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.