The Doctrine of Feet Washing: Spiritual Application

15 02 2016

Having looked at the literal application and command to wash feet I would like to write about the spiritual application of what Jesus taught in John 13:1-17. I know some on the other side who only stress the literal act of washing feet but fail to recognize the spiritual lesson. If it is just a mindless, religious ritual that you do, then you might as well not do it because God is not impressed with traditions. To miss the spiritual application is to cut yourself off from the joy and blessing in what He was teaching.


The main object that I think is conveyed in feet washing is humility. The act of lowering ourselves beneath someone else rather than lifting ourselves up over others. Let’s face it, we have all looked at some other Christian at some time and thought to ourselves that we were better than that person or more spiritual than that person. Let me testify that I have never had those thoughts about those with whom I have washed feet. Look at what the Bible says in John 13:3-5:

Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. 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.”

It’s important to notice the words that He knew He was from the Father and returning to the Father. This emphasizes the nature of His position. He is higher and holier and greater than all of those in the room and yet He knelt before them, took in His hands one of the dirtiest parts of their bodies and washed them. He topped it off by drying them with a towel wrapped around His own waist. This is one of the most full and complete pictures of humility ever demonstrated on earth. In verses 13-14 He expounds on the lesson:

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.”

He tells them that if He being greater than they could stoop to serve them then surely they could serve one another. He didn’t just do any act of service, He did the lowest, dirtiest act there was in that time and place. He points out by doing this that nothing should seem too low, dirty, or beneath us to serve our fellow Christian. Paul echoes this lesson when he said:

For, brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another.” (Galatians 3:1)

Paul repeated this lesson to the church at Philippi.

Let nothing be done through strife or vainglory; but in lowliness of mind let each esteem other better than themselves. Look not every man on his own things, but every man also on the things of others. Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus: Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross.” (Philippians 2:3-8)


He was giving them a picture of the cleansing that they were about to receive through His death. The fact that it followed the Last Supper links it in my mind to the sacrifice of the cross. Paul in Philippians 2 makes the same connection.

He was a servant and as a servant obedient even to the cross. Linking this event of feet washing two times to the cross means that there is something in this event that pictures, or represents, the cross. While the first spiritual principle is reflected in men, namely humility, the second is reflected in God, namely redemption.

His cleansing of their feet was a representation of the cleansing of their souls. They were all unclean and in need of cleansing.

As it is written, There is none righteous, no, not one: There is none that understandeth, there is none that seeketh after God. They are all gone out of the way, they are together become unprofitable; there is none that doeth good, no, not one…For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:10-12, 23)

They could not cleanse themselves, and as the Son of God who had come from God and went back to God only He could provide cleansing. He had to stoop down to their level in order to provide the cleansing that could redeem their souls. Peter objected to this but he was missing the big picture.

Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. 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.” (John 13:6-10)

Jesus explains to Peter that he would not have immediate knowledge of the lesson He was giving. This seems confusing because He explains why He did it afterwards. He even commanded them to do it as well. So why would Peter not know until later? To understand the Lord’s words here you need to understand both the literal application and the spiritual lessons being taught in the act of feet washing.

He explains the literal application by telling them that they are duty-bound to wash feet. He even touches on the humility lesson as well but it will not be until that dark day in history when the Son of God is sacrificed for sinners that the lesson will be applied. It will not be until later still that the apostles of our Lord themselves understand His words here.

Peter then refuses the Lord, saying He would never wash his feet. Peter of course had no understanding of the principle that washing their feet was symbolic of the cleansing they would soon receive as a result of Calvary. How many times have we heard people say they will never do something or never turn to Christ and it’s out of complete ignorance of what Christ did for them on the cross?

Peter didn’t fully comprehend the great gulf that separated sinful man from a holy God. He failed to realize the need for cleansing before one could stand in the presence of the Almighty. My mind goes back to the prophet Isaiah.

In the year that king Uzziah died I saw also the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up, and his train filled the temple. Above it stood the seraphims: each one had six wings; with twain he covered his face, and with twain he covered his feet, and with twain he did fly. And one cried unto another, and said, Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord of hosts: the whole earth is full of his glory. And the posts of the door moved at the voice of him that cried, and the house was filled with smoke. Then said I, Woe is me! for I am undone; because I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips: for mine eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts. Then flew one of the seraphims unto me, having a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with the tongs from off the altar: And he laid it upon my mouth, and said, Lo, this hath touched thy lips; and thine iniquity is taken away, and thy sin purged.” (Isaiah 6:1-7)

Once he was faced with the overwhelming holiness of God, Isaiah, who we would all see as a super saint, cried out that he was unclean and unworthy to be in God’s presence. He failed to realize that he could not cleanse himself but had to be washed in the cleansing stream of the blood of the Lamb of God.

And from Jesus Christ, who is the faithful witness, and the first begotten of the dead, and the prince of the kings of the earth. Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood.” (Revelation 1:5)

Jesus then warns Peter that if he refuses cleansing he could have no part with Christ. Look at Jesus’ words to Nicodemus:

Jesus answered and said unto him, Verily, verily, I say unto thee, Except a man be born again, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” (John 3:3)

The Gospel message, the message of the cleansing of sin comes to all but those who reject it and turn from it can have no part with Jesus Christ. He is the door, if we try to go any way but through Him we will be lost.

Peter thought by his humility in not letting Christ wash him that he would be commended. He probably expected to hear: “Well Peter, you’re a dear and humble man and I appreciate it, but I really do need to do this.” Instead he was told flat out that to reject the cleansing of the Son of God was complete exclusion from Him and His kingdom.

Jesus taught that there are those who will try to get to Heaven their own way by doing many great works and yet find that they rejected the one cleansing from sin that was acceptable to God.

Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity.” (Matthew 7:21-23)

He then tells Christ to wash not only his feet but also his hands and head. Washing of the feet gave symbolism to the perpetual cleansing we receive as we walk through this sinful world. It pictures our progressive sanctification. As we walk in perpetual repentance, and continue in the faith we grow closer to the Saviour and farther from sin. As we do this His blood cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

Jesus said those who are clean need only to wash their feet because they are already clean. Peter said to wash his hands and head. His hands being cleansed from sinful deeds and his head being cleansed from sinful thoughts and desires. Once these are cleansed and a person is saved they need only cleanse themselves in daily repentance and faithfulness to the Lord.

These are the spiritual lessons in feet washing. The first is humility and the attitude of a servant towards our fellow believers. The second is the lesson that we are cleansed by Christ and need not go to Him continually to be saved but to be cleansed daily from sin and uncleanness and to grow closer in our walk with the Lord.

We should never accept only the spiritual applications while missing the command to wash feet as a literal practice, but we must also guard against the folly of practicing feet washing while all the time missing the spiritual lessons that this practice teaches, we would then have vain rituals instead of a rich experience.

It’s similar to giving. The Pharisees were told that they tithed but missed the weightier matters. Tithing in itself is not what God wants. Paul said he sought not what was theirs but them (2 Corinthians 12:14). In other words, if God does not have your heart, then giving Him your money is not full obedience.

You can be a giver in the offering, and be far from God. You can wash feet faithfully, and yet be far from God or far from the spiritual principles taught by washing feet. You can do the ritual but be full of pride or unclean in your heart. We must look at both sides of the coin in order to be balanced. This is well pleasing in the sight of the Lord.




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