“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’” (John 13:10).
In typical fashion, John presents us with a bold statement followed by an apparent contradiction, just as he did earlier in saying, “No man receives his testimony,” and in adding, “He that has received his testimony…” (John 3:32-33). Here, in one sentence, we have Jesus telling Peter that his feet need washing, though he is clean every whit. How can that be? What is Jesus saying to Peter? To us?
To understand the significance of this foot-washing scene for the confession question, we need to back up a bit and catch the literary context. John frames the scene with repeated reminders that Jesus is going to the Father via the Cross. His hour has come. With that in mind, we should see this foot-washing as a picture of soul-washing. Jesus serves here in the Upper Room as He will soon serve later on the Outer Hill–voluntarily bearing our guilt as the Suffering Servant (Isaiah 53). It is a beautiful picture and one that the disciples did not yet understand (John 13:7).
In coming to Peter, Jesus is at first rejected as the Servant:
“Lord, do You wash my feet?…You shall never wash my feet” (John 13:6, 8).
In response, Jesus tells Peter:
“If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (John 13:8).
Like Newton’s third law, Peter then reacts with the opposite extreme:
“Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head” (John 13:9).
Let us pause right here, Christian, to catch the analogy. The dirt on our feet represents the daily sin that every Christian accumulates in walking through life. The washing of our feet represents the blood of Jesus consistently cleansing us from all sin and from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7, 9). In Jesus’ day, the feet were washed before the meal was served; therefore, this consistent spiritual cleansing is a condition of daily fellowship with Jesus at the table–of close interaction with Him as friend-to-Friend (cf. Revelation 3:20).
In contrast to having our feet washed, having our body washed represents a change of status. (We call this change “salvation”.) Before God, each person is either clean or unclean. In Jewish law, the ritually unclean were kept outside the camp, as symbolized by the lepers who cried out, “Unclean, unclean!” In spiritual terms, the unclean are unjustified sinners, who are cast into the outer darkness of hell (cf. Revelation 21:8, 27; 22:14-15). To enter heaven, we all must first be cleansed. We must be “washed,…sanctified,…[and] justified in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God” (1 Corinthians 6:11). Symbolically, this permanent change of status is represented by baptism—and act administered once for a believer, and never repeated (cf. Hebrews 10:22). We are clean forever.
Paradoxically, Jesus was telling Peter that a clean person can have dirty feet (John 13:10; cf. 15:3). This statement applies to all of us Christians. One mark of a Christian is that we still sin and still need the continual Priesthood of Christ (1 John 1:10 – 2:2). Like Peter, we too are clean in status before God; but due to daily sin, we have dirty feet. Therefore, in order to have a good meal with Jesus–to fellowship closely and as friend-to-Friend–we need to have our feet washed regularly, to have the blood of our Priest cleanse us from all sin and from all unrighteousness (1 John 1:7, 9). As seen in our last post, our confession does not cause this priestly action in a one-to-one fashion, but regular confession is complementary to continual cleansing. We regularly confess, and He continually cleanses. Blessed salvation! Blessed Savior! God be praised!
Note: This entry has been considerably reworked and shortened, but not changed in a significant way from the way it was originally posted on February 18, 2010.