Why did Jesus wash the disciples’ feet?

Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. John 13:14

Part I – Exegesis of the passage (What the passage means)

In the Fourth Gospel, before Jesus goes to the cross, thus completing the reason he has came into the world, John records a fairly lengthy discourse (chapters 13-17) of Jesus’ final instruction and encouragement to his disciples.  His ministry is no longer public, but is focused on those that the Father has given to him.  The beginning of this discourse (13:1-17) is marked by a living parable, the washing of the disciples’ feet by Jesus himself.  Without delving into all the cultural implications of footwashing, it is sufficient here to simply say that the action of footwashing by Jesus was unexpected because of the servile nature of the act.[1]

But what is the meaning behind this action by Jesus?  He is clearly interested in more than just physically removing dirt from their calloused toes.  Jesus himself considered its meaning to be less than readily apparent, since he does not expect them to understand what he has done, but does tell them that its significance will be clear at a later time (13:7).  Nevertheless, the action was sufficiently important to be the dividing line for one who does or does not have a share with Jesus (13:8).  Further, the footwashing was meant to be replicated by the disciples towards one another in response to Jesus example (13:14-15).

None of this tells us what the actual purpose of the footwashing was, or in what manner the disciples were meant to replicate his actions.  There are two commonly suggested interpretive options.[2] The first is that Jesus is displaying humility in serving the disciples, and that he expects the disciples to show similar humility towards one another.  This is clearly correct, as far as it goes.  John has developed a theme of Jesus’ humble service throughout the book (1:14, 2:1-11, 10:1-18), and it not surprising to see Jesus expecting his disciples to follow his example in being similarly humble.  The passage is clearly displaying Jesus’ remarkable act of self-humiliation as a challenge to the disciples and to the reader to display similar actions of humility.

Even so, there seems to be something more involved in this text than simple humility. Jesus describes his washing as necessary for them to gain a heritage with him (v. 8 ) and even cleanse them of sin (v. 10), implying something more than humility is on the line in this event.  If Jesus was strictly attempting to offer humble service to his disciples, then his override of Peter’s objection to having his feet washed would not make any sense.  As Carson states, “It would sound like fake humility: ‘I command you to let me be humble and let me wash your feet – or you’re fired!’”[3] There is something that Jesus is teaching his disciples in this action about his effect on them that is unique to him, yet paradoxically can be replicated by them.

This does not negate the example of humility that Jesus displayed, but suggests that there is another purpose meant to be read alongside of it.  As Brown notes[4], it is simpler to say that there must be an additional meaning beyond just humility than to say what that second meaning is, and many options have been suggested.[5] In fact, some find a unified meaning in the action unnecessary, preferring two separate interpretations for each section.  They see the two explanatory pericopes (13:6-11 and 13:12-17) as reflecting competing interpretations of the footwashing event (13:4-5) within the Johannine community.[6] However, the two are not in conflict at all.  The humility that Jesus displays in the footwashing is a symbol of how Jesus will soon humbly serve the disciples in the ultimate way by going to the cross to cleanse them of sin, and he now is expecting from his disciples a similar commitment to serving one another as he has shown them.

It is tempting to draw elaborate, inferred implications from the act of footwashing based on the broader themes of John’s Gospel.  One author sees Jesus’ action as a form of “eschatological hospitality,” the Son’s act of welcoming the disciples into the household of the Father.[7] Other writers have seen soteriological implications, a representative of one or both sacraments, Old Testament typology, or an explanation of how footwashing originated in the Johannine community.[8] However, Brown is correct in his more reserved reading.  “The simplest explanation of the footwashing… remains that Jesus performed this servile task to prophesy symbolically that he was about to be humiliated in death.”[9] The humiliation Jesus was about to experience on the cross is foreshadowed here, and done so with the transferability of its benefits immediately apparent.

This leads us to this question: if the act of footwashing is meant to convey the humble sacrifice of Jesus on the cross, why does Jesus command the disciples to wash one another’s feet?  Surely he is not implying that they are called to be crucified for one another in the same way that Jesus would be for them.  The ready answer is that the disciples are not above any lowly service anymore than their Lord and Teacher was (v. 17).  They are to serve one another humbly, just as they have been humbly served by Christ.

Some suggest that footwashing is John’s way to insert a sacrament into his narrative, whether that is baptism or the Eucharist, both of which are seen as underrepresented in John’s Gospel.  Augustine took footwashing to be a practice completed in concert with baptism, as a means of completing the cleansing of the newly baptized catechumens.[10] However, the problem with viewing footwashing as a form or aspect of baptism is the way it isolates footwashing to a one-time event.  Whatever footwashing is, it is clear that Jesus expected his disciples to practice it regularly.  Verses 14-17 state explicitly that what Jesus did in washing the feet of his disciples was an example of self-sacrificing humility to be imitated by them.[11] Reducing its significance to baptism alone, a one time action that does not have ongoing expectations from the disciples, escapes Jesus intended purpose.

