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The foot washing ceremony was introduced to the disciples by Christ after he and they had eaten their evening meal. This was the night of Christ’s last Passover observance – the night before he was murdered. Christ made the importance of the foot washing ceremony clear with his statement that if the disciples did not allow him to wash their feet, then they would have no part with him in the future, John 13:8, “…Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part in me’…” [KJV throughout unless otherwise stated].
The foot washing ceremony is important to Christ because it symbolizes living God’s way of life, a life of service to others.
Christ came into the world for two principal reasons:
1. To live God’s way of life to the full, thereby giving us an example of how to live.
Matt 5:17 “…Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil….”
2. To pay the penalty for our sins when we slip-up in trying to live God's way of life.
Matt 20:28 “…Even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many….”
These two reasons for being are shown to us through the new Passover symbols as given by Christ and recorded for us in John 13, where we see the distinct parts:–
1. Partaking of the bread & wine, which signifies our acceptance of Christ’s sacrifice in payment for our sins. In other words, it signifies our reconciliation to God through the atoning sacrifice of Christ; and
2. The foot washing ceremony, which signifies our agreement to participate in living God’s way of life (fulfilling the law after Christ’s example) – it is a readiness to live God's way, which was symbolized by the Israelites being ready to travel when they ate of the Passover lamb in Egypt (Ex 12:11). This agreement to participate in God’s way of life becomes a commitment only after receipt of the Holy Spirit (explained later through the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread).
Concentrating on the foot washing ceremony, we can see the full account in John 13:3-8:
“…3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, 4 rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. 5 Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded. 6 He came to Simon Peter; and Peter said to him, ‘Lord, do you wash my feet?’ 7 Jesus answered him, ‘What I am doing you do not know now, but afterward you will understand.’ 8 Peter said to him, ‘You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered him, ‘If I do not wash you, you have no part in me’…."
This part of the Passover service, the foot washing ceremony, is not intended to symbolize Christ making us clean spiritually – making us clean spiritually occurs later at baptism, which is symbolized by the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread.
Sometimes it is difficult to understand why God requires certain things of us and this was definitely the case with Peter – he outright refused to allow Christ to wash his feet until Christ made it a command. Even then he did not understand, but he did obey and Christ promised understanding would come later. This principle of obedience first and understanding second is brought out very clearly in Psa 111:10: [NKJV]
“…The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom; A good understanding have all those who do His commandments…”.
Choosing to obey or not obey is NOT an option – we obey God's commands or we have no part with Him or Christ. This is stated very strongly in James 4:11 and while a specific law was being discussed, the principle is the same for the whole of God's commands – God does not change:
“…But your job is not to decide whether this law is right or wrong, but to obey it…” [TLB].
The foot washing ceremony is about service to others, being prepared to participate God’s way of life.
Christ came to live God's way of life, fully and completely. The way he lived his life is to be an example for us and what Peter was saying by refusing to let Christ wash his feet was,
"I don't want your example, I don’t want your help, I don’t want your teachings, and I don’t want your way of life!"
Naturally, because he did not have the Holy Spirit, Peter did not understand that this was what he was actually saying, just as he did not understand why Christ was washing feet in the first place. However, knowing that Christ would consider Peter’s objection to be an objection to participating in God’s way of life, we can appreciate why Christ would say that Peter would have no future with him if Peter did not allow Christ to wash his feet.
Going back to John 13 we can see Christ’s indisputable instructions:
“…14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one anothers' feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you…”
That is to say, use his example of service – how he lived his life – as a model for how we should relate to each other, interact with each other, think of each other. Also, we are to participate in the annual foot washing ceremony as part of the Passover both as a physical reminder and because we are to follow the example of Christ, who physically washed the disciples' feet. Christ said that they did not understand what he was doing at that time, but they would (John 13:7) – referring to when they would receive the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. Understanding the things of God can come only by the Spirit of God (1Cor 2:11,12).
Christ was the only one to wash anyone’s feet on that night because he was the only one qualified to do so at that time. You will notice that the foot washing was done by Christ after he caused the others to partake of the bread and wine. This sequence of events is important because it shows what must happen and in what order. In other words, only baptized members of the church (those with the Holy Spirit) are to participate in the foot washing, because it is only after receipt of the Holy Spirit that one knows how to serve – i.e. live God’s way of life. On the night of the institution of the Passover symbols Christ was the only one present with the Holy Spirit, which meant he was the only one qualified to wash anyone’s feet – he was the only one who understood how to be a Godly servant. The situation would change later when the disciples had received the Holy Spirit and after that time they too would understand this way of life and therefore be able to participate fully in the foot washing ceremony as Christ commanded. At that time they had accepted Christ as the Son of God and the Messiah, but without the Holy Spirit they had no idea of Godly service, so there was simply the command that they should wash each others' feet (the indication being for future Passovers when they did have the Holy Spirit and understand what they were doing).
