If we really understood, our churches would be filled on Communion Sabbath.
Most Adventist churches hold their Communion services once a quarter. And the Sabbath of that quarterly service is often considered by some a good day to skip church.
Various reasons might be given for this phenomenon, among them the following: Some feel unready or unworthy to participate. Others feel uneasy or embarrassed—embarrassed about what we call “the ordinance of humility.” Not that they’re too proud to wash someone else’s feet, but rather that they experience the lack of a deep, inner rationale for doing something so personal to someone who’s perhaps just an acquaintance. Some have difficulty finding a friend with whom they can feel comfortable—which is perhaps one reason for the increasingly popular “family foot-washing provisions” now available in some churches.
But perhaps the most important reason of all for the decline in participation in this service is a lack of understanding of its real significance.
Why the foot-washing ceremony?As I see it, this service lies at the very heart of the teaching of Jesus and brings us close to the Savior in a very personal way. To know Jesus in a personal experience as the One who humbled Himself for us is to know Him in the only way that really counts.
It’s About HimAlthough it may take a certain amount of courage to overcome the initial shyness and embarrassment some may feel at washing the feet of another, the emphasis in this ordinance is not on what we do, but rather on what Christ has done. In John 13:4 we read: “[Jesus] rose from supper and laid aside His garments, took a towel and girded Himself.”
The towel is a symbol of servanthood, and the ordinance of humility is our recognition that Jesus laid aside His robes of royalty and His kingly crown—that He left the courts of heaven—and humbled Himself to the level of humanity.1 And all this that He might become acquainted with our needs and help us rise above the degradation of the Fall.
We cannot grasp the glory and the exalted position from which He was separated when He emptied Himself and came to be a servant of humanity. It’s only when we know the cost of something that we begin to appreciate it. There is not an illustration in all the vast reaches of time or space that could properly portray what Jesus did.
One of His last acts on earth was to gird Himself as a servant and perform a servant’s part.
“The whole life of Christ had been a life of unselfish service. … At this last Passover supper, Jesus repeated His teaching by an illustration that impressed it forever on their minds and hearts.”2
“Though unrecognized as a church sacrament,” said one historian, “surely there never was a more impressive one than Jesus’ use of the towel at the last meal with His disciples, an act so in keeping with the whole of His life.”3
“Never in the history of the human race has there been a more arresting scene than that of Jesus washing the feet of His disciples. In this incident was revealed the great truth that salvation involves more than what [we do] for God—it also includes God … humbling Himself to serve [us]. It symbolizes the humiliation of Jesus in behalf of [humanity]. It pictures God’s work for [us] as an act of cleansing—washing away pride, selfishness, and arrogance … sins that we pick up like dust along the paths of life.”4
“What could Jesus [do] that would have reflected His godlikeness more perfectly than the simple act of washing [the] disciples’ feet? No sermon could have said so eloquently what Jesus said by [that] act of love. With sublime artistry and dramatic forcefulness the Master left in [our minds] the picture of Himself, kneeling, towel in hand, before ordinary men.”5
“This service is infinitely more than an evidence of humility [in us]. It is a memorial of the humiliation of the Savior of mankind. Thus, the service has a profound meaning. It reminds the worshiper of the grace of God as effectively as do the bread and the wine.… This service teaches the perfect way to level barriers between races and classes of [people]. … It is a graphic reminder of the greatest event that ever happened in the universe—the act of Jesus in giving Himself to save the world.”6
Leonard Griffith, former pastor of the City Temple in London, tells the following story:
“Years ago I knew a Christlike man who was the director of a large camp for underprivileged boys. His campers and colleagues affectionately called him ‘The Chief.’ Everybody loved and respected the Chief, and everybody felt the strength of his Christian influence. …Legends grew up about this man after his death, but one of them, that had solid basis in fact, never failed to impress the boys. It seems that in the days before the camp enjoyed the comforts of modern plumbing, the Chief used to rise each morning at dawn before anyone else was awake and by himself perform the odious duty of cleaning all the sanitary conveniences. Many times people remonstrated with him and said, ‘Why don’t you make this a fatigue duty for the boys or at least for some of the maintenance staff? Surely it is not the Chief’s work!’ He always gave the same reply, ‘I do it because I am the Chief and because I choose to do it. No one should be compelled to perform a task so dirty and disagreeable.’”7
Applying this to the event in the upper room 2,000 years ago, Pastor Griffith continues: “Observing the neglect of the disciples, how simple it would have been for Jesus to say, ‘Peter, Andrew, John, is it not your turn to wash the feet tonight?’ Even a gentle reminder would have produced immediate results. But Jesus did not believe in coercing men to play the role of a slave. That role has to be chosen, and He, the Chief, chose to fulfill it.”8
The Lord's Supper
The Lord’s Supper is a participation in the emblems of the body and blood of Jesus as an expression of faith in Him, our Lord and Savior. In this experience of communion Christ is present to meet and strengthen His people. As we partake, we joyfully proclaim the Lord’s death until He comes again. Preparation for the Supper includes self-examination, repentance, and confession. The Master ordained the service of foot washing to signify renewed cleansing, to express a willingness to serve one another in Christlike humility, and to unite our hearts in love. The communion service is open to all believing Christians. (1 Cor. 10:16, 17; 11:23-29; Matt. 26:17-30; Rev. 3:20; John 6:48-63; 13:1-17.)
How unfortunate that so many in the Christian church have found it necessary to abandon this practice! However, the symbol [of the Lord’s Supper] is incomplete without the foot-washing service being included. “It is only as we are washed by His blood, cleansed anew, that we are fitted to partake of the bread and the wine that are the symbols of communion with Him.”9
Instead of calling it “the ordinance of humility,” we might better call this memorial the ordinance of Christ’s humiliation.
Following the foot-washing event, Jesus put the following important question to His followers that evening: “‘Do you know what I have done to you?’” (John 13:12).
Though Hebrews 8:1, 2 does not directly answer the question, it relates to it by telling us the identity of the One who served that evening: “Now this is the main point of the things we are saying: We have such a High Priest, who is seated at the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in the heavens, a Minister of the sanctuary and of the true tabernacle which the Lord erected, and not man.”
It was the High Priest of the heavenly sanctuary and the King of heaven Himself who humbled Himself that evening to wash the feet of these ordinary men.
We have not emphasized this enough. The whole heart of the lesson has been eclipsed by the bread and wine. The cross was the culmination of the decision made by the Father and the Son when they clasped hands in agreement that He take off those regal robes and glittering crown to save us at any cost. What mind can grasp a scene like that? One struggles to explain in human language the humiliation of our precious Lord. We get glimpses that boggle our mind, but still we’re only scratching the surface of a subject that will continue unfolding throughout eternity.
To miss out on the ordinance of Christ’s humiliation is to fail to understand the tremendous implications in Christ’s question: “Know ye what I have done to you?”
1E. G. White, Testimonies for the Church, vol. 4, p. 268.
2E. G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 642.
3Cited in Samuel Angus, Religious Quests of the Greco-Roman World, p. 248.
4See Norval F. Pease, Think on These Things (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1969), p. 94.
6Ibid., p. 96.
7Leonard Griffith, The Eternal Legacy From the Upper Room, pp. 41, 42.
9Morris Venden, Faith That Works (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1980), p. 286.
Gertrude Battle, who passed away in 1998, was a writer in the area of spiritual growth and Bible study. She wrote this article while living in Collegedale, Tennessee.