More common is an attempt to see the footwashing as a narrative substitute for the Eucharist event.  Oscar Cullmann suggests that the absence of the institution of the Eucharist in John particularly odd considering his hints at it in chapters 2 and 6.[12] He concludes from this that John must be conceiving of footwashing as representative of the Eucharist as a whole, and takes on sacramental significance.  Therefore, he takes Jesus’ words to Peter in v. 10 (the one who has had a bath (baptism) needs only to have his feet washed) as a reference to the ongoing partaking of the Eucharist.  The believer is not to repeat baptism, but to repeat the Eucharist as a means of regular response to post-baptismal sin.[13]

If Cullmann is correct, and that footwashing was a means of ongoing cleansing for the believer rather than a unique event in the believer’s life, then how should this ongoing event occur?  For Cullmann, it occurs through the taking of the bread and the cup, which replace the physical washing of feet.  Witherington sees the two as paired in John’s gospel, with the footwashing providing cleansing that is necessary before one partakes of Christ, whereas the bread and the cup symbolize the actual partaking of Christ.[14] Such an image would be a conflating of John and the Synoptics, but not necessary an inappropriate conflation.  However, Witherington demurs when it comes to an actual ecclesiastical practice of footwashing.[15]

In fact, most commentators seem oddly concerned with warning the church against practicing actual footwashing.  Köstenberger confidently asserts that as Jesus stoops to perform this role, his interest is not in instituting a permanent rite, but to teach his followers on the importance of humble, loving service.[16] While Köstenberger is correct on the value of humility, he offers no support for his assertion about Jesus’ motives.  Carson attempts to make a case for rejecting the literal reading of the text on the basis that this is the only suggestion in the Bible of footwashing as anything resembling an ongoing practice of the church.[17] However, this seems to be an attempt to get out from under the burden of a command, not to determine what this text is saying.  Before returning to the practice of contemporary footwashing, let us broaden our lens to see how this pericope fits in the wider scope of John’s theology.

Part II – Theology of the selected passages and its theological relationship to the Gospel as a whole

The footwashing narrative comes at a crucial point in the development of John’s Gospel.  The hour is at hand, according to 13:1, the hour which the entire Gospel of John has led up towards (2:4, 7:8).  Jesus’ response to the hour coming is to show the disciples the full extent of his love.  He does this through something typically Johannine: a living parable that is rife with misunderstanding, both for the disciples then and even today, as evidenced by the variety of interpretive conclusions about this passage. In fact, Peter and Judas will serve here as the dual persons of misunderstanding.  Peter will receive correction, as he is one of Jesus’ own, but Judas (despite having his own feet washed!) will not understand what Jesus has done, and go out into the night (13:30).

Jesus is about to go to the cross, an event that many will assume evidences a loss of control.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Verse 3 shows that Jesus undertakes footwashing (and the humbling death that it signifies) knowing that the Father had put all things under his power (cf 3:35).  As Morris correctly notes, “The threshold of Calvary seems an unlikely place for a statement of sovereignty like this.”[18] Even so, it is an appropriate tension.  Jesus has received all power from the Father, and he is going to use that power to humbly serve, both in the footwashing event and on the cross.

This humble service comes out of the Father’s will, and out of Jesus’ love for the disciples.  The act of footwashing is the full extent of the love for the disciples that we have seen throughout John’s Gospel up until this point (3:16, 11:5) and will see developed much more in the remainder of the farewell discourse (13:23, 15:9).  This love shows itself in the cleansing that Jesus provides. They are clean not because they have made themselves worthy, but because Jesus has cleansed them through his word (15:3) and because he knows them and has taken them into the fellowship of his love.[19]

While Jesus’ love is not confined to his own at the expense of the world (3:16), he is now focused on demonstrating his love specifically towards his own, who are being readied for their mission to the world.[20] Jesus expects the action of footwashing to be paradigmatic for the disciples, and to reinforce the need for a unified body of disciples under Jesus’ leadership of them into a tight community.

This conception of the footwashing has led to attempts to describe the reasons why the Johannine community would need such unity.  Weiss, following Martyn’s assumption that the Johannine community was in conflict with the synagogue, suggests that the Johannine community performed the act as preparation for the martyrdom their members were willing to face. [21] Therefore, according to Weiss, the cleansing was meant to prepare the members facing martyrdom for eschatological purposes.[22] While Weiss’ suggestion rests on the faulty assumptions of Martyn, he is correct to notice that the effects of footwashing are unifying and encouraging because they are representative of the entire message of John’s Gospel.

