A Servant's HeartErwin W. Lutzer | May 21, 2000
Selected highlights from this sermon
Do you have a servant’s heart? Jesus knew that His time had come; He knew His mission and His destination. At that hour, He, the Creator, got down on His hands and knees and washed the feet of His creation. It was through this act of service that He showed us the path to greatness.
God on His hands and knees.
Seems to be something strange about that: that the Creator would bow low to wash the feet of His creation.
The story is in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel and in a moment we’re going to read some of the verses. But first of all, I want us to understand the significance of this event. No where else in history, either in Jewish literature or in Greco-Roman literature, is there ever an account of a superior washing the feet of an inferior.
You remember the story as it opens in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel: Jesus and the disciples come to what we generally call the Upper Room. The disciples had been arguing as to who would be the greatest in the Kingdom of Heaven.
And even as they come into the Upper Room, no one takes the role of a servant because not even peers, generally, wash the feet of peers. That was something that was relegated to servants, and servants had the responsibility of washing the feet of those who were above them in society.
I don’t think they’d have had a big problem washing Jesus Christ’s feet, but when He pushed back from the table and walked over to the basin and poured some water and took off His outer garment and then put on a towel around His waist and began to wash the disciples’ feet and began to wipe them with a towel that He had–it was at that time that they felt very shame-faced. And as we shall see in the next message, Peter especially did not like it and began to react.
But why is it that this is so important for us? Why does this story have so much significance? Couple of reasons. First of all, because it shows us the path to greatness. It is not wrong for you to want to be great. As a matter of fact, greatness is encouraged. But Jesus said: he who will be great, let him learn to serve. So it’s not a matter of greatness being wrong, it’s how you expect to get that greatness–that’s the question.
There’s another reason why it is important: and that is that if you and I want to see our homes changed, if we want to see our churches changed, and our cultured changed, we’re going to have to learn to be servants. And that’s a difficult lesson for us to learn, so difficult that maybe some of us have not even begun to learn what it really means.
When we look at this passage, why is it that we should be surprised to see Jesus on His hands and knees? Well, first of all, considering where He came from: He came from the glories of heaven.
When you read the sixth chapter of Isaiah where the angels are around the throne and Jehovah is around the throne and the angels are singing “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty,” remember that the person sitting on that throne is Christ. You say, “no, that’s Jehovah.” Yes, but Jehovah is Christ. John chapter 12 makes it very, very clear. John says that, “These things Isaiah said (and it’s referring to chapter 6) when he saw Christ’s glory and spoke of Him.”
Here is Jesus around the throne in all of His glory and He could have stayed there. He could have stayed there simply to receive worship and praise and honor and adoration and bask in His relationship with the Father; and throughout all of eternity, God could have simply remained beautiful and left us in our sins.
Jesus came from the highest: that’s one reason why we should be surprised. The other reason is: considering how low He came. Think of how far down He came.
In heaven, no one needed to ask His name. He was always glorious; He was always adored. Now He comes to earth and He has to carry an ID. And people shout at Him, “move it Jew-boy, get on with it!” and then eventually they will spit on Him.
“And He laid aside His garments,” the text says, that is to say He took off His outer garment. And some theologians have seen in this a picture, really, of the Incarnation. As He lays aside His glory, His visible glory, and He comes to the earth, He still has all of the attributes of God, He has the glory of God but it is veiled so no one sees it so He looks very ordinary, in some respects, and He comes to this earth and lives as one of us.
Here is the One who has all omnipotence, all power is under His command, and yet look at Him there as He is weary on Jacob’s well.
Here is the One who has omnipresence, He can be everywhere simultaneously, and is everywhere simultaneously, but yet we read in the Gospels that He stayed two extra days away from Bethany when He heard that Lazarus died.
Omnipotence. Omnipresence. Omniscience. And yet He limited Himself and said that He did not even know when the Son of man would come. He had all of the attributes but He said, “I refuse to use them. I’m going to live as man.” Consider how far down He came.
Someone has said that when Jesus was born in Bethlehem, those hands that created the worlds, those hands would now have to be held. The tongue that spoke the worlds into existence would now have to learn Aramaic. And the feet of the One whose goings forth had been from of old and from everlasting, those feet would now have to learn how to walk. And the eyes that have penetrated the universe and have seen all things, those eyes would now have to adjust to the dim light of a stable. And the ears which have heard all things throughout all ages, those ears would now have to adjust to the language of Aramaic and other expressions that would be given and popular in that time. Think of how far He came.
