Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, DMin, is a retired associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, USA.

Seventh-day Adventist Statement of Faith #15: 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 Saviour. 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; 11:23–30; Matt 26:17–30; Rev 3:20; John 6:48–63; 13:1–17).

The Lord’s Supper is first mentioned in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt 26:17–30; Mark 14:12–25; Luke 22:7–23). It was instituted by Jesus and focuses on Jesus. It is unthinkable to celebrate the Lord’s Supper, also called Communion or Eucharist, without reference to Jesus.

Although linked to the Passover, the Lord’s Supper is seen to be a new and unique institution in the New Testament, one that has become an integral part of Christianity down through the centuries.

Interestingly enough, the Lord’s Supper is not mentioned in the Gospel of John, though Jesus’ speech about the bread of life in John 6 seems to contain a reference to it.

On the other hand, foot washing—the other ordinance instituted by Jesus Himself—is found in John’s Gospel alone, and not in the Synoptics. Rather than being contradictory, these Gospel accounts are complementary. Both ordinances, the Lord’s Supper and foot washing, are part of the Passion Narrative in all four Gospels.

Interestingly, John’s account dealing with the foot washing mentions in passing that it was done at a meal where Jesus and His disciples were present (John 13:1–16). Obviously, foot washing goes along with a meal, both in terms of the regular customs of the day and in terms of the ceremonial meanings that Jesus attached to these two actions.


The earliest references to washing feet are found in Genesis.1 There foot washing precedes participating in a meal (Gen 18:4–5; 24:32–33).2 Therefore, it seems best for Christians to celebrate both ordinances in conjunction with foot washing preceding the Lord’s Supper and preparing participants for it.

Old Testament references show that it was a custom of that time and an act of courtesy and hospitality to offer visitors water for washing their feet. Obviously, no spiritual meaning was attached to this type of foot washing.

In the book of Exodus, however, the priests had to wash their hands and feet before serving at the sanctuary.3 In this case, the idea of cleanliness and purity is present, which allowed a priest to serve his people in the presence of God. This kind of purity seems to have surpassed mere bodily cleanliness. A holy God was to be approached by pure people.

With few exceptions, people during Old Testament times seemed to have washed their own feet after having received some water (Gen 18:4; 2 Sam 11:8). Sometimes the act may have been performed by a servant. According to 1 Samuel 25:41, the wife of Nabal was willing to wash the feet of David’s men.

Although foot washing was not uncommon and contained the concept of cleanliness, Jesus gave it a new meaning and used a new approach.


Washing feet is mentioned again in 1 Timothy 5:10. Opinions are divided over whether or not this passage refers to the ordinance of foot washing. Whereas S. Horn holds “that foot washing was practiced in the early church is attested by Paul” (1 Tim 5:10),4 H. Kiesler seems to understand it as “a gracious mark of hospitality” as also found in Luke 7:44.5 The emphasis on washing the feet of “saints,” or God’s people, seems to make it more likely that 1 Timothy 5:10 stresses participation in the ordinance of foot washing.

When it comes to the Lord’s Supper, we find additional information outside the Gospels. In Acts we hear that the early Christians “were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42).

The phrase “breaking of bread” points to the eating of a meal. It may include the Lord’s Supper. The Lord’s Supper is not always in view when we read this phrase,6 although it is quite probable that the Lord’s Supper is referenced in Acts 2:42.

The previous verse talks about receiving the Word, baptism, and people being added to the church. Verse 42 continues with religious activities and ends with prayer. The breaking of bread may very well refer to the Lord’s Supper.

Clearer evidence is found in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11. In chapter 10 Paul discusses the issue of idolatry. He asks how fellowship with Christ and with evil spirits go together. He argues that participation in the Lord’s Supper and participation in a pagan cult ceremony are incompatible.

In chapter 11 he deals with an abuse of the Lord’s Supper in the Corinthian church, and even reports Jesus’ own words when He instituted the Lord’s Supper. As in the Gospels, the focus is on the Lord and His gracious provisions.


Both foot washing and the Lord’s Supper have been understood and practiced differently by Christians throughout the centuries. In some cases, Christians avoid one or both ordinances; in others, they celebrate the Lord’s Supper on a daily basis and build their faith on an actual repetition of Christ’s sacrifice.

They may argue for transsubstantiation, consubstantiation, the symbolic character of the emblems and the special presence of the Lord, or the sacramental nature of the Lord’s Supper, which seems to be considered automatically effective independent of the attitude of the receiver. In the case of some, the ordinances are too sacred to participate in. In the case of others, there is difficulty keeping a balance between what is common and what is holy.

What is the theological meaning of the ordinances of foot washing and the Lord’s Supper?

Starting with foot washing, the following elements should be stressed:

The Lord’s love (John 13:1). Foot washing stresses the Lord’s love. The paragraph containing the account of how Jesus instituted it is encircled by the principle of love.

John 13:1 emphasizes Jesus’ love: love for His disciples, and even for Judas Iscariot, who became His enemy (John 13:1–4, 10–11). In spite of what He knew would happen soon, He served the traitor as He did the rest of His disciples. In doing this, Jesus showed us how to live. Love, not retaliation, is the principle of the kingdom.

