Following Jesus

Following Jesus

John 13:1-17

Teaching t21076


This morning we begin a series on what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus.  That’s what Christians do—they follow Jesus.  We will be primarily studying from the gospel of Luke (especially Lk.8-12), in which Jesus fleshes this out in a variety of ways.  But we begin today with Jesus’ foundational call and promise to his followers.

My favorite place where Jesus teaches this is in Jn.13.  Read 13:1a,2.  Jesus knew that the time had come for him to be betrayed and arrested and unjustly condemned and beaten and crucified.  He was having his last meal with his disciples, and Jewish tradition dictated that a household slave should wash the feet of the guest rabbi.  If there was no household slave, tradition dictated that the least of his disciples should perform this task.  But Luke tells us that Jesus’ disciples were all trying to avoid this task, so they began to argue which of them was the greatest.  In this setting, Jesus assumed the role of the household slave and washed his disciples’ feet (13:4,5).  And when he got done, their feet were clean and all their filth was now on him.  Now that he had gotten their attention, he made sure they understood the lesson he was teaching them (read 13:12-15).  Jesus is our Lord and Teacher, and at the heart of following him is the call to a lifestyle of washing others’ feet—humbly serving other people who don’t deserve to be served.  And then Jesus delivers this amazing promise—read 13:17.  “Blessed” (makarios) means “truly happy.”  It describes not so much an emotional feeling as an deep-seated awareness of how fortunate you are.  How counter-intuitive!  The way to true happiness is giving yourself away in service to others!

We will come back to this passage—but first I want to show you another place where Jesus teaches this same lesson in a more pointed way.  In each of the four gospels, Jesus makes this same statement in slightly different ways—read Matt.16:25.  The last half of this verse states the same positive lesson we learned in Jn.13:17—you gain your life (attain true happiness) by losing your life for him (by following him into giving yourself away others).  But Jesus also states this same lesson negatively in the first half of this verse.  If you try to save your life (by serving yourself), you will lose your life (you will forfeit true happiness and instead experience emptiness and misery).  Jesus says these two ways of life—self-serving or self-giving—are two totally different paths that lead to two totally different destinations.

2 different paths

Which of these two paths are you following?  One way you can tell is to see which questions you tend to focus on concerning the following areas:

As we think about the KEY PEOPLE in our lives, the SELF-SERVING path focuses on: “Are they treating me the way I want to be treated?”  We focus on this question because we believe that this is a necessary ingredient for our happiness.

The SELF-GIVING path enjoys being treated well, but it is focused on a very different question: “Am I learning to love the people that are in my life—especially those that don’t love me well?” (Lk.6:27-38)

As we think about our FREE TIME that we have, the SELF-SERVING path focuses on: “Do I have enough time for myself to do what I want to do?  If not, how can I get more of this?”

The SELF-GIVING path also values free time and uses some of it for enjoyable pastimes—but it focuses another very different question: “How much of this time am I using to creatively serve others?” (Eph.5:1,2,15,16)

As we think about GOODS & SERVICES, the SELF-SERVING path focuses on: “Am I getting all or most of the goods and services that I desire?”

The SELF-GIVING path values goods and services, and is able to enjoy them.  But it focuses on a very different basic question: “How can I become more financially generous—to relieve others’ suffering, help them develop, etc.?” (1Tim.6:17-19; Eph.4:28)

As we think about our LIFE CIRCUMSTANCES (the above plus physical health; job conditions; etc.), the SELF-SERVING path focuses on: “Are my circumstances going the way I want them to?  Am I getting the breaks?  How can I get them going my way?”

The SELF-GIVING path is thankful for pleasant circumstances, but it is more focused on a different question: “How can I develop as a servant in every circumstance?” (1Cor.10:33; Col.3:17ff.)

The question is not: “Which set of questions do you ask?”  As fallen people, we are “curved inward,” so we naturally ask the first set of questions.  The real question is: “Do you even have a category for the second set of questions—and are you increasingly making decisions based on your answers to them?”  If the answer to these questions is “No,” then this tells you something.  It tells you that (regardless of your formal beliefs) you believe that Jesus was wrong about this crucial issue.  You believe that the SELF-SERVING life is the path to true happiness, and that the SELF-GIVING life is the path to disappointment and misery.  But is this the case?  Or is it true that because we are fallen, “our hearts are in love with that which will ultimately destroy us.” ...

2 different outcomes

If you reflect very much on your own life, then (like me) you have probably already spent enough time following the SELF-SERVING path to know that it doesn’t deliver what it promises.  If you observe others over a long time, you will realize the same thing (e.g., CELEBRITIES; MY PARENTS).  But those who (even imperfectly) embrace the SELF-GIVING path testify that Jesus is right about where it leads.

The SELF-SERVING path leads to increasing dissatisfaction and disappointment.  You may experience a temporary sense of happiness when you get some of the above (KID ON CHRISTMAS MORNING)—but it is fleeting, so you need more the next time to get the same lift.  This leads to a deepening sense of discontent.

The SELF-GIVING path leads to increasing contentment with what you have in the above areas—because you know that’s not what makes your life full and meaningful anyway.  You often experience short-term joy from giving to others—and you definitely experience a long-term deepening sense of satisfaction.

The SELF-SERVING path leads to relational failure.  Those who seek happiness through goods and services don’t build close relationships, or they neglect them.  Those who do build close relationships expecting the other person to love them the right way never seem to find the right person.  So they cycle through relationships (“SERIAL MONOGAMY”), or they settle for negotiated selfishness and parallel lives, or they become cynical about close relationships and live increasingly isolated lives.

