Footwashing has been observed by the Church for centuries. Some early church fathers understood footwashing as a sacrament and associated it with water baptism. Others used the word “mystery” when speaking of footwashing, and presented it as a sacred rite independent of communion and baptism. Churches representing all Christian traditions, from Roman Catholic to Pentecostal, observe this sacred act. Footwashing has often been adopted by various renewal movements as a protest against abuses of ecclesiastical hierarchy. Because early Pentecostals understood themselves to be a renewal of the “church of the Bible” the practice of footwashing was embraced. Every member was encouraged to observe this sacred act on the basis of fidelity to the Bible and the unity of the Church. Some have questioned the validity of footwashing. However, there are many biblical reasons why we should observe footwashing regularly.
Footwashing witnesses to the descent of the eternal Word. John declared that the eternal Word descended from glory and power to assume human nature (John 1:1, 14). This is a common theme in the New Testament. Peter spoke of the descent of our Lord when he “made proclamation to the spirits now in prison” (1 Peter 3:19). In a beautiful early hymn of the Church, Paul relates to us the heart of this Christology:
Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself (Greek – kenosis), taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Philippians 2:5-8).
The apostolic tradition interprets the Incarnation using terms denoting humility and service. The image of Jesus rising from the table, laying aside his garments, taking a towel, pouring water into a basin, bowing before his disciples and washing their feet incorporates into one sacred action the significance of the Incarnation. In Christ’s own self-emptying he has revealed to us the glory of God. Likewise, Christians are called to emptiness and self-denial (Matthew 10:39; 16:24-25; 19:21; Mark 8:34-35; 10:21; Luke 9:23-24; 17:33; 18:22; John 12:26; Acts 2:45; 4:34-37; Philippians 2:3-5; 3:7-8). This is the spirituality of Footwashing – the fellowship of the towel (John 13:14-15). This is a difficult spirituality for Christians who live in a culture of affluence, where spirituality is defined in terms of prosperity and success. One who wishes to enter into the fellowship of the towel must first experience the kenosis, the emptying of one’s self. Footwashing is more than a sacred act of worship; it is a way of life.
Footwashing interprets Christ sacrificial death. Jesus’ washing of his disciples’ feet interprets the cross as the climax of the Son’s descent. Footwashing is presented in terms of Christ’s redemptive love and sacrificial death (John 13:1). As Jesus washed their feet, the disciples experienced a spiritual transformation. Through footwashing the disciples were cleansed and placed in fellowship with Him (John 13:8-10). Unless the disciples allowed Jesus to wash their feet, they could have “no part” of Him (John 13:8). Footwashing was not a matter of individual consciences, but a matter of salvation. Further, Jesus commanded his disciples to wash one another’s feet (John 13:14). By doing so, they affirmed each other as fellow believers. Footwashing interprets the cross as Jesus having laid down his life for his disciples. Likewise, he commanded his disciples to lay down their lives for one another.
Footwashing offers an opportunity for the sinful to confess their offenses and receive forgiveness.James wrote, “Therefore, confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another so that you may be healed” (James 5:16). Too often, we have viewed confession of sin as private matter, a matter of concern only between the sinner and the Lord. However, confession and forgiveness of sin takes place within the community of faith. The sinner must seek forgiveness from and reconciliation with the offended person (Matthew 5:23-24). Within the community of Jesus’ disciples there had been a clash of egos and many examples of failure (Matthew 16:22-12; 26:47-49; 69-75; Mark 9:17-19; 10:35-41). But Jesus washed the feet of each one and commanded that they wash one another’s feet: “If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you” (John 13:14-15). Footwashing demonstrates that the Church is a community of grace in which sinners are to be welcomed and restored.
Footwashing exemplifies authentic Christian ministry. The footwashing of the disciples was performed in the context of their apostolic mission. Jesus is the Divine Servant, the disciples are servants of the Divine One, and as such are servants to the world. The Apostle Paul twice used the metaphor of “feet” to speak of the proclamation of the Gospel (Romans 10:15; Ephesians 6:15). Among our greatest temptations is power and authority. Power intoxicates and corrupts the human soul. One would hope that those who serve the Church would not be so easily seduced. But we know that we are not immune. The first century Corinthian Church suffered from schism and turmoil. Many persons within the church challenged and rejected the apostolic ministry of the Paul. The leaders of this group were known as the “super-apostles” (2 Corinthians 11:5, NIV). The conflict between Paul and the super-apostles was due to their different models of ministry. The model of the super-apostles was that of persons of divine power who boasted in their charismatic gifts. Paul’s model was that of the “meekness and gentleness of Christ,” (1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 10:1). He seemed “unimpressive” and his preaching style was “contemptible” (2 Corinthians 10:10; 11:6). His ministry was characterized by “weakness and fear” and he suffered from many bodily ailments, one of which was a “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan” (1 Corinthians 2:3; 2 Corinthians 12:7; Galatians 4:3). When the members of the Corinthian Church compared the two models of ministry, they favored the super-apostles. However, with all the apparent strengths of the super-apostles they lacked what is necessary to establish an authentic Christian ministry – a model of ministry that follows after the example of Jesus Christ! In fact, they were not super-apostles, but false apostles! (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). Authentic Christian ministry is not defined in terms of bold, charismatic leadership; but in the willingness to lay all garments aside, to take up the towel and basin in order to wash the feet of God’s people.
Published by Dan Tomberlin @ danieltomberlin.net