Anyone who has ever kept the passover has asked “what does footwashing represent?”. We drink the wine and eat the bread, and those symbols are well defined. But footwashing? It isn’t mentioned in Matthew, Mark or Luke, and John doesn’t tell us a lot about it, just the command to do it; so true Christians everywhere wash each other’s feet and either don’t know what it means, or make up something. And if you must obey God in ignorance of why you’re doing what you’re doing, then by all means obey Him in ignorance; but if we can KNOW what it symbolizes, why we go through this ritual year by year, then we certainly should.
John 13:2 And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him;
First let’s set the stage; this happened after the “supper”. We know from harmonizing this with the other gospels that the old testament lamb had already been prepared and eaten this night to fulfill the old testament passover first. The old testament passover was to be killed and eaten between the two evenings, the period of twilight between sundown and complete darkness. So since supper was finished the sun’s light was probably about completely gone; most likely the footwashing took place about an hour and a half after sundown when supper was finished.
After that ceremony Jesus set into place the new symbols which would, from now on, be the new passover service. But before He did that, in the space between the old and new testament passovers that night, Jesus washed the disciples feet.
Before going into that further, let’s make a few facts clear:
- No one washed Jesus’ feet that night
- The disciples did not wash one another’s feet that night
- Peter was not the first one washed
- Jesus specifically changed his clothes for this ceremony, then changed back when it was finished before going on with the passover service
Those facts tend to challenge what we’ve always believed, but read through John 13 and no mention is made of anyone washing anyone except Jesus washing the disciples. This is important, so remember it…
John 13:4 He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.
Why would He change clothes? The room was already cleaned and prepared for this, so presumably they had already changed their clothes and were wearing appropriate attire for the passover service; why would Jesus change into a towel?
John 13:5 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.
This towel has to mean something important. But we’ll come back to that.
John 13:6 Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?
Peter wanted to know what Jesus was doing; WHY He was washing his feet. The same question we’re asking. Jesus didn’t give him a straight answer – He just said that Peter would understand later.
John 13:8 Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. …
That wasn’t good enough for Peter; Peter could not conceive of any understanding that he might receive “later” that would ever justify Jesus washing his feet; so he said that Jesus would NEVER wash His feet.
Verse 8 …Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.
Note that the focus is entirely on the recipient so far; this was NECESSARY for Peter. Peter HAD to receive this, or he would have no part with Jesus. If Jesus did not wash him, Peter was not a part of the body of Christ.
So regardless of what it did signify, it is obvious that after that statement Peter perceived immediately that whatever it was that He would understand later was moot for right now; he NEEDED to be washed! So he immediately changed his tune:
Verse 9 Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.
And Jesus immediately reigned in his enthusiasm yet again and said that the hands and head were not important in this context. Only the feet.
Verse 10-11 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. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.
Here he gives us an important key; He says clearly that the washing (of the feet) makes a person’s hands and head clean; and that ye are clean, but not all. This seems to have a dual meaning, for the obvious meaning is that the person is clean, but not entirely clean, hence the need to wash the feet.
But John interprets it as meaning that Judas was among them, therefore the group was not all clean. The fact that John made that connection shows clearly that the uncleanness being washed was spiritual in nature.
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?
Everyone who keeps the passover, at least everyone I’ve ever met, believes that they do in fact know what Jesus did to the disciples; believing that “Jesus taught them humility by example”. Now in all of John 13, humility is not mentioned once. Nor is pride, or anything related to those emotions. In fact, the lesson they received was the OPPOSITE of one designed to instill humility.
Think about it! The disciples did not wash one another’s feet that passover. So none of them were humbled before one another that year. On the other hand, all of them had their feet washed by GOD, their LORD humbled HIMSELF and washed THEM. Which could only have lifted them up! If humility had been the point, Jesus would have made certain they washed each other’s feet then. But humility for the disciples was not even hinted at for that passover.
John 13:13-15 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.
This is the scripture used to support the humility argument. But look at it closely; all it says it that their Lord washed their feet, and they ought to wash one another’s feet to follow his example. The phrasing is almost identical to a verse later in the same chapter:
John 13:34 A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another; as I have loved you, that ye also love one another.
This verse has nothing to do with humility; just saying that Jesus loved us, so we should follow his example and love one another. Just as earlier it had said that since Jesus washed our feet for us, so we should wash one another’s feet. At the risk of repeating myself, humility isn’t mentioned here; and you must force it to say that humility was the point of footwashing – yet Jesus made it quite clear a few verses previous that Peter was the one who gained by this experience, not Jesus.
Nothing is mentioned about the emphasis being on the GIVER, in any of this; this is about RECEIVING the washing. If it had been about giving, the disciples would have been washing HIS feet, and one another’s feet; but it was about the receiving of the washing, which is why Jesus was the only one who washed; Jesus didn’t need the humility of washing someone’s feet. His humility was not in question. But they NEEDED to be washed to be clean.
Verse 16-17 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. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.
This footwashing ceremony was to make those disciples happy if they did them. So let’s summarize what we have so far and see who could have profited by the experience:
- Did Jesus need humility? I doubt anyone would contend that He did; so then at that passover, the giver profited nothing by the experience; so if the experience was of any value, it was in the receiving as Jesus quite clearly said it was.
