Foundations of the Faith
the elementary teachings in Hebrews 6
that prepare disciples in Yeshua to move on to maturity
Instruction about Washings
2: Ceremonial Handwashing / Footwashing
We continue reviewing our foundation about washings by looking at a kind of washing which Yeshua refused to support: the ceremonial washing of hands before meals, known in the Jewish community as "Netilat Yadayim".
"Then some Pharisees and teachers of the Law came to Yeshua from Jerusalem and asked, 'Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders? They don't wash their hands before they eat!'…. Peter said, 'Explain the parable to us.' 'Are you still so dull?' Yeshua asked them.
"'Don't you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man unclean. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man unclean; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him "unclean".'"
In Yeshua's teaching, it is spiritual reality that is important, while physical reality is secondary: "The Spirit gives life; the flesh counts for nothing. The words I have spoken to you are spirit and they are life."
The Law of Moses was given to illustrate spiritual reality for us; it was not to be understood as being that spiritual reality: "The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming - not the realities themselves." Yeshua therefore objected strongly to the scribes' and Pharisees' teaching that people become spiritually unclean by eating food with unwashed hands.
According to a tradition recorded in the Talmud (Shab. 14a-b), the impurity of hands requiring this kind of washing was instituted by Hillel and Shammai, the two great Pharisaic teachers known as "the elders", who lived a generation prior to Yeshua. Their teaching was based on Leviticus 15:11 and Psalm 26:6, and they contended that the hands could become impure independently of the rest of the body.
It is evident from Yeshua's argument that the reason motivating this required washing was the Pharisees' belief that there was spiritual impurity being conveyed from unwashed hands through the food being eaten; and this is supported by the Talmud (Taanith 20b, regarding the demon Sibetha), and further explained in the Shulhan Aruch. Yeshua's position was that the uncleanness taught in Torah is a symbolic representation of spiritual uncleanness in our hearts, and not a spiritual uncleanness in itself.
For Jewish disciples of Yeshua, this requires a change from accepted Jewish observance, since current practice requires the washing of hands before eating bread, accompanied by a spoken blessing on God for having given this commandment to the Jewish people. A disciple of Yeshua should testify to the true spiritual realities by refusing this practice and the blessing that goes with it.
Yeshua's teaching regarding the spiritual symbolism of Torah regulations, and His denial of their intrinsic spiritual reality, is an extremely important foundation for Paul's gospel to the Gentiles. If it were otherwise - if the physical impurities described in Torah really did make someone spiritually unclean - then it would be to the spiritual benefit of all men, Jewish and Gentile alike, to perform the Torah regulations regarding impurity. This would also be a strong argument that all men should be brought into the covenant of circumcision.
To further explain Yeshua's refusal to honor the elders' tradition of washing hands, we have His institution of a tradition of washing feet.
In those days such washing was done as a courtesy for honored guests or by servants for their masters, because of dung and other garbage which littered the streets. But it was not a requirement of Torah, for the same reason that handwashing was not a requirement: the washings in Torah were spiritual lessons, not health precautions.
Yeshua's logic behind the footwashing was similar to the Pharisaic logic behind the institution of the handwashing: it focused on one part of the body that could independently become unclean. "'Then, Lord,' Simon Peter replied, 'not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!' Yeshua answered, 'A person who has had a bath needs only to wash his feet; his whole body is clean.'"
However, unlike the Pharisees, Yeshua did not present this as a requirement for purity, but as a model for service to our brothers and sisters: "You call me 'Teacher' and 'Lord,' and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another's feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.'"
But apart from our willingness to act as servants to each other, there was also a spiritual aspect to the lesson that Yeshua was giving. There are two interesting comments that He made which indicate this.
The first was His response to Peter, who said, "You shall never wash my feet." Yeshua answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me." Yeshua was clearly making this act a symbol of spiritual washing, in preparation for participating with Him.
The second was His comment: "'And you are clean, though not every one of you.' For He knew who was going to betray Him, and that was why He said not everyone was clean." Here Yeshua confirms that He is speaking of general spiritual cleansing, and John's comment shows that Judas had not been "washed". The Lord had not yet finished washing all the disciples' feet, so even the foot-level of cleansing is not what He meant.
A general spiritual washing is Yeshua's service to us. But He commanded us as His disciples to perform a more limited service: washing the feet of those who have been cleansed by Him.
Since we know that physically cleansing the hands does not affect the spiritual state of someone, we must not conclude that repeating Yeshua's physical ritual of footwashing is going to cleanse anyone spiritually either. It is the spiritual reality He was emphasizing. Is there then a partial spiritual washing which we are able and expected to perform for each other, which is comparable to washing the feet of someone who has bathed?
Indeed there is: "If anyone sees his brother commit a sin that does not lead to death, he should pray and God will give him life. I refer to those whose sin does not lead to death. There is a sin that leads to death. I am not saying that he should pray about that."
When we see a brother sin in a way that does not result in spiritual death, it is the spiritual equivalent of watching him walk through muck that temporarily dirties an otherwise clean body. So praying privately for his forgiveness is the spiritual equivalent of washing his feet for him. But what kind of sin "does not lead to death"?
One category is sinning in ignorance. It may be a lack of knowledge concerning what G-d requires, or a mistaken conviction that G-d requires something which He does not; either way, the person's conscience has not made him aware that he is sinning.
Another category is sinning against the ceremonial laws included in the covenant G-d made with Israel, which do not remove someone from the Kingdom of Heaven. These are the shadows of spiritual realities, and not the realities themselves. They are what Yeshua referred to as "the least" of the commandments in the Law: "Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven."
A sin against the lesser commands in the Law of Moses may not remove saints from the Kingdom, but being "least in the Kingdom" can (among other things) hinder their ability to walk in His full power, or prevent them from being entrusted with His spiritual riches. Likewise, a sin committed in ignorance may not bring the spiritual results that conscious rebellion would bring, but the thoughtlessness of the sin can cause someone else to stumble. Therefore, it is a loving act to teach such sinners how to stay clean in the future. But if our brothers or sisters are not willing or able to receive correction at the time we see them sinning, it is a loving act to quietly ask G-d for their cleansing.
For sins that "lead to death", that is, sins that put someone in danger of being removed from the Kingdom, the private prayer of spiritual "footwashing" is not enough; we need to confront the sinner in ways outlined by Yeshua and the apostles, so that he will repent and be saved from death.
Scripture references, in the order that they appear:
Matthew 15:1-2, 15-20
John 13:9-10, 13-15, 8, 10-11
1 John 5:16
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