Have you ever wondered why Catholics have priests, but many other Christians have ‘pastors’ or ‘ministers’ and shun the idea of priests because they equate them with the dreaded Pharisees and the teachers of the Law?
At the amazing ecumenical Bible Study I attend in our little seaside community north of Perth, we have been studying chapters 13 to 21 of the Gospel of John, or the ‘Book of Glory’ as this section is called. This has given me the opportunity to delve deeper into the reading we will have on Holy Thursday: Jesus washing the feet of his disciples. On the surface Jesus is talking about humility, selfless love and service to others, but when we start looking at the typology, a whole new world of meaning opens up.
In fact, Jesus himself tells us there is more under the surface when he says: “At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.” This reminds us of other times the disciples didn’t know what Jesus was talking about – Luke 18:34, for example, “But they could make nothing of this; what he said was quite obscure to them, they did not understand what he was telling them.”
They were at supper, and the devil had already put it into the mind of Judas Iscariot son of Simon, to betray him. Jesus knew that the Father had put everything into his hands, and that he had come from God and was returning to God, and he got up from table, removed his outer garments and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.
He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, ‘Lord, are you going to wash my feet?’ Jesus answered, ‘At the moment you do not know what I am doing, but later you will understand.’ ‘Never!’ said Peter, You shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus replied, ‘If I do not wash you, you can have no share with me.‘ ’Simon Peter said, ‘Well then, Lord, not only my feet, but my hands and my head as well!’ Jesus said, ‘No one who has had a bath needs washing, such a person is clean all over. You too are clean, though not all of you are.’ He knew who was going to betray him, and that was why he said, ‘though not all of you are.’
When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table. ‘Do you understand’, he said, ‘what I have done to you? You call me Master and Lord, and rightly; so I am. If I, then, the Lord and Master have washed your feet, you must wash each other’s feet. I have given you an example so that you may copy what I have done to you.
‘In all truth I tell you,
no servant is greater than his master,
no messenger is greater than the one who sent him.’
So what points can we make to demonstrate that during this scene, and in the chapters following, Jesus is transforming the status of the disciples to that of priests and carrying out a mystical and sacramental act? In fact, this would have been much clearer to the disciples and early Christians than to us, because they were familiar with the language and significance of the Old Testament.
- Jesus is acting as a High Priest about to carry out an act of expiation. The Old Testament prefigures and is fulfilled by the action of Christ in the New Testament, so we can look for parallel passages in the Old Testament which throw light on what Jesus is doing. One such passage is Leviticus 16 which describes the action of Aaron, the high priest, for the Day of Expiation. The table below shows the common elements between Leviticus 16 and John 13.
The Washing of the Disciples’ Feet (John 13)
|Common elements||OLD TESTAMENT
The Great Day of Expiation (Leviticus 16:23-25
|… he got up from table, removed his outer garments||The High Priest takes off his outer vestments.||When he has sent the goat into the desert, Aaron will go back into the Tent of Meeting and take off the linen vestments which he wore to enter the sanctuary and leave them there.|
|… and, taking a towel, wrapped it round his waist; he then poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel he was wearing.||The High Priest carries out a washing ritual – but Jesus transfers the washing to the disciples.||He will then wash his body inside the holy place …|
|When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments again he went back to the table.||Re-robing after the washing.||…put on his vestments and come outside …|
|Jesus is about to offer his own life as the ultimate expiation for sin.||Expiation||… to offer his own and the people’s burnt offering. He will perform the rite of expiation for himself and for the people.|
- Jesus is wearing the garment of the High Priest. We know this because he has just taken off his outer garment – probably his prayer shawl. So he must be wearing the seamless undergarment that John tells us about in John 19:23 – a characteristic of the High Priest’s linen vestment as well. Josephus describes the seamlessness of the high priest’s garment in his History of the Exodus.
