Footwashing within the Context of the Lord’s Supper

John Christopher Thomas

The Theological Justification for the Practice of Footwashing

It is, no doubt, obvious that the primary theological justification for the practice of footwashing is grounded in the explicit nature of the commands Jesus gives to his disciples to wash one another’s feet in John 13:14-17.

“If, therefore, I your Lord and Teacher have washed your feet you ought (must) to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example in order that you should do just as I have done. Truly, truly say to you, no servant is greater than his Lord neither is a sent one (apostle) greater than the one who sends. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.”

While it is true that not all readers of John 13:14-17 interpret these verses as calling for a literal fulfillment of the commands, those communities of faith which observe this rite are convinced of the mandatory nature of Jesus’ words. Although in some communities this interpretation has resulted simply from a surface reading of the text, there is additional evidence which indicates that John 13:14-17 was intended to result in the actual practice of footwashing as a religious rite.

Despite the fact that a hermeneutical gap exists between twentieth-century readers and their ancient counterparts, it is possible to narrow that gap somewhat by examining attitudes toward and the practice of footwashing in Graeco-Roman and Jewish antiquity. When this evidence is examined it becomes clear that footwashing was a remarkably widespread practice in the ancient world and functioned in a variety of ways: as a sign of hospitality, for the purpose of comfort and/or hygiene, as a sign of servitude, and as a religious/cultic cleansing. In other words, footwashing was a part of everyday life.

As such, footwashing came to be regarded as a sign of preparation in antiquity. It was so commonplace that to approach a task without adequate preparation could be described in a traditional saying as acting ‘with unwashed feet’. Descriptions of footwashing most frequently occurred in banquet settings and/or before a meal of some type. In these situations a host would provide water, in some cases spiced wine or ointments (if the home were an affluent one and the guest was deserving of special honor) for the guests to remove from their feet the dirt which had accumulated on their journey. Such a practice was commonplace and appears to be presumed. Most texts place the washing at the time the guests arrive.

When the commands of 13:14-17 are read against the cultural context of western antiquity, it seems probable that the first readers (members of the Johannine community) would have taken vv.14-17 as calling for compliance on their part. Given the extensive practice of footwashing in antiquity, it is reasonable to assume that the readers of the Fourth Gospel would have been familiar with footwashing of one kind or another through actual participation. These first readers were in a very different position to modern western readers, who, due to their unfamiliarity with the practice of footwashing, seem unable to take
seriously that a literal fulfillment of the command is in view. The first readers’ familiarity with the practice in general makes it likely that, after reading John 13:14-17, they would be inclined to carry out its literal fulfillment.

In addition to the evidence from western antiquity, the most natural reading of the text of John 13:14-17 is one that calls for a literal fulfillment of the commands. In v.14, ‘therefore’ serves to make clear the connection between Jesus’ own actions in vv.4-12 and the following commands. In the light of his actions, the disciples are instructed to wash one another’s feet. The emphasis of his instruction is borne out by the appearance of ‘also’ and the emphatic use of the personal pronoun, ‘you’. The verb in this verse often translated as ‘ought’ further
highlights the nature of the act. Rather than a suggestion, this verb carries with it the idea of necessity and/or obligation. Its force can be seen from elsewhere in the Johannine literature. According to John 19:7, in an attempt to convince Pilate that Jesus should be crucified, the Jews say, ‘We have (the) Law, and according to the Law he must die…’

In the Epistles the same verb is used to describe the mandatory nature of moral conduct (1 John 2:6 – ‘The one who claims to remain in him ought himself to walk just as that one walked’) and Christian service to other brothers and sisters (1 John 3:16 – ‘In this we have known love, because that one laid down his life for us; we also ought to lay down our lives for the brothers’; 4:11 – ‘Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another’; 3 John 8 ­– ‘Therefore, we ought to receive such ones as these, in order that we might be
fellow-workers in the truth’). The only other time Jesus uses the term in the gospels is also in a context of mandatory service, that of a slave to a master (Luke 17:10). Normally, in the other New Testament uses of this verb the nuance is that of ‘an obligation towards men which is deduced and which follows from the experienced or preceding act of God the Saviour. In many instances the sentence construction indicates the connection between human obligation and the experienced act of salvation.’[1]

Here, the disciples’ directive to service is based upon the salvific action of the Lord and Master, for ‘…now that Jesus, their Lord and Teacher, has washed his disciples’ feet –
an unthinkable act! – there is every reason why they also should wash one another’s feet, and no conceivable reason for refusing to do so.’[2] The disciples have received cleansing at the hands of Jesus. Now, they are instructed to preserve this practice. The stress of this verse lies upon washing one another’s feet. Because of the connection of these verses with vv. 6-10 there is the implicit and contextual directive that the disciples receive this service/sign (from one another) as well as render it.

