IN DEFENSE OF FOOTWASHING
FF Chong — London,
In the Ancient Near East, much
attention was given to the feet. The earliest biblical account of this practice
is in Gen 18:4. The servant of the house, sometimes the host, or even the
guests themselves, would carry out the practice of washing feet.
Although priests, who had the
special task of offering sacrifices to God, were required, under the
purification laws, to wash their hands and feet before ministering to God (Ex
30:18ff; 40:3, 32), footwashing never became part of the Jewish religion.
It remained only as part of the
TO HAVE A PART WITH JESUS
The Jewish custom of footwashing
usually preceded a feast. A quick glance over the sequence of events in John thirteen
tells us that the institution of the sacrament of footwashing occurred after
the close of the Passover feast.
If the footwashing performed by
Jesus were a tradition, Peter, being a Jew, rightly questioned why his Master
was performing such a menial service. Instead, he could not fathom why his
Master was serving him.
In his mind, it was utterly appropriate
to refuse the washing. To his surprise, however, such a humble refusal would
amount to having no part with the Lord, showing the importance of Jesus’
The word “part” in the original
text is “meros,” which means “participation” or having a share in someone or
Bible Expository Commentary, Vol 1, Warren W. Wiersbe, pg 346, 1994)1.
This word becomes very inspiring
and meaningful when we talk about salvation. God unites us with Christ through
salvation when we are willing to accept His footwashing.
When Peter understood Jesus’
action and became terrified at the prospect of not having part with Jesus, he
quickly pleaded that Jesus wash his whole body. Jesus did not stop Peter from
wanting a part with Him. He merely curtailed his request saying, “He who is
bathed needs only to wash his feet” (Jn 13:10).
It was customary for guests to
bathe themselves before attending a feast, and they would wash their feet upon
arriving at their destination.
In spiritual terms, we must
receive baptism and footwashing, which marks His acceptance of us as members of
His household. Baptism and footwashing are equally necessary for salvation;
they are inseparable, and neither is sufficient without the other.
After the sacrament, Jesus resumed
His seat and said, “Do you know what I have done to you?” This question is
profound for it reinforces the importance of the sacrament.
It is quite unlikely that a Jew
would ask another about the significance of a customary act performed on others
in courtesy. Therefore, Jesus initiated the footwashing as an example for all
believers to follow.
Jesus’ question shows that the footwashing
mentioned here is different from the traditional one. It is He who initiated
the footwashing sacrament. Thus it was for all believers to follow.
IN DEFENSE OF FOOTWASHING
There are some arguments against
footwashing as a requisite for having a part in the body of Christ.
The Element of Time
Based on the fact that
footwashing, as instituted by Jesus, took place before His death some argue
that footwashing is not a requisite for salvation, since it preceded the
establishment of the church.
We need to understand that,
although the church was established in New Testament times, it comprises not
only of the New Testament believers but also the ancient saints (Heb 12:23, 24).
The church is the body of Jesus, and to have a part with Jesus is to have a
part with His body.
“…Christ also loved the church
and gave Himself for it” (Eph 5:25). Based on Paul’s understanding, Christ’s
sacrifice is the result of His love for the church, though the physical church
had yet to come into existence.
The Lord Jesus initiated the
institutions of the three sacraments (baptism, footwashing, and Holy Communion)
before the church was established, so the element of time does not nullify the
efficacy of footwashing.
Just as the blood of Jesus has a retroactive
effect on the ancient believers (Heb 9:14ff), so does footwashing on the
disciples, after the establishment of the physical church, for salvation.
Can we, for example, denounce the
importance of baptism, since the Bible is silent about the baptism of the
Similarly, can we disclaim
footwashing to be necessary to having a part with Jesus, though there is no record
of the washing of the feet aside from that of the apostles, of the 120, 3000,
5000, and Samaritan believers?
In the Gospel of John, Jesus
authoritatively said, “For I have given you an example, that you should do as I
have done to you” (Jn 13:15). And the apostles, through the empowerment of the
Holy Spirit, remembered all that Jesus said to them (Jn 14:26b).
Some may argue that footwashing
is not part of the salvation plan the way baptism is clearly stated in the Bible
(Mk 16:15, 15). But belief in Jesus actually precedes baptism, and it includes
the practice of His words, such as praying for the Holy Spirit and receiving
The Correct Interpretation
Another argument is the use of
prepositional differentials. The RSV Bible describes footwashing as “to have a
part in Jesus.” The NKJV is “to have a part with Jesus,” which is the accurate
translation of the Greek text.
Beyond doubt, there is a
difference between “in” and “with.” Let us examine the following example given
to support the difference: “For He dwells with you and will be in you” (Jn
It is claimed that the first part
“for He dwells with you” is in the present tense, which means that Jesus was
talking about the existing relationship between the Holy Spirit and the
Therefore, the Holy Spirit is a
temporary guest that dwells with us and will revisit us in the future, as
stated by “will be in you.” This argument is unsound.
The pronoun “He” in the first
part refers not to the Holy Spirit but to Jesus in the flesh. When Jesus was in
this world, the Spirit would not come (Jn 16:7).
In the Bible, the difference in
usage between the two prepositions, at times, is negligible. Let us consider
these two quotes of Jesus: “And I will pray the Father, and He will give you
another helper, that He may abide with you forever” (Jn 14:16).
Would the apostles have only the
presence of the Spirit, in the same way that they had with the physical Jesus,
after His ascension?
If anyone loves Me, he will keep My word; and My
Father will love him, and We will come to him and make Our home with him. (Jn
“We” or “Our” refers to the
Spirit. We take the phrase “make our home with him” to mean “the dwelling of
the Holy Spirit in him.”
