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Foot Washing

The Privilege Of Feet Washing

“For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” — John 13:15, 14

Homer Montague

The ancient custom of providing water for guests to wash their feet is mentioned in various scriptures. One illustration of this practice was on the occasion of a mysterious visit by “three men” to Abraham. In Genesis 18:2-4 we read: “And he lift up his eyes and looked, and, lo, three men stood by him: and when he saw them, he ran to meet them from the tent door, and bowed himself toward the ground, and said, My Lord, if now I have found favor in thy sight, pass not away, I pray thee, from thy servant: Let a little water, I pray you, be fetched, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree.”

Again, when two of these three visited Lot in Sodom, he made a similar offer to these sojourners. “And he said, Behold now, my lords, turn in, I pray you, into your servant’s house, and tarry all night, and wash your feet, and ye shall rise up early, and go on your ways. And they said, Nay; but we will abide in the street all night” (Genesis 19:2; see also Judg. 19:20, 21).

These Old Testament examples of hospitality are a springboard for considering three narratives during Jesus’ day which contrast the spirit of love, service, and humility on the one hand with that of neglect or dissatisfaction that such an expression was manifested.

Washed With Tears

The first of these incidents is chronicled in Luke 7:36-50. A Pharisee named Simon invited Jesus to his home for a meal. While he was seated at the table, a woman, probably a harlot, came to the Master with an alabaster receptacle containing a costly, sweet-smelling lotion. Perhaps she had heard Jesus’ words as he taught the people and desired to make some amends for her sinful condition. Overcome with weeping, her tears fell upon Jesus’ feet and she wiped them away, kissed his feet and poured fragrant ointment upon them.

A key indicator of Simon’s heart attitude is expressed by his thought regarding the Lord: “This man, if he were a prophet, would have known who and what manner of woman this is that toucheth him: for she is a sinner” (Luke 7:39).

Jesus, reading Simon’s mind, responded by giving an illustration of how a creditor forgave two debtors, one who owed a small sum and one who owed a considerable amount of money. Neither could pay anything, and the man to whom they were in debt forgave them both. The Master then asked Simon which of them for such kindness would have the greater love for the man; and he correctly answered that it would be the one who owed the most and was forgiven most.

Our Lord then cited this sinful woman’s unceasing manifestation of love and service towards him by anointing and kissing his feet. Simon’s failure to provide Jesus, his invited guest, with water to wash his own feet was clearly an evidence of his indifference and lack of true hospitality.

Since Simon was a Pharisee, he likely considered himself to be rather important and probably felt he was bestowing an honor to Jesus by inviting him to dinner. Additionally, since the Master’s followers were unlearned men, Simon may have reasoned that it would not be appropriate for him to bestow the usual manifestations of hospitality upon Jesus lest the impression be given that he acknowledged the Lord to be at least his equal.

When Simon observed the Master receiving attention from the obviously “inferior” woman who washed and kissed his feet, it probably reinforced in his mind that Jesus really was not worthy of receiving the normal amenities befitting an honored guest in his home. Simon’s attitude of self importance was in stark contrast to that of the Son of God who humbled himself even to the death of the cross (Phil. 2:8).

Anointing the Feet

A second incident where the concept of feet washing is chronicled is found in John 12:1-3 which reads: “Then Jesus six days before the Passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odor of the ointment.”

The fact that Mary used her hair to wipe Jesus’ feet surely pictures her loving devotion to the Master, although the subsequent comments of Judas indicated some dissatisfaction with her use of this expensive perfume. Jesus indicated, however, she should be let alone, because she had done what she could. We note also that Judas was a thief and his expressed concern for using the money procured by the sale of the ointment to help the poor was probably insincere.

How powerful was the Master’s commendation of Mary’s actions, given in Matthew 26:11-13: “For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always. For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial. Verily I say unto you, Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached in the whole world, there shall also this, that this woman hath done, be told for a memorial of her.”

This memorial attested to Mary’s sweet character and loving heart. It is not presently our privilege to anoint the literal feet of Jesus as did Mary, but we suggest this passage of scripture was given as an illustration that true Christians should desire to be like Mary and lavish very costly perfume upon the body of Christ, the church. This would mean a manifestation of concern, kindness, gentleness, patience, assistance, and sympathy as we strive to bless others.

