What About Foot Washing?

by Pastor Ricky Kurth

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“What about foot-washing (John 13:1-17)?”

The text you cite has prompted several Christian denominations to practice foot-washing as a religious ceremonial rite. We feel the Lord was merely teaching the apostles a lesson about humility, a lesson they sorely needed (Lk. 9:46; 22:24).

In Bible days, feet that walked in sandals on dusty ground needed washing when they arrived at their destination (Gen. 19:2; 24:32). This humble task was often rendered by a servant (Gen. 18:4) or those willing to serve as a servant (Lk. 7:38; I Tim. 5:10). Proud men would of course refuse to wash a man’s feet (Lk. 7:44), and since this was sadly true of the apostles, the Lord washed their feet as “an example” (John 13:15) of humility.

This word example is important. The Mona Lisa is an example of Renaissance art, but this does not mean all Renaissance art is characterized by portraits of women. It rather means that the Mona Lisa has the same spirit of other works of that era. Thus the Lord washed the apostles’ feet to exemplify how they should treat others in the same spirit of humility. While washing a man’s feet exemplified this spirit well in Bible days, paved walks and leather shoes have rendered this particular example of humility obsolete. Today, guests are shown the same humble spirit with a beverage, a meal, and other gestures. We feel those who insist on practicing the exact example of humility the Lord gave are emphasizing symbolism over substance. They sometimes ask why we observe the Lord’s Supper but not foot washing, but the former is never said to be an example of what to do. Paul rather says, “This do” (I Cor. 11:24,25).

Finally, there is a doctrinal significance to this ceremony that renders it exclusive to Israel. God promised Israel they’d be a kingdom of priests (Ex. 19:6), and priests had to be washed in an initial baptism ceremony to initiate them into the priesthood (Ex. 29:4). Later they had to wash their hands and feet as part of their daily service (Ex. 30:19-21). When John preached that the kingdom was “at hand” (Mt. 3:2), he meant the kingdom in which Israel would be a kingdom of priests, so he baptized them to initiate them into the priesthood. In John 13, the time for the twelve to minister to the world as priests was drawing nigh, so the Lord washed their feet so they could function as priests (cf. John 13:6-10).

To the Reader:

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