In the dialogue between Jesus and Peter we see that Jesus gave a particular interpretation of his footwashing. Before he does this he deals with the confusion of Peter.
In looking at the responses of Jesus to Peter we note his patient dealing with a dismayed disciple. Peter was shocked by Jesus’ behaviour. How could such a holy person as Jesus wash the feet of a sinful man? So Jesus gave him the assurance that later he would understand. In referring to this future time of understanding, Jesus probably refers to the days after the resurrection when much became clear to the disciples. Yet the principle also applies to believers receiving the answer in heaven concerning much that happened to them on earth. What Jesus is doing we do not understand now, but afterward we will understand.
We can also see in Peter’s response an example of a believer who uses his sense of his own unworthiness and sin to try and prevent the Lord dealing with that sin. The actions of Jesus were too gracious, and sometimes we can feel like that. Our awareness of our faults is so strong that we argue with the Lord’s promises of forgiveness and help instead of thankfully accepting them.
What happens to us when we do that? Probably similar to how Jesus dealt with Peter. The Saviour gave Peter a gentle warning that brought him back to his senses: ‘If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.’ These warnings usually take the form of loss of spiritual comfort until we realise our total dependence on the Saviour.
It is evident that Jesus intended spiritual truth to be illustrated in his actions. He distinguishes between a bath and a foot washing. If a person has a bath, he is clean. When he returns from a walk he does not need a bath, only a foot wash because of the dusty roads. Similarly, Peter already had been given a bath spiritually, so he only needed to wash his feet spiritually.
This spiritual bath occurs at conversion when a sinner is cleansed from the effects of his sin and is pardoned by God. This cleansing does not need to be repeated because the forgiveness that is given by God is never withdrawn by him. From this perspective, every believer on earth, although still a sinner, is as secure as the believers in heaven – both believers on earth and believers in heaven depend on Christ alone.
Yet the believer on earth comes in contact with the defiling things of the world in a similar way to how his feet make contact with the dirty dust. Sometimes he approaches these defiling things willingly, at other times unwillingly, at other times he is unaware that he has been defiled. Each time we pray, we should ask God for cleansing from defilement caused by our own folly, by defilement caused by accidental contact, and by defilement that we may not have noticed.
This action of Jesus depicts how he wishes to relate to each of his disciples. He draws near to cleanse us. If we resist his cleansing, we will not enjoy fellowship with him. Thinking about his action in the Upper Room, we can say that his cleansing will be comprehensive (all parts of the feet were cleaned), will be gentle, will remove all sign of the defilement. We should also note that this cleansing is evidence of his love – because he loves us he wants us to be clean.