Is Foot Washing a Sacrament?
Foot washing has been erratically performed by the church throughout the ages. Different groups hold to divergent opinions of it. I used to be in the Church of God where it was held in high regard, at least then. It seems even there to have fallen out of favor. The United Methodist Church at various times and places has embraced the practice of foot washing. The Poe in the Roman church washes the feet of some priests on Good Friday. How much more than that they practice, I do not know. Other churches do not practice it at all, or say that we practice it indirectly in our acts of service. What does the Bible say?
Exposition of the Text
There is definite break in the text here from chapter 12. This chapter starts with two significant terms. The first of these is “feast”. This word is used throughout the Gospel of John, showing that Jesus was in the habit of attending them. The full phrase occurs in John 5:1, in the section where Jesus meets the bedfast man at the Pool of Bethesda. All of these feasts serve as pointers to this feast, this Passover. This is accentuated by the use of the second phrase “that His hour had come”. The use of the word “hour” also occurs throughout the Gospel in one of two ways. The first of these occurred in 2:4 in which Jesus tells his mother that His “hour” had not yet come. Here he addresses his mother as “woman.” What Jesus was telling her was that he had to follow His Father’s will, not His mother’s in the way His Messiahship was to be revealed. When we encounter Mary again at the crucifixion, Jesus gives her care into the hand of John, where again she is addressed as “woman” as though Jesus is saying: “Mother this is the hour and the way my Messiahship is to be revealed.” A similar word “time” is used in John 7:6 where again Jesus refuses to show Himself in the way his own brothers wanted Him to reveal Himself. It was the wrong feast (Tabernacles), the wrong time, and the wrong way. God’s plan was for the Messiah to be revealed at a certain Passover on a cross.
The second use of “hour” supplements the fact that Jesus was working out a specific plan scheduled on a day in history that the Father had ordained before creation itself. So when the Jews in 8:20 desired to seize Him in the Temple treasury they were unable to do so because it was not yet the time that God had set. Later on in that chapter, they took up stones to stone Him, but he walked out unharmed because stoning was not to be the method of Jesus’ execution.
In chapter 12:27, Jesus talks about the imminence of His departure and attaches to it that it would be as the result of violence. This prepares us for 13:1 which we are now discussing. The time had fully come, the time which was preordained. All of the events had come together. It was the time to complete the mission that he had been sent to perform on earth and return to His Father.
This verse also makes reference that Jesus had loved his disciples “to the end”. The word translated “end” here is the Greek word, “telos” which is very hard to translate directly into English. Some of you may see a word other than “end” in your translation such as “fully”. The best way to describe the meaning of this word is that it is the word that indicates that a certain plan had been fully implemented according to design. For example, a bridge is designed by an architect. From the blueprint of the architect, forces are bought to bear, materials are purchased, builders do their work, supervisors supervise to see that everything is going according to plan, and finally, the work of the bridge is completed and ready for business, just as designed. Jesus uses another form of “telos” to indicate that the work of redemption was completed on the cross exactly according to the prearranged plan when he cries “It is finished” (John 19:30).
So now we can gather what Jesus is telling His disciples. His death on a cross was the completed expression of His love for His disciples, not just the eleven here, but all those who would believe on Him. And the cross is the greatest and most complete manifestation of love ever for the entire world. It is the fulfillment of John 3:16.
The demonstration of Jesus’ perfect love for the disciples begins in verse 2. The best texts indicate that the foot washing was an interruption of the dinner itself. According to Dr. Vanderlaan the partakers of this meal would have been seated at a U shaped table. Unlike our modern era where the table tends to be rectangular and the guest of honor seated at one end of the table, Jesus would have reclined at the place next to the right end of the table. The table would be set so that three people would have eaten out of each of the individual dishes. If we look at the events later in the chapter, John would have sat in one of the seats of honor next to Jesus. What is really shocking is that Judas sat at the other. We will discuss this in more detail next week. Let it be simply said that Jesus’ love was offered to all the disciples, even Judas who participates in the Lord’s Supper as well as the foot washing.
The Gospel of Luke mentions something which helps illuminate why the foot washing happened. Luke 22:23 mentions that after the communion of the cup and bread that a fight broke out among the disciples who would be the greatest. Jesus rebukes them with words over this as they simply are still clueless about Jesus’ Messiahship. They were following a theology of glory like so many “disciples” of Jesus today rather than a theology of the cross, then glory. But the foot washing would have served as the perfect object lesson to deal with such an attitude.
John and the other Gospels, while talking about the same themes, seem to record a very different group of events. There is no bread and cup mentioned by John in this context and no foot washing mentioned in the other gospels. Why Luke records the dispute and the spoken rebuke and John uses the acted out parable of foot washing is a mystery. John in many ways is what I have previously described as the Paul Harvey of Gospel writers, trying to get out the rest of the story. It isn’t necessary to wonder if John had a copy of one or all of the other Gospels or not if we accept the fact that the Holy Spirit is the author of all Scripture and inspired the authors to include the events they did. If we remember the theme of “witness” which has occurred throughout the Gospel, the importance is that the witnesses are in agreement concerning the material aspects of the case; that is the important stuff. If several witnesses give the same witness verbatim, or nearly verbatim, then the truthfulness of the testimony would be questioned by those who would think that the witnesses were coached. If the witness disagrees at key points, then the truthfulness of the testimony is again questioned. Between the Gospel of John and the others, one has the agreement on essentials and the diversity of details that is necessary to present credible testimony.