- Peter did not receive humility by having God wash his feet. Ergo, whatever profit there was had nothing to do with the humility of washing someone’s feet, but rather something that was gained BY having your feet washed by God.
- Whatever was gained by having your feet washed by God could not happen if God wasn’t there; therefore we were all commissioned to do it FOR God, after His example, washing one another’s feet in God’s stead.
Now as I said up front, this footwashing took place BEFORE the new testament passover symbols were taken. This is crucial because it shows us that whatever the footwashing is, it was REQUIRED before the new symbols could be eaten.
1 Corinthians 11:27 Wherefore whosoever shall eat this bread, and drink this cup of the Lord, unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord.
If you take the new symbols unworthily, you are guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord. In other words, you bear the blame for His death, in still other words, you are still unclean and therefore cannot take the passover.
The old testament passover required less; you could eat it as long as you were physically circumcised and were not presently physically unclean (because of touching a dead body, having leprosy, etc). But to take the new testament passover you have to be spiritually circumcised and not presently spiritually unclean.
The disciples were clean enough to take the old testament passover, but NOT clean enough to take the new. So to make them clean, Jesus had to put on a special garment and wash them, and THEN they were clean enough to take the new testament passover. If Jesus hadn’t washed Peter’s feet, Peter would have been eating the new passover unworthily and would have been drinking to himself judgment, and could have had no part with Jesus.
1 Corinthians 11:28-29 But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup. For he that eateth and drinketh unworthily, eateth and drinketh damnation to himself, not discerning the Lord’s body.
So something that the footwashing did cleansed Peter so that he could eat the new testament passover, even though he was clean enough for the old. This means that symbolically, it washed some spiritual sin off of Peter to prepare Him for the new passover. Remember that at the time, there were specific rules in place regarding passover attire; God had told Moses:
Exodus 12:11 And thus shall ye eat it; with your loins girded, your shoes on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and ye shall eat it in haste: it is the LORD’S passover.
So the disciples were wearing shoes at the time of eating the old testament physical passover to receive payment for their sins, and to buy their ticket out of physical Egypt. But at the time of taking the spiritual passover, we approach a spiritual throne to receive forgiveness of sins of the heart, and must purchase a ticket out of spiritual Egypt. But to approach holy ground, such as surrounds the throne room of God, shoes are forbidden.
Exodus 3:5 And he said, Draw not nigh hither: put off thy shoes from off thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground.
Joshua 5:15 And the captain of the LORD’S host said unto Joshua, Loose thy shoe from off thy foot; for the place whereon thou standest is holy. And Joshua did so.
So before the disciples took the spiritual passover, they took off their shoes and submitted to their feet being washed by Jesus, to prepare them for this holy ground. Israelites had to be wearing shoes to approach the physical throne at passover, but those under the covenant of Faith such as Moses and Joshua, the same covenant we are under, had to be shoeless when approaching truly holy ground. The only people who were allowed to enter holy ground were priests; and they could not enter without washing their feet!
Exodus 30:19-21 For Aaron and his sons shall wash their hands and their feet thereat: When they go into the tabernacle of the congregation, they shall wash with water, that they die not; or when they come near to the altar to minister, to burn offering made by fire unto the LORD: So they shall wash their hands and their feet, that they die not: and it shall be a statute for ever to them, even to him and to his seed throughout their generations.
In the old testament, priests were required to wash their hands as well, but I’ll come back to that. On each atonement, the only time when the high priest was allowed in the most holy place, symbolizing the throne room of God, the priest first put on special linen clothes and took a bath. If the priest entered dirty, he would have died on the spot.
Leviticus 16:4 He shall put on the holy linen coat, and he shall have the linen breeches upon his flesh, and shall be girded with a linen girdle, and with the linen mitre shall he be attired: these are holy garments; therefore shall he wash his flesh in water, and so put them on.
Then after performing the rituals, as he left the holy place he washed his body again and changed back into the normal priesthood garb (Verses 23-24). Only the high priest ever entered this place, and only once a year. Paul says that Jesus fulfilled this sacrifice once for all time.
Hebrews 9:24-26 For Christ is not entered into the holy places made with hands, which are the figures of the true; but into heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us: Nor yet that he should offer himself often, as the high priest entereth into the holy place every year with blood of others; For then must he often have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.
So Jesus entered into the holy of holies, the throne room of God in heaven once and finished this sacrifice forever. But we hold a memorial of that sacrifice, a memorial of the day that the veil was torn in two and the holy of holies was opened up to all mankind who were worthy. We remember it every time we take the bread and wine at the passover service. But now compare the atonement service with what Jesus did that night:
John 13:4-5 (Murdoch) [He] arose from the supper, and laid aside his long garments, and took a linen cloth, and wrapped it about his loins; and poured water into a wash-basin, and began to wash the feet of his disciples: and he wiped them with the linen cloth with which he had girded his loins.
