The Footwashing Service

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Related Audio Material:
The Passover Service
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Jesus poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the servant’s towel wherewith He was girded.  Jesus said, 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

The footwashing ceremony that Jesus gave us is filled with deep symbolism and meaning for the Church of God. The footwashing helps us to understand the Will of God and the Mind of Jesus Christ. The fact that the footwashing is associated with Passover gives special weight to the meaning of the footwashing.

Jesus carried out the greatest act of service to mankind, and He fully intends that we serve one another as He did (John 10:15). He gave us the annual footwashing ceremony to teach us how we are to be servants to one another - just as he came to serve all mankind. When we go to a restaurant, our waitress serves us. But, true Christian service to one another entails so much more than being a cordial host or hostess.

On the evening before He died, Jesus instituted the footwashing service for New Testament Christians. Passover was not abolished, as the world believes, in fact it was greatly enhanced for the Church of God. Jesus fulfilled Passover by becoming our sacrificial Passover Lamb. Passover is a timeless memorial that Jesus will partake of when He returns to this earth in great power to establish the Kingdom of God on earth. Speaking of the Passover wine representing His blood shed for many, Jesus told His disciples that He looked forward to that future day: “I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's Kingdom.” (Matthew 26:29)

As that last Passover arrived, the disciples were arguing over who would be greatest among them (Luke 22:24). The attitude displayed by the disciples was the exact opposite of Jesus’ approach of being least, and servant of all. Adding the footwashing ceremony to the Passover service was not a spur of the moment notion that came to Jesus because of the strife among the disciples. The contrast in mindsets – greatest or least - helps us to grasp the lesson of the footwashing. Jesus had long planned to institute the footwashing on that last evening.

Jesus, having Godly authority, was able to modify the way the Old Testament Passover was conducted. “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God.” (John 13:3) Jesus was about to do something so momentous that John records that Jesus had been given all the authority of God to perform what He is about to do! On that evening, Jesus instituted the footwashing ceremony in a very formal way for the Church of God.

Notice the symbolism that John presents to us. We were not around to be eyewitnesses of the first century miracles that the early Church experienced, but we are privileged to see and experience the profound meanings of the words and actions of Jesus. “He rose from supper, and laid aside his garment; and took a servant’s towel, and girded himself.” (John 13:4)

Jesus laid aside His cloak. He was symbolically divesting Himself of His customary role as Master and Lord to reveal His great transcendent role as the One who came to this earth for the purpose of serving mankind. Jesus took off His cloak to demonstrate that He was functioning in an entirely different capacity – that of a common servant!

There is no greater act of service than saving mankind from his sins. Jesus is the good shepherd who gave His life for the sheep (John 10:11). Jesus said, “For which is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? Is not he that sitteth at meat? But I am among you as He that serves.” (Luke 22:27) “After that Jesus poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the servant’s towel wherewith He was girded.” (John 13:5)

Why did Jesus wash the disciples feet, and why did He tie the footwashing command to the New Testament Passover? What is the spiritual lesson that must be drawn from the footwashing? In washing the disciples feet, Jesus was setting an example for us to emulate – to perform – so that we would learn the spiritual lesson that accompanies the ceremony of the footwashing.

It is a “spiritual lesson” because it is not the physical act of footwashing that cleanses us. Since we have all sinned throughout the year, the footwashing is a yearly renewal and rededication of our baptismal covenant and washing of regeneration. We “dirty our feet,” - we go places in our minds and hearts we should not go, and we dirty our feet. Dirt on the feet represents a spiritual problem – a sin. As Christians, we are not dirty all over because the blood of Christ has washed us all over. We are still in that covenant relationship with Jesus Christ as long as we have not turned our backs on God and walked away.

Is the footwashing optional, or is it commanded? Jesus said, “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet.” (John 13:14) When Jesus said, "You also ought to wash one another's feet," He was giving us a most important instruction. Right there, Jesus established the footwashing as an ordinance for Christians – for us

Why must we wash the feet of others? “Being found in fashion as a man, Jesus humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:8)
Some people think that the footwashing is for the sole purpose of teaching us to be humble. The footwashing does require that we have a humble attitude, but it means much more than merely humbling ourselves by physically washing the feet of others. We must be careful not to fall into the trap of acquiring a false humility as a result of the footwashing ceremony. Let’s not say, “I have washed someone’s feet, therefore, I am humble.”

