What a Towel Teaches Us



If you have a Bible, would you please open it to John, Chapter 13? We are going back today, to the story of Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. I have entitled my lesson “What a Towel Teaches Us!” Let us read together v.1 through v .17 and refresh our mind as to what is happening. “…” Beautiful passage! And I find amazing what a piece of cloth and dirty feet can teach me. There are profound lessons in this text not only about my responsibility towards my brethren, but also in regard to the nature of my God? Perhaps no where else in the scripture, without the exception of the cross, is the selfless character of our God better displayed. You have 13 men in an upper room in John 13, and out of those 13, 12 see themselves as lords and one sees himself as a servant.. To understand the context properly, perhaps we need to go back to Luke, Chapter 22. There, in v. 24, we are told that on their way to the upper room a discussion arises among them. The object of their talk is “Who is the greatest among them!” Can’t you see them arguing? Andrew saying, “I am the greatest. I was called first.” Then John saying, “But Jesus prefers me!” To which Judas replied, “Eh guys, who holds the purse? Why do you think it is so?” And can’t you see Peter, puffing his chest out and saying, “Eh boys! Stop arguing. I’m the greatest and I’ll keep being the best. Who has been given the keys to the kingdom of God?” Just like children, they are fighting. And now, they are in the upper room and not one of them wants to take the role of the servant! It might be an admission of weakness. It might be telling to others, “Yes, I think you’re better than me!” Most of us might not see a problem with that admission. I don’t mind recognizing genius or a greater mind than me when I see one. But if all day long, I’ve been put down; I am looked upon as a dummy; I don’t want to praise the other guy and give him satisfaction that he is right! Think of how you react when you play games with people who win each time and gloat about it for hours. How many like that? And so you see it’s the context of John 13 and it explains the dirty feet! They are all too proud to stoop; they are ready for thrones, not for towels. So they are laying their smelly, crusty toes in each other’s face! And now, Jesus stands; he removes his clothes and he goes to work with a towel. You can imagine the situation. He kneels and starts with the first apostle and the dispute ceases immediately. At first, the conversation slows down and then there is silence! You only hear the noise of water running down the feet, the cloth rubbing them, the dirty water being thrown away and replaced and Jesus breathing heavier. I can imagine the apostles, watching each other in embarrassment and then lowering their eyes in shame! By doing this, Jesus is teaching them the true nature of God. He is teaching them that God has the heart of a servant.

But wait a second. Dan, you say that God is a servant? How can it be? The notion of God and servant don’t go together in my theology. The word, God, speaks of power, irremissibility, glory and majesty, not of lowly service. Can it be that God really has a servant heart? Oh look at what Jesus says in John 14:8-9 “….” You see, when you look at Jesus, you find the heart of God. You find the true nature of the Father. And I suggest today, that Jesus, in John 13, was not simply doing one good deed. He was expressing his character. Phil. 2:5-8 “…” Matt20:23 “….” He was manifesting one of the eternal traits of the Godhead - servant hood. His actions were the result of an eternal way of looking at things, not just of a temporary spirit. It was the natural outcome of an eternity of servant thinking! Oh, Peter was so embarrassed by the Messiah’s conduct. Leaders don’t act that way! “Get on your feet man, that’s no way for a Messiah to behave!” Peter is refusing to see his Lord as a servant doing a menial task! It reminds me of a speech given by a character of the book, $3 Worth of God by Wilbur Rees. The character stands and he says,

“Your King lacks class! No one will follow him. A king has to have flair and style. He has to arouse feelings of pride and prestige. People have to identify with him. They must be able to say, ‘His prowess is my prowess and his glory is my glory!’ He has to have dignity and a certain aloofness. He has to know how to carry his crown and flash his sword in the sun. The least a king can do for his subjects is ride a spirited steed! What will you answer when men ask for your king? ‘He’s over there on that donkey with his sandals dragging on the ground.’ Ha! I’ll lay you ten to one, no one will ever fol- low him!”

That’s what Peter was thinking. Jesus, have some class! Not you, my Lord! But Jesus says, “You can’t refuse my spirit of service and be one with me. I have to serve you to become your King. I have to die for you if you want to live. I have to serve as your High Priest if you want atonement for your sins.” You see, there is no salvation without a serving God. And God serves because it’s his nature. That’s how he is and will continue to be. Let’s drill that in our souls and be transformed in his image, for we can’t have him while repudiating his heart!

You see, if I want to be his follower, I’ve got to embrace the spirit of my mentor. If, when he served, he was doing what came naturally, I, too, ought to become like that. I ought to serve. Jesus says in John 13:15 “…” You see, I ought to serve, not only for a short time, but continually. That’s tough you see! I think all of us can serve a short time, or if later, we get power, if we know it’s not going to be for long or maybe we’ll get a reward. But what I learn here is I ought to serve, not for a promotion, not for recognition, not for retribution, but because it’s part of me. That’s who I am because it flows naturally from my heart; because I am no greater than my Master; and that’s how my Master was.

Can you become like that? Serving all the time! You know what it takes to do that? Humility. At the moment when Christ was going to be glorified, he was filled, not with pride, but with humility – supreme humility. That’s why he could serve! Sometimes we feel we are too distinguished to do humble things. We think we are too important to do a certain job and so we fail to serve. Think about it this way. What is the most humiliating thing your boss could ask you to do? What is the most humiliating job you might be forced to take with your great education? What would really embarrass you to do in this world! Did you know that the word “humility” comes from the same root as the word humiliating? When Jesus served folks, it was humiliating. Some would have said, if they had been forced to do it, “I have never been so humiliated, so ashamed in my life!” But for Jesus, it was nothing. And the reason why is because of the humility that was present in him. Oh, are you humble today?

