Footwashing Encyclopedia

Related: Cleansing
Footwashing. The very first subject brought out in the upper room ministry (John 13 - 17) is footwashing, which represents the work of refreshment and removing daily defilement for the maintenance of communion. It comes first before the rest of the upper room ministry, because we cannot enjoy Christ with defiled feet, so to speak. The subject is not entirely unique to John 13, but that is the most extensive treatment of it. It is important to see that footwashing is a symbolical action, not a physical ritual. Some groups of Christians down through the centuries have taken the Lord's command in John 13:14 literally; "If I therefore, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet", and in so doing they miss the whole point of the passage. How do we know footwashing is symbolic? In v.7 Jesus said to Peter "What I do thou dost not know now, but thou shalt know hereafter". What did Peter not understand? He did not understand the symbolic meaning of what Jesus was doing. It was something that Peter (and the others) would later understand when the Holy Spirit gave them intelligence. Now surely Peter understood what literal footwashing meant, and therefore Jesus was indicating by His actions a spiritual reality that goes far deeper than the middle-eastern tradition.

We first read of footwashing in Genesis 18, when Abraham offered water to wash the feet of the three visitors to his tent in the plains of Mamre. We read in Exodus 30 of the laver of brass for the priests to wash not only their hands but also their feet. In those days when travel was done by foot, dust and grime from the roads would cling to the skin, and by the end of the day, the average person's feet would be hot and completely filthy. Upon retiring for the evening, it was customary to wash one's own feet. When receiving traveling guests, it was common courtesy for the host to provide water for the travellers' feet (Luke 7:44). However, the actual work of washing another's feet was quite unpleasant, and normally would be reserved for the servants. In the upper room Jesus did something completely contrary to what the disciples had known; He laid aside his garments, took water and a towel, and washed the disciples' feet. Incredible humility! He, the glorious Son of God, took the place of a lowly servant.

