Commentary

Washing feet

It’s not hard to see how the custom of foot-washing arose in the Ancient Middle East. People walking barefoot or in sandals on dry, dusty earth must have had perpetually dirty feet, so washing them before entering a building was a compelling matter of housekeeping.

It also became a ritual, however, with a host honoring his guests by washing their feet. The most famous example of this is in John 13, when Jesus washed his disciples’ feet at the Last Supper.

The spiritual meaning of washing is purification – cleaning the mind spiritually much as water cleans the body naturally. “Feet” represent our lives on the natural level – the day-to-day outward thoughts and actions that absorb so much of our time. Washing the feet, then, symbolizes purifying the natural level of our lives, applying what the Lord teaches us to our outward, ordinary actions.

Think of it this way: Are you nice to the cashier at the grocery store? Can you forgive someone who accidentally cuts you off in traffic? Do you hold the door for strangers? Such small things may be signs of good clean feet.

(References: Arcana Coelestia 3147 [1,8], 10243 [1-3]; John 13:5, 13:6, 13:8, 13:9)

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Arcana Coelestia #3147

Arcana Coelestia (Elliott translation)

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3147. 'And water to wash his feet' means purification there. This is clear from the meaning of 'water to wash' or 'washing with water' as purifying, dealt with below, and from the meaning of 'feet' as natural things, or what amounts to the same, those things that are in the natural man, dealt with in 2162. In the representative Church washing feet with water was a ceremonial act which meant washing away the filth of the natural man. The filth of the natural man is composed of all the things that belong to self-love and love of the world, and when such filth has been washed away goods and truths flow in, for that filth alone is what hinders the influx of good and truth from the Lord.

[2] For good is flowing in constantly from the Lord, but when by way of the internal or spiritual man it reaches the external or natural man it is either perverted there, or turned away, or stifled. But when indeed the things that belong to self-love and love of the world are removed, good is received there, and bears fruit there, since the person now performs the works of charity. This may become clear from many considerations, such as this: When the things that belong to the external or natural man are quiescent - as they are in times of ill- fortune, wretchedness, and sickness - a person instantly starts to become spiritually-minded and to will what is good, and also to perform acts of devotion insofar as he is able. But when that state alters, these things are altered too.

[3] In the Ancient Church 'washings' were signs meaning these things, and in the Jewish Church the same were representations. The reason why in the Ancient Church they were meaningful signs but in the Jewish Church representations was that members of the Ancient Church regarded that custom as some external act of worship. Nor did they believe that they were purified by that kind of washing but by a washing away of the filth of the natural man, which, as has been stated, is composed of the things that belong to self-love and love of the world. But the member of the Jewish Church did believe that he was purified by such washing, for he did not know, and did not wish to know, that the purifying of a person's interior self was meant.

[4] That 'washing' means the washing away of that filth is clear in Isaiah,

Wash yourselves; purify yourselves; remove the evil of your doings from before My eyes; cease to do evil. Isaiah 1:16.

Here it is evident that 'washing themselves' means purifying themselves and removing evils. In the same prophet,

When the Lord will have washed the excrement of the daughters of Zion and washed away the blood of Jerusalem from its midst in a spirit of judgement and in a spirit of purging. Isaiah 4:4.

Here 'washing the excrement of the daughters of Zion and washing away the blood of Jerusalem' stands for purifying from evils and falsities. In Jeremiah,

Wash your heart from wickedness, O Jerusalem, that you may be saved. How long will your iniquitous thoughts lodge within you? Jeremiah 4:14.

[5] In Ezekiel,

I washed you with water, and washed away the blood from upon you, and anointed you with oil. Ezekiel 16:9.

This refers to Jerusalem, which is used here to mean the Ancient Church. 'Washing with water' stands for purifying from falsities, 'washing away the blood' for purging from evils, 'anointing with oil' for filling with good at that time. In David,

Wash me from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin. You will purge me with hyssop and I shall be clean; You will wash me, and I shall be whiter than snow. Psalms 51:2, 7.