By His example, Jesus was teaching us how to serve others just as He has done. The footwashing is about learning to spiritually serve one another. Not having yet received God's Holy Spirit, the disciples could not understand the spiritual aspect of the ceremony Jesus was establishing. "Then came Jesus to Simon Peter: and Peter said unto Him, Lord, is it for you to wash my feet?” (John 13:6)

Peter was saying, “Don’t you have it backward Lord?” We know footwashing today as a religious ceremony - it was different back then – it was an everyday occurrence. In the time of Christ it was a part of the hospitality at people’s homes, and was practiced by rich and poor alike. Sandals and bare feet caused feet to get dirty.

The rich had servants who performed the task of washing guests feet when they arrived at their home. When Jesus took a servant’s towel and began washing the disciples’ feet, it was reversing the order they were accustomed to. Not only was it out of the ordinary for Jesus to wash their feet, it was strange and unacceptable behavior to the apostles. Here was Jesus, their Lord and master washing their feet.

The footwashing and Passover are central in our relationship with God. The footwashing shows a number of pictures beyond the obvious washing of dirty feet. During this last Passover with Jesus, the disciples, including Peter, did not fully understand the meaning of the footwashing. Jesus answered and said unto Peter, “What I do, you know not now; but you shall know hereafter." (John 13:7)

It would only be after they had received God's Holy Spirit at Pentecost that the apostles would understand the meaning and importance of the yearly Footwashing. Jesus made the footwashing a requirement for our salvation! “Peter said unto Jesus, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” (John 13:8)

Those were very stern words to Peter, “no part.” If we reject the footwashing, we, too, have no part in the Body of Christ. “Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular.” [“particular” here, is the same word that we see in – “no part”] (1Corinthians 12:27) Jesus was saying that without the footwashing there is no part for us in the Plan of God, no part for us in the Kingdom of God, and no part for us in the Body of Christ.

The footwashing, when performed in the spirit in which Jesus established it, assures our place in the Body of Christ, the Family of God, the Kingdom of God and eternal life. Immediately, Peter changed his tune! “Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” (John 13:9)

At this point in the institution of the footwashing service, Jesus makes the important distinction between baptism and the yearly footwashing. “Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” (John 13:10) Baptism is a total cleansing that takes place only once in our lives. Baptism is our covenant relationship with God. But, because we are weak and come short throughout the year, we are sinners and need the cleansing of the footwashing. Therefore, the footwashing ceremony was instituted to symbolize a yearly renewal of and rededication to one's initial conversion and resulting cleanness through baptism.

Jesus establishes that Peter has been forgiven - washed all over - cleansed from sin through baptism. When Jesus said, "He that is washed, need not wash except his feet, but is clean every whit." Jesus was alluding to baptism which cleanses a sinner completely of all past guilt. And, Jesus shows here that the yearly footwashing is still necessary and required. When Peter suggested that Jesus wash him all over, Jesus told Peter in effect – I’m talking about “feet only” right now!

This is very clear in the Greek. The King James translators could have utilized a little more selection here. This verse contains two different Greek words louo and nipto. One refers specifically to baptism, while the other refers only to footwashing. “He that is washed [‘louo’ = baptized] needeth not save to wash [‘nipto’ = cleanse by footwashing] his feet, but is clean every whit: and you are clean, but not all." (John 13:10)

This verse, John 13:10, clearly makes the distinction between initial baptism and the footwashing which is an acknowledgment of our continual need for cleansing. At baptism, a Christian convert receives God’s Holy Spirit, which dwells in him and leads him as he follows God’s way of life. The truly converted person has turned around in his mind and heart. We have forsaken our former selfish way of life. But because we are still in the flesh, we occasionally stumble and sin.

