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Synonyms of the New Testament :: Richard C. Trench

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xlv. πλύνω, νίπτω, λούω.

There is a certain poverty in English, which has one only word, ‘to wash,’ with which to render these three Greek; seeing that the three have each a propriety of its own, and one which the inspired writers always observe. Thus πλύνειν is always to wash inanimate things, as distinguished from living objects or persons; oftenest garments (εἵματα, Homer, Il. xxii. 155; ἱμάτιον, Plato, Charm. 161 e; and in the Septuagint continually; so στολάς, Rev. 7:14); but not exclusively garments, as some affirm, for see Luke 5:2, where it expresses the washing or cleansing of nets (δίκτυα: cf. Polybius, ix. 6, 3). When David exclaims πλῦνόν με ἀπὸ τῆς ἀνομίας (Ps. 50:3 [51:3, A. V.]), this is no exception to the rule; for the mention of hyssop, which follows, shows plainly that the royal penitent had the ceremonial aspersions of the Levitical law primarily in his eye, aspersions therefore upon the garments of the unclean person (Lev. 14:9; Num. 19:6, 7), however he may have looked through these to another and better sprinkling beyond.1

Νίπτειν and λούειν, on the other hand, express the washing of living persons; although with this difference, that νίπτειν (which displaced in the later period of the language the Attic νίζειν), and νίψασθαι, almost always express the washing of a part of the body—the hands (Mark 7:3; Exod. 30:19), the feet (John 13:5; Plutarch, Thes. 10), the face (Matt. 6:17), the eyes (John 9:7), the back and shoulders (Homer, Od. vi. 224); while λούειν, which is not so much ‘to wash’ as ‘to bathe,’ and λοῦσθαι, ‘to bathe oneself,’ implies always, not the washing of a part of the body, but of the whole (thus λελουμένοι τὸ σῶμα, Heb. 10:22; cf. Exod. 29:4; Acts 9:27; 2 Pet. 2:22; Rev. 1:5; Plato, Phoed. 115 a). This limitation of νίπτειν to persons as contra- distinguished from things, which is always observed in the N. T., is not without exceptions, although they are very unfrequent elsewhere; thus, δέπας (Homer, Il. xvi. 229); τραπέζας (Od. i. 112); σκεῦος (Lev. 15:12). A single verse in the Septuagint (Lev. 15:11) gives us all the three words, and all used in their exact propriety of meaning: καὶ ὅσων ἐὰν ἅψηται ὁ γονοῤῥυὴς, καὶ τὰς χεῖρας αὐτοῦ οὐ νένιπται ὕδατι, πλυνεῖ τὰ ἱμάτια, καὶ λούσεται τὸ σῶμα ὕδατι.

The passage where it is most important to mark the distinction between νίπτειν, to wash a part, and λουειν or λοῦσθαι, to wash the whole, of the body, and where certainly our English Version loses something in clearness from the absence of words which should note the passing from one word to the other in the original, is John 13:10: “He that is washed [ὁ λελουμένος] needeth not save to wash [νίψασθαι] his feet, but is clean every whit.”2 The foot-washing was a symbolic act. St. Peter had not understood this at the first, and, not understanding, had exclaimed, “Thou shalt never wash my feet.” But so soon as ever the true meaning of what his Lord was doing flashed upon him, he who had before refused to suffer his Lord to wash even his feet, now prayed to be washed altogether: “Lord, not my feet only, but also my hands and my head.” Christ replies, that it needed not this: Peter had been already made partaker of the great washing, of that forgiveness which included the whole man: he was λελουμένος, and this great absolving act did not need to be repeated, was indeed incapable of repetition: “Now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3). But while it fared thus with him in respect of the all-inclusive forgiveness, he did need to wash his feet (νίψασθαι τοὺς πόδας), evermore to cleanse himself, which could only be through suffering his Lord to cleanse him, from the defilements which even he, a justified and in part also a sanctified man, should gather as he moved through a sinful world. One might almost suppose, as it, has been suggested, that there was allusion here to the Levitical ordinance, according to which Aaron and his successors in the priesthood were to be washed once for all from head to foot at their consecration to their office (Exod. 27:4; 40:12); but were to wash their hands and their feet in the brasen laver as often as they afterwards ministered before the Lord (Exod. 30:19, 21; 40:31). Yet this would commend itself more, if we did not find hands and feet in the same category there, while here they are not merely disjoined, but set over against one another (John. ver. 9, 10). This much however to me is plain, that the whole mystery of our justification, which is once for all, reaching to every need, embracing our whole being, and of our sanctification, which must daily go forward, is wrapped up in the antithesis between the two words. This Augustine has expressed clearly and well (In Ev. Joh. xiii. 10): ‘Homo in sancto quidem baptismo totus abluitur, non praeter pedes, sed totus omnino: veruntamen cum in rebus humanis postea vivitur, utique terra calcatur. Ipsi igitur humani affectus, sine quibus in hâc mortalitate non vivitur, quasi pedes sunt, ubi ex humanis rebus afficimur. Quotidie ergo pedes lavat nobis, qui interpellat pro nobis: ex quotidie nos opus habere ut pedes lavemus in ipsâ Oratione Dominicâ confitemur, cum dicimus, Dimitte nobis debita nostra.’


[1 Ezek. 16:9, however, should perhaps be quoted as an exception, where ἔπλυνα is used of the person of a new-born infant.]

2 The Latin labours under the same defect; thus in the Vulgate it stands: ‘Qui lotus est, non indiget nisi ut pedes lavet.’ De Wette has sought to preserve the variation of word: ‘Wer gebadet ist, der braucht sich nicht als an den Füssen zu waschen.’

[The following Strong's numbers apply to this section:G3068,G3538,G4150.]

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