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Christmas [2014]: The Spirit of Christmas (John 13:1-17)

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December 21, 2014

Special Christmas Message

A familiar saying goes, “The spirit of Christmas is giving.” We all feel good giving to those in need. The Salvation Army capitalizes on this by having bell ringers in front of stores all over the country. But dropping a few coins in the kettle is impersonal giving. We don’t know who will benefit by our gift. And we’re okay with that.

But when it comes to those we know, giving is usually better described as exchanging. The neighbor brings you a plate of Christmas cookies, so you quickly turn it around by taking her something to even it up. It feels awkward to receive without giving in return. But I’d like to suggest that the true spirit of Christmas isn’t giving, at least on our part; it’s receiving! Here’s why: At the heart of Christmas is the wonderful news that God sent His only Son to earth to give Himself on the cross to save us from our sins. You can’t repay a gift like that! All you can do is receive it! It was infinitely costly to God, but it’s totally free to us. So,

The spirit of Christmas is receiving because at the heart of Christmas is God’s grace, which only can be received.

But people have a hard time understanding and accepting God’s grace because we all want to think that we can do something to earn our way to heaven. In fact, all the world’s religions teach that you must do something to earn heaven. Marla and I spent the holiday spanning New Year’s Eve of 2000 in a remote village on the northern border of the Czech Republic, where I was teaching a group of college students. During a break, we were walking around the village when a local man who spoke English befriended us. It turned out that he took us on a nice hike and even let us use his computer to email our kids.

During the only question and answer session that I had with the students during that conference, someone ushered this man into the room. He sat and listened for a few minutes and then he raised his hand and asked, “What’s the difference between Christianity and other world religions?” I thought, “Thank You, Lord, for such a great question that allows me to make the gospel clear!” So I told him that all the other religions in the world, including some that go under the banner of Christianity, teach that you get to heaven by your good works. But the Bible teaches (Rom. 4:5), “But to the one who does not work, but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is credited as righteousness.”

I don’t know whether that man ever responded to the gospel, but what I explained to him is what Christmas is all about: the message that God offers to forgive your sins and give you eternal life through His Son. All you can do is, receive His gift.

To illustrate this point, we’re going to look at an unlikely text for a Christmas message. Rather than looking on the beginning of Jesus’ life on earth, this incident took place at the end of His life, the night before He died. But it captures the essence of what He came to do and thus, the essence of Christmas, which celebrates the truth that the eternal Word took on human flesh to dwell among us (John 1:14). It’s the story of how Jesus got up from the Last Supper, took a basin of water and a towel, and washed the disciples’ dirty feet. It’s a parable of why Jesus had come into the world and of what He would send His disciples out to do after He left this world (read John 13:1-17). Note three things:

1. Christ came to give to those who never can repay Him.

John begins (John 13:1-2) by noting that the foot-washing took place during the Passover. Jesus is our Passover lamb, slain to spare us from God’s judgment when we apply His blood to our sins. He also notes that Jesus loved His disciples to the end, or to the utmost. Even though He was facing the most horrible suffering imaginable, Jesus was thinking about His disciples and their needs, not about His own needs.

John (13:3) also notes that Jesus had come forth from God (there’s the link to Christmas!) and was going back to God. Jesus left the glory of heaven to be born to the virgin Mary so that He could die for our sins. John also notes that the Father had given all things into Jesus’ hands. Jesus was willing to let those hands be nailed to the cross for us. But in this story, those sovereign hands laid aside His garments, took a towel and basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet.

Ray Stedman (Secrets of the Spirit [Revell], pp. 13-14) points out the parallels between Jesus’ enacted parable here and Paul’s well-known words in Philippians 2:5-11. Here, Jesus rose from supper and laid aside His garments, just as He rose from His throne of glory and emptied Himself, which means that He temporarily laid aside His glory. Then Jesus girded Himself with a towel and did a servant’s lowly job by washing the disciples’ feet, just as Paul says (Phil. 2:7) that Jesus took “the form of a servant.”

Then Jesus poured water in a basin, just as in a few hours His blood would be poured out on the cross. In Paul’s words (Phil. 2:8), He “became obedient to the point of death.” He began to wash the disciples’ dirty feet, just as the application of His blood to sinful human hearts cleanses them from all guilt and defilement. After He had washed their feet, He took back His garments and reclined again at the table. After His resurrection, Jesus ascended to the right hand of the Father, resuming His place of glory again (Phil. 2:9-11). As Hebrews 1:3 tells us, “When He had made purification of sins, He sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high.” And so the foot-washing is a short drama that shows Christ’s work of redemption from glory to glory.

But there’s a twist in the story when Jesus comes to Peter. There was a stunned silence in the room as Jesus washed the other disciples’ feet. But in typical fashion, Peter spoke up (John 13:6), “Lord, do You wash my feet?” (The pronouns are emphatic, showing Peter’s shock.) Then we read (John 13:7-10):

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.”

