The real meaning of the foot washing

christ-washing-peters-feet-ford-madox-brownOn Maundy Thursday, it is traditional to focus on the account of Jesus washing the disciples’ feet in John 13—and possibly to re-enact this within a service. But in rushing to the final example, we miss the most important lesson, which comes in the middle, rather than at the end, of the passage.

The passage itself is highly characteristic of John’s style, with references back and forwards to what has gone before and what is yet to come. In John 13.1, the reference to the Passover forms part of John’s distinctively Jewish and ‘anti-Jewish’ (as we perceive it) interest in the pilgrim festivals. These centred on the temple, but Jesus himself will take the place of the temple (John 2.21)—which, incidentally, explains the otherwise baffling saying in John 7.38 ‘as the Scripture says, out of his side will flow rivers of living water’. The scripture here is Ezekiel 47.1; Jesus is now the temple, the place of God’s presence; and the living does indeed flow from his side in John 19.34.

John’s interest in time, and particularly ‘the hour’, continues. Time slows right down; having spent the first half of his gospel on the three years of Jesus’ ministry, this section is dominated by the three hours at the meal table. ‘The hour’ that had not yet come (John 2.4, John 7.30, John 8.20) is now upon us (John 12.23). He loved ‘his own’, no longer the ethnic people to whom he had come (John 1.11), but those who now believed in him.

The ‘evening meal’ is in progress (John 13.2). There is no need to specify this as the Passover meal; though some have argued that John schedules everything a day early, so that Jesus is crucified on the Thursday in John at the same time as the Passover lambs were sacrificed, it is actually possible to reconcile this with the Synoptic accounts. John does not need to mention the bread and wine for three reasons.

First, he assumes that his readers are familiar with the other gospels, especially Mark, so he only needs to tell us what we do not already know from them. (See, for example, the way that Mark 6.7–13 dovetails with John 5, and Mark 6.7–13 is referenced in John 7.1.) Secondly, John is much less interested in the ‘sacramental’ than is often supposed. In his feeding of the 5000 the ‘eucharistic’ significance is decidedly muted; there is no mention of Jesus breaking the bread, so the careful formula of the Synoptic accounts is lost, and the more important theme is the echo of Moses giving manna in the wilderness. Thirdly, he has already done his theological preparation long before he reaches this point. In John 1.29, we have already been introduced to Jesus as the (Passover) ‘Lamb of God’; when you sacrifice the lamb, the next thing you do is eat it, and sure enough, Jesus says that we must eat his flesh (John 6.53) just as you would the Passover sacrifice.

As he prepares for the humble act of service, he not only knows that the hour has come, but that all power has been given to him by the Father, and that he is returning to him (John 13.3). This anticipates his discussion with Pilate about power in John 19.11, but also includes a challenge. It is not so much the question of what we might do with absolute power—though that in itself is a fascinating question—but to note what Jesus does with absolute power. He serves. He takes off his outer garment, in anticipation of what would later be done to him by force (John 19.23)—but on both occasions he is really in control (John 10.18).

At this point, most of us jump to the end of the passage, taking the exemplary lesson that John (and Jesus) wants us to learn.

“Do you understand what I have done for you?” he asked them. “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. Very truly I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. (John 13.12–17).

This ties in with John’s ‘exemplarist’ focus on the cross as well; Jesus has ‘laid down his life for his friends’ and no-one has greater love than this (John 15.13). He calls us friends, and invites us to do the same to one another. This parallels teaching in the Synoptics (Mark 10.42–43), as well as deploying a stock phrase from Roman and Greek ethics (‘you will be blessed if you do them’) which is a prominent theme in the letter of James.

But the key turning point is the puzzling interaction with Peter in the middle of the episode:

“No,” said Peter, “you shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered, “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” “Then, Lord,” Simon Peter replied, “not just my feet but my hands and my head as well!” Jesus answered, “Those who have had a bath need only to wash their feet; their whole body is clean. And you are clean, though not every one of you.” John 13.8–10).

Once again, typical of John, Jesus is speaking metaphorically, whilst Peter is taking him literally, just as Nicodemus and others have done before (John 3.4). And, again typically, Peter doesn’t understand now, but will later—after the resurrection and the giving of the Spirit, who will lead them into all truth about Jesus’ meaning. The language of ‘having a bath’ is similar to the common practice of bathing before a meal. But it has particular resonance with Jewish ritual washing, in a mikveh, which was then adapted to the Christian practice of baptism. Jesus is then contrasting the once-for-all act of baptism and the gift of salvation with the ongoing need to have Jesus serve us in the resource and equipping we need. In fact, unless we allow Jesus to wash our feet, we cannot wash the feet of others. 

