Friday, April 18, 2014

John 13: 1-20 - The Real Meaning of Jesus’ Foot Washing

Most people are familiar with the concept of foot washing and that it comes from the Bible. It is viewed by many to be an act of humility and service which was modeled by our Savior, Jesus, and is to be performed by believers on the basis of Jesus instructing his disciples that they, too, ought to do this. Thus, during seasons such as Easter and particularly Maunday Thursday, many Christians via their church or denomination, engage in a foot washing ritual (some as an ordinance and others as simply honoring the event) believing they are carrying out this instruction. It seems simple enough but in truth, they have missed the entire point our Lord was making. Before I elaborate I want to post the portion of John’s gospel account in which this is given to us:

John 13:1-20 (ESV)

13 Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that his hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end. 2 During supper, when the devil had already put it into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon's son, to betray him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him. 6 He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?” 7 Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.” 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.” 9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”

12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. 18 I am not speaking of all of you; I know whom I have chosen. But the Scripture will be fulfilled, ‘He who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.’ 19 I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he. 20 Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

There are three schools of thought regarding this event:
  • This passage is to be understood in its most literal sense that believers are to perform the ritual of foot washing in order to obey Jesus' instruction to do as he has done.
  • This passage is to be understood in both in its literal sense and in an expanded sense which may involve any type of humble service to our brothers and sisters, or even to a stranger to the family of God.
  • This passage is to be understood analogically. It is, in reality, a reference to a spiritual act, not a physical one. Further, it does not intend to include with this view any act of humility. Rather this is a specific action which is the act of forgiving others.
Clearly, those who understand the context and lesson likely do not need to read any further other than to add to their understanding, if indeed, I can do so for them. But to those who have are unsure, I hope to be a source of illumination here. Thus, instead of mainly arguing against what I believe to be errant views, I will argue for what I believe to be the correct view, thus eliminating the errant views by way of proving the proper view. And that view is that this is a lesson about forgiveness.

Key Pieces of the Puzzle

The passage of John’s account of the washing of the feet by our Savior during the Jewish festival of Passover, has some pivotal moments which must maintain harmony with any proposed overall interpretation. From my perspective they are:
  • John 13:8 – Peter refusing to have Jesus wash his feet in which Jesus informs Peter that unless Peter acquiesces to Jesus’ washing of his feet, Peter will have "no share" with Jesus - in other words, Peter will no longer share in the ministry of Jesus.
  • John 13:6 – Jesus telling Peter that at this moment he does not understand what Jesus is doing but later, he will.
  • John 13:8-11 – Peter yielding to Jesus but still misunderstanding the lesson in asking to be washed all over his body. From this, the Savior tells Peter he does not need washed all over, he is already clean or has been washed clean and the only thing Peter needs is his feet washed.
  • John 13:10-11 – Jesus identifying that someone had not been washed all over, hence, was not cleaned (his betrayer, Judas).
  • John 13:12-16 – Jesus commands that because he, their Master or Teacher, has done this, they must do likewise seeing that the student is not above his Master.
Foot Washing

Foot washing was necessary in ancient civilizations because most footwear was unlike today’s modern shoes which substantially cover the entire foot, not to mention the accompaniment of socks of various kinds which practically eliminate dirt on the feet for most activities. The most common footwear in these civilizations was a sandal which exposed the foot to dirt and of course this resulted in dirty feet (there were foot coverings which extensively covered the foot but they are not worn very often by the common populace). 

Dirty feet were an expected part of daily life and were not looked down upon unless one was be received into a person’s home. Normally, before entering one would take their outer robe off and shake it to remove dirt. Then, upon entering either the courtyard or right at the entrance, there was a washbowl for the guests to wash themselves. As a sign of great respect to the guest, sometimes the host would offer to wash the feet of his guest. This gesture carried with it the signal that their guest was of greater value than the host.

Jesus, the Foot Washer

When our Lord began washing the feet of the disciples, he was not introducing anything new. What he was doing, however, was using a cultural custom to make a point. Jesus knew he was the Master and Peter, though misunderstanding the doctrine or lesson, recognized Jesus as the Messiah, thus, Peter believed he could not permit Jesus to be placed in a subordinate position, particularly one which indicated the guest (Peter) was greater than Jesus. But as I noted, Peter missed the lesson being taught, thus he responded wrongly due to his failure to understand what this meant.

The Five Critical Clues

So now let’s move to the five points which will demonstrate that this event is not a ritualistic ordinance nor a general appeal to humble service of any kind, rather it is a doctrinal lesson regarding our requirement to forgive or wash others from any sins thereby, enabling genuine community between individuals and the body of Christ as a whole.

Peter’s Refusal and Jesus’ Response – In Peter’s mistaken attempt to preserve the dignity and public superiority of Christ, he refuses to permit Christ to wash his feet which would have esteemed Peter as greater. Jesus rebukes him somewhat and tells him that if he does not permit this, he will not share in our Lord’s ministry.

What should be apparent is that it is not a refusal by Peter to wash anothers feet, rather to permit his feet to be washed which will deny Peter partnership with Christ in his ministry. Why? Because Peter, in this case, is denying what our Lord is teaching. Peter wishes to write the rules and deny Christ his prerogative based on Peter’s humanistic understanding of the matter. Thus, for Peter to deny what Christ is teaching here is to depart from fellowship with Christ.

