Here is yet another word, plentiful in song and sermon, but only quite rarely used in the New Testament of anything but ordinary physical cleanliness. An English reference to “washing” is used for no less than ten different Greek words, of which the most common are quite readily distinguishable, and only one (in three forms) has even limited direct reference to “spiritual” cleansing. Let’s look at the evidence.
One of them can be disposed of very quickly. Brecho, usually translated “rain” (Mt.5:45, Lk.17:29, Jas.5:17, Rv.11:6), is rendered “wash” only twice (Lk.7:38, 44), where it is used of tears.
The three primary root words, classically, occupied simple but specific domains.
Louo, with its related noun loutron and its prefixed form apolouo, refers to bathing: washing one’s entire body. Sometimes, but not always, there is an accompanying sense of ritual purification.
Nipto (historically nizo) and its prefixed form in the middle voice, aponiptomai, while it also occasionally implied purification, more frequently intended simply washing one’s hands or feet. In both LXX and New Testament accounts, the offering of water for washing the feet of a guest was a normal expectation of hospitality (Gen.18:4, 19:2, 24:32; Lk.7:44, I Tim.5:10, Jn.13). This word is not used of bathing.
Pluno and its prefixed form apopluno, appearing only once each in the New Testament but frequently in the LXX, refers to the washing of garments or other inanimate objects: mandatory purification under the Law, but except for two occurrences (Lk.5:2 and Rv.7:14), absent from the New Testament writings. L/S notes that it would have been applied to people only with derogatory overtones. It could also imply “worn out” or “threadbare”, as by many washings of a garment.
These divisions fit very well with the New Testament appearances of the words, although there are several marked deviations in the LXX.
Both louo and nipto, for example, are used in Jesus’ conversation with Peter in John 13, where references to the washing of feet consistently employs nipto, but Jesus’ word to Peter that a person who has had a bath (louo) only needs his feet washed (nipto) makes a clear distinction. Washing one’s face (Mt.6:17 and probably Jn.9:7,11), hands (Mt.15:12, Mk.7:3) and feet (Jn.13:6, 8, 10, 12, 14, and I Tim.5:10) are all expressed with nipto, whereas bathing the body (louo) is obvious in Jn.13:10, Ac.9:37, 16:33, and Heb.10:22,23 (where it could also reference baptism). Interestingly, Peter (II Pet.2:22) even uses it of a pig!
Please note that none of these, except the Hebrews reference (to which we will return) refers to anything but a simple, physical act of cleansing. Different vocabulary is usually employed when more-than-ordinary cleansing is intended, for which please consult #65.
Of the three prefixed forms, aponiptomai describes Pilate’s ostentatious “washing his hands” of the sordid affair of Jesus’ lynching (Mt.27:24) – which Bauer attributes to Jewish, rather than Roman culture as a gesture of innocence. Apopluno is used for the washing of fishing nets (Lk.5:2). Only apolouo carries any “spiritual” connotation (Ac.22:16 and I Cor.6:11), as does loutron in Eph.5:26 and Titus 3:5, and the Heb.10:22 use of louo.
This latter group is often connected with baptism. Interestingly, baptizo (v) and baptismos (n), although usually translated “baptize” or “baptism”, are also rarely rendered “wash” : the verb twice (Mk.7:4 and Lk.11:38) – against 74x “baptize” – and the noun three times (Mk.7:4, 8; Heb.9:10). In each of these, the reference clearly is not symbolic of commitment to Jesus’ lordship.
The more common form for “baptism” is baptisma (22x). You can find a more detailed treatment of baptism in chapter 10 of Citizens of the Kingdom. (free download.)
Inexplicably, Bauer connects this word with Jewish ritual washings, despite the fact that it occurs only twice in the LXX: once of Naaman the Syrian in the Jordan (II Ki 5:14) and once where Isaiah (21:4) speaks of being “overwhelmed” by transgressions: neither of which makes any reference to Jewish ceremony. The above references to Mark and Luke may provide a tenuous connection, but certainly no strong evidence.
By way of contrast, Paul, in the Ac.22:16 passage cited above, quotes Ananias as directly connecting his baptism (baptisai) with the “washing away” (apolousai) of his shortcomings [“sins”] (#141) by “calling upon the name of Jesus”. All of the verbs here are aorist tenses, which indicate a single, definitive act. Likewise, in I Cor.6:11, “washed” (apelousasthe), “made holy” (hEgiasthEte), and “made just” (edikaiothEte) are all aorist passive verbs. All of this, therefore, is assumed to have taken place upon the occasion of one’s baptism!
In Eph.5:26, a similar transformation is described as having taken place for the church as a whole – but this time, the agent (dative case) is not only “washing with water” but also “the word” (see #66). The verbs, however, are still aorist. We are dealing with accomplished fact here, not a process, which we saw to be the case with “salvation” (#5). To Titus (3:5), Paul associates “washing” with “rebirth [regeneration]” – the beginning of one’s life in Christ.
This is not, however, to contradict Jesus’ statement already noted in Jn.13, that even those who have had a bath will still need to wash from their feet the residue from walking through a world that has not submitted to his cleansing. But that realization needs to be held in balance with Heb.10:22, as we “approach him with full confidence”! Here, the cleansing of having been “sprinkled” (rherhantismenoi) and thereby cleansed “from consciousness of evil”, as well as “washed” (leloumenoi) are perfect participles – past events with present consequences! (Please see #6, 7, 14, and 128). Rhantizo, a very common word in the LXX describing purification rites, appears only in the letter to the Hebrews in summaries of those processes (9:13,19, 21 and 12:24) and a single reference in I Pet.1:2, where the reference is also to purification.
And here, with only three references (I Pet.1:2, Rv.1:5, and Rv.7:14), one can finally discover a source for all the noise about being “washed in blood”. (Peter only refers to a ceremonial “sprinkling”.)
In Rv.1:5, the actor is Jesus (not people); and the “washing” appears fifth on a list of six descriptions of the accomplishments of the Lord Jesus. In Rv.7:14, the reference is in a highly allegorical description of a contingent of martyrs having “washed their robes.” (And by the way, a “fountain / well” – pEgE – same word – is simply a natural source of water in Jas.3:11,12; Rv.7:17, 8:10, 14:7, 16:4, 21:6; Jn.4:6, 14; II Pet.2:17. The only exception is the Mk.5:29 reference to the healing of the woman who had a hemorrhage – and nobody “washes” in that!)
All the common rhetoric, verbal or musical, is seriously out of balance!
Where is the proclamation (also in Rv.1:5) of Jesus as “the faithful witness, the firstborn from the dead, and the ruler of the kings of the earth, who loves us”? Where is the announcement that he has “made(of) us a kingdom of priests to God his Father”? All of these have multiple New Testament references, and should therefore have enormous influence upon the life of his people!
Please understand that this is not to ignore or disparage either the “shedding of his blood” (see previous post) or being “washed” with it as an operative factor in the process – whether that phrase is taken as a reference to physical blood, to Jesus’ life, his humanity, or any other part of his activity during or after his years on the earth. It is simply a plea that those who claim to represent our Lord and King pay proportionate attention to aspects of his life, teaching, example, and accomplishments that are much more frequently described and explained in Scripture,and therefore equally, if not more essential to the life and health of his Body.
May we represent him faithfully!