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 (Manna 42: Science and Technology)
In Defense Of Footwashing
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FF Chong — London, United Kingdom

In the Ancient Near East, much attention was given to the feet. The earliest biblical account of this practice is in Gen 18:4. The servant of the house, sometimes the host, or even the guests themselves, would carry out the practice of washing feet.

Although priests, who had the special task of offering sacrifices to God, were required, under the purification laws, to wash their hands and feet before ministering to God (Ex 30:18ff; 40:3, 32), footwashing never became part of the Jewish religion.

It remained only as part of the Jewish custom.


The Jewish custom of footwashing usually preceded a feast. A quick glance over the sequence of events in John thirteen tells us that the institution of the sacrament of footwashing occurred after the close of the Passover feast.

If the footwashing performed by Jesus were a tradition, Peter, being a Jew, rightly questioned why his Master was performing such a menial service. Instead, he could not fathom why his Master was serving him.

In his mind, it was utterly appropriate to refuse the washing. To his surprise, however, such a humble refusal would amount to having no part with the Lord, showing the importance of Jesus’ action.

The word “part” in the original text is “meros,” which means “participation” or having a share in someone or something (The Bible Expository Commentary, Vol 1, Warren W. Wiersbe, pg 346, 1994)1.

This word becomes very inspiring and meaningful when we talk about salvation. God unites us with Christ through salvation when we are willing to accept His footwashing.

When Peter understood Jesus’ action and became terrified at the prospect of not having part with Jesus, he quickly pleaded that Jesus wash his whole body. Jesus did not stop Peter from wanting a part with Him. He merely curtailed his request saying, “He who is bathed needs only to wash his feet” (Jn 13:10).

It was customary for guests to bathe themselves before attending a feast, and they would wash their feet upon arriving at their destination.

In spiritual terms, we must receive baptism and footwashing, which marks His acceptance of us as members of His household. Baptism and footwashing are equally necessary for salvation; they are inseparable, and neither is sufficient without the other.

After the sacrament, Jesus resumed His seat and said, “Do you know what I have done to you?” This question is profound for it reinforces the importance of the sacrament.

It is quite unlikely that a Jew would ask another about the significance of a customary act performed on others in courtesy. Therefore, Jesus initiated the footwashing as an example for all believers to follow.

Jesus’ question shows that the footwashing mentioned here is different from the traditional one. It is He who initiated the footwashing sacrament. Thus it was for all believers to follow.


There are some arguments against footwashing as a requisite for having a part in the body of Christ.

The Element of Time

Based on the fact that footwashing, as instituted by Jesus, took place before His death some argue that footwashing is not a requisite for salvation, since it preceded the establishment of the church.

We need to understand that, although the church was established in New Testament times, it comprises not only of the New Testament believers but also the ancient saints (Heb 12:23, 24). The church is the body of Jesus, and to have a part with Jesus is to have a part with His body.

“…Christ also loved the church and gave Himself for it” (Eph 5:25). Based on Paul’s understanding, Christ’s sacrifice is the result of His love for the church, though the physical church had yet to come into existence.

The Lord Jesus initiated the institutions of the three sacraments (baptism, footwashing, and Holy Communion) before the church was established, so the element of time does not nullify the efficacy of footwashing.

Just as the blood of Jesus has a retroactive effect on the ancient believers (Heb 9:14ff), so does footwashing on the disciples, after the establishment of the physical church, for salvation.

Can we, for example, denounce the importance of baptism, since the Bible is silent about the baptism of the twelve apostles?

Similarly, can we disclaim footwashing to be necessary to having a part with Jesus, though there is no record of the washing of the feet aside from that of the apostles, of the 120, 3000, 5000, and Samaritan believers?

In the Gospel of John, Jesus authoritatively said, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (Jn 13:15). And the apostles, through the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, remembered all that Jesus said to them (Jn 14:26b).

Some may argue that footwashing is not part of the salvation plan the way baptism is clearly stated in the Bible (Mk 16:15, 15). But belief in Jesus actually precedes baptism, and it includes the practice of His words, such as praying for the Holy Spirit and receiving footwashing.

The Correct Interpretation

Another argument is the use of prepositional differentials. The RSV Bible describes footwashing as “to have a part in Jesus.” The NKJV is “to have a part with Jesus,” which is the accurate translation of the Greek text.

Beyond doubt, there is a difference between “in” and “with.” Let us examine the following example given to support the difference: “For He dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn 14:17).

It is claimed that the first part “for He dwells with you” is in the present tense, which means that Jesus was talking about the existing relationship between the Holy Spirit and the disciples.

Therefore, the Holy Spirit is a temporary guest that dwells with us and will revisit us in the future, as stated by “will be in you.” This argument is unsound.

The pronoun “He” in the first part refers not to the Holy Spirit but to Jesus in the flesh. When Jesus was in this world, the Spirit would not come (Jn 16:7).

In the Bible, the difference in usage between the two prepositions, at times, is negligible. Let us consider these two quotes of Jesus: “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you another helper, that He may abide with you forever” (Jn 14:16).

Would the apostles have only the presence of the Spirit, in the same way that they had with the physical Jesus, after His ascension?

            If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. (Jn 14:23)

“We” or “Our” refers to the Spirit. We take the phrase “make our home with him” to mean “the dwelling of the Holy Spirit in him.”

