with great emotional fervor,
in the limelight.
You know how eagerly I speak for You,
at a women’s club.
You know how I effervesce when I promote
a fellowship group.
You know my genuine enthusiasm
at a Bible study.
But how would I react, I wonder,
if You pointed to a basin of water,
and asked me to wash the calloused feet
of a bent and wrinkled old woman,
day after day, month after month,
in a room where nobody saw,
and nobody knew?
Ruth Harms Calkin
As the poem by Calkin demonstrates, foot-washing is a humbling act. This act is not frequent in the repertoire of the lords, or even fishermen apparently like the disciples themselves. The Gospel books of Luke and John are the only Gospel books which record Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. The last foot-washing is found in 1 Timothy 5:10 by the Apostle Paul.
Montague S. Mills suggests this Gospel story may be best read in the following order: Luke 22:24, John 13:2–17, Luke 22:25–30, John 13:18–20. Mills suggests that when read in this order "they complement and supplement each other very well indeed. (1)
In John 13:6 Peter is surprised that the Lord Jesus would attempt to wash his feet. Such feelings are also why many people will end up avoiding the practice altogether. For some, the idea of touching another persons bare foot is too much. This is indeed the point, since from Bible times it was an expression of hospitality extended to guests done by servants and occasionally the wife of the house. In ancient times people traveling dusty roads frequently needed to wash their feet for comfort and cleanliness. It was a job typically done by servants.
Foot-washing was generally performed by the lowliest servant in the household (c.f. Luke 7:44). At the Lord’s Supper, Jesus arose during the supper and washed His disciples’ feet. He explained that this act was an example of the humble ministry that they must always be ready to perform for one another. For example, John 13:5-17 states:
Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; (4) He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. (5) 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. (6) Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? (7) Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. (8) Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. (9) Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. (10) 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. (11) For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. (12) 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? (13) Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. (14) If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. (15) For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. (16) Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. (17) If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. KJV
Why should I wash your feet today though?
Foot-washing? To some the very image might invoke a shudder. Isn't helping one another or occasionally doing good deeds appropriate? To some degree, these deeds are exactly what Christ would have us do. In fact, to Christ the greatest must be a servant. It is our devotion and commitment to Christ-like humility however that should sustain us in all that we do.
Washing the feet of another is not limited to simply hospitality. Tertuallian, Chrysostom, Augustine, and even Origen advocate foot-washing as part of Christian tradition. For many years Catholics have held this act as a sacrament. St. Bernard of Clairvaux (1090-1153) is such a one. In fact, Herbert Thurston states, "In 694 the Seventeenth Synod of Toledo commanded all bishops and priests in a position of superiority under pain of excommunication to wash the feet of those subject to them." (2)
Later groups like the 11th and 12th century Albigenses and Waldenses observed foot washing as a religious rite. Martin Luther would later oppose footiwashing. Anabaptists and some Pietists groups held to the ritual as well. Mennonite groups, differing baptist groups, Seventh-Day Adventists, and Brethren in Christ all practice foot-washing as well. (3)
(12) 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? (13) Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am. (14) If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. (15) For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. (16) Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him. (17) If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them. John 13:12-17 KJVJesus says that what has been done, the Lord’s Supper/Communion and now the Foot-washing, was given BY HIM as an “example” that we should follow. Was the only meaning here for us to ritualistically wash each others feet? The foot-washing was a vehicle by which Christ portrayed the Christian virtue of humility and servitude to each other and their neighbor.
Christ tells us that if we know these things, happy are you if you do them. In fact, in 1 Timothy 5:10, prior to the writing of the Gospels, the Apostle Paul is writing before the 1st Century and suggests that the early church followed Christ’s example in observing the ritual of foot-washing. Paul states:
Do not let a widow under sixty years old be taken into the number, and not unless she has been the wife of one man, (10) well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work. 1 Timothy 5:9-10 NKJV
To Paul it seems, the idea of foot-washing is a "good work" done by believers. Ultimately, each Christian should strive to be Christ like in honoring Him and remembering His saving work for all humanity. Foot-washing is honoring Jesus and His sacrifice. As humans we owe a debt that we can never pay, but a thank you is appropriate. Foot-washing is not a primary issue or, in other words it does not effect salvation of the believer directly. A proud spirit should be cautioned against here. We should be willing to serve and promote the Christian virtue of humility. Proverbs confirms this:
Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall. Proverbs 16:18 NIV
Five Conclusions for Contemporary Christians:
First, foot-washing is an ancient and Biblical tradition of servitude in love (See Genesis 18:4, 19:2). Christ used this tradition to point out that the greatest among us must also be willing to serve.
