To Wash and Be Washed: An Exegesis of John 13:3-17
By Peter Lopinski
John 13:3-17 describes Jesus washing of his disciples feet, together with his subsequent explanation of this action. The passage in question occurs at the beginning of Johns account of the Last Supper and the ensuing Passion narrative. While there is much to say of Johns account of the Last Supper and Passion in comparison to the Synoptic accounts, such a study is beyond the scope of this discussion. Suffice it to say for our purposes that the foot-washing narrative is a uniquely Johannine account, with no parallels in the Synoptic Gospels.
The depiction of the Last Supper, which begins in chapter 13, signifies a clear break from the previous ten chapters in Johns account. Whereas in chapters 2 through 12 Jesus is portrayed in various forms of public ministry, revealing himself to the world, the focus shifts at the beginning of chapter 13 to a more intimate setting, to the private teaching Jesus gives to his own faithful followers. The foot-washing account is one of these intimate moments recorded in the Johannine narrative.
The Act of Foot-washing (vv. 3-5)
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.
Johns rendition of the foot-washing story begins with a disclosure of Jesus identity as a prelude to the dramatic events that follow. Jesus is described as being conscious of his divine origin and destiny, and aware of divine plan of salvation entrusted to him by his Father. The giving of "all things into his hands" is not so much a question of universal authority as one of salvific mission, one that "could only be fulfilled through the agony, shame, and humiliation of the cross."1 Johns disclosure in v. 3 therefore indicates that Jesus knew who he was, what he had to do, and why he had to do it.
Also worth noting is the context in which Jesus was about to perform his act an act quite remarkable in its subversion of the prevalent cultural attitude which had seemed to infiltrate the very ranks of the disciples themselves. Guthrie notes that "humility was despised in the ancient world as a sign of weakness."2 Pride and ego the antithesis of humility found a home in the disciples competitive desire to be the Masters favourite, to hold the chief place in the Masters kingdom. Lukes parallel account of the Last Supper, recounting a dispute about greatness (see Luke 22:24-30), describes the same attitude of competitiveness. Within this ego-based climate of mutual distrust Jesus embarks upon his unexpected and subversive act of humility.
He rises from the dinner table during mealtime (John 13:2b states that it was "during supper") and girds himself with a towel in a manner similar to the way in which a servant would gird his loins prior to engaging in a menial task. Guthrie comments that this "was the dress of menial service and would have been despised by both Jew and Greek alike."3 Jesus then washes his disciples feet, although John gives little description of how this task was accomplished, emphasizing its significance instead. However, Brown and Taylor note that it was common at that time for people to wash their feet before dinner, as feet in sandals would often get dusty on unpaved roads; it was customary hospitality for hosts to make provision for guests to wash themselves or, as a sign of honour and respect, to even provide a servant to wash the guests feet. But it would certainly have been outrageous for the host himself to engage in the washing of his guests feet.4 In a cultural sense, then, what Jesus was doing was truly radical.
Brown goes further to describe the disciples reclining on couches on their sides: heads supported by one hand with the other hand within distance of the dishes on the table in front of them. (While reclining was not a normal position at meals, it was customary at Passover.) Jesus would have come along the outside of the couches to wash each persons outstretched feet by pouring water over them from a basin held directly below.5
By dressing as a servant and undertaking the servile and humiliating task of washing feet, Jesus identifies the paradoxical manner in which God chooses to reveal himself. The foot-washing episode parallels the account in Luke 22:27, wherein Jesus states: "I am among you as one who serves"; it also echoes the confessional hymn of Philippians 2:6-11, in which the Christ is described as one who "emptied himself, taking the form of a slave..." Bruce states that the foot-washing is "a rare unfolding of the authority and glory of the incarnate Word, and a rare declaration of the character of the Father himself."6
Many commentators emphasize the metaphorical significance of Jesus taking off (v. 4) and subsequent putting back on (v. 12) of his robe an action that parallels the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep and then takes it up again (see John 10:11-18).7 In the action of washing the feet of his disciples, Jesus is drawing a connection to his imminent death and resurrection; he is interpreting his death and its significance through the action of foot-washing. And since the implications of this action would not be immediately obvious to the disciples, Jesus unfolds its meaning in his subsequent discussion with Peter (vv. 6-11) and his discourse with all those gathered at the table (vv. 12-17). Newbigin describes Jesus as "proceeding with utmost deliberation to perform a prophetic action that will interpret to the disciples that terrible event which they cannot now understand."8
A Dialogue with Peter: Theological Interpretation of the Foot-washing (vv. 6-11)
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, "Lord, are you going to wash my feet?" Jesus answered, "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." Peter said to him, "You will never wash my feet." Jesus answered, "Unless I wash you, you have no share with me." Simon Peter said to him, "Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!" Jesus said to him, "One who has bathed does not need to wash, except for the feet, but is entirely clean. And you are clean, though not all of you." For he knew who was to betray him; for this reason he said, "Not all of you are clean."
