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John 13:14-15 reads, “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 unto you.”  Let’s start with your last question, for one’s view on “washing the disciple’s feet” will be predicated on the answer to that. It is most certain that our blessed Lord, in grace and humility, “literally” washed the feet of His disciples that day, and yet I believe it has a “figurative” meaning for us. I base this on verses 6-7 of this chapter where we read, “Then cometh He to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost Thou wash my feet? Jesus answered him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” Peter surely knew that the Lord was going to literally wash his feet, and yet the Lord states “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” With these words the Lord is clearly teaching Peter that there was a deeper, spiritual meaning behind the act of feet-washing, and that the meaning would be known to him “hereafter.” I take it the Lord is referring to the coming of the Holy Spirit (on the Day of Pentecost), for the Lord promised them later in John 14:26, “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost, whom the Father will send in my name, He shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you.”

What is the symbolic meaning behind feet-washing? Just as one needs to have their feet washed when they become dirty, so believers need a spiritual washing when we become defiled as we walk through this world filled with sin. The Lord used “water” to wash his disciples’ feet (verse 5) and “water” is used in Scripture as a symbol of the “Word of God.” In John 15:3 we read, “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” and in Ephesians 5:25-26 we read, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave Himself for it; That He might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word.” The Word of God is what God uses to cleanse us when we become defiled through sin. In 1 John 2:1 we read, “My little children, these things write I unto you, that ye sin not. And if any man sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous.”

The Lord Jesus exhorts us not to sin, but the moment we do sin He comes to our aid (an Advocate is “one who comes to our side”) by restoring us back into fellowship. He uses the Word to that end, first by convicting us of our sin, and then by assuring us that if we confess our sins He will forgive us and cleanse us from the sin that defiles us. Consider 1 John 1:9, “If we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.”

This need for restoration to fellowship with God is indicated by our Lord’s words to Peter in John 13:8, “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” The Lord is teaching us that if we don’t allow Him to cleanse us from sin in our lives, we can have “no part with Him,” which is another way of saying we can have “no fellowship with Him.” Nothing can rob us of the eternal salvation we have ‘in Christ’, but unconfessed sin will sever fellowship ‘with Him.’ When we do sin and are convicted of it, may we willingly put our defiled feet, as it were, in our Savior’s Hands and allow Him to cleanse us from it by His precious Word.

When Peter heard the Lord say this he immediately responded, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head,” to which the Lord replied, “He that is washed [bathed] needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” The word “washed”, or bathed, speaks of the “washing of regeneration as in Titus 3:5, which one experiences when they are “born again” through the “water” (the Word of God) and the “Spirit” as we read in John 3:5.  Thank God the New Birth never needs to be repeated, but cleansing from this defiling world is needed whenever we fall into sin.

Having learned the figurative meaning of feet-washing, we can now apply verses 14-15 to ourselves. The simple yet precious meaning is this: just as the Lord uses the Word to cleanse us from sin, so we too can be used of the Lord to minister the Word to our fellow-believer and thus “wash one another’s feet.” What a privilege to be used in this way to help one another when sin has robbed a brother or a sister of fellowship with their Savior and Lord. To illustrate, let’s read Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted.” If the Lord has allowed us to see a brother or a sister who has fallen into sin, He would encourage us in this verse to seek their restoration to fellowship with the Lord.  We must approach them with the proper attitude of humility and gentleness, and with the realization that we too could be tempted. And though there is no mention of the Word of God in this verse, surely we would be bringing to them some portion of the Word in order to arouse their conscience as to a sense of their sin, but also reminding them, from the Word, of God’s love for them and how God the Father is ever ready to forgive them and to cleanse them from sin, as we saw earlier in 1 John 1:9. If they respond to the Word brought to them, they will experience that blessed cleansing symbolized in the Lord washing the disciples’ feet. The Lord Himself does the washing, but we can be used of Him to that end!  I feel compelled to end this answer with the Lord’s words in John 13:17, “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.”  (124.1)  (DO)