John 13:4-17 — Jesus washed the feet of the apostles — LeGrand Baker

It is often described as an act of humility, and that understanding is no doubt correct. However, Elder James E. Talmage associates it with the ordinance of washing of feet “pertaining to the Holy Priesthood” that was used in school of the prophets before and after the completion of the Kirtland Temple.

Peter did not understand why the Savior wanted to wash his feet, so Jesus assured him, “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” (V. 7)

Peter’s response was perfectly reasonable. It is often true that one’s subsequent experiences are necessary to understand ordinances one has already received. For example, anyone who has ever been a bishop will tell you that he had no idea what it meant until he had experienced the multiple ramifications of that calling.

Another, probably better example is the Lamanites who came to the prison to mock Nephi and Lehi. They were overshadowed by a cloud of darkness, then were taught to pray, and then —-

43 And it came to pass that when they cast their eyes about, and saw that the cloud of darkness was dispersed from overshadowing them, behold, they saw that they were encircled about, yea every soul, by a pillar of fire.
44 And Nephi and Lehi were in the midst of them; yea, they were encircled about; yea, they were as if in the midst of a flaming fire, yet it did harm them not, neither did it take hold upon the walls of the prison; and they were filled with that joy which is unspeakable and full of glory.
45 And behold, the Holy Spirit of God did come down from heaven, and did enter into their hearts, and they were filled as if with fire, and they could speak forth marvelous words.
………….
49 And there were about three hundred souls who saw and heard these things; and they were bidden to go forth and marvel not, neither should they doubt.
50 And it came to pass that they did go forth, and did minister unto the people, declaring throughout all the regions round about all the things which they had heard and seen, insomuch that the more part of the Lamanites were convinced of them, because of the greatness of the evidences which they had received (Helaman 5:43-50).

There were 300 Lamanites who experienced that light. Yet, when the Savior mentioned it, he said they did not understand what had happened to them. He said,

19 And ye shall offer up unto me no more the shedding of blood; yea, your sacrifices and your burnt offerings shall be done away, for I will accept none of your sacrifices and your burnt offerings.
20 And ye shall offer for a sacrifice unto me a broken heart and a contrite spirit. And whoso cometh unto me with a broken heart and a contrite spirit, him will I baptize with fire and with the Holy Ghost, even as the Lamanites, because of their faith in me at the time of their conversion, were baptized with fire and with the Holy Ghost, and they knew it not (3 Nephi 9:19-20).

He did not mean that they did not know that they had been surrounded and filled with the light (shechinah), but that they did not know what it was. The experience was completely foreign to their culture. They had not been taught to anticipate such an event and had no language with which to describe it or by which to understand it.

A third example is that one may suppose that many of the people who participated in the ancient Israelite temple drama could not fathom the depth of the significance of the events in which they had just participated.

Similarly, Peter’s culture had not prepared him to understand what Jesus was doing. In his world, when a visitor came to one’s home, it was a sign of respect that a servant would wash the guest’s feet. Peter thought of himself as Jesus’s servant, not the other way around

This is the story as John the Beloved tells it.

4 He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments; and took a towel, and girded himself.
5 After that he poureth water into a bason, and began to wash the disciples’ feet, and to wipe them with the towel wherewith he was girded.
6 Then cometh he to Simon Peter: and Peter saith unto him, Lord, dost thou wash my feet?
7 Jesus answered and said unto him, What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.
8 Peter saith unto him, Thou shalt never wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.

JST john 13:8 Peter saith unto him, Thou needest not to wash my feet. Jesus answered him, If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.

9 Simon Peter saith unto him, Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.
10 Jesus saith to him, He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.

JST john 13:10 Jesus saith to him, He that has washed his hands and his head, needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit; and ye are clean, but not all. Now this was the custom of the Jews under their law; wherefore, Jesus did this that the law might be fulfilled.

11 For he knew who should betray him; therefore said he, Ye are not all clean.
12 So after he had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and was set down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?
13 Ye call me Master and Lord: and ye say well; for so I am.
14 If I then, your Lord and Master, have washed your feet; ye also ought to wash one another’s feet.
15 For I have given you an example, that ye should do as I have done to you.
16 Verily, verily, I say unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord; neither he that is sent greater than he that sent him.
17 If ye know these things, happy are ye if ye do them.