From a natural standpoint, the washing of feet is perhaps not the most glorious activity in which we might engage. Considering some of the imperfections which each of us continues to have, it would take a large measure of love and humility to exert ourselves in striving to serve our brethren. We are not to allow differences along one line or another hinder us from seeking to do good unto all that we have opportunity, especially the household of faith.

Washing the Disciples’ Feet

A third episode involving feet washing occurred at the end of Jesus’ ministry. On the occasion of the Master’s final gathering together of his disciples for the Passover Supper, we find the following account recorded in Luke 22:23-27:

“And they began to inquire among themselves, which of them it was that should do this thing. And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. But ye shall not be so: but he that is greatest among you, let him be as the younger; and he that is chief, as he that doth serve. For whether 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 serveth.”

Given the solemnity of the occasion and the fact that Jesus had been preparing his disciples for his death (Matthew 16:21), it seems almost incredible they should be arguing among themselves as to which of them was to be the greatest. As followers of the Savior, they should have realized through his example that rendering service to others would be one of the greatest privileges they could have and such a spirit undoubtedly would meet with the heavenly Father’s approval.

The thirteenth chapter of John indicates the Master’s concern at this hour and his action should serve as an object lesson for all of his children down throughout the age. Verse 1 speaks of the Lord’s love and suggests that this was the basis for dealing with his own. He had left his spiritual plane as the Logos to lay his life down in sacrifice. Then we note how he gently taught the twelve apostles lessons of humility. As the chapter continues, it becomes evident that the disciples of the Lord were not as attentive to him as they should have been. Had they been guests of someone else, their own feet would have been washed by the servant of the host. Here they had no host other than the great Master who was in their midst.

Verse 4 indicates that Jesus rose in the middle of the meal, which apparently had not ended as yet. He girded himself and he washed the feet of the disciples. They must have been shocked and silent that the Great Teacher, their Lord, would do such a thing.

The lessons of verses 6 through 8 indicate that Peter, one of the most prominent characters in scripture, did not want Jesus to wash his feet at first. Going to the extreme, Peter stated he would never allow that to happen, until the Master indicated that unless he washed Peter’s feet, he could have no part with him in the kingdom.

No Need to Wash the Whole Body

After our Lord made that point, Peter was willing to have his whole body washed. There was an object lesson given when the Master pointed out that he who was clean needed only to wash his feet. Jesus pointed out that not all of them were clean, the reference obviously being made to Judas. The meaning of our Lord’s admonition in verse 14 that they ought to wash one another’s feet is amplified where we later read in John 13:34, 35: “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another. By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”

A review of these experiences in the upper room on the Savior’s final night brings to mind the frailties of the disciples who had yet to receive spirit begettal. Although they walked with the Master for those 3 years, it was not until they had received the holy spirit after the day of Pentecost, they were able to manifest the determination to serve him in a way that would enable them to become pillars of the church.

Foot Washing Today

Although our Lord is no longer in the flesh, let us manifest that kind of spirit towards one another, doing now for our brethren what might have been our privilege to do had we been in that upper room with our Savior.

When we note the weaknesses, trials, and temptations of fellow believers, let us remember that we, too, are subject to the same attacks by the world, the flesh and the adversary. In our sympathetic desire to help others be more than overcomers, a reciprocal washing of one another’s feet would imply close contact with loving thoughts and humility. Let us recognize we too have much need of the aid our brethren can provide for us through their actions, prayers, and general spirit of encouragement.

Within the ecclesia and among those with whom we have frequent fellowship, if we are actively engaged in promoting one another’s spiritual growth and development, we should be able to appreciate that all of our brethren have certain qualities, graces, or attributes that can benefit us; and we, likewise, should be on the alert as to how we can be of help to them.

There are many forms of service which each of us can provide. These include volunteering for ecclesia projects, entertaining visitors, witnessing, providing transportation, sending messages of comfort, visiting the ill or isolated, sharing of tapes or truth literature, typing, proofreading, testifying, etc.

Each of us should realize that we have something to give for the edification of the body. We should be faithful in contributing to our ecclesia studies, praying for others, and being a model of someone whose life is undergoing the transformation process; being, therefore, an example of a believer. Let us be faithful in washing one another’s feet!