Christian discipleship is not simply about being nice to others and caring for them, important though that is (see 1 Tim 5.10) and despite David Cameron’s recent comments. It is, in the first instance, about allowing Jesus to serve us and wash our feet—giving us the spiritual provision we need day by day, above and beyond the service he gives in offering his life for our salvation.

We cannot pray without his empowering us in prayer; we cannot grow in holiness without his forming holiness in us; we cannot lead others to faith without the working of his Spirit; we cannot serve others without the service he offers to us first.

Giving service to others is a hard lesson in our selfish world. But receiving service from others—and in particular from Jesus, day by day—is the hardest lesson of all in our competitive, self-sufficient world.

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17 thoughts on “The real meaning of the foot washing”

  1. Ian, this is a very interesting comment and I enjoyed it. Your final sentence about receiving service from others is very interesting. I am personally exploring my inability to appear vulnerable and problems interacting with people that that brings. I think this inability to be vulnerable is very much a masculine thing (perhaps part of Peter’s upbringing and culture?).

  2. Ian, what do you think of Don Carson’s interpretation, that the foot-washing is really an anticipation of the work of the Cross, the cleansing from sin? In that way it parallels the salvific meaning of the Lord’s Supper (‘unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you do have life in you’).

    • I’ve not read his commentary on this. But as I comment above, the really striking thing is the way that Jesus distinguishes between ‘bathing’ of the whole person and ‘washing’ of the feet.

      If the ‘washing of feet’ is about salvation through the cross, what on earth is the ‘bathing’ about? And how does the ‘bathing’ refer to all but one—but the ‘washing’ apply to all?

      How does Carson deal with this?

  3. Carson (commentary, pp. 464-466) thinks there are two ideas in the frame. In verses 7-8 the cross is in mind: ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me’, something Peter will understand ‘meta tauta’, i.e. after the passion.

    Peter evidently still doesn’t understand in verse 9, and in verses 10-11 Jesus gives a fresh lesson on the need for subsequent forgiveness in those who ‘have had a bath’, and in vv. 12-17 a third lesson on humility and service.

    In other words, a shifting, changing use of a figure (as we find in the sheep/shepherd metaphor in ch 10 or the vine in ch 15). Carson cites Westcott, Schlatter, Haenchen, Bruce as supporting this ‘fluid’ (!) reading.

    • I do think that is an odd reading…and, bold though it is, I would venture to suggest that Carson and his sources have actually avoided the point of the passage as I understand it.

      When Jesus says ‘Unless I wash you…’ he must here be referring to the washing of the feet—this is the question in dispute. He is not here talking about the ‘bathing’ [a different word] that makes all but Judas ‘clean’—surely that is the metaphor for salvation.

      It does strike me that a very ‘Reformed’ theology, which sees everything hinging on the cross alone, and has, in effect, a cessationist approach to the ongoing work of Jesus by the Spirit, resists the central point here. Even if you ‘have bathed’, been made clean by Jesus’ death and resurrection, you still need Jesus to ‘wash’ your feet…else you are not able to wash the feet of others.

      I do think that is a reason why some evangelical traditions lead people to be workaholics and act as though everything depends on them, and moves from a theology of grace to a praxis of works.

      Thanks for mentioning Carson’s reading—very interesting.

  4. Actually Leon Morris says something similar on verse 8: ‘The words point us to a washing free from sin which only Christ can give. Apart from this a man will have no part in Christ’ (John, p. 617; on p. 611 he says ‘the washing of the disciples’ feet is pregnant with meaning, the meaning of the cross which now loomed before Jesus.’) Morris is doubtful that v. 10 is evidently a reference to baptism, and even wonders whether “the apostles were baptised (unless with John’s baptism)” (p. 619). Hmmm..

    I know some Reformed teachers are cessationist about the so-called sign-gifts of the Spirit but I don’t think they’re at all ‘cessationist’ about the sanctifying and guiding work of the Spirit – Jim Packer is very clear on this (‘Keep in Step with the Spirit’). But I guess perceptions differ.

    • Thanks Brian. On v 10 and baptism, I think we need to take seriously the fact that the writer is understanding the significance of Jesus’ words in the light of subsequent events, not just as historical comments simpliciter. It’s somewhat naive—and a misreading of John—to think that the words only meant to John what they meant to Jesus at the time they were spoken.