'Being washed' plainly stands for being purified from evils and derivative falsities.

[6] These were the things that were meant by 'washing' in the Representative Church. For the sake of the representation, when they had been made unclean and needed to be cleansed, people were commanded in that Church to wash the skin, hands, feet, and also their garments. All these meant things that belong to the natural man. Also for the sake of the representation, lavers made of bronze were placed outside the Temple - that is to say, 'the bronze sea and the ten bronze lavers' mentioned in 1 Kings 7:23-29; there was also the bronze laver from which Aaron and his sons were to wash themselves, placed between the Tent of Meeting and the Altar, and so outside the Tent of Meeting, Exodus 30:18-19, 21 - the meaning of which was that only external or natural things needed to be purified. And unless they have been purified, that is, unless things belonging to self-love and love of the world have been removed from them, internal things which belong to love to the Lord and towards the neighbour cannot possibly flow in, as stated above.

(References: 1 Kings 7:23-39)


[7] To enable these matters to be understood more easily, that is to say, regarding the need for external things to be purified, let good works - or what amounts to the same, the goods of charity, which are at the present day called the fruits of faith, and which, since they are actions, are external - serve to exemplify and illustrate the point: Good works are bad works unless the things belonging to self-love and love of the world are removed. For until these have been removed works, when performed, are good to outward appearance but are inwardly bad. They are inwardly bad because they are done either for the sake of reputation, or for financial gain, or for improvement of one's position, or for reward. They are accordingly either merit-seeking or hypocritical, for the things that belong to self-love and love of the world cause those works to be such. But when indeed these evils are removed, works become good, and are the goods of charity. That is to say, they are done regardless of self, the world, reputation, or reward, and so are not merit-seeking or hypocritical, because in that case celestial love and spiritual love flow from the Lord into those works and cause them to be love and charity in action. And at the same time the Lord also purifies the natural or external man by means of those things and orders it so that that man receives correspondingly the celestial and spiritual things that flow in.

[8] This becomes quite clear from what the Lord taught when He washed the disciples' feet: In John,

He came to Simon Peter, who said to Him, Lord, do You wash my feet? Jesus answered and said to him, What I am doing you do not know now, but you will know afterwards. Peter said to Him, You will never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me. Simon Peter said to Him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and head! Jesus said to him, He who is washed has no need except that his feet be washed, but is clean all over. Now you are clean, but not all of you. John 13:4-17.

'He who is washed has no need except that his feet be washed' means that anyone who has been reformed needs to be cleansed only in regard to natural things, that is, to have evils and falsities removed from them. For when that happens all is ordered by the influx of spiritual things from the Lord. Furthermore 'feet-washing' was an act of charity, meaning that one ought not to dwell on the evils of another person. It was also an act of humility, meaning the cleansing of another from evils, like filth from the body, as also becomes clear from the Lord's words in verses 12-17 of that chapter in John, and also in Luke 7:37-38, 44, 46; John 11:2; 1 Samuel 25:41.

(References: John 13:12-17)


[9] Anyone may see that washing himself does not purify a person from evils and falsities, only from the filth that clings to him. Yet because it belonged among the religious observances commanded in the Church it follows that it embodies some special idea, namely spiritual washing, which is purification from the filth that clings to man inwardly. Members of that Church therefore who knew these things and thought of purification of the heart, that is, the removal of the evils of self-love and love of the world from the natural man, and tried to achieve it with utmost zeal, practiced ritual washing as an external act of worship, as commanded. But among those who did not know and did not wish to know those things but who supposed that the mere ritual act of washing garments, skin, hands, and feet would purify them, and who supposed that provided they performed such rituals they would be allowed to continue leading lives of avarice, hatred, revenge, mercilessness, and cruelty - all of which constitute spiritual filth - the performance of the ritual was idolatrous. Nevertheless by means of that ritual they were still able to represent, and by means of the representation to display, some vestige of a Church, by means of which heaven was in a way joined to mankind prior to the Lord's Coming. But that conjunction was such that heaven had little or no influence at all on the member of that Church.