Careful reading of the Bible is an important requirement for comprehending the word of God, but certain words must not be taken too literally. We have been given the spiritual capacity to interpret the Bible.

Peter has given us some very good examples. In explaining the downpour of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he quoted Joel to support his message. He interpreted ‘in those days’ (Joel 2:29) to be ‘in the last days’ (Acts 2:17), which neatly coincided with the occasion.

The Spirit’s guidance becomes essential when reading the Bible (cf. 2 Cor 3:6). We must strengthen what we have already received, especially with regard to the doctrine.

Restrictive Principles

The last argument is based on a set of principles stipulated to determine whether a doctrine comes from the Lord.

1.      It must be spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb 1:1-3).

2.      It must be taught and practiced by the apostles (Acts 2:42).

3.      It must be evidenced by Scriptures in at least two places in the NT (2 Cor 13:1).

4.      God confirms the word with signs to follow (Mk 16:20).

At first glance, this set of principles seems reasonable. However, the insistence that ALL four conditions must be fulfilled for ALL doctrines makes it untenable. Moreover, closer examination of the principles raises relevant questions.

In the first principle, we must deduce that, since Jesus did not speak directly about circumcision, the guidance of the Holy Spirit at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was sufficient to guide the apostles and elders into the correct practice for the gentile believers.

Now, applying principle (2) to footwashing, we may also fairly infer from John 13:17 that the apostles would obey Jesus’ command and, therefore, performed footwashing. Jesus endorses the teachings of the apostles (Jn 15:20b; Lk 10:16). Their words in the Bible are the Lord’s and, thus, equally authoritative (1 Jn 4:1ff).

The apostolic teachings in Acts 2:42 use the teachings of Jesus as the foundation, meaning that footwashing is included.

…when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in truth, the word of God… (1 Thess 2:13)

The well-established foundation is Jesus, apart from whom no one can lay another foundation (1 Cor 3:11). Jesus is the embodiment of the truth in the Bible: “…as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph 4:21).

Preaching what Jesus did and said was one major responsibility of the apostles:

            That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 Jn 1:3)

Footwashing surely was one of the unforgettable sacramental rituals that the apostles declared to those who believed. Through this sacrament, they had fellowship with the apostles and with God.

The third principle is a red herring. In 2 Corinthians 13:1, Paul was using Deuteronomy 19:15, the Old Testament principles, to form a church disciplinary guideline to correct wrongdoers.

Lastly, God confirming His word with signs is biblical. But the term “word” must be read in its collective sense—all the teachings of Jesus.

If it is taken to mean individual doctrines, then it is impossible to answer questions such as “How does God confirm the teachings on the Sabbath and Holy Communion with signs?”


A sacrament is a practice instituted and given to the apostles by the Lord Jesus Himself.

It represents and confers grace when rightly received, and its physical aspects must conform entirely to the Bible to effect spiritual significance. A sacrament must meet the following criteria:

1.      The Lord Jesus has Himself demonstrated it (Mt 3:13ff; Jn 13:1ff; Mt 26:26ff).

2.      The Lord Jesus has commanded His disciples to perform it (Mk 16:15f, Matt 28:1; Jn 13:15ff; Lk 22:19).

3.      It concerns salvation (Acts 2:38; Jn 13:8; Jn 6:53f).

Footwashing holds its rightful place as a sacrament taught in the Bible.

Though it was mentioned only once, it deserves the strictest observance on our part. It enables us to have a part with Jesus and to have the hope of receiving eternal life in His kingdom.

It also reminds us to strive for holiness, to serve one another in love, and to follow His example by manifesting a magnanimous and forgiving heart towards our fellow brethren and others.


Since footwashing is sacred, its teachings must diffuse into our Christian life. It also illustrates the appropriate ethos of the community of faith.

Just as a military parade is regimental and disciplined, portraying the trademarks of a military life, so does footwashing portray service, humility, and love as the trademarks of a true believer in the Christian community.

Footwashing is radical. It undermines an established convention of society—that a subordinate must serve his leader. No leader can claim to have embraced a more acute expression of servitude than Jesus Christ, as He washed His disciples’ feet.

He came to serve and not to be served (Mt 20:28). Similarly, within the church, the great will serve (Mk 10:42ff). The stewards of God must emulate Jesus, so that the spirit of servitude pervades the church.

Jesus, leaving His seat to wash the disciples’ feet, discloses what humility is all about. Humility forms the soft ground for the seed of truth to flourish and for harmony amongst us to prosper.

            Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in humility count others better than ourselves. Let each of us look not only to our own interest, but also to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3, 4)

Love is also an emotion evoked in this simple act. Picture this in your mind: “[He] rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself” (Jn 13:4). What an intense picture of love and sacrifice.

More powerful still is the picture of loving forgiveness when Jesus washed the feet of Judas, who was about to betray Him (Jn 13:2).

Jesus knew of this betrayal from the very beginning and, yet, He gave Judas a chance to come to his senses; and footwashing was the strongest reminder.

Forgiveness is not just about forgetting the wrongs done to us, but helping the wrongdoers come to repentance.

            May all of us consider Jesus’ words carefully: “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (Jn 13:17).

1.         “Explicit soteriological use is found in Matt 24:51: Lk 12:46; Jn 13:8; Rev 20:6; 21:8; 22:19” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 2, pg 410, Balz and Schneider, 1994).

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Publisher: True Jesus Church