      Secondly, it sounds as though he is deciding on the meaning of ‘no part in me’ from his doctrine, rather than from the text. If you follow his line of thought, then Jesus’ differentiation between ‘washing’ and ‘bathing’ doesn’t make any sense. A more Reformed view makes it harder to accept that the ongoing, active work of Jesus by the Spirit is *indispensable*.

  5. I appreciate this insight. As a vocational deacon this story is foundational to us, but I’ve always felt slightly uneasy – as if we are missing something. I think we’re missing two things, when we trot out that ‘the Son of Man came to serve, not to be served’ – firstly, we’re treating the passage rather cavalierly, to suit our own interpretation. Secondly, as you say, some of it is about how we need to be open to our washing by Jesus, in order to wash the feet of others. A much-needed corrective, Ian, in my view.

  6. I was a prison chaplain & one year my colleague & I….. he washed & I dried, ( sounds like washing up!!!) the feet of several prisoners… it was one of the most humbling experiences of my life. The feet we were washing/drying were all shapes and sizes and gnarled and damaged… these feet had walked streets that you ( I hope)& I will never walk… been to,places that we don’t want to know about… feet that were struggling to return onto an allegedly even keel…. the feet engrained with dirt that would never come out…. stained beyond description… these feet humbled me to tears…… I was so grateful to God for allowing me the privilege….

  7. I am vastly surprised and alarmed that you should be surprised at Carson’s interpretation of the foot-washing. His interpretation reflects the understanding of most contemporary scholars. Unless Peter accepted the foot-washing he would have no inheritance with Jesus, no future … i.e. no salvation. In essence, Jesus was saying that Peter had to accept Jesus’ self-abasing foot-washing. If he did not, how would he be able to accept Jesus’ self-abasing sin-washing on the cross? The foot-washing symbolised the sin-washing.

  8. Interesting debate here….I’m not sure if I am the only one but I find the whole literal feet washing ceremonies that some undertake on Maundy Thursday a bit contrived and tacky The reason being that we no longer carry in our minds the significance of our feet walking on “cursed” ground where thorns and thistles flourish and where we tread on the excrement of the world. And surely the feet washing is pointing to the once for all finished work of Jesus who as the Host of the meal (and thus the highest person present) becomes the Slave (and thus the lowest person present). By washing the disciples feet Jesus points to their (and our) need to be served and saved by Him. In other words the washing of our feet points to the saving of our souls.

  9. You may appreciate this devotional writing by Jean Vanier, from a book that is the fruit of fifty years of meditating on the Gospel of John. The thoughts concur with yours in many ways.

    Revelation of The Love of Jesus

    I can imagine with what tenderness
    Jesus touches the feet of his disciples,
    looks into their eyes,
    calls each one by name and says a special word to each one.
    When he speaks at the meal, he speaks to them all;
    he does not have a personal contact with each one individually.
    But as he kneels humbly before each one and washes their feet,
    he has a personal contact with each one.
    He reveals to each one his love,
    which is both comforting and challenging.
    He sees in each one a presence of his Father,
    whom he loves and serves.
    The love of Jesus reveals that we are important,
    that we are a presence of God
    and are called to stand up and do the work of God:
    to love others as God loves them,
    to serve others and wash their feet.

    Jean Vanier – Drawn into the Mystery of Jesus through the Gospel of John – Novalis – 2004 pages 232 – 233.

  10. Has anyone considered or researched the real meaning of “foot washing” in the then Hebrew culture. Traditionally, before a party or celebration meal amongst the family the men would bathe together and the woman with other woman. The dining couches (still used in Middle Eastern cultures) were able to take 3 persons reclining on their left side. The host or Dad was on the outer, Mum or the honored guest leaning against him, with the next guest or child in front. It was the child’s job or slave to wash the ‘euphanisum’ feet or genital/butt area propr to dining. This was done as a hygiene practice before reclining next to each other. It needed another to wash these parts as they can’t be seen by ourselves. I think Peters comments were because he was horrified that Jesus would stoop to do this and they had already washed and bathed together already. We know that he didn’t have great love for his Lord and that would make it difficult to receive this family cultural practice. In spiritual terms today unless we allow Jesus through His Word to wash us from the contamination of daily living and our unknown inner parts we don’t have a real or nurturing relationship with him.

  11. peace be unto you Ian Paul, my dear bro in Jesus, thanks for the profound concise interpretation of foot washing by our Good Almighty Jesus, I do need it.


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