Careful reading of the Bible is
an important requirement for comprehending the word of God, but certain words
must not be taken too literally. We have been given the spiritual capacity to
interpret the Bible.
Peter has given us some very good
examples. In explaining the downpour of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, he quoted
Joel to support his message. He interpreted ‘in those days’ (Joel 2:29) to be
‘in the last days’ (Acts 2:17), which neatly coincided with the occasion.
The Spirit’s guidance becomes
essential when reading the Bible (cf. 2 Cor 3:6). We must strengthen what we
have already received, especially with regard to the doctrine.
The last argument is based on a
set of principles stipulated to determine whether a doctrine comes from the
It must be spoken by the Lord Jesus Christ (Heb
It must be taught and practiced by the apostles
It must be evidenced by Scriptures in at least
two places in the NT (2 Cor 13:1).
God confirms the word with signs to follow (Mk
At first glance, this set of
principles seems reasonable. However, the insistence that ALL four conditions
must be fulfilled for ALL doctrines makes it untenable. Moreover, closer
examination of the principles raises relevant questions.
In the first principle, we must
deduce that, since Jesus did not speak directly about circumcision, the
guidance of the Holy Spirit at the Council of Jerusalem (Acts 15) was
sufficient to guide the apostles and elders into the correct practice for the
Now, applying principle (2) to
footwashing, we may also fairly infer from John 13:17 that the apostles would
obey Jesus’ command and, therefore, performed footwashing. Jesus endorses the
teachings of the apostles (Jn 15:20b; Lk 10:16). Their words in the Bible are
the Lord’s and, thus, equally authoritative (1 Jn 4:1ff).
The apostolic teachings in Acts
2:42 use the teachings of Jesus as the foundation, meaning that footwashing is
…when you received the word of God which
you heard from us, you welcomed it not as the word of men, but as it is in
truth, the word of God… (1 Thess 2:13)
The well-established foundation
is Jesus, apart from whom no one can lay another foundation (1 Cor 3:11). Jesus
is the embodiment of the truth in the Bible: “…as the truth is in Jesus” (Eph
Preaching what Jesus did and said
was one major responsibility of the apostles:
That which we have seen and heard we declare to
you, that you also you may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is
with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ. (1 Jn 1:3)
Footwashing surely was one of the
unforgettable sacramental rituals that the apostles declared to those who
believed. Through this sacrament, they had fellowship with the apostles and
The third principle is a red
herring. In 2 Corinthians 13:1, Paul was using Deuteronomy 19:15, the Old Testament
principles, to form a church disciplinary guideline to correct wrongdoers.
Lastly, God confirming His word
with signs is biblical. But the term “word” must be read in its collective sense—all
the teachings of Jesus.
If it is taken to mean individual
doctrines, then it is impossible to answer questions such as “How does God
confirm the teachings on the Sabbath and Holy Communion with signs?”
THE TRUE SACRAMENT OF FOOTWASHING
A sacrament is a practice
instituted and given to the apostles by the Lord Jesus Himself.
It represents and confers grace
when rightly received, and its physical aspects must conform entirely to the
Bible to effect spiritual significance. A sacrament must meet the following
Lord Jesus has Himself demonstrated it (Mt 3:13ff; Jn 13:1ff; Mt 26:26ff).
Lord Jesus has commanded His disciples to perform it (Mk 16:15f, Matt 28:1; Jn
13:15ff; Lk 22:19).
concerns salvation (Acts 2:38; Jn 13:8; Jn 6:53f).
Footwashing holds its rightful
place as a sacrament taught in the Bible.
Though it was mentioned only once,
it deserves the strictest observance on our part. It enables us to have a part
with Jesus and to have the hope of receiving eternal life in His kingdom.
It also reminds us to strive for
holiness, to serve one another in love, and to follow His example by
manifesting a magnanimous and forgiving heart towards our fellow brethren and
IT IS HIS ACT OF LOVE AND HUMILITY
Since footwashing is sacred, its
teachings must diffuse into our Christian life. It also illustrates the
appropriate ethos of the community of faith.
Just as a military parade is
regimental and disciplined, portraying the trademarks of a military life, so
does footwashing portray service, humility, and love as the trademarks of a
true believer in the Christian community.
Footwashing is radical. It
undermines an established convention of society—that a subordinate must serve
his leader. No leader can claim to have embraced a more acute expression of
servitude than Jesus Christ, as He washed His disciples’ feet.
He came to serve and not to be
served (Mt 20:28). Similarly, within the church, the great will serve (Mk
10:42ff). The stewards of God must emulate Jesus, so that the spirit of servitude
pervades the church.
Jesus, leaving His seat to wash
the disciples’ feet, discloses what humility is all about. Humility forms the
soft ground for the seed of truth to flourish and for harmony amongst us to
Do nothing from selfishness or conceit, but in
humility count others better than ourselves. Let each of us look not only to
our own interest, but also to the interests of others. (Phil 2:3, 4)
Love is also an emotion evoked in
this simple act. Picture this in your mind: “[He] rose from supper and laid
aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself” (Jn 13:4). What an intense
picture of love and sacrifice.
More powerful still is the picture
of loving forgiveness when Jesus washed the feet of Judas, who was about to
betray Him (Jn 13:2).
Jesus knew of this betrayal from
the very beginning and, yet, He gave Judas a chance to come to his senses; and
footwashing was the strongest reminder.
Forgiveness is not just about
forgetting the wrongs done to us, but helping the wrongdoers come to repentance.
May all of us consider Jesus’ words carefully:
“If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (Jn 13:17).
soteriological use is found in Matt 24:51: Lk 12:46; Jn 13:8; Rev 20:6; 21:8;
22:19” (Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, Vol 2, pg 410, Balz and