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The Sovereign Son Humbled Himself to Cleanse Sinners

June 15, 2014 Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to John

Passage: John 13:1–13:17

Sermon from John 13:1-17 by Bret Rogers, Pastor
Delivered on June 15, 2014

What I want to do this morning from John 13:1-17 is set before you three ways the sovereign Son of God loves his disciples, and then I want to leave you with a few comments on how that love should transform our lives. But before we jump in with both feet, let me clarify a couple matters that will help you understand our passage.

Clarification #1: Jesus' Special Love "For His Own"

First of all, you need to know up front that the love I will talk about today is not depicted here as the general kind of love God has for the world—such as we see in his providential care of the whole created order (Matt 5:45); or even the love we see in his salvific stance toward the fallen world who rejects God’s patient invitations to be saved from condemnation (John 3:16). The Bible speaks of God’s love in both those ways, but what we find in our passage is a deeper, particular love that God demonstrates toward his own people who are in the world but no longer part of the world.

John makes this distinction very clear in verse 1: “having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” The love that’s being emphasized in our passage is the special sort of love God’s Son has for his own—for his disciples, the ones he has chosen out of the world to belong to himself (15:16, 19; 17:6), the sheep who have been given to the Shepherd (10:16), the gathered children of God (11:52). Paul speaks of this same unique love when he says in Eph 5:25 that “Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.” He loves the church in a way he doesn’t love the rest of the world.

So, if you’re not a Christian this morning—if you wouldn’t claim to be a Jesus-follower—please listen to these things about Jesus’ love rightly. You will experience the special love of Jesus for his own—and we’re going to talk about that in a minute—only if you become his own, only if his love becomes beautiful to you today and you can’t help but want to follow this loving Savior and give yourself to him.

And if you’re already a Christian, then I would encourage you to let these words remind you of the great love you’ve been shown in Jesus Christ (cf. Eph 2:4). Let them encourage your soul and stir you—as Paul prays in Eph 3:18-19—to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.” So, this passage was written for unbelievers to embrace God’s love by becoming Christ’s own and for believers to be deepened in God’s love as Christ’s own.

Clarification #2: Jesus' Love "To The End" Looks to the Cross

Another thing to clarify, and this also comes from verse 1: we’ve now entered the evening before the day Jesus suffers his own crucifixion, which is spoken about here as Jesus’ “hour” to depart out of this world. So when we hear at the end of verse 1 that Jesus loved his own “to the end,” we shouldn’t forget that Jesus’ betrayal and his cross are now just hours away. When it says he loved them “to the end,” John has in mind not merely the washing of the disciples’ feet; he has the cross in his sights. And the foot-washing, as we’ll see, is a symbolic act pointing us to the cross and what Jesus accomplishes on the cross for his followers.

In fact, the last words Jesus utters on the cross in 19:30—“it is finished [tetelestai]”—are very much related to the language John uses here in 13:1, “he loved them to the end [eis telos].” We see that Jesus loved his disciples to the uttermost when we look at his death on the cross. So when we see Jesus serving his disciples and teaching his disciples and praying for his disciples over the next five chapters, we shouldn’t forget he’s doing all this before dying for his disciples. Everything he’s doing and saying and praying prepares his disciples for his coming death and teaches his disciples what his death is about—such that when we hear Jesus say, “It is finished!” we know exactly what is finished—which brings us to where I told you we were heading to begin with. So with that said, let me set before you three ways the sovereign Son of God loves his disciples.

1. The Sovereign Son Loves Us by Humbly Becoming a Slave

Number one, the sovereign Son of God loves us by humbly becoming a slave. There’s no doubt that John emphasizes the sovereignty of Jesus throughout our passage. In verses 1, 3, and 11, we see that Jesus knows everything—“[he] knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father” (13:1); “he knew the Father had given all things into his hands” (13:3); “he knew who was to betray him” (13:11; cf. 6:64, 70). He even knew the true spiritual condition of his disciples and Judas before God, whether they were truly clean or unclean in 13:10. So Jesus knows everything.

