An act necessary for comfort and cleanliness for any who have traveled dusty Palestinian roads with feet shod in sandals. Customarily, a host provided guests with water for washing their own feet (Judges 19:21;
Luke 7:44, where the complaint was that Simon had not provided water).Footwashing was regarded as so lowly a task that it could not be required of a Hebrew slave. In this context the statement of John the Baptist that he was unworthy to untie the sandal (to wash the feet) of the One coming after him (Mark 1:7) indicates great humility. As a sign of exceptional love, a disciple might wash a master's feet (contrast
John 13:13-14) or a wife volunteer to wash her husband's (Joseph and Asenath
John 20:1-5). The initiative of the woman who was a “sinner” in washing Jesus' feet (Luke 7:37-50) was more than expected hospitality. Hers was an act of great love which evidenced the forgiveness of her sins (Luke 7:47).
Jesus' washing of the disciples' feet (John 13:4-5) has both an ethical and symbolic sense. The ethical sense is emphasized in
John 13:14-15 where Jesus presented Himself as the example of humble, loving service. (Compare
Luke 22:27.) The command to do for each other what Christ had done for them ought not to be confined simply to washing feet. What Jesus did for the disciples was to lay down His life for them (John 15:13). Thus the ethical imperative calls for giving our lives in extravagant acts of selfless service. Footwashing is one expression of this. The footwashing in John occupies the place taken by the institution of the Lord's Supper in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Like the Supper, the footwashing is an enacted sermon on the death of Christ. This symbolic sense is highlighted in the picture of Jesus' laying aside his garments and then taking them up (a picture of Christ's laying down and taking up his life,
John 10:17-18), the note that the footwashing is necessary for the disciples to receive their inheritance (“part”
John 13:8), and the statement that it affects cleansing (John 13:10). Some interpreters see a connection with baptism (and the Eucharist) as sacraments of cleansing. Instead, the footwashing, like baptism and the Supper, bears witness to the same salvific event, the selfless giving of Christ in the humilitating death of the cross.
Washing the feet of other Christians was a qualification for service as a “widow” in the early church (1 Timothy 5:10). Footwashing is here representative of humble acts of service (TEV).
The ceremonial washing of feet is first attested by Augustine in connection with Easter baptism. The association of the rite with Maundy Thursday was fixed by the council of Toledo (694). The developed Catholic practice involves a priest washing the feet of twelve poor men. Martin Luther criticized ecclesiastical authorities who washed feet as an act of humility and then demanded greater humility in return. The Anabaptists practiced footwashing as a symbol of washing in the blood of Christ and to impress the example of Christ's deep humiliation. Footwashing was commonly practiced by Baptists in early America. Today the regular practice is confined to smaller Baptist bodies, Mennonites, and some others.