What did Jesus mean when, after having dismissed Judas, he told his eleven faithful apostles that they were "already clean" because of the word that he had spoken to them? Remember earlier, when Jesus took a basin with water and proceeded to wash the feet of his disciples (with Judas still present), Peter objected and told Jesus, "You will certainly never wash my feet." He was startled when Jesus answered him by saying: "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me." Peter immediately reversed his objection and replied: "Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head." In turn, Jesus answered: "He that has bathed does not need to have more than his feet washed, but is wholly clean. And you men are clean, but not all." The apostle John, one of the twelve who was present, explains further: "[Jesus] knew, indeed, the man betraying him (Judas). This is why he said: 'Not all of you are clean.'" (John 13:2-11)
This may raise the question: In what way does a person become "clean"? Is it by means of God's word, as Jesus indicates above? Or do we become clean when being bathed in water – that is, baptism – as some suggest regarding the washing of the feet of his disciples, for they were all baptized by John the Baptist? (John 12:49,50; Acts 22:16) Is Jesus perhaps talking about a "spiritual" cleanliness, and therefore the washing of the feet of his disciples was "in symbol" of that cleansing?
Did you know that the expression "in symbol of" is not found anywhere in the Bible; although it appears in the New World Translation (NWT) in four places, all in connection with the baptism of John the Baptist? For example, according to the NWT, Mark 1:4 reads: "John the baptizer turned up in the wilderness, preaching baptism [in symbol] of repentance for forgiveness of sins." (also at Luke 3:3; Acts 13:24; 19:4)
"In symbol" is shown in brackets because it is acknowledged that those words do not appear in the original manuscripts. (Since the 2013 version, the brackets, which previously enclosed words and phrases that were added by the publisher, have now been removed; making it appear that these spurious additions actually belong in the Bible) The words are added by the translators; they are spurious, an interpolation; I suppose for the purpose of explaining the meaning of John's baptism. But rather than making the meaning clear, it often causes confusion. John the Baptist was appointed by God to "prepare the way of Jehovah," by turning the people to God in advance of Jesus' ministry. (Luke 3:2-18) John was preaching and baptizing for "repentance for forgiveness of sins", because the actual forgiveness of sins would follow upon Jesus' death. (Romans 5:6-10) After Jesus' death, baptism was for forgiveness of sins, and not merely for repentance. (Acts 2:38; 22:16) Does baptism symbolize our being washed clean of our sins?
In order for God to forgive us our sins, he has three requirements that we must meet:
εγενετο ιωαννης ο βαπτιζων εν τη ερημω κηρυσσων βαπτισμα μετανοιας εις αφεσιν αμαρτιων (ΚΑΤΑ ΜΑΡΚΟΝ 1:4)
The prophet Isaiah wrote: "Oh, wash yourselves! Be clean! Let me no longer see you doing all these wicked things; quit your evil ways. Learn to do good, to be fair, and to help the poor, the fatherless, and widows. Come, let’s talk this over, says the Lord; no matter how deep the stain of your sins, I can take it out and make you as clean as freshly fallen snow. Even if you are stained as red as crimson, I can make you white as wool! If you will only let me help you, if you will only obey, then I will make you rich! But if you keep on turning your backs and refusing to listen to me, you will be killed by your enemies; I, the Lord, have spoken.” (Isaiah 1:16-20; Living Bible)
We become clean in God's eyes by our obedience; not by literal water, nor by simply hearing God's word. Therefore, when Jesus said, "you are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you," he was acknowledging that his disciples were obedient to his word; for by their obedience they continued to be branches in the vine that was Jesus, and their obedience produced good fruit. Indeed, Jesus went on to say to them: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the cultivator. Every branch in me not bearing fruit he takes away, and every one bearing fruit he cleans, that it may bear more fruit. You are already clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. . . I am the vine, you are the branches. He that remains in union with me, and I in union with him, this one bears much fruit; because apart from me you can do nothing at all. . . My Father is glorified in this, that you keep bearing much fruit and prove yourselves my disciples. Just as the Father has loved me and I have loved you, remain in my love. If you observe my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have observed the commandments of the Father and remain in his love." (John 15:1-10)
It is absolutely vital for us to be clean by remaining in God's word. Jesus said that the Father cleanses us in order for us to keep bearing much fruit; and Isaiah points out that this may include being refined "in the furnace of affliction." (Isaiah 48:10, 17,18) We are cleansed, that is, made holy, by God's word, as Jesus said in his prayer to his Father: "Sanctify them by means of the truth; your word is truth." (John 17:17; 1 Peter 1:14-16) Since it is the truth of God's word that sanctifies us, can you see why it is so important that we accept only the truth of God's word? Yes, any falsehood, errors, and lies that may find their way into our worship will render us unclean; which in turn will result in our being cast out as a branch and dried up; "and men gather those branches up and pitch them into the fire and they are burned." (John 15:6; 4:23,24; Matthew 15:3-9; 23:25,26)
Repentance for our sins – our past disobedience to God; for without genuine repentance there can be no forgiveness. (Isaiah 1:16-20; Luke 13:3)
Then, complete forgiveness for our sins is made possible by Jesus' death, in which we must put faith. (John 8:24; 1 Corinthians 15:22)
This must be followed by baptism, for baptism is a command from God. The Bible does not say that baptism is "in symbol" of anything (certainly not in symbol of one's dedication to God, which is not even mentioned in the Scriptures). By submitting to water baptism we simply demonstrate our obedience to God's command. Have we not already repented of our past disobedience? Hence, it is our obedience by which we attain a clean standing before God, not that the water itself cleanses us. (compare Matthew 7:21-23)