[10] The Jews and Israelites were such that they did not think at all of the internal man, nor did they wish to know anything about the same. Thus they knew absolutely nothing about the celestial and spiritual things which belong to the life after death. Nevertheless to prevent the end of all communication with heaven and so with the Lord, they were bound to the performance of external observances by which internal things were meant. All their captivities and plagues were in general to the end that external observances might be duly carried out for the sake of the representation. It was for this reason that the following laws were given:

Moses was to wash Aaron and his sons with water at the tent door, to sanctify them. Exodus 29:4; 40:12; Leviticus 8:6.

Aaron and his sons were to wash their hands and feet before entering the Tent of Meeting and approaching the Altar to minister, lest they died. This was to them a statute for ever. Exodus 30:18-21; 40:30-31.

Before putting on his vestments Aaron was to wash his flesh. Leviticus 16:4, 24.

Levites were to be purified by sprinkling the water of expiation over them, passing a razor over their flesh, and washing their clothes - then they were pure. Numbers 8:6-7.

Anyone who ate the carcass of a clean animal, 1 or that which had been torn to pieces, was to wash his clothes and bathe himself with water, and if he did not wash himself and bathe his flesh he would bear his iniquity. Leviticus 17:15-16.

Anyone who touched the bed of a person who had a discharge, or sat on a vessel on which that person had sat, and anyone who touched that person's flesh was to wash his clothes and to bathe himself with water, and be unclean until the evening. Leviticus 15:5-7, Leviticus 15:10-1: and following verses.

The person who sent the goat away to Azazel was to wash his flesh. Leviticus 16:26.

When a leper was to be cleansed he was to wash his clothes, shave off all his hair, wash himself in water, and then he would be clean. Leviticus 14:8-9.

Even vessels themselves which had become unclean through contact with unclean persons were made to go through water and be unclean until the evening. Leviticus 11:32.

From all these laws it may be seen that nobody was made clean or pure internally through ritual washing, but that such a person merely represented him who was pure or spiritually clean, for the reason stated above. The Lord teaches the same quite explicitly in Matthew 15:1-20; Mark 7:1-23.

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Footnotes:

1. i.e. an animal that had not been slaughtered but had died naturally

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(References: Exodus 40:30-32; Genesis 24:32; Leviticus 15:10-12; Matthew 15:1-2, 15:20)


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From Swedenborg's Works

Inbound References:

Arcana Coelestia 3324, 3693, 3721, 3761, 3881, 3986, 4208, 4280, 4302, 4311, 4382, 4515, 4938, 5328, 5508, 5669, 6015, 6372, 6377, 6413, 6463, 6730, 6844, 6947, 7046, 7442, 7729, 7864, 8046, 8106, 8588, 8789, 8886, 8918, 9054, 9223, 9229, 9262, ...

Heaven and Hell 603

The New Jerusalem and its Heavenly Doctrine 186, 209, 248, 277


References from Swedenborg's unpublished works:

Apocalypse Explained 69, 71, 130, 163, 176, 240, 279, 365, 376, 405, 433, 443

Other New Christian Commentary

Good Works 1

Feet 1

Washing feet 1

Wash 1

Bloods 1

Resources for parents and teachers

The items listed here are provided courtesy of our friends at the General Church of the New Jerusalem. You can search/browse their whole library at the New Church Vineyard website.


 Jesus Washes the Disciples' Feet
In washing the disciples' feet Jesus showed His unconditional love for humankind. His example shows us leadership qualities to strive for.
Sunday School Lesson | Ages 11 - 17


Thanks to the Swedenborg Society for the permission to use this translation.


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