Christian Churches of God

No. 99





Significance of the Footwashing

(Edition 3.0 19950401-19990130-20070120)


Together with the paper Significance of the Bread and Wine (No. 100) this deals with the significance of the elements of the Lord’s Supper which constitutes the second sacrament of the Church. The footwashing signifies the laying aside of the life of Messiah.



Christian Churches of God

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(Copyright ã 1995 Ben Johnston, 1999, 2007 ed. Wade Cox)


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Significance of the Footwashing


It is appropriate at this time of year to think deeply on the Passover. This paper covers aspects of the footwashing ceremony. Where to start? We have all observed the fact of human nature that if a particular activity succeeds we say, “terrific” and think no more about it. But if it fails we start asking ourselves, “why?” and, in so doing, we learn.  Paul was doing just that.


The apostle Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth and that letter is preserved in the Bible for our learning and correction. Paul had established the Corinthian Church a few years earlier and the letter appears to have been written shortly before Passover. The Corinthian Church was having troubles with attitudes that were directly related to the pagan religions from which the people came.


We, as a young church, could have similar troubles. Contemplation on some of the issues in that letter will help us to improve our understanding and so make the coming Passover more significant. Selfishness, pride and ambition – the “I am” syndrome – sums it up. This had evidently grown out of bounds of propriety at Corinth and was manifest at the Lord’s Supper.


In 1Corinthians 11:17-22 we read some of what Paul said:


17 Now in this that I declare unto you I praise you not, that ye come together not for the better, but for the worse. 18 For first of all, when ye come together in the church, I hear that there be divisions among you; and I partly believe it. 19 For there must be also heresies among you, that they which are approved may be made manifest among you. 20 When ye come together therefore into one place, this is not to eat the Lord's supper. 21 For in eating every one taketh before other his own supper: and one is hungry, and another is drunken. 22 What? have ye not houses to eat and to drink in? or despise ye the church of God, and shame them that have not? What shall I say to you? shall I praise you in this? I praise you not.  (KJV used throughout)


It appears that in coming together for the Lord’s Supper, the Corinthian Church observed it in a manner after a pagan festival, prompting Paul’s comment regarding self- aggrandisement – gluttony and drunkenness.  The spiritual significance and symbolism of the bread and wine was being completely overlooked.


With the wisdom of hindsight it can be seen that the Church’s problem stemmed from not understanding the significance of the footwashing ceremony, which Jesus instructed his disciples to do before eating the bread and wine. John 13:1-17 gives us a clear picture of that event.


Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. 2 And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him; 3 Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; 4 He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. 5 After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. 6 Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? 7 Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. 8 Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. 9 Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. 10 Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. 11 For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean. 12 So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? 13 Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another's feet. 15  For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you. 16  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. 17 If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.


Footwashing to us is a personal thing and the ceremony of having our feet washed is an unusual event. But in the ancient world it was part of greeting and hospitality at dwelling places and was practised at all levels of society. People wore sandals or nothing at all on their feet and as a consequence their feet became muddy and grimy.


In wealthy homes there was a servant of low rank who performed this task. It is directly comparable to wiping our shoes on the doormat, or removing our shoes and leaving them outside, as some Europeans in this country do.


When Jesus took a towel and began washing the disciples’ feet it was quite outside their expectations. Here was their master washing their feet. Jesus chose to do it as an example of the kind of attitude we should have. It is an act of humility.


The disciples spent a lot of time contemplating who would get what job in the Kingdom as evidenced in Mark 10:35-45.


And James and John, the sons of Zebedee, come unto him, saying, Master, we would that thou shouldest do for us whatsoever we shall desire. 36 And he said unto them, What would ye that I should do for you? 37 They said unto him, Grant unto us that we may sit, one on thy right hand, and the other on thy left hand, in thy glory. 38  But Jesus said unto them, Ye know not what ye ask: can ye drink of the cup that I drink of? and be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with? 39  And they said unto him, We can. And Jesus said unto them, Ye shall indeed drink of the cup that I drink of; and with the baptism that I am baptized withal shall ye be baptized: 40  But to sit on my right hand and on my left hand is not mine to give; but it shall be given to them for whom it is prepared. 41 And when the ten heard it, they began to be much displeased with James and John. 42 But Jesus called them to him, and saith unto them, Ye know that they which are accounted to rule over the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and their great ones exercise authority upon them. 43 But so shall it not be among you: but whosoever will be great among you, shall be your minister: 44 And whosoever of you will be the chiefest, shall be servant of all. 45  For even the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many.


