Did Jesus Institute Ceremonial “Feet-Washing”?

By Wayne Jackson

"Why do most Christians not practice “feet washing” today, since Jesus gave this as an example, and he said that his followers ‘ought’ to do this" (Jn. 13:15)?

This is an interesting question that arises from time-to-time. Let us give consideration to it.

It should be observed first of all that just because Christ gave a command to someone, at some time, during his ministry, does not mean that that same command was required of all people for all time. One must look at the nature of the command, to whom it was given, the purpose thereof (if stated), and whether or not it initially applied in a limited way, or whether it was for every person throughout history.

For example, the Lord once commanded a man, “take up your bed and walk” (Jn. 5:8). Surely it is not difficult to understand that this particular injunction was not universal in its application. To another he said, “Go, wash in the pool of Siloam” (Jn. 9:7). That requirement applied to no one but the man to whom it was given. To the apostles Jesus said, “Wait in the city [of Jerusalem], until you are clothed with power from on high” (Lk. 24:49). That command was for the apostles exclusively. Keep this principle in mind as we explore John 13:3ff.

In order to appreciate the situation that occurred during the Passover supper, one has to have some “background” knowledge in a couple of areas – pertaining to the customary act of feet-washing itself, and that of the events that led up to the “supper” incident.

The Act of Feet-Washing Generally

Most Bible students are aware of the fact that folks in ancient days did not wear the type of footwear that most of us in America do today. They wore sandals. Furthermore, most of the nearby travel was by walking. The combination of these factors meant that the citizens’ feet became very dirty during their journeys. It was a common act of hospitality, therefore, when a visitor came calling, to provide him with water for the washing of his feet (cf. 1 Tim. 5:10). One may recall that Christ once reproved Simon the Pharisee for not having furnished him with water for his feet, as the Savior visited in his home (Lk. 7:44).

Further, if a man was wealthy enough to have servants, he might well dispatch one of them to wash his guest’s feet. This is illustrated by a case from the time of king David. When the ruler sent messengers to a lady named Abigail, she gladly received them, and said, “Behold, let your handmaid act as a servant in washing the feet of the servants of my lord” (1 Sam. 25:41). Generally, it was the servant’s role to wash the master’s feet. Keep this thought in mind.

The Tense Supper Scene

As devoted as the Savior’s disciples were, they still had “rough edges” that needed to be eliminated, and not the least of these problems was the spirit of egotistical competition that prevailed among them. One recalls that James and John had requested of Christ that they might have places of preeminence when the Lord entered into his glory (Mk. 10:37). In fact, that very evening there was a dispute among the twelve as to who would be considered the “greatest” (Lk. 22:24). They desperately needed to learn that “greatness” is achieved in serving others; it is not a tribute merely to be bestowed arbitrarily.

It was in this setting that the Master laid aside his outer garments and girded himself with a towel, subsequently commencing to wash his disciples’ feet.

Contextual Clues

In considering the entire context of this episode, it is important that the Bible student look carefully at all of the details, so that he may draw such conclusions as the evidence warrants.

  1. Notice first that Jesus washed the feet of all the disciples. If one is going to bind precisely this “example” as a church ordinance, as a few small religious groups have done, then the feet of everyone present will have to be cleansed. Further, everyone who washes the feet of others will need to have his own feet bathed by everyone else. If there should be a group of several hundred people, this “ceremony” would consume the better part of a day – or even longer.
  2. That Jesus was not washing the disciples’ feet as a literal act to be required henceforth is very clear from what happened in the meantime, and how the Lord responded. When Christ came to where Peter was, the apostle asked, “Do you intend to wash my feet?” The Savior replied, “What I am about to do you don’t understand right now, but you will presently.” Get this point, please. Peter knew that Jesus was about to wash his feet (in a literal sense), but Christ says, “You do not know what I’m doing.” Obviously, it was not the act of washing feet per se that was the point; rather, it was the lesson to be conveyed. And so, in a mild rebuke, Jesus told his apostle (if we may paraphrase), “If you do not learn the lesson I am attempting to demonstrate, you will have ‘no part’ in my ministry” (v. 8).

    Then, after he had finished this symbolic act, the Lord asked, “Do you know what I have done unto you?” (v. 12). Certainly they knew what he had done physically. But had they perceived the real significance of the act? They had not. But he explained the matter. “You call me Teacher, and, Lord. You are correct; that is my relationship to you. If I then, the Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you ought to wash one another’s feet.” In what sense? Literally? No, the lesson is this. If I, your Lord, have humbled myself, assuming the role of a servant, you ought to do the same (cf. v. 16). The pathway to “greatness” is not by self-assertion; it is through service! The Son of God was demonstrating an attitude, not requiring a literal act.

    The error, then, on the part of some religious people, is in not discerning the difference between what the Lord was doing literally, and the symbolic significance of the act.

    The Testimony of History

    It is important to note that the early church did not perceive this incident as a “binding example” of literal feet-washing for a required practice throughout Christian history. One prominent historian has observed:

    “There is no indication in the New Testament, or in the Christian literature of the first three centuries, that our Lord was understood to have instituted an ordinance [feet-washing] by the acts and words under consideration [in John 13]. Feet-washing was a common and needed act of hospitality in Palestine at the time, and the teaching that Christ intended to convey was the manifestation of the spirit of brotherly love in acts of humble service. . . The earliest reference to the ceremonial use of feet-washing is in the canon of the synod of Elvira (A.D. 306) where it is condemned” (A.H. Newman, A Manual of Church History, Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publication Society/Judson Press, 1933, Vol. I, p. 140).

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About the Author

Wayne Jackson has written for and edited the Christian Courier since its inception in 1965. He has also written several books on a variety of biblical topics including The Bible and Science, Creation, Evolution, and the Age of the Earth, The Bible on Trial, and a number of commentaries. He lives in Stockton, California with his dear wife, and life-long partner, Betty.