The Ordinance of Feet-Washing


The Christian ordinance of the foot washing, like its twin that goes with it—the Supper of the Lord—is very misunderstood. It is not a mere ceremony to represent humility. It is actually a special experience in which the Holy Spirit can work in a very powerful way. It should be entered into with a special consecratory prayer, pleading for the Holy Spirit to do that work. Keep reading to find out what this precious experience is.

Spirit of Prophecy

“And as they did eat, Jesus took bread, and blessed, and brake it, and gave to them, and said, Take, eat: this is my body. And he took the cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them: and they all drank of it. And he said unto them, This is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many. Verily I say unto you, I will drink no more of the fruit of the vine, until that day that I drink it new in the kingdom of God. And when they had sung a hymn, they went out into the mount of Olives.” Here was established the great memorial, the Lord‘s Supper. Can we take in the strains of Christian melody rising to heaven from the lips of the disciples? Christ, the Captain of our salvation, made of himself a sacrificial offering. The Prince of life became the Prince of martyrs.

“Now before the feast of the passover, when Jesus knew that his hour was come that he should depart out of this world unto the Father, having loved his own which were in the world, he loved them unto the end. And supper being ended, the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him; Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God; he riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself. After that he poureth water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded. Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet? Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter. Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me. Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head. Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.”

The act of Christ in washing the feet of his disciples was a sacred one; his motive in so doing was to bring about, through their remembrance of what Christ had done for them, a state of feeling where no exaltation of one above another should find place. This ordinance was to bring brother to an understanding of the feelings of his brother.

The last act of Christ in behalf of his betrayer was to wash his feet. He, their Lord and Master, showed that he would do anything to save the most guilty sinner. He said, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” If he will believe on Jesus Christ as the Son of God, the Redeemer of the world, he is the child of God.

Christ came not to save man in his sins, but from his sins. John’s testimony of him was, “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” And “as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the sons of God, even to them that believe on his name.”

Christ had washed the feet of Judas first. This disciple was having his last opportunity. When the ceremony was ended, the Master said, “Ye are clean, but not all. For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.” These words were spoken that Judas might understand that Christ had read his secret purposes, that he was not ignorant of his wicked schemes. This was his opportunity to confess and be converted. The disciples did not understand his words at the time, but they were imprinted on their memory afterward, and they had something to consider in the patience, the mercy, and the forbearance of God toward the most grievously erring.

Christ gave his disciples to understand that the washing of their feet did not cleanse away their sin, but that the cleansing of their heart was tested in this humble service. If the heart was cleansed, this act was all that was essential to reveal the fact. He had washed the feet of Judas; but he said, “Ye are not all clean.” Judas brought a traitor’s heart to this scene, and Christ revealed to all that he knew him to be the betrayer of his Lord, and that the washing of his feet was not an ordinance to cleanse the soul from its moral defilement.

“So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you? Ye call me Master and Lord; and ye say well; for so I am [for I have given you an example of the position you should hold toward one another]. If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.” Here is the object-lesson: “Ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.” “Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent, greater than he that sent him. If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” This ordinance is not to be treated in a mechanical way as a form. Its real object is to teach humility.

“I speak not of you all: I know whom I have chosen: but that the scripture may be fulfilled, He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me. Now I tell you before it come, that, when it is come to pass, ye may believe that I am he. Verily, verily, I say unto you, He that receiveth whomsoever I send receiveth me; and he that receiveth me receiveth him that sent me. When Jesus had thus said, he was troubled in spirit, and testified, and said, Verily, verily, I say unto you, that one of you shall betray me.”

Jesus would give convincing proof that he understood perfectly the character of Judas, and that he had not withheld his ministry even from him whom he knew to be working to betray him into the hands of his enemies. And we have, in his example, the lesson that the ordinance of feet-washing is not to be deferred because there are some professed believers who are not cleansed from their sins. Christ knew the heart of Judas, yet he washed his feet. Infinite Love could do no more to bring Judas to repentance, and save him from taking this fatal step. If this service of his Master, in humbling himself to wash the feet of the worst sinner, did not break his heart, what more could be done? It was the last act of love that Jesus could evidence in behalf of Judas. Infinite Love could not compel Judas to repent, confess his sin, and be saved. Every opportunity was granted him. Nothing was left undone that could be done to save him from the snare of Satan.

