What is foot-washing all about, and why do Christians do it?
Foot-washing is quite an interesting thing to me personally. I did not grow up in churches that practiced regular foot-washings, but I did hear pastors preach on it from time to time and it never made sense to me. During the last twenty or so years of ministry, I have seen actual foot-washings happen. In every case, the feet being washed (sometimes my own) were actually quite clean, and the foot-washing was essentially more of a ceremony with symbolic meaning, rather than the labor intensive cleaning of a dirty foot.
“Daddy! I stepped in dog poop!” – Phoebe, 5.
Today, however, my foot-washing experience changed quite radically. As I walked through our kitchen this afternoon, musing about an upcoming book I’m working on, my thoughts were shattered by an alarmed scream, “DADDY! I stepped in dog poop,” followed by some crying and the sounds of footsteps headed towards the house. “POOPSTEPS! headed towards the house,” my brain screamed! I raced to the deck to intercept our five year old before she spread dog-poop all over the house. “Stop,” I ordered, “Go to the front deck, and wait for me there.” She ruefully obeyed, and I went inside to gather my “stepped in dog poop” tool kit, which consisted of paper towels, a spray bottle of isopropyl alcohol, adamantium gloves and a blow-torch. (okay…maybe not those last two)
I met Phoebe at the door with my equipment just as she WAS ABOUT TO COME INSIDE. WITH DOG POOP! “NO! Do NOT come inside!” I commanded, with a bit of panic in my voice. I sat her down on the chair outside and assessed the damage. It was bad…worse than I expected. There was so much poop- all over her feet, in her toenails, between her toes and all over, I considered just cutting the foot off, and calling it a loss, but that seemed extreme. I next soaked her foot with alcohol (via my handy-dandy alcohol sprayer) and got to work scrubbing. The first thing I noticed was that, no matter how hard I tried…I was getting poop on my hands. Ugh. “Foot-washing is some messy work,” I thought, with a frown of determination. It took loads of paper towels, and six or seven rounds of alcohol spraying, to actually get those feet in an acceptable place.
And then it hit me…foot-washing is indeed messy work, and quite labor intensive. When Jesus washed the disciples feet, their feet were legit dirty and nasty. It WAS NOT A CEREMONY, but an actual cleaning of real, smelly and dirty feet, caked in road nastiness, including animal poop, because animals pooped on the road. Let’s look at how John describes it:
“He got up from supper, laid aside His robe, took a towel, and tied it around Himself. Next, He poured water into a basin and began to wash His disciples’ feet and to dry them with the towel tied around Him. He came to Simon Peter, who asked Him, “Lord, are You going to wash my feet?” Jesus answered him, “What I’m doing you don’t understand now, but afterward you will know.” “You will never wash my feet—ever!” Peter said. Jesus replied, “If I don’t wash you, you have no part with Me.” Simon Peter said to Him, “Lord, not only my feet, but also my hands and my head.” John 13:4-9
What is foot-washing about? I believe we have actually lost the answer in some of our foot-washing ceremonies. First and foremost, foot-washing is a picture of Jesus’ death on the cross – the cleansing power of His blood. Like the cross, foot-washing is messy because sin is messy. Jesus washed His disciples feet as a proclamation of what He was doing for them and was going to do for them – He was going to take away their sin…He was going to bear their sin!
As I learned today – if you are cleaning somebody’s dirty, nasty feet, you are yourself going to get dirty…the filth on their feet is going to get on you! That is precisely what happened to Jesus on the cross – our filthy sin was scrubbed off of us and covered Him. Protestants emphasize salvation and justification by grace, through faith NOT by works. (Ephesians 2:8-9) Sometimes, with that emphasis on salvation by grace alone through faith alone, we might forget that the act that brought salvation (“the punishment that brought us peace.”) was actually a work…THE WORK of all works. What Jesus did on the cross – suffering physically AND absorbing the wrath of God for all human sins – was and is the most labor-intensive act in the history of creation. It is the very definition of work, and foot-washing is a solid illustrator of that fact.
“He was despised and rejected by men, a man of suffering who knew what sickness was.
He was like someone people turned away from; He was despised, and we didn’t value Him. Yet He Himself bore our sicknesses, and He carried our pains; but we in turn regarded Him stricken, struck down by God, and afflicted. But He was pierced because of our transgressions, crushed because of our iniquities; punishment for our peace was on Him, and we are healed by His wounds. We all went astray like sheep; we all have turned to our own way; and the Lord has punished Him for the iniquity of us all. He was oppressed and afflicted, yet He did not open His mouth.” Isaiah 53:3-7
Thus foot-washing is not primarily a ceremony, nor a religious sacrament, but a proclamation of the good news of Jesus – a VIVID picture of what happened to Jesus on the cross: the disgusting sin of humanity was laid on Him. Secondly, it is a picture of Jesus as a servant, and His call to His followers to also be servants:
“So if I, 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 also should do just as I have done for you.” John 13:14-15
Next time you read about foot-washing in the Bible, or participate in a foot-washing ceremony, remember that foot-washing is a beautiful picture of what Jesus did for His people AND is a call for His people to serve each other in the same spirit that Jesus served His disciples.