The word translated “towel” in the King James is the Greek “lention“, which means “linen”. So Jesus rose from officiating the Old Testament passover service, changed into a linen garment such as the high priest wore, then washed the disciples feet, then changed back into his “street clothes” and proceeded to give them the New Testament passover service. That is a striking comparison.
Jesus was to die the next day, and his sacrifice was to open up access to the holy of holies for all of mankind, any who would clean their heart could enter. But before that could happen, we had to be cleaned. We are not high priests; we have no particular right go before that throne on a whim, we enter under the auspices of Jesus who put us on the guest list, you might say. But each year on passover we remember the sacrifice of Jesus, who died for us so that our hearts could be sprinkled with the blood of the new covenant.
Hebrews 10:22 Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.
Before we could be authorized to enter the holy of holies, we had to have a clean conscience, symbolized by being washed in pure water. Then we would enter the holy of holies and could receive the body and blood of the lamb to forgive spiritual sins and officially cleanse our hearts.
The disciples had been baptized, no doubt by John; they had had their sins washed away symbolically. And they had done pretty well, all things considered, at keeping sins out since then, although they continually frustrated Jesus with their lack of understanding. But still, they accumulated a certain amount of dirt.
The simplest shoe to make is a sandal – a strap or two across a chunk of leather or wood and you have a shoe. They are also much more comfortable in hot climates than the shoes we wear today. But sandals kick up dust when they move and that dust inevitably winds up on your feet. It’s not hard to connect dirt and dust to sin.
Luke 10:10-11 But into whatsoever city ye enter, and they receive you not, go your ways out into the streets of the same, and say, Even the very dust of your city, which cleaveth on us, we do wipe off against you: notwithstanding be ye sure of this, that the kingdom of God is come nigh unto you.
We are sent out as emissaries of Jesus, the Lamb of God who “taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). If we preach what Jesus preached, and they hear us, their sins will be taken away. And that is the primary symbolism of the passover as well. But if they don’t hear us, and if someone doesn’t eat the passover, their sins will remain on them and it will be a judgment upon them when God tallies up the sins of mankind. So when we see that a city, or a church, or a person will not receive the things we say, staying behind in Sodom will only defile us and make the sins, the dust, of that city cleave to us; so we leave such cities, and follow the command of Jesus when He said…
Mark 6:11 And whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear you, when ye depart thence, shake off the dust under your feet for a testimony against them. Verily I say unto you, It shall be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrha in the day of judgment, than for that city.
Year by year as we wander the world, our goal should be to keep every part of our bodies clean. But as we walk around in our sandals, kicking up the dust of the world, some of it is bound to stick to us – else we’d have to leave the world. Now if your head gets dirty, there is no point in washing it. If with your mind you serve the law of sin, there is no point in rewashing you. If your hand gets dirty, and your works go to serve sin, there is no point in washing them. So Jesus didn’t need to wash those parts of Peter. If they’d been dirty, there would have been no point anyway; it would have already been too late.
But some part of you must touch this defiled Earth; and some part of you must be soiled by that contact (else you’d have to leave the world, as Paul put it). And so as we examine ourselves every passover, we hunt for that dirt, leavening if you will, and brush it off our clothes; and at the passover service we wash one another’s feet in the name of Jesus Christ, washing off those sins which accumulated over the past year. We wash each others feet, not to learn humility, but to act in the office of Jesus to wash the sins off one another’s feet, cleaning each other’s feet in his name so that each of us may enter the holy of holies with freshened feet to remember that greatest of sacrifices.
This is a task so important that God dared not entrust it to the ministry, but put the power in the hands of every spiritually circumcised member of the church. We are all brethren, and all of those in the true church of God – anyone in the church of God, not just the ministry – are all a royal priesthood of God.
1 Peter 2:5,9 Ye also, as lively stones, are built up a spiritual house, an holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices, acceptable to God by Jesus Christ. But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; …
And as such when you approach the throne of God to make an offering, you must remove your shoes and wash your feet. But we don’t have a physical temple or physical sacrifices. Our temple is our body, and our altar is our spirit; that spirit must be washed with the blood of the lamb and filled with His body, symbolized by the wine and the blood.
When we keep the New Testament passover, it is to take the blood and the wine into our temple, and there offer it upon the altar of our heart in the office of a priest. Today, no human priest offers sacrifices for you – no priest can see your heart, and so none is qualified to offer sacrifices for spiritual sins for you. So you offer them yourself, in your own heart.
But before you can make those offerings, you must make the temple holy by judging yourself, repenting of any sins that have been piling up on you, and generally sweeping up the dust around your heart. Once you’ve done that, the spirit of God dwells in your heart; once that happens, your heart becomes holy ground. And to enter holy ground… you have to take off your shoes.
Ecclesiastes 5:1 KEEP THY FOOT when thou goest to the house of God, and be more ready to hear, than to give the sacrifice of fools: for they consider not that they do evil.
The high priests washed their own feet when entering the most holy place, but we are not high priests; Jesus now fills the job of high priest, and allows us who have no right of blood, direct access to the holy of holies even though we are not high priests yet. But before we may enter, He must wash our feet.
Or someone must wash our feet in His name, and by His authority.