Foot Washing

John 13: 15, "For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you."

“I have, in my own person, given you a pattern of what your own conduct should be. The duty I want you to learn is of such vast importance that I have not left it to a general precept but have given you an example of my meaning.” Of course, the question at once rises, What did our Lord really mean? Did he mean that we all ought literally to do the very same thing that He did?  Or did he only mean that we are to imitate the spirit of this action?  The Church of Rome, it is well known, puts a literal sense on our Lord’s language. Once every year, about Easter, the head of the Romish Church publicly washes the feet of certain poor persons got ready for the occasion. The absurdity, to say the least, of this view is evident on a moment’s reflection.

It seems absurd to take our Lord’s words literally and to suppose that the Pope’s literal washing of a few feet at Easter can supersede the duty of all Christians to do the same. Yet it is only fair to remember that the Moravians to this day take a literal view of those words and have a custom called “pedilavium.”

It is, in any case, absurd to suppose that our Lord would require His disciples to perform a duty which the young and the feeble would be physically unable to do. It is inconsistent with the general tenor of our Lord’s teaching to suppose that He would ever attach so much importance to a mere bodily action.  “Bodily exercise profits little” (1 Tim. 4:8). A formal performance of bodily acts of religion is just the easiest thing that can be imposed on people. The thing that is really hard, and yet always required, is the service of the heart.

—J.C. Ryle, 'Expository Thoughts on John’

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