That interchange pictures God’s grace, which is at the heart of the meaning of Christmas. We begin with Christ by getting washed all over, which makes us completely clean. The Bible calls this the “washing of regeneration” (Titus 3:5). It’s a once and for all bath that does not need repeating. God forgives all our sins at that moment. But as we walk in this dirty world, our feet get dirty. To maintain our relationship with Christ, we need to apply His cleansing to our everyday sins. By telling Peter, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me,” Jesus meant that if Peter could not allow Jesus to wash his feet, then how could he submit to let Jesus serve and save him at all?

We begin with Christ by receiving His grace and we continue with Christ by growing in His grace (Col. 2:6; 2 Tim. 2:1). None of the disciples did anything to deserve Christ’s washing their feet. It was a job normally done by servants, but not by masters to their slaves. But Peter was uncomfortable with Christ doing that for him. He thought that he should be washing Jesus’ feet, not having Jesus wash his feet. Later, he was ready to lay down his life for Jesus, but he didn’t want Jesus to lay down His life for him.

But the story shows that Christ came to cleanse us from our sins. To have a relationship with Him, we must begin by receiving His grace and then continue to walk in His grace. This isn’t a minor point: He says that if we don’t accept His grace and let Him wash us, we have no part with Him!

At first glance, Peter’s refusal to let Christ wash his dirty feet looks like humility. But actually, it stemmed from pride. Peter wasn’t comfortable just receiving from Christ. That leads to the second point:

2. To enter a relationship with Christ, we must judge our pride and receive His salvation with no thought of repayment.

There are two sides to this:

A. To enter a relationship with Christ, we must judge our pride, which prevents us from receiving God’s grace.

Pride wants to reciprocate. Pride is embarrassed by receiving without giving in return. Pride wants to offer something to God to pay its way. Then the proud person can take some credit for getting right with God. But to come to God, we have to recognize that we have nothing to offer Him, except really dirty feet that need His cleansing. Pride takes different forms:

Pride often hides under the mask of humility. Peter’s protest (John 13:8), “Never shall You wash my feet!” sounds humble, but it really stemmed from pride. In effect, he was saying, “These other guys may let You wash their feet, but not I! I know better than You do in this matter. I should be washing Your feet!”

Embarrassment can be a sign of pride. Peter was embarrassed by this whole thing. Maybe the other men needed their dirty feet washed, but that was beneath Peter’s dignity. Besides, his feet weren’t that dirty! Elisabeth Elliot (Love Has a Price Tag [Christian Herald], p. 39) said that one evening she overheard her young daughter singing to her cat, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like you.” Others may be wretches with dirty feet, but not me!

Discomfort with being close can be a sign of pride. To let someone wash your feet, you have to let him get uncomfortably close. When he does, he might not only discover that your feet are dirty, but also that they smell! That’s embarrassing! To allow the Lord to wash your life means that you have to let Him see all the dirt! Of course, He knows how dirty they are anyway!

An independent spirit is another form of pride. Each of the disciples was perfectly capable of washing his own feet, and probably would have preferred doing it that way. When it comes to salvation, pride says, “Really, Lord, I’d rather do it myself!” To let Jesus wash your feet is to admit that you can’t do it yourself.

Pride is sometimes the driving force behind serving Christ. Sometimes those who serve Christ do so out of the pride of thinking that they can pay Him back. They can’t accept His grace as free. They want to at least help out. But you can’t do that with Christ. Any service that we render to Him should stem from gratitude, but not from any notion that we can pay Him back for His gracious gift to us on the cross. To cite Isaac Watts’ familiar hymn,

When I survey the wondrous cross

On which the Prince of Glory died

My richest gain I count but loss,

And pour contempt on all my pride.

To begin a relationship with Christ, you have to judge your pride. It’s a barrier to receiving His grace.

B. To enter a relationship with Christ, we must receive God’s grace with no thought of repayment.

Salvation is God’s free gift to those who deserve His judgment. It’s possible because Christ paid the penalty that we deserve. John 3:16 tells us, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” What should you do when someone offers you a gift? You receive it. So, John 1:12 promises, “But as many as received Him, to them He gave the right to become children of God, even to those who believe in His name.” God gave us His Son. You receive that gift by believing in Him, not in yourself. You never could be good enough to deserve heaven. You can’t pay back a gift as costly as the gift of God’s own Son!

Suppose that you were invited to a billionaire’s home for dinner with dozens of other guests. The chef put on a feast that was served by many waiters. As you went to leave, you put a quarter in the billionaire’s hand and said, “I know you went to a great expense to put on this meal. Here, I wanted to help out.” He didn’t need your quarter and it would only be an insult to his gift.

But our proud human nature resists God’s grace. We want to pay our own way. Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son illustrates this. The prodigal squandered his inheritance on loose living and finally hit bottom by slopping pigs and eating their food. He had no basis for deserving his father’s love. His father would have been perfectly justified to say, “You smelly, dirty, no-good excuse for a son—get out of here and never come back!” But, instead, when he returned home, his loving father ran to him, embraced him, and threw a party to celebrate his return. That’s a beautiful picture of God’s grace toward sinners who repent!