The SELF-GIVING path leads to greater relational success.  When even one person becomes committed to self-giving, it radically changes the dynamics.  And when both people focus on how to give/serve (Rom.12:10b) rather than on expecting/demanding, the relationship ripens into something that, while not trouble-free, becomes more and more stable and enjoyable as the years go by.

The SELF-SERVING path leads to a sense of slavery and victimhood.  Because your happiness depends on people treating you well and/or circumstances being favorable, you are at the mercy of these external factors that are beyond your control.  This leads to a growing sense of helplessness and anger or fatalism.

The SELF-GIVING path leads to a growing sense of freedom.  Because you can always move toward happiness by serving others, you feel less and less controlled by your circumstances or how others treat you.  This leads to a growing sense of empowerment in the proper sense of the word.

The SELF-SERVING path leads to increased emotional problems.  Because your happiness depends on things you can’t control, this leads to a lot of anxiety about losing the things you have, lots of effort to control people and circumstances to get a sense of security, anger and bitterness when people or circumstances disappoint you.  Over time, this often leads to chronic depression which worsens as people get older.

The SELF-GIVING path leads to growing emotional health.  Because we are fallen, none of us is ever completely free from emotional problems.  But we can experience growing peace and hope (vs. anxiety, control neuroses, bitterness and depression) as we live increasingly self-giving vs. self-serving lives.  Lots of secular research bears this out.

What is the right-hand column?  It is description of what Jesus calls being “blessed.”

Now at this point you could make a big mistake.  You could decide to pursue happiness as a goal in itself.  You could set out to become a more self-giving person, checking your “happiness meter” regularly to see whether “it’s working.”  Some people call this “enlightened self-interest,” it is really another form of SELF-SERVING that turns Jesus into a positive psychology life-coach.  But Jesus is the Lord who calls us to not only turn away from a SELF-SERVING life, but to turn away from seeking happiness as the goal of our lives.  He says that true happiness isn’t the goal; it’s the by-product of following Jesus by receiving God’s love and giving it away to others.  As Martin Luther said, you must become like a “tube opened downward”—by faith receiving God’s love into your soul, and then by faith passing his love through you to others.   Like the ELUSIVE BUTTERFLY, if you seek happiness as your goal it will always elude you.  But if you turn away from this goal and focus instead on receiving God’s love and giving it to others, happiness will come to you.

Receiving God’s love

As John (Jesus’ disciple) said in one of his letters, you have to “know and rely on” the love that God extends to you through his Son Jesus (1Jn.4:16).  We cannot conjure up love within ourselves; we must receive love as a free and undeserved gift from God.  We must know that God loves us and rely on his love in order to pass his love onto others.

This is exactly what Jesus did in Jn. 13.  Read 13:4,5—how could he love his disciples like this in the midst of his situation?  He could do this because he knew something.  What did he know?  Read 13:3.  He knew who he was (he had come forth as God’s Son), he knew where he was going (he was returning to his Father), and he knew what his resources were (the Father had given all things into his hands).  It is because he knew this that he could rise from supper and wash his disciples’ feet (13:4 “so”).  And it is because he knew this that he could do what this foot-washing symbolized—dying on the cross to take the filth of our sins onto himself.

And because Jesus served us in this way, we can now know that God loves us in the same way that he loved Jesus.  We can know who we are (God’s adopted sons and daughters whom he approves in spite of our sins).  We can know where we are going (to eternal life in God’s kingdom even though we deserve to go to hell).  And we can know what our resources are (Jesus’ full authority is with us to protect us and to guide us and to empower us in spite of our weakness). 

Do you know this?  You can know this—if you receive God’s love by faith in his Son. 

You have to do this initially by asking God to wash you from your sins through Jesus’ death.  This is the only way you can become God’s child.  Have you made this decision?  (EXPLAIN HOW)

And then you have to focus on God’s love for you like Jesus did in Jn. 13.  Day by day and situation by situation, you have to personally look up to God and affirm with him that because of what Jesus did for you, you know who you are, you know where you are going, and you know what resources you have.  We’ll talk more about how to do this in our series—but followers of Jesus must do this in order to follow him into a SELF-GIVING life.

Giving God’s love away

And then you have choose by faith to give God’s love away to others (1 Jn.4:11).  Just as Jesus “washed” because he “knew,” so must we choose to act on our knowledge of God’s love by “washing others’ feet” in whatever practical expression of love is needed.  We’ll talk more about what this looks like in our series—but for now realize these implications:

You can’t hoard God’s love for yourself.  If you try to hoard it, it goes stale inside of you and you will wind up going back to the SELF-SERVING path.  You have to trust that he will keep on loving you, and the way that you trust this is by giving it away to others.  You have to give it away daily to others in order for it to stay fresh in your soul.

You can’t wait until you feel God’s love before you pass it on to others.  You have to trust his love and “get up and wash the feet” of those whom God puts in your path even when you don’t feel his love.  He will engineer specific situations where you feel empty, and call on you to give yourself away (as we’ll see).  As you do this, you will freshly experience God’s love, and your capacity to experience his love will gradually increase.

You can’t dabble in this way of life, trying it once in a while and insisting on immediate results that meet your requirements.  You have to trust God’s promise and sell out to this as a way of life.  This is what leads to increasing confidence and satisfaction over the course of your life.

Michael Horton, The Gospel-Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2009), p.75.

See the “Positive Psychology” movement, including Peterson & Seligman, Character Strengths & Virtues A Handbook & Classification (New York: Oxford Press, 2004).

Anders Nygren, Agape and Eros (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1953), pp.735-737.