Edify One Another
If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.—John 13:14
The washing of feet is a well-documented custom in both the Scriptures and secular history. When visited by three angels to tell him he would have a son, Abraham rushed to fetch water to wash their feet (Genesis 18:2-8). When Lot was visited by the Lord’s messengers, he also offered to wash their feet as a gesture of hospitality (Genesis 19:1-3). The brothers of Joseph had their feet washed when they were in Egypt to buy food (Genesis 43:24,25). Abigail washed the feet of the servants of David when they came to her (1 Samuel 25:41). The apostle Paul lists “washing the saints’ feet” as one of the acts done by widows who deserved the support of the ecclesia (1 Timothy 5:10). In this case, Paul was likely speaking both literally and symbolically.
Feet-washing was, of course, a custom to demonstrate hospitality to a guest in a practical and necessary way. The combination of a desert climate, wearing sandals, and long distances of travel by foot necessitated frequent washing. Many often walked entirely barefoot.
The priests in the tabernacle were commanded to wash their hands and feet at the laver before performing their duties: “For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: when they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD” (Exodus 30:19, 20).
In ancient Roman culture, shoes were removed before reclining to eat a meal. People were horizontal on couches; their left arm was used for support and the right for eating. Thus the feet would extend off of and behind the couch. It was while in such a position during the eating of the last supper that our Lord gave one of his final lessons to the disciples before he was taken by the authorities and crucified (Luke 22:14; John 13:5,12).
A Spirit of Rivalry
About a week prior to the last supper, Jesus and his closest disciples had been on their way to Jerusalem. It was at that time that James and John made this request: “Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory” (Mark 10:37). After Jesus answered, we learn the other ten were displeased with James and John (verse 41). “But Jesus called them [to him], and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: and whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45). It was out of love that Jesus rebuked this spirit of rivalry and lordship that had been building among them. It is possible this spirit arose out of a good motive on the part of James and John. Being next to the Lord in the kingdom would mean a closer eternal nearness to their Master. But regardless of the motive, the Lord told them the most obedient servants would be the ones most highly exalted in the body of Christ.
Even after being with him continually during the three and a half years of his ministry, the disciples still were not emulating the selfless spirit that they would so desperately need to properly establish and build up the church after the Lord’s departure. Jesus knew that the spirit of “lording it over” the body of Christ would eventually come to full fruition in the form of the great Antichrist system (Revelation 2:6,15). He desired to demonstrate just how dangerous and contrary to his own character such a spirit was. But this correction, as they travelled to Jerusalem, was not enough to quench the spirit of wanting to be the chief one. The disputation over who would be the greatest evidently arose again in their conversation while partaking of the last supper (Luke 22:24).
Jesus Washing the Disciples’ Feet
“Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end … Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; he riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe [them] with the towel wherewith he was girded” (John 13:1,3-5).
One can almost feel the thoughts of shame and humiliation that must have swept over the disciples’ hearts as Jesus, perhaps in the midst of their arguing over their own position in the kingdom, quietly arose from his place and began to wash their feet. It was out of love that he wished to teach this much needed lesson of humility and service. It was out of love that he demonstrated a quiet and kind manner in performing the needed correction and rebuke for his brethren: “Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also [my] hands and [my] head” (John 13:6-9).
Instead of receiving the washing being offered to him, Peter at first objected. It seemed unreasonable to Peter that the Lord would perform a duty usually left to the servants of a household. Peter went so far as to protest and demand that the Lord not do it. Knowing that Peter’s objections were out of respect for him, Jesus replied that unless Peter’s feet were washed, “thou hast no part with me.” This does not mean there was something efficacious given to the disciples as their feet were washed. Unless Peter and the others were willing to receive both the lesson of humility and demonstrate graciousness in receiving a blessing from the Lord, they could not properly be called Christ’s followers.
Judas was still in their midst and received the same washing as the others. Even with the foreknowledge that Judas was about to betray him, Jesus still allowed Judas to be present. Perhaps he was giving Judas one final opportunity by appealing to whatever humility remained in his heart. Instead of having a sobering effect on Judas, the act may have made his heart even harder toward the Lord and his brethren. “[Jesus] was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me” (John 13:21).