The time arrives for Jesus to wash Peters feet, but Peter is embarrassed by the socially-debasing act of his Master. Whether Peter speaks out on behalf of the others or only for himself is not clear, but his impetuous reaction is typically Petrine in style. The dialogue that ensues over the foot-washing incident involves a three-fold pattern of Jesus responding to statements from Peter. First, Peters question in v. 6 expresses his amazement and resistance to what he interprets as an affront and subversion of commonly-accepted social norms. His protest is understandable: indeed, it is representative of normal human nature, for "how can the natural man recognize the supreme God in the stooping figure of a slave, clad only in a loincloth?"9 Peters use of the reverential term "Lord" underscores the scenes incongruity.
Jesus initial reply that "later you will understand" is interpreted by most as referring to a time after Jesus death and resurrection, when the symbolism of the foot-washing will appear more clearly in light of the events of the Passion. His reply to Peter is for "a call for faith and obedience even when there is not yet and cannot be understanding."10 Because Peter does not understand the events about to unfold in the death and glorification of his Master, he cannot understand the deeper significance of foot-washing. As Brown comments, "Jesus is doing more than giving a lesson in humility that the disciples could easily understand; what is involved has theological implications that can be understood only after the hour is over."11
Second, in verse 8, Peter is still not satisfied and protests even more strongly: no, he insists, I will not participate in this. (This resistance echoes his rebellion in Mark 8:31-33 and Matt 16:21ff, where Peter rebukes Jesus for speaking of crucifixion.) In the Synoptic passages as here, Jesus replies directly and forcefully, pointing out "the necessity of accepting the scandal of the cross."12 His words in v. 8 are of paramount importance in understanding the meaning of the foot-washing. Foot-washing is so important, Jesus says, that without it one cannot "share" with him. The word used here the Greek meros means to share with or be a partner with; it connotes in this context not only a fellowship with Jesus, but also a sharing in his heritage, his kingdom. Brown observes that Jesus words are not: "if you dont allow yourself to be washed," but rather: "Unless I wash you." Hence, they point to Jesus salvific action, as symbolized by the act of foot-washing.13 Foot-washing, then, is much more than a moral example to be imitated, a guideline for better Christian living. By symbolizing the sacrifice of Jesus, it also acts as an invitation to be "washed" into love and fellowship with Jesus; into a share of his kingdom as we are cleansed of sin. As Taylor describes it:
Jesus tells Peter he will be lost if he does not accept this act. The crucifixion-death of Jesus is not an evil to be rejected, a scandal that proves the unworthiness of the one who dies that way. It is Gods fullest act of love, and unless Peter and all believers embrace it and let it embrace them, there will be no sharing in Jesus inheritance.14
Peters misunderstanding continues, third, in v. 9, as he swings to the other extreme and states, in effect, that "the more washing, the better." Jesus reply in v. 10 is not easily understood, even by commentators today.15 For example, in what sense are the disciples already clean? What is the first bath that makes a second one unnecessary? What, then, does foot-washing represent? The difficulty in exegesis stems primarily from two concerns: 1) the word "bathed" (perhaps introduced into the dialogue as a synonym for washing); and 2) the phrase "except for the feet," which some ancient manuscripts exclude.16 Among scholars there is a diversity of opinion regarding the textual evidence. Michaels, for example, states that "the vast majority of manuscripts, including the most ancient, preserve the longer reading,"17 whereas Bruce suggests that the bare textual evidence is "inconclusive" as to whether to retain or omit the phrase and favours making a determination based upon ones understanding of the passage as a whole.18
Some commentators favour a sacramental interpretation, whereby the term "bath" refers to Christian Baptism and subsequent "washings" refer to the sacrament of Penance or another sacrament. Others view it in a non-sacramental manner, but still distinguish between "bathing" and "washing" in that "the disciples, already cleansed by their fellowship with Christ, need only to have their slighter faults removed."19 Hence, foot-washing in this sense refers not to the initial bath but a second cleansing. Michaels goes further along this line with his view that the second cleansing finds its "completion and full realization" through the "practice of love and forgiveness by the community of faith"20 thereby underscoring the communitarian significance of the foot-washing act.
