Not all of you are clean.’”
So Judas is not clean. But the eleven are clean. They have bathed and they are clean. That is, they are born again. They have believed in Jesus. They have eternal life. They have passed from death to life. They have become sons of light — children of God. They are his sheep and no one can pluck them out of his hand. They will not and cannot be lost. And that includes Peter. Only Judas is excluded in verse 10. Peter is clean. “Completely clean.” He is saved — justified, to use Paul’s language.
What Jesus Is Saying
So what did Jesus mean in verse 8b, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me”? Here’s my conviction: When a person believes in Jesus, he is completely cleansed. He is clean before God. Jesus says in verse 10: “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean.” The repeated washing of the feet represents our daily confession of sin and turning to Jesus for ongoing application of what he accomplished at the cross — our cleansing and forgiveness.
This is exactly what John taught in 1 John 1:8–9. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” This is a picture of Peter’s mistake. What he failed to realize was, even though he was “completely clean” (verse 10) — that is, even though he was justified and new in Christ — there were sins that needed daily confession and forgiveness — daily spiritual foot-washings. The once-for-all purchase of his forgiveness needs daily application.
Please, Wash My Feet!
And if we keep on saying we don’t need that or don’t want that, then we show that we have not been saved, that we have not been “completely cleansed.” Paul said it like this in 1 Corinthians 5:7: “Cleanse out the old leaven [that is, let Jesus wash your feet] that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened.” You really are completely clean, Peter. But the mark of completely clean disciples is that they hate their daily shortcomings and come to Christ for daily cleansing (foot-washing). If you confess your sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive and cleanse.
“If you confess your sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive and cleanse.”
So the second level meaning in this acted-out lesson is this: representatives of Jesus — then and today — should go low in humility and service not only because Jesus did, and not only because (verse 17) it is the most deeply joyful way of life, but also because they are completely clean.
Representatives of Jesus know their true, unshakable standing with God as “completely clean” (verse 10) and they don’t claim that they have no sin, but they know how to deal with their ongoing sin. They confess their sin and receive daily cleansing. When Jesus offers to wash their feet, they say, yes. I know I am clean — I am born again, I am saved, I am justified, I have eternal life, I am a child of God, but I have sinned and I receive the foot-washing — the renewed cleansing of Jesus.
Christian, Go Low
So I would close by simply saying to all believers who have the amazing standing as children of God and representatives of Jesus. Because Jesus went low, and because going low is the path of joy and because you are completely clean, don’t exalt yourself, but go low in humble service.
Pastors, go low. Elders, go low. Heads of households, go low. Small group leaders, go low. Presidents of companies, owners, supervisors, managers, go low. Mom and dad, go low. Big brothers and sisters, go low. “A” students, go low. Good athletes, go low. Pretty teenage girls, go low to serve. Christian, go low to represent your Savior, to know his joy, and because you are completely clean.