John 13:15-17 (ESV, boldface added)

15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 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. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.

Is this a general case, or is it a particular one? I'd like to comprehend this better, for I know he said the Lord is above him, but can it be said that the disciples, and anyone who does the same, will also become servant and not bigger than master?

As a reference, this happened (before Pessach, in Jerusalem) when Jesus was washing the feet of his disciples. And, there was a bit of a humorous sense also between him and Peter:

John 13:6-7 (ESV)

6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”

  • 1
    Welcome to site! I see you are a new contributor. Your Question has been edited for style, but keeping what you wanted to say. It is a great Question and I hope to see you ask many more!
    – Jesse
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 9:44

3 Answers 3


Both, in sequence: First general, then specific

Firstly, in Hermeneutics, consider context. Start at the beginning of the pericope in v12.

John 13:12-14 (NASB)

12 Then, when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? 13 You call Me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’; and you are correct, for so I am. 14 So if I, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.

...Here, Jesus explains that him washing their feet his his role as "Teacher" and "Lord".

Feet washing was partly a servant's role, so we should consider other teaching from Jesus about servanthood. Here is a very good and direct example of Jesus's teaching on that...

Mark 9:35 (NASB)

35 And sitting down, He called the twelve and *said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.”

Therefore, being the "Master" means being a servant of all.

One other major part of this passage is that this is the Last Supper; Jesus will be crucified the next day. Later, in this same Last Supper meeting in ch15, Jesus mentions the master-servant hierarchy again, explaining in more detail...

John 15:20 (NASB)

20 Remember the word that I said to you: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ If they persecuted me, they will also persecute you. If they kept my word, they will also keep yours.

John 15:20 may actually be a direct answer to your Question. But, a Hermeneutics Answer compels us to look at why.

Jesus makes a statement in ch13, then later in the same discussion explains it in ch15. He also did this with his parables (Mt 13, Lk 8).

So, Jesus himself says that he is referring to two things:

  1. The disciples will also be persecuted by dissidents.
  2. The disciples will also be respected by followers.

Consider a few things about these passages:

  • In Mark, Jesus explains the need for leaders to have servant hearts and actions.
  • John had already given the nod to Mark's account of Jesus' life in the Early Church; John's Gospel was written after, with John being well aware of what the Church was reading from Mark. So, we must read John as if the ideas of Matthew, Mark, and Luke were agreed to by John because they indeed were.
  • Don't confuse Mark as teaching that a servant and master are one-in-the-same, but that a true master is "one who serves", probably serving his own servants most of all.
  • Based on John's idea of a servant not being greater than a master, we would conclude that "one is not greater than the one who serves", but that is for accurate understanding; anymore would rabbit trail.
  • Jesus is not saying that they are his teachers nor his lords nor masters.
  • In John, Jesus is telling them that they, as his "students" or with him as the teacher, they will not receive special privilege or exception from what Jesus must do.

To your multiple-choice question: general or specific? It is first general, explained as a principle in ch13, then applied specifically to the disciples in ch15. So, the answer is both, in sequence: first general, then specific.

  • Your answer was pretty much the one expected @JesseSteele Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 9:46
  • Then, I'm curious. Did you already know this answer? Or, were you looking to confirm what you suspected?
    – Jesse
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 9:47
  • I got surprised, for I had another interpretation, of the servant not being greater than the master, and also not being smaller. Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 9:49
  • It's great to be curious. Generally, the Bible doesn't really teach things that way. But, I only learned how to navigate my way by asking questions like this. Keep going and helping others learn as they watch you learn.
    – Jesse
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 10:42

What is Jesus saying with, "a servant is not greater than his master"?

Jesus is drawing their attention to a basic concept or leadership - being under a Master or being a master. Jesus was both - being under God, yet their teacher and Lord. They understood this basic detail that was expressed in many ways in their lives and the society of their day.

What Jesus was beginning to express was the servant aspect that they were not familiar with. To be a 'servant leader' was not the way the world works. Jesus was from God, heavenly, not worldly - yet he was washing their feet!

We can delve deeper with Luke's rendering.

A disciple is not above his teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like his teacher. Luke 6:40

The disciple knew Jesus represented God. They knew he wasn't God, but Jesus was showing how they would be like him, as he was like God, but they would never be above him - just as he would never be above God.

They had heard Jesus say this like John 14:28 / 10:29

...the Father is greater than I / My Father who has given them to me is greater than all.

Jesus was explaining that they can be like someone who is their 'master' but not be confused about being greater or lesser. The world is focussed on the latter - being better or more superior - having power or influence. Jesus is explaining that authority is from God and that's it! There is no debate, no arguments, no need to worry about the level we find ourselves.

Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all. Mark 9:35

  • But Steve, isn't there a verse that says that people could do greater things than he (Jesus) did? Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 10:17
  • It's not about what they or anyone can do - it is about position under God and under Jesus. It's about the attitude - humility; not the actions that can produce pride. The devil's method was pride, Jesus' was humility - that's what he was affirming with the disciples. Whatever anyone does for God is God doing it through them - there is no reason to seek glory or 'promotion' for this.
    – Steve
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 10:27

See What does washing of the feet symbolize in John 13:10?

The example Jesus gave was our Lord and Master doing the job traditionally done by a servant: the Master being a servant. Thus, Jesus taught that Christians, especially leaders, are to follow his example as servants. "A servant is not greater than his master" means, if it isn't beneath Jesus to do this, it isn't beneath you. No one can validly say it is beneath them.

The greatest among you shall be your servant. (Matt 23:11, ESV)

And he sat down and called the twelve. And he said to them, “If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” (Mark 9:35, ESV)

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. 25 And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors. 26 But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. 27 For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves. (Luke 22:24–27, ESV)

Maybe John presented this the way he did in chapter 13 because he was the youngest of the twelve in age and didn't want to draw attention to that. John didn't even use his own name when referencing himself in his gospel. Peter was a little slow catching on.

(This he said to show by what kind of death he was to glorify God.) And after saying this he said to him, “Follow me.” 20 Peter turned and saw the disciple whom Jesus loved following them, the one who also had leaned back against him during the supper and had said, “Lord, who is it that is going to betray you?” 21 When Peter saw him, he said to Jesus, “Lord, what about this man?” 22 Jesus said to him, “If it is my will that he remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow me!” 23 (John 21:19–23, ESV)

  • But why a servant is not greater than his master in the context mean? Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 9:40
  • @João See edit.
    – Perry Webb
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 19:00

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