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The King Whose Scepter is a Towel

This sermon is part of the sermon series "Holy Week Preaching Resources ". See series.


It was time to celebrate the Passover, the most sacred of Jewish feasts. Upwards of three million people might spend the week in Jerusalem. Word had spread that Jesus of Nazareth was on his way to the feast and that he had raised from the dead a man named Lazarus of Bethany. That news spread faster than wildfire. No wonder, then, thousands lined the road as Jesus made his way into Jerusalem. "Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord! Blessed is the King of Israel! Blessed is the kingdom of our father David!"

It is important to remember what the crowds were affirming by their words and actions. Placing palm branches on the road before Jesus is reminiscent of the welcome given Simon Maccabaeus in 141 B.C. on the eve of his triumphant conquest of the occupying Syrian forces. The shout—"Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!"—comes from Psalm 118. The psalm was written at a time when Israel was surrounded by warring nations, but God rescued her. "Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!" is sung to the conquering hero who liberates the people. The word hosanna means "save now." It is equivalent to "God save the King!"

In the poetry of that day, we will see and understand the people's words and actions the most. In Psalms of Solomon, for instance, we read: "Behold, O Lord, raise up their king, and gird him with strength that he may shatter unrighteous rulers. He may purge Jerusalem of the nations that trample her down. He shall destroy the godless nations with the word of his mouth. Hosanna!" The king has come to shatter, to smash, to purge. Jesus of Nazareth is the king, but not the kind of king the crowds expected. Jesus disappointed those Passover pilgrims and his disciples, but in so doing, fulfilled their and our greatest need.

This is made graphically clear a few days later. Jesus and his friends had gathered for a meal. Since the streets and the roads of Palestine were plain dirt, in dry weather they were inches deep in dust, and in wet weather they were liquid mud. The shoes of that day were very simple: a flat sole, held onto the feet by a few straps. Every walk in the streets soiled the feet. Just inside the doorway of most homes sat a basin of water with a towel. Often a servant would greet visitors and wash their feet

On the night when Jesus gathered his disciples for a meal, none of them had carried out this menial task. They were thinking about the kingdom of God. The talk had set their imaginations on fire with dreams of thrones and power and glory. Luke tells us the disciples were engaged in a dispute as to which of them would be the greatest in the kingdom Jesus was inaugurating. No one dared assume the role of servant and carry out the courtesy of washing feet.

John 13:1-17 reads: "It was just before the Passover Feast. Jesus knew that the time had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love. The evening meal was being served, and the devil had already prompted Judas Iscariot, son of Simon, to betray Jesus. Jesus knew that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God; so he got up from the meal, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. After that, he poured water into a basin and began to wash his disciples' feet, drying them with the towel that was wrapped around him. He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus replied, "You do not realize now what I am doing, but later you will understand

Jesus is the king, all right; he is the King of Kings. And here he is washing the dirty feet of his disciples and drying them with a towel. Here is the king whose scepter, his symbol of authority and power, is a towel.

A symbol of the King's career

At least four truths are taught by Jesus' use of the towel that night. The first is that the towel dramatizes the whole of the King's career. Washing his disciples' feet is no isolated event. What he did that night in the upper room vividly portrays the whole journey he made from the Father into the world and back to the Father.

John says that Jesus rose from supper, just as he had risen from his eternal throne. Jesus laid aside his garments, just as he had laid aside his glory in heaven—just as he had chosen to lay aside his privileges as the Son of God. Jesus wrapped a towel around himself, just as he wrapped around himself our humanity. Jesus then washed his disciples' feet, performing the most menial act of service, just as the next day he died the degrading death of a common criminal. When Jesus had finished washing their feet, John says Jesus took up his garments and returned to his place of honor, just as after he cried from the cross, "It is finished," he was taken up from the grave and seated again with God the Father.

Jesus' use of the towel illustrates what the early church later would sing in the hymn the Apostle Paul records in Philippians 2:5-11: "Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord."

In the room that night, the eternal Son of God, the king of all creation, stripped off his garments and got on his knees to wash the dirt from the feet of men who should have been serving him. That act was nothing new, for it symbolizes the whole of his career.

The symbol of the King's concept of royalty

That brings us to the second truth taught in Jesus' use of the towel. The towel reveals the King's own concept of royalty. From our human perspective, washing feet is beneath the dignity of the King of Kings. Peter is horrified by Jesus' actions: "You shall never wash my feet." The words have the same tone as Peter's other protests at Caesarea Philippi, when Jesus declared, "I must go to Jerusalem and die." Peter exclaimed, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to you." What does Jesus say? "Get behind me Satan, for you do not have in mind the things of God."

