Not long ago a brother related to me how a relative of his attended a denominational service, at which it was announced that at their next gathering for worship, they would have the communion and a foot washing ceremony. The question posed to me was, “Why don’t we practice foot washing?”
In fact, we do have the habit of washing feet. We do so as a matter of personal hygiene: when our feet need to be washed, we wash our own feet. But, as a religious ceremony, no, we do not have the practice of appointing a time for brethren to wash one another’s feet just so we can say that we wash one another’s feet. Why is that?
There were at least three instances in the earthly life of Jesus when He was connected with the washing or wiping of feet. In two cases, someone washed/wiped the Master’s feet, and in the other recorded instance, He was the one who washed the feet of others. For example, when Jesus dined in the house of a Pharisee, “a woman in the city who was a sinner . . . began to wash His feet with her tears, and wiped them with the hair of her head; and she kissed His feet and anointed them with the fragrant oil” (Luke 7:36-38). Jesus praised the woman because she “loved much” and showed her faith (7:47,50).
At a later time, Mary, the sister of Martha, “anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped His feet with her hair” (John 12:3). Jesus explained the meaning of Mary’s action, saying of her, “Let her alone; she has kept this for the day of My burial” (John 12:7).
On the night of His betrayal, after He had finished eating the Passover meal with His apostles, Jesus “laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself. After that, 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 . . . when He had washed their feet, taken His garments, and sat down again, He said to them, ‘Do you know what I have done to you?’” (John 13:5,12). The apostles with their literal eyes saw that Jesus literally washed their literal feet, but He wanted them to see the real meaning of what He had done.
In Jesus’ time, the common practice was for the household servants to wash the feet of guests. Because people wore open, sandal-type footwear, when they walked on dusty or muddy paths, their feet would become dirty as they journeyed. It was a kind gesture to have someone wash the feet of visitors, and again, that menial task was given to servants. Abigail, who became the wife of David, expressed her humility when she said that she was prepared “to wash the feet of the servants” of King David (1 Samuel 25:41).
When Jesus took water and washed the unwashed feet of His apostles, what was He doing? He was acting as a servant to them. Imagine: the Teacher was washing the feet of His pupils; the Lord of lords was washing the feet of those who were under His rule! (John 13:13). But, why? Why did our Lord do that? Jesus told them, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:14,15).
So, our Lord showed His special disciples an example. An example of what? Of humility. Servants serve. Servants serve others. Servants do what needs to be done, and if Jesus was willing to carry out the lowest of tasks on behalf of His apostles, then surely they must learn to serve, too.
Are we obligated to wash the feet of other disciples today? As a ceremonial activity, no. As a part of corporate worship, no. If it be the case that a sister or brother is challenged physically and unable to wash their own feet, to change a bandage on their foot, or to dress an open foot wound, as part of serving one another out of a heart of sincere love (Galatians 5:13), we should be ready to put our hands on their feet to do what is needed in order to help them. But, to do so and then put photos of our service on social media or ask that a public announcement be made to inform others about the service which we have provided, well, that does not sound like genuine humility, does it?
What is recorded in John 13 about Jesus washing feet had no connection with a worship assembly of God’s church. On that same night, Jesus also instituted the Lord’s Supper (Matthew 26:26-29). Now, for that, we do have a later command (1 Corinthians 11:23-25) and later example (Acts 20:7). But as for foot washing, it is never associated with worship or a congregational activity.
“Well, what about 1 Timothy 5:10?” In the matter of which widows were to be “taken into the number” (perhaps some special group which was compensated by the church), Paul described the criteria: “. . . she has been the wife of one man, well reported for good works: if she has brought up children, if she has lodged strangers, if she has washed the saints’ feet, if she has relieved the afflicted, if she has diligently followed every good work” (1 Timothy 5:9,10; emphasis mine, rdc). The washing of the saints’ feet is listed as part of those ladies’ personal life, service, and doing good to others. Again, it was not a worship activity, and it certainly was not a ceremony in which people washed feet that were clean already.
Before Jesus washed Peter’s feet, He told the impulsive fisherman, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but you will know after this” (John 13:7). Peter had just seen Jesus literally wash literal feet, and he comprehended the physical action. What Jesus wanted him to learn, though, was a much deeper, life-changing lesson – humility. He wants you and me to learn it, too. How well are we learning?
— Roger D. Campbell