Feet Washing (John 13):
A Symbol of Brotherhood and Cleansing

by J. C. Wenger

There is a lifelong strife in the child of God between the Spirit of God and the flesh. The flesh craves to have its own way, wants pity and sympathy, is self-seeking, etc. The night before Jesus was crucified the old struggle for prestige and primacy broke out among the apostles. Luke reports the matter thus:

A dispute also arose among them, which of them was to be regarded as the greatest. And he said to them, "The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But not so with you; rather let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. . . . But I am among you as one who serves" (Luke 22:24-27).

The Apostle John also indicates that during the eating of the Passover, Jesus "rose from supper, laid aside his garments, and girded himself with a towel. Then he poured water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples' feet, and to wipe them with the towel with which he was girded" (John 13:4, 5). All this was a powerful object lesson on the spirit of service and love which ought to characterize the disciples of Jesus Christ; it was a humiliating rebuke to the rivalry and place-seeking which existed among the Twelve. Peter saw at once the utter incongruity of the Lord stooping down and washing his feet; he therefore remonstrated, declaring with his usual vigor, "You shall never wash my feet" (John 13:4, 5).

At this point a new element enters the picture. Up to this moment it had appeared only that Jesus was trying to teach His disciples of the spirit of love and brotherhood which He desired to see in them. But now a quite new truth emerges from the object lesson before them: Jesus must also cleanse His disciples of the guilt involved in daily living in the flesh. "If I do not wash you, you have no part in me" (John 13:9). Peter caught the point of spiritual cleansing in a flash. He cried out in all sincerity, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" The reply of Jesus is comforting indeed, "He who has [been] bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but he is clean all over" (John 13:9, 10).

Marcus Dods explains: "'He that has been in the bath has no need to wash save his feet, but is all clean.' His feet may be soiled by walking from the public bath to the supper chamber, and it is enough that they be washed..." (The Expositor's Greek Testament, I, p. 816).

Jesus added at this point, "And you are clean, but not all of you." Dr. Dods states: "The added clause discloses that a spiritual sense underlies the symbol. . . . All had been washed: the feet of Judas were as clean as those of Peter. But Judas was not clean. . . . Jesus thus . . . distinguishes between the offence of the rest and the sin of Judas. All that they required was to have the soil of their present evil temper and jealousy removed: they were true in heart, they had been in the bath and had only contracted a slight stain. But Judas had not been in the bath: he had no genuine and habitual loyalty to Christ (Ibid., pp. 816, 817).

In commenting on Jesus' question, "Do you know what I have done to you?" Professor Dods writes: "By washing their feet He had washed their heart. By stooping to this menial service He had made them all ashamed of declining it. By this simple action He had turned a company of wrangling, angry, jealous men into a company of humbled and united disciples." (Ibid., p. 817).

It is with this understanding of John 13 that Menno Simons describes the bride of Christ as "the dear children of God who have their feet washed and their garments cleansed in the blood of the Lamb" (Complete Works, I, p. 3). And Menno's good friend and fellow elder, Dirck Philips, explains the symbolism of John 13 thus: "First, he would have us know that he himself must cleanse us after the inner man, and that we must allow him to wash away the sins which beset us (Heb. 12:1) and all filthiness of the flesh and the spirit (Ezek. 36:25; II Cor. 7:1), that we may become purer from day to day, as it is written: He that is righteous, let him become more righteous; and he that is holy, let him become more holy (Rev. 22:11)....

The Dordreht Confession of Faith of 1632 states:

"The second reason why Jesus instituted the ordinance of footwashing is that we shall humble ourselves among one another . . . and that we hold our fellow believers in the highest respect, for the reason that they are the saints of God and members of the body of Jesus Christ, and that the Holy Ghost dwells in them" (Enchiridion, pp. 388-89).

We also confess a washing of the saints' feet, as the Lord Christ not only instituted, enjoined and commanded it, but Himself although He was their Lord and Master, washed His apostles' feet, thereby giving an example that they should likewise wash one another's feet, and do as He had done unto them; which they accordingly, from this time on, taught believers to observe, as a sign of true humility, and especially to remember by this feet washing the true washing whereby we are washed through His precious blood, and made pure after the soul. John 13:4-17; I Tim. 5:10" (Martyrs' Mirror, p. 42).

