Instruction about baptisms (washings) – Foot Washing

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

Today, there are many who reject the washing of feet, as a commandment, and a salvation teaching.

But no one in the first four centuries of disputed the fact that the washing of feet was “a commandment of the Lord.”1 The debate that arose in the fourth century, was whether or not the washing of feet was required after baptism, as had been practiced up until that time. The washing of feet as “a baptism” was described by Jesus in John 13, and by the writer of Hebrews, who referred to it in “instructions about baptisms.”

The Dialogue of the Last Supper

Jesus’ dialogue of the last supper climaxed with the statement, “if you love Me, keep My commandments and I will pray the Father, and He will send you another Helper, the Spirit of truth.”(John 14:15-17)

His explanation of the washing of feet, in John 13, is divided in two parts.

In verses 3- 11, He washed the disciples’ feet. Little is recorded of what was spoken, except three statements that introduce the significance of this commandment for our salvation.

Verse 7, You will understand after these things (μετὰ ταῦτα)

The next two times that John used the expression “after these things,” μετὰ ταῦτα, are in Revelation 1:19; and 4:1 where it announced our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.  Jesus’ dialogue, from John 13 to 16, was full of statements that His disciples could not understand until the kingdom of God, the Church, was established.

The other three gospels where compiled from the testimonies of eyewitnesses, as described in Luke 1:2. But the Gospel of John came by revelation of the Holy Spirit, as he mentions in John 14:26. This is most obvious in Jesus’ prayer of John 17. This could not be remembered, except by revelation of the Holy Spirit. God gave the deeper revelation of the Gospel to “the disciple whom Jesus loved.”(John 21:20,24)

Verse 8, Unless I wash you, you have no part with Me

The sanctified Church is the Body of Christ. If we do not allow the Body of Christ to wash our feet, we are rejecting Christ Himself.

This statement, “unless I wash you,” was one of twelve “if not” statements made by Christ, with a salvation consequence. Three of these statements, “unless you are born of water and spirit,”(John 3:5) “unless you eat My flesh and drink My blood,”(John 6:53) and “unless I wash you,” explain the necessity of the three sacraments Christ instituted for His Church.

Verse 10, He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet

To have a part with Christ we must be entirely clean. After baptism, one is completely clean except that his feet are still dirty. The washing of his feet by Christ (the Body of Christ), completes the washing.

Verse 15, I gave you an example

In the second part of His explanation (vs 13-17), Jesus answered Peter’s Question in verse 6, “Lord, will you wash my feet?” Jesus explained that they must also act as servants, and follow His example in the washing of feet.  This is the only time that He directly instructed us to follow His example. The Book of Revelation explains that the True Church will follow the example of Christ, they “follow the Lamb wherever He goes.”(Revelation 14:4)

The Elementary Salvation Teachings of Hebrews 6:1-2

The writer of Hebrews, likely Paul, lists the elementary salvation teachings of Christ as “repentance from acts that lead to death, faith in God, instructions about baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead and eternal judgment.”(Hebrews 6:1-2)

Baptisms in this text is plural, because a baptism can refer to any ceremonial washing. The same word is used in Luke 11:38 to describe the washing of hands. As a salvation teaching, there is no other washing that the writer 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.”

The washing of feet was made an elementary salvation teaching through Jesus’ statements, “unless I wash you, you have no part with Me,”(John 13:8) and “he who was bathed needs only to wash his feet.”(John 13:10)

The Apostolic meaning of “Baptize” and “Wash”

We are fortunate that Hebrews 6:2 includes the plural word “baptisms.” Some have assumed that foot washing after baptism was not practiced because they cannot see the word “foot washing.”  They also cannot understand why the word “bathed” in John 13:10 is equated to baptism. Actually, in the New Testament, there is no distinction in this terminology.

There were three baptisms that the New Testament Church performed: the baptism of water, the washing of feet, the baptism of the Holy Spirit.  All these were described by the word “baptize.”

When Jesus told his disciples to baptize the nations, He had all these baptisms in mind. Peter promised that those who were “baptized” would “receive the gift of the Holy Spirit”(Acts 2:38). The baptism of the Holy Spirit was part of an overall “baptism,” which actually included three baptisms. This is more obvious in Paul’s statement, “but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God”(1 Corinthians 6:11) –  grammatically, these are all the effects of “but you were washed” –  notice that Paul says “you were washed…in the Spirit of our God,” describing the baptism of the Holy Spirit as a washing.

All Churches practised Foot washing after Baptism

The Archbishop of Milan, Ambrose (340 – 397), told us that all churches, originally practiced foot washing after baptism.

In his Treatise on the Sacraments and the Mysteries, Ambrose scolded the Church of Rome for ceasing the practice.  By his day, only the non-Roman churches of the West (those in Turin, Milan, Gaul, Spain, North Africa, and Ireland) continued its practice.2

When did the Church of Rome stop? Ambrose said, “perhaps she (the Church) has declined it on account of the numbers.”   The Editor, J.H. Srawley, explains this saying: “If the number of candidates for baptism was very large, the ceremony of washing the feet would be long and laborious.”3 In 312, Christianity became the state religion of Rome, and the number of baptisms increased substantially. Ambrose probably had this recent period of time in mind.

In 150, writing from the Church at Rome, to the Roman Emperor,  Justin Martyr, in Chapter 61 of his First Apology, described baptism, saying, “they are regenerated in the same manner in which we ourselves are regenerated.” In Chapter 62, he described the devils’ imitation of the Christian practice of baptism and foot washing. . . “and the devils (as false prophets) indeed having heard this … cause those (who enter their false churches) ….to wash themselves entirely … and (keep) the command … to remove the shoes (for the washing of feet).”

Foot washing after Baptism ceased in the Fourth Century

The cessation of the washing of feet after baptism was concurrent with the establishment of the Trinity doctrine, and the changing of the Sabbath day to Sunday, in the fourth Century. 

Ambrose continued his Treatise, saying, “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.”4

His idea that those who had not received the washing of feet, were not sanctified, caused considerable anger in the Roman Church.

By 400, the hostility became great. Augustine (354 – 430) in Algeria, wrote “…many, however, have not accepted this (foot washing) 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, 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.”

Eventually, the Roman Catholic Church asserted its authority and condemned any association of foot washing and baptism.6

The Washing of Feet is a Commandment for the Sanctified Church

“You have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know.”

1 John 2:20

Salvation is not simply by faith; it also requires repentance and obedience. 

Jesus told us that we must keep His commandments to receive the Spirit of truth(John 14:15-17), which is the seal of the elect.(Ephesians 1:13; Revelation 7:3)

Today, only Church that obeys God’s commandments, and the commandments of Christ, and hears the teachings of the Apostles (1 John 4:6), receives the comfort of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, as evidenced by the tongue emitting sound, laleo glossa. 

We must allow the Sanctified Church to wash our feet, if we want a part with Christ, the Body of Christ.

  1. Athanasius, Ambrose, Origen, and Justin Martyr all describe this as a commandment
  2. Ambrose, “Treatise on the Sacraments and the Mysteries”, translated by Rev. T. Thompson, 1919, pg xxiv, note 7, see also Olof Brandt, “Structure del IV secolo per lavanda dei piedi in due battiesteri romani,” AM 2 (2003), 137-44.
  3. Saint Ambrose Theological and Dogmatic Works, Roy J. Deferrari, 1963
  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. Living Water Images, Symbols and Settings of Early Christian Baptism, Robin Jensen 2011, pg 80