We can’t grasp it, can we? Because you and I are so accustomed to hanging onto prestige and power and money, we hang onto it until our knuckles turn white. So it’s hard for us to visualize Jesus coming from the glories of heaven even, as it says in Philippians chapter 2, to the shameful death of the cross. Think of how low He came. No one has ever come from that high and descended that low.
How did Jesus do it?
Well, at this time we are going to read the text of Scripture: John chapter 13. And this is the beginning of a series of messages titled: When Jesus Has Your Heart. And today we’re going to talk about the heart of a servant. As we go through this passage of Scripture: John chapter 13, 14, 15, and 16, usually known as the Upper Room Discourse.
Well I’d like to suggest that the reason Jesus could do that and be a servant is because of what He knew. He knew three facts. That little word, “know” occurs twice here in the text, and we’ll see what Jesus Christ knew.
“It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for Him to leave the world and go to the Father. Having loved His own who were in the world, He now showed them the full extent of His love.”
It’s a wonderful expression: the full extent of His love.
“The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God; so He got up from the meal, took off His outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around His waist. 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.”
What did He know?
Number one: He knew His time. He knew His time. He knew that His time had come. I like the other translations at this point, “He knew that His hour was come,” that’s a literal translation.
Into that hour was compressed the darkness of Gethsemane, the treachery of Judas, and the cruel, painful death of the cross. And now the hour had come. It was here.
What did that signify?
Three times before in the Gospel of John we read that they tried to take Jesus but could not take Him because His hour was not yet come.
It signified, first of all, the protection of God.
There was no combination of men and of demons that could ever possibly put Christ on the cross until God says, “it’s time.” There was no way that Jesus Christ could die young. Oh, He died at the age of 33 and that’s young, but He could not have died as a teenager because His hour had not yet come and He had to fulfill the will of God and Jesus knew that. So it reflects the protection of God.
It reflects the approval of God and God’s good pleasure in Christ. You see before Jesus stepped out of eternity into time in Bethlehem, He and the Father had already prearranged what would happen here on Earth. It was like writing a symphony, maybe you’re in a room somewhere and you’re writing it and you put it together and then it is played at a later time on the instrumentation that you have worked out for it. In the very same way, the Father and the Son agreed as to what was going to happen. And the Father said, “This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”
And part of that will of God was this moment to wash the feet of disciples who apparently were too self-directed to do it on their own.
Jesus received the approval of the Father. “Father whatever this hour involves, since it’s from Your hand, I accept it.”
You say, “Well Pastor Lutzer, but we are different than that. Number one, Jesus didn’t commit any sin.” Which is true, He did not. “We sometimes sin, we mess up. We leave scars behind us. We leave a dirty trail behind us. And Jesus never did that.”
But I want you to know that as we ask God’s forgiveness and as we put the past behind us, there’s a sense in which we also then come again within the protection of God and the approval of God and the knowledge that we are in God’s hands and not subject to the randomness of fate or even violence.
There was a woman in Michigan whose husband was cruelly put to death: murdered. She was a Christian lady and he was a Christian man. She was telling me how she struggled with this. She could never accept it. She could not possibly see how this is something that you need to put behind you in some sense, of course there’s a sense in which it will never be totally be put behind, but she struggled with that because, “How could this possibly be God’s will. These are cruel evil people.”
She read something that I had written on this topic in which I mention that if Jesus Christ, the victim of violence, could die under the hand and the providence of God, why cannot believers who are held in the same hands, whose purposes God also has for His own glory: they too die within His providence. Their hour comes and they cannot die before their hour comes.
Now, it’s true, you and I don’t know our hour, do we? This next week, Rebecca and I are going to be attending a wake for a friend of ours who died while walking in the back of a yard and suddenly put up his hands and had a massive heart attack and was gone. His wife was with him, but he could not be revived. He did not know when his hour was coming.
But listen to me very carefully. The fact that we don’t when our hour comes, does not mean that our hour is in any way less planned, less significant, less under God’s protection, than that of the Lord Jesus Christ. We too have an hour before which we cannot pass.
Let’s go on to number two. He not only knew His time; He knew His mission.
What was His mission?
I want us to see here two phrases together. This is why it’s so important that you bring your Bibles and open them. I want you to see these phrases. You’ll notice it says in verse 2: “The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus.”
So you’ve got the work of the devil going on. Later on, the devil actually enters into Judas that he might do the ghastly deed of betraying Christ. So you’ve got that going on, but notice that that statement stands directly in relationship to this one. Verse 3: “Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under His power.”