In the upper room, Peter still has in his mind the things of men and not of God. In the upper room, Peter wanted Jesus to fit into human ideas of royalty and divinity: "You, the divine King, you shall never wash my feet." In this foot-washing scene, Jesus is shattering our concept of divine royalty. We live with the idea that to be God is to be exalted, to be sitting on a throne, surrounded by willing servants. In his use of the towel, Jesus is revealing the idea God lives with. For the living God, being God means coming down from that throne and giving himself to serve.

Lesslie Newbigin writes a profound observation: "This is not just an active lesson in humility. Peter could have understood that. The foot washing is a sign of that ultimate subversion of all human authority which took place when Jesus was crucified by the decision of the powers that rule this present age. In that act, the wisdom of this world was shown to be folly, and the powers of this world were disarmed. But flesh and blood—ordinary human nature—is in principle incapable of understanding this. It is to the Jew a scandal, to the Greek, folly. Only those whom the risen Christ will call and to whom the Holy Spirit will be given will know that this folly is the wisdom of God, and this weakness is the power of God. At that moment, as the man he is, Peter cannot understand. The natural man makes gods in his own image. A supreme God will be the one who stands at the summit of the chain of command. How can the natural man recognize this supreme God in the stooping figure of a slave clad only with a loincloth?"

The fact is, Peter would have been perfectly comfortable washing Jesus' feet. That would be normal, according to human ideas. But to see Jesus, the great I AM, stoop before Peter and begin to reach for his dirty feet, that is not normal. Jesus is teaching Peter and us that such a posture and spirit are normal for the true and living God. Remember what Jesus told his disciples before coming into Jerusalem? "For even the Son of Man came not to be seated but to serve and give his life a ransom for many." In that one line he turns everything upside down. In the vision the prophet Daniel was given of the Son of Man, all the nations of the world serve him. But Jesus is telling us that is only half the truth, and not the important half. The truth is that the eternal King above All Kings serves us, and we will never be able to outserve him.

How do you react to all of this? If you are like me, you have a mixed reaction. On the one hand, I am touched by such a king. On the other hand, like Peter, I am disturbed. It would seem that if we hold to a view of God as the one who serves us, it will create in us an inappropriate pride. It will cause us to be self-centered.

As I have thought about this, I discovered the opposite. A God on his knees before me humbles me and strangely makes me more God-centered. You see, if my only view of God is that of a supreme king at the summit of the chain of command, a king on the top rung of the ladder, it makes me much more self-centered. I'm always wondering how I will get to him and worrying about how I am doing: Am I making progress toward him? What can I do to make my way up to him?

In the name of religion, we become preoccupied with ourselves. Not so when God is kneeling before us in self-emptying love. We cannot help but be preoccupied with him. Such love knocks us off our throne and out of our centers. He becomes the center. Jesus was helping Peter understand that we can only meet the living God at the bottom rung of the ladder, for he is nowhere else. Jesus was revealing the King's own idea about what it means to be king for this King finds his royal dignity in being a foot washer.

A symbol of the King's death

This leads us to the third truth taught by Jesus' use of the towel that night. The towel points to the King's great action on behalf of his subjects. Jesus' use of the towel that night points to his death on the Cross. John tells us that Jesus' hour had come. John also mentions Judas's betrayal of Jesus so that we will associate the foot washing and the Crucifixion. John uses two words to describe Jesus' actions: lay down (or lay aside) and take up. Those two words are used earlier in the Gospel of John to refer to Jesus' death. Jesus says in John 10: "I lay down my life that I may take it up again. No one has taken it from me. I lay it down on my own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again."

"All of this," writes Raymond Brown, "serves to relate the foot washing to the death of the Lord." I think this helps us understand this interaction between Jesus and Peter. "You shall never wash my feet," Peter says, and Jesus responds, "Then you shall have no part in me." It is as if Jesus were saying "Peter, if you do not let me be who I am, if you do not let me stoop down and act on your behalf to cleanse you, you will have no fellowship with me, and you cannot enter the kingdom. Peter, something needs to be done to you, and unless I do it, you have no part with me."

That something was the Cross. Only the ultimate act of service, only the ultimate stooping down can cleanse us from sin.