We also see that Jesus is controlling everything—he doesn’t act until the decisive moment that Satan compels Judas to betray him in verse 2; he tells the disciples precisely why things are unfolding the way they are with Judas in verses 18-19, to fulfill the Scripture; and he even tells Judas what to do once Satan actually enters him in verse 27. Jesus does all this in submission to his Father’s will, of course, but that doesn’t make Jesus in less control of the situation than his Father (5:19; 13:3). It just means that he’s controlling everything in relation to his Father at every point.

Verse 3 even adds that the Father “had given all things into Jesus’ hands.” Everything is in Jesus’ power and functioning under his authority and unfolding precisely as he governs it to unfold. And this should not surprise us since John has already mentioned before that Jesus is the Creator of the universe (1:1-3, 9-10, 14). In other words, when we put these things together, there’s not a higher position in the universe you could be in than the position Jesus is in. There’s not a higher authority you could possess than the unlimited authority given to Jesus by God the Father.

But it’s at this very point—at the point of presenting the supremacy of Jesus over all things—that John tells us what he witnessed the sovereign Son of God do: “[he] rose from supper and laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.”

What has John just witnessed? John has witnessed the sovereign Son dress himself as a slave. The highest Authority in the universe willingly takes upon himself the lowest place of service among men. And why? To demonstrate that the purpose of his coming was not to be served, but to serve and give his life as ransom for many—to borrow the language of Mark 10:45. He came to serve. The Son of God loved us by coming to serve our well-being—to show us hospitality, to tend to our needs, to treat us as guests at his table, to wash the feet of sinners.

Rights to Condemn Us, But Stoops to Serve Us

This is remarkably loving, because the only thing we deserve from God’s Son is his eternal condemnation and judgment. We were created in God’s image, to reflect the glory of his Son in creation (Gen 1:26-27; John 1:1-2; Col 1:15; 3:10). We were made to live alongside other people to serve them in the humility of our Maker, God the Son himself, so that everybody sees him through all we do. But ever since sin entered the world, we’ve become puffed up and proud and self-centered and attempted to rob God’s Son of his glory, and therefore we stand guilty before him.

We’re even told in Psalm 2 that unless you serve God’s Son and worship him above all others, his wrath will be quickly kindled against you, and you will perish in the way (Ps 2:12-13). He will break you and dash you to pieces like a potter when he smashes his vessels (Ps 2:9). As King of the universe, God’s Son has every right to destroy us for our failure to bear his image well. What does Jesus tell his disciples when Peter cuts off the guys ear at his arrest: “Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” (Matt 26:23). He has every right and power to destroy his enemies on command, and yet he rises from supper and washes the feet of rebels whom he has graciously chosen out of the world.

Despite their many sins and pride and unbelief, he stoops to serve them. And not only does he stoop to serve them by washing feet, but in doing so he sets before them the very identity which they must embrace about him if they are to gain eternal life. If they are to know God and experience life in a relationship with God, then they must embrace that God’s promised Savior is a humble, self-less, other-serving slave, who sets aside his glory for their everlasting good. John has reminded us in verse 3 that Jesus “had come from God and was going back to God.” He was with the Father in glory (1:1-3; 17:1-5), but as Paul says in Phil 2:6, “[he] did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant.”

True Love, True Greatness Observed in Jesus' Humility

True love doesn’t insist on its own way, does it (1 Cor 13:4)? If we pay any attention to Jesus, love willingly gives up to benefit others; it sacrifices for the good of others; it goes low to see others lifted up. Test yourself here, because Jesus flat out reverses the world’s ideas of greatness. The world says that greatness is about being high, regardless of others; Jesus shows us that true greatness is about going low for the sake of others. How about you? How do you respond when you’re asked to go low? Do you jump at the opportunity to take a lower role to serve others? Do you leap at the opportunity to serve others—your wife, your children, your coworkers, your neighbors? Or is serving others something you avoid, something you dodge, something you pretend not to see, something you really don’t see at all? Perhaps you need a fresh look at the love of Jesus this morning for you, as God almighty really did the truly unthinkable—out of love for you, unworthy as you are, he stooped to the place of a servant for your eternal good.

