Who will I tell?
January 11, 2015
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Becoming Less
#4—An Example of Greatness 


This is part 4 of Becoming Less.  We’re looking at the example of Jesus to inspire us to become more like Him by becoming less—to be humble servants.

Did you know we consider humility a virtue largely because of the influence of Jesus?  Australian historian John Dickson led a research team at Macquarie University’s Department of Ancient History in exploring the origins of humility as a social virtue.  He reports in his excellent book, Humilitas. “The conclusion was clear: the modern Western fondness for humility almost certainly derives from the peculiar impact on Europe of the Judeo-Christian worldview.”  (Loc. 917)  Ancient cultures, including those of Jesus’ time, were honor and shame based.  They prized and sought public honor; they despised lowering yourself before an equal or lesser.  Humility before a superior was expected: God, a king, a judge.  But lowering yourself before an equal or lesser was out of the question.  In Chapter 6, “Cruciform: How a Jew from Nazareth Redefined Greatness,” Dickson shows how Jesus’ life, teaching and death completely transformed His followers’ understanding of greatness and humility.  Christ’s followers abandoned the old hierarchical bases of honor and shame, and embraced Jesus’ example of humble service.  They redefined greatness as humble service for the good of others.  It took a few centuries for this to catch on in the Roman/Western world, but today we respect those who are humble and are suspicious of those who seek honor and glory.   You can thank Jesus for this.

But Jesus’ followers were slow learners.  Can anyone relate?  They really didn’t get the whole humility deal until after Jesus died—which, of course, was the ultimate act of humility.  Jesus lowered Himself to suffer the shame and disgrace of a criminal’s death on a cross, and He did it for the good of others—for us.  Prior to Jesus’ death, the disciples were still stuck in their hierarchical honor/shame culture, still vying for the top spots, seeking glory and honor for themselves.  Last Sunday, Josh gave a great talk about the story of the two brothers, James and John, coming to ask Jesus if they could sit at his right and left hand.  “Make us your VP’s, your top dogs in your Kingdom!”  They asked this right after Jesus had announced that He was going to Jerusalem to die!  Duh!  I searched the ancient archives and I found this picture of James and John.  I wanted to title last week’s message, “Dumb and Dumber.”  Clueless!

Incredibly, even after Jesus’ memorable teaching about the greatest being the servant of all, the disciples continued to argue about which of them was top dog.  They are still at it in today’s story too—which is why I wanted to title this, “Dumb and Dumber To.” Today’s story is found in John 13.  Here it is.     

John 13:1–17 It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.

2 The evening meal was in progress, and the devil had already prompted Judas, the son of Simon Iscariot, to betray Jesus. 3 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. 5 After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him.

6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”

7 Jesus replied, “You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.”

8 “No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.”

Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.”

9 “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!”

10 Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said not every one was clean.

12 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. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

The Big Idea is:

The Big Idea: Jesus set an example of humble service when He washed His disciples’ feet.  We are to do the same for each other.

Let’s start with the back-story.


1. The back-story: arguing about who is the greatest.

I’ve listed a number of references on your outline; in each of these, the disciples ask questions or argue about who is the greatest.  It’s a constant theme, a running argument.  Jesus repeatedly teaches and corrects them, but they go right back to their old ways.  And Luke tells us (Luke 22) that this argument broke out again in the upper room in the middle of the last supper. 

Imagine: Jesus has just given them the bread and said, “This is my body given for you.”  And He gave them the cup, saying, “This is my blood poured out for you.”   And then Jesus announces that one of them will betray Him.  What should follow all that?  Stunned silence.  Sorrow.  Grief.  Tears.  Shock. But what actually followed Jesus’ announcement? 

Luke 22:24 A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.

Guys, guys!  Again?  The clue phone is ringing, but no one is picking up!  The disciples are all so full of themselves that all they can think about is getting a leg up on the other guys.  Have you ever been around someone who is full of himself?  The disciples remind me of this guy.

