I’ve been thinking about Jesus, the Servant of all. The more I know about Him, the more captivated and tender I become. Here are portions of my thoughts on the subject of Jesus the servant, through the lens of His incredible act of humility from John 13:3-9:
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. 5 After that, He poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded. 6 Then He came to Simon Peter. And Peter said to Him, “Lord, are You washing my feet?”
7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.”
8 Peter said to Him, “You shall never wash my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me.”
9 Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:3-9)
Absolute Power Given to the Incorruptible Man
First, John begins his account in a surprising way: he states, “Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands… rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.” Or, say it this way: Jesus, knowing that…He had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.” In other words, Jesus knew two things about Himself in that moment, and knowing those things led to an action that, in our way of thinking, doesn’t quite match the information.
I’ll use this example. You win the lottery. It’s fifty million dollars. What is the first thought that comes to your mind? If you’re like every other human on the planet, you think about what you are going to buy, where you are going to go, or what debt you are going to cancel. It’s how we all think in our humanity – once we given resources (money, power, honor), the first things we care about are usually: 1.) how to make our life better; 2.) how to make our circumstances change; and 3.) how to ease stress. I am sure that a few other-worldly mystics reading this that experience the joy of continual, godly motives, but for the rest of us, it’s simply reflexive.
That’s what fascinates me about Jesus’ reflexive, in the moment response to His knowledge of His status, privilege, security, and power base. It’s quite unlike anyone who has ever lived, and there is no chance that any of us in our current condition would have made the same choice if we received the same information. “David Sliker, the Father has just given all things into your hands!” Now, because I’m not entirely carnal and, in this stage of my life, I care about different things than I used to, I am sure that I would try to do something helpful with that new information. I am also sure I would not immediately throw a towel around my waist and decide to become my student’s servant.
Servant of All means more than “Serving”
The problem with hearing a word over and over is that it can become overly familiar. I am certain that this has happened in Christian culture with the concept of Jesus the Servant, by which “servant” has been reduced to a neat leadership concept, a valuable lesson, and a missions project where we raise some money to go build a church together. Our minds simply will not allow us to embrace the concept of Jesus embracing the lowliness and the meekness of becoming a true servant for His friends, lowering Himself in His outrageous humility to a place below His students in that upper room. He did not become a “servant” according to 21st Century church culture, which again is little more than being a little helpful when someone else is in need. He became a “servant” according to 1st century Hebrew culture, in which the hired attendant helped the powerful Lord make the details of his life work.
This act of humility left Peter horrified and stunned.
It’s hard for us to relate to Jesus the Servant. That the Messiah and King of the Earth would serve us as a Friend. We imagine that He wants to command us to obey. The humility of Jesus offends our sensibilities. Much of how we think is similar to Peter – when one who has greater authority than we have relates to us we have a tendency to defer, honor, and take the lower place. This is not because we are humble by nature – it is actually because of the exact opposite: it is because we would expect (and sometimes demand) that others would do the same for us when we came into our place of authority. Peter related Jesus in the same way that he expected others would relate to him when he achieved greatness, thus he had no clue what to do our how to relate to Jesus when his Master and Rabbi girded Himself with a towel and began to wash their dusty feet.
Again, this was the posture of a literal servant in the circles of power and privilege in eastern culture; Jesus was taking on the role of the lowly servant – and also elevating his disciples to the place of the privileged lord or nobleman in the process. It was unheard of in eastern culture for a famous Rabbi or spiritual leader to act this way. The powerful Sanhedrin had disciples with political ambitions who were glad to serve these wealthy, powerful, well-connected influencers in the hopes of being promoted into positions of power and influence themselves. Jesus radically redefines greatness, power, and authority for all of us, in that very moment. He genuinely, and tenderly, expressed a kingdom of heaven value and a kingdom of heaven mindset by relating to His disciples as a lowly servant.
It’s who Jesus is not just what He did (and still does)
We imagine, in that upper room that night, Jesus the Great Teacher teaching His guys one more lesson before retiring to the Garden of Gethsemane. Our minds reel and stagger a bit when it begins to dawn on us that Jesus actually thought that way and that His behavior in that moment is consistent with how He has always viewed Himself, beyond the “lesson” He wanted to transfer. He still thinks this way. His servant-hearted posture towards us did not end at the cross. One act of service is a window into the heart of the greatest Servant. This point is initially offensive. Over time Jesus’ humility becomes exhilarating and awesome to consider. It really does change so many things when we begin to relate, with holy fear, to Jesus the Servant.
I mean, really – can we imagine the President of the United States showing up at our house, throwing a towel around his waist, and washing our car and vacuuming the floor? We would respond a bit like Peter did that night. We don’t know what to do about a God that loves to serve. We have to keep in mind that this mindset is so foreign to us that Jesus said plainly to Peter, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this.” Those twelve young men, and later, all of us, were not equipped to grasp the implications of what Jesus was doing. Yet, when it dawns on us that this is who Jesus is, it makes our hearts to tender and awestruck at His kindness and love for us.
For Jesus, in taking on the form of a bondservant…
(And, as a parenthetical insertion, here is what “bondservant” means:
bond.ser.vant; n. 1. A person obligated to service without wages. 2. A slave or serf. )
…or, to put it another way, , taking on the form of a slave or serf, Jesus did more than cleanse dirt from dusty feet and teach a bunch of simple guys a cool lesson on humility. He actually dignified them. He gave them unspeakable honor, assigning value and worth to their lives. He was demonstrating who He is, expressing His character and nature – and, in turn, demonstrating for us that our Father in heaven thinks and acts this way towards us as well. He did something else that night, something so incredible I can hardly grasp it: by demonstrating who He is towards us, He also demonstrated who we are to Him. He bestowed a value upon us that is incomprehensible. When the President of the United States takes us under his wing to train us, that’s pretty cool. When the President comes alongside of us and calls us a friend and a comrade, that feels pretty good. Now when he comes underneath us in status and rank, committing to become our slave, our serf, or our bondservant…
“…but you will know after this.”
And so they did, as He hung from that tree.