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Jesus provides a teaching to his disciples in John 13:1-17 (ESV).

1 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.

Consider the historical social and religious context of the traditional Passover service. During a traditional Passover meal, a bowl of water is used to wash one’s hands before eating the bitter herbs, and again before making the blessing over the matzahs. But what Jesus did here with his disciples was never a part of the traditional Passover service of his time.

However, it was customary for a host to give his guests water for washing their feet. It was also customary to wash one’s feet before meals and before going to bed.

Genesis 18:1-6 ESV

1 And the Lord appeared to him by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day. 2 He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men were standing in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them and bowed himself to the earth 3 and said, “O Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant. 4 Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree, 5 while I bring a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on—since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.” 6 And Abraham went quickly into the tent to Sarah and said, “Quick! Three seahs of fine flour! Knead it, and make cakes.”

Genesis 19:1, 2a ESV

1 The two angels came to Sodom in the evening, and Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom. When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed himself with his face to the earth 2 and said, “My lords, please turn aside to your servant's house and spend the night and wash your feet.

Luke 7:44, 45 ESV

44 Then turning toward the woman he said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet.

Notice that neither Abraham nor Lot offered to wash the feet of their guests, nor did they have a servant do so. Jesus didn't tell Simon that he should have offered to wash Jesus' feet.

Dan Fefferman provides this reference to the Babylonian Talmud in his excellent answer to Was the use of the woman's hair to clean Jesus' feet considered an indecent act (Luke 7:36-50)?:

Foot-washing was a service which the wife was expected to render her husband (Yer. Ket. v. 30a); according to Rab Huna, it was one of the personal attentions to which her husband was entitled, no matter how many maids she may have had; likewise, according to the Babylonian Talmud (Ket. 61a), besides preparing his drink and bed, the wife had to wash her husband's face and feet (comp. Maimonides, "Yad," Ishut, xxi. 3; Shulḥan 'Aruk, Eben ha-'Ezer, 80, 4).

Thus in John 13, Jesus demonstrated something to his disciples during the Passover meal to make a point. Here are four ways that we can interpret his actions. They are not necessarily exclusive of each other.

  1. If Jesus demonstrated that he came to earth as a humble servant, then how much more should his disciples do so as well? This is a kal v’chomer argument.

  2. Ritual foot washing is instituted as a mandatory practice. Jesus insists that he must wash his disciples’ feet, but only their feet because they are already bathed. This ritual can be interpreted as a symbol of God’s ongoing forgiveness after baptism.

  3. Disciples are expected to serve each other: the stronger disciple in the faith acts as a servant to the weaker one in the Kingdom of God as Jesus himself demonstrated.

  4. Interpreting the imagery that Jesus presented, it seems that Jesus is also addressing our attitude toward sins we commit after baptism. Washing each other’s feet implies that we should confess our sins to each other.

Literal foot washing by Jesus is described only in the Gospel of John. Currently, this ritual is performed by the Pope and at least one Protestant denomination.

How would you interpret this passage—would you choose one or more of the interpretations above or something different—and how did you come to your conclusion?

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  • There are very reputable sources on all sides of this debate.
    – Dottard
    Oct 4, 2023 at 1:20
  • It doesn't have to be historical. John's gospel is particularly a very subjective, creative narrative presenting an interpretative drama or picture/story. Mark's gospel alone is strictly historical. The way one interprets this passage will be subjective as well, there's no way of pinpointing an exact historical and objective purpose and teaching other than to teach humility, servitude.
    – Michael16
    Oct 4, 2023 at 10:20
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    ALL eyewitness accounts are abstractions from the totality of the information available. The gospels aren't fictionalized versions of the events ... "For we did not follow cleverly devised myths when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty." – 2 Peter 1:16-21 ESV "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we looked upon and have touched with our hands, concerning the word of life— the life was made manifest, and we have seen it, and testify to it" – 1 John 1:1,2 ESV
    – Dieter
    Oct 4, 2023 at 16:49
  • I expanded my answer to include church fathers.
    – Perry Webb
    Oct 7, 2023 at 1:14
  • Very nice. Thank you, Perry! It's helpful to consider how the early saints came to interpret this action by Jesus.
    – Dieter
    Oct 7, 2023 at 3:42

3 Answers 3

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Things to consider:

  1. Whether your theology has ordinances or sacraments (communion and baptism), Christians recognized these early in church history.