2. The Sovereign Son Loves Us by Cleansing Us from Our Sins

Number two, the sovereign Son loves us by cleansing us from our sins. The point of Jesus dressing himself as a slave and washing his disciples’ feet was not to say, “My love only extends to getting the dirt off your filthy feet.” No his actions anticipate how he will get the sin off their filthy souls. His actions anticipate how far his love will really go over the next day and a half for them: as slave to all, he will serve their undeserving souls even unto death on a cross, where God removes their sins.

John has already clued us in that Jesus’ actions as a slave washing feet are symbolic. He brings up the Feast of the Passover again in verse 1—which is really significant for a Gospel that begins and ends by identifying Jesus as the Passover Lamb who would be sacrificed to take away the sins of the world (1:29; 19:36). Then we’re also told that the whole reason Jesus acts in this way is that he knows his “hour” to die is coming (13:1, 3). The cross is in his sights when he rises from the table. And more than that, we should consider that normally a household slave would be rather discrete in washing the feet of guests, and then disappear from the setting of the evening meal. But Jesus makes his foot-washing part of the meal-time (13:2). He’s being rather intentional in the whole thing; he wants them watching and learning more about his mission.

So the whole thing is symbolic. It’s supposed to be read like an acted-out parable that’s meant to point us to the greater reality bound up with Jesus’ mission to cleanse guilty sinners through the cross. With that in mind, let’s walk together through verses 6-11.

“He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward [or better “after these things”] you will understand.’” I take that as a reference to the time after Jesus finishes serving, teaching, praying, and then dying for him. It’s part of the theme in John’s Gospel that says true understanding for the disciples only comes after Jesus’ death—because once he rises from the dead, he sends the Holy Spirit who gives them understanding into all that Jesus’ cross means (2:22; 12:16; 15:26-27; 16:13-14). But until the Spirit comes and bears witness to the crucified Christ, Peter and the disciples don’t understand the true meaning of all that’s happening.

That’s made evident in Peter’s response. Verse 8, “Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’” On the surface, Peter’s response seems humble—as if to say, “How could it be that someone of your stature and glory should ever wash the feet of someone like me. I will not have it.” But beneath the surface is a disciple full of pride. Instead of patiently letting his Master serve him and teach him, he begins dictating to his Master the terms of their relationship. For Peter, it will not be a relationship in which Jesus serves him by washing him.

So Jesus calls him on it, sternly: “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me”—which is not just a “then-we-can’t-be-friends-anymore” sort of remark. Jesus is threatening Peter with eternal damnation. There’s only one kind of union a disciple must have with Jesus, one in which Jesus cleanses him. That goes for all of us. If we are to relate to Jesus, we must let him cleanse us.

If Peter refuses the way Jesus comes to him as a servant to wash him, if he can’t set aside enough of his pride to accept the Son of God humbled himself for Peter’s sake, then he will have no share in all the inheritance that’s bound up with Christ and his kingdom. John uses this same language in Revelation to speak of those who either “share” or don’t “share” in the first resurrection, or the tree of life, or even the holy city altogether when it comes (Rev 20:6; 22:19). Not to have a share with Jesus means you are separated from him and the blessings of his salvation.

“If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” Well of course Peter then reverses his response; he just still misses the point: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” He’s still not seeing the totality of what Jesus’ foot-washing points to in the cross. So Jesus says to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you [all] are clean.’” Meaning, “The kind of cleansing I provide is a once-for-all kind of cleansing, Peter—such that I can even declare you already completely clean by virtue of my love for you, and my knowledge of you, and what I will accomplish on the cross for you” (cf. John 15:3)! To go to the hands and head is to miss the point of what I’m showing you by washing your feet as a slave—I’m pointing you to the sufficiency of my life and my death for you. My work as a slave doesn’t need your further input; it doesn’t need to be supplemented any further. When I say ‘It is finished tomorrow,’ your cleansing will be finished.”

