We live in an egotistical, narcissistic generation. Our culture is obsessed with self-esteem, self-love, self-fulfillment, and every conceivable kind of selfish pursuit. People relentlessly promote themselves, praise themselves, and put themselves first.
The current gauge of self-worth is the number of followers you have on your Facebook page or your Twitter feed, and no detail of life is too mundane or too trivial to be shared with the world via these ubiquitous Internet social media. Obsession with self is not only deemed acceptable nowadays, it is considered normal behavior. Our culture has made pride a virtue and humility a weakness.
This preoccupation with self and self-promotion is unspeakably destructive. When people are committed first of all to self, relationships disintegrate. Human society cannot survive long without healthy, lasting relationships. Indeed, right now we are watching the crumbling of the very foundations upon which society is built, as friendships, marriages, and families fall apart. Human pride is the evil root that underlies so many failed relationships. And yet our culture stubbornly and deliberately fosters pride as though it were something noble.
Sadly, a shameless preoccupation with self has found its way into the church, too. I recall reading and reviewing a best-selling book by a famous pastor more than three decades ago, in which he argued that humanity’s real problem is not sin at all, but a tragic lack of self-esteem. People don’t think highly enough of themselves, he said (against a galaxy of evidence to the contrary). He was convinced that if pastors would begin to preach whole sermons encouraging self-esteem and work to build up everyone’s self-image, it would reform the church, redeem the world, and spark a revolution that would rival the Protestant Reformation.
That struck me as incredibly far-fetched when I first read it, but over the years that kind of thinking has gained a frightening degree of acceptance among professing Christians. Self‑esteem, self‑image, self-fulfillment, self-confidence, self-help and other expressions of selfism have become dominant themes in many supposedly evangelical communities. Of course, most of them aren’t true churches at all but cults of self‑centeredness, self-aggrandizement, arrogance, or worldliness. The selfism they are spreading is a whole different religion, diametrically opposed to the teaching of Christ.
Scripture is clear: Pride and self-centeredness are hostile to true, Christlike godliness. Jesus repeatedly and emphatically condemned pride. Both His life and His teaching constantly exalted the virtue of humility.
Nowhere is that more clear than in John 13.
Chapter 13 marks a transition in John’s gospel and a key turning point in the ministry of Jesus Christ. His public ministry to the people of Israel had run its course and ended in their complete and final rejection of Him as Messiah. On the first day of the week, Jesus had entered Jerusalem in triumph to the enthusiastic shouts of the people. Yet they never truly understood His ministry and His message. The Passover season had arrived, and by Friday He would be utterly rejected and publicly condemned to die. God, however, would turn His execution into the great and final sacrifice for sin, and Jesus would die as the true Passover Lamb.
He had come to “His own”—His chosen nation, Israel—but “His own did not receive Him” (John 1:11). So He turned away from public ministry to the intimate fellowship of His most committed disciples.
Now it was the day before Jesus’ death. In less than twenty-four hours He would suffer ruthlessly at the hands of cruel men and be nailed to a cross. He would further be subjected to the full measure of God’s wrath against humanity’s sin. That was the terrible cup He would be given to drink.
Fully knowing all that was coming, Jesus was nevertheless preoccupied with others’ needs. We know what filled His mind and heart that evening, because it is reflected in what He spent those hours in the upper room talking about. Specifically, He immersed Himself in personal ministry to twelve men. He was consumed with the task of strengthening, reassuring, and preparing them for the trial they would soon endure—and a lifetime of ministry that would follow. And one of the twelve was a traitor.
This shows the personal, self-sacrificial, gracious nature of Jesus’ love. These were literally the last hours before He would die, and Jesus knew full well “all the things that were coming upon Him” (John 18:4). But His heart was fixed on these men—His disciples—and everything He did that night demonstrated His love for them, beginning with their entry into the upper room. John records this graphic account of what happened:
Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus knowing that His hour had come that He would depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. During supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself. Then He poured water into the basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel with which He was girded.
So He came to Simon Peter. He said to Him, “Lord, do You wash my feet?”
Jesus answered and said to him, “What I do you do not realize now, but you will understand hereafter.”
Peter said to Him, “Never shall you wash my feet!”
Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me.”
Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.”
Jesus said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.” For He knew the one who was betraying Him; for this reason He said, “Not all of you are clean.”
So when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord; and you are right, for so I am. If I then, the Lord and Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. (John 13:1-17)
In the days ahead, we’re going to look in detail at Christ’s interaction with His disciples in the upper room, and the powerful example He lived out for them—and for us—in His humble service. We’re going to see a distinct contrast between the Lord and His friends, and the inherent humility of love.