The force of Jesus’ command for the disciples to practise footwashing among themselves in v. 14 is strengthened by referring to the footwashing as an example in v.15. While a general call to humble service cannot be ruled out altogether, there are three reasons to think that the readers would see in ‘example’ a reinforcement of the direct command to wash one another’s feet. The first consideration is the context of this verse. In v. 14, it has been clearly stated that the disciples are to wash one another’s feet. Following so closely upon this explicit command, it is likely that ‘example’ would be taken in a specific fashion.

Second, this is the first (and only) ‘example’ given by Jesus, which the readers encounter in the Fourth Gospel.[3]

Third, the combination of ‘just as … also’ emphasizes the intimate connection between Jesus’ action (washing the disciples’ feet) and the action of his disciples (washing one another’s
feet).[4] They are to act precisely as he acted. The instructions to wash one another’s feet are rooted and grounded in the actions of Jesus in vv. 4­-10. Therefore, the footwashing is far more than an example. ‘It is a definite prototype.’[5] In all probability, the readers, as well as the disciples in the narrative, would take ‘example’ with reference to footwashing in particular, not humble service generally.

In v. 16 again there is an appeal to the person and status of Jesus as the basis of the command to wash one another’s feet. This time it comes in the form of a saying that also appears in a Synoptic context (Matthew 10:24). The authority of the statement is understood by the double ‘Amen’ which precedes the rest of the saying. The ‘Amen, Amen’ formula denotes a particularly solemn saying which issues forth from Jesus’ own authority. As Schlier concludes: ‘The point of the Amen before Jesus’ own sayings is: to show that as such they are reliable and true, and that they are so as and because Jesus Himself in His Amen acknowledges them to be His own sayings and thus makes them valid.’[6]

Having already identified himself as Teacher and Lord (vv. 12-13), Jesus here expands upon the implication of his Lordship. Since as Lord he has washed the feet of his disciples, they have no choice but to take similar action, on account of their own position as slaves in relation to Jesus. Their own status and consequent actions cannot hope to be on a higher level than that of their superior. That identical action between Jesus and the disciples is being described is borne out by the use of this saying in John 15:20, where the world’s hatred for Jesus and the world is said to be the same.

Another maxim-like saying underscores the point. ‘No one who is sent is greater than the one who sends him.’ Again, the clear emphasis is upon the authority of Jesus’ actions in relation to the similar activity of the disciples. This interpretation of the master-slave language, which agrees perfectly with the context, is much to be preferred over reading back service into v. 15 and thereby making it simply an ethical example. In any event, the full authority of Jesus is given to the injunction to wash one another’s feet.

In v. 17 a final exhortation is given in order that the disciples might not fail to carry out the footwashing among themselves. This time the command takes the form of a blessing. It is not enough for the disciples to know what to do; they must actually do it in order to be considered blessed. The grammar of this verse bears out that the disciples possess some knowledge of the footwashing, now that Jesus has given this explanation, but must follow through with action. This contrast is accomplished by the use of a first-class conditional clause, which indicates a future possibility.

The use of the term ‘makarios’ in this context clearly underscores the importance of acting out Jesus’ commands to wash one another’s feet. Such emphasis is similar to that of v. 8, where Peter is warned that ‘meros’ with Jesus is dependent upon reception of the footwashing. Therefore, not only have the disciples received footwashing from Jesus as a sign of continued fellowship with him, but they are now also instructed to continue this practice. In the light of its earlier meaning, it is likely that the footwashing to be practised by the disciples would convey a similar significance, continued fellowship with Jesus. Obedience to Jesus’ commands to wash one another’s feet results in a declaration of ‘makarios’.

In sum, the narrative contains not one, but three directives for the disciples to practise footwashing. It seems improbable that either the disciples (in the narrative) or the implied readers would understand such emphatic language as not having primary reference to the actual practice of footwashing. Or to put this in the form of a question: if the Johannine Jesus had intended to institute footwashing as a continuing religious rite, how else could he have
said it to get his point across? When compared with the words of institution associated with water baptism and the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament, the commands to wash feet appear to be the most emphatic of the three.

But support for taking vv. 14-17 as calling for a literal fulfilment is not limited to the evidence from western antiquity and our own reading of the text of the Fourth Gospel. For in the case of John 13:14-17, this interpretation may be tested by how actual readers in the early church understood these commands. A number of early Christian texts give evidence of the regularity with which a reading of John 13:14-17 resulted in the practice of footwashing. In these cases, the relationship of the practice to John 13 is explicit. Such evidence comes from Tertullian (De Corona 8), the Canons of Athanasius (66), John Chrysostom (Homilies on John 71), Ambrose (Of the Holy Spirit 1.15), Augustine John: Tractate 58.4}, the Apostolic Constitutions (3:19), John Cassian (Institute of Coenobia 4.19), Pachomias (Rules 51-52), and Caesarius of Arles (Sermon 202 and 86).