But the older brother was incensed. He had worked hard for his father and he was proud of it. He thought that if anyone deserved a party, it was he. So when his father went out and pleaded with him to come in to the party, he indignantly replied (Luke 15:29-30),

“Look! For so many years I have been serving you and I have never neglected a command of yours; and yet you have never given me a young goat, so that I might celebrate with my friends; but when this son of yours came, who has devoured your wealth with prostitutes, you killed the fattened calf for him.”

He didn’t understand grace. In fact, he didn’t even like grace. He thought, “I don’t need grace because I’ve worked hard to get where I’m at. You owe it to me, Dad! I don’t want grace. I want what I deserve! Grace is for no good bums, like my brother!”

But if we don’t receive God’s grace in Christ, we have no part with Him. We begin with His gracious “bath” and we continue having our feet washed by His grace. In that context and in that context only, we can then learn to serve our gracious God:

3. It’s only when we learn to receive God’s grace that we can learn to give and serve properly.

After Jesus washed the disciples’ feet, He said to them (John 13:14-15), “If I then, the Lord and the 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.” Once you’ve let Jesus wash your dirty feet, then you can wash others’ dirty feet and you can let them wash your feet. It’s only after you’ve received from Christ that you can serve Him and let others serve you. We can apply this in at least four ways:

A. When we have received God’s grace in Christ, we can freely forgive those who have wronged us and ask forgiveness when we have wronged others.

Because we’re all imperfectly sanctified sinners, we cannot maintain or deepen relationships with one another without forgiving those who wrong us and asking forgiveness of those we wrong. Jesus emphasized this in His parable (Matt. 18:23-25) of the servant who was forgiven a debt of 10,000 talents, equivalent to about 150,000 years’ wages for a working man! But then he went out and grabbed a fellow slave who owed him about 100 days’ wages (a large sum, but nowhere close to what he had been forgiven) and demanded that he pay up or go to prison. The point is, God has forgiven us an incalculable debt of sin. We need to forgive those who have sinned against us. Withholding grace from those who wrong you is not a Christian option!

B. When we have received God’s grace in Christ, we can offer correction to those who are in the wrong and receive correction when we’re in the wrong.

Paul describes this aspect of “foot washing” in Galatians 6:1: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” The humility of recognizing that your feet sometimes need washing too is implicit in that verse.

C. When we have received God’s grace in Christ, we can serve others from the right motives and with the right expectations.

If you aren’t serving with the awareness that you’re a recipient of God’s grace, then you will expect some positive response when you help others. If you don’t get it, you’ll feel hurt and unappreciated. But when you realize that you’re a recipient of God’s undeserved favor, you then can give without expectation of any appreciation or repayment.

D. When we have received God’s grace in Christ, we can freely give our resources to the Lord’s work.

When you recognize that all that you have is because of God’s grace (1 Cor. 4:7), it frees you to give generously to the Lord’s work. You don’t do it to earn points with God or to gain leverage over others who now owe you one. Rather, as Jesus said (Matt. 10:8), “Freely you have received; freely give.” Or, as Paul put it (2 Cor. 9:8), “And God is able to make all grace abound to you, so that always having all sufficiency in everything, you may have an abundance for every good deed.”

Conclusion

So the foundational question is, have you entered into the true spirit of Christmas by receiving God’s undeserved gift of eternal life through Jesus Christ? Have you let Jesus wash away the dirt of your sins? To do so, you must admit that your feet are dirty and that you can’t wash them yourself. All the good works in the world could never erase the debt of sin that you owe the holy God. But what you cannot do, God did: He sent His own Son to die on the cross in your place. He offers total forgiveness and eternal life to every sinner who receives His free gift. As Paul put it (Rom. 6:23), “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Have you received that gift?

J. C. Ryle (Foundations of Faith [Bridge Publishing], p. 218) told a true story of a mother whose daughter ran away and fell into a life of sin. For a long time, no one even knew where she was. But eventually that daughter returned, mourned over her sin, and trusted in Christ to forgive her and save her.

Someone asked the mother what she had done to bring her daughter back. What means had she used? She said, “I prayed for her night and day.” But that was not all. She also said, “I never went to bed at night without leaving my front door unlocked. I thought that if my daughter came back some night when I was in bed, she should never be able to say that she found the door locked. She should never be able to say that she came to her mother’s home, but couldn’t get in.”

And so it happened. One night the daughter came back, tried the door, and found it open. At once, she came in to stay, to go out and sin no more. That unlocked door is a beautiful illustration of God’s grace toward sinners. God’s door is always unlocked whenever you are willing to come home. Jesus is that unlocked door into heaven. To receive Him is to enter into the true spirit of Christmas.

Application Questions

  1. Read Matthew 20:1-16. What’s the main point of the parable? Who are the workers who worked all day? Who are the ones hired late in the day? Is God’s grace fair?
  2. Who had the hardest time accepting and living by grace: the prodigal son or the older brother? If you were raised in the church, how can you appreciate your desperate need for grace?
  3. Some argue that Christians should not view themselves as sinners, not even as sinners saved by grace, but only as saints who occasionally sin. What’s wrong with that view?
  4. Why is understanding God’s grace foundational to serving Him? What can happen when we serve for other reasons?

Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.

Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation

Related Topics: Christmas, Soteriology (Salvation)

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