To download a printer-friendly PDF file of this article, click here.
If Roman Catholics have their crucifixion reenactment, and Jews have their Passover Seder meal, evangelicals have their footwashing ceremony. This week, I have seen footwashing ceremonies being promoted by a couple of big evangelical churches here in the Metro Manila area. In fact, footwashing is considered by some Anabaptist and Brethren groups as a part of the sacrament of Holy Communion.
Did Jesus, on the night when he was betrayed, really command us to perform an annual footwashing ceremony?
Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him (John 13:3-5).
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:12-17).
John Calvin, in his commentary on John 13:12-17,1 wrote that Jesus’ intention was not only to “inculcate modesty,” but to be “an example to be followed by all the godly, that none might grudge to descend to do a service to his brethren and equals, however mean and low that service might be… for there is no brotherly love where there is not a voluntary subjection in assisting a neighbor.”
But having said that, Calvin then proceeds to severely chastise those in his day—like the “Papists”—who were
at liberty to take all his actions, without reserve, as subjects of imitation… [who] boast that, by Christ’s example, they observe the forty days’ fast, or Lent. But we ought first to see whether or not he intended to lay down his fast as an example that the disciples might conform to it as a rule. We read nothing of this sort, and, therefore, the imitation of it is not less wicked than if they attempted to fly to heaven. Besides, when they ought to have followed Christ, they were not imitators, but apes. Every year they have a fashion of washing some people’s feet, as if it were a farce which they were playing on the stage; and so, when they have performed this idle and unmeaning ceremony, they think that they have fully discharged their duty, and reckon themselves at liberty to despise their brethren during the rest of the year. But—what is far worse—after having washed the feet of twelve men, they subject every member of Christ to cruel torture, and thus spit in Christ’s face. This display of buffoonery, therefore, is nothing else than a shameful mockery of Christ. At all events, Christ does not here enjoin an annual ceremony, but bids us be ready, throughout our whole life, to wash the feet of our brethren and neighbors.
The great Reformer strongly disagrees with a literalistic aping of Jesus’ action. Like the Jews who always ended up misreading—like buffoons—the words of Christ (e.g., John 2:18-21; 6:51-52; 8:56-59; John 18:36-37), many today think that Christ’s command to wash each other’s feet has to be obeyed literalistically.2
Calvin gives his reasons for rejecting this “display of buffoonery.” The first is similar to our present-day WWJD fad of imitating every action of Christ, even those he did to fulfill the Law (his baptism by John), or as part of the Jewish culture (Gen 18:4; Luke 7:44), or as part of his redemptive mission (crucifixion, ascension) as if those actions norm the church today.
The second is that footwashing could be like an indulgence, relic, or penance: after participating in this “idle and unmeaning ceremony,” the Christian might have warm fuzzies about having been able to obey Christ’s command and thus merit God’s favor. They forget that Christ’s example involves the application of what they have just witnessed: “a voluntary subjection in assisting a neighbor.”
Third and last, this annual footwashing ceremony is a “shameful mockery” of Christ. He has fulfilled all the Law, and his redemptive work has already been accomplished on the cross. The Christian should not ask, “What would Jesus do?” but rather, “What did Jesus do?” When believers try to go back to the Law to be righteous with God, they reject Christ’s righteousness that was imputed to them in their justification by faith alone in Christ alone.
But his display of humility on that Passover night was not only to show that he loved his disciples “to the end” (John 13:1), but it was also a foreshadow of his ultimate humiliation as one who was accursed by God for us as he hung on a tree (Gal 3:13; cf Deut 21:23).
Jesus was clearly speaking figuratively here in two ways. First, his display of humility was to show that he loved his disciples, and that they ought to also love and serve one another also (John 13:15-17; 15:12).
Second, he was demonstrating not only his humility, but also his humiliation, for in a few hours, his mission—to make “himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men… he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross”—would be fully accomplished (Phil 2:7-8).
Finally, in his lively exchange with Peter, Jesus beautifully explained the relationship between justification and sanctification. After Peter famously objected to Jesus washing his feet, Jesus told him that he would have no share with him if he did not wash the disciple’s feet. Peter, in his usual zeal, then exclaimed, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!” (John 13:6-9), after which Jesus explained, “the one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet.” Peter is already “completely clean” by what Paul refers to as the washing of regeneration (John 13:10; Tit 3:5).
After being bathed by the waters of regeneration accomplished through Christ’s humiliation on the cross of Calvary, the disciples embark on their wilderness travel to their heavenly home. And as they continue their pilgrimage, they need to wash their feet as often as they need to wash away the dirt and mud from this wilderness of sin.
1 John Calvin, Commentary on the Gospel According to John, vol. ii, trans. by The Rev. William Pringle (Grand Rapids, MI: Christian Classics Ethereal Library, 1956).
2 For example, dispensationalists insist on an earthly millennial reign of Christ from a rebuilt Jerusalem Temple, making Jesus a liar when he says, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36), and that he himself is the Temple (John 2:19; Rev 21:22).