Now this vesture was not composed of two pieces, nor was it sewed together upon the shoulders and the sides, but it was one long vestment so woven as to have an aperture for the neck; not an oblique one, but parted all along the breast and the back. A border also was sewed to it, lest the aperture should look too indecently: it was also parted where the hands were to come out.(Antiquities, Book III, Chapter 7, 4.)
- Jesus is carrying out a ritual water purification prior to approaching the altar of sacrifice – where he will be the sacrifice. This is described in Exodus 30:17-21, except that instead of Aaron the High Priest and his sons, the Priests being purified, we have Jesus the High Priest purifying his spiritual sons, the Twelve Apostles, priests of the New Covenant.
You will also make a bronze basin on its bronze stand for washing. You will put it between the Tent of Meeting and the altar and put water in it, in which Aaron and his sons will wash their hands and feet. Whenever they are to enter the Tent of Meeting, they will wash, to avoid incurring death; and whenever they approach the altar for their service, to burn an offering for Yahweh, they will wash their hands and feet, to avoid incurring death.
Note that John takes for granted that his readers would understand that the disciples would have washed their hands during the course of the Passover meal anyway. There were three ritual hand washings during this meal: before drinking from the second cup during the reading of the Haggadah (Exodus story), before the unleavened bread was distributed, and after eating the roast lamb. Only the feet remained to be done, and in fact Jesus may have replaced one of these hand-washings with the foot-washing instead.
- Jesus talks about the disciples “having a part in him” – so if he is the High Priest (Heb. 4:14-16), they are the regular priests. John uses the Greek term, meros (μέρος) for the disciples’ share (part, portion) in Jesus. This is an unusual word to use, but when we look at its parallel usages in the Old Testament, it makes perfect sense. Where God gives land to the tribes of Israel, he says to the Levites, the priestly tribe, “You will have no heritage in their country, you will not have a portion (μέρος) like them; I shall be your portion (μέρος) and your heritage among the Israelites” (Numbers 18:20). Again in Deuteronomy 10:9,
The LORD then set apart the tribe of Levi to carry the ark of the LORD’s covenant, to stand in the presence of the LORD, to serve him and to bless his name, as they still do today. This is why Levi has no share (μέρος) or heritage with his brothers: the LORD is his heritage (μέρος).
So when Jesus says, “If I do not wash you, you can have no share (μέρος) with me,” (Ἐὰν μὴ νίψω σε οὐκ ἔχεις μέρος μετ’ ἐμοῦ), Simon Peter gets the reference to the ordination of Aaron and his sons, the priests, and wants to be anointed feet, hands and head!
- Servanthood = ministry. Another interesting point is that when Jesus says,
no servant is greater than his master,
No messenger is greater than the one who sent him.
the word doulos (δοῦλος) in Greek means both servant and minister, and the word for messenger is, of course, apostle or apostolos (ἀπόστολος), so Jesus is talking about appointing these apostles in a particular role as a ministerial priesthood.
- Jesus’ consecration of the Apostles during the High Priestly prayer. If we read further in John, we will come to Jesus’ act of consecrating Himself to the Father, and then consecrating his Disciples. This is outside the scope of the Holy Thursday reading, but relevant to the consecration of Priests. For ‘consecrate’ he uses the word, hagiazei (ἁγιάζει), which is also used in Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers for the ordination of priests.
Consecrate them in the truth;
As you sent me into the world,
I have sent them into the world,
and for their sake I consecrate myself
so that they too may be consecrated in truth. (John 17:17-19)
A lot more could be said on this topic than will reasonably fit into a blog post, but let me recommend Scott Hahn’s study, John, the Sacramental Gospel, particularly part 6, which covers the section from chapter 13 onwards, as well as Dr Lawrence Feingold’s treatise on the Typology of the Old Testament Priesthood, which goes into the comparison between the threefold model of High Priest, Priest and Levite in the Old Covenant, with the offices of Bishop, Priest and Deacon in the New Covenant.