* A better theory. Consider what the gospels really say.
(John 13:8-11 ESV) 8 Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”
9 Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”
10 Jesus said to him, “The one who has bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean. And you are clean, but not every one of you.” 11 For he knew who was to betray him; that was why he said, “Not all of you are clean.”
There an element of this account which I’ve never heard explained. Why does Jesus say, in v. 10, “The one who is bathed does not need to wash, except for his feet, but is completely clean”? In what sense were the disciples “completely clean”? What does this mean?
Add this to the puzzle:
(John 15:3 ESV) 3 Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.
(John 15:11-15 ESV) 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.
12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.”
And then —
(John 20:21-22 ESV) 21 Jesus said to them again, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, even so I am sending you.” 22 And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”
Peter asks to be washed by Jesus head to toe, and Jesus responds that this is not necessary. The image is of a man who bathes in preparation for a feast, and upon arriving there only needs to have his feet washed.
The guest was supposed to bathe (λουω [louō]) before coming to a feast and so only the feet had to be washed (νιπτω [niptō]) on removing the sandals.
Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Accord Leon Morris, New International Commentary on John.
In 15:3, we see that the disciples are declared clean because of Jesus’ teaching. And so it seems that Jesus is saying, in effect, I have one last lesson to teach you: washing your feet completes the cleansing by my word. But, his point is: this is all you need. You don’t need a bath because you’ve already had a bath.
Notice Jesus’ highly emphatic “completely clean” or “thoroughly” or “entirely” clean. The disciples weren’t by any means perfect men, and so their cleanness must be a gift of grace. How else could it be complete?
Here’s my interpretation: You are utterly clean, by grace, because you’ve accepted my teaching and so have faith. But neither my teaching nor your cleansing will be complete until you learn one last lesson, the lesson of humble service. I’ll teach this lesson by washing your feet, but I’ll complete the lesson by dying for you. But I know already that you’ll learn that lesson well.
Therefore, you are no longer merely students. You are my friends.
Now, “friend” is a reference to —
(2Ch 20:7 ESV) Did you not, our God, drive out the inhabitants of this land before your people Israel, and give it forever to the descendants of Abraham your friend?
(Isa 41:8 ESV) But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
(James 2:23 ESV) and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”–and he was called a friend of God.
In what sense were the disciples like Abraham? Well, James says in the sense that both Abraham and Jesus’ disciples are saved by faith.
In fact, the NET Bible notes suggest that “friend” means “covenantal partner” by comparison to 1 King 5:1, 15 and 2 Chron 20:7 — which in the New Testament context, means much the same thing.
Therefore, by calling the disciples “friends” and “completely clean,” he is saying they’ve already been saved — by faith in his teachings.
All that would be missing is … the Holy Spirit, which Jesus proleptically promises by breathing on them — the Greek and Hebrew for “breath” and “Spirit” being the same word.
We should first note that John 13-17 is not limited to the “apostles” but to the “disciples,” which could be the very same 12 or could be a somewhat larger group. (Ben Witherington argues that the group included at least Lazarus in addition to the 12.) It’s hard, though, to imagine Jesus washing the feet of 120!
The fact that this group was cleansed by the word of Jesus need not be limited solely to the 12 — as Acts 1 – 2 suggests. It could be true of the entire community of disciples that had enough faith to remain true to Jesus even after his death. Why not?
And Jesus’ use of “bathe” and “clean” to refer to the disciples present is highly evocative baptism. Thus, a natural reading of Jesus’ words is that these disciples were already cleansed in the same sense that baptism would later cleanse — lacking only the Spirit who would be given soon.
The problems with this theory are —
* It seems unlikely that the entire 120 were present during the footwashing event, and Jesus seems to address only those whose feet are being washed. But the principle of cleansing by faith in Jesus’ words is a major theme in John’s Gospel and hardly limited to just the 12.
* This contradicts the church’s later teaching that baptism is absolutely essential to salvation. But that teaching is not supported by John or Acts, both of which seem to record cleansings separate from water baptism. And so either there were exceptions that would never be repeated (the 120, Cornelius, and perhaps the Samaritans), or else faith is the ultimate test and baptism is commanded but not essential to those who have been improperly instructed.
It is, of course, John who repeatedly promises salvation to all with faith (meaning, of course, a penitent faith, not a mere intellectual assent) –
(John 3:14-15 ESV) 14 “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, 15 that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
(John 3:16 ESV) 16 “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.”
(John 3:18 ESV) 18 “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.”
(John 20:30-31 ESV) 30 Now Jesus did many other signs in the presence of the disciples, which are not written in this book; 31 but these are written so that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
The advantages of this theory are —
* It’s consistent with what we read in Acts.
* It’s consistent with the numerous assertions in John that all with faith will be saved.
* It rests on actual scriptural evidence and not rank speculation.
* It supports a case for a theology of baptism that doesn’t damn converts, new to the scriptures, who are wrongly baptized because of they’ve received poor instruction from the church — which seems much truer to the heart of God than a theology that damns all who come to God with a genuine faith and penitence but happen to have a pastor with a weak baptismal theology.
The question of the apostles’ baptism is deeply troubling to those who approach the scriptures as a rule book and expect God himself to behave according to simple, easily predicted rules. Indeed, we sometimes attempt to reduce God to something like Newtonian mechanics — entirely predictable motion according to a handful of rules.
But God is a person, not a machine or a rulebook. He reveals himself through story — true story, but story. And we begin to understand the personality and heart of God by honestly confronting the stories he tells.
Jesus could have easily baptized the apostles. The Spirit could have easily recorded their immersion in a Gospel or in Acts. But instead we are told that they are bathed and cleansed by having heard the words of Jesus — an experience that culminated in learning to be like Jesus by becoming servants for others, a lesson Jesus would soon teach again (times a thousand!) by submitting to crucifixion.
Thus, more important than even baptism is submission, service, and sacrifice in response to faith in Jesus. And we’d have vastly healthier congregations if we’d learn this lesson well.
Indeed, in our zeal to damn all with an imperfect baptism, we’ve sometimes placed baptism at the center of our theology, preferring confidence in our obedience to a ritual over confidence in the love of Jesus. The result has been to turn us into rulekeepers rather than servants — and it’s a great tragedy.
And the sad irony is that the rule we should have been keeping the most is sacrificing for the benefit of others. By becoming focused on rulekeeping, we missed the most important rules.