Eating a meal together is a relationship-building event. When we gather around a table we gather in a specific place and build memories, if only for a little while. Whether it’s causal of fancy, we experience meals together.
Jesus’ most famous meal with his disciples was his last meal with them. The Sedar meal was an important part of Passover in the first century. Jewish family groups would eat a meal of roasted lamb and bitter herbs and remember how God delivered them from slavery in Egypt.
We read about the Last Supper in John 13:1-30. In this passage, John describes the meal from a different angle than the other Gospel writers. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place the emphasis on the ceremonial elements of the meal itself. John places the emphasis on a surprising event at the start of the meal.
As the meal was about to start, Jesus got up, took off his out garment, wrapped a towel around himself, and began washing the disciples’ feet. With this one act, Jesus made this a meal that could never be forgotten. With this one act, Jesus signaled that things were about to change. With this one act, Jesus served the undeserving in three distinct ways.
1. Jesus Served in Ways No One Else Wanted to Serve (13:1-11).
Jesus knew what was about to happen. He knew his earthly ministry was about to end. He knew Judas was about to betray him. He knew why the Heavenly Father had sent him.
People in the first century walked almost everywhere they went and while wearing open-toed sandals. Foot washing was reserved for the lowest of the servants, usually a Gentile or a woman. Jesus intentionally took on this role to serve his disciples.
The disciples were shocked by Jesus’ undignified actions. Peter went so far as to refuse Jesus. It’s significant, however, that none of the disciples volunteer to wash feet Christ’s place.
It’s probably not service if everyone is eager to do it. Service requires a certain amount of humility and sacrifice. Service means putting someone else’s comfort and desires above your own.
2. Jesus Served Out of Love for Others (13:12-20).
Jesus explained that those who wished to call him their Teacher or Master must also follow his example. To avoid service is to place oneself “above” Jesus. If he can humble himself to serve others, so must his followers.
Jesus clarified his motivation for service in his closing summary (John 13:34-35). Service and sacrifice are born out of genuine love for other people. This “command” is built on the first and second Greatest Commandments in the Old Testament: to love God and love others.
There are lots of reasons to serve, but only love is inspired by the gospel. Compassion is important, but it withers without the gospel. Some people serve because it’s their job or because they need community service hours. You can serve out of pride to show how “humble” you are.
3. Jesus Even Served Those Who Didn’t Like Him (13:21-30).
Jesus finally came out and said what he knew all along – one of them was about to betray him. The disciples all questioned each other as Jesus took a morsel of food and gave it to Judas along with his “permission.” For some reason, the disciples all missed this sign.
The most amazing part of this story is that Jesus washed Judas’ feet right along with the rest of the disciples. He didn’t leave him out or single him out. True service views everyone the same, regardless of how they treat us.
Jesus gave us a picture of the gospel by serving the underserving. He served others who weren’t willing or able to return the favor. He sacrificed himself out of love for those who were more interested in status than sacrifice (see Luke’s account in Luke 22:24-27). He humbled himself in front of someone who was working against him and waiting for an opportune moment to stab him in the back.
Like the Bread and fruit of the vine of the Lord’s Supper, the basin and the towel teach us that we are undeserving of God’s grace. They also invite us in at least three ways. The first is to lead through service, not a title. Positions and titles are important, but not as important as servant leadership. Second, is to look for ways to express genuine love for others. It may be through washing someone’s feet or washing their car, but the goal is the same – to show God’s love through tangible acts of service. Third, is to lean on God for the grace to serve the undeserving. Serving is complicated when you are working with someone who doesn’t appreciate your gesture. That takes an extra dose of God’s supernatural power.
Jesus served the undeserving so that we could have a clearing picture of the gospel. He also gave us an example to follow as we share the gospel with others and expand his kingdom on earth.