Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Insights Into Bible Times and Customs

By G. Christian Weiss

Foot Washing

In John 13 we read the moving account of Jesus’ washing the feet of His disciples.  During the Last Supper, Jesus got up from the table,  laid aside His out garments and tied a towel around Himself.  Then, pouring water into a basin, He stooped down to wash the disciples’ feet.  With this act of self-humiliation complete, He said to His disciples, “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” (vv. 14,15).

Pic. Credit: kyouko_takara/sxu.hu
Some Christians have understood from this that foot washing should be practiced in the church as an ordinance much like the Lord’s Supper and baptism.  There is evidence that Ambrose, the bishop of Milan, practiced this in his church in the latter part of the fourth century.  Augustine, though he did not positively sponsor the practice, did intimate that to do this would be a commendable act of humility.  Certain religious denominations  and groups practice literal foot washing to this day.

The godly old commentator Matthew Henry wrote:  “(1) Some have understood this literally… (2)  But doubtless it is to be understood figuratively… Three things our Master hereby designed to teach us:-[1]  A humble condescension… Christ had often taught his disciples humility, and they had forgotten the lesson; but now he teaches them in such a way as surely they could never forget.  [2] A condescension to be serviceable.  To wash one another’s feet is to stoop to the meanest office of love, for the real good and benefit one of another. … [3] A serviceableness to the sanctification one of another:  Ye ought to wash one another’s feet, from the pollutions of sin… We cannot satisfy for one another’s sins, but we may help to purify one another from sin… We must sorrow for the failings and follies of our brethren… must wash our brethren’s polluted feet in tears.”

My own experiences in a land where the practices and customs of Bible times have been perpetuated lead me to agree with this view, though not in any way indicting or disparaging those who feel otherwise.

In the countries we call “Bible lands,” the majority of the people wore only sandals, and their feet readily became soiled.  Most roads were not hard surfaced, and in the rainy season they became extremely muddy and unsanitary.

Because the feet became dirty so easily, it was customary for a man entering a home to remove his sandals in the vestibule and wash his feet before proceeding into the house.  The homes of men who were affluent enough to have several servants always had a particular servant at the door assigned to the task of washing the feet of all who entered, particularly guests.  The Zondervan Pictorial Bible Dictionary edited by Merril C. Tenny, states that when a visitor enters a house, the lowest servant is detailed to wash his feet.  This I can personally verify.  The washing of feet was the least desirable of all the tasks of servitude and was considered to be extremely humiliating.

The relationship between the guest and the servant at the time of foot washing was vividly demonstrated to me on one occasion when I was visiting the house of a district chieftain in Morocco.  We had been preaching in a nearby marketplace, which had turned to a sea of mud because of heavy rains.  When we arrived at the chieftain’s home, a servant was dispatched to wash our feet at the entrance.  It is always  humiliating for a servant to be assigned to wash a guest’s feet, but for a proud Muslim to have to wash the feet of a despised Christian was doubly humiliating and irritating. 

The foot washing of Jo 13 occurred at the time of the Passover, when the spring rains were falling.  The streets Jerusalem were no doubt particularly muddy and unclean at the time.  Obviously, the disciples should not have come to the Passover table with unwashed feet, but apparently they did.  While sharing the Last Supper with them, Jesus insisted that their feet be clean.  Apparently not one of the disciples had volunteered to wash the feet of the other, therefore, the Lord Jesus stooped to this most humiliating of all tasks and washed their feet Himself.

He had washed their feet, He said in essence, “As I have stooped to render to you the lowliest and most humiliating of all services, so ought you to be prepared to render to one another the lowliest and humblest service.” The Jamieson, Fausset, and Brown commentary says that the words, “ought to wash one another’s feet,” should be taken,  “not in the narrow sense of a literal washing, profanely caricatured by Popes and Emperors, but by the very humblest real services one to another.”

That this is the correct understanding is indicated by the words of Jesus in verse 7:  “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.”  If literal foot washing had been meant, such words would have been pointless.  He also said,  “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me” (v.8).  Surely this could not apply to the literal washing of physical feet.  Jesus went on to say, “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean very whit” (v.10).  He must have been referring to spiritual cleansing rather than to physical washing.

Matthew Henry aptly wrote: “ The transaction was very solemn, … and four reasons are here intimated by Christ did this:-

1.  That he might testify his love to his disciples, v. 1, 2.
2.  That he might give an instance of his own voluntary humility and condescension, v. 3-5. 
3. That he might signify to them spiritual washing, which is referred to in his discourse with Peter, v. 6-11.
4.  That he might set them an example v. 12-17.”

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