The deeper significance of his symbolic act becomes even clearer when he tells them straight up that despite the fact that he’s washed everybody’s feet—including Judas’ feet—Judas is still unclean (13:10b-11). In other words, the point of the foot-washing isn’t ultimately about how clean Jesus makes the skin on their feet or their hands or their head, but how clean he will make their souls when he dies for them as a slave of all. If they reject this about him, then they will remain unclean like Judas and be cast out of Jesus’ new community—just like Jesus does in 13:27. They won’t get to share in Jesus’ blessings or his life or his glory if they reject his humble mission.

But if they embrace his humble mission—if they embrace that God himself became a slave in the person of Jesus to serve their eternal good—then they will share in his blessings. They will know what it means to receive the total cleansing of all their sins. Not a single sin will be left on them that hinders them from God’s presence. This is where we see the extent of Jesus’ love for us, folks.

Nothing Unclean Allowed in God's Presence

Nothing unclean is allowed in the presence of a holy God. The Old Testament screams this at us. God had Israel build the tent of meeting with the veil separating the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, where God revealed his presence; and nothing unclean was allowed to enter. The sins of the people and the priests and mediators had to be atoned for and cleansed through the sacrifices (e.g., Lev 16:18-19). People even had to go outside the camp of God’s assembly if they became unclean according to the stipulations in God’s law (e.g., Num 5:1-4). Isaiah curses himself when he sees God’s glory and says, “Woe is me! For I am a man of unclean lips and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King the Lord of hosts” (Isa 6:5).

God curses the priests in Israel saying, “They have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they taught the difference between the unclean and the clean…so that I am profaned among them” (Ezek 22:26). And it didn’t go over well for them. God said to them, “I have poured out my indignation upon them. I have consumed them with the fire of my wrath. I have returned their way upon their heads” (Ezek 22:31). And when we get to the end of the Bible, we see that nothing unclean will be allowed to enter God’s presence in the Holy City on the Last Day (Rev 21:27). Everybody who’s left unclean will be tormented with eternal fire under God’s omnipotent fury. Nothing unclean is allowed in the presence of a holy God.

Jesus Makes Us Clean to Enter God's Presence

If we are all born into the world sinful, and by our very nature commit sinful deeds that make us unclean and think self-centered thoughts that make our souls filthy before God, then we are in great need of someone to take these things away from us, lest we too suffer condemnation. We cannot enter God’s presence unclean. We must first be cleansed from our sins and our guilt. By washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus is teaching them about what his love and humility wins for his own people through the cross—namely, the total cleansing from our sin, so that we might enter God’s presence with confidence and without fear of being destroyed by his wrath.

If you belong to Jesus today—if you are banking on his life and his death and his resurrection as your only hope—then your sins are washed away. Even if you sinned this week and sinned this morning and sinned while we were singing those songs just moments ago, God has already made provision for those sins to be washed away in the death of Jesus. First John 1:9 says we can even go to God right now and confess our sins to him—no matter how heinous they may be—and “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” How does he do that? Through the One called our “advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Jesus’ blood cleanses us from sin, and brings us into fellowship with God.

We get the same picture in Hebrews when it says Christ made a single sacrifice for sins that we might have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus; we can even draw near with full assurance of faith, “with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (Heb 10:11, 19-22). Titus 2:14 also says that Jesus “gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works.” If you trust in Christ, there’s no area of your dirty life that the blood of Jesus misses, no sinful stains that are so deep the blood of Jesus cannot remove.

