THE HEART OF A SERVANT

  John 13:1-17

My grandfather Mims was a Primitive Baptist Preacher.  My grandfather Moore was Primitive Baptist Deacon.  My childhood, up to age twelve was in the Harmony Baptist Church, established in 1862, near Barwick, Georgia.  The Primitive Baptists are devout saints of the Lord who believe strongly in the Calvinistic doctrine of Predestination.  They also believed that the ordinances of the church are Baptism, The Lord’s Supper and Footwashing.  Once a year, they observed the ordinance of Footwashing and sent all of us kids outside.  We would gather in the back of a pickup truck that was close to a window and peer inside to watch the proceedings.  We thought it was comical to watch because we did not understand the motive behind it and wondered why they did not wash their feet before they came to church.  Grandfather Moore died and because my mother had remarried after being divorced, they kicked her out of the church and our lives took a different turn.  When I made my public profession of faith in Christ at the age of fourteen, my mother and I joined the First Baptist Church of Quitman, Georgia.

When we retired from our last full time pastorate which was at Ocean View Baptist Church in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, two of the ladies in the congregation came to our home and said, “We would like the privilege of washing your feet before you go.”  It was a beautiful ceremony performed there in our home and was filled with meaning.  They were grateful for the joy we shared in serving the Lord together and they expressed it in this way. 

From the days of childhood up to the present, I have contemplated the meaning of this passage of scripture.  We all have to keep foremost in our minds what Jesus taught us about the servant’s heart.  The first truth is

I.                   NOBODY IN THE KINGDOM IS TOO IMPORTANT FOR A LOWLY SERVANT TASK.

Have you ever seen someone who because of social class or position felt that there were certain tasks that were beneath them?  The custom in the time of Jesus was that a slave in a wealthy household would wash the dust off of the feet of the master he came home from a walk on the dusty lanes and roads of Palestine.  It was expected that the disciples of the Rabbis would wash their feet and render other types of personal service like the valets would perform for the lords and ladies of British culture.

If anyone should have felt self-important, it would have been Jesus.  He had come from the Father and was soon to return.  This was the last night, even the last hours, the last meal, the last teaching that he would give to his men before the crucifixion.  Soon he would be in the hands of those who would kill him and they could not get to him. So with his men gathered around him he was going to demonstrate the love that was in his heart for them.  He is going to bow at their feet and take the place of a servant to say to them, “Servants in my Kingdom are like this.”

But what were the disciples doing at this very moment?  Luke tells us that they were trying to determine which one of them was the greatest.  “Also a dispute arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest.  Jesus said to them, ‘The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors.  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves.  For who is greater, the one who is at the table, or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.  You are those who have stood by me in my trials.  And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.’”  (Luke 22:22-30).

Look at what Jesus was confronted with at that very moment:  He knew that his time had come for crucifixion and death.  He knew that his men were far from developed in grace and faith.  He knew that Judas was a traitor and had already betrayed him to the Sanhedrin.  He knew that not one of them would humble himself and do what he was about to do in service to them.  He knew that they did not yet have the heart of a servant.  So he took the towel and wrapped it around his waist and took the basin and went to each and washed their feet.

Phil Green says, “I like the way Thomas Carlyle put it some time ago. He said, "One example is worth a thousand arguments."   “In difficult times, we don't need dictators and arguments. We need leaders who will show us what to do by the example of their lives. 

That was John Stott throughout the latter half of the 20th Century. He passed away on July 27, 2011. He was one of England's great Christian leaders, and he had a profound influence on people all over the world with his commitment to teaching and living out the truths of the Bible. 

In fact, in a recent Christianity Today article, Tim Stafford recalls what Latin American theologian Rene Padilla said about one of his early encounters with Stott. "On the previous night we had arrived in Bariloche, Argentina, in the middle of heavy rain. The street was muddy and, as a result, by the time we got to the room that had been assigned to us, our shoes were covered with mud. In the morning, as I woke up, I heard the sound of a brush --John was busy, brushing my shoes. 'John!' I exclaimed full of surprise, 'What are you doing?' 'My dear René,' he responded, 'Jesus taught us to wash each other's feet. You do not need me to wash your feet, but I can brush your shoes.'" 

