Jesus often surprised (and confused) his disciples with the things he said and did, and one of the most surprising things he ever did was to wash their feet. In fact, the last thing the disciples expected Jesus to be doing at the Passover meal was to take off his robe, wrap a towel around his waist, and get down and dirty with that part of their anatomy that was by far the filthiest. But Jesus washed their feet with the same total absence of squeamishness that he displayed when he embraced lepers – nothing deterred him from his mission to do what his Father laid out for him to do.
By way of explanation as to why he was washing their feet, Jesus told the disciples that they wouldn’t understand at that time, but they would understand later. Further, he told them that if they didn’t permit him to wash their feet, they’d have no part in him. He also mentioned that just as he washed their feet, they would also have to wash the feet of others.
From that explanation, it’s clear that the foot washing done by Jesus had a meaning far beyond simply removing the dust and grime and whatever else had accumulated between the disciples’ toes. Most theologians and other commentators focus on the humility aspect of the foot washing, as such washing was normally done by servants or slaves. However, I’m not convinced that humility is the main reason why Jesus almost ritualistically washed the disciples’ feet. I’m not even convinced that humility is any part of the reason at all for the foot washing. Jesus was adamant that the disciples wouldn’t understand at that time why he was doing what he was doing, but he was certain they’d understand at some point in the future. He was also just as insistent that they would someday wash others’ feet as he was washing theirs.
I believe the ritualistic way that Jesus approached the foot washing is the key to why he did it. Remember how important it was for Jesus that John baptize him in the River Jordan, and remember how surprised John was to be doing the baptizing. John told Jesus that he should be getting baptized by him, but Jesus responded that the baptism needed to happen in that way (that is, John baptizing Jesus) in order to fulfill prophecy. In other words, the ritual had to be carried out in accordance with scripture.
John’s form of baptism was full body dunking or a dunking of the head or water sprinkled on the head. However performed, the baptism was focused on getting the head wet. It was also a way to publicly declare the repentance of the baptized person. This form of baptism is still used in Christian circles today.
I propose that what Jesus did in washing the feet of his disciples was a baptism, and that Jesus’ baptism – the ritualistic washing of feet – was a sequel to John’s baptism. Where John’s baptism signaled the start of the penitent’s journey along God’s Way, the foot-washing baptism marked the end of the initiate phase and the beginning of the master phase. Remember that Jesus at the Passover supper told his disciples that where once he was their Lord and master, he was now their friend, meaning they were spiritual equals and peers.
John’s baptism symbolized spiritual cleansing through repentance, but Jesus told the disciples when he was washing their feet that they were already clean. In other words, they didn’t need to repent and wash their head again, like in John’s baptism. Jesus wasn’t washing their feet to spiritually or physically clean them; he was washing them as an indicator that the disciples had reached the next stage in their spiritual evolution. That next stage was to take over from where Jesus left off – that is, to take over the role of master by teaching and preaching the Kingdom in the power of God’s Holy Spirit.
Their journey as initiates began with the ritualistic cleansing of their head in John’s baptism and ended with the ritualistic cleansing of their feet in Jesus’ baptism. All they had to do from that point onward was to wait in Jerusalem, as per Jesus’ instructions after his resurrection, until they’d received the baptism from on high (that is, the baptism of the Holy Spirit). They would then be able to preach and teach God’s Word as Jesus did. They would become teachers and masters in God’s Kingdom.
I do not see humility in Jesus’ washing of the disciples’ feet – I see a ritual that Jesus was carefully demonstrating, the same way as he carefully demonstrated drinking wine as a symbol of his blood and eating bread as a symbol of his body as a new way to celebrate the Passover in remembrance of him. Keep in mind that everything Jesus did at that Passover supper was incredibly important. Nothing was left to chance in its preparation, and every word that Jesus spoke and every gesture that he made was determined in advance. Jesus (and God) wanted everything that took place that night to be branded in the hearts and minds of those present so that they would clearly recall and record it later. Because what Jesus was actually doing at that Passover celebration was launching a new religion – a new Testament to replace the old one – and that new religion would have as its high priests Spirit-filled born-again believers who had ascended to the same teaching position as Jesus during his ministry years.
Have your feet been washed yet?
If so, are you ready to wash the feet of others?