Why did Jesus command us to wash other people’s feet?

When Jesus died on the cross, one of the last things He said was “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do”. I always took what He said for granted, somehow thinking that it was all part of His dying for our sins, and indeed, it was. However, in Acts 7:56-60 we are told the story of Stephen being martyred by the Jewish leaders, and interestingly enough, Stephen uttered almost the same words.  “And as they were stoning Stephen, he called out, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” And falling to his knees he cried out with a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” And when he had said this, he fell asleep”. 

As I pondered on these two scenarios, I began to wonder if perhaps they had a deeper significance than just words spoken at the end of a life. I would like to suggest that Jesus gives us a strong clue of their importance in John 13, when He washes the disciples feet at the last supper. 

As I meditated on what took place during that last evening before the crucifixion and the things that both Jesus and Peter said, it became clear to me that what Jesus was doing was not just a physical act of washing their feet. If it had been, then Peter’s refusing to have his feet washed by Jesus would have made more sense, since only slaves washed the feet of others, and Jesus was clearly not a slave. However, Jesus actually tells them that what he was doing was not about the physical: “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” Peter then responds to this statement in verse 9 with: “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” Peter is still not sure what is going on, but Jesus quickly corrects him in verse 10 with this: “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you. He is of course referring to Judas in this statement.

It is here, with this last phrase that I began to gain a better understanding of what Jesus was doing. In Numbers 19, the Lord gave the priests a ritual of cleansing commonly called ablution. The word “wash” that both Peter and Jesus use in the above scene is the word ablution in the original Greek language. According to the Jewish Virtual Library, “Ablution must not be confused with washing for the sake of cleanliness. This is evident from the requirement that the body be entirely clean before ablution.” In other words, you have to take a bath first to wash off the dirt and dust. They go on to tell us that “In the Jewish tradition there are three types of ablution according to the type of impurity involved: complete immersion, immersion of hands and feet, and immersion of hands only.” 

John the Baptist taught complete immersion when he called Israel to repent and be baptized in the Jordan River. The religious leaders of Jesus’ time taught that you cannot eat without ceremonial washing of the hands. Yet here was Jesus, washing only the feet of the disciples. No wonder they were confused. And on top of that, Jesus told them that they were ceremonially clean because they had already bathed. He tells them in John chapter 15:3 that the reason why they were clean was because of the word that He had spoken to them. In other words, the reason they were clean is because they believed Jesus! Their faith in Him had cleansed their “whole body” spiritually. 

However, even with their faith in Him, even while they were “spiritually clean” they needed to have their feet washed. The feet represented the “dirt and dust” of each day. Every day we encounter situations or attitudes that might cause us to sin. Hence, we must keep what is commonly called a “short account” with God. We must come to Him on a regular basis, whenever we feel convicted of sin, and allow Him to wash our feet, or cleanse us from our sin. 

Repentance is not a one time activity that occurs when we first came to faith in Jesus by saying a prayer of salvation. Repentance is an ongoing lifestyle that we must practice regularly.

Jesus makes that very clear both to the disciples and to us during this scene. 

But what about washing the feet of other people? What does it represent when we wash the feet of others? How do we even do such a thing, if it is not about the physical? And how does this whole foot washing scene at the last supper have anything to do with what both Jesus said on the cross and Stephen cried out, right before they died? Remember what Jesus told the disciples after He had washed their feet? He told them to go do it to others. “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet.” (John 13:14) 

It is my opinion that both Jesus and Stephen were giving us an example of what to do when people sin against us: we must “wash their feet” by forgiving them.  In John 20:33, Jesus told the disciples “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you withhold forgiveness from any, it is withheld.” This verse just seems so powerful to me because it suggests that I have the power to forgive sin and I have the power to hold onto other people’s sins. Not only does it appear powerful to me, but even more, it seems to come with a lot of responsibility.  1 Peter 2:5,9 tells us that we are a royal priesthood, a holy priesthood, to offer spiritual sacrifices to God. If I am considered a priest, then my number one job it would seem to me, is to intercede for others. The priests of the Old Testament offered sacrifices for the sins of the people. They interceded on their behalf. I am not suggesting that I have the power to save people. I don’t! Only Jesus saves. But I do believe that when I intercede on behalf of others and forgive them their sins, I can release something in the supernatural that will allow them to come to faith in Jesus. 

Although I cannot prove my theory, I do believe there are examples of this in Scripture. I think that perhaps one of the reasons why Paul the apostle repented and came to a knowledge of the truth is directly related to Stephen’s last words. Why? Because Paul was there watching him die. “Then they cast him (Stephen) out of the city and stoned him. And the witnesses laid down their garments at the feet of a young man named Saul.” (Acts 7:58)

I believe that we have the power to release people from sin, not for salvation, but for them to come to Jesus for salvation. In other words, I think that because Stephen forgave his killers and asked the Lord to as well, that that sin was not held against Saul and somehow allowed him to eventually be apprehended on the road to Damascus.  

Do I understand all of this? Absolutely not. I think there is a mystery here! But I do believe that we are called to do what Jesus did and sometimes that involves washing the dirty feet of others by forgiving them. If you think about it, is that not the ultimate example of loving others? Forgiveness is never easy. Especially not when the person has sinned against us personally.  But that’s also the beauty and the power of forgiveness. It involves sacrifice, which is exactly what Peter told us to do in 1 Peter 2:5: we are to “offer spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.” 

I would add just one thing more here. We all fall short, we all have sinned. We all have dirty feet.  If we want to be forgiven for our sin, we must forgive others their sin. Jesus made that very clear in Matthew 6:14-15, “For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you, but if you do not forgive others their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” 

If you are struggling to forgive others, ask the Lord to help you. Forgiveness is not a feeling, it is a choice. It also does not mean that you have to allow that person back into your life so they can hurt you again. But commands it.  If you need to understand how forgiveness benefits you personally, read my blog post called “The hidden benefits of forgiveness” from October 2018. May you find peace for your soul as you forgive others. 

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