Moral example: Red Letter Year 11/29

John 13.12-20

12 After washing their feet, he put on his robe again and sat down and asked,“Do you understand what I was doing? 13 You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and you are right, because that’s what I am. 14 And since I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash each other’s feet. 15 I have given you an example to follow. Do as I have done to you. 16 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. 17 Now that you know these things, God will bless you for doing them. 18 I am not saying these things to all of you; I know the ones I have chosen. But this fulfills the Scripture that says, ‘The one who eats my food has turned against me.’ 19 I tell you this beforehand, so that when it happens you will believe that I Am the Messiah. 20 I tell you the truth, anyone who welcomes my messenger is welcoming me, and anyone who welcomes me is welcoming the Father who sent me.”


Among Protestants, there has been a growing disparity between those who think Jesus primarily came to atone for our sins (some maintain this is the only reason he came) and those who think Jesus primarily came to give us a moral example (some maintain this is the only reason he came). We typically call the former “conservative” and the latter “liberal,” meaning both in a theological sense, not a political one (though they often overlap). Each side can offer Scripture to support its view, but that doesn’t usually prevent each side from vilifying the other.

Which is a real shame, since scriptural support for both positions means this is not an either/or but a both/and – Jesus came to atone for our sins and to set a moral example for us to follow. This passage is a prime example of the latter. It is essential that followers of Jesus do just that – follow the example Jesus set while on earth. We are to do to others as he has done to us. We are to take up our crosses and follow him. This is not a metaphor in that it doesn’t name something other than self-giving, self-sacrificing, self-effacing service toward all our neighbors.

As hard as this sounds (and it is hard), Jesus says God will bless us for following his example. In other words, God has designed the universe in such a way that giving of self is what makes it work. Following Jesus is what makes life work. This is opposite to how the world tells us to pursue success and we constantly feel the tug and tension between how the world defines and pursues success from how Jesus defines and lays out discipleship. In this case, it is an either/or choice, one we must continually make.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible. New Living Translation copyright© 1996, 2004, 2007 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale HousePublishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.