The following inquiry was handed to me with the request that I give it my attention, which I am glad to do since it is a sincere, reasonable question:
“This question (feet-washing) has bothered me for many years, and I cannot find the answer in the Record, nor have I heard a logical explanation as to why we do not follow the example and commandment of Jesus as recorded in John 13:5-15, and inferred in I Tim. 5:10.”
In the outset, be it observed that Jesus did not institute “feet-washing.” People were already doing that as a combination act of cleanliness and a mark of respect. In Luke 7, we have the record of the Lord's acceptance of an invitation from Simon, the Pharisee. During the course of the meal, a sinful woman entered and began to wet the Lord's feet with her tears and wipe them with the hair of her head. Simon reasoned that Jesus must not be a prophet else he would know this woman was of questionable character. This led Jesus to present the parable of the two debtors and conclude with this rebuke: “Simon, seest thous this woman? I entered into thy house, thou gavest me no water for my feet: but she hath wetted my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. Thou gavest me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, hath not ceased to kiss my feet. My head with oil thou didst not annoint: but she hath anointed my feet with ointment.”
Here, Jesus alludes to the customs of his time. Greeting with a kiss, anointing the head with oil, and washing the feet all were marks of respect and good hospitality and quite refreshing to a guest that had traveled some distance. In John 13, Jesus merely uses a familiar custom as a vechicle in which to deliver a great lesson to the apostles — a lesson that is just as applicable now as it was then. Let us make sure that we do not lose sight of the commodity by giving too much attention to the delivery wagon.
Let us note also that Jesus said, “I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” To do “as” the Lord had done does not necessarily mean to “what” he had done. The word “example” in this verse is a word that “signifies, a sign suggestive of anything, the delineation or representation of a thing, and so, a figure, copy, as in Hebrews 9:23” — Vine. Jesus certainly was not giving them an example of how to wash feet. They already knew how to do that. So, by washing their feet, he was representing or giving them a figure of something else. In the act of having his feet washed, Peter's conversation with the Lord brought out another figure. That is, that Judas would betray the Lord. Washing Peter's feet instead of bathing him entirely led the Lord to say, “Ye are clean, but not all.” How much of Peter's body needed to be washed was not the point, but the Lord used a discussion of the matter to get over his point — that all of the apostles were not spiritually clean, “for he knew him that should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.”
As further proof that the feet-washing experience was to teach them a lesson, look at the Lord's statement to Peter: “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt understand hereafter.” Surely no one could doubt that Peter knew that the Lord was washing their feet. After the physical act of washing, Jesus said, “Know ye what I have done to you?” Of course they knew what the physical act was; they knew that he had washed their feet, but this is not what Jesus had in mind. He was saying, “My action is emblematical; do you know the meaning of it?”
The disciples had argued among themselves as to who would be greatest in the kingdom of the Lord. Two of them had requested top positions in the kingdom — one on the right hand and the other on the left, to the indignation of the others. Jesus said to the twelve (Matthew 20:25-28): “Ye know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Not so shall it be among you; but whosoever would become great among you shall be your minister; and whosoever would be first among you shall be your servant,” and then added, “not even the Son of Man came to be ministered unto, but to minister.” Jesus used the occasion of washing their feet to teach them a lesson on humility and service as opposed to personal aggrandizement. Washing another's feet was considered a lowly, menial, if not humiliating task, usually left to slaves. That Jesus would stoop to this act was enough to hopefully alter the attitude of the apostles. That this is the leson taught is further seen when Jesus said, “If then, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another's feet.” In other words, “If I have condescended to wash your feet, being your Lord, then there is no task of service to each other that you should feel is beneath you, for a servant is not greater than his Lord.”
It is a shame that some have lost sight of the great lesson taught by focusing undue attention on the physical act itself which was a “copy representing something else.” The principle set forth by the Lord is just as applicable now as it was then. When circumstances require it, no Christian should feel that any honorable task of service in the Lord's cause, no matter how lowly it may seem, is beneath him. This would stand true with everything from cleaning rest-rooms to preaching the gospel, from scrubbing floors to waiting upon the sick. We need this lesson as much now, if not more, as did the twelve when Jesus washed their feet. We could make application of the principle in many ways.
But should one insist that the physical act of washing feet must be engaged in before the demands of the Lord are met, by what reasoning would he make the service an act of worship and insist that it ought to be done as some sort of religious ordinance or church rite? Jesus put in in the realm of service.
This is the same realm in which Paul kept it in his instruction to Timothy in I Tim. 5:10. The widow that was to be “enrolled” had to have certain qualifications among which was “well reported of for good works,” and then some of those good works were listed: “If she hasth borought up children, if she hath used hospitality to strangers, if she hath washed the saints' feet, (and) if she hath relieved the afflicted.” So, we see the category in which “washing the saints' feet” belongs. In the same class as using hospitality to strangers, relieving the afflicted, and bringing up children. These are services to be rendered by individuals to individuals on an individual basis and are not church ordinances or religious rites. To attempt to bring such into the church as public acts of worship, would be nothing short of absurdity. If a saint or any fellow man needs his feet washed and is unable to wash them, I ought to be willing to do it for him. If I consider such a task a reflection upon my rank or station in life and refuse to perform it, I have not the spirit of Christ in my heart. — 1526 E. Avalon, Santa Ana, California 92701