Notice that service is a two-way street! In washing each others' feet we are to both serve and allow ourselves to be served. If we do not allow ourselves to be served, then no-one will be able to serve and we will be attempting to prevent others from living God’s way of life.
Allowing ourselves to be served when we are in need is just as important as is our service to others. You see, when we have needs we are supposed to ask God to provide for us and then God will provide. However, the vast majority of Biblical examples show that God uses human tools to answer our requests. Since the first century of the NT church there is no record that He has answered requests directly (apart from healing), so if we refuse human help we may well be refusing help that God has actually sent. Indeed, Christ's command that we serve one another is further indication that, on many occasions, God will use people to answer our prayers. Sometimes pride gets in the way of accepting help, but this is a part of our nature we should watch carefully, else we may find ourselves actually refusing help sent from God. So, regardless of how we feel, we must be willing to be served as well as being willing to serve others.
Christ died for humanity! That should make us stop and think, that if God regards humanity as being important enough to send His son as a living example and be killed as a sacrifice for us, then perhaps we too should regard people with more respect and be more concerned for them.
Old Testament Symbolism
Acomparison of Old and New Testament verses shows that Exodus12:11 was intended to illustrate how Christians should be ready for their journey of living God's way of life after they have partaken of the Passover symbols – the emblems of bread and wine.
Ex 12:11 [RSV].
“…In this manner you shall eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in your hand; and you shall eat it in haste. It is the Lord’s Passover…”
In Old Testament times this instruction was part of observing the Passover and at that time the children of Israel were commanded to be prepared to travel out of Egypt in order that they could obey God – that is, be prepared for the journey of living living God’s way of life. This symbolism is now contained within the foot washing ceremony, which symbolizes being prepared to live God's way of life, the way of service to others. After this preparation we have the seven days of unleavened bread, which symbolizes actually living God's way.
Accordingly, the symbolism in the Old and New Testaments may be a little different, but as can be seen, it means exactly the same thing. In the Old Testament, if you did not have your sandals on your feet (etc) then you were not ready to travel and therefore you were not prepared to come out of Egypt and live God's way. In the New Testament, if we do not wash each other's feet, then we are not prepared to come out of spiritual Egypt to live God's way – we are not prepared for our Christian journey. As Christ said (paraphrasing), if we are not thus prepared, then we have no part with him because we are telling him that we are not prepared to come out of spiritual Egypt and follow him.
A very straightforward command, with very similar wording to that of the Old Testament is found in Eph 6:14-15,
“…Stand therefore, having girded your loins with truth, and having put on the breastplate of righteousness, and having shod your feet with the equipment of the gospel of peace;…” [RSV].
Observance of foot washing by Christians is shown in the example given by Christ is as follows:
1. Partaking of the unleavened bread
Christ gave thanks for the unleavened bread and gave a portion to all present commanding them to eat it, with Christ providing a brief explanation (head of the family speaks in place of Christ); then
2. Partaking of the wine
Christ gave thanks for the wine and gave a portion to all present commanding them to drink it, again providing a brief explanation (head of the family speaks in place of Christ); then
3. Foot Washing Ceremony
After the evening meal we are told in John 13:2-5 that the foot washing took place, again with Christ providing a brief explanation before proceeding (head of the family speaks in place of Christ). Notice, for the task of foot washing Jesus had to rise from his place, whereas passing around the bread and wine did not require him to rise. As with drinking the wine and eating the bread, during foot washing there is usually very little, if any, speaking by participants. Talking is not forbidden, but it is usually a time for continuing contemplating true Christian service, as brief as that time may be during foot washing; then
4. Singing of a Hymn
Finally, they sang (Matt 26:30 and Mark 14:26). The literal meaning of the Greek word used here does not restrict the singing to a single hymn or psalm and in fact indicates that they could have sung several psalms involving any combination of the 113th, 115th, 116th or 117th Psalms. Modern hymns of these Psalms would be suitable, but If they are not available to you in music form, then a hymn generally giving honour to the Father would also be suitable. It is unlikely that Christ would have chosen hymns to honour himself.
Please take careful note of the order of events: the parts of the ceremony concerning our relationship with our saviour are covered first, then follows the foot washing which is the part concerning our relationship with our fellow man. We can see the same order in the Ten Commandments, where the first four concern our relationship with God and the last six concern our relationship with our fellow man. Likewise when Christ summed up the law to a lawyer (from the sect of the Pharisees) concerning which of the Commandments was the greatest. Christ gave him two “new” ones, the first being to love God and the second being to love our neighbour as ourselves (Mat 22:37-40). By being consistent with this order of events God is showing us how to get our priorities straight. We have no authority to change that order, because any such change would be diminishing God’s part in the big picture of the Plan of Salvation. For a more complete explanation of this aspect see the article entitled, "The Feast of Unleavened Bread."
The Feast of Unleavened Bread pictures living God's way of life – it is the spiritual growing season prior to first harvest of mankind into the family of God. It is when the saints are judged/assessed and can be likened to Abraham’s wanderings.