Although he knew the identity of his betrayer, Jesus did not judge and condemn Judas. The lesson for us is that we are not to judge the hearts of fellow believers. It is the Lord who is working with each individual, giving them their own experiences which, depending on their heart attitude, will either cause them to “grow up into … Christ” (Ephesians 4:15) or else, like Judas, become castaways. The Great Shepherd does not easily let one of his sheep go astray.
A Lesson, Not a Ceremony
Apart from the mention of certain faithful widows, there is no other reference in the New Testament to feet-washing in the early church. Even in the context of 1 Timothy 5:10, it is clear that feet-washing was not a ceremony, but rather an expression of hospitality showing an attitude of service toward fellow brethren in Christ. In contrast, we do find the importance of partaking in the ceremony of the Lord’s Memorial, including a direct command from the Lord to do it “in remembrance of me” (Luke 22:17-19; 1 Corinthians 5:7,8; 11:23-26).
“If I then, [your] Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14,15). The real import of this commandment is that Christians are to follow Jesus’ example in performing acts of simple, practical service for one another. It may be that literal feet-washing would be a practical act of service for the Lord’s people in some cultures and regions of the world. However, in North America and Europe, feet-washing is not a regular mark of hospitality as it was in Jesus’ day. To those living in most western countries, it would be an unnatural inconvenience. The lesson the Lord wants his disciples to internalize is the act and attitude of service, not the literal washing of someone’s feet.
Martin Luther recognized this distinction when he observed the feet-washing ceremonies that were, and still are, part of the Papal ceremonies. He said: “We have nothing to do with feet-washing with water, otherwise it is not only the feet of the twelve, but those of everybody we should wash. People would be much more benefited if a general bath were at once ordered, and the whole body washed. If you wish to wash your neighbor’s feet, see that your heart is really humble, and help every one in becoming better.” (McClintock and Strong, Cyclopedia, vol. III, p. 616—emphasis in the original.)
Washing One Another’s Feet
What practical lessons can Christians draw from the Lord’s example? In what ways can we emulate the loving example of our Redeemer?
“Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; he riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself” (John 13:3,4). Note what is not in the account. The disciples do not ask who will wash their feet. Nor do we even see them recognizing the need to have their feet washed, or the opportunity to wash the feet of others. There is a great lesson in the Lord’s example. He did not wait until the disciples requested someone to wash their feet. He saw an opportunity to serve his brethren and immediately did it. Likewise, we should serve the Lord’s people when we see the opportunity, lest the occasion for some service slip away.
The washing of feet was a practical and necessary service to be performed. There are many services that we can perform for the Lord’s people which are also practical in our culture. Perhaps we have the privilege to assist a brother or sister get to a study meeting, or help them with some task in their home. Others may have other earthly responsibilities, such as the care of children, and would welcome some assistance: “As we have therefore opportunity, let us do good unto all, especially unto them who are of the household of faith” (Galatians 6:10).
But there are even more significant, spiritual ways in which we can wash one another’s feet. It was the “earth” that Jesus washed off the disciples’ feet with “water.” It is the sacred duty of life for all Christians who have made a consecration unto death to be cleansed “from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God” (2 Corinthians 7:1). When we come together in fellowship, our conversation should assist in cleansing our brethren by helping them keep their minds and hearts on the Lord’s word and easing their burdens.
The natural, earthly mind will gravitate toward earthly matters, but the Scriptural injunction for Christians is to “comfort yourselves together, and edify one another” (1 Thessalonians 5:11). “But exhort one another [to faithfulness] daily, while it is called Today; lest any of you be hardened through the deceitfulness of sin” (Hebrews 3:13). In reminding one another of the promises that lay before us and before the world of mankind, in sharing points of Scripture, and in assisting one another to overcome the fallen tendencies, we can sanctify and cleanse one another with the “water by the word” (Ephesians 5:26). “By this we know love, that he laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren” (1 John 3:16, RSV).