In addition to these texts, others indicate that Christian footwashing was observed in a variety of contexts in the early church. Such evidence comes from 1 Timothy 5:10, Tertullian (To His Wife 2.4), Origen (Genesis Homily 4.2), Cyprian, the Synod of Elvira (Canon 48), Ambrose (Sacraments 3.4, 7), Augustine (Letter 55.33), Sozomen (Ecclesiastical History 1.11.10), John Chysostom (Genesis Homily 46), Caesarius of Arles (Sermon 1, 10, 16, 19, 25, 67, 104, 146), and Benedict of Nursia (Regula Monachorum 35).

When the Fourth Gospel is taken as the starting point, there is every reason to believe that footwashing was practised as a re1igious rite in the Johannine community. Not only does a careful reading of the text reveal that the implied readers would have understood John 13:14-17 as calling for a literal fulfillment, but the cultural environment of western antiquity demonstrates that readers of the Fourth Gospel would have been predisposed to practice footwashing as a result of reading John 13:1-20.

The evidence from early Christianity exhibits that a number of people read the text in just such a fashion. Not only is the geographical distribution of the evidence impressive, in that it comes from North Africa (Tertullian), Egypt-Palestine (Origen), Asia Minor (1 Timothy, John Chrysostom), Italy (Ambrose, Augustine), and Gaul (Caesarius), but the diverse contexts in which the commands were fulfilled are also noteworthy, in that they range from the church, to monastery, to the home. Enough examples have been given to show both that the implications of the reading of John 13:1-20 were somewhat consistent and the practice of footwashing was widespread.

The evidence for the practice of footwashing based on John 13 is of sufficient strength to conclude that in all likelihood the Johannine community engaged in religious footwashing as the direct result of John 13:1-20 (or the tradition that lies behind it). Indeed, those within footwashing communities would want to argue that instead of interpreters needing to demonstrate the probability of the practice in the Johannine community, the burden of proof is on those who would deny such a probability.

The Meaning of Footwashing

If there is sufficient reason to believe that Jesus, as depicted in John 13, desired that footwashing be practised, what was the intended meaning of this act? Several aspects of the text point in the direction of an answer.

Footwashing and the Passion of Jesus

A variety of indicators in the text demonstrate that a close tie exists between the passion of Jesus and the footwashing. First, the reader is prepared for this connection in John 12 where Mary’s anointing of Jesus’ feet is said to be a preparation for his burial. Second, the location of the footwashing within the farewell materials (John 13-17) indicates that the footwashing, along with the rest of the materials, was intended to prepare the disciples for Jesus’ departure. Third, the tie to the passion is made explicit in 13:1, which serves as the introduction to the entire Book of Glory (John 13-21), where the reader learns that Jesus’ hour had come. Fourth, the statement that Jesus loved his own ‘eis telos’ at least suggests to the reader that Jesus’ ‘end’ is near. Fifth, the appearance of Judas in v. 2 ominously foreshadows the betrayal of Jesus. As Raymond Brown notes: ‘The betrayal is mentioned in 2 precisely so that the reader will connect the footwashing and the death of Jesus. Jesus undertook this action symbolic of his death only after the forces had been set in motion that would lead to crucifixion.’[7]

Mention of the betrayer will also be made in 13:11. Sixth, in v. 3 the return of Jesus to the Father is mentioned again. Seventh, more than one commentator has seen a reference to the death of Jesus when in v. 4 he is described as laying aside (‘tithemi’) his clothing, since ‘tithemi’ has reference to his death in over half its Johannine occurrences. Additionally, the mention of Jesus disrobing foreshadows in the footwashing the humiliation connected with laying down his life. The stark reality of nakedness presents a clear reference to the crucifixion.

As P. G. Ahr concludes: ‘The reference to the crucifixion is ever more clearly present in the statement about Jesus’ nakedness: anyone familiar with the story of Jesus’ death can grasp the reference to the removal of clothes, and, indeed, it is the very unexpectedness of this statement which points the reader to this reference.’[8] ‘All of this serves to relate the footwashing to the death of the Lord.’[9]

The Unusual Nature of this Footwashing

The reader learns in John 13 that this is no ordinary footwashing. The first indication that there is more to this footwashing than meets the eye is the fact that it is chronologically out of place. When footwashing occurs in the context of a meal, it precedes the meal, most often
occurring at the door of the host. However, the footwashing which Jesus provides for the disciples interrupts rather than precedes the meal.[10] The Evangelist underscores the importance of the footwashing by its unusual placement.