And all this so that we gain fellowship with God; so that we can come into God’s presence clean and free to enjoy his fullness. Friends, that’s good news! This is the good news we preach. It doesn’t get any better than knowing that Jesus’ death is sufficient to take away all my sinful doubting, and all my proud remarks at others, and all my self-seeking actions toward my wife, and all my cynical thoughts about the church at large, and all my godless chatter about people that don’t do things like me, and all my grumbling attitudes. To have it all just wiped away through the sufficient sacrifice of Jesus that I might have God is just absolutely remarkable love. Sins that were they to be numbered would be as numerous as the grains of sand on the seashore; sins that were we to feel the reality of their horror have mounted an eternity of fire from God—and all of them wiped away when Jesus died as a slave on the cross for me, for you, if we trust him. May we never get over it, but say with David, “Blessed is the one whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered!” (Ps 32:1; Rom 4:7).

3. The Sovereign Son Loves Us by Transforming Us to Love Like Him

Number three, the sovereign Son loves us by transforming us to love like him. So instead of destroying us, he comes humbly as a slave to serve our well-being—that was the first glimpse at his love. The next glimpse at his love came in seeing that he served our well-being even when it meant he must die to cleanse us from our sins. Now we look at how his love also thrusts us into a total new way of living.

Verse 12, “When [Jesus] had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, ‘Do you understand what I’ve done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

Pay close attention to this Redeemer Church. Jesus is not saying that there are some of his disciples who don’t do these things and therefore miss some added blessings tacked on to their Christian life. Jesus is saying that if you don’t do these things, you are, quite frankly, not his disciples and therefore not blessed in your union with him. So please pay attention to what Jesus has just done. What he has said here is that our entire Christian life must imitate his humility and his self-sacrificial love for others. You must give up your preferences to see others prosper. You must go low in service to see others raised up. You must humble yourself to serve another’s well-being.

Jesus isn’t commanding us to imitate his cleansing work on the cross—only he is without sin; only he is the suitable Savior to wash us clean, But he is commanding us to imitate his sacrificial love for others, which drove him to the cross. Jesus will tell his disciples later, “Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (13:34).

Jesus also isn’t commanding us to limit true Christian service to the act of washing one another’s feet. It may be very meaningful and right on certain occasions to do just that in love for others—such as we see mentioned of widows in 1 Tim 5:10. But the heart of Jesus’ command is not bound up with the mere act of foot-washing; his command is bound up with what his foot-washing in particular pointed to, namely, his identity as the Son of God who loved us by becoming a servant for us even when it cost him his life. The extent to which he willingly served us should become the extent to which we willingly serve one another. First John 3:16, “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us, and we ought to lay down our lives for the brothers.” Anything less is simply not Christian living.

Jesus’ love becomes the foundation of our love in the church, and why would it be otherwise since that’s where Jesus is taking this world. He establishes us in his love now, because the kingdom he is bringing is an eternity of his love reflected in all his people perfectly (John 17:26; 1 Cor 13:13; Rev 21-22). And if we don’t conform ourselves to that agenda now, then we won’t enjoy it when he arrives. The church is a people in which the world should witness God’s future love in his people breaking into the present. Oh how Jesus’ love should change us as we wait for that kingdom of love and remember how he loved us to bring us into his kingdom.

What About the Greatness of God's Love Do Others See in You

At the end of a chapter on the love of God, J. I. Packer poses a fairly searching question: “Could an observer learn from the quality and degree of love that I show others—my wife? my husband? my family? my neighbors? people at church? people at work?—anything at all about the greatness of God’s love to me?” (Knowing God, 243). The question reflects the heart of Jesus’ charge to us. Are others learning about the greatness of God’s love when they observe how you treat others? Does a visible testimony to the magnitude of God’s love for us exist? Is a passion to love others in the way he has loved us truly seen in our day to day activities? Look around the room at each other. How is it that even these brothers and sisters witness the love of Christ working through you? Could you wash each other’s feet? Would you be willing to give yourself to each other in that way? Are you even around each other enough to pursue such a relationship? What sorts of initiative are you taking in serving each other’s well-being?