Second, Christ washed all the Disciples feet. Here it seems He indicates His and subsequently our individual obligation to serve the whole. Jesus washed all the feet of the disciple and we can presume that includes Judas Iscariot. Jesus did so knowing the betrayal of Judas in advance.
Third, It is directly related to battling pride and conforming human nature to the will of God. If pride and conformation of human nature to divine principles is not being implicated in the texts of Scripture then very little can be said about the text all. Note 13:16
Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.In Luke 22:24-30 the disciples had been bickering over who would be the first in the Kingdom of Christ. This precedes Luke's account of the foot-washing incident.
Fourth, foot-washing is a continual act that we do literally and in practical living amongst others. It should be natural for believers today to gather and wash each others feet today in order to express their devotion and commitment to humility and servitude to the local Body of Christ. Some do this once or twice a year. It is truly a personal experience in humility.
In practical living though, the principle Christ is portraying should not be reserved for ritual foot-washing. An everyday attitude of humility and serving should be the permanent posture of the Christian believer.
Fifth, in the book--Alone with God--by John MacArthur proposes that the act of foot-washing was more than an example of humility. When this act was done by Christ it also represented "a picture of the forgiveness God gives in His repeated cleansing of those who are already saved." Although we must not wash our feet each time we sin, MacArthur also suggests that "purification is necessary every day because daily we fall short of God’s perfect holiness." (4)
This point overlaps with the third point since it is to remove pride and cause us to humble ourselves. At regeneration God changes our spiritual man but our human nature still exists and still must be sanctified.
Vinson Synan, from Regent University, has noted that the teachings of early Pentecostal believers were defined early on. Groups like the Church of God in Christ (COGIC), The Churches of God (COG), or the Pentecostal Holiness Church are early 19th Century Pentecostal groups. The practice and teachings of these early Pentecostals typically consisted of a strong preaching diet about a life of holiness and the baptism of the Holy Ghost.
Shortly after what Synan terms the "'oneness' controversy" (1913), groups like COGIC added foot-washing as a sacrament. COG founder A.J. Tomlinson forbid tobacco and alcohol amongst the beleivers and also required foot-washing as an ordinance. (5) Jack W. Hayford, pastor of the Foursquare Church in Los Angelas, states that "A number of Evangelicals and Pentecostals practiuce footwashing, following the example and instruction of Jesus."(6)
David K. Bernard in, History of Christian Doctrine, notes that most Oneness Pentecostal organizations worldwide practice foot-washing as an "ordinance"(7). The United Pentecostal Church International is one of the world's largest Oneness groups. Foot-washing is encouraged in their Articles of Faith and they urge all its members to practice this "in imitation of Christ and as a manifestaion of humility."(8)
The practice of foot-washing revives an ancient principle within each of us. A principle of servanthood, humility, and forgiveness. Foot-washing is symbolic and reminds us that we are called to serve, for the glory of God.
(1) Mills, S. Montague. (1999). The Life of Christ : A Study Guide to the Gospel Record. Three volumes: 1. The Advent of Jesus 2. The Beginning of the Gospel 3. Jesus presents Himself ot Israel. Dallas: 3E Ministries.
(2) "Washing of Feet and Hands." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 15. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 3 Jan. 2009
(4) MacArthur, John (1995). Alone with God. Includes indexes. Wheaton, Ill.: Victor Books.
(5) Synan, Vinson (2001). The century of the Holy Spirit : 100 years of Pentecostal and charismatic renewal, 1901-2001 (104). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(6) Hayford, Jack W., & Thomas Nelson Publishers. (1995). Hayford's Bible handbook. Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
(7) Bernard, David K. A History of Christian Doctrine, © 1999 David K. Bernard Word Aflame Press
(8) Bernard, David K. Understanding the Articles of Faith ©1998, Word Aflame Press