We must be careful not to teach people that the ultimate goal of Christianity is serving. Jesus is the ultimate goal, the highest end. Our serving must ultimately be grounded in Him, and for Him, our hearts deeply tuned toward Him. We are incapable of serving for the right reasons, incapable of making any impact on others or on our culture without Him, without His power.
In John 13, we see an unforgettable picture of His authentic service to His disciples just before His death.
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. (vv. 3–5 ESV)
No act was more demeaning in the first century than the wiping of a man’s feet. Dirty. Smelly. And yet Christ, the Son of God, took off His outer garment, took up a basin, filled it with water, and began to wipe the muck and mire off these men’s feet.
The equivalent would be to think of someone in power, someone well beyond you in wealth, status, and fame—the president of the United States, for example—being over to dinner at your house. After you get through eating, he quietly gets up, takes off his jacket, goes to your bathroom, and begins to scrub around your toilet. The next thing you do is to go in there to say, “Mr. President, what in the world? You don’t have to do this.” But no matter how wildly you protest, he cannot be pulled away. He’s come here to clean the nastiest part of your house.
Jesus, whose power is well beyond any president in every possible way, stooped to the lowest rung on the ladder to serve His disciples. And Peter, who always had something to say, objected: “Lord, do you wash my feet?” (John 13:6 ESV).
You can’t really hold this brashness against Peter. He felt the weight of what was happening in the moment, and it made him entirely uncomfortable. Jesus understood, however, and patiently answered Peter’s objection this way: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me,” which made Peter swing hard in the other direction and say, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
Jesus went on to explain the meaning of His service:
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” (John 13:12–16 ESV)
The culture in Jesus’ day (much like our own culture) was built upon the premise of power. The more powerful, wealthy, and talented you were, the less expectation was on you to lower yourself and help other people. Conversely, the less amount of power, wealth, and talent you had, the more you were expected to serve those who were blessed with more.
But Jesus’ kingdom was and is the site of great reversal. Just as everything in the universe was spun into chaos when sin entered the picture, Jesus reversed things again and put them in their right order. But because we have always lived in the chaos of sin, the kingdom of God feels backward and counterintuitive to us. In His kingdom, the hungry are full. The poor are rich. The mourning are blessed. And the powerful are servants.
The gospel is our motivation for moving outside ourselves for the sake of others. That’s what Jesus did for us, and we are to follow His example. We don’t serve others so we can toss an impressive, updated résumé before God. We serve others because we have been greatly served by Jesus. We imitate our Savior as we are being conformed into His image. As Christ emptied Himself of His authority and served us, we are to empty ourselves of any so-called entitlement and serve others.