A. B. Bruce, a 19century scholar, put it this way: "If Christ may not humble himself, then he cannot deliver us from the curse of the Law or from the fear of death. He cannot help us when we are tempted. He cannot wash our feet. Nay, what is a far more serious matter, he cannot wash our souls." Unless the Son of God lay down his life, we remain in the dirt of sin and shame.

Saint Augustine once said, "Proud man would have died had not a lowly God found him." Peter seems to understand this, and the thought of missing out on life with the Master makes him exclaim, "If you must wash my feet, then not my feet only but my hands and my head also!" Jesus needs to clarify the point. "A person," he says, "who has had a bath, needs only to wash his feet, and his whole body is clean."

What is he meaning by that? Well, before attending a banquet, people of the first century would take a bath at home. Traveling in the dusty roads meant that the person's only need was to have his or her feet washed. Washing Peter's feet pointed to the only thing he needed—the Cross of Christ. "Peter, you do not need to be perfect. You only need me to wash your feet, to lay down my life for you. My death for you is all you need to enter my kingdom." By his death we are cleansed, we are washed, we are made worthy to enter the banquet of the King. So the towel points to the fundamental act of the King on behalf of his subjects.

A symbol for the King's subjects

And there's a fourth truth taught in Jesus' use of the towel, the truth you were ready for when I read the text. The towel now distinguishes those who have allowed the King to serve them. The towel marks those who know and follow the servant King. After washing their feet, Jesus says to his disciples, "Do you understand what I have done for you? You call me 'Teacher' and ' Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you should also wash one another's feet."

As you know, some Christian communities take Jesus' command to mean that we are literally to wash each other's feet, and they hold foot-washing services on Maundy Thursday. We need to remember what this act meant for Jesus. When he washed his disciples' feet, he was saying, "I lay down my life for you. I will go to the Cross for you." The intent of the act of washing another's feet can only be fulfilled after the worship service is ended.

Listen again to how Jesus puts it: "If I, your Lord, washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet." We would have expected to hear him say, "Since I, your Lord, washed your feet, you should wash my feet." If Jesus had said that, then we would be fighting each other for the privilege of being first with the towel and the basin. Instead, Jesus says, "You should wash one another's feet."

Newbigin makes another observation, which is literally changing my whole idea of human relationships. Listen to what Newbigin says: "Jesus has laid aside his life for us all, and the debt which we owe to him is to be discharged by our subjection to our neighbors in loving service. Our neighbor is the appointed agent authorized to receive what we owe the Master."

I owe Jesus Christ for what he has done for me. My neighbor is now the appointed agent authorized to receive what I owe the Master. Now this is exactly the point the apostle Paul makes in his letter to the Ephesians. In chapter 5 he exhorts us to "be filled with the Spirit." Then he develops the concrete signs of Spirit filling. The last sign is being subject to one another in the fear of Christ. The word subject literally means standing under. Emphasize that preposition under.

Paul is telling us that the mark of a life touched and filled with the spirit of King Jesus is a standing under, placing one's life at the disposal of others. Paul then works out this being subject—standing under—in three spheres of our common life: in marriage, in family, and between master/ servant and employer/employee. In those three spheres, both parties on either side of this are to stand under—a wife subject to her husband, and a husband subject to his wife; children subject to their parents, and parents subject to their children; employees subject to their employers, and employers subject to their employees. We discharge the debt we owe Jesus Christ by submitting ourselves to the other parties in these relational spheres.

My wife is the appointed agent authorized to receive what I owe Jesus Christ the King. I wash Jesus' feet as I wash hers. My children are the appointed agents authorized to receive what I owe the King. I wash Jesus' feet as I wash their feet. Members of this church staff are the appointed agents authorized to receive what I owe the King. I wash Jesus' feet as I wash their feet. My household helpers and my driver are the appointed agents authorized to receive what I owe the King. I wash Jesus' feet as I wash their feet.

I can feel the tension in the room as I say these things. Such a way of relating to people is not normal or proper. Such a way of relating to people subverts the order of things. It destabilizes all of society. That is precisely what the King of Kings intends. Now we are feeling the gospel of the kingdom. His new order turns everything upside down. He changes our whole concept of power, authority, and status. Remember what he said to his disciples when they were arguing among themselves about who would be the greatest in this kingdom of God? Calling them to himself, he said, "You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them." Note the preposition over. "They lord it over, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not so, among you. Whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant, and whoever wishes to be number one shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve."