What does a converted person do when he has sinned? The first thing that we must do is acknowledge our sin before God. “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say that we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.” (1John 1:9-10) We do not wait until Passover to acknowledge our sins – we do that immediately. We must deal with our sins on a daily basis. At the annual footwashing ceremony, we acknowledge our need, desire, and thankfulness for the continual cleansing of our sins that Jesus has made possible.

Judas Iscariot had discarded his baptism vow. His heart and mind were not pure. "For Jesus knew who should betray Him; therefore said He, You are not all clean." (John 13:11) Besides the obvious reference to Judas Iscariot not being clean because of the betrayal - there was another more important meaning in Jesus’ words. There is a deeper meaning in the footwashing episode than is at first apparent. In the same way that the disciples’ feet had become soiled as they walked to the Passover supper, we, too, become soiled by sin after our initial cleansing at baptism. We need the footwashing because we are not all clean.

“He that is washed is clean every whit.” Jesus establishes here that Peter’s sins had been forgiven when he was baptized - washed all over. This applies to all who have been baptized – they are cleansed from sin through baptism. Jesus has a double meaning to His words as He continues in this verse. “…and you are clean, but not all." When Jesus said that they were not all clean, He was referring to Judas Iscariot, and to the fact that the disciples were not totally clean because of the sins that had occurred since baptism.

This statement by Jesus, in addition to being a reference to Judas Iscariot, illustrates that a yearly footwashing is still necessary and required. Though we were once washed at baptism, the footwashing symbolizes our renewed commitment to walk in the newness of life that we made at our baptism. Because we are in the flesh, we are not perfect.

How can we take Passover, which represents Christ in us, when we are sinful – when we are not clean? Our sins separate us from God (Isaiah 59:2). Even after baptism we need to go to Christ to be washed by Him. We cannot ask Jesus to come into a home (our body) that has not been spiritually cleansed. We de-leaven our homes – we put sin out of ourselves. We do it by being washed by Jesus Christ in the footwashing. We put sin out by washing one another’s feet. The footwashing of each other’s feet – cleans our house – these earthly tabernacles and prepares us to receive the bread and wine. The footwashing reinforces in us, the serving and repentant attitude that we must have to be able to come into God’s presence. The footwashing helps us to examine ourselves before we invite Jesus in.

The footwashing, baptism, and Passover are intricately connected. Sin can and does occur after baptism, and must be acknowledged, repented of, and forgiven. The footwashing is a needed spiritual cleansing, because we come short throughout the year - we are sinners - and Jesus Christ is our advocate, comforter, intercessor, and consoler. The footwashing helps us to worthily partake of the symbols of the bread and the wine – the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ.

"If any man sin, we have an advocate [‘parakletos’] with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous." (1John 2:1) Because we are yet sinners, the yearly footwashing indicates our desire to "clean our slate," so to speak, in a reaffirmation of our baptismal vow. But, this explains only having our own feet washed.

Jesus said, If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. Why is it necessary to wash the feet of others? Some people, in a demonstrable lack of spiritual courage conclude, "We don't help to clean the slate of others. I mind my own business, and everybody else should do likewise.” This attitude demonstrates a considerable lack of spiritual understanding.

Not coming to the support of one of our brethren in spiritual distress is like Cain saying, "Am I my brother's keeper?" - inferring that he wasn't - when he should have been! It is too often overlooked that our faith, and our salvation are intertwined and interlocked with the faith and salvation of others.

"So after He had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, He said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought [a must, obligated, duty-bound] to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you." (John 13:12-15)

In the same way that we want to be clean before Him, God requires us to help other brethren to be clean before God in our common spiritual quest. In the same way that we want our "own slate clean" before God, He requires us to help "clean the slate" of others.

Jesus taught, "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends." (John 15:12-13) Jesus laid His life down for us, so we must lay our lives down for others - but how do we do that? It is only with God's help and the power of His Spirit that we are able to renew our mind, patiently endure the trials of this life, and live as Christians must by laying down our lives for one another.