Do you have a problem with seeing those two statements together? Here’s the devil who put this into the heart of Judas, but here is Jesus who knows that the Father had given Him everything under His own power. He simply could have squashed the devil. He could have squashed Judas.
Let me read the words of Don Carson: “With such power we might expect Him to defeat the devil in an immediate and flashy confrontation, and to devastate Judas with an unstoppable blast of divine wrath.”
Christ could have spoken the word and the devil would have been put away and Judas would have been incinerated and gone.
What does Christ do instead? He takes this basin and He begins to wash the disciples’ feet and He washes the feet of the traitor.
Why did not Jesus call those 10,000 angels? Why does Jesus not exert that awesome power that He has? “All things under His feet” including the devil. It is because in this instance (and in others as well, if I had time to explain), there was a different agenda going on. He said in the book of Luke as the people came to catch Him and capture Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, He said, this time, this hour of darkness is yours. Right now, you win.
Win permanently? Of course not. These are but stepping stones to greater victories and to greater glories and Jesus, His mission, you see, was not that He might be able to be exempted from the cross, His mission was that He might come to die, and Judas and the devil were a part of that plan. It was a part of the purposes of God.
You’ll notice it says in verse 1, what a lovely statement at the end of the verse, “Having loved His own who were in the world, He showed them the full extent of His love.” And the full extent of His love involved the cross.
Like the person said, “I asked the Lord Jesus Christ, ‘How much do you love me?’ And He stretched out His arms and died.”
Now I want you to notice that Jesus, then, knew His mission: it was to demonstrate the love of God. And that was to go to the cross to demonstrate the love of God. It was also to glorify the Father. And what He was saying in the previous text, even in the previous chapter, is: Now is the Son of Man glorified. Why? Because God was going to get glory because Jesus died.
Your responsibility and mine, by the way, is parallel. It’s the same thing. Why do we exist? It is to give glory to God.
Later on, as we study this marvelous passage of Scripture, we’ll come to the fifteenth chapter where Jesus said, “Herein is my Father glorified that you bear much fruit, so shall you be My disciples.”
How do we glorify God? By being fruit-bearing Christians.
And He says, “Ask and you shall receive that the Father may be glorified.” When Peter was about to argue with Jesus about John in the twenty-first chapter of the Gospel of John, you’ll recall that Jesus said, “Peter, the time is coming when you’re going to go places that you don’t want to go because others are going to take you and carry you where you don’t want to go.” And then the text said, “This He said signifying the death by which Peter would glorify God.” And it is said, as you know, in tradition, I don’t know that we can prove it, that Peter was crucified upside down because he did not think he was worthy to be crucified in the same manner as his Savior.
Do you understand what God is doing in our lives? He’s clearly not committed to our happiness in the sense of giving us all the happiness we possibly can. He clearly not committed to simply taking away all the detours and all the road blocks that we find in life and giving us health and wealth, and all of the other things.
We heard today these missionary reports about people living in great poverty, and obviously we should be helping them in their need, but God isn’t in heaven just simply saying, “Now, I wonder how I can make My creation happy?” Or, “I wonder how I can make the church happy, happy, happy?”
Listen carefully, Jesus changed the world, but He did not change it by His miracles, He changed it by His suffering, and it is in suffering that we glorify God and Jesus knew that that was His mission. And washing the disciples’ feet was a part of the divine program.
What did Jesus know? He knew His time. He knew His mission. He knew His destination. You’ll notice the text says, knowing, “that the Father had put all things under His power, and that He had come from God and was returning to God.” Jesus is saying, “I know that I’m going back to the Father. And the Father has all of eternity to set injustices right; the Father has all of eternity, the Father and I, for us to enjoy each other, and to enjoy the people that I’ve come to redeem. The Father and I are going to be back together.”
Let me ask you a question: Did Jesus please Himself when He went to the cross? It’s a trick question because you could answer yes or no and maybe be right on both counts if you understand the distinction. On the one hand, of course Jesus did exactly what He wanted to do because He wanted to please the Father. This is My desire for I always do those things that please Him, and if involves the cross, so be it, I’ll accept the cross. Of course He pleased Himself. But Paul, you remember, says, for even Christ pleased not Himself.
And the reason is because, looked at just humanly, this was a horrendous hour through which Jesus had to pass. It was not just the physical pain; it was not just being nailed to a cross–people had endured that for centuries, however excruciating it was; it was that at that moment, He would become identified with your sin and mine. It was at that moment that fellowship would be broken with the Father. It was at that moment that darkness would be upon the face of the earth because He would be dying and making a sacrifice for our sins and becoming sin for us–that was the burden that He wrestled with in Gethsemane and took all the way to the cross.
