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Jesus washing the feet of the disciples (John 13:1–17) occurred in the upper room, just prior to the Last Supper.

"If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them." John 13:14‭-‬17 NASB https://bible.com/bible/100/jhn.13.14-17.NASB

In verse 14, Jesus says, "For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you."

It seems that most Christians today interpret this command symbolically as a though Jesus would have us to serve the body of believers as he did.

What principal of hermeneutics helps us know how to interpret Jesus' statement as a literal command or a symbolic command? How do you apply this method of interpretation to the rest of the new testament?

According to Wikipedia,(https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Foot_washing), the practice of foot washing used to be more common (especially in the early church). Is it fair to assume that the early church took Jesus' command literally? If so, how and why have Christians today moved to a symbolic interpretation of this passage?

Are there any exegetical hints in the original language of this passage that help us know whether Jesus is speaking metaphorically or not?

Please note: I'm not interested in this doctrine specifically or why or why not foot washing is not an ordinance in the church today. I'm more curious as to how I can know whether to interpret a specific passage in the New Testament symbolically or literally.

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  • Even if someone takes the foot washing to be carried out literally, they miss the point if they do not see the symbolism. For example the verse: "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." (Jn 13:1, ESV). This statement forms a parenthesis starting with the footwashing and ending in the crucifixion. – Perry Webb Apr 20 '18 at 7:34
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To specifically address your question:

The broader approach to the passage as an example of servitude is not so much a figurative interpretation as it is looking at verse 15:

John 13:15 (Byzantine Majority)  Ὑπόδειγμα γὰρ ἔδωκα ὑμῖν (For I have given you an example)

This places a great deal of emphasis on the noun Ὑπόδειγμα (example). Outside of John, the word is used a few times in Hebrews and there the KJV translates the term as pattern or example. It is through this word that modern interpreters have broadened the term to mean servitude. Therefore it is possible to interpret the passage literally if one allows that the noun Ὑπόδειγμα can have a broader meaning than just imitating the exact event, i.e. foot washing only.

Here is what Kostenberger said:

“I have given you an example.” The Greek word ὑπόδειγμα (hypodeigma) can denote both an “example,” be it good or bad, and a “pattern” (Heb. 8:5; 9:23; cf. τύπος [typos, pattern] Acts 7:44). In several Second Temple texts, ὑπόδειγμα is associated with exemplary death or other virtues such as repentance (Sir. 44:16). Greco-Roman writers likewise use the term to denote examples of various virtues. Thus, the major difference between Jesus and the Greco-Roman world on this point was not the concept of leaving an example but the nature of this example: whereas Greeks and Romans prized virtues such as courage or military prowess, Jesus exemplified humility, self-sacrifice, and love.

Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2004), 408.

Carson makes this point:

Jesus says, I have set you an example (hypodeigma—the word suggests both ‘example’ and ‘pattern’; cf. Heb. 4:11; 8:5; 9:25; Jas. 5:10; 2 Pet. 2:6) that you should do as I have done for you.

D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John, The Pillar New Testament Commentary (Leicester, England; Grand Rapids, MI: Inter-Varsity Press; W.B. Eerdmans, 1991), 468.

Carson goes into why this never became an ordinance except in some smaller sects or Christianity.

Lenski adds some excellent insights from the ἵνα (that) clause that comes next in verse 15:

Just what this example covers is stated in the appositional ἵνα clause, which, of course, is non-final. This shows that “to be washing each others’ feet” is figurative and means literally, “that you keep doing, even as I did do to you,” καθώς, not ὅ, “in the same manner,” not “the same identical thing.” The example of Jesus is to guide them in what they do for each other; it is not for mere mechanical repetition in washing of feet.

R. C. H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. John’s Gospel (Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Publishing House, 1961), 926–927.

A. T. Robertson also mentions the ἵνα (that) clause as key to the interpretation of the passage:

That ye also should do (ἱνα και ὑμεις ποιητε [hina kai humeis poiēte]). Purpose clause with ἱνα [hina] and the present active subjunctive of ποιεω [poieō] (keep on doing). Doing what? Does Jesus here institute a new church ordinance as some good people today hold? If so, it is curious that there is no record of it in the N. T. Jesus has given the disciples an object lesson in humility to rebuke their jealousy, pride, and strife exhibited at this very meal. The lesson of the “example” applies to all the relations of believers with each other. It is one that is continually needed.

A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Jn 13:15.

In 1 Tim. 5:10 foot washing is listed as an example of hospitality on the part of widows and hardly seems to be figurative of service, given the list of virtues listed there.

Some writers have suggested that Peter was influenced by John 13:13-15 when he made his comments in 1 Peter 5:3:

Neither as being lords over God’s heritage, but being ensamples to the flock. (KJV)

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The act is clearly symbolic in the wording that Jesus uses in verse 10 :

He that is washed (louo) needeth not save to wash (nipto) his feet.

And also in that verse 8 records Jesus saying :

If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.

If only those whom Jesus physically washed had a part with him, then none apart from that particular generation would have any part with him, after his ascension.

And if there are two different kinds of washing involved then they must have different significances attached to them.

Ergo, this is a symbolic matter and it involves spiritual cleansing, not physical.


As to generally knowing what is symbolic and what is literal, that is a matter of context and of competence. There are no easy rules to list.

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