A number of groups within Christendom (especially those with an Anabaptist and a Pietist heritage) practice some distinctive teachings which are largely neglected by other “Christian” bodies.
One of the areas of distinctiveness relates to the ordinances. A New Testament “ordinance” is a commandment which requires more than one Christian to carry out; it is usually a symbol representing some great spiritual principle. The command to bridle the tongue, for example, each of us can obey by himself—but the command to wash one another’s feet requires a group of Christians if we are to comply. Thus “feet-washing” is an ordinance and it is symbolic, representing some great spiritual principles.
The American flag is a symbol. The stripes represent the original thirteen colonies. The stars represent each state that comprises the union. Each color has its own significance. Yet to trample upon the flag of any nation (or to display it improperly), is to disgrace the nation which it represents. Just so, to trample upon the ordinances of God’s house is to make light of God’s truth, and to treat carelessly the things which the symbols represent. Surely one of the reasons Jesus gave the symbols and commanded us to practice them, is because He knew the frailty of our memories, and our inability to think in the realm of the abstract. Each ordinance is a tangible token which aids our minds in comprehending deeper spiritual truths.
1. The Feet-Washing Service
The Scripture is altogether clear in stating that Jesus washed the feet of His disciples, and that He gave them an example commanding them to do as He had done (John 13:14). The reference in 1 Timothy 5:10 is evidence that the early church kept up the practice which Jesus had earlier instituted.
The feet-washing ordinance speaks of humility. The disciples had seen servants washing their master’s feet, but for the Creator of the universe to gird himself with a towel and get down on His knees in front of an uneducated fisherman and wash his feet, was unheard of. Our besetting sin is often an undue desire for status, and because each of us is inclined to feel he is above others, we need a service that will bring us on a common level.
The feet-washing ordinance speaks of cleansing. John 13:10 says, “He that is washed (bathed) need not save to wash his feet.” Two Greek words for “wash” are used in verse 10. The person who has been washed from his sins in the blood of Christ (as symbolized in water baptism), doesn’t need to be saved all over again when his feet become soiled as he walks through life. Our “feet” do become soiled; some of the filth of the world rubs off on every one of us; and thus we need repeated cleansings. The feet-washing service symbolizes the fact that we haven’t reached perfection; we still need cleansing from daily defilement.
The feet-washing ordinance speaks of service. In a day when social service is being stressed so much, it is a happy thought that at least some believers observe an ordinance which symbolizes “service.” When we engage in feet-washing, we are promising to show in daily life what we practice during the ceremony in symbol. We are making a new commitment to help our fellow brother or sister clean up the mud when disaster strikes, nurse a wound when accidents come, and sit by a bedside when sickness invades the body.
Our Lord asks us only to do simple things. He set the example of feet-washing and tells us to do likewise (John 13:15).
2. The Lord’s Supper
The “Lovefeast service” (2 Peter 2:13) consists of the ordinances of feet-washing, the fellowship meal, and the communion of the bread and cup. We look now at the fellowship meal.
It was from supper (John 13:4) that Jesus arose to wash the disciple’s feet. The word “supper” is translated from “deipnon,” a Greek word meaning “a simple evening meal.” The Corinthian believers had abused the Supper (1 Corinthians 11:20) and made it a time of feasting for some, and a time of hunger for others. But Paul sought to correct the abuses, and the Church continued to observe the “feasts of charity” (Jude 12).
The Lord’s Supper is not the Jewish Passover. The Supper which Jesus instituted was eaten before the time for the Passover. Compare John 18:28 with John 13:1. The Passover was still future; the Supper was all over. True, the meal was called the “Passover” before the disciples engaged in it, but not after the meal was over. Then, after the Supper was over, the disciples knew it had been something different. The manner of preparation and the concluding circumstances also marked a difference between the Supper and the Passover. Compare Exodus 12:22 with Matthew 26:30 and notice that each concluded in a different manner. At the conclusion of the Passover, no one was to leave until the next morning, but at the Supper, they sang a hymn and left the same evening.
The Supper, like the other ordinances, is symbolic. The Supper is a symbol of brotherhood and peace. Eating together has always been an act of friendliness, and the Lord’s Table pictures the doctrine of Christian love. When we sit down at the Lord’s Table, we show the world that we are not only one with Christ, but also we are one with one another. The Supper is also typical of the Great Supper at the end of the age. The Scriptures speak of a “marriage supper of the Lamb” (Revelation 19:9), and of Jesus hosting the saved ones (Luke 12:37). The Lord’s Supper points forward to that great table in glory when Jesus will gird himself “and make them sit down to eat, and will come forth and serve them.”