  2. Not everything that Christ commanded is an ordinance or sacrament.

  3. The church fathers only noted Christ washing feet as showing his humility. The following quotes are massive but only a brief summary of the material.

After showing the dignity of Christ, the Evangelist now commends his humility, which Christ showed by washing the feet of the disciples. -- Thomas Aquinas. (2010). Commentary on the Gospel of John: Chapters 1–21 (F. Larcher & J. A. Weisheipl, Trans.; Vol. 3, pp. 8–9). The Catholic University of America Press.

And since he who had come from God and was going to God is now washing the feet of others, he is treading under foot the universal tendency to pride. -- Ibid. Vol. 3, p. 9.

Note that, according to Origen, our Lord began to wash the feet of his disciples right before his passion, for if he had washed them a long time before, they would have become dirty again. So he began to wash them a short time before he would wash the apostles with the water of the Holy Spirit, after his passion: “Before many days you shall be baptized with the Holy Spirit” (Act 1:5). In short, when our Lord put water into the basin, this indicated the pouring out of his blood; and when he began to wash the feet of his apostles, this indicated the cleansing of our sins. -- Ibid. Vol. 3, pp. 10–11.

After our Lord showed that his humble service was necessary, he then urges that it be imitated. -- ibid. Vol. 3, p. 16.

And with this in mind he concludes, If I then, who am greater, because I am your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, then you who are not as great, because you are disciples and servants, ought, far more than I, to wash one another’s feet: “Whoever would be great among you must be your servant … even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve” (Mt 20:26). -- Ibid. Vol. 3, p. 20.

  1. This is the closet they came to associating foot washing with confessing sin:

I reply, according to Augustine, that every one should wash the feet of others, either in a physical or spiritual way. And it is much better, and true beyond argument, that one should do this in a physical way, so that a Christian will not consider it beneath him to do what Christ did. For when a person stoops down to the feet of his neighbor, humility is awakened in his heart, or if already there it is made stronger. If one cannot do this in a physical way, it should at least be done in one’s heart. When feet are washed, their stains are washed away. So we wash the feet of our neighbors in a spiritual way when, as far as we can, we wash away their moral stains. This is done in three ways. The first way is by forgiving their offenses, as in “And if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col 3:13). Another way is by praying because of their sins, according to “Pray for one another, that you may be healed” (Jas 5:16). These two kinds of washing can be done by all the faithful. The third way belongs to prelates, who ought to wash by forgiving sins by the power of the keys: “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven” (20:22). -- Ibid. Vol. 3, p. 20.

A good indication of the significance of foot washing is in Luke 7:36-50. These were the common courtesies expected to show dinner guest in the first century.

Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has wet my feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not ceased to kiss my feet. (Luke 7:44–45, ESV)

And so there was given to us the example of the Son of God, which cannot be in error and is adequate for all situations. Thus Augustine says: “Pride is not healed if it is not healed by the divine humility”; and the same is true of avarice and the other vices. -- Vol. 3, p. 21.

Dr. Bailey gave a full discussion here: Chapter 18: "The Woman in the House of Simon the Pharisee." LUKE 7:36–50.

This is a significant statement because "loved to the end" is bracketed first with the foot washing and last with the crucifixion.

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. (John 13:1, ESV)

Jesus' act was the example of a servant:

13:4 Wrapped a towel. Jesus—who knew that God the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and would return to God through death—got up from the table that evening, took off his outer clothing, and wrapped a towel around his waist. The first lesson Jesus taught on his last evening with his disciples was an enacted parable, taking the role of a lowly servant. This common household task routinely performed before eating (Ge 18:4; 19:2; 43:24; Jdg 19:21) had apparently been neglected because none of the disciples was willing to humble himself to serve the others in this lowly task. Customarily, the position of reclining couches around a table for a meal positioned a diner’s head toward the table and their feet to the outside of the circle. Jesus probably poured water over his disciples’ feet catching it in the basin and then dried them with the towel. -- Jobes, K. H. (2021). John through Old Testament Eyes: A Background and Application Commentary (A. T. Le Peau, Ed.; p. 213). Kregel Academic. Bailey, K. E. (2008). Jesus through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (p. 239). IVP Academic.