Brain surgery video.

So we’ve got 12 of these guys in the upper room!  When they arrived there for this final meal, there was a basin of water and a towel, but no servant to wash their feet.  In those days, people walked in sandals on dirt roads, so their feet got dusty and dirty.  It was a customary courtesy to wash your guests’ feet when they arrived at your home.  However, foot washing was considered a very lowly task; it was assigned to a servant, and if there was no servant, it fell to the lowest person on the totem pole.

So here are the disciples with their dirty feet, staring at the basin and towel, wondering who should wash everyone’s feet.  Evidently, no one volunteered, and they sat down to the meal with dirty feet, the untouched basin and towel standing in mute testimony of their pride.  Later, during the meal and after Jesus’ stunning announcement of betrayal, the simmering jealousies spill out into an argument. 

Who is the greatest?  And who is the least?  What’s the pecking order?  Who should wash everyone’s feet?  I can hear them each presenting their case.

Peter: “I shouldn’t do it.  Everyone knows I’m the leader of the disciples.”

Andrew: “That’s right!  And I’m the one who brought Peter to Jesus. That’s what I do; I bring people to Jesus.  My gift is evangelism, not foot washing.”

James and John: “We can’t do it.  We have already applied for the VP positions in Jesus’ new kingdom.  VP baby!  VP’s don’t wash feet!”

Judas: “I’m the treasurer!  I’ve got to take care of the money.  In fact, I’ve got to go soon and collect 30 silver coins.”

Thomas: “I doubt I should do it.”

One by one, each man argues his case, where he should fall in the hierarchy and why foot washing was beneath him. 

When you are full of yourself, you won’t serve.  As long as you see yourself as better than others, more important than others, greater than others, you won’t serve.  Paul wrote:

Philippians 2:3–5 Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, 4 not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

In humility value others above yourself.  Ditch the hierarchy.  Empty yourself like Jesus did, and serve.  Here is how we think: There is no person or task beneath me.

ILL:  My first week at college at Northwest Christian University in Eugene (Go Ducks!), there was a kangaroo court—a crazy event put on by the upper classmen that resulted in lots of freshman being soaked with water or covered with food.  Imagine an indoor water balloon and food fight and you’ve got the picture.  The room was a disaster!  When it was over, most of the students headed for the exits, happily leaving the mess for someone else to clean up.  One of those someones was Dr. Alger Fitch, one of the most beloved professors on campus—a great Bible scholar and lecturer.  Dr. Fitch grabbed a mop and bucket and started cleaning up the slop and stayed late until it was done.  Most of us would say, “Dr. Fitch, you shouldn’t do this.”  He was a professor, for crying out loud. He hadn’t made the mess—a bunch of crazy teenagers had.  Yet here he was, on his hands and knees, cleaning other peoples’ mess in the middle of the night.  I saw that and knew I had a lot to learn from Dr. Fitch.

There is no person or task beneath me.  Empty yourself and serve.

But the disciples hadn’t figured that out, so here they are in the upper room during the last supper arguing about who should wash their feet.  Enter Dr. Fitch, AKA Jesus.


2. The story: the greatest became their servant.

While they’re arguing, Jesus quietly slips away from the table, took off his outer garment and wrapped a towel around his waist.  He poured water in the basin, and knelt before one of the disciples and began to wash his feet.  Suddenly, it got very quiet in the room.  No more arguing; 12 men sat in silence with bowed heads, faces red with hot shame, as Jesus slowly went from man to man, washing their dirty feet, and drying them with the towel he wore. 

When Jesus knelt before Peter, the silence was finally broken.  “Lord, are You going to wash my feet.” 

Jesus answered, “Peter, you don’t realize now what I’m doing, but later you will understand.”

Clearly, Peter didn’t understand, for he said, “You will never wash my feet.” 

Jesus replied, “If I don’t wash you Peter, you have no part with me.” 