Elder James E. Talmage described this event as “an ordinance pertaining to the Holy Priesthood.” He wrote,

Jesus said to him: “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” Each of them had been immersed at baptism; the washing of feet was an ordinance pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, the full import of which they had yet to learn. {1}

In an explanatory note, Elder Talmage added the following:

Washing of Feet. – The ordinance of the washing of feet was re-established through revelation December 27, 1832. It was made a feature of admission to the school of the prophets, and detailed instructions relating to its administration were given (see Doc. and Cov. 88 :140, 141). Further direction as to the ordinances involving washing were revealed January 19, 1841 (see Doc. and Cov. 124:37-39). {2}

The scriptures Elder Talmage references are these:

132 And when any shall come in [“into the house of God” v. 130] after him, let the teacher arise, and, with uplifted hands to heaven, yea, even directly, salute his brother or brethren with these words:
133 Art thou a brother or brethren? I salute you in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, in token or remembrance of the everlasting covenant, in which covenant I receive you to fellowship, in a determination that is fixed, immovable, and unchangeable, to be your friend and brother through the grace of God in the bonds of love, to walk in all the commandments of God blameless, in thanksgiving, forever and ever. Amen.
…………….
138 And ye shall not receive any among you into this school save he is clean from the blood of this generation;
139 And he shall be received by the ordinance of the washing of feet, for unto this end was the ordinance of the washing of feet instituted.
140 And again, the ordinance of washing feet is to be administered by the president, or presiding elder of the church.
141 It is to be commenced with prayer; and after partaking of bread and wine, he is to gird himself according to the pattern given in the thirteenth chapter of John’s testimony concerning me. Amen (D&C 88:132-141).

The other scripture is about the need to build the Nauvoo Temple in which to perform baptisms for the dead.

36 For it is ordained that in Zion, and in her stakes, and in Jerusalem, those places which I have appointed for refuge, shall be the places for your baptisms for your dead.
37 And again, verily I say unto you, how shall your washings be acceptable unto me, except ye perform them in a house which you have built to my name?
38 For, for this cause I commanded Moses that he should build a tabernacle, that they should bear it with them in the wilderness, and to build a house in the land of promise, that those ordinances might be revealed which had been hid from before the world was.
39 Therefore, verily I say unto you, that your anointings, and your washings, and your baptisms for the dead, and your solemn assemblies, and your memorials for your sacrifices by the sons of Levi, and for your oracles in your most holy places wherein you receive conversations, and your statutes and judgments, for the beginning of the revelations and foundation of Zion, and for the glory, honor, and endowment of all her municipals, are ordained by the ordinance of my holy house, which my people are always commanded to build unto my holy name (D&C 124:36-39).

Elder Talmage’s full discussion of Jesus’s washing the apostles feed is very insightful. He wrote:

Leaving the table, the Lord laid aside His outer garments and girded Himself with a towel as an apron; then having provided Himself with a basin and a supply of water, He knelt before each of the Twelve in turn, washed his feet, and wiped them with the towel. When He reached Peter, that impulsive apostle protested, saying: “Lord, dost thou wash my feet?” That the proceeding was something more than mere service for personal comfort, and more than an object- lesson of humility, appears in the Lord’s words to Peter– “What I do thou knowest not now; but thou shalt know hereafter.” Peter, failing to understand, objected yet more vehemently; “Thou shalt never wash my feet,” he ex-claimed. Jesus answered: “If I wash thee not, thou hast no part with me.” Then, with even greater impetuosity than before, Peter implored as he stretched forth both feet and hands, “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” He had gone to the other extreme, insisting, though ignorantly and unthinkingly, that things be done his way, and failing yet to see that the ordinance had to be administered as the Lord willed. Again correcting His well-intending though presumptuous servant, Jesus said to him: “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean, but not all.” Each of them had been immersed at baptism; the washing of feet was an ordinance pertaining to the Holy Priesthood, the full import of which they had yet to learn. {3}

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FOOTNOTES

{1} James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ (Salt Lake City, Deseret Book, 1962), 596.

{2} Ibid., 619, Note 3.

{3} Ibid., 595-96.

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