In that same article, Stafford quotes theologian David Wells, who was converted when John Stott came to South Africa in 1959. Later, Wells shared a household with him for five years in the early 1960s. "His leadership was effective," Wells says, "because of his personal integrity and his Christian life. People who knew him always came back to these points. He was known all over the world, but when you met him he was a most devout, humble Christian man. His private life was no different from his public life. It was the same person. That's another way to say that he had integrity. There was no posing." 

Another lesson about the servant’s heart is

II.                NOBODY IN THE KINGDOM IS SO CLEAN THAT THEY DO NOT NEED FURTHER CLEANSING.

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’  Jesus replied, ‘You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand.’  ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’  Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’  ‘Then, Lord,’ Simon Peter replied, ‘not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!’”  (John 13:6-9).

Think back over the previous six months in their lives.  Peter had made his great declaration of “You are the Christ, the son of the Living God!” at Caesarea Philippi.  Then Jesus told them for the first time explicitly that he would go to the cross and be resurrected.  “Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “Never Lord! This shall never happen to you!”  Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!  You are a stumbling block to me: you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men.”

When he had finished washing their feet he asked, “Do you understand what I have done to you?”  No he did not at the time, but later he did grasp it.  Turn to what Peter wrote in I Peter 5: “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, serving as overseers – not because you must but because you are willing, as God wants you to be…All of you clothe yourselves in humility toward one another because, ‘God opposes the proud but give grace to the humble.’”

What do we need to be cleansed of?  What do we need to grow toward in grace?  What in this total washing can make us more like him?

F. B. Meyer advised: “We must not spend all our lives in cleaning our windows, or in considering whether they are clean, but in sunning ourselves in God’s blessed light. That light will soon show us what still needs to be cleansed away, and will enable us to cleanse it with unerring accuracy. Our Lord Jesus is a perfect reservoir of everything the soul of man requires for a blessed and holy life. To make much of Him, to abide in Him, to draw from Him, to receive each moment from His fullness, is therefore the only condition of soul health. But to be more concerned with self than with Him is like spending much time and thought over the senses of the body, and never using them for the purpose of receiving impressions from the world outside. Look off unto Jesus. "Delight thyself also in the Lord" (Ps. 37:4). "My soul, wait thou only upon God!" (Ps. 62:5).”

Another lesson Jesus teaches us Is

III.             NOONE IS SO CLOSE TO GOD THAT THEY CAN’T GET NEARER.

Jesus is teaching his men that his servant who is the closest to God is the closest to people in need.   The kingdom servant is a servant of people.  I think of this when I see the appalling sight of religious leaders parading around in their rich robes and tall hats and being carried on a throne.  That is the very opposite of what Jesus is teaching his men.  I think that the one who pleases our Lord the most is the one who does his work one on one in the shadows and seeks no glory for it.  It is the one who understands what his Lord wants and does it in like manner.

I heard about how General Eisenhower determined the soldier that he wanted to promote in rank.  He would select several men and say to them,  “I want you to go out behind this building and dig a section six feet long, five feet wide and six inches deep.”  Then he would hide himself in the building close to where they were digging and listen to what they were saying.  “Why does he want us to do something as silly as this?  I could be spending time in a better way” said one soldier.  “You know, I always thought the old man had a screw loose somewhere” said another.  “What does it matter?  He asked us to do it and he knows what he is doing.  So, let’s get on with it.”  You know the one he chose for promotion.

Those in the kingdom who are out for themselves and are always complaining and wanting to do their own thing do not hear the clapping of nail scarred hands.

Another disciple later learned this lesson of service through his vision on Patmos.  John, one of the sons of thunder, whose mother asked that he be allowed to sit at the side of Jesus in His kingdom saw his exalted Lord in a vision and received the message we know as the book of Revelation said in Chapter 1: “I turned around to see the voice that was speaking to me…I saw someone ‘like a son of man’ dressed in a robe reaching down to his feet and with a golden sash around his chest…”

I can imagine that John immediately remembered the towel wrapped around his waist and Jesus on his knees washing his feet.  Now, he sees his exalted Lord as the reigning, coming, victorious King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

And notice what he did:  “I fell at his feet as though dead.  Then he placed his right hand on me and said:  “Do not be afraid.  I am the First and the Last.  I am the Living One; I was dead, and behold I am alive for ever and ever!”

PRAISE BE TO HIS NAME!