ecently we observed the foot-washing ordinance at our church
in a different way. First, let me explain why.
When Jesus unexpectedly got up from the Passover table and began washing His disciples’ feet, He was doing much more than demonstrating servant leadership; He was preparing His priests for ministry. “You do not realize now what I am doing,” He hinted to a perplexed Peter, “but later you will understand” (John 13:7).
What would Peter later come to understand?
In the old covenant sanctuary system priests weren’t allowed to enter the tabernacle until their feet and hands had first been washed in a basin just outside the tabernacle curtain: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Make a bronze basin, with its bronze stand, for washing. Place it between the tent of meeting and the altar, and put water in it. Aaron and his sons are to wash their hands and feet with water from it. Whenever they enter the tent of meeting, they shall wash with water so that they will not die” (Ex. 30:17-20).
This appears to be what Jesus was doing with His disciples, His new covenant priests. He was symbolically cleansing their feet in a basin. What about their hands? As part of the Passover meal, the disciples would have already cleansed their hands—but not their feet.
“ ‘No,’ said Peter, ‘you shall never wash my feet.’ Jesus answered, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me’” (John 13:8).
A towel wrapped around His waist, Christ, our high priest, cleansed His disciples’ feet, symbolically transferring their dirt onto Himself. That same evening, of course, Jesus also donned the garment of a high priest, a seamless robe that He wore to the cross. We can only wonder whether beneath His priestly robe Jesus still wore the dirt-stained towel that would ultimately be drenched with blood and water.
Years later Peter penned these words: “‘He himself bore our sins’ in his body on the cross, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; ‘by his wounds you have been healed’” (1 Peter 2:24). “But you are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light” (verse 9).
With this priestly symbolism in mind, our congregation decided to observe the foot-washing ordinance a little differently. Rather than send the congregation out of the sanctuary, we kept the foot washing close to the Lord’s table, as Jesus did.
Before the congregation walked forward to pick up the bread and grape juice, we invited them to leave their shoes and socks at their seats. We had set up eight foot-washing stations at the front of the sanctuary—four on each side. As church members approached the Communion table, they had the option of briefly sitting at a foot-washing station, where an attendant would wash their feet with a fresh towel dipped in a basin. The attendant then spoke a short blessing: “May the God of peace . . . equip you with everything good for doing his will” (Heb. 13:20, 21). Members then picked up the bread and juice and returned, barefoot, to their seats for the Lord’s Supper. Quiet music and low lighting provided a reverent atmosphere for this experience.
Many church members said how much they appreciated the close linking of the foot washing with the Lord’s Supper; it reminded them of their priestly calling in the new covenant of Christ. It also removed some of the awkwardness of sending people to another room to find a foot-washing partner.
Perhaps the biggest downside was that only eight people had the privilege of washing people’s feet. Some members seemed to miss performing this service. Next time, we plan to set up many more chairs up front, with stacks of fresh towels and buckets of water. This will give members the choice of having their feet washed by an attendant (as we did this time) or pairing up with a friend. Both will happen on the way to the Lord’s Table.
“May the God of peace . . . equip you with everything good for doing His will.”
Andy Nash is a journalism professor, lay pastor, and author of
Paper God. This article was published October 20, 2011.