Another indication that this footwashing is unusual is the highly deliberative way in which Jesus’ actions are described. Instead of simply saying that Jesus washed the feet of the disciples, John methodically underscores the significance of Jesus’ actions by specifically mentioning each element of the procedure.

In v. 7 Jesus himself indicates that this footwashing is no ordinary one when he informs Peter that he will not understand the significance of this action until ‘after these things’. Just as the disciples are unable to comprehend other events in the Fourth Gospel fully until after the resurrection (John 2:22 and 12:16), so Peter (and the other disciples with him) are unable to understand the full significance of the footwashing until after the resurrection.

Responding to Peter’s emphatic refusal of the footwashing Jesus informs Peter that this act is not optional and that its significance is far-reaching: ‘If I do not wash you, you have no  ‘meros’ with me.’ One of the first things the reader would see in ‘meros’ with Jesus would, no doubt, be a share in eternal life. Not only has the prologue promised such to those who believe (1:12), but it has also been stated that Jesus bestows eternal life upon those who are placed in his hands (cf. 3:35-36; 6:40; 10:28-29). The immediate referent is found in v. 3, where the reader is reminded of Jesus’ knowledge that all things were placed in his hands by
the Father.

This interpretation is supported by the many New Testament texts where ‘meros’ appears in contexts which deal with issues of eternal life and/or punishment (cf. Matthew 24:51; Revelation 20:6; 21:8; 22:19). Therefore, it seems safe to assume that one idea ‘meros’ with Jesus conveys in John 13:8 is eternal life.

Yet, this understanding does not exhaust the significance of ‘meros’. The closest structural parallels to this verse, found in Matthew 24:51, Ignatius’ Epistle to Polycarp 6:1, and the
Martyrdom of Polycarp 14:2, suggest that to share a person’s ‘meros’ was to share his/her identity or destiny. Matthew (24:51) describes the unfaithful servant as being assigned ‘a
place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth (par. Luke 12:46).

In affirming the legitimacy of ecclesiastical offices Ignatius claims: ‘Give heed to the bishop, that God may also give heed to you. I am devoted to those who are subject to the bishop, presbyters, and deacons; and may it be mine to have my lot with them in God. Labour with one another, struggle together, run together, suffer together, rest together, rise up together as God’s stewards and assessors and servants.’[11]

As part of his last prayer, Polycarp gives thanks: ‘I bless thee, that Thou has granted me this day and hour, that I may share, among the number of the martyrs in the cup of thy Christ, for the Resurrection to everlasting life, both of soul and body in the immortality of the Holy Spirit.’[12]

If anyone has cast their lot with Jesus in the Fourth Gospel, it is the disciples. To have a share in his destiny includes not only eternal life, but also being sent as Jesus himself was sent (4:31-38; 20:21-23), resurrection at the last day (6:40), and the hatred of the world (15:18-16:4). Simply put, it appears that ‘meros’ here denotes continued fellowship with Jesus,[13]
and a place in his community which ultimately results in uninterrupted residence in the Father’s house (14:1-14).

Such a view of ‘meros’ dovetails neatly with 15:1-17, where remaining in Jesus is the key to life. Without such remaining, one’s fate is like unproductive branches which are cut off and cast out to be burned. Consequently, the footwashing is a sign which points beyond itself to some deeper meaning. Two things point to the crucifixion/exaltation as essential to that deeper meaning.

First, the qualities represented by ‘meros’ (eternal life, identity with Jesus, sharing his destiny, mission, resurrection, and martyrdom) are ultimately secured through Jesus’ death.

Second, Jesus’ act of humiliation in washing the disciples’ feet foreshadows his ultimate act of humiliation on the cross. These hints in the narrative make it easier to understand the importance of footwashing. By refusing the footwashing, Peter is ultimately refusing the effects of the cross. The emphatic language of v.8 removes all doubt concerning footwashing’s importance. Without it Peter will have no ‘meros’ with Jesus.

Footwashing as a Sign of Cleansing

Without a doubt, the meaning of the footwashing is given in John 13:10, where in response to Peter’s request for washings in addition to his feet Jesus says, ‘The one who has bathed has no need to wash except the feet but is wholly clean; and you are clean, but not all of you.’ In order to understand the function of footwashing one must accurately identify a) the meaning of the two verbs used to describe a washing, b) the bath to which Jesus makes reference, and
c) the kind of cleansing which it provides.

It should first be noted that John appears to intend a distinction between the two verbs ‘to bathe’ and ‘to wash’. The former always has reference to a bath when it is found in the same
context with the latter, and is never used in extant Greek literature to refer to a footwashing. Therefore, Jesus views the footwashing as a supplement to or an extension of an earlier bath.

