The Bible Account
(John 13:1-17) Rising from the table, Jesus looked around at the gathered disciples. They had just finished supper, commemorating the Passover. Jesus knew that He had just a few hours before He would offer Himself as a sacrifice on the cross for the salvation of mankind. This last supper together was a precious time in which Christ established an ordinance to reinforce one of the most important precepts of godly living.
Jesus Washes the Feet of His Disciples
With a heart of love, Jesus laid aside His mantle and girded Himself with a towel. He poured water into a basin and knelt down before His disciples. As a servant, He began to wash their feet and to wipe them with the towel. After washing one of the disciples’ feet, Jesus moved to Judas. He looked on him, knowing that Judas would soon betray Him. With love and humility, Jesus knelt in front of His betrayer and began to wash his feet.
Peter Feels Unworthy
As Jesus came to Peter, Peter asked, “Lord, are you going to wash my feet?”
Jesus replied, “You do not understand what I am doing right now, but you will know after this.”
Peter, feeling unworthy for the Son of God to wash his feet, responded, “You shall never wash my feet.”
Jesus answered saying, “If I do not wash thee, you have no part with me.”
“Then Lord,” Peter said with feeling, “Wash not only my feet, but my hands and my head.”
The Symbolism of Feet Washing
When He had finished, Jesus sat down with the disciples and began to explain the meaning and importance of what He had just done. “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 to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. 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” (John 13:13-16).
More Than a Custom
In Bible times, feet washing was a common practice because of the dusty conditions. It was typically the job of menial servants to wash the feet of guests. Jesus did not wash the feet of the disciples for the purpose of cleaning off the dirt. It is evident that Christ had never done this before, as demonstrated by the incredulity of Peter. It was more than just a cultural practice Jesus was performing. He told Peter, “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter” (John 13:7). Jesus established the literal act of feet washing as an ordinance for the Church to follow—an act which has spiritual and symbolic meaning.
Commanded by Christ
Jesus commissioned the disciples to go teach all nations, “Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you” (Matthew 28:20). Jesus laid down clear instruction for His people to follow this ordinance of feet washing. It was commanded by Christ and was not left as a discretionary practice. Jesus said, “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” The word “ought” in the Greek means: to owe, to be bound, or to be under obligation. “Men ought always to pray” (Luke 18:1b). “We ought to obey God rather than men” (Acts5:29b). “We ought also to love one another” (1 John 4:11). Clearly, God’s people are under an obligation to wash another’s feet. Furthermore, Jesus stated without ambiguity, “For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.”
Practiced By the Church
While many churches observe the ordinance of the Lord’s Supper, the ordinance of feet washing is rarely practiced. Many people are unwilling to wash another’s feet and they try to excuse and justify its absence. The ordinance of feet washing was not only taught by Christ but was observed by the apostolic church. When the church was financially helping a widow, she was only qualified for assistance “if she have washed the saints’ feet” (1 Timothy 5:10). When people deny this ordinance, they are refusing to humble themselves and are in disobedience to the instruction of Christ.
An Example of Humble Service
Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, demonstrated the humility and service required of true children of God. The Savior humbled Himself not only to the disciples who loved and followed him, but also to the disciple who betrayed him and was a hypocrite. This spirit of Christ is far different than the striving for position and recognition that is found in the religious world today. God’s people, the ministers, the apostles and leaders in the church are not greater than Christ. Hence, His example is to be followed—not as masters, lords or chiefs, but as servants (Luke 22:25-27).
The “Spirit” of Feet Washing
“Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves….Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who…made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:3-7). It is an act of humility to wash the feet of another person. It exemplifies the spirit that saints are to have at all times. Christians are to “be subject one to another, and be clothed with humility” (1 Peter 5:5). While the literal ordinance is not followed every day, the spirit of feet washing should ever be present in the life of a Christian.
There are Blessings in Obedience
Jesus established the ordinance of physical feet washing that His people might be reminded of the true spirit of humility, selflessness, servitude, and equality. Jesus commended a blessing on those who are obedient to follow His example in practice and in spirit. “If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17).