However, a more plausible reading of this text suggests that the references to "bathing" and "washing" are interchangeable and that the clause "except for the feet" is a scribal addition. This view is favoured by Brown, who offers the following explanation:
A scribe, faced with the statement, "The man who has bathed has no need to wash," and not recognizing that the bath was the foot-washing, thought he had to insert an exceptive phrase to show that Jesus did not mean to exclude the foot-washing when he said there was no need to wash.21
Bruce lends weight to this view by observing that John often employs synonyms (for example, oida and ginosko for knowing; phileo and agapao for loving) and that this could be a further example.22 Culpepper suggests that such an interpretation fits the narrative flow better and that Jesus response can therefore be interpreted as affirming that "one who has been washed (by Jesus death, which is interpreted by the foot-washing) has no need of any further washings such as Peter was requesting."23 Similarly, Lightfoot had earlier concluded that "the feet-washing is probably best interpreted as having the same significance and efficacy as the Lords death."24 In other words, Peter misses the point by thinking that the frequency and extent of physical washing would increase his share with Jesus. The theological meaning of foot-washing can therefore be understood as Jesus undertaking this humiliating act to prophesy symbolically that he was to be humiliated in death. Peters questioning enables him to explain the salvific necessity of his death in bringing humanity into relationship with himself, and into a share of his kingdom all this by the cleansing of their sin, brought about by the blood shed at Calvary (cf. 1 John 1:7) and symbolized by the cleansing waters of foot-washing.
In a brief aside before engaging in a longer discourse on the significance of foot-washing, Jesus makes reference to his betrayer. He will pick up this theme later in a somewhat longer reflection (vv. 18-20). Assuming that Jesus has washed the feet of both Judas and Peter, why is Peter clean while Judas is not? It is clear from vv. 10b-11 that Judas has not been changed by the foot-washing. This unexpected outcome points to the element of faith required for salvation. Peter brings to Jesus his faith and love in the acceptance of having his feet washed, which is something Judas cannot bring himself to. Without this faith and love neither Judas nor anyone else can be "clean," says Taylor, for they refuse in their hearts "to let the cleansing power of Jesus love come through to them."25
A Teaching Discourse: Practical Implications of Foot-washing (vv. 12-17)
After he had washed their feet, had put on his robe, and had returned to the table, he said to them, "Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.."
After completing his dramatic gesture of washing the feet of his followers, Jesus addresses the entire group. Bruce distinguishes between the first dialogue with Peter and his subsequent discourse with all the disciples by describing the first as a theological explanation and the second as being more practical in nature; nevertheless, he sees no incongruity between the two.26 Likewise, Brown suggests that after laying down the theological understanding for foot-washing, Jesus now exhorts the disciples to imitate his example in practice.27
Jesus begins his discourse after he has "returned to the table" which, more literally, suggests that Jesus "reclined again."28 He raises the question of whether the disciples know what he has done to them a rather strange question given his statement in v. 7 that "You do not know now what I am doing, but later you will understand." While a time beyond the resurrection is implied in v. 7, the apparent fulfillment of this "understanding" is suggested only moments later in v. 17 ("If you know these things..."). There are a number of explanations for this peculiarity. Culpepper, for example, proposes that the real audience to whom the question of v. 12 is addressed is not necessarily the disciples (who do not yet know of Jesus death) but the readers of the narrative who are already aware of Jesus death, even though it has yet to be reported in Johns narrative.29
Brown provides a more plausible explanation by suggesting a "two-fold symbolism" whereby the disciples would have been able to appreciate the practical implications of Jesus foot-washing (i.e. to do likewise for others) yet without understanding the deeper theological symbolism.30 Lightfoot likewise states that vv. 12-17 are to "be interpreted at present only as an example to the disciples of humility to be expressed in mutual service."31 Still another valid explanation is offered by Michaels:
In Johns Gospel, "post-resurrection truths" (i.e., things that become true when Jesus is raised from the dead to rejoin the Father) have a way of making their appearance already within Jesus ministry, especially as the Passion draws near. The future is being superimposed on the present.32
In v. 13, Jesus refers to the titles of "Teacher" and "Lord" in order to clarify his earlier "rejection of prevailing social norms."33 It is clear that Jesus acknowledges and accepts these designations of "Teacher" and "Lord," thereby implying that his act of foot-washing does not compromise his dignity and honour. According to Bruce, Jesus foot-washing "involved no diminution of his dignity however much it embarrassed them to let him do it."34 Rather, as Jesus suggests further in vv. 14-16, foot-washing is an example of a new way of living based upon a "servanthood" paradigm, a model of living that Newbigin describes as "a radical subversion of the worlds order and of the worlds false concepts of wisdom and power."35
