Understanding Foot Washing
John 13:5, “… and began to wash the disciples’ feet, …”
There is a good amount of confusion around this subject of foot washing. It is evident that Peter himself did not understand its true meaning because he went from one extreme to the other – from not wanting anything washed, to requesting a bath. The confusion still exists today. Some see it as a church ordinance; some see it as a show of humility; others as instruction in Christian service.
Neither time nor space will allow me to exegete each of these individual positions on foot washing. Sufficient to say, after study and research, my position is that foot washing is a lesson in maintaining good interpersonal relations among believers in the absence of visible authority. In their case, as well as in ours, the absent authority is the dear Lord Jesus.
Jesus had been with them now for three and a half years. When they needed mediation, He was there for them, “Now … when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, …” (John 13:1). In the next four chapters, He refers to His leaving them 16 additional times. Put the instruction of foot washing in the context of Him going away and you must conclude that He is preparing them for a new experience (i.e. unity in the absence of visible authority).
The assignment He had for them was world evangelism. That would necessitate they be in one accord (Acts 1:14, 2:1). Jesus now does what He does so well in other places – He taught spiritual truth by referring to farmers, fishermen, and shepherds as well as soil, seeds, and sowing. He turns to a common activity of the day, foot washing, to illustrate how to maintain that one accord.
From foot washing, we see the necessity of foot washing. It was an inescapable reality in their culture that walking in sockless sandals on dusty roads would require periodical foot washing.
Because we Christians are in the world, but not of the world, it is an inescapable truth that our walk at times requires us to do, or allow others to do, spiritual foot washing. This speaks to the fact that nobody is perfect. You will discover imperfections and defilement in the best of people. Remember, He was speaking to 11 of the best people on earth – the apostles.
Go into every relationship with a towel, basin, and water within reach for sooner or later, in every relationship, flaws will surface – in marriage, friendships, families, church membership, and pastor and people relationships.
Foot washing speaks of frequency, it was a daily activity. Foot washing was best done before the dust caked into mud.
The Scripture says in Ephesians 4:26, “… let not the sun go down upon your wrath:” (which is another way of saying to take care of your problems early). Jesus said in Matthew 5:25, “Agree with thine adversary quickly, …” I wonder how many marriages would have been saved if the problem was dealt with early on? Not allowing the dust to build into mud, how many church splits would have been avoided, and how many lifelong friendships would have been salvaged, if the problem would have been dealt with early on.
Our best example in foot washing is the dear Lord Jesus. “… 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 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).