Do you have a clear mental picture of the setting of the first celebration of the ordinance of humility as it is given in John 13? Some seem to imagine it something like this:
Jesus and His disciples, with dusty feet, arrived in the evening at the upper chamber where they were to eat the Passover supper. A pitcher of water, a basin, and a towel were there, ready for use, but no special servant appeared to wash their feet. None of the jealous and resentful twelve, who had been quarreling among themselves as to who should be chiefest among them, offered to do the menial task. The Passover supper was spread on the table, but they waited in stubborn pride for their feet to be washed. The embarrassment of it all was keenly felt. The suspense was broken when the Master girded Himself with the towel, poured water into the basin, and washed their feet. When this was done, they sat down together to eat while He conversed with them.
Nevertheless, that is not the way the facts are presented in the Scripture. Christ and His disciples sat down with unwashed feet and ate the Passover meal, after which He rose from the table and washed their feet. Note this statement:
"Christ ate the Passover supper with His disciples, then arose from the table, and said unto them, 'With desire have I desired to eat this passover with you before I suffer.' He then performed the humiliating office of washing the feet of His disciples. . . .
'Jesus then took His place again at the table, whereon was placed bread and unfermented wine, which arrangements had been made according to Christ's directions" (Spirit of Prophecy, vol. 1, pages 201-203).
When we turn to the account by John, the only New Testament writer reporting the foot washing, we find it borne out that this ceremony took place after one supper had ended. The narrative opens by speaking of "supper being ended," and of Judas having purposed in his heart already to betray the Saviour. (John 13:2, KJV) Then "he [Jesus] riseth from supper, and laid aside his garments: and took a towel, and girded himself" (verse 4). The supper that they had been eating, and from which Christ rose to wash the disciples' feet, was the Passover supper, according to Mrs. White.
"After he (Jesus) had washed their feet, and had taken his garments, and sat down again, he said unto them, Know ye what I have done to you?" (verse 12) Thus Jesus returned and took His place at the table after He had washed His disciples' feet. This is borne out also in the Spirit of prophecy.
In verse 18 Christ is reported to have said in the words of the psalmist: "He that eateth bread with me hath lifted up his heel against me." This shows that they ate together after Christ had returned to the table. It was during this second eating that Christ gave the sop tojudas (verses 26-30). This occurred while they were "at the table" (verse 28). The other Gospel writers likewise testify that it was while Jesus and His disciples were eating that Judas received his portion. (Matt. 26:21-23; Mark 14:18-20; Luke 22:21.)
Thus the washing of the disciples' feet by Jesus occurred between two sittings at the table─between the Passover supper and the Lord's Supper.
The Lord's Supper
In the first celebration of the Lord's Supper, as commonly depicted by artists, Christ and His disciples are seen sitting around a long, rectangular table in about the same fashion as a family sits at supper today. One seldom sees in art a true representation of that first communion service as it is described in this statement by the Spirit of prophecy:
"At the time of their deliverance from Egypt, the children of Israel ate the Passover supper standing, with their loins girded, and with their staves in their hands, ready for their journey. The manner in which they celebrated this ordinance harmonized with their condition; for they were about to be thrust out of the land of Egypt, and were to begin a painful and difficult journey through the wilderness.
"But in Christ's time the condition of things had changed. They were not now about to be thrust out of a strange country, but were dwellers in their own land. In harmony with the rest that had been given them, the people then partook of the Passover supper in a reclining position. Couches were placed about the table, and the guests lay upon them, resting upon the left arm, and having the right hand free for use in eating. In this position a guest could lay his head upon the breast of the one who sat next above him. And the feet, being at the outer edge of the couch, could be washed by one passing around the outside of the circle" ( The Desire of Ages, page 653).
The expression "man at the table" in John 13:28 is really a phrase formed of a plural participle of the Greek verb anakeimai, meaning "of the ones lying down" or "of the reclining ones." In Luke 22:21, 30 the Greek noun translated as " table" is trapeza, which simply means a dining table. The Greek verb rendered as "sat down" (Matt. 26:20), "sat" (Mark 14:18), and "sitteth" (Luke 22:27) is also from anakeimai (to lie down, to recline). The words "sat down" in Luke 22:14 are translated from anapipto (to fall back, as one does in leaning back in a reclining position).
Hence the Scriptures state that "there was leaning on Jesus' bosom one of his disciples" (John 13:23, 25). That disciple was the beloved John. Wherefore we read:
"When the disciples entered the supper room, their hearts were full of resentful feelings. Judas pressed next to Christ on the left side; John was on the right. If there was a highest place, Judas was determined to have it, and that place was thought to be next to Christ . . .Judas, in choosing his position at the table, had tried to place himself first, and Christ as a servant served him first. John, toward whom Judas had felt so much bitterness, was left till the last. But John did not take this as a rebuke or slight" (Ibid., pages 644, 645).
Some of these details are important, and a correct mental picture of this first service will help us better to understand its significance.
Robert L. Odom, pastor, scholar and professor in the Seventh-day Adventist Church for many years, was pastor at Texas Conference when he wrote this article.
All scripture in this article are taken from the Kingjames Version of the Bible.