Part III – Application of the selected passage for the contemporary Church

Without attempting to infer too precariously, it seems fair to state that the Johannine community from which the Fourth Gospel originated practiced footwashing as a continual practice, and did so with some purpose in mind.  The question therefore is not whether footwashing should be practiced, but in what way: through attitudes alone, through ritual alone, or through both.

If a church were to choose one or the other options above, I would certainly recommend abiding by the principle of humble service that footwashing represents.  God is certainly more glorified through actions of humble service, especially by those who are leaders in Christ’s church, than by empty ritual.  By humbling ourselves as leaders, we remind our congregations (and ourselves) of the humility that Christ showed on the cross.  Part of the disciples challenge was to follow their Lord downward, so that no act of service should be beneath them. [23]

Many Protestants see the Catholic practice of pedilavium, the Maundy Thursday footwashing by the Cardinals of younger priests and paupers[24], as a disingenuous attempt to use the ritual of footwashing to avoid responsibility for the principle of humble service.  Morris[25] and Köstenberger[26] both cite Calvin’s warning against this externality, where Calvin spoke out against the pedilavium as “theater” and “ceremonial comedy,” completely missing the point of Christ’s teaching.  If the practice of physical footwashing is done alongside oppressive hierarchies and despotic pastoral practice, whether in Catholic or Protestant churches, the hypocrisy will clearly be shameful.  To replace the spirit of servant leadership with the rite alone would be foolishness.

However, one does not need to choose between one or the other.  In fact, the physical act of footwashing can be an excellent annual (or semi-annual) litmus test for a congregation as to how it is fulfilling the spirit of the action.  Does the idea of washing one another’s feet seem possible (even if slightly embarrassing) because your church has grown accustomed to serving one another throughout the year?  What an excellent sign of congregational health!  But what if the practice seems, as it did to Calvin, to be a mere charade, utterly disproportionate to the actual service that occurs in the church during the rest of the calendar?  What better time to realize the church’s sin and repent, perhaps even stopping the ceremony midway for a time of confession and reconciliation?

Many will suggest that footwashing does not have the same emotional impact in our culture, because our feet are better protected by shoes rather than sandals on dirt roads.  However, in my experience as part of a church that practices semi-annual footwashing as an ordinance, the emotional impact of having someone else wash your feet is still readily apparent.  As one Brethren writer wrote, “Thank God feetwashing is still somewhat distasteful; otherwise we would miss the point entirely.”[27]

When footwashing is taught in its fullest context, as a reminder of Jesus’ humble service that cleanses us from sin on the cross and an injunction to humbly serve one another, the actual practice can serve as a tactile, memorable opportunity for reflection on one’s own life and attitudes towards others.

Part IV – Sermon outline

Intro: We become accustomed to our role in society, and are used to serving and being served based on commonly agreed upon standards of wealth, age, and status.

–          Parable about being served at McDonalds by an articulate, well-dressed, late middle-aged woman with jewels around her neck

–          How would you react?  That’s not your role

–          What do we see as Jesus’ role?  What do we see as our role?

  • How would you respond to Jesus washing your feet?
  1. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as a living example of how his death would cleanse them from sin (13:1-7)
    1. The act of footwashing was not the role of leader, or even any Jewish person.  It was reserved for non-Jewish slaves, mostly.
    2. Jesus takes the humblest position
  1. i.      Doing so was not only a lesson for the disciples in how they were to act, but also a sign of the type of death Jesus would die for their behalf.
  2. ii.      This narrative is clearly about more than just Jesus’ example of humility, and we should not reduce his action to a nice gesture by a nice man.  In his base, slave-like action, he is showing how he is about to do something only the Son of God could do: cleanse his disciples of sin.
    1. Peter exhibits the correct response (even if he was initially confused) by seeking complete identification with Jesus and cleansing from him, resulting in the confirmation that he was clean (13:8-10)
    2. Judas exhibits the incorrect response as one who will betray Jesus, and is unclean (13:11)
  1. Jesus washed the disciples’ feet as a catalyst for mutual humble service among his disciples (13:12-17)
    1. We serve one another because Jesus served us.

YOU: What do you see as your role here at Grace?  Do you see yourself as a receiver, a worshipper, an observer, a member, a seeker, etc?

–          Where do you put servant on that list?

–          When was the last time you did something you did not want to, and were not required to do, simply to humbly serve the following people:

  • Your kids
  • Your small group
  • Your spouse
  • Your boss
  • Your parents
  • Your neighbors

–          What do you think our community would think of Jesus if we became known for deliberately serving in ways below our social roles towards each other and the community?

