by Richard T. Ritenbaugh
The Passover marks the beginning of a new cycle of God's festivals and holy days. During the Passover service, before partaking of the symbols of Christ's body and blood, the unleavened bread and the wine, Christians participate in the footwashing ceremony. Though seemingly archaic in our modern world, footwashing provides necessary and important reminders of our duties to each other.
In the Palestine of Christ's day, where the roads were primarily unpaved and the people wore sandals, footwashing was a common service provided to guests. A servant, usually the lowest-ranking member of the household staff, would wash the dust off the guests' feet as they entered the home. This both kept the house clean and refreshed the guests. This simple act contains helpful lessons for our Christian lives.
1. When is footwashing performed? John 13:1-5.
Comment: During the evening of Nisan 14, Jesus and His disciples ate the Passover, commonly known as the "Last Supper." After the meal was served, Jesus rolled up His sleeves, as it were, tied a towel around His waist and washed His disciples' feet. Later in the evening, after He predicted that one of the disciples would betray Him (verses 21-26), Jesus introduced the symbols of bread and wine as part of the Passover service (Mark 14:18-24). Following this example, the church places the footwashing ritual first in the annual service.
2. What is its purpose? John 13:12-16.
Comment: Because of their incessant bickering about who would be the greatest in the Kingdom (Luke 22:24-27), Jesus gave the disciples an object lesson designed to show them what their real position was under Him. He tells them, "He who is greatest among you, let him be as the younger, and he who governs as he who serves" (verse 26). He shows them that they must be willing to do whatever task—even the most menial—that is necessary for the good of their brothers. This should have put them in the proper attitude for the Passover's greater purpose, Christ's sacrifice for our forgiveness and redemption.
3. What was Jesus' attitude? Philippians 2:3-7.
Comment: The attitude Jesus showed in washing His disciples' feet is the same attitude that enabled Him to give up the power and glory of being like God and become a man. Here we see that our Creator, the Almighty God, is first and foremost a servant. He is willing to serve His own servants! When we come to the point that we are able to do everything in an attitude of service and humility, we are truly following Jesus Christ.
4. What is the significance of having our feet washed? John 13:10.
Comment: Christians are "bathed"—made perfectly clean—at baptism (Acts 22:16; I Corinthians 6:11; Revelation 1:5). The footwashing acts as a yearly renewal of our baptism, our commitment to living God's way of life. As Jesus says, we do not need to be fully immersed again to renew our vow—to be recleansed from sin; we need only to have our feet washed to remove the dirt and dust we collect in our walk through life. It was for this reason that Jesus insisted that Peter allow Him to wash his feet (John 13:6-9).
5. Does the ritual itself make us clean, or do we play a part in our recleansing? John 13:10-11, 18.
Comment: The footwashing is simply a ritual, a ceremony, a symbolic act that outwardly manifests an inward attitude and conviction. In the example of Judas Iscariot, we see that though he went through the ritual, he was not really clean. The ritual could not remove the terrible sin that he was about to commit against his Creator. Because he had not repented of his sin, footwashing was meaningless to Judas.
Paul writes, "Examine yourselves as to whether you are in the faith. Prove yourselves" (II Corinthians 13:5). Isaiah urges, "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean; put away the evil of your doings" (Isaiah 1:16). In his psalm of repentance, on the other hand, David beseeches God, "Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin" (Psalm 51:2). Thus, we see that this rededication to God at Passover is a shared effort between us and God. We renew our faith in Christ's sacrifice, redevote ourselves to the New Covenant, repent of our spiritual failings and seek forgiveness, and He forgives us and cleanses us of our sins.
6. Is the footwashing a commanded ceremony for Christians? John 13:12-15.
Comment: Indeed it is! It is an object lesson whose meaning we are to inculcate into our lives and practice at every opportunity! As Christ served us, so should we serve others. The apostle John writes in I John 2:6, "He who says he abides in Him ought himself also to walk just as He walked."
7. Is there a blessing given for footwashing? John 13:17.
Comment: The word translated happy in the King James and New King James Bibles can easily be rendered "blessed," "favored" or "satisfied." There is a reward for following God's marvelous way of life! Not only will we be given eternal life and rulership in His Kingdom, but God will also bestow His blessing and favor upon us until we are completely satisfied!