The observance of the evening meal (along with the feet-washing and communion service) was dropped generally by churches during the fourth century A.D., but the early Brethren in Germany revived the practice, and these ordinances are observed today.
3. The Communion Service
The beautiful climax of the Lovefeast service (as the New Testament describes it) is the Communion of the bread and the cup. It is the high point of the Lovefeast service because it symbolizes the central fact of the Gospel.
The Communion Service has a New Testament basis. Jesus took a piece of bread and blessed it and broke it, and said, “Take eat, this is my body.” Likewise He took the cup, and after giving thanks, He asked the disciples to partake of it (Matthew 26:26-28). Luke’s account says all this happened “after supper” (Luke 22:20). The word “communion” itself implies that a union in heart and belief and life must exist among those who engage together in the observance. Each believer is admonished to examine his life carefully before participating (1 Corinthians 11:28).
The Communion Service is not “the Lord’s Supper.” Many speak of the Communion of the bread and cup as “the Lord’s Supper,” but the Supper is the simple evening meal. The Greek word translated “supper” means “the principal meal taken in the evening” (Harper’s Analytical Greek Lexicon). A little square of unleavened bread and a sip of grape juice could not be called the evening meal. The bread and the cup are never called “the Lord’s Supper” anywhere in the Scriptures.
The Communion Service is also a symbolic ordinance. The piece of broken bread and the sip of the fruit of the vine are observed in remembrance of Christ’s broken, bruised body and of His shed blood (1 Corinthians 11:24-25). When we partake of the Communion elements, we are remembering Calvary; we are thinking of how our Lord was nailed to the cross; we are recognizing that He was wounded for our transgressions and that the wrath of God which was poured out on Him should have been heaped upon us! We are saying with the hymn-writer, “My hope is built on nothing less than Jesus’ blood and righteousness.”
The service of feet-washing, the fellowship supper, and the communion of the bread and cup—were all instituted by the same Lord, at the same time, and with the same authority. Jesus said of them, “If ye know these things (plural, because there are three parts), happy are ye if ye do them.” Is it not a serious thing to separate what God has put together?
4. The Anointing Service
James 5:13-16 describes a ministry in behalf of the sick. There are many views regarding the passage. Some choose to ignore the instructions. Some teach that it is a service to be performed for those who are about to die. Others limit the promise to some future age. But the orthodox and clear view is to claim the promise and practice the ordinance for each child of God who is willing to place himself into the hands of the Creator.
The anointing service enjoined in James 5 is not a practice to be performed in order to get a crowd, but is a simple ceremony designed for the quiet of the sick room. The elders read the passage in James 5, apply a few drops of olive oil on the head of the one who is sick, and then pray over him—asking God for healing, increased faith, and the forgiveness of sins. The word “sick” in verse 14 is a stronger word than the word “afflicted” in verse 13, and thus speaks of a more serious illness. Common illnesses should be made a matter of prayer, but more serious and chronic illnesses should lead us to call for the anointing by the elders of the church.
The anointing with oil symbolizes the fact that the one who is sick is placing the entire situation into the hands of the Lord. He recognizes God’s plan, and he is content with the will of God, whatever that will happens to be. J. H. Moore, in the book Our Saturday Night, describes the anointing of a younger sister who was seriously ill. He describes the entire service, and then concludes, “She felt perfectly resigned to the will of God; she was back in the Potter’s hands, to be molded either for use in God’s house upon the earth, or for use in the great house beyond the stars.” While God promises special healing when the anointing is practiced, the entire service must be conducted “in the name of the Lord.” To do something in “the name of the Lord” means that it must be done within the context of His will. One who is anointed accepts healing in keeping with God’s will.
The anointing does not set aside the fact that God uses doctors. God might use the doctor in answering the prayers of the elders of the church. The Good Samaritan (in Luke 10) used medication. He bound up the wounds of the injured man and poured on oil, and Jesus commended him for it. God can heal with medication and without it. It seems He does it differently on different occasions.
5. The Laying On of Hands
At the time of baptism (Acts 19:5-6), or when a person was being anointed (James 5:14), or when one was being initiated into a church office (1 Timothy 4:14)—the elders in New Testament times placed their hands on the head of the person involved, and offered prayer that he might be a yielded child of God and conscious of the indwelling Holy Spirit. In Acts 8:17, the apostles laid hands on the new converts, symbolizing the receiving of the Holy Spirit. When the deacons were selected (according to Acts 6), the apostles laid hands on them. When Paul and Barnabas were set aside for missionary service, hands were laid upon them. Acts 13:3 says, “And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on (Barnabas and Paul), they sent them away.”
