Then Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer and put fire in it, put incense on it, and offered profane fire before the Lord, which He had not commanded them. – Leviticus 10:1
Recently, a police officer friend of mine sent me an article showing police officers washing the feet of Black protestors and faith leader’s.  He asked me what I thought about it. There has also been a recent practice of police and soldiers kneeling before people of color in response to the protest and horrific murder of George Floyd. There have been some videos of demonstrators coaxing people to kneel before them as a sign of solidarity. What about kneeling or bowing before people? What about washing feet? What does the Bible say about these things?
In the Old Testament there’s an account of how two sons of Aaron offered “profane” fire or strange (Hebrew zur) fire on the altar of the Lord. They were literally fired by God for doing so (Leviticus 10:1-11). It’s important how we use the symbols and ordained rituals and ordinances of God. It’s important to God. It should therefore be important to us.
Something profane or strange, is something offered in service to God counter you how He instructed it to be offered. In the case if Nadab and Abihu, they were likely intoxicated and impaired in their service. They didn’t take Gods service or instructions seriously enough to care to serve Him right. Serving God is a holy thing. To be “holy” means to be unique, special, particular, uncommon. God distinguishes what He does from the base commonness of the way the world does things. Holiness means separation from the world. Holiness is loving God enough to pay attention to what He sees as important. Holiness is loving God and wanting to please Him with your obedience. Therefore, there is a premium on obedience in the Bible. That’s true in the Old Testament (e.g. Exodus 19:5; Deut. 11:13f.). It’s true in the New Testament as well (John 14:15 and 21).
Sometimes, people are so under the influence of the trends and ways of the world that they use God’s symbols and ordinances carelessly. Sometimes they use God’s symbols in outright defiant rebellion toward Him. In recent times we’ve seen Biblical symbols coopted and applied to worldly causes. The rainbow, for instance, a sign of God’s promise to never again judge the world with a Flood, has been coopted by secular groups. The people of this world have forgotten about God’s judgment. They are far removed from the thought of God’s judgment. And because of that, they invite further judgment by desecrating His symbol of promise and using it for things He specifically condemns and warns will be judged.
But what I write about in this study is a development of late that involves two practices that I believe are running contrary to the word of God. It’s possible that such practices are purposely misused. But it’s just as possible that they are being accidentally or unintentionally misused. In response to the recent murder of George Floyd and consequent unrest and division, some have taken to bowing the knee, others to washing feet. What does the Bible say about this and other misapplied Biblical practices?
Bowing the Knee
The Bible says every knee will bow to Jesus one day. It says this is because of what Jesus has done for us. It states:
- Philippians 2:5–11 – 5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, 6 who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, 7 but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. 8 And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross. 9 Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name, 10 that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on earth, and of those under the earth, 11 and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This is the mindset we are to have. We should be like Jesus, willing to leave privileged positions to humbly serve others even to the point of death. Because of Jesus willingness to do this, “God also has highly exalted Him.” Because of this God has given Jesus the “name which is above every name.” And it is “at the name of Jesus” that “every knee should bow, of those in heaven, and of those on the earth, and those under the earth, and that every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Now notice what it doesn’t say. It doesn’t say to bow to anyone other than Jesus. I think it’s accurate to say we should be willing to die for others and sacrifice for others, but bowing the knee to others is a privileged act of subservience and worship only reserved for Jesus.
It does however go on to say:
- Philippians 2:14–16 – 14 Do all things without complaining and disputing, 15 that you may become blameless and harmless, children of God without fault in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation, among whom you shine as lights in the world, 16 holding fast the word of life, so that I may rejoice in the day of Christ that I have not run in vain or labored in vain.
What is stipulated is that we are to “do all things without complaining and disputing.” This, Paul is inspired to say, will give us a good example as God’s children “in the midst of a crooked and perverse generation.” If we do that we will “shine as light in the world.” And I think the key to all of that is “holding fast the word of life.” We need to implement Christ’s example within the parameters of scripture. Do that, (which is what we are trying to do in this article) and we will have reason for joy “in the day of Christ.”
Bowing the knee before someone is an act of submission and surrender. When you bow the knee before someone, you are in effect entering into worship of the one to whom you bow. Christian, there is only One to whom we should bow, that’s Jesus.
In Daniel 3 Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah (aka their Babylonian imposed names of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – Daniel 1:6-7), were thrown into a fiery furnace because they refused to bow to king Nebuchadnezzar (Daniel 3). Interestingly, while in the fire, a fourth person described by the king as like “the Son of God” shows up (Daniel 3:25).
If we want “the Son of God” Jesus, to show up in our fiery trials, then we ought to adopt the uncompromising attitude of faith of these three Hebrews. To the king and his demand for bowing to him, and his threat of being thrown into a fiery furnace if they didn’t, they said, “If that is the case, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace, and He will deliver us from your hand, O king. But if not, let it be known to you, O king, that we do not serve your gods, nor will we worship the gold image which you have set up.” (Daniel 3:17-18). They would bow to no one but God. We shouldn’t either.
Daniel himself chose civil disobedience when restrictions on his prayers were legislated. The account is found in Daniel 6. This was targeted legislation meant to oppress and single him out. Daniel chose to the obey the higher law of God. For him, the presence of God was not, no, could not be compromised. So, he prayed. He prayed his usual three times a day. And he faithfully suffered the consequences. He was thrown into a lion’s den.
It should be noted that king Darius actually really liked Daniel. But because if his hastily agreeing to legislation aimed by Daniels enemies at stifling Daniels faith, he had to enforce the law. That should be a lesson to politicians of our day who enact legislation that is too often shortsighted in terms of its lasting effects. Yes, too often our representatives emotionally react instead of wisely respond to circumstances. Case in point, the defunding of police forces. It’s hard to imagine “peace and safety” when you remove God ordained safeguards (cf. Romans 13:1-7). But maybe this is part of Gods endgame. “For when they say, “Peace and safety!” then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape” (1 Thessalonians 5:3). But I digress.
Daniel prayed. Daniel was taken into custody. Daniel was sentenced to a night, a dark night, in a den filled with ravenous fearsome lions. But God was in this. He was in the circumstances. He was in the lion’s den with Daniel. He sent an angel to shut those lion’s mouths. God shows up when we take a stand for him.
God used this predicament to draw the Persian king to faith. As Daniel was being lowered into the cave with the lions, the king’s words of encouragement to Daniel were, “Your God, whom you serve continually, He will deliver you” (Daniel 6:17). And in the morning the king’s faith was further supported by the faith affirming words of Daniel regarding the faithfulness of God. “My God sent His angel and shut the lions’ mouths, so that they have not hurt me, because I was found innocent before Him; and also, O king, I have done no wrong before you.” (Daniel 6:22).
God used Daniels strong faith-stand to impact and influence the faith of a pagan king. And God also brought justice to those who tried to use legislation to trap Daniel. They were thrown into the lion’s den. And their outcome was not as delightful as Daniels. No, they became a delicacy for those lions. Yes, God has a way of enforcing justice.
When we stand on God’s word, apply it properly, and trust in Him, He always shows up.
Recently, in a supposed effort to facilitate racial reconciliation, police publicly washed the feet of some racial protest leaders. Was this the right application of the foot washing Jesus modeled for us in John 13? It could have been but given the information