Focus on Jesus Series
Foot-washing Not An Ordinance: A Position Paper
by Ed Vasicek
The “Imperative Mood” is the grammatical description for the voice of command. The New Testament is filled with imperatives, including many uttered by Jesus. Many commands were given to individuals, such as, “Sell all you have and give it to the poor.” Other commands deal with principles in which a particular is used in place of a broad concept. For example, Jesus taught about not seeking honor from men (the concept). He commanded His disciples, “…But when you are invited, take the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he will say to you, ‘Friend, move up to a better place’” (Luke 14:10).
We understand Jesus is teaching a principle, not a lesson about etiquette. We should not be out to exalt our egos. When Jesus said, “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth…” (Matthew 6:19), most of us do not refuse to open bank accounts in light of it. We look for the principle, which is clearly what Jesus has in mind (this “hot and cold” technique was a common rabbinic teaching method in the first century). Between reading on and noting Jesus’ other teachings, we understand He was teaching a matter of priorities, in this case culminating in Matthew 6:33, “But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”
So when we come to the passage about foot-washing, when Jesus commands, “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you,” we need to ask exactly what Jesus intended. In the context, Jesus set the example of menial, practical service. In a sandaled culture where foot-washing was a constant need (and part of etiquette), it needs to be pointed out Jesus was talking about PRACTICAL service for others. Those who believe Jesus was initiating an ordinance fail to grasp that Jesus' example was just the opposite. Unlike the formalities of Passover (just at hand in this text), Jesus was serving others. “Foot-washing” is simply one of many examples of menial but useful service (see 1 Timothy 5:10). Even the example of a willingness to serve is not without exception, but a general concept. If menial service displaces the ministry of the Word, as in the conflict between Mary and Martha, then menial service can be put off or delegated. See Acts 6 where the Apostles designated others to serve on tables so they could be free for their ministry. All Christians should be willing to serve in menial ways: that is the lesson here.
The ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper are certainly treated differently than foot-washing, as is shown below:
|FOOT-WASHING||THE LORD’S SUPPER||BAPTISM|
|Appears only in John, the latest Gospel, AD 90 therefore not priority||All 4 Gospels, epistles including earliest (1 Corinthians) therefore crucial||All 4 Gospels, epistles including earliest (1 Corinthians) therefore crucial|
|No mention of practice in Acts||Practiced in Acts||Practiced in Acts|
|No detailed instruction||Detailed instruction||Some detailed instruction|
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