Thoughts of the Kingdom with selfish ambition were dominating the disciples’ minds. Another example is recorded in Luke 22:24-27.

And there was also a strife among them, which of them should be accounted the greatest. 25  And he said unto them, The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and they that exercise authority upon them are called benefactors. 26  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. 27 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.


In their culture, service and humility were despised – as the attributes of good slaves.  Humility was weakness. A man’s position in society was a reflection of his control and influence over others. For Jesus, their master, to perform the lowly job of footwashing completely reversed their value system.  From Jesus’ action we perceive that humility and service is a requirement for salvation.


Philippians 2:3-4 Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. 4 Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others.


1John 3:16  Hereby perceive we the love of God, because he laid down his life for us: and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.


So we see that it’s not only service and humility, but also a willingness to give up our lives for our brethren as Christ did, and what his actions were foreshadowing in the conversation recorded in John 13:6-7.

Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? 7 Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.


What Christ was doing is very clear to us now, but not to the apostles at that time. Contemplate the symbolism as we read the passage from John 12:1-8.

Then Jesus six days before the passover came to Bethany, where Lazarus was which had been dead, whom he raised from the dead. 2 There they made him a supper; and Martha served: but Lazarus was one of them that sat at the table with him. 3  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 odour of the ointment. 4 Then saith one of his disciples, Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, which should betray him, 5  Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor? 6  This he said, not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein. 7 Then said Jesus, Let her alone: against the day of my burying hath she kept this. 8 For the poor always ye have with you; but me ye have not always.


Mary anoints Jesus’ feet with costly oil that was used to prepare the dead for burial. Judas Iscariot complains about the waste (the cost of the oil being one year’s wages), symbolic of our being bought and of the annual observance of the ritual of the bread and wine. From what we have read, it would be reasonable to say that the apostles did not want to face the prophecy that their beloved master was soon to die.


Think back to the passages at John 13:4,12.  The actions and conversation are recorded.


John 13:4  He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.


John was inspired to use the Greek word tithenai, the term for laying aside in recording this event.  In chapters 10, 11, 15, 17 and 18 this word is used in recording Christ’s statement of laying down his life for the sheep.

John 13:12  So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?


John used the Greek verb lambenei (to take up) to describe Christ’s re-robing.


In chapters 10, 17 and 18 lambenei is used to describe Christ’s authority to take up his life again. Christ was prefiguring his self- sacrifice and resurrection.


In verses 6-10, Jesus’ conversation with Peter is recorded. Peter is indignant at his master wanting to wash his feet and says, “You shall never wash my feet”. It did not seem right to Peter that his master should wash his feet.


Jesus answered, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with me”.


By participating in the symbolism of the footwashing, we renew our partaking in Christ’s resurrection, ministry and inheritance.


Peter’s reply: “Lord not my feet only but also my hands and head”.


Jesus’ response: “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet, but is completely clean, and you are clean, but not all of you”. For Jesus knew Judas would betray him.


Christ was saying that after being washed in the waters of baptism our sins before repentance have been forgiven, and we do not need baptism every time we sin. But sin we do, and our need for regular cleansing is symbolised in our dirty feet – soiled in our travels in our intention of walking in God’s way but straying into the mire. We fall short even if we are going forward, and need forgiveness.


Taking part in the footwashing ceremony each year renews and rededicates us to our conversion and the cleanliness we received from baptism.


In conclusion, we can see that washing each other’s feet prepares us for the bread and wine. It reminds us of the correct, humble and repentant attitude (a repentance that deepens year by year) that we need to have when we come before God; not like the Corinthians. Think on who we are, where we come from and where we are going. God’s mercy and love toward us will prepare a worthy attitude to take the symbols of bread and wine.