Is Foot-Washing a Sacrament?

by | Aug 23, 2017 | 0 comments

On the night when Jesus betrayed, our Lord did two things that continue to capture the hearts and imaginations of his disciples to this day. First, he washed his disciples’ feet, and second, he instituted the Lord’s Supper. The New Testament teaches that the church should continue receiving the Lord’s Supper as a sacrament, and that we should receive the Lord’s Supper according to the exact pattern by which Jesus himself instituted it. When Paul teaches about the Lord’s Supper, he writes, “For I received from the Lord what I also delivered to you….For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor. 11:23, 26). To this day, all Christian churches receive the Lord’s Supper regularly.

But what about foot-washing? Should the church continue to practice foot-washing with some regularity, as we do with the Lord’s Supper? Moreover, is foot-washing a sacrament like baptism and the Lord’s Supper? After Jesus washed the feet of his disciples, he said:

[12] 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? [13] You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. [14] If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. [15] For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. [16] 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. [17] If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 13:12–17)

Jesus, our Lord and Teacher, tells us that we “ought to wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14). More than that, Jesus explains that he has given us “an example, that you should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). Finally, Jesus promises that if we will be “blessed” if we do what he has commanded (John 13:17). At first, this looks pretty strongly like Jesus intends the church to continue practicing foot-washing as a sacrament. Nevertheless, we will walk through two important reasons not to consider foot-washing a sacrament, and then some principles for how to obey Jesus’ commandment of washing one another’s feet.

Foot-Washing: Not “What,” but “As”

First, Jesus does not tell us what (ho) we should do, but that we should do as (kathōs) he has done: “For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (John 13:15). The language in Greek is a bit stronger than it might appear in English (Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to John, vol. II, 235–36.), but Jesus does not, as with the Lord’s Supper, say, “Do this” (Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:24, 25), nor does he, as with baptism, clearly command that we should perform the act of foot-washing (Matt. 28:19; cf. Acts 2:38, etc.).

Additionally, we have clear descriptions in the rest of the New Testament of the practice of baptism (e.g., Acts 2:41, 8:38, 10:47–48; 1 Cor. 12:13) and the Lord’s Supper (e.g., Acts 20:7; 1 Cor. 10:16–17, 11:17–34), but we have no similarly strong references to foot-washing. The only passage that even mentions foot-washing is 1 Timothy 5:10, which could describe figurative foot-washing (as) just as easily as literal foot-washing (what). Consider that even during the last supper we do not read that the disciples washed each others’ feet!

Foot-Washing is Not a Sign and Seal of the Covenant of Grace

Second, Jesus does not promise that the performance of the act will be accompanied by any kind of grace (Lenski, The Interpretation of John’s Gospel, 927). By contrast, the Scriptures promise us that baptism is connected in some way to the forgiveness of sins and the gift of the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:38), and that in the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper we participate in the body and blood of Christ (1 Cor. 10:16).

Importantly, sacraments are not merely practices within the church. Much more, sacraments both symbolize and authenticate the promises of the gospel—that is, “Sacraments are holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace, immediately instituted by God, to represent Christ, and his benefits; and to confirm our interest in him…” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 27.1). So, while Jesus promises that we will be blessed if we follow his example by washing one another’s feet (John 13:17), he is speaking of the blessings that come from our obedience.

Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, on the other hand, point not to our obedience in response to the gospel, but to what Jesus has done for us that we could never do for ourselves by cleansing us of our sins through his broken body and shed blood. We baptize with water and the receive the bread and the wine of the Lord’s Supper because we are not able to baptize with the Holy Spirit or to offer our own bodies to be broken or our own blood to be shed. The sacraments proclaim what Christ has done; foot-washing instructs us in what we must do.

Foot-Washing: An Attitude, Not an Act

All this does not, however, diminish the importance of the example Jesus gave to us when he washed his disciples’ feet. In fact, by refusing to reduce foot-washing to a religious ceremony that we perform only occasionally, we increase its importance up to the level that Jesus intends.

Put simply, Jesus is not asking for us to perform a specific act; instead, he wants us to cultivate a specific attitude. This is how we do as Jesus has done, without necessarily doing what he has done. When Jesus washed his disciples’ feet, he deliberately took the position of a slave in their midst. In those days, disciples had to obey their rabbis as though they were slaves, but with one major exception: rabbis could not ask their disciples to do anything related to their feet, since anything related to the feet was considered so degrading that only actual slaves were required to perform such tasks (Keener, The Gospel of John, vol. 2, 911). The disciples weren’t avoiding their responsibility when they didn’t wash each other’s feet; they simply refused to demean themselves beyond what was required of them.

The Son, on the other hand, existed in the form of God from all eternity past, and yet he nevertheless emptied himself willingly of his glory in order to take the form of a servant in this world (Phil. 2:6–7). His servanthood was not empty or symbolic, but real, so that he humbled himself from the moment of his incarnation, during his act of foot-washing, and ultimately all the way to the point of death on a cross to serve you and me (Phil. 2:8). To follow Jesus’ example of washing each others’ feet means that we must take up the position of a slave, just as Jesus did for us. Or, as Paul puts it at the beginning of the Christ hymn in Philippians 2, “Have this mind in you, which was also in Christ Jesus…” (Phil. 2:5; my translation).

Foot-washing, then, represents so much more than a ceremony of literally washing one another’s feet. It means refusing to do anything out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility to consider others as more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3). It means elevating the interests of others above your own (Phil. 2:4). Ultimately, it means laying down our lives for one another in self-sacrificial love, just as Jesus has done for us (John 13:34).

“If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (John 13:17).

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