Jesus’ explanation, which uses these two verbs, draws upon the ancient custom of the day. A traveller or guest would bathe at home before leaving on a trip. During the course of the journey, dirt/dust would become attached to the feet. Upon arrival the host would offer water
to remove that which accumulated on the way. There would be no reason to bathe again, only to wash those parts of the body which had become soiled.

Jean Owanga-Welo affirms[14] the proverbial/parabolic character of John 13:10a by pointing to a parallel found in Seneca (Epistulae Morales LXXXVI 12): ‘It is stated by those who reported to us the old-time ways of Rome that the Romans washed only their arms and legs daily – because those were the members which gathered dirt in their daily toil ­and bathed all over once a week.’[15] Together with the evidence mentioned earlier, this text demonstrates
the common character of the practice. The analogy is used by Jesus to convey the deeper meaning attached to the action.

The initial question is, to what is Jesus alluding when he speaks of a complete bath that makes someone clean? For the disciples in the narrative there is one option that seems most likely, baptism. Not only do the first disciples come from the Baptist’s circle (which would imply an acquaintance with and appreciation for baptism), but Jesus (3:22) and/or his disciples (4:2) are said to have baptized others and to have been more successful than John.
Regardless of the way in which the tension between 3:22 and 4:2 is handled, the implication is the same. Baptisms are either performed by Jesus or under his auspices. Whether John’s baptism, which is of divine origin (1:33), is being exalted by the subsequent actions of Jesus and the disciples, or his baptism is subsumed by the later practice, the implication for 13:10 is the same. It is extremely likely that the disciples, who baptize others, would have experienced baptism themselves, either at the hand of Jesus or John.

The readers, while familiar with baptism and its role, might be able to discern another meaning for ‘leloumenos’. On the basis of the post-resurrection perspective of several statements in the narrative, the reader may suspect that the bath which cleanses has reference to the death of Jesus. Other passages in the Johannine literature testify to the connection between Jesus’ death and cleansing. Owing to the special qualities of Jesus’ blood in
Johannine thought (John 6:53-56; 1 John 1:7-9; Revelation 1:5; 5:9; 19:13), as well as the remarkable usages of water in the Fourth Gospel (every time water appears something significant takes place), it is difficult to avoid interpreting the water and blood which come
from Jesus’ side in 19:34 as having reference to the life-giving and cleansing qualities of his death. 1 John 1:7-9 gives clear evidence of the connection between cleansing from sin and the
blood of Jesus: ‘But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and righteous to forgive us (our) sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.’

There can be little doubt that such statements are based upon reflection about the crucifixion of Jesus. In Revelation 7:14, one of the elders responds to John concerning the identity of certain ones who are dressed in white clothes: ‘These are the ones who are coming out of the great tribulation, and have washed their clothes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.’ Again the cleansing efficacy of the blood should be noted. The readers, then, might
already see the significance of ‘leloumenos’ in terms of Jesus’ death, especially in light of ‘meta tauta’. But it is unlikely that the cleansing through baptism and through the blood would have been seen as mutually exclusive.[16]

It would appear then that ‘leloumenos’ most likely has reference to baptism (and Jesus’ death). Several additional pieces of evidence tend to corroborate this decision. One of the reasons for this identification is the effects of the bathing. Jesus says, ‘The one who has bathed (‘leloumenos’)…is wholly clean.’ In early Christian literature no rite signifies
complete cleansing from sin as does baptism. Certainly, the crucifixion is that event which accomplishes the cleansing, but it is baptism which signifies the cleansing. The occurrence of ‘leloumenos’ fits well with such a theme.

Second, Jesus declares that there is no reason to repeat the complete bath one has received. Likewise, baptism is a rite which is once-and-­for-all. Additional support for this nuance is the
tense of ‘leloumenos’. In the light of the significance of the perfect tense, which designates a past action with abiding results, it is difficult to assign the choice of tense to coincidence.

Finally, there is some philological support for taking ‘louo’ as a reference to baptism. In several New Testament passages ‘louo’ and its cognates are likely references to baptism (Hebrews 10:22; Ephesians 5:26) or are closely related to it (Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11; Titus 3:5).[17] Therefore, it seems likely that the readers would make the connection between ‘leloumenos’ and baptism as most scholars believe.