The laying-on of hands is a symbol of restoration of health, reception of the Holy Spirit at baptism, and the conveying of the gifts and rights of a church office. The laying-on of hands symbolizes a fresh coming of the Holy Spirit in new power to help meet a task at hand. Man is utterly dependent upon God. He needs strength from heaven. And so the laying-on of hands is not a mere empty form, but a symbol that aids God’s people in depending more completely upon the ministry of the Holy Spirit.
6. Assembling Together
A sixth ordinance is that of attending the services of the assembled church. The Bible says that we should be careful not to neglect this duty (Hebrews 10:25). Jesus himself, while here on earth, made regular attendance at the meetings of God’s people His custom (Luke 4:16). In Old Testament days, those who loved and feared God “spoke often one to another, and the Lord hearkened, and heard it, and a book of remembrance was written” (Malachi 3:16). Our attitude should be that of the writer in Psalm 122:1: “I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go unto the house of the Lord.”
Assembling together, like all the ordinances, has a symbolic meaning. It symbolizes dependence upon God and upon each other. There are a number of benefits that come from attending the services of the assembled Church.
(1) We meet the Lord. In a special sense, where two or three gather, He is in the midst (Matthew 18:20). Thomas did not go to services on the night of the first Easter Sunday, and he missed seeing the Lord (John 20:24-25).
(2) We encourage one another. God’s people pray together; they strive together; they sing together; they work together. When we see the zeal of our fellow-Christians and share in their trials and rejoice in their joys, it gives us new courage and new devotion for the Lord.
(3) We receive instruction. Through preaching and teaching we receive helpful and thoughtful exhortations from the Word. To “teach” means “to instruct the mind” and to “preach” means “to move the will.” The teaching and preaching will help us conform more and more to the likeness of Christ.
(4) We let a testimony before others. Staying away from church services is a poor testimony to the sinner. One writer tells about an elderly man who walked to services faithfully every Sunday morning. Neighbors knew he was nearly deaf and that he couldn’t hear the sermon. A scoffer asked him one time why he spent his time in church services when he couldn’t hear anyway. The old gentleman, with a note of firmness in his voice, said, “I want my neighbors to know which side I’m on.”
We should attend the appointed services of the church when it rains, when a stranger preaches, when the home preacher preaches, when we feel like going, and when we don’t feel like going. Assembling together is a Christian duty.
7. The Kiss of Charity
The “kiss of charity” (or “the holy kiss” as it is sometimes called) is one of the forms of Christian greeting taught in the New Testament.
There are three forms for greeting brothers and sisters in Christ. There was greeting by name (3 John 1:4), greeting by right hand of fellowship (Galatians 2:9), and greeting with the kiss of love (1 Peter 5:14; Romans 16:16; etc.). The kiss of charity is a holy kiss. It is to be observed between brethren and brethren and sisters and sisters in Christ.
There are appropriate times and places for all three of the forms of Christian greeting mentioned in the New Testament. However, the handshake does not quite convey the fullness of emotion that is demonstrated by the holy kiss. The early church practiced the kiss of love upon meeting and parting, as a part of the Lovefeast service, when welcoming new members into the church fellowship, and as a general greeting among Christians.
The kiss of charity is a symbol of love and affection. When fellow-Christians practice it, they are saying, “I love you; there is no enmity between us.” The kiss is also a symbol of fidelity and faithfulness. The husband who plants a kiss on the cheek of his wife as he leaves for work in the morning, says “I’ll be true to you.”
The holy kiss was a common practice among early believers. Augustine said that Christians demonstrated their inward love by the outward kiss. The kiss among fellow believers is a sign that all injuries are forgotten, all wrongs are forgiven, and that believers are indeed one in the Lord. The symbol needs to be observed today.
Christianity does not consist merely in observing ordinances (symbols), but nevertheless the symbols we discussed in this message are perpetual reminders of great Christian truths, and so we need to emphasize more than is often done—the meaning of the ordinances which God’s Word commands us to observe. People seem to go for symbols in our day—the peace symbol, a cross on a chain around the neck, the wedding band—but our responsibility is to observe the symbols the Lord has chosen. Why should we tamper with them and try to change them?