The Theology of Foot Washing

The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners” —Isaiah 61:1, NIV.

Years after Isaiah spoke these prophetic words, they were quoted again in Luke 4:18 as God Himself walked among men. The mission of Christ was a redemptive one. His life models for us our mission in life.

In John 13, on the last night before going to the cross, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. For many this has become symbolic of what our service to others should look like. But the lesson goes much deeper than that. Peter’s initial refusal to allow the Lord to wash his feet prompted a conversation about redemption.

Peter was embarrassed that his Master, the Messiah, should be on His knees with a washbasin and a towel as though He were an ordinary servant. When the big fisherman pulled his feet away, Jesus told him that if he refused to have his feet washed, it was a sign that he didn’t belong, that he wasn’t one of the disciples of Christ. At that Peter insisted that the Lord wash all of him—he didn’t want to be left out on account of a dirty spot missed in the shower of God’s grace!

I can almost see the gracious, patient smile on the face of the Lord as he told his follower that only the feet were necessary because all the rest was already clean.

This was a physical picture of forgiveness, the story of redemption hidden in a basin of water and a rough towel. Once we have been received into God’s family through faith in Christ and His forgiveness of our sins, we don’t need the whole “bath” over and over again. But we do need to have the Lord forgive the sins of the “feet” that we commit after that day of salvation which brought us into the Kingdom of God. We take note that a refusal to deal with those “foot” sins is a sign of not having belonged in the first place.

Then, as Jesus finished up His task he said to the disciples: “You call me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord,’ and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you” —John 13:13-15, NIV.

Yes, we should serve each other in humility, but we also need to practice the redemptive mission for which we have been called by forgiving one another and by taking the good news of salvation to others so that they too can have the opportunity to enter the Kingdom of God through faith in Christ. Our service to others always has a redemptive element to it. Our lives need to be lived with eternity in mind, with the advance of the Kingdom as the driving force, with living out Christ’s example as our reason for existence.

Steve Hawthorne writes in Perspectives: “Jesus wants us to follow His goals before we choose our roles. He calls us to His cause before our career. Instead of pursuing the elusive value of freedom, He offers us the reality of a fruit-bearing friendship. Instead of seeking a fading self-fulfillment, Jesus offers us the genuine experience of ‘followship.’”

We are called to do as He did in the power of the Spirit, for the glory of God, to carry on the redemptive mission whose sign is a cross and whose outcome is an empty tomb.


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