But, the Scripture also says, “Who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross despising the shame.” Listen, I want to tell you something. You can go through anything in life; you can go through the most excruciating and difficult experience, whether it is physical or whether it is emotional. You can handle it if you can see God and eternity–if you know it’s just for a time and that a better day is coming, a better eternity is coming.
So Jesus knew His destination: He was going back to the Father. Now I want to ask you a question today: does that mean that when Jesus goes back to the Father, one thing is sure, He’s never going to have to serve again? That’s what I would think. If I were writing the Bible, that’s what I’d say: “Jesus came to this earth, He became a servant, and He served and now that He’s in heaven: nothing but glory, nothing but honor, nothing but praise.”
Now folks, one of the reasons you know that the Bible is the Word of God is because it’s got stuff in here that no person would ever possibly even think of making up. This is what the Scripture says that Jesus said, “Be ready and dressed for service and keep your lamps burning, like men waiting for their master to return from a wedding banquet, so that when he comes and knocks, they can immediately open the door for him. It will be good for those servants whose master finds them watching when he comes. I tell you the truth, he (that is, the master) will dress himself to serve, will have them recline at the table and will come and wait on them.
Do you realize that Jesus here is talking about Himself, really, as the master? Now, I have not checked with the experts, but I really do think that what it means is that Jesus is going to serve us in the Kingdom. And here you and I are too proud to serve one another. No wonder Augustine said, “God has humbled Himself but man remains proud.”
Jesus serving His people even in the Kingdom. We’ll see Him possibly as He serves us at the table.
What did Jesus know? He knew, of course, His time. He also knew His mission. He knew His destination. What life-changing lessons are there from this passage that will change the way in which we view servanthood and hopefully perhaps change the way in which we view our vocation for as long as we live?
Lesson number one is simply this: that it is not what we do, but who we do it for that gives meaning to life and meaning to our service. It’s not what we do–it’s who we do it for. Jesus said: it does not matter to Me whether I am preaching the Sermon on the Mount to 5,000 people (and He did that without a microphone), it doesn’t matter to Me whether I’m doing that or whether I’m washing the disciples’ feet–that is not the point. The point is: is My Father glorified? The point is: am I being obedient to what the Father wants Me to do. And that’s what the important issue is. I desire to please My Father, and therefore, if I please Him, I’m willing to do anything, no matter how menial.
You see, I told you before that story, that legend, of the stones, but I have to say it right here again. You remember the legend? It goes on that Jesus once asked the disciples to carry some stones and they all picked up different stones and they carried them for days and days and days, and the Jesus turned them into bread. When they understood that the size of the stone determined the size of the loaf of bread, they kept that in mind. And then Jesus said to carry stones again, so they all picked up heavy boulders. And finally they walked along and they came to a river and Jesus said, “Just roll them into the river and let them be gone.” And the disciples looked at each other and said, “What’s this? What a waste of energy. What were we doing anyway?” And then the story goes that Jesus looked at them and said, “For whom do you carry the stones?”
Who do you carry them for? Who do you go to work for tomorrow as you go onto the El to go downtown? Who do you work for? Who do you put up with? For whom do you put up with the difficult situations of life, and the people with whom you work, and the kinds of things that go on in your job that are so difficult? As long as you’re working for somebody else, you’re going to be disappointed, you’re going to have all of those conflicts and see no meaning in it. But if you say, “Father, this is what You have prescribed, this is Your will, this is Your work, oh Father, I will do this for You. I’ll carry this stone for Your glory and honor.”
First lesson: it’s not what we do, but who we do it for that gives meaning to our lives.
Secondly, the deeper we go with God, the lower we are willing to stoop in service. I really do believe that. Because the deeper we go with God, you see, we don’t have to worry about what other people think. Now the real issue is: What does the Father want me to do? And if I’m serving the Father in what I’m doing, whether it is significant in the eyes of the world or not, really does not matter much. That’s the secret, you see. That’s why Christianity, as it comes along, it elevates all vocations, and we’ll never have a revival in America until every so-called layperson sees his vocation as his opportunity to serve God.
You see, as long as we think, “Well, it’s my opportunity to earn money, or it’s my opportunity to advance myself, or it’s my opportunity…,” that makes no Christian witness. But when you begin to see that this is your opportunity to serve God, the scrub woman suddenly is exalted in the eyes of God, she is honored in the eyes of God, and God says, this too is service and if done for Me, is great and wonderful and lasting service because there is no such thing then as second-class citizens in the Kingdom of heaven. You’re doing it for God.