The Dutch Mennonites recognized this ceremony as an ordinance of the Lord, permanently binding upon His church, to be literally kept as a symbol of the spirit of service and equality in the brotherhood, and "especially" of the believer's cleansing in the blood of Christ. An examination of Dutch Anabaptist sources reveals that this ceremony was observed in the homes of the believers. Menno Simons writes: "Wash the feet of your beloved brethren and sisters who are come to you from a distance, tired. Be not ashamed to do the work of the Lord, but humble yourselves with Christ before your brethren's feet, that all humility according to the divine nature may be found in you. Jn. 13; I Tim. 5 (Complete Works, II, p. 448).

Twisk's Confession of Thirty-Three Articles of c. A.D. 1610 states similarly:

"Hence, the believers . . . ought also, when time and place permit, practice and observe this ordinance of Christ. When their fellow believers out of love visit them, they shall with heartfelt humility receive them with the kiss of love and peace into their houses, and as a ministration to their neighbors, according to the humiliation of Christ, wash their feet; sincerely considering how the most worshipful Son of God humbled Him~elf, not only washing the feet of His apostles, but much more, washing and purifying with His precious death and blood, all our souls and consciences from the stain of eternal condemnation" (Martyr's Mirror, p. 399).

The Jan Cents Confession of 1630 advises that,

"when our fellow believers from distant places come to visit us, we wash their feet... thereby declaring our humility toward God and our neighbor, with an humble prayer that the Lord would strengthen us more and more in humility, and that like as we have washed one another's feet He would be pleased to wash and cleanse our souls with His blood and the waters of the Holy Ghost from every stain and impurity of sin, that we may appear pure and blameless before His Father" (Ibid., p. 36).

Although the early Dutch Anabaptist-Mennonite tradition made feet washing a home ceremony, it was only a half-century (c. 1588) until one of the small Dutch Mennonite groups attached it to the observance of the Lord's Supper" (Neff and Hege. Mennonitische Lexikon (Wejerhof und Frankfurt a. M., 1913,1924, 19--), II, p.23). And most of the Mennonite congregations of North America which practice feet washing as a religious rite now do so in connection with the Supper. However, in the Franconia Conference of southeastern Pennsylvania it is observed at the "Preparatory Service" on the day prior to the communion service.

It would seem to the present writer that a most appropriate time and place for the observance of the ordinance of feet washing would be at the close of the Counsel Meeting service which is held universally in the Mennonite Church a week or two prior to the Lord's Supper, and at which each member of the congregation is asked to state that he has peace with God and with his fellow man. Then would be an excellent occasion for each member to wash feet with a fellow Christian to signify the intention to render every possible service of love to the other members of the church of Christ. In other words, feet washing is not a ceremony to symbolize that one is more humble than other Christians-if that would be the case, it would come closer to symbolizing a Pharisaical pride-but to symbolize spiritual equality and love in the brotherhood. Feet washing is a pledge to do all in one's power all through the year for the welfare and happiness of one's fellow believers. It is not a sacrament to magically convey grace, but a sign of the love and willing service which one is minded to render to the other members of the church. Further, as was noted above, Mennonites also regard feet washing as a symbol of spiritual cleansing which each believer enjoys in Christ Jesus. I John 1:9.

Above from Introduction to Theology by John C. Wenger (pp. 227-231), © copyright 1954, renewed 1980 by Mennonite Publishing House, Scottdale, Pennsylvania USA. All rights reserved.

The above article may be found at http://www.bibleviews.com/feetwash.html .

You are welcome to make copies of the above articles provided you copy the complete article and distribute it as a whole unit. Brief quotations may be made in critical articles and reviews.

May God's grace and peace be with you as you study His Word.


You are welcome to make copies of the above article provided you show the copyright information and bibleviews.com source.

We welcome your comments and suggestions. Send then to the Webmaster.

This page is presented by:

Biblical Viewpoints Publications
63100 County Road 111
Goshen, IN 46526
Phone: 574-875-8007

Back to the Articles page.

Return to Home Page

June 22, 2000