I ask these questions of you, because with Jesus I don’t want any of us missing out on the joy he promises when we do love as he loved. “Blessed are you if you do them,” he says. He isn’t commanding us to love as he loved to burden us; he’s commanding us to love as he loved to thrill us with more of himself. If you’re lacking in your willingness and readiness to go low for the sake of others—to sacrifice to see others served—then fix your eyes once again on the extravagant love Jesus has shown you. The less we’re feeding on his love for us—the less we see our need to feed on his love for us—the more our love will grow cold toward God and toward others.

So, let’s turn from all our self-centered ways to embrace the blessed life of loving like Christ. Let’s not be tricked by the world’s way of thinking that says to go low means you’ll be miserable and missing out on what’s great. Jesus has shown us that greatness is bound up with going low, with humbling ourselves to serve.

Also, as you look at Jesus’ love for you, notice that true love manifests itself in concrete action toward others. Love is not merely an affection. It certainly involves affection, but the affection is one that compels the will to act for another’s good in Christ. If we possess true love, then we will be moved to humble ourselves like Jesus, to give of ourselves like Jesus, to serve at all costs to ourselves like Jesus. Our knowledge of what Jesus has done for us cannot be divorced from the action of showing Jesus’ love toward others. He says, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

Humbling Ourselves Like Christ to See Others Lifted Up

So, let’s take him at his word and do them. We’re not greater than our Master! If this is how he served us—by humbling himself to death for our salvation—then let us with all fervency of Spirit and thanksgiving to God for his mercy lay down our lives for the eternal well-being of others. How could we not, after all we’ve received and will continue to receive from Jesus?

Humble yourself as a dad to serve your children and your wife (Eph 6:1-4; cf. 1 Pet 5:6). Consider the interests of your sister in Christ as better than your own and serve her (Phil 2:3-6). Lay down your extra-biblical preferences to build meaningful relationships with others that point people to Christ (Rom 14:1-15:7; cf. 1 Cor 9:19-23; 10:31-33). Pursue those who are hurting and don’t wait till they ask you for help (Acts 20:35). Turn off your television and get on your face before God to serve this church in prayer (2 Cor 1:11). Don’t let your iPhone control you every five seconds in the evenings, but serve your kids with all your might (Eph 6:1-4).

Serve the visitors that enter this place (Rom 15:7); shock them with a love they’ve never known before in this world of pride and self-centeredness (John 13:35; cf. 1 Cor 14:24-25). Sit next to them; help them find their place in the Bible; take them to lunch afterwards; answer their questions about the sermon; actually care for their souls. People need more than a red bag and a handshake, they need to Christ and his fullness manifested in the church (Eph 1:22-23; 4:16).

When your children fight with each other over “being first,” ask them if they’re pursuing true greatness and then drive them to Christ (Phil 2:3-11; 1 Pet 2:20-22). Rejoice when strangers interrupt your schedule and give the shirt off your back to see them come to Christ (1 Cor 9:1-23; cf. Matt 5:40-42). If you’re a rigid person, learn to be more flexible and welcome people into your home more often to show them hospitality (Rom 12:13; Heb 13:2; 1 Pet 4:9). If you’re sort of carefree and just let things happen, learn to be intentional in loving others (cf. 1 Cor 14:1); plan your weeks around loving others (1 John 3:16-17). Notice the poor and raise them up (2 Cor 8:9; Gal 2:10; Jas 2:2-15); help the weak among us and labor to see them thriving in the faith (Acts 20:35; 1 Thess 5:14; Jude 22-23). Uphold justice for the most vulnerable and lay down your life in the public square to defend their cause (Isa 1:17; Luke 11:42).

There’s a thousand ways Jesus’ love can manifest itself among us, especially with such a diversity of gifts in the body. But the starting place for all our growth in Jesus’ love is Jesus’ love demonstrated when the sovereign Son willingly became a slave and served us unto death for our cleansing and our transformation (1 John 4:19). May we keep looking to him in everything.