And Peter blurted out, “Then not just my feet; wash my head and hands too.”  Wash all of me!  You’ve got to love Peter.  He’s an all in guy.  He swings from one extreme—you’ll never wash my feet—to the other extreme: wash all of me!

Jesus explained that when you’ve taken a bath, only your feet need to be washed.  He was speaking both literally and figuratively, of the physical body and the soul, and of this group of men—only one of them was unclean spiritually: Judas.

Jesus put an end to the argument about who was the greatest not by saying something, but doing something.  He served.  He took the role of a servant, or the person on the lowest rung of the ladder—the least of them.  He did the thing that none of them wanted to do, the task that all of them thought was beneath them.  They were arguing about who was the greatest among them.  Who was it?  Jesus.  Everyone accepted that.  Yet the greatest among them became the least of all, the servant of all.  The greatest among them washed their feet. 

The gospel of John treats the deeds of Jesus as signs—he uses that word a lot—18 times in his gospel.  Here is the last one:

John 20:30–31 Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. 31 But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Jesus’ deeds were signs, and His words interpreted them.  This deed—the foot washing—was a sign too, and Jesus tells us what it means.

British pastor and author, John Stott, one of my favorite Bible teachers, says that the foot washing was a sign or parable of salvation.  In the ultimate act of service, Jesus would die to wash away our sins.  Stott described the foot washing as a visual aid of Philippians 2, as did St. Augustine in the 4th Century.  Look at the details:

  • Jesus rose from the table, just as He had risen from his throne in heaven to come to earth.
  • Jesus laid aside his garments, just as in Paul’s words in Philippians 2, he emptied Himself or laid aside his glory, to become a man.
  • Jesus wrapped a towel around himself, just as in Paul’s words, “He took the form of a servant.”
  • Jesus began to wash their feet, just as in Paul’s words, “he humbled himself.” 
  • Jesus sat down again, just as He sat down at the right hand of God, where He is exalted and has been given the name above every name, that at the name of Jesus, every knee should bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

The foot washing is a remarkable visual aid of Philippians 2.

Stott goes on to say that Peter’s protest is typical of every sinner Jesus wants to save.  Peter had to humble himself and let Jesus wash his feet in public with all the others watching—and this after Peter had been too proud to do it himself.  Peter’s pride rebelled against the humility of Christ.  There is in each of us the same sinful pride, the same unwillingness to admit that we are unclean and need to be washed, that our need for cleansing took Jesus to the cross.  We find it humiliating to admit that we are sinners and need Jesus to save us.  “I will never let you wash me!”  We prefer to remain in our dirt than to humble ourselves and let Jesus cleanse us.  But Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part in me.”  Don’t let your pride keep you from letting Jesus wash you clean.  The foot washing was a sign that pointed to Jesus washing us clean from our sin.

It’s also possible to read Peter’s protest not as an expression of pride, but shame.  He was deeply embarrassed that Jesus was kneeling before him.  When Jesus asked John the Baptist to baptize Him, John replied, “It is I who need to be baptized by You.”  Peter may have been feeling something like that.  “Jesus, you shouldn’t be washing my feet; I should be washing yours.”  He felt ashamed about his arguments to be the greatest when the Greatest was kneeling before him, wrapped in a towel, cradling his feet in His hands.  Peter’s deep love for Jesus made him feel ashamed that his pride had come to this.  And when Jesus said, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part in me,” it was Peter’s deep love for Jesus that made him cry, “Then wash all of me!”

Christians have always seen deeper meanings in the foot washing; it’s seen as a parable of our salvation, our cleansing from sin at the hands of Jesus.  While that is all true, Jesus Himself gave the meaning of this sign when He had finished washing their feet and taken His seat.