There is nothing wrong with accompanying communion with foot washing, but if it is done, the point should be made clear to the congregation about the servant's heart that Jesus portrayed and the example Jesus set.

For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you (John 13:15, ESV)

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34–35, ESV)

The point to Jesus' act of foot washing is more important than the ceremony. If washing feet or some other action matching one's culture gets this point across, then it is good.

The point of a servant's heart is clear. Also the cleansing from a bath refers to the cleaning that would take place through Christ's sacrificial death. It is not clear what the additional cleansing from washing the feet symbolizes. Perhaps this: "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins...." (1 Peter 4:8, ESV) A person's kind actions can better the heart of the receiver and the giver becomes more like Christ, thus the sanctification of becoming more conformed to the image of Christ.

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  • Thank you, Perry. The Biblical references that I provided seem to indicate that guests would simply be provided water in which to wash their own feet. The Talmudic reference indicates that only wives, not servants, wash their husband's feet. Let me also note that I've been deeply disappointed when following up on accepted "authoritative" works from the nineteenth century. In my experience, it seems that some authorities would often fabricate their extra-biblical cultural assertions based on speculation to fulfill their theological constructions. Just a warning to the wise.
    – Dieter
    Oct 2, 2023 at 22:17
  • In the Luke 7 Jesus wasn't even provided the water to wash his feet., but that is a good point. In John 13 the apostles had the water, but apparently hadn't washed their feet. It would be a rich person, that had a servant to wash feet, but by Jesus washing feet, he was acting as a servant.
    – Perry Webb
    Oct 3, 2023 at 0:14
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    Anyway, Jesus saw an opportunity to make a point. I would address that point based on what the apostles would have understood. Peter's initial reaction showed what Jesus was doing was quit humbling.
    – Perry Webb
    Oct 3, 2023 at 0:33
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    Jesus' statements, especially in the gospel of John, often had double meanings usually the physical and spiritual. When it comes to Judas, clean definitely had a double meaning. Jesus probably made two points with washing the feet.
    – Perry Webb
    Oct 3, 2023 at 0:56
  • 1
    With foot washing it is easier to see this sanctifying affect than confession: "Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins...." (1 Peter 4:8, ESV) A person's kind actions can better the heart of the receiver and the giver becomes more like Christ.
    – Perry Webb
    Oct 3, 2023 at 1:28
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All I can do is offer some general comments about foot washing.

  1. The attitude to foot washing is quite varied - some churches include it in their communion services, and some do not. The Pope washes 12 sets of feet once per year; Queen Elizabeth II used to wash some feet of the poor once per year but then used "Maundy Money" (I believe King Charles III has decided to continue this via the practice of "Maundy Money"); several denominations include the rite in their service. Even within some denominations, the practice is quite varied.
  2. Those who include the foot washing usually do so for one of two reasons:
  • . purely for historical reasons to better experience the atmosphere of the time of Jesus
  • . for theological reasons because (as they say) Jesus commended the practice three times in John 13:14, 15, 17.
  1. Those who do not include foot washing suggest that it is unnecessary because it was merely the custom of the time. However, the same "excuse" is also offered by some denominations for not having communion at all.

Biblically, the closest we get to any instruction about this is provided by Jesus as recorded in John 13:

  • V14 - Therefore if I, the Lord and the Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash the feet of one another.
  • V15 - For I gave you a pattern, that as I did to you, you also should do.
  • V17 - If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.
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  • Thank you, Dottard. This inconclusiveness you've pointed out is exactly why I'm asking the question and looking for the practical application of biblical Hermeneutics.
    – Dieter
    Oct 2, 2023 at 22:21
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+50

First of all, bear in mind that you, as an approved workman of God's word, are required by God not to make stuff up:

1 Peter 1:20

Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation. [Emphasis added]

"private (Gr. idios) interpretation" = "one's own interpretation".