What Footwashing Represents. Literal footwashing was done to remove the filth of dusty roads from the feet, and to give refreshment after a long day. Literal footwashing, as seen in John 13, represents a spiritual activity that Jesus does for believers even today, and which we can do for one another as well. The Lord explained to Peter the meaning of footwashing; "Unless I wash thee, thou hast not part with me." Footwashing in a spiritual sense is the way we are continually cleansed from the defilments of the pathway, and refreshed, in order to maintain communion with Christ. If we do not avail ourselves of this ongoing work of Christ, we cannot remain long in communion with Him. Footwashing is accomplished through "the washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:26). Christ, through the Spirit of God, applies the Word of God to our heart and conscience, and when self-judgment takes place, the defilement is removed, and our spirit is refreshed.1 It is part of the ongoing work of Christ as our Advocate; "if any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous" (1 John 2:1). The difference between John 13 and 1 John 2 is that footwashing has to do with defilement in a broad sense, rather than positive sin. For example, if I hear a dirty joke at work, I become defiled by it. But if I tell a dirty joke, it is outright sin, and I would need to confess it to the Lord, who is faithful to forgive us (1 John 1:9). But it is possible to be defiled without hardly knowing it. Feet represent our walk in this world. The Word of God washes over us, and transforms us by renewing our minds (Rom. 12:2), cleansing away the defilement. Footwashing is a moral cleansing (by water, not by blood), which is one of several types of cleansing in Christianity.2 Read more...
What Footwashing is Not. In the first century church, literal footwashing was a cultural practice (1 Tim. 5:10). As we have already shown from v.7, to limit footwashing to a dead ordinance would be to miss the intended purpose. Those who do so make it into a law for themselves. There are many other mis-interpretations of footwashing. We do have in footwashing a powerful lesson in humility; however, it would be a mistake to limit the teaching of John 13:1-17 to humility. Footwashing requires humility, but it is much more than that. Humility on the part of one does not cleanse the defilement of another. Others twist Christ's teaching on footwashing to make it apply to baptism, as if baptism could save the soul. In fact, Peter made both of these errors! He first saw it only as humiliation for the Lord ("thou shalt never wash my feet"), and then he swung to the other side and applied it to salvation ("not my feet only, but also my hands and my head"). Whether men restrict footwashing to a physical ritual, or confuse it with baptism, or limit it to a lesson in humility, all fall short of the true teaching of the passage.
A Pattern for Footwashing. We see in the Lord's actions in John 13 certain symbols that give us a pattern for footwashing.
Symbol The Lord Our Pattern
"He rises from supper".
Jesus rose up from the table, perhaps picturing His rising from the dead and returning to the Father in heaven, after the work of the cross (Passover) was complete. It is from this place, as a risen, glorified man, that He undertakes the work of footwashing. This is similar to John 6:15 where Jesus goes into a mountain, a type of His place on high while He intercedes for His disciples below.
Only those who are associated with the risen Man and share His resurrection life are able to be involved in footwashing. We must ourselves be in association with Christ before we can help others.
"He lays aside his garments".
Jesus laying aside His garments represents His laying aside His official rights as Messiah.3 As the Messiah, He ought to have the most honored place in the nation. He did not cease to be Messiah, but He did not insist on His rights. Instead He laid aside that character altogether, to take up a different position. While Christ is in glory and His disciples on earth, He leaves the royal garments set aside, instead occupied with an intercessory work.4
We are to have the same mind in us as was in Christ Jesus. If we are to be used to wash our brethren's feet, we must be willing to abandon all thoughts of self-importance, and get low. 
"Having taken a linen towel he girded himself".
Most hosts would provide water for their guests to wash, and the rich would have a servant undertake the lowly task. Jesus, great as He was, takes the place of a servant. He "took upon him the form of a servant" (Phil. 2:7). A servant lives for the wishes and comfort of others. Christ became a servant in incarnation, but He has not ceased to be a servant. Even today in heaven, Christ is serving His own. He remains a servant forever (Exodus 21:1-6; Luke 12:37).
We must be willing to take the place of a servant. Footwashing is not something I do for myself, but for my brethren. It is not about getting something off your chest, but about ministering to others with tender love and care.
The Word of God
"He pours water into the washhand basin".
Water in scripture, especially contained water, represents the Word of God; "the washing of water by the word" (Eph. 5:26). We read of pools of water in 2 Kings 3, water pots in John 2, etc. These are types of the Word. There are different types of cleansing in scripture, but moral cleansing is by water, while judicial cleansing is by blood. The basin is a container. In a general sense, the water in a basin represents Christ Himself, the Eternal Word (water) become flesh (basin). When we go about to wash one another's feet, we also must use water, and first pour it into a basin. Containing water in a basin might represent mediation. We cannot share something from the Word we have not enjoyed ourselves.
"He began to wash the feet of the disciples".
The Word of God is applied to us by the Spirit of God, and moral cleansing takes place. It is really the Lord washing our feet. From His place in heaven, Christ continues this work of cleansing and restoring His saints, that they might enjoy communion with Him. There is a once-for-all water cleansing that occurs at new birth (v.10), but this is a continual, daily cleansing, which we will need as long as we are on earth. We too can and should wash one another's feet (v.14). This is done by continually bringing the Word of God before our fellow-believers. Not a pointed rebuke, but by presenting Christ to the heart and conscience.
"To wipe them with the linen towel with which he was girded".
Jesus took the towel, which He had girded Himself with, and used it to dry the feet of the disciples. I believe that speaks of the comforting grace that Jesus has in His work of cleansing and restoring us. He doesn't leave our feet wet and uncomfortable. His words have a comforting and settling effect. "And all bare him witness, and wondered at the gracious words which proceeded out of his mouth" (Luke 4:22). It was the same towel he was girded with; and I believe it is the servant-character of Christ that comforts and warms our hearts. Footwashing is not an assault on our brethren, like using a fire hose or pressure-washer. It is to be done gently, though firmly, but we need to use the towel. We should try to leave our brethren feeling secure and comforted.5
  1. It is the washing of water by the word which the Spirit applies in answer to the Son's advocacy with the Father. Of this Christ was here giving the sign. - Kelly, W. Exposition of the Gospel of John.
  2. Be it carefully observed that it is a question here of water, not of blood. The reader of John's Gospel will not have overlooked that He makes much of "water" as well as "blood." So did the Lord in presenting the truth to His own, and no one shows this more than John. His first epistle also characterises the Lord as "He that came by water and blood; not in water only, but in water and blood." (1 John 5:6.) He purifies as well as atones. He employs the word to cleanse those who are washed from their sins in His blood. The Apostles Paul, Peter, and James, insist on this effect of the word, as John does. It is disastrous and dangerous in the highest degree to overlook purification by the washing of water by the word. If "the blood" is Godward, though for us "the water" is saintward to remove impurity in practice, as well as to give a new nature which judges evil according to God and His Word, of which it is the sign, adding to it the death of Christ, which gives its measure and force. Out of His pierced side came blood and water (chapter 19). - Kelly, W. Exposition of the Gospel of John.
  3. Garments in scripture often represent a person's status or character. For example, often in the Old Testament when a person was upset or sorry, they would rend their clothes or put on sackcloth (Gen. 37:34). When the prodigal son returned, the father brought forth the "best robe", symbolizing a place of dignity.
  4. There is an analog expression in Phil. 2:6-7; "who, subsisting in the form of God, did not esteem it an object of rapine to be on an equality with God, but emptied himself". He veiled His personal, intrinsic glory such that it could not be seen by the human eye. In Philippians 2 it it the veiling of His personal glory, in John 13 it is the veiling of His official glory.
  5. There are two things we need to be careful of: using the water without the towel, and using the towel without the water. In the first case, the defilement is removed, but the soul is left unsettled, and on edge. In the second case, the defilement is not removed, and even the towel does not have its desired effect.