By following the ancient banquet practice to its completion, the deeper meaning of the footwashing comes into view. The one who travels any distance at all on the dusty paths in the ancient orient accumulates dust which must be removed. If, in the analogy Jesus uses, ‘louo’ represents baptism, then it makes best sense to take the function of the footwashing as an additional act of cleansing. Dodd concludes: ‘In xiii 10 ‘louesthai’, to take a bath, is
contrasted with ‘niptein’, to wash a part of the body. Baptism is a bath (‘loutron’, Eph. v. 26; Tit. iii, 5). The Christian reader is assured that having undergone the (‘loutron’ he is ‘katharos’, yet may need some kind of recurrent washing.’[18]

More than one interpreter has seen in the footwashing an allusion to forgiveness of post-baptismal sin.[19] This association is due in part to the occurrence of ‘katharos’ in this verse. A cognate of this term appears in later Johannine literature (1 John 1:7, 9) with explicit reference to forgiveness of sin through the blood of Jesus. In addition, a multitude of ancient
texts use ‘katharos’ (and its cognates) in contexts which describe the forgiveness of sins. The LXX [Leviticus 16:30; Psalm 18:14 (19:13); 50:4 (51:2)], and certain para-biblical literature
(Sirach 23:10; 38:10; Josephus, Antiquities XII 286; Testament of Reuben 4:8) use ‘katharos’ in such a fashion. Although ‘katharos’ may designate other kinds of cleansing (cf. John 2:6), its frequent associations with forgiveness of sin make it likely that the readers of the Fourth Gospel would have understood ‘katharos’ to have reference to forgiveness of sin. Thus, while sin is not explicitly mentioned in v.10, its presence is implied. Such an interpretation fits well with Jesus’ emphatic language in v.8. On this view, Peter is told that he would have no ‘meros’ with Jesus because of (post-baptismal) sin which had not been removed by cleansing. This meaning would become clear to Peter ‘meta tauta’.

Another point concerns the Book of Glory. This understanding of footwashing fits well within the context of belief, of which chapter 13 is a part. The disciples are not being initiated into belief in this passage, but are continuing in their belief. Their earlier baptism, which the community probably understood as being at the hands of John (1:19-39) or possibly Jesus (3:22, however cf. 4:1-2), would designate initial belief and fellowship with Jesus, while footwashing would signify the continuance of that belief and fellowship.[20] As a sign of preparation for Jesus’ departure, footwashing signifies the disciples’ spiritual cleansing for a continuing relationship with Jesus and taking on his mission in the world.

Yet another point concerns evidence from the LXX which demonstrates that footwashing could be used in a sacred/cultic way (Exodus 30:17-21; 40:30-32; 1 Kings 7:38; 2 Chronicles 4:6). For Jesus to treat footwashing as a religious rite would not be wholly without precedent.

Finally, the efficacious nature of the washing is emphasized by the way the footwashing ‘foreshadows the self-giving involved in Jesus’ death on the cross.’[21] In the light of the preceding considerations, an identification of footwashing with the cleansing from the sin contracted through daily life in this world is an appropriate one. Just as a banquet guest would bathe at home and only wash the feet at the house of the host/hostess to remove the dust and debris accumulated on the road, so Peter (the believer) who experiences baptism (which signifies a complete cleansing from sin) does not need to be rebaptized, but undergoes footwashing, which signifies the removal of sin that might accumulate as a result of life in this sinful world. In a sense, footwashing is an extension of baptism, for it signifies the washing away of post-baptismal sins in Peter’s (the believer’s) life.[22]

The Relationship of Footwashing to the Lord’s Supper

While the Fourth Gospel does not make the connection of the footwashing to the Lord’s Supper altogether clear, three things may be deduced about the community’s practice.

1) Because of its placement in the Fourth Gospel the footwashing was probably observed in conjunction with the eucharist. If so, it is possible that the footwashing took place in the context of a meal (perhaps the Agape?) together with the eucharist. It cannot be determined whether every eucharistic celebration would involve the footwashing.

2) If the footwashing was observed in connection with the eucharist then in all probability it preceded the Lord’s Supper. John 13:1-30 is certainly open to such an interpretation. Of particular relevance are v.12, which describes Jesus as rejoining the meal, and v.27, which
records that the meal had been completed.

In 1 Corinthians 11: 28, Paul admonishes the Corinthian believers to examine themselves before approaching the Lord’s Table. According to the Didache (XIV), in some early Christian circles a period of confession of sin preceded the eucharist: ‘1. On the Lord’s Day of the Lord come together, break bread and hold Eucharist, after confessing your transgressions that your offering may be pure; 2. but let none who has a quarrel with his fellow join in your meeting until they be reconciled, that your sacrifice be not defiled. 3. For this is that which was spoken by the Lord, “In every place and time offer me a pure sacrifice, for I am a great King” saith the Lord, “and my name is wonderful among the heathen.”’[23]

If the Johannine community’s eucharistic celebration was anything like that described in the Didache (or allowed for a period of self-examination), the footwashing would most easily fit at this point, serving as the sign that confessed sin was forgiven. The believer would then be able to sit at the Lord’s table with a clear conscience.

