THE MEANING OF FOOTWASHING IN JOHN 13:1-17
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Thursday, October 13, 2011 at 4:27pm
QUESTION: When Jesus washes the apostles’ feet in John 13:1ff., is this just a lesson in humility, or does it have some spiritual significance beyond that? E.g., does the footwashing as Jesus performs it stand for personal cleansing from sin? Is it a figure for baptism? Does the act itself represent Jesus’ service of dying on the cross for the sins of the world?
ANSWER: My initial reaction to this question is that this episode is just a lesson in humility, and that reading anything else into it requires a lot of speculation. But as the football officials sometimes say when one of their calls is challenged, “Upon further review . . . .” Thus what follows is a closer look at John’s record of this event.
The event in question occurs just before the Last Supper, which John chooses not to record since the other gospels have already given three accounts of it. Instead he records an event that had specific reference to Jesus’ band of apostles, who were prone to argue “which of them might be the greatest” (Luke 9:46-48; 22:24-27). Thus in dramatic fashion, because He loved them (John 13:1), He taught them this lesson on humility.
The details of footwashing as an act of hospitality and kindness are well known. It was not a religious ceremony, but simply a tradition of good manners on the part of a host or hostess welcoming guests into his or her home (compare Luke 7:36-50; 1 Tim. 5:10). The roadways were either dusty or muddy, and the footwear was sandals; so guests usually arrived with dingy feet. Thus inside the doorway of most homes sat a container of water, along with a basin and a towel or apron with which to wash and dry the feet.
The important point here is that such footwashing was something done FOR a guest, and was an extremely MENIAL task, done by servants or slaves if these were available. As Gary Burge says, it “was a degrading and lowly task” with specific social implications. “In no way do we find those with a ‘higher’ status washing the feet of those beneath them” (Zondervan’s NIV Application Commentary on John, 369).
When Jesus and His apostles arrived at the upper room, the landlord from whom it was rented had apparently provided the necessities for footwashing (water, basin, towel/apron). However, there was no host as such. Thus they all went directly to the dining furniture and prepared to eat. There may have been an awkward moment when the apostles looked at one another and wondered which of themselves (if any) would take on the servant’s role. None did. This is when Jesus “got up from supper, and laid aside His garments; and taking a towel, He girded Himself” and “began to wash the disciples’ feet” (vv. 4,5).
There can be no question that He was doing this to set an example of humility and humble service for His too-proud disciples. Indeed, when He had completed the task, this was the only lesson He directly drew from the incident and specifically taught to them as a group (vv. 12-17).
However, most interpreters see much more in this episode as a whole. Barclay says we must always look for two meanings in John: the one that lies on the surface, and the one beneath the surface. “In this passage there is undoubtedly a second meaning” (The Gospel of John II, Westminster, 163-164). The second meaning is on the spiritual level, and is found almost altogether in connection with Peter’s resistance to Jesus’ attempt to wash his feet and the conversation that ensued between these two (vv. 6-11).
Down through Christian history and among commentators today, it has been common to interpret Jesus’ statements to Peter as referring to the cleansing from sin that has been made possible through the cross. When Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you have no part with Me” (v. 8), He is saying that one must submit to Him for the washing away of sin in order to be saved, or to be a Christian. One must not only let his feet be washed, but must be totally bathed and “completely clean” (v. 10). As Leon Morris says, “In the context it must refer to the washing of the feet. Unless Peter submits to the feet-washing he may not eat with Jesus. But Jesus means more. A literal washing of the feet is not necessary before a man can be a Christian. 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” (The Gospel According to John, Eerdmans, 617).
Because the footwashing obviously involves water, it has also been common to see this event as teaching the necessity of baptism for salvation. Barclay says, “Beyond a doubt there is a reference to Christian baptism here. ‘Unless you are washed,’ said Jesus, ‘you can have no part in me.’ That is a way of saying: ‘Unless you pass through the gate of baptism, you have no part in the Church” (164). He qualifies this, however: “This is not to say that a man cannot be saved unless he is baptized.” Baptism is definitely pictured, though, as “the entry to the Church” (164-165). This has led to a debate about which baptism Jesus means, since only John’s baptism was known at that time. Others, by distinguishing between the complete bath one would take before leaving home and the footwashing one would receive upon arriving at the host’s house (v. 10), see a double reference here: the former to baptism as the initial total cleansing, and the latter to the Lord’s Supper as the on-going cleansing from spiritual “dirt” accumulated after baptism.
I believe that all of this is reading much too much into this event, and into the remarks Jesus makes to Peter in verses 6-11. I cannot see any reference to baptism here, or to “sacramental” theology in general. I do not see anything here that refers specifically to the Christian era, the post-Pentecostal age of the Church. I do agree that Jesus is making a spiritual application of the concept of washing, which is evident in v. 10 when He says to Peter, “You [plural] are clean, but not all of you.” In v. 11 John makes it clear that he is excluding Judas from this statement; this shows He is making reference to spiritual cleanness.
However, in my judgment, I believe Jesus’ main point about spiritual washing applies to the apostles as such, rather than to the church to come. He is talking about His relation to the twelve apostles at that moment. He says, “You are clean,” i.e., “your hearts are right, you are my true disciples—except for Judas. I have spent three years ‘bathing’ you with truth and grace; you are now ready for your mission. This does not mean you are perfect, of course. What I am doing for you right now by physically washing your feet is equivalent to a spiritual footwashing; I am trying to wash away that dirt of pride that still infects your souls.” This is the application He Himself makes to all the disciples in vv. 12-17.
The only possible spiritual application here that may go beyond this is an analogy between Jesus’ humbling himself to wash the disciples’ feet and His supreme humbling of Himself upon the cross (Philp. 2:5-8). In this analogy with the cross, the main point of comparison is the attitude manifested by Jesus in each case. As Morris says, the footwashing “is a parable in action, setting out that great principle of lowly service which finds its supreme embodiment in the cross” (612). Many see another analogy, namely, between the way the water of footwashing cleanses one’s feet from physical dirt, and the way the cross cleanses the soul from sin. Morris, e.g., says the lesson in humility is not enough. Jesus’ words to Peter, “spoken in the shadow of the cross, have to do with cleansing, that cleansing without which no man belongs to Christ, that cleansing which is given by the cross alone” (613). Burge says that in the footwashing we see “the cleansing work of Jesus,” the “spiritual cleansing on the cross” (370).
I am open to this latter idea, but it is not as clear as I would like it to be. The bottom line for me is that any such symbolic relation between this instance of footwashing and the cross would have to do with the cross as the SOURCE of spiritual cleansing, and not with HOW that cleansing is applied to individuals (e.g., in baptism).