The King whose scepter is a towel is inaugurating a kingdom of foot washers. That which distinguishes the fallen world is people clamoring for power, climbing over each other to get to the top. That which distinguishes the new humanity brought into being by the self-emptying love of the King is people who trip over each other trying to get under.

As Elizabeth Nordquist, a friend of mine in Los Angeles, says, "When you belong to King Jesus, you can no longer write on your dossier or your vitae, 'I do not do feet.' " That's precisely what you do, because that's what he does. That is liberating.

In his parable of the sheep and the goats, Jesus extends the scope of those authorized to receive what we owe the King. You know the words. All the nations of the world are brought before the Son of Man. Then the King says to those who are on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. For I was hungry, and you gave me something to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me in. I was naked and you clothed me. I was sick, and you visited me. I was in prison, and you came to me."

Those on his right respond in great surprise. "Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you, or thirsty and give you a drink? When did we see you a stranger, and invite you in, or naked and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison, and come to you?"

The King answers and says to them, "Truly I say to you, to the extent that you have done it to one of the least of these, my brothers, you've done it to me." The hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, and the prisoner are now the appointed agents authorized to receive what we owe King Jesus.

There is in our time a woman who obviously has had her feet washed by this King. She's Mother Teresa of Calcutta, India. She has, for years now, literally washed the feet, hands, heads, and bodies of the poorest of the poor in Calcutta and Manila and other cities. But God has also used her to touch those who are not poor. One such man is Malcolm Muggeridge, formerly of the British Broadcasting Company. So touched was he by Mother Teresa that he wrote a book in her honor, titled Something Beautiful for God.

"To choose, as Mother Teresa did," he writes, "to live in the slums of Calcutta amidst all the dirt and disease and misery signified a spirit so indomitable, a faith so intractable, a love so abounding that I felt abashed." He goes on to tell of an experience he had in Calcutta, to which he responds by retreating into his comfortable flat and pontificating about the wretched condition of the city. Then he writes these words: "I ran away and stayed away. Mother Teresa moved in and stayed. That was the difference. She, a slightly built nun, few rupees in her pocket, not particularly clever or gifted in the art of persuasion, came with Christian love shining about her.

"Mother Teresa simply prepared to follow her Lord, in accordance with his instructions, and to regard every derelict left to die in the streets as him. To hear in the cry of every abandoned child—even in the tiny squeak of the discarded fetus—the cry of the Bethlehem Child. To recognize in every leper's stumps the hands which once touched sightless eyes and made them see, the hands which once rested on distracted heads, made them calm, and brought health to sick flesh and twisted limbs."

In 1968 Muggeridge conducted a television interview with Mother Teresa. Technically the interview was terrible, but the public response was overwhelming. Says Muggeridge: "Discussions are endlessly taking place about how to use a mass medium like television for Christian purposes. All manner of devices are tried, from dialogues with learned atheists and humanists to pop versions of the Psalms and psychedelic romps. Here is the answer. Just get on the screen a face shining with overwhelming Christian love. Get someone for whom the world is nothing and the service of Christ is everything. Get someone reborn out of servitude to the ego and the flesh and reborn into the glorious liberty of the children of God."


We worship and follow a King whose scepter is the towel. The towel dramatizes his whole career. The towel reveals the true nature of royalty. The towel points to his foundational act on behalf of his subjects. And the towel now distinguishes those who have allowed him to serve them. When I am unable or unwilling to take up the towel, it means it is time to let the King wash my feet again. It's time once again to stop and let the King love me with his self-emptying love. For to the degree that we humble ourselves before him and allow him to serve us, to that degree we answer the glorious liberty of the Kingdom of God.

Lift up your gates, your ancient doors, that the King of Glory may come in. Who is this King of Glory? The Lord—girded with a towel—he is the King of Glory. Hosanna to that King! Amen.

For Your Reflection

Personal growth: How has this sermon fed your own soul? ___________________________________________

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ____________________________________________________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? ____________________________________________________________________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? _____________________________________________________________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ____________________________________________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it?

Darrell Johnson has been preaching Jesus Christ and his gospel for over 50 years. He has served a number of Presbyterian congregations in California, Union Church of Manila in the Philippines, and the historic First Baptist Church in the heart of Vancouver, Canada. He has taught preaching for Fuller Theological Seminary, Carey Theological College in Vancouver, and Regent College in Vancouver.

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Sermon Outline:


I. A symbol of the King's career

II. A symbol of the King's concept of royalty

III. A symbol of the King's death

IV. A symbol for the King's subjects