Footwashing within the Context of the Lord's Supper

By John
Christopher Thomas

It is an
extraordinary honor for me to be invited by the conveners of this
conference to speak on the topic of footwashing, not only because
there are others present who are perhaps better prepared for such an
assignment, but also because I have been asked to represent a church
tradition which is not my own. For such a distinctive privilege I
want to express publicly my genuine thanks.

It is, of
course, a very dangerous thing to invite someone to give a twenty
minute presentation on a subject to which one’s PhD thesis was
devoted. Being faced with this dilemma I have pondered what might be
the best way to proceed. Given the fact that the bulk of my more
academic work on this topic is readily available in print1,
I do not feel pressed to cram all of that material into the time
allocated for this portion of the section of this meeting devoted to
the ‘Brethren Heritage of the Lord’s Supper’.

But still
there is the pressure of trying to convey an understanding of the
justification of a practice which is not part of the tradition of
many of the participants in this conference. Given the purpose of
this section of the program and the time allocated for it, I have
decided to concentrate on three specific questions: 1) What is the
theological justification for the practice of footwashing? 2) What
does footwashing mean? and 3) What is the relationship of footwashing
to the Lord’s Supper?

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.

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

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.

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 every day 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 modem 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.

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.’2

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.’3
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.

this is the first (and only) ‘example’ given by Jesus,
which the readers encounter in the Fourth Gospel.4

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
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.

the footwashing is far more than an example. ‘It is a definite
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.’7

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.

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

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.

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).

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

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.

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.

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.

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

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.’8

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.’9

of this serves to relate the footwashing to the death of the Lord.’10

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
The Evangelist underscores the importance of the footwashing by its
unusual placement.

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.

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.

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).

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.’12

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.’13

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 Jesus14,
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.

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.

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.

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

Owanga-Welo affirms15
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.’16
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.

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.

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.17

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.

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).18
Therefore, it seems likely that the readers would make the connection
between ‘leloumenos’ and baptism as most scholars

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

More than
one interpreter has seen in the footwashing an allusion to
forgiveness of post-baptismal sin.20
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’.

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.21
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.

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

the efficacious nature of the washing is emphasized by the way the
footwashing ‘foreshadows the self-giving involved in Jesus’
death on the cross.’22
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)

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.”’24

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.

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.25

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.26

Foot Notes

J. C. Thomas, Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community
(JSNTS 61; Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1991).

F. Hauck, ‘opheilo’, TDNT, V, p.563.

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

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

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

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
(ed. by F. Kudlien; Berlin: Akademie-Verlag, 1965),
pp. 38, 60-64, and 112.

H. Schlier, ‘Amen’, TDNT, I, p.338.

Brown, The Gospel according to John, II, p. 563.

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.
(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.

Brown, The Gospel according to John, II, p. 551.

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

Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The
Apostolic Fathers
I (Cambridge:

Harvard University Press,
1912), pp. 273-75.

Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The
Apostolic Fathers
I (Cambridge:

Harvard University Press,
1912), pp. 273-75.

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.

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

Cited according to the translation of Gummerie, Seneca:
Epistulae Morales

Heinemann, 1920), II, p.

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.

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.

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) 86. Obviously, there
are other passages which do not equate ‘louo’ with
baptism. For example, cf. Acts 9:37 and 16:33.

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

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 306.

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

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
, II, p. 586; Bruce, John p. 283; W. K. Grossouw, ‘A
Note on John XIII 1-3’, NovT 8 (1966), pp. 129-­30.

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.

Cited according to the translation of K. Lake, The Apostolic
, I, p. 331.

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

Dr Ben Witherington has done me the honor of sending a
copy of his paper before the conference, which contained a critique
or my work on footwashing. I appreciate both his courtesy and the
honor of his attention. In this closing footnote I would like to
respond to the several issues he raises in fn. 84 of the draft I

1) While there is room for
disagreement on the issue of intended audience, I must confess that
I am genuinely puzzled by the argument that the Fourth Gospel was
not written primarily for the Christian community but was a
missionary document. Among other things, who would pay for its
production and distribution? 2) To argue that there is no, or
little, connection between Mary’s action in John 12 and the
footwashing in John 13 seems to ignore both the flow or John’s
narrative and the way that footwashings could be quite elaborate in
antiquity. 3) To argue that the disciples are not fully Christian
appears to ignore John’s intention of contrasting the faith of
the disciples with those who have inadequate faith. 4) To say that
footwashing signifies cleansing and forgiveness from Jesus is not to
say that believers have no role to play in signs which convey such
cleansing. While it might be fair to say that one aspect of
footwashing is passive, in that one believer receives from another,
I fail to see the significance of this dimension in that eucharist
and baptism are also rites that are received. 5) To interpret the
meaning of the practice of footwashing solely as an example of
serving others is to ignore the interpretation of the rite which is
provided in John 13 itself. Based on the relevant data, it is still
more likely that the first readers of the Fourth Gospel took John 13
as the institution of a rite of cleansing.