The passage of Scripture that was read this morning was Philippians chapter 2: Have this mind which is also in Christ Jesus in you. And what is the mind? The preceding verses say: Esteem others better than yourself. That’s something that’s very hard for me to do. Yet that’s what God wants us to do.
Many years ago, I told you a story that I will tell again. That is when we were at Promise Keepers, at that great convention in Atlanta with all of those pastors, something like 40,000 of them in that great Atlanta stadium, all singing praises to God, all learning how to be filled with the Spirit, all listening to these marvelous messages. Then we left, it was about maybe 9:30 or 10:00 at night and we went into the Atlanta subway and hundreds and hundreds of ministers just plugging the system there and all singing “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound,” and singing, “How Great Thou Art,” and the whole subway system just vibrating. We were so filled with the Spirit, I think we might have thought that we could just walk through a cement wall-I mean God was there.
Then we came to the end of the place where the subway went and we had to wait there for vans to take us to the various hotels where we were staying. And every ten minutes or so this van would pull up, but there’d be dozens, maybe 20, 40, 50 pastors all wanting to go to the same hotel, all trying to get into a van that holds maybe a dozen people. Now remember, we’re all filled with the Spirit. We had all just been singing the praises of God. We’d all just been hearing messages on servanthood. But it was amazing, indeed, to see as that van pulled up to see pastors jockeying and trying to be the first ones in. Now I, of course, my situation was a little different. I had a slight cold and it was windy, so I had a good excuse.
Pastor Worley (I’ve worked with him for a dozen years or more) is one of the most selfless men that I’ve ever known. And that’s why, to this very day, I’m puzzled as to how he got on the same van that I was on. I don’t know how he did that. I wasn’t watching, I just know he was there. And after we were in the van, I said to everyone, “Well, whatever the filling of the Spirit might mean, (because we had just heard about how to be filled with the Spirit) apparently it doesn’t mean that we esteem others better than ourselves.” Because if we’d really been filled with the Spirit nobody would’ve gotten onto the van. “Oh, you go.” “You go” “No, no, no, I’ll wait for the next one.” “You go.” “You go.” The van driver would’ve had to go back empty.
What does it mean to prefer others better than ourselves? The simple fact is: the deeper we go with God, the lower we are willing to go in loving service and sacrifice to others.
There’s a third lesson. Let me give it to you. It’s maybe the bottom line of the whole passage, and that is that God’s way up is down.
I began this message saying there’s nothing wrong with wanting greatness. Jesus, in fact, in that discussion that we will not turn to but you are acquainted with it, where they have the discussion as to who will be great in the Kingdom, Jesus said: he that is least among you, let him be great. In fact, Christ said: that among the Gentiles (that is, the pagans), he who rules is great. You rule over 10,000 people, that’s good; if you rule over 100,000, it’s better; if you rule over 100 million, it’s even better yet. And that’s greatness, but Jesus said that’s among the Gentiles, but He said: so shall it not be among you. That’s the world.
Among you, the person who is great is the person who serves. Let him learn to serve. And that is greatness in the Kingdom. Humble yourselves in the sight of the Lord and He will lift you up. For God resists the proud, but He gives grace, much grace to the humble.
Nietzsche, who pre-dated Hitler and greatly influenced Hitler, said that he would believe in the Christian Redeemer if Christians looked more redeemed. Now he had no right to expect that, by the way, because he didn’t like their Redeemer and he didn’t even like believers after they were redeemed, but his statement is penetrating and makes us realize that the world is never going to accept us until we are willing to become servants. Even in our leadership, we have to be servant-leaders: in our homes, to our wives, and in our churches-because if not, the world will simply hold its nose and turn us off. Because the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many. And we need to look redeemed.
Many years ago a man by the named of John Flavel wrote: when God intends to fill a soul, He first makes it empty. When He intends to enrich a soul, He first makes it poor. And when He intends to exalt a soul, He first makes it aware of its own miseries, wants, and nothingness.
He who is to be great among you, let him serve. In fact, Jesus said that you can’t even enter into the Kingdom of heaven unless you become like a little child. Because little children are trusting, little children are willing to ask forgiveness, little children have an implicit faith that recognizes a total dependence upon their parents. They know that if mom and dad didn’t care of me, I wouldn’t be able to do anything. And they come with that simplicity and faith and Jesus took a little child and put it on His lap and said: of such is the Kingdom of heaven.
What keeps us from fullness in the Christian life? What keeps us from following God? What keeps us in our sin and bound? One little word: pride. And God resists—fights against—the proud, but He gives grace to the humble.