You (as above) are also required to "rightly-divide" (Gr. orthotomeō) God's word, the word of truth, according to 2 Timothy 2:15. There is exactly one way, mathematically, to rightly-divide God's word. All other ways are wrongly-dividing.

If you don't understand what you are reading, try reading the immediate context. If that fails, try a remoter context. You are simply lazy if you don't. Someone quoted John 13 above, you hardly need anything more to understand what is written.

The Bible is an Eastern ("oriental") book. It contains Hebrew idioms & expressions, as well as customs from the lands and times in which it was written, from the people unto whom it was first written. No where in the book does God instruct the church of God to keep or observe these particular things. They are not commandments. They are, however, a perfectly acceptable way of communicating to people in a way they can understand.

What Jesus meant to communicate in John 13 is perfectly clear to anyone who can read the words that are written. You don't need a commentary, an expert, or an "authoritative source".

The word of God is always the "authoritative source", unless, for instance, Josephus, Erasmus, Luther, the pope, or anyone else is greater than God. I have my doubts.

Of one thing I'm certain, the loving God of the Bible does not hide behind a cloak of incomprehensibilty.

There are a number of useful reference books for investigating "orientalisms". Here's two easy to read:

James Freeman - Manners and Customs of the Bible

Bishop K.C. Pillai - Light Through an Eastern Window (vols 1 & 2)

"The washing of feet" is one such custom from the lands and times of the Bible. As you might suspect, people in that time did not always have the beautiful shoes and boots we use today. They didn't have paved sidewalks and streets everywhere. The floor of a building or tent might be just compacted soil. Thus, as they walked about anywhere, their feet would get dirty.

Because of this, when one went to the home of friends or family, there would likely be a place inside to wash one's feet. It was practical, not "ceremonious" as someone asserted. The host himself could offer to do it in an additional show of hospitality. In a very prosperous house, a hired servant or a slave would be offered to do it for you. How refreshing it would have been (try it sometime) to get just your dirty, sweaty feet all cleaned up!

Jesus Christ, who was surely "master" to his disciples, could have demanded a foot washing any time he wanted. Peter was certainly up for the chore. You read the rest yourself because God's word itself (as usual) gives you all you need.

If you start, unprompted and unexpectedly, washing people's feet in the western, modern world, you are going to get some curious looks at best.

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  • 1
    Thank you, posit, for your answer and the two book references to ANE cultural practices, which I requested. I emphatically agree with your general principles. There are passages in the Bible that require considerable study to understand and this is okay. If you noticed from my question, I was careful to find instances and references in the scriptures regarding foot washing practices. Conversely, I've learned to be skeptical of authorities claiming that servants at that time customarily washed the feet of guests, since a number of other claims that I've researched turned out to be fiction.
    – Dieter
    Oct 6, 2023 at 6:17
  • @Dieter - since you seem to be attempting to go down the straight path, let me recommend E.W. Bullinger's "Figures of Speech" as well. Perhaps 30-40 of these are discussed in any English language curriculum; in the languages of the original "God-breathed word" there were more than 200.
    – posit
    Oct 7, 2023 at 4:01
  • Perhaps the most frequently missed/unappreciated Hebrew language idiom is the "idiom of permission" used throughout the Scriptures, particularly the old T. Finding out exactly what it is and how it was used will save yourself a lot of grief!
    – posit
    Oct 7, 2023 at 4:06
  • Since you are a "Herman Eutics" kind of guy, you ought to be able to codify exactly what must be done to "rightly-divide" the Scriptures. Make a distinct, perfectly respectable list, publish it, and then apply it honestly without fail or remorse. You'll likely go through numerous iterations before it is worthy of the approval of God, the only approval worth seeking.
    – posit
    Oct 7, 2023 at 4:13
  • Let me also recommend you take a lesson from Eve's conversation with the serpent in Genesis 3. He tricks her thusly: 1) Consider what I have to say! 2) Get her to doubt God's word. 3) Get her to engage and respond. 4) Get her to add words to God's word. 5) Get her to change God's word. 6) Get her to outright contradict God's word. The same damnable things go on today a thousand times a minute.
    – posit
    Oct 7, 2023 at 4:19

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