The first mention of foot washing (in Gen. 18:4-5) emphasises the benefits of rest and refreshment.
Self-centeredness is the default position of fallen humanity. Tragically, it infiltrates modern Christendom with many maintaining that the church is primarily geared toward pleasing people and meeting their felt needs. During His sojourn on earth, however, the Lord Jesus demonstrated that God’s kingdom operates on the antithetical principle of selfless service. Christian discipleship’s core idea is denying oneself in favor of taking up the cross and following Christ (Mt. 16:24), Jehovah’s perfect servant (e.g. Isa. 42; 49; 50; 52:13-53:12). Service is one of the purposes for which believers are saved (Titus 2:14), and, in order to do it properly, they must understand its example, method, freedom, and means.
The example & method of service
In the upper room, Christ left an enacted parable of service for His followers. He laid aside His outer robes to don the servant’s garb. More than a mere change of clothing, He afterwards proceeded to do one of the most menial tasks in that culture: He washed their feet. This humble act resembles the far greater stoop that the Son of God accomplished when He veiled His glory in human flesh and came to earth to die as a sacrifice to cleanse repentant sinners from their sin (Php. 2:5-8). After resuming His place at the table, He declared, “You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you say well, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:12-14).
The Lord’s statements transcend the physical act of washing feet, for His prior conversation with Peter makes it evident that spiritual cleansing is chiefly in view (Jn. 13:6-11). Washing one another’s feet involves the needed tasks of rebuke, reproof, correction, and exhortation. These actions require tremendous spiritual wisdom and tact, as Ironside notes:
We need much grace ourselves to wash another’s feet. If you are going to wash your neighbor’s feet, you ought to be careful about the temperature of the water. You would not go to anyone and say, “Put your feet into this bucket of scalding water, and I will wash them for you.” Ice-water is just as bad. Some people go at you in such a way that you just shrink back from them. Some are so hot, and some are so cold and icy and formal. You don’t appreciate either, do you?1
Kelly agrees, especially cautioning against an overly harsh spirit in these words: “…the righteousness that censures another is as far as possible from washing the feet, resembling rather the scourge than the service of the towel and basin. And assuredly, if grace be needed to bear the washing, a far larger measure must be in action to wash the feet.”2
Galatians 6:2 instructs Christians to “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.” The burdens in mind indicate “the infirmities of the brethren (Rom. 15:1).”3 This exhortation follows a verse that details the necessity of restoring a brother who is “overtaken in a trespass.” This is feet-washing at its best and requires the careful correction and encouragement of a fallen brother. The most spiritual saints are to set him right. This may entail pointing out sin, guiding to repentance, and encouraging the offender of the Lord’s ongoing love and advocacy for him (1 Jn. 2:1). This work requires dependence on the Lord, as Haldane notes:
The duty of watching over each other, so frequently inculcated on the disciples, may be perverted and become the source of strife, confusion, and every evil work. There is no part of Christian duty which requires us to look more carefully to our own spirit than administering reproof to our brethren; and the more we are impressed with a sense of our weakness and proneness to fall, the better shall we be able to hold up our brother when he stumbles. The word restore refers to a dislocated joint, which requires great skill and tenderness.4
Keeping in mind the dangers of cold indifference and hypercritical severity, correction and subsequent restoration are essential activities among Christians. The goal is to fully restore a fallen brother or sister. As Spurgeon once said, “Pick him up, [and] help him to run better than he did before.”5
The freedom of service
The common conception of freedom is the ability to do whatever you want, but this worldly definition naively ignores the bondage that such indulgence leads to. As Christ said, “…everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin” (Jn. 8:34, ESV). Galatians 5:13 expresses the biblical understanding of freedom: “For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.” Believers were liberated from sin’s slavery in order to lovingly minister to others?especially the household of faith (Gal. 6:10). They were not redeemed to live lives of self-absorbed decadence; rather, like the Lord, they are to freely give and serve. A nineteenth-century commentator captures the thought this way:
Self-seeking and self-pleasing were things belonging to their former state, when, in ignorance of God, they measured everything by nature’s standard, which is always self. But now that they had learnt God, in the truth of His salvation and the manner of His love towards themselves, their wisdom and glory are to be practically imitators of Him whose thoughts and ways are manifested in His Son.6
The means of service
The triune God thoroughly equips the church for service by the spiritual gifts that He bestows (e.g. 1 Cor. 12; Eph. 4; Rom. 12). Instead of using these abilities to inflate our reputations, Peter exhorts, “As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God” (1 Pet. 4:10). The saints’ service is dependent on the proper exercise of their God-given gifts. Teachers are to teach others with the goal of instructing them in the will and Word of God. Pastors?who are always seen in the New Testament as multiple co-laborers in each church?shepherd the flock into greater obedience and communion with the Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Evangelists prepare the believers for witnessing. Those with the gift of helps lend practical aid to those who need assistance. And so it goes: God’s service to the church is carried out through Spirit-led and Christ-inspired usage of the Christians’ spiritual gifts and natural talents. One author sums it up this way: “…the church is a veritable storehouse of gifts and talents?never locked but always open for service.”7
1 H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the Gospel of John (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux, 1942), pp.560-62.
2 William Kelly, An Exposition of the Gospel of John (London: T. Weston, 1898), p.266.
3 Hermann Olshausen, Biblical Commentary on the New Testament by Dr. Hermann Olshausen, Volume 4 (New York: Sheldon, Blakeman, & Co., 1857-1859), p.581.
4 J. A. Haldane, An Exposition of the Epistle to the Galatians (Edinburgh: William Whyte and Co., 1848), pp.234-35.
5 C. H. Spurgeon, “Exposition by C. H. Spurgeon: GALATIANS 5:13–26; and 6:1–10” in The Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit Sermons, Vol. XLV. (London: Passmore & Alabaster, 1899), p.360.
6 Arthur Pridham, Notes and Reflections on the Epistle to the Galatians (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1872), pp.268-69. The church historian Philip Schaff also has the right idea: “By faith we are lords, by love we are servants of all. Show your freedom by love, and your love by service. This kind of bondage is honorable and delightful.” The Epistle of Paul to the Galatians (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1881), p.59.
7 Simon J. Kistemaker, Exposition of the Epistles of Peter and the Epistle of Jude, New Testament Commentary, Vol. 16 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker, 1987), p.169.