3) More than likely, the footwashing itself was carried out by all members of the community. Such participation would accord well with the commands of John 13:14-17 and also with the emphasis upon mutual intercession in 1 John. Since the confession of sin may have been a public one to the community, the brotherly intercession could well have been quite specific in its petitions.

It is not too difficult to envisage a footwashing of this sort in the context of the house church of the late first century. The environment of the home, as well as the small number of people involved, would be conducive to such mutual confession and intercession.


In the first century church (as well as that of the Protestant reformers), baptism and eucharist were regarded as having been established by Jesus himself, as being directly related to his atoning death, and as continuing in the worshipping community. In view of these attitudes,
several reasons may be offered in support of the classification of footwashing as a sacrament for the Johannine community and, consequently; for the contemporary church.

When John’s account of the footwashing is examined, each of the above characteristics are present 1) There is no question that as portrayed in the Fourth Gospel the footwashing is instituted by Jesus. 2) It is clear from a number of literary allusions in John’s Gospel that the footwashing is viewed as rooted and grounded in Jesus’ atoning death. 3) On the basis of vv. 14-17 it has been demonstrated that footwashing is to be continued in the Johannine community. 4) Vv.14-17, taken as words of institution, are as explicit in terms of perpetuation of the practice as the eucharistic words of institution. If the Johannine community is familiar with the synoptic traditions, the comparison between the two sets of words of institution could hardly be missed. 5) Finally, by taking the traditional place of the eucharist in the passion narrative, the footwashing appears in a sacramental context There are even some writers in the early church that use sacramental language in describing the footwashing.[24]

In conclusion, while there appear to me to be a number of appropriate contexts for the religious practice of footwashing, I am personally convinced that with regard to its relationship to the Lord’s Supper, the Brethren tradition has gotten it just about right Since
the footwashing serves primarily as a sign of the continual forgiveness of sins available for the believer, its observance just before the Lord’s Supper is most appropriate.

[1] F. Hauck, ‘opheilo’, TDNT, V, p.563.

[2] D. A. Carson, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990), pp.497-68.

[3] J. Schultz, The Soul of the Symbols (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), p.62.

[4] L. Morris, The Gospel according to John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1971), p.621 n.36.

[5] H. Schlier, ‘hupodeigma’ TDNT, II, p. 33. Apollonius of Citium uses ‘hupodeigma’ on a number of occasions with the sense of ‘illustration, (or) picture showing how something is to be done’ (Liddell-Scott, 1818). Cf. especially Apollonii Citiensis, In Hippocratio De Articulus Commentarius (ed. by F. Kudlien; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1965), pp.38, 60-64, and 112.

[6] H. Schlier, ‘Amen’, TDNT, I, p.338.

[7] Brown, The Gospel according to John, II, p. 563.

[8] G. Ahr, ‘He Loved Them to Completion?: The Theology of John 13-14’ in Standing Before God: Studies on Prayer in Scripture and in Tradition with Essays in Honor of John M. Oestereicher (ed. by A. Finkel and L Frizzell; New York: KTAV Publishing House, 1981) 77. M. Hengel, Crucifixion (trans. by J. Bowden; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1971) 29 n. 21 and 87 notes that often crucifixion victims died naked.

[9] Brown, The Gospel according to John, II, p. 551.

[10] Despite some strong support for ‘deipnou genomenou’ (‘when supper had ended’) ‘deipnou ginomenou’ is to be preferred as the original reading. This judgment is based upon (1) slightly better external evidence and (2) internal coherence, for it is obvious from the context (v. 26) that the meal continued after the footwashing episode is complete. Cf. Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1971), p. 239. However, either reading demonstrates the point that Jesus washes the disciples’ feet at an unusual time.

[11] Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The Apostolic Fathers I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912), pp.273-75.

[12] Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The Apostolic Fathers I (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1912), pp.273-75.

[13] Cf. F. F. Segovia ‘John 13:1-20, The Footwashing in the Johannine Tradition,’ ZNW 73 (1982), p.43, ‘an acceptance of that which the washing symbolizes grants the disciples continued union with Jesus.’ The context of belief, the Book of Glory, demonstrates that the footwashing does not initiate fellowship, but continues it.

[14] J. Owanga-Welo, ‘The Function and Meaning of the Johannine Passion Narrative: A Structural Approach’ (PhD dissertation, Emory University, 1980), p. 241.

[15] Cited according to the translation of Gummerie, Seneca: Epistulae Morales (London: Heinemann, 1920), II, p.317.