As soon as Judas had left Jesus and the group of disciples, Jesus (according to John’s Gospel) issued His new commandment: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another. By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34–35). Foot washing is an act of sacrificial love.

The Lord’s service and humility (John 13:4–5). The Old Testament references to foot washing do not report a single case in which a superior washed the feet of an inferior. Abraham, it seems, did not wash the Lord’s feet but did at least provide water for His feet to be washed (Gen 18:4). But Jesus, God of eternity, stooped down to wash His disciples’ and His enemy’s feet.

His condescension did not stop with His lowly birth or with His hard life as a refugee and a laborer. The Word who was God, and through whom all things are made (John 1:1–3); the one who could say, “Before Abraham was born, I Am” (John 8:58); He who stated that “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30); and whom Thomas would call “My Lord and my God” (John 20:28); took a towel, girded Himself, and washed His disciples’ feet.

Other masters are served by their followers. This Master serves His followers, all of them. Jesus humbled Himself (Phil 2:8). Obviously it is not enough for us to exhibit humility; the Lord wants us to bow down and wash each other’s feet. This may seem objectionable, inconvenient, and even humiliating, but the Lord wants us to do it. The ordinance of foot washing is designed “to wash away all feeling of pride, selfishness, and selfaggrandizement.”7 Foot washing is a sign of willing service and humility.

The Lord’s means to stress equality before God and fellowship with one another (John 13:13–16). Although Christianity does not do away with all social distinctions, before God all differences of rank, status, race, gender, and age no longer count. The Christian master bows down and washes the feet of his slave, who is in fact his brother in Christ. In this sense, foot washing is in many ways a critique of social injustice. It encourages intimate fellowship among all the members of the church.

The Lord’s means for believers to have full fellowship with Jesus (John 13:8). Peter, who wanted to prevent Jesus from serving him, had to recognize that such a decision would mean separation from Jesus. “Peter would much rather wash Jesus’ feet than that Jesus should wash his feet; he would prefer to lay down his life for Jesus than that Jesus should lay down His life for him.”8 But we cannot save ourselves.

Washing each other’s feet recognizes that we are always dependent on our Lord for salvation. He served us first, and we have part with Him. Therefore, we serve others and also enjoy fellowship with them.

The Lord’s cleansing (John 13:10). Foot washing is associated with cleansing. It is evident from the way Jesus spoke to His disciples about His act of washing their feet that a symbolic cleansing is intended, rather than a mere cleansing from the dust of the road. The end of verse 10 shows that Judas was not clean because he had made the decision to become the traitor.

Thus, the concept of cleanliness deals with moral purity and moral defilement. Even after having been washed completely at the beginning of our walk with the Lord, further cleansing through the act of foot washing is necessary.

The figurative language of John 13:10 seems to refer to baptism and compares it to foot washing.9 The term louo (“to bathe,” “to wash”) is used in Hebrews 10:22 to describe baptism.10 Members of the Christian community commit sins even after having been baptized. These postbaptismal sins require forgiveness. Foot washing points to the fact that Jesus is willing to wash away these sins and cleanse us.11 We need forgiveness, and forgiveness is granted to us.

The Lord’s command (John 13:14–16). Jesus calls us to follow His example. He has washed the feet of His disciples. We wash the feet of our fellow believers. As Jesus set an example in being baptized (and we follow Him), as He set an example of how to celebrate the Lord’s Supper (and we follow Him), so Jesus set an example in washing the disciples’ feet—and we are to follow Him in this also. We, the servants, are not greater than the Master, and discipleship involves imitating the Lord and Teacher.

The Lord’s blessing (John 13:17). Finally, Jesus declares those blessed, fortunate, and happy who participate in foot washing. It is not an empty ritual. Maybe we have to detect anew its deep meaning and implications and gain a greaterblessing by thoughtfully washing each other’s feet. A blessing is waiting for us.

1 E.g., Gen 18:4; 19:2; 24:32; 43:24.
2 See also Judg 19:21.
3 Exod 30:19, 21; 40:31.
4 Siegfried H. Horn, Seventh-day Adventist Bible Dictionary (Washington, D.C.: Review and Herald, 1979), 386.
5 Herbert Kiesler, “The Ordinances: Baptism, Foot Washing, and Lord’s Supper,” in Handbook of Seventh-day Adventist Theology, ed. Raoul Dederen (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2000), 592.
6 See, e.g., Luke 24:30, 35; and probably Acts 2:46.
7 Kiesler, “The Ordinances,” 594.
8 R. V. G. Tasker, John, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries, revised edition (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992), 155.
9 See Kiesler, “The Ordinances,” 593; Tasker, John, 158.
10 In both cases the perfect participle of the verb is used.
11 See 1 John 1:7, 9 in which cleansing from sin comes through the blood of Jesus when sinners confess their transgressions.

Ekkehardt Mueller is Associate Director for the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists. This article has been reprinted, by permission, from Reflections, the BRI Newsletter.

Ekkehardt Mueller, ThD, DMin, is a retired associate director of the Biblical Research Institute at the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventists, Silver Spring, MD, USA.

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