Instruction about baptisms (washings) – Foot Washing

Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me.” John 13:8 NIV 

If we remember the commandments of Lord Jesus in His last hours, we will remember the example Jesus gave His disciples, that they should wash one another’s feet. When we become Jesus’ disciples, we are united with Jesus through the same baptism, the same cup, and the same washing of our feet.

Now, few Christians practice footwashing because of a confusion of theology. The cessation of this practice has very much to do with the departure of the promised comforter, the Spirit of truth.

The theological confusion among Protestant and Catholic Churches is historically different, but similar. The Catholics, as we will describe, ceased the practice of footwashing for members, because they decided it has no relationship with salvation. Catholic members also do not take the cup to remember the Lord’s death. The Protestants, who came from them, have been heavily influenced by their tradition, as well as Martin Luther’s reactionary statement against a corrupt Church, “salvation is by grace, through faith alone” (sole fide).

However, both Protestants and Catholics, have erred greatly, because salvation is not through faith alone. It is through the power of the Holy Spirit. Without obedience to Christ’s commandments, no one can receive the Spirit of truth. For in His last supper, after Jesus gave His disciples the commandment to wash one another’s feet, and remember His death, and love one another, He said to them: “if you love Me, keep My commandments and I will pray to the Father, and He will send you another Helper… the Spirit of truth” (John 14:15-17).

Jesus statement “unless I wash you, you have no part with Me” gives a responsibility to the believer and the Church. We must allow Christ, the Body of Christ, to serve us, so we can be saved from the sins of this world. The Church must obey Christ’s commandment to receive the Holy Spirit.

Therefore, after faith, the writer of Hebrews lists “instructions about baptisms,” as the next elementary teaching. The word baptism can also have the meaning of religious washing as in Luke 11:38. There is no other washing that he can be speaking of, other than the washing of feet. The baptism of the Holy Spirit is mentioned in the next clause “the laying on of hands.” Many commentaries written by those who do not believe the washing of feet is a salvation teaching, imagine the writer must be speaking of some other matter. But the entire passage of Hebrews 6:1-8 is only about salvation.

The washing of feet completes one’s washing, or baptism, as Jesus explained: “he who is bathed (washed)1  needs only to wash his feet” (John 13:10). After baptism in the river, one is completely clean except that their feet are still dirty, and the washing of his feet by Christ (the Body of Christ) the Church, completes the washing.2

The need to be “washed entirely” is in Justin Martyr’s First Apology, written in 150 AD, In Chapter 61, we read: “Then we lead them to a place where there is water, and they are regenerated (baptized) in the name of… then they wash themselves with water.” In Chapter 62, Justin explained “wash themselves” saying that the demons imitate the Christian practice to “wash themselves entirely,”… “And the command too…that they take off their shoes.” (The commandment of Christ to wash feet is the obvious meaning.)

Bishop Ambrose of Milan described baptism in fourth century this way: “You came up out of the font. What followed? You heard the lesson. The high priest was girt up (for though presbyters also carried it out, yet the ministry is begun by the high priest), the high priest, I say, was girt up, and washed your feet.”

The practice of footwashing after baptism was stopped in the fourth century. We can actually see one formal order in Spain. In 306 AD, the Council of Elvira ordered that “the feet of the newly baptized are not to be washed by the priests or clerics.” In 380 AD, Ambrose admonished the Church at Rome in his Treatise on the Sacraments warning them of Christ’s statement “unless I wash you, you have no part with Me.” Ambrose wrote “perhaps she (the Church) has declined it on account of the numbers.”3  To this the translator Rev. T. Thompson notes: “If the number of candidates for baptism was very large, the ceremony of washing the feet would be long and laborious.”

Ambrose concluded to say: “Finally, be aware that the mystery is also sanctification: ‘lf I wash not thy feet, thou shalt have no part with me.’ So I say this, not that I may rebuke others, but that I may commend my own ceremonies. In all things I desire to follow the Church in Rome, yet we, too, have human feeling; what is preserved more rightly elsewhere we, too, preserve more rightly.”4

Why did the Church of Rome ignore the Treatise of Ambrose? The Roman Church created a faulty theology that said common members need only salvation, but not sanctification, this was only for the priests. For this reason, the members now receive neither the cup nor the washing of feet. They had descended deeply into what some call “scholastic theology,” more properly called “Latin Christianity,” which Irenaeus told us was the number of the beast, the false Christ, the false teacher (Lateinos – 666).

By 400 AD, the hostility against foot washing after baptism was great. Augustine (354 – 430) in Algeria, wrote “…many, however, have not accepted this (footwashing) as a custom, lest it should be thought to belong to the ordinance of baptism; and some have not hesitated to deny it any place among our ceremonies.”5 The Codex Sinaiticus, of 400 AD, even removed the words ει μη τους ποδας from John 13:10, rejecting the words of Christ: “he who is bathed needs only to wash his feet.”6

Today, many biblical theologians reject the washing of feet as commandment by explaining John 13:6-10 and John 13:14-17 as two separate accounts of the same event.7 They deny that verses 14, 15, and 17 are a commandment to carry out what was demonstrated in vs 6-11. But the unity of the whole passage is certain from verse 7: “what I am doing, you not understand now, but you will after these ταῦτα ” For in verse 12, Jesus began the explanation of it, saying: “Do you know what I have done to you?” Then He began to explain the meaning of His act to wash their feet, answering His question of verse 7.

Jesus gave us twelve “unless” conditions of salvations, all of which included the phrase “ean me” – “unless” and each give us a salvation consequence. If we want to have a part with Christ, we must allow the body of Christ to wash our feet.

  1. λελουμένος The same root verb describes baptism in Hebrews 10:26; Ephesians 5:26; Acts 22:16; 1 Corinthians 6:11, and Titus 3:5.
  2. John Christopher Thomas, A Note on the text of John 13:10, Novum Tesamentum XX1X, 1 (1987), pg 52
  3. Pg. 98, Ambrose, “Treatise on the Sacraments and the Mysteries”, translated by Rev. T. Thompson, 1919.
  4. Fathers of the Church, A New Translation Volume 44. Saint Ambrose Theological and Dogmatic Works, Roy J. Deferrari, 1963
  5. Augustine, Letter LV 33
  6. All of the oldest manuscripts include ει μη τους ποδας : P66 (200AD), P75 (175 – 225 AD), (03) Codex Vaticanus (4th Century), (02) Codex Alexandrinus (5th Century); only the Codex Sinaiticus (400 AD) excludes it.
  7. John Christopher Thomas, Footwashing in John 13 and the Johannine Community, May 1990, Submitted to the Department of Biblical Studies of the University of Sheffield for the Doctor of Philosophy Degree, pages 149-162