WASHING OF FEET
When Jesus required his disciples to wash one another’s feet, he designed, not to institute a religious ceremony, but to enforce a whole class of moral duties.
The requirement on the subject is contained in the following words: “If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet, ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.”(1)
Every word of Jesus Christ is important, and every command which he has left as a rule of our conduct ought to be punctiliously obeyed. The words quoted above may be regarded as a part of his dying instructions to his apostles. Every circumstance connected with the time and manner of their being uttered, tends to invest them with interest. No one deserves the name of his disciple, who could knowingly neglect a duty recommended by such unparalleled love and condescension.
What, then, was the Saviour’s meaning? “If ye know these things,” says he,(2) “happy are ye if ye do them.” We must know, in order to do; and if we mistake his design, how honest soever our intention may be, we shall not have fulfilled his command. If, on this memorable night, when he partook of the last passover with his disciples, and when he instituted the breaking of bread as the memorial of “Christ, our Passover, sacrificed for us,” he designed to institute the washing of feet as another religious rite, till his second coming, together with baptism and the breaking of bread; then, this institution should be observed with punctilious carefulness; and no plea should be admitted from the neglect of it, to justify the neglect of any other divine command. But, if it was the Saviour’s design, not to institute a religious ceremony for the observance of his disciples, but to enjoin on them a whole class of moral duties of the very highest importance, it would be a lamentable mistake, if we should substitute for these duties a mere external rite which he never meant to institute.
To ascertain the Saviour’s design, let the following things be attentively considered:–
1. The particular duty enjoined is moral, as distinguished from those which are positive.
Baptism and the Lord’s supper are positive institutes, because the obligation to observe them could not be inferred from any utility or apparent fitness in the things themselves. On the contrary, the washing of feet was not a mere ceremony, but a necessary act of hospitality which had been in use since the days of Abraham;(3) and it is accordingly reckoned by the Apostle Paul, in connexion with other moral duties of like kind, as the proper foundation of a reputation for good works. “Well reported of for good works, if she have lodged strangers, if she have washed the saints’ feet, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.”(4) It is the utility of the act which gives it a place among the “good” works here enumerated. In those days, when travelling was so generally performed on foot, and when the feet were shod with mere sandals; to wash the feet of the wayworn stranger was not a mere ceremony, but one of those “good works which are profitable unto men,” and to be maintained “for necessary uses.”(5)
2. The example of the Saviour recommends the act on the ground of its utility.
When Peter wished his hands and his head to be washed, “Jesus saith unto him, He that is washed needeth not, save to wash his feet.” The two words here rendered wash, are different in the original: the former, denoting a washing of the whole body; and the latter, which is the word used elsewhere throughout the narrative, a partial washing, as of the hands or feet. The sense is–he that has been bathed,. needs only to wash his feet, which may have been defiled in walking from the bath.(6) The apostles had bathed themselves before sitting down to the paschal supper, and therefore did not need any washing except of the feet. On this need, small as it may appear, the Saviour placed the fitness and propriety of the act which he performed. He was willing to set an example of performing the least possible act of real kindness; but he would not extend that act a whit beyond the line of necessity and utility. Beyond this line, it was no longer an act of kindness. But Jesus performed it as a good work for a necessary use; and since he therein gave to his apostles an example that they should do to each other as he had done to them,(7) it is manifest that he designed to enforce on them mutual service of practical utility.
3. It was not a single duty which the Saviour intended to enjoin:
This is apparent from verse 17: “If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.” Duties were manifestly intended beyond the single act of washing of feet. Of these duties this act was a mere specimen by which they might know the rest; and knowing, practice them.
A proof that the washing performed by our Saviour was a part and specimen of a whole class of duties, may also be derived from verse 8: “Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” The true import of this answer seems to be this: “If I may not wash thy feet, (so the word here used implies), I may not, on the same ground, render to thee any of the great benefits resulting from my humiliation, in which I came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give my life a ransom for many. If I may not perform to thee acts of condescending kindness, thou hast no part with me. As in this declaration, the washing of Peter’s feet was made by the Saviour a specimen and representative of all his acts of condescending kindness; so the washing of feet, enjoined upon Peter and his fellow-apostles, was intended to include all the acts of condescending kindness which they could perform towards their brethren. “A new commandment I give unto you, That ye love one another: as I have loved you, that ye also love one another: by this shall all men know that ye are my disciples, if ye have love one to another.”(8)
4. It is an argument of weight against regarding the washing of feet as a religious ceremony instituted in the church, that it does not, like baptism and the Lord’s supper, typify Christ.
The Lord’s supper, in a lively figure, shows forth the death of Christ; and baptism his burial and resurrection. These standing ordinances of the Christian church lead the mind directly to the great Author of our salvation, and to the atoning sacrifice by which that salvation had been effected. These ordinances teach us the grand doctrine of redemption, in a language which infinite wisdom has invented for the purpose. To this great doctrine these witnesses bear their testimony, in a voice, long and loud, through all the revolutions of centuries, and above all the tumults of heresy. What does the washing of feet teach us of Christ, or of redemption by Him? Does it lead the believer away from himself, and all his own works of righteousness, to the atoning sacrifice or the justifying righteousness on which he must rely for salvation? It might serve, as a religious rite, to remind those of a duty to be performed, whose faith rests upon such duty for righteousness; but of him who is the end of the law for righteousness to every one that believeth, of his suffering and death as the means of our salvation, it tells nothing.