Jesus commandment in v. 14, together with his statement in v. 8, forms the heart of his teaching on the act of foot-washing. In declaring to his disciples that "I... have washed your feet" and that they therefore "ought to wash one anothers feet," Jesus wraps together in a single sentence the theological interdependence of vertical and horizontal relationality. Those who have a "share" (v. 8) with Jesus are likewise called to "share" with others. Foot-washing therefore serves a dual purpose in symbolizing not only the self-giving love and cleansing provided by Jesus death, but also the self-giving love we extend to others. "This is what Jesus means by describing the foot-washing as an example in v. 15. Not only is it essential to be washed by Jesus, it is also necessary to wash the feet of others."36 This calls to mind Jesus exhortation in Matt 10:8: "You received without payment; give without payment." The concept of servanthood that Jesus was asking of his disciples was radical as radical as the act he himself performed before them. As Guthrie notes, this notion of servanthood "was revolutionary in the sphere of human relationships."37
The servant/Master motif that Jesus employs in v. 16 is similar to that found in other contexts within the Synoptic accounts (see Matt 10:24ff and Luke 6:40). The point of the verse is to reinforce Jesus contention that if he had not thought it beneath him to perform a menial service for his disciples, then they should not think it beneath them to do likewise for one another.
Jesus closes his explanatory discourse on the foot-washing with a beatitude reminiscent of Luke.11:28: "Blessed...are those who hear the word of God and obey it." He thereby reinforces his main contention that "it is not enough to hear, understand, and approve of what is right; one must also do it."38
Summary and Conclusion
John 13:3-17 relates the dramatic story of Jesus washing of his disciples feet and his subsequent explanation of that act. Such an action was totally unexpected, standing in stark contrast to the prevailing social customs of the day. In his response to the protestations of Peter and in his ensuing discourse before the entire group, Jesus reveals the deeper significance of foot-washing as a symbol of his imminent humiliation on the cross, as well as exhorting his disciples to go and do likewise in the embrace of servanthood as a new paradigm for Christian living.
The foot-washing account speaks passionately and prophetically about two different and opposite hazards many encounter in the journey of faith. It points to the need to wash the feet of others to live a life of servanthood based upon Jesus model as well as the need to be washed oneself by the salvific work of Jesus upon the cross.
For those who are attracted to the moral teachings of Jesus, the foot-washing encounter serves as a dramatic and creative example of Jesus subversive message of service to others. Yet this is only half of the message in the account of the foot-washing. The other half, as it were, refers to the cross and our need to be "washed" by Jesus at the cross in order to share in a relationship with him. The deep and rich symbolism of foot-washing can be ignored only by those who see no need for the cross those whose post-modern sensibilities are repelled by the scandal of the Christian message (cf. I Cor 1:18-28).
The opposite danger exists for those who recognize and embrace the theological significance of foot-washing but find themselves unwilling or incapable of projecting that reality into the practical arena of their lives. One may believe in redemption by Jesus death on the cross as symbolized by his humiliation in the act of foot-washing; one may even understand and give assent to the moral implications of the foot-washing act; yet if we cannot translate those truths into a radical lifestyle of servanthood which Jesus is calling for, have we really allowed the full import of the foot-washing to transform our lives?
Jesus radical act of washing the feet of his disciples is metaphorically a double-edged sword (cf. Heb 4:12): it cuts through our tendency to discount our need for the cross as well as our reluctance to allow this truth to transform our lifestyles in the subversive form of servanthood that Jesus himself exemplified.
Barclay, William. The Gospel of John (Volume II). Edinburgh: Saint Andrew, 1958.
Brown, Raymond E. The Gospel According to John (xiii-xxi). AB 29a. Garden City: Doubleday, 1970.
Bruce, F.F. The Gospel of John. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983.
Culpepper, R. Alan. The Gospel and Letters of John. Nashville: Abingdon, 1998.
Guthrie, Donald. John from the New Bible Commentary (21st Century Edition). Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity, 1994.
Hunter, A.M. The Gospel According to John. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1965.
Lightfoot, R. H. St. Johns Gospel. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.
Michaels, J. Ramsey. John: A Good News Commentary. San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1983.
Newbigin, Lesslie. The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1982.
Taylor, Michael J. John: The Different Gospel. New York: Alba House, 1983.