Let all behold, in the boundless love of Christ, a long-suffering Saviour, who holds out every inducement for the sinner to receive him, repent, and be cleansed from the defilement of sin. We must understand that because we suppose one to be in error and sin, we are not to divorce ourselves from him, refuse to have any association with him, and make our suppositions prominent. The example of Christ will not sustain any one in these conclusions. Many a soul may be saved by further effort on the part of his brother; but a careless separation from him, leaving him exposed to the temptations of Satan, and driving him upon the devil’s battle-ground, is not the method of Christ. He sought to restore, not to destroy. He who washed the feet of his disciples was the Majesty of heaven. He had the hoarded love of eternity in his heart, but he was in their midst as one who served; and in washing their feet, he gave them evidence that he would do any service, however humble, in order to make them heirs together with him of all the eternal wealth of heaven’s treasure.

When this simple ordinance is being performed, the followers of Christ should bear in mind that this is the time for all to search their hearts to see if they are willing to humble themselves in spirit, and follow the example of Christ. He gives them this ordinance as a test, a heart-searcher. The Holy Spirit will be present on every occasion to convince of sin, of any wrong action done to a brother. Let none grieve the Holy Spirit of God by disregarding the object of this ordinance, and the gracious opportunity it presents to confess every wrong, every act of injustice done to a brother. Had Judas accepted this last chance given him by Christ, the poor sinner would never have betrayed his Lord, and the words of Christ would never have been spoken, “Ye are not all clean.”

The Lord is present on every occasion when this humble ceremony is performed. He is the unseen Witness. He reads every heart, with its concealed purposes, its wrong-doings, its sin. You can neglect, you can leave, these seasons of divine appointment; and of you Christ‘s words may be appropriately spoken, “Ye are not all clean.”

Is any sin cherished? Let it be cut away from the soul by confession. The first look, the first act, of contrition and repentance that you direct toward Christ, does not escape his notice. The first step you take toward him will bring him more than a step toward you. All things, especially on this occasion, are ready for your reception. He will meet you in your weakness, repenting, broken-hearted soul, with his divine strength; he will meet your emptiness and spiritual poverty with his inexhaustible fulness.

In this ordinance, Christ discharged his disciples from the cares and burdens of the ancient Jewish obligations in rites and ceremonies. These no longer possessed any virtue; for type was meeting antitype in himself, the authority and foundation of all Jewish ordinances that pointed to him as the great and only efficacious offering for the sins of the world. He gave this simple ordinance that it might be a special season when he himself would always be present, to lead all participating in it to feel the pulse of their own conscience, to awaken them to an understanding of the lessons symbolized, to revive their memory, to convict of sin, and to receive their penitential repentance. He would teach them that brother is not to exalt himself above brother, that the dangers of disunion and strife shall be seen and appreciated; for the health and holy activity of the soul are involved.

This ordinance does not speak so largely to man’s intellectual capacity as to his heart. His moral and spiritual nature needs it. If his disciples had not needed this, it would not have been left for them as Christ‘s last established ordinance in connection with, and including, the last supper. It was Christ‘s desire to leave to his disciples an ordinance that would do for them the very thing they needed,–that would serve to disentangle them from the rites and ceremonies which they had hitherto engaged in as essential, and which the reception of the gospel made no longer of any force. To continue these rites would be an insult to Jehovah. Eating of the body, and drinking of the blood, of Christ, not merely at the sacramental service, but daily partaking of the bread of life to satisfy the soul’s hunger, would be in receiving his word and doing his will.

— E.G. White, Review and Herald, 6/14/1898


That last part was quite interesting. Let us reflect a bit on it.

People often think of the Old Testament types and shadows ending at the cross, but we have just read that it took place at the ordination of this service. Why is that?

The book Seventh Month Revival describes how there is a shadow—a parable—in the Law that essentially illustrated the uncleanness of sin: how pervading it is and how it is cleansed. Objects were considered to be “clean” and “unclean,” not for practical reasons, but for a parable to be enacted. The entire sanctuary system, and “unclean” people who participated in it, illustrated the cleansing, with various washings included. But when Peter said, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head,” “Jehoshua saith to him, ‘He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all” (John 13:9-10).

That was a new idea for the disciples. Much of their Jewish religion involved the parable of becoming clean, yet now it was only the feet that needed cleansing. Why? Because the Messiah had come. He was revealed to the world. He is the One that can make everyone clean from sin, and the feet represent our walk in life. Many shadows were required to portray His comprehensive mission, but we now have the Substance. When the Messiah makes are daily walk clean, everything is clean. We will do what is right, for the Spirit of the Messiah has cleansed us every whit. How does He do it? We have just read one major way how that has widely been overlooked. Let us not forsake the true observance of this Christian ordinance, nor daily prayer and bathing in the Word of God.

E.G. White

This is a republished article or book excerpt from Sister Ellen G. White.

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