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 (Q and A on Biblical Doctrines)
Chapter 11: Footwashing
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Q1 Where did the custom of footwashing come from?

Footwashing, as a custom, originated in the ancient east:

            When a guest arriving for the meal had been greeted, a slave would remove the guest’s sandals in preparation for washing his feet and so that the sandals would not bring in dirt that had been picked up along the way. Then the feet were washed by a servant, water being poured over them, which were then rubbed with hands and dried with a towel (Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 1 Sam 25:41; Jn 13:3–5; 1 Tim 5:10).

            Ralph Gower, The New Manners and Customs of Bible Times

An example in the Old Testament is found in the account of Abraham receiving three angels. He welcomed them with the words: “Please let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree” (Gen 18:4).

Footwashing remained a custom in the New Testament, for we learn of John the Baptist telling the people that he was unworthy even to untie the straps of the Lord’s sandals (Lk 3:16). Also, Jesus reproached Simon, the Pharisee, for not providing Him with water to clean His feet when He went to dine at his house (Lk 7:44). During the time of the apostles, the washing of the saints’ feet by elderly widows was deemed a virtuous service (1 Tim 5:10).

Q2 How did footwashing become a sacrament?

Footwashing became a holy sacrament when Jesus instituted it during His final Passover meal with the disciples. John 13:1–17 records that Jesus got up from the meal (v. 4); laid aside His garments (v. 4); wrapped a towel around His waist (v. 4); poured water into a basin (v. 5); washed the disciples’ feet (v. 5); dried their feet with the towel (v. 5); took His garments and returned to His seat (v. 12).

Jesus told the disciples, “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” (Jn 13:14–15). He added, “If you know these things, happy are you if you do them” (Jn 13:17).

Q3 Why is footwashing necessary?

Footwashing as a sacrament is essential for salvation. Jesus said to the disciples, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (Jn 13:8).

In addition, it gives us a number of important teachings:

Footwashing teaches us to honour one another and to strive for unity. Paul says, “But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. And the eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’; nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’ No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary” (1 Cor 12:20–22). Unity entails that we have the same mind and that we endeavour to share one another’s sorrow and joy (1 Cor 12:25–26).

Footwashing reminds us of the depth of the Lord’s love. The Gospel of John records, “Now before the feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come that He should depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end” (Jn 13:1). Jesus’ love is as great as it is enduring; and what He requires is that we love one another, just as He loves us.

Jesus wants us to learn from His humility. He told the disciples, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn 13:14). Jesus was God manifested in the flesh; yet, He humbled Himself, becoming a servant who was obedient to the point of death. We should learn from Him and avoid becoming proud, power-seeking, unkind, selfish and disrespectful. Instead, we should be humble, respectful of others (Rom 12:10), submissive (1 Pet 5:5), ready to serve (1 Pet 4:10) and forgiving (Eph 4:32).

Q4 When should footwashing be performed?

The sacrament of footwashing should be performed after water baptism, before a believer partakes of the Holy Communion for the first time. Ordained ministers should wash the feet of the newly baptized person so that he has part with Jesus.

Aside from performing footwashing as a sacrament, members can also apply the Lord’s teaching by washing one another’s feet as a symbolic reminder about humility, love and forgiveness—as and when the need arises.

Q5 If we apply the spiritual lessons from footwashing, can we forego the formality?

No, we cannot. The sacrament of footwashing was personally instituted by Jesus, and He instructed us to follow His example. Therefore, the church has the duty to keep His commandment. Importantly, the sacrament is directly related to salvation, for Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (Jn 13:8). Also, He says, “He who is bathed[1] needs only to wash[2] his feet, but is completely clean…” (Jn 13:10). These words tell us that, following water baptism, we still need to have our feet washed in order to fulfil the Lord’s teaching.


© 2012 True Jesus Church.

[1]      Greek, louo, meaning “to wash the body”. Strong’s reference no. G3068.

[2]      Greek, nipto, primarily used to mean “washing part of the body”. Strong’s reference no. G3538.

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