Seems most of us don’t mind serving when others see us and consider us great servants of the Lord! But how do we react when people treat us as hired hands? As servants? We don’t like it and often it’s due to our lack of humility. The world is full of people who are standing on their dignity when they ought to be kneeling at the feet of their brethren. In every sphere of life, service for prominence and unwillingness to take a subordinate place wreck the will of God. A player was, one day, omitted from the team and he refused to play anymore. An aspiring politician is passed over for some office to which he should have had a right and he refuses to serve in a subordinate office. A member of a choir is not given a solo and he won’t sing again to support others. We are slighted here, or there, and we explode in anger. We sulk for days afterwards. When we are tempted to think of our dignity, our prestige, and our rights, let’s picture again, in our minds, the Son of God, gird with a towel, kneeling at his disciples’ feet! Let’s be humble and serve.

Very quickly let me say five things about service!

  1. Serve whenever you can.

    An old proverb says, “He gives double if he gives quickly!” You know why many times we never get around to serving? Because we wait too long! We assume people are going to be around whenever we’ll find some time in our schedule. And it doesn’t happen. Time goes by and the need changes or other things come and pile themselves on our schedule. And so, if I want to serve, I can’t wait! I have to say to myself, “The opportunity may never return!” The eyes of the drowning boy look in the direction of the lifeguard. Their panic and need says, “I know you’re busy. You have so many things to watch for. Please see me! I need you now!” Serve when you can. If you have the strength to serve, do it now!”

  2. Serve where you can!

    Wherever you are now is the place to start. Another day, you may find yourself halfway around the world. You may find yourself tracking through some dense jungle to minister to a little tribe. Thank God! But today, you are here, not there, and people here, too, have needs. So serve in your home, in your apartment complex, on the job, in the park or wherever you can.

  3. Serve, even if it’s in small ways.

    Oh yes, I know you’d like to have his talents, or her talents. I know how it feels. I’ve met such people. They fill you with godly jealousy. They are so gifted. They can work on anything and succeed. They can help in ways you and I never will. But it’s alright. Give what you have to give. Christ speaks of giving a cup of cold water as being worthy. We may dismiss such talk as being morsels only to console people who feel inferior, but my Master doesn’t talk that way! Give what he has enabled you to give. Be a faithful steward! If it’s only babysitting for a young couple while they go to a movie or the park for a break, do it! If it’s mowing a lawn to leave another Christian free to go teach a Bible class, do it! Or, can you make people feel warm and wanted by having them in your home? Then do it! Can you bake a pie for some lonely one down the hall and write an encouragement note? Do it! Can you help a hurt brother, in the church, when he asks? Do it! Can you teach your friends loyalty to family by refusing to be disrespectful towards parents? Can you phone those who have hurt you and say you’re thinking about and praying for them? Can you buy a rose, a $1 pen, a tube of lipstick, a tie-tack; wrap it up and drop it by with a little comment? If you can do that, or anything like that, you are able to serve as Jesus served. Serve how you can.

  4. Serve whoever you can.

    Don’t check their pedigree. Their political views don’t matter. Their moral conviction doesn’t either. If they need you, they need to be served. Remember how John opened his account in v. 2. “…” Why did John put that there? Why not afterwards? It was to remind us that Jesus served even those who were not worthy of being served. Honestly, had it been me, I would have used boiling water or freezing cold water. Wiping his feet, I would have been tempted to rub his skin off! But Jesus showed the same care with Judas’ feet as he did with the feet of John. That was to teach me a lesson – to serve whomever I can, even my enemies. Now just another point here. He served without worrying how Judas would turn out. If he did that, can I do that too? Can I serve the really many needy without worrying about the results? Here is a truth with which we must come to grasp. In serving the needy, in the name of Christ, we are serving Christ. If Jesus came to our door, in his own person, we’d fall over ourselves to do something for him. But if he came to our door, in disguise, we probably wouldn’t be as quick to help. “Oh Lord, let me serve you,” we plead. His responds, “Of course you can. Go serve the poor man there!” “Oh, but Lord, you don’t understand. We want to serve you, not him!” He knows that! He is glad. “But in serving him you are serving me!” This may be hard to understand, but think about it this way. How does the boy’s father best please the boy? By loving the boy’s mum. How does one delight a parent? By praising his child. How does a doctor serve a parent? By healing his child! How does a person delight a husband? By bragging on his bride. Christ has identified himself with the needy. And when, in his name and for his sake, we supply their needs, it’s him we are pleasing and serving.

  5. Serve without broadcasting

    And your father who knows what you do in secret will reward you! Serve as quietly as you can.


      The skeptic asks what he will gain with service. In v. 17, Jesus answers. “…” If you will serve, you’ll be happy. The word here is Mokorior (same or best). It is described as an inward joy, an inward happiness coupled with a peace unaffected by bad circumstances. And what Jesus means is when you serve you find the secret of deep and lasting happiness. Let me say this as we end. The people who are the most to be pitied are those who only seek to be served. They think they are mistreated often, that they don’t get what they deserve. They expect everything from others and are disappointed in the end because it rarely comes. The servants, on the other hand, are always happy because they always think of others. They can’t be disappointed, except in themselves. So, remember how good you are at serving?

      The world may ask, “How many people work for you, but the Lord, one day, will ask how many people you have worked for. Show me your hands and then I’ll tell you if you can come in!