[16] One or both of the suggested meanings for ‘leloumenos’ are the only viable options for the disciples in the narrative or the implied readers. However, the author knows of another possibility which the reader will encounter in 15:3. In this verse Jesus tells the disciples, ‘Already you are clean (‘katharoi’) because of the word which I have spoken to you.’ If it were legitimate to take ‘leloumenos’ in 13:10 as the referent of ‘ton logon’ in 15:3, then perhaps the difficulty would be solved. On one occasion in the LXX (Judges 3:19), ‘logos’ does refer to a ‘prophetic’ action, when Ehud told King Eglon that he had a ‘logos’ for him in private and then killed the king. However, such a parallel (if it be a parallel) is far too removed to explain 15:3. In addition, it appears that the ‘logos’ of 15:3 has reference to Jesus’ collective teaching, not one specific event. Approaching 13:10 in the light of 15:3, Bultmann argues that cleansing comes on the basis of the Revea1er’s word and on that basis alone. Therefore, ‘leloumenos’ is used to describe the bath in the word which makes cleansing with water secondary at best. However, one of the difficulties in explaining 13:10 on the basis of 15:3 is the difference in context. While 13:10 speaks of cleansing from some uncleanness or defilement, 15:3 uses cleansing in the sense of pruning the branches in order to produce good fruit. Although there does not seem to be sufficient evidence to demand that 13:10 must be interpreted by means of 15:3, there may be a deeper connection between cleansing by means of pruning and cleansing through washing. Rather than playing 13:10 and 15:3 off against one another, the two statements about cleansing should be allowed to speak independently, perhaps at different levels of meaning. Perhaps C. H. Dodd offers the best analysis through comparison with a similar dilemma found elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel: ‘The disciples are ‘katharoi’ through washing with water: they are ‘katharoi’ also, ‘dia ton logon’. Similarly, eternal life comes by eating the flesh and blood of the Son of Man (vi 54) and also, ‘ta rhemata ha lelaleka humin’ are ‘zoe’ The treatment of the two sacraments are analogous.’ So, for the evangelist, cleansing takes place through water and the word, and both are dependent on the cleansing effects of Jesus’ death.

[17] As P. Grelot concludes, ‘When one gives thought to this background, it is difficult not to see a baptismal allusion in the declaration by Jesus…’ P. Grelot, ‘L’interpretation penitentielle du lavement des pieds’, in L’homme devant Dieu I: mélanges offerts au père Henri Lubac (Paris: Aubier, 1963), p.86. Obviously, there are other passages which do not equate ‘louo’ with baptism. For example, cf. Acts 9:37 and 16:33.

[18] C. H. Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1953), p.401 n. 3.

[19] B. F. Westcott, The Gospel According to St John (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975), p.191; B. W. Bacon, ‘The Sacrament of Footwashing,’ ExpT 43 (1931-32), p.221; O. Cullmann, Early Christian Worship (ed. A. S. Todd, J. B. Torrance; London: SCM Press, 1953), pp.108-10; Dodd, Interpretation of the Fourth Gospel, p.401 n. 3; Hauck, ‘katharos’, TDNT III 426; A. J. B. Higgins, The Lord’s Supper in the New Testament (London: SCM Press, 1952), p.84; W. L. Knox, ‘John 13:1-30’, HTR 43 (1950) 163; G. H. C. MacGregor, The Gospel of John (London: Harper, 1959), p.76; A. Maynard, ‘The Role of Peter in the Fourth Gospel’, NTS 30 (1984), pp.534-35; idem., ‘The Function of Apparent Synonyms and Ambiguous Words in the Fourth Gospel’, (PhD dissertation, University of Southern California, 1950), pp.329-30; A. Oepke, ‘louo’, TDNT IV, p.306.

[20] Carson (Gospel according to John, pp.465-66) remarks, ‘In his first epistle, addressed to Christians, to people who have already believed (1 John 5:13) and received eternal life (2:25), John insists that continuing confession of sin is necessary (1:9), as is continued dependence upon Jesus Christ who is the atoning sacrifice for our sins (2:1, 2). The thought of Jn. 13:10 is not dissimilar.’

[21] J. R. Michaels, John (New York: Harper &: Row, 1984), p.227. Cf. also G. R. Beasley-Murray, John (Waco: Word, 1987), p.235 and DNTT, I, p.154; Brown, The Gospel According to John, II, p.586; Bruce, John, p.283; W. K. Grossouw, ‘A Note on John XIII 1-3’, NovT 8 (1966), pp.129-30.

[22] Such an interpretation dovetails neatly with the preoccupation with post-conversion sin in 1 John and the interpretation of footwashing in the early church. Cf. Thomas, ‘Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community’, pp.149-72.

[23] Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The Apostolic Fathers, I, p.331.

[24] Cf. esp. the remarks of Origen (Genesis Homily 4.2), Ambrose (Mysteries 6.31), and Augustine (Homilies on John 58.5).

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