Out of the various ways in which we encounter Jesus emerges a fundamental truth: the Person we meet was here on earth for a specific purpose. Jesus came to provide us with as full a revelation of God as our human minds are capable of grasping, revealed in terms we could understand.
In His lifetime on this earth, Jesus made a number of “I am” statements, self-descriptive phrases that referred to His identity and purpose. Here’s one of the major ones: “ ‘I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to the Father except through me. If you had really known me, you would know who my Father is. From now on, you do know him and have seen him’ ” (John 14:6, 7).1
If you read these two statements together, the idea Jesus is building is one of revelation and knowledge. Notice how He uses the word “know” several times. He’s saying that one of His roles is to make God known, to reveal God and God’s way of life, to show what the truth of life really is. The author who writes these words, John, the disciple of Jesus, at the very beginning of this personal account of Jesus’ life, calls Jesus “the Word of God” (1:1). He’s suggesting that Jesus’ primary mission or purpose is to reveal God and what God is like: Jesus is the spoken words of God made flesh, the one who describes God as “grace and truth” (v. 17, NKJV). Jesus comes to live life, God’s way to show what that “way” is. “No one has ever seen God. But the one and only Son is himself God and is near to the Father’s heart. He has revealed God to us” (v. 18).
So Jesus is the human revelation of God. The question is, what did Jesus’ life reveal God to be like? What is God’s “way, truth, and life?”
John the disciple, writing his book about Jesus, remembers a radical and revealing scene involving Jesus and the twelve disciples. In the previous chapter (John 13), he describes it. The whole group has gathered together to celebrate the Jewish Passover in an upstairs room. (This is the evening before the day Jesus is executed.) The usual practice is for a servant to enter the room and wash the guests’ dirty feet before the meal, but no servant shows up. The disciples look around the room uncomfortably, wondering what to do. None of them move toward the pitcher and basin—it’s too demeaning.
John describes what happens next: Jesus “got up from the table, took off his robe, wrapped a towel around his waist, and poured water into a basin. Then he began to wash the disciples’ feet, drying them with the towel he had around him” (13:5).
Imagine the shock waves reverberating through the room. The master, the rabbi doing the washing! Unheard of. It’s a servant’s job, after all!
“After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked, ‘Do you understand what I was doing? You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and you are right, because that’s what I am. And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. I tell you the truth, slaves are not greater than their master. Nor is the messenger more important than the one who sends the message. Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them” (vv. 12-17).
The “way” that Jesus is both referring to and demonstrating is the way of unselfish service. It is the willingness to give yourself in meaningful ways to others, the path of humility and selflessness. Significantly, Jesus gave His life to others before He ever went to the cross. He lived a life of love and compassion and service to everyone, no matter what the condition of their lives or the status of their positions. Washing feet symbolized Jesus’ entire way of living.
And by going about life in this way, He was making powerful statements about what God was really like, the truth about God. He once told the disciples: “ ‘You know that the rulers in this world lord it over their people, and officials flaunt their authority over those under them. But among you it will be different. Whoever wants to be a leader among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first among you must become your slave. For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others and to give his life as a ransom for many’ ” (Matt. 20:25-28).
Imagine how radical and revolutionary this view of the divine and human interaction was. The Greeks believed that humans were placed on this earth to serve the gods. The Roman rulers embraced a hierarchy of status in which the lower strata of the population existed solely to serve the higher ones. But Jesus comes along and portrays the polar opposite: in God’s universe, God serves. God washes people’s feet. God acts in humble caring and compassion. God’s way is the path of selfless service. The truth about God is that God lives to love.
So in God’s world, real life, real living centers around giving, serving. Jesus once said, “ ‘The thief’s purpose is to steal and kill and destroy. My purpose is to give them a rich and satisfying life’ ” (John 10:10).
And He went on to describe the kind of life He gives. Using the metaphor of sheep and those who watch the sheep, He contrasted the hired hand and the shepherd (vv. 11-15). The hired hand, while watching the sheep and suddenly faced with personal danger from an attacking wolf, runs away. He easily leaves the sheep in order to save himself. He’s only a hired hand with no personal stake in the sheep.
The shepherd, on the other hand, reacts quite differently. The shepherd has a personal stake in every sheep. Each one he knows by name. Each one belongs to him. So when danger appears, he refuses to run. He stands his ground and, if need be, lays down his life to protect them.
“ ‘I am the good shepherd,’ ” Jesus said. “ ‘I know my own sheep, and they know me,
just as my Father knows me and I know the Father. So I sacrifice my life for the sheep’ ” (vv. 14, 15).
So what kind of life does Jesus reveal? What is God’s way of life? It is life that gives and serves completely unselfishly, a life that involves giving life extravagantly and even wastefully.2