5. The washing of feet was not practiced as a religious rite by the primitive Christians.
That baptism and the Lord’s supper were so practiced we have the clearest evidence, both from the Scriptures and the writings of the Christian fathers; but not so with regard to the washing of feet. It is not necessary to pursue this subject beyond the clear light of Scripture, into the comparatively dark field of investigation which ecclesiastical history presents, as the testimony which this less satisfactory source of evidence affords, though entirely consistent with the testimony of Scripture, is not needed, either for elucidation or confirmation. On opening the inspired history of the church, we read, at the very beginning, “They that gladly received his word were baptized: and they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” Baptism is frequently mentioned in the subsequent history, and in the 20th chap. 7th verse express mention is made that “the disciples came together to break bread.” But not a chapter, not a verse, in all the Acts of the Apostles, contains an intimation that any church, or any company of disciples, ever assembled to celebrate the washing of feet. In the Epistle to the Romans,(9) a reference is made to baptism, and an explanation given of its import. The first chapter of the next epistle (the first to the Corinthians), contains an account of several baptisms; and the 11th chapter a very particular account of the institution of the supper, and of abuses in its observance, which had already crept into the church of Corinth. But in these epistles, and in all those which follow, no allusion whatever is found to the washing of feet, as a rite observed by the churches.
There is, indeed, one passage, and only one, in which the washing of feet is mentioned; and this passage, 1 Tim. v. 10, furnishes decisive proof that it was not practiced as a church ordinance, as were baptism and the Lord’s supper. To demonstrate this, we have but to substitute, in the passage, the mention of these acknowledged ordinances, and the incongruity of such a connexion will immediately appear: “Well reported of for good works; if she have brought up children, if she have lodged strangers, if she have been baptized, or received the Lord’s supper, if she have relieved the afflicted, if she have diligently followed every good work.” As it must be supposed of every widow in the church that she had been baptized, and had received the Lord’s supper; no “if,” with respect to these ordinances, could be admitted, and no one widow could, on account of her having observed them, be more entitled to honor than any other. The same would have been true concerning the washing of feet, if this also had been a religious rite in common use in the churches; and it would have been a manifest absurdity to state the fact of any church member having performed the rite, as a reason for regarding him or her as specially entitled to reputation for good works, or to honor from the church.
There is, therefore, not only a total want of proof that such a religious rite was anciently observed, but there is (what few cases in controversy furnish) a proof of the negative, which is as clear and satisfactory as any such proof can be expected to be.
These considerations show clearly that it was the Saviour’s design to enforce a whole class of moral duties, and not to institute a religious ceremony; and that he was so understood by his apostles. He who washes the feet of a saint, when those feet do not need washing, is as if he gave a cup of cold water to a disciple who is not thirsty. He may indeed make a show of voluntary humility, but he does not fulfil the command of Christ, nor imitate his example. He ought to remember that Christ declined to wash the hands and head of Peter; not because there would have been less show of humility in so doing, but because those parts did not need washing. He, therefore, who washes the feet of a saint when these feet do not need washing, instead of obeying or imitating Christ, does that which Christ refused to do. And he who washes the feet of a saint merely as a religious rite, without considering or caring whether the act which he performs is necessary and useful, is just as far as the other from obeying or imitating the Redeemer.
If, after a careful consideration of the subject, we have satisfactorily ascertained that our Saviour designed his disciples should perform towards each other every needful act of condescending kindness, even the smallest and the most servile, let us be ready with promptness and pleasure to fulfil his will. If we know these things, happy are we if we do them. If we have the spirit of Christ, we shall be ready, when need requires, to lay down our lives for our brethren, or give them a cup of cold water, or wash their feet, or render them any other comfort. In so far as by any of these means we seek to promote the happiness of a disciple of Christ, our good deeds will be remembered; and the great Judge, in the last day, omitting all mention of our most labored religious ceremonies, will bring that act of kindness to mind, and will say, “Inasmuch as ye did it to one of the least of these my brethren, ye did it unto me.”
1. John xiii. 14.
2. V. 17.
3. Gen. xviii. 4; xix. 2.
4. 1 Tim. v. 10.
5. Titus iii. 8, 14.
6. Some interpreters take the first word to mean, not a bathing of the whole body, but a washing of the hands and face, which the disciples are supposed to have performed before taking their places at supper. “He who washeth his face and hands is considered sufficiently clean, and needs no other washing unless this mark of civility, that his feet be washed by a servant. This civility I exhibit to you, thus acting the part of a servant.” This interpretation, though less satisfactory, because less conformed to the ordinary signification of the terms employed, will, nevertheless, serve equally well for sustaining the argument above presented.
7. John xiii. 15.
8. V. 34, 35.
9. Chap. vi.