3. The end-story: I have set you an example.

I want to read the end of the story again:

John 13:12-17 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. 13 “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. 14 Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. 15 I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. 16 Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

What is the meaning of this sign? “I’ve set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” Jesus gives an example: here is what greatness looks like.  It’s draping a towel over your arm and serving others.  This image of Jesus wrapped in a towel, washing his feet, was so powerful that Peter would write years later:

1 Peter 5:5 In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because, “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”

Clothe yourselves with humility.  What image inspired that language?  I think Peter could still see Jesus wrapping a towel around His waist to wash his feet.  Jesus is our example.  Just as Paul said, “Have the same mindset as Christ,” Peter and John both point us to Jesus’ humility as our example. 

There is something I want you to notice in:

John 13:3-4 Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; 4 so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist.

Jesus knew who He was.  He knew where He had come from and where He was going.  So…He got up and wrapped a towel around His waist.  Jesus knew who He was, so He served.  When we know who we are, it frees us to serve.  A lot of our pride in sourced in insecurity.  We are insecure, uncertain of our own value or worth; we’re constantly measuring ourselves against others, ranking ourselves higher or lower, just like the disciples did.  This will paralyze you and keep you from serving.  But when you know who you are in Christ, you can serve.  My value, my worth, my identity is found in Christ.  I am loved.  I am a child of God. I am accepted by God. I belong to Him.  Say this with me: “In Christ, I am deeply loved, completely accepted, and fully forgiven. I am God’s child.” Knowing this, believing this frees you to serve. 

“You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’ and rightly so, for that is what I am.”  Jesus is our teacher to instruct us, and our Lord to command us.  We are His students and servants.  As Christians we agree with what He teaches, and we obey what He commands.  So if Jesus, our Lord and Teacher, washed our feet, we should wash one another’s feet.  We should follow His example.

But what does that look like?  Do we literally wash each other’s feet?  How many of you have ever been part of a foot washing ceremony?  It can be moving and meaningful.  But foot washing was part of first century culture; it’s not part of ours.  We don’t walk on dirt roads in sandals; we ride in cars on paved streets.  So what would be some modern equivalents of foot washing?

How about washing someone’s car?  We travel by car, not foot, but our cars get dirty, especially this time of year with all the melted snow and road grime!  Washing someone’s car might be roughly equivalent to washing his feet.  But let’s go deeper.  Think of any act of service:

  • Preparing or serving a meal.
  • Doing the dishes afterwards.
  • Helping with homework.
  • Vacuuming.
  • Listening to someone.
  • Making the bed.
  • Cleaning the bathroom.
  • Giving someone a ride.
  • Praying for someone.
  • Mowing the lawn.
  • Sharing what you have with someone who needs it.
  • Caring for an aging parent or a young child.
  • Doing the laundry.
  • Feeding the dog.

The list is endless.  There are so many ways to serve others.  Anytime you take the servant’s role, you are following the example of Jesus.  You are becoming greater by becoming less.  Let’s go deeper still.

Remember that foot washing was considered a lowly task, beneath the dignity of most people.  It fell to the lowest person on the totem pole.  It was the job no one wanted to do.  What is the task no one wants to do?  I’m going to give you two minutes to talk with someone around you and answer this question: What is the task you don’t want to do?  Solicit answers.

Are you willing to do for the other person the task that they don’t want to do?  That’s what it means to wash each other’s feet, to serve as Jesus served.  That’s what Jesus did for the disciples: He did the lowly task that none of them wanted to do.  He humbled Himself, emptied Himself, became less for them.  

And here is the promise:

John 13:17 Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.

It’s one thing to know we should humbly serve; it’s another to do it.  But when you do it, you’ll be blessed!  You’ll be happy!  There is joy in getting beyond yourself and serving others.  Jesus said that when you lose you life, you find it.  Become less and you become more!


What will I do?

Read this Scripture each day this week, and pray this prayer: “Lord, make this true in me today.”

Maybe you should do the task that other person doesn’t want to do.  Serve them.

Be open this week to serve others.  There is no task or person beneath you.


Who will I tell?

Who needs to hear this message?  Tell them yourself.  Bring them to hear it.  Or listen to it with them via CD or on our website.