When a brother or sister has strayed and allowed a serious sin to enter into their life - we must serve them by going to their spiritual rescue, no matter what it takes - that is laying down our life for them.

James, the half-brother of Jesus, refers to himself as a “bond servant” – a slave: “James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ.” The removal of dirt off the feet of others is the picture of the footwashing ceremony. What is the spiritual reality of this ceremony? The dirt on the feet represents a spiritual problem in the life of a converted person. The footwashing teaches us that we are responsible for intervening in our neighbor’s situation to help him eliminate his spiritual problem. This is what “laying down our life” entails. We must involve ourselves, even at great personal risk.

James gives us a perfect example of the spiritual application of the footwashing. “Brethren, if any of you do err from the truth, and one convert him [turns him around], Let him know, that he which converts [turns him around] the sinner from the error of his way shall save a soul from death, and shall hide a multitude of sins.” (James 5:19-20)

Being a living sacrifice is not asking too much of us – it is our reasonable service to our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is the spiritual sacrifice of which Paul spoke: “I beseech you therefore, brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies a living sacrifice, holy, acceptable unto God, which is your reasonable service.” (Romans 12:1)

What is this reasonable service? The answer is to risk friends, social status, job, and even life itself to restore our wayward brethren to the path which leads to eternal life. “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

As influential as the apostle Peter was, his personal sin placed him in danger of losing his eternal salvation. Peter had been showing partiality to some Jewish men of reputation to the exclusion of the other Christians. Peter’s improper conduct would have eventually cost him his eternal life - if he continued in that sin. Paul became aware of Peter’s sin.

Would Paul help Peter in Christian Love, or would he stand idly by and watch Peter lose his salvation? What was Paul’s Christian responsibility? Paul must have been tempted to do what was politically expedient and socially acceptable – let it go – sweep Peter’s sin under the rug. However, Paul realized that his intervention in the matter was not optional. Paul’s Christian responsibility – before God – was to turn Peter around.

James tells us how we are to go to the rescue of every brother or sister in Christ who is experiencing a spiritual problem. This is the epitome of Christian love. We are to lay our life down for the brethren – even if it means going against the tide of popular opinion – even if it means going against the lackadaisical methods of many brethren in the Church, and risk being ostracized. This is what washing our neighbor’s feet is all about.

This question of our Christian practice, interaction, love and concern for one another is a major salvational issue. “We know that we have passed from death unto life, because we love the brethren. He that loves not his brother abides in death.” (1John 3:14)

This “love” is coming to the spiritual aid of anyone and everyone in God’s Church. If we do not love our brother, if we do not provoke him to good works, we abide in death. This love is Godly care. It is not mere sentiment. This is not the kind of “love” which is sung about in music. “Hereby perceive we the love of God, because He laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.” (1John 3:16) These are such soft words, but so strong. Those who refuse to step in because they are afraid to dirty their hands by washing someone’s feet, lack spiritual discernment. It is a great virtue to come to the rescue of a brother or sister who is spiritually in jeopardy.

We are not laying down our lives for the brethren if we do not reconcile, if we do not come to their aid, if we do not open our hearts and minds to them, if we do not share our deepest concerns with them, or when we do not provoke them to good works. We must awake a desire in others to tear down the walls that separate brethren. Being open and involved with others is difficult at first because it makes us vulnerable. But Jesus set the example for us by being a servant who washed away all our dirt, and saved us.

We may face a kind of personal crucifixion because we choose to be a friend and a neighbor to those in spiritually difficult situations. Even those in our own circle of acquaintances may ostracize us. Laying down our lives in a Godly way will bring about costly ramifications. It is for this very reason that we have been called by God, “Jesus Christ suffered for us, leaving us an example, that we should follow his steps.” (1Peter 2:21)

Throughout the year, we all come short of God's perfect standards – we sin and fall short of the perfection of Jesus Christ. The footwashing represents the constant renewal of grace required to cover one's daily sins after the initial justification brought through Christ's sacrifice. We, therefore, must wash the feet of one another. Not only must we have an attitude of being willing to lay our life down for others, we must actively intervene in “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.”