By the way, I am not asserting that any of the gospel writers got some of the details wrong. Any difficulty in dealing with this is only an apparent contradiction.
What we have starting in verse three is the details of the foot washing itself. As Dr. Warren Gage and others have shown, the foot washing is a summary of Jesus’ ministry and in many ways parallels Paul’s treatment of who Jesus is and what He did for us in Philippians 2. There are seven verbs to notice: 1. He rose up. 2. He put off. 3. He took up. 4. He put on. 5. He poured out. 6. He washed. 7. He wiped. All of these actions match up to what Jesus did for us in the ultimate act of humility.
If Dr. Vanderlann is right in his theory, the person who sat at the end of the U shaped tablr across from Jesus would have been the one assigned to have washed the feet of the guests before the supper. According to his theory, this person was Peter. Peter had a problem with pride which was demonstrated by his not performing the foot washing, not even on Jesus. Foot washing was the role of a humble slave, not the job of someone who wanted to be Lord of the Exchequer in Jesus’ Kingdom or some other important office. Peter must have acted in disbelief when he saw the Lord Himself perform the menial task that Peter was supposed to have provided to Jesus and the other guests. Not only had Peter failed to show the service and love to the Lord, he failed to love his brothers as well. He had not attained to the perfection of love that was planned for him as Jesus’ disciple.
In verse 6, Jesus finally gets around to Peter who is probably beginning to feel guilty at this point. He blurts out to Jesus, “Certainly YOU are NOT going to wash MY feet, are you?” Peter demonstrated the indignance of one who had been caught. But Jesus calmly answers Peter and the others that even though what He was doing to them did not make sense right now, especially with their exalted idea of the Kingdom. But after love and service is perfected on the cross of Jesus, they would,
Peter responds in typical fashion. He wanted an all-in experience. He wanted to be washed head to foot. Jesus responded to this by telling the disciples that the one who has washed up before the meal has not need to take a bath once they come to the meal. The travel to the supper would cause the dust of the road to cling to the feet of the traveler. The feet needed washing as the rest was still clean. This has led some to wonder if foot washing is supplemental to baptism where the whole of the person is washed, In it, foot washing served to clean post baptismal sin from the believer.
Having said this, Jesus tells them that one of them came to the feast without being washed. He had already made arrangements to betray Jesus. Whatever the purpose of foot washing, it was going to do any more good to Judas than taking the Communion did—or even his baptism. Simon wasn’t the only one who would have felt the pain of guilt that night. But foot washing was good enough in his case, not so for Judas. Judas has opportunity to repent, but did not.
Verse 12 says that Jesus put his garment back on and returned to His place at the table, at the seat of honor. This completes the idea of Jesus who had come from the glory of heaven to earth to be a humble servant who would be rejected and die on a cruel cross only to be raised up from the dead, ascend into glory, and resume His place of honor with the Father. Having reclined himself once more, he explains the acted out parable to them. The Kingdom as it is seen in this age on earth is not glorious. Rather it is to be a life of service. The very example that Jesus had acted out before them was to be the paradigm for them as well. A disciple of Jesus must be willing to stoop down and do works of humble service, even degrading and dirty service. Tomorrow, two who had not set at the table of Jesus disciples who after three years should have been readt to imitate their master would become disciples, and prove their discipleship by taking down the blood covered body of Jesus from the cross, wash it, and put it in the tomb.
Jesus here admonished His disciples to wash each other’s feet in the same way that He had done. Is this just a call to be willing to do works of service, or is it a Sacrament. The United Methodist Church only recognizes Baptism and the Lord’s Supper as being a sacrament. Although Methodists have at times done foot washings in some churches, it has never been seen at par. Rather it seems to have its place as a means of grace, not an essential practice. The Methodist Church, as many other denominations take foot washing symbolically, rather than as an ordinance that we are bound to do. Is that the right attitude?
First of all, we need to look at the verb “ought” in the “you ought to wash one another’s feet” in verse 14. First of all, the “you” here is very emphatic in the Greek text. This indicates that Jesus is not just setting an example. Secondly, the verb “ought” itself can be taken as an imperative, which gives it the force of “must”. Thirdly, the translation “ought” or “should” is a weak translation of the Greek verb here. The word here has the idea of an obligation that a client or servant owed to his benefactor. So as a whole, Jesus is not offering a suggestion here. It is just as much an imperative as what we see in the words of the Lord’s Supper. It is just as strong a command as Lk 22:19 which says “This do in remembrance of ME”, if not stronger.
Washing feet is of itself not big deal. It does not take long to do. It certainly not as difficult as the act of service as many of the things we try to do in its place. So why is there such revulsion to the practice? This is something we as a church need to examine. If Jesus commands it, why not do it out of obedience, if nothing else?
We have examined that the foot washing is an acted out sermon just like Baptism and the Lord’s Supper. When we perform these Sacraments, we are reminding ourselves what Jesus has done for us and for our salvation. I remember reading a book from an Anglican priest named Frank Colquhon who brings up this idea of an acted sermon. The idea of Word and Table are complimentary of each other, one in words and the other in acted drama. It is the sort of multisensory experience which helps to reinforce the truths of Christianity. Therefore, foot washing in my opinion ought to be included in our worship.