WE: We practice literal footwashing three times a year at our church for three reasons:

  1. To remind ourselves of the cleansing that came through Jesus’ death on the cross, a result of his humility and service to us
    1. The footwashing act is helpful in clarifying the effects of the cross “for you,” since the cross event is not immediately obvious in its transferable effect.  Footwashing has a clear recipient.[28]
    2. To offer ourselves in humble service to God, through serving his people
      1. Footwashing does something beyond the bread and cup.  Moves the disciples from recipients to participants in the ongoing ministry of the body of Christ.[29]
      2. To check in collectively on how we are doing at being humble servants of one another as a church

[1] G.A.F. Knight, “Feet-washing,” ed. James Hastings. Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics. (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1913) 815

[2] Arland J. Hultgren, “The Johannine Footwashing (13:1-11) As Symbol of Eschatological Hospitality.” New Testament Studies 28 (October 1982): 540.

[3] D.A. Carson, The Gospel According to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1991) 463.

[4] Raymond Brown, The Gospel According to John: XII-XXI, The Anchor Bible Commentary. 29A. (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1970) 558.

[5] Hultgren, 541.

[6] R.W. Paschal, “Service” Jesus and the Gospels ed. Joel Green, Scot McKnight, I. Howard Marshall.  (Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press. 1992), 750.

[7] Hultgren, 546.

[8] John Christopher Thomas, Footwashing John 13 and the Johannine Community Journal for the Study of the New Testament Supplement Series 61 (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991), 11-17.

[9] Brown, 568.

[10] Nola J Opperwal, “Footwashing,” The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia ed. Geoffrey Bromiley.  Volume II. (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1982), 333.

[11] Brown, 558.

[12] Oscar Cullmann, Early Christian Worship. Trans. A. Stewart Todd and James B. Torrance. (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1953) 106.

[13] Cullmann, 109.

[14] Ben Witherington, Making a Meal of It (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2007), 83.

[15] Witherington, 83.

[16] Köstenberger, 400.

[17] Carson, 468.

[18] Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Revised Edition. The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1995) 546.

[19] Herman Ridderbos, The Gospel of John, trans. John Vriend (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1997) 460.

[20] Andreas Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004) 402.

[21] Harold Weiss, “Foot Washing in the Johannine Community.” Novum Testamentum 21 (October 1979): 300.

[22] Weiss, 325.

[23] Morris, 551.

[24] Opperwall, 333.

[25] Morris, 544.

[26] Köstenberger, 400.

[27] Vernard Eller, In Place of Sacraments (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. 1972) 113.

[28] Eller, 111.

[29] Eller, 112.

7 Comments

  1. Nicely done. I just wanted to state again that you clearly have the gift of teaching and it is a blessing and an honor to sit under your tutelage (even if it is from far away).

  2. I wish I could have been there for the live discussion. That would have been awesome.

    You state:
    “The simplest explanation of the footwashing… remains that Jesus performed this servile task to prophesy symbolically that he was about to be humiliated in death.”

    I am not clear on how footwashing symbolizes Jesus death. I am clear on the humility part. Unless I have missed something, isn’t it the teaching of those who practice footwashing (at least the Brethren) that it symbolizes the ongoing cleansing of our Lord. If his death was to be symbolized then wouldn’t Peter’s desire to be washed all over be a legitimate request? Remember, Jesus said they were clean.

  3. LE, I’m open to reading FGBC scholars on this topic, but didn’t come across any (probably because I didn’t look in the right places). This paper came out of a Th.M. course at Talbot School of Theology, which, while quite evangelical, is not distinctively Brethren. Any suggestions for whom to consider?

  4. Joel, my argument (which is really Raymond Brown’s) is that the footwashing foreshadows the atonement. He is being humiliated for their benefit, and the transferability is clear by the action.

    I’ve heard some Brethren give the ongoing cleansing interpretation (which is similar to the Cullman view in the paper), but I couldn’t find it in written form anywhere. If I were doing this project at Grace Seminary, I probably would have had more luck.

    The discussion was interesting, though (to be honest) much more friendly than I expected.

  5. I am glad to see a church practice this. I believe that this was done for a couple of reasons some of which you covered. It his humble to wash the feet, for he came to serve not be served. As Christ washed the feet of his brothers, he also instructed them to do the same to each other, moreover you should do this for others as well. Serve and love one another. There is also another reason I believe for the feet walk along the path. Christ prepared them to walk the path of righteousness that he was preparing for all. The path of righteousness, for it is a slow step narrow path which is hard to climb and stay upon. It is also hallowed ground on which you stand and walk. Therefore keep your feet clean (Your Heart, Mind and Body) as you walk on the hallowed ground of richousness. Always be mindful and remind your brothers to stay the course, stay on the path, watch over each other encourage and love each other as Christ has loved you. Seek not the treasures of the earth, but those of heaven. For where your heart is there also is your love. Loving the will of God and seeking it will change you and your life to one of service. Not for ones self but for the one who made all things, and all things new again.. Your Brother in Christ.

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