Peter, You Will Understand Later – Our Lord recognizes that Peter is confused in failing to understand what is going on as he washes Peter’s feet. There is something demonstrative here to those who claim this is simply Jesus trying or establish an ordinance of humility and not something else. Peter understood the matter of foot washing and proves that by trying to stop Jesus from placing him (Peter) as a preferred and superior person. If all Jesus is trying to do is establish an ordinance, he understood Peter got that the obvious, but that wasn't the intention of Christ.

To be told, you will understand later, means that there is something going on other than the obvious which some assert was the only thing Jesus was establishing; a ritual ordinance of humble acts. Peter got the obvious and Jesus recognizes this but says Peter still does not get what is really being communicated.

Peter’s Second Misunderstanding, he and the other Disciples are already washed or clean – In getting the point that he must yield to Jesus’ washing or else, Peter then zealously, still missing the lesson, demands to have his whole body washed. But because this is not about body washing or even foot washing, our Savior explains to Peter that he has already been washed whole, he is already clean and that the only thing he needs washed are his feet.

That’s odd. How can one be washed whole yet still need their feet washed? That seems contradictory but it is not, if you understand what the Lord is trying to illustrate.

The washing whole already refers to Peter’s salvation. When we believe the gospel, were are washed clean of our sins and regenerated (Titus 3:5). However, when we enter into constant or intimate commune, though we have been washed all over, we are just like the guest who has been out in the world, getting his or her feet dirty. When they enter into someone’s home and certainly before they eat or have close commune, they have dirt on their feet which must be cleansed.

This washing of the feet represents the forgiveness of sins we commit as we live our daily lives (1 John 1:9). In 1 John, we, believers, are instructed, “If we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness”. This does not refer to being washed all over so that we may be justified, rather, it refers to being washed or forgiven for ongoing commune with God.

Think for a moment. When someone is permitted to enter anothers house, they must have been determined by the host to be justly entering. This justification does not include what is necessary once they have entered the house to now begin commune or intimacy. It might involve taking off your hat, coat or shoes.

This is the same principle of having our feet washed. We already are washed clear or justified, now we must insure we are qualified for intimacy or fellowship. And with this, we need our feet cleansed.

Jesus Distinguishes Between those who have been cleansed all over and the one who had not, Judas – I do not know if Judas had taken a bath that day or not but I seriously doubt Jesus was indicating whether or not he had when he pointed out to Peter that there was one who had not been wholly cleansed, namely his betrayer. This explanation by our Lord, only revealing the unwashed one by what he would do, is harmonious with his telling Peter that he would later understand what the washing was all about.

Our Lord expects Peter and the other disciples to be preoccupied with this inexplicable lesson, a mystery at the moment, which will later be clear to them. After all, Jesus did make clear that one of them in their presence would betray the Savior. This, no doubt, was something they would contemplate and look for and when it occurred, triggering greater enlightenment regarding the meaning of the foot washing event.

Forgive as I have Forgiven - Remember what Jesus instructed the disciples to do? He said to do the same thing as he was doing. What was he doing? He was not washing their body whole, that had already been done, rather he was washing the feet of others, i.e., forgiving others their sins. In other words, the only way you are going to be able to have commune or what is commonly called fellowship, is to forgive others.

As we consider the literal washing of each others feet and/or some other kind of act of humble service as interpretations of this part of Scripture, both pale in comparison to the real lesson and command of Christ here, to forgiven each others sins. In the literal washing of the feet of other people or humble acts, we are free to choose when, where and how. Not that it should not be done if someone with dirty feet actually enters your home and needs their feet washed, it would be a kind and humble gesture, indeed. But so would having a water and towel out for them to do it themselves. As well, choosing to perform acts of humility are not a lack of virtue, but still this is not the lesson here and again, we get to make the choice of those conditions, often.

But forgiving someone requires you to pay their debt through bearing it yourself. You do not get to choose when you will forgive, rather, when a brother or sister or even someone outside of God’s estate comes to you to have their feet cleansed, you aren’t the one esteemed, rather you are their savior with respect to permitting or re-establishing intimacy or commune. They bring nothing to you, rather you give to them. And such forgiveness does not include demanding payment for their misdeed(s), rather you bearing that cost in your soul. Your grasp on contempt for them is released and you humbling yourself and being like your Master is what occurs.


I would rather tailor what acts of humility I will perform than forgive others at times. One still includes a certain rescue for me that I do not have to bear someone else’s offenses against me and the opportunity to hold onto grudges and self-righteous contempt.

I do not believe that either the literal reading with the subsequent attempt to establish it as an ordinance or the generalization that this is merely a lesson in humble and righteous acts can withstand the demand of textual or theological harmony. Both fail to explain the use of the washing analogies which were not treated literally, rather figuratively. They also do not include the attachment or correlation to Judas’ being described as unwashed or the explanation by Jesus to Peter that he does not need his body washed because it was already cleaned. After all, if you are going to go all out in establishing a humble example, why stop with the feet?

Forgiving one another is how we maintain our ability in the body of Christ to fellowship or commune and as well, how we are able to maintain our ambassadorship in this foreign world against whom we are not at war, rather who are at war with us. There are so many pardons we must grant at the offenses toward us to both be good fellow citizens and ambassadors of Christ to the world that no doubt, they are somewhat immeasurable. Regardless, to refuse to do so is to refuse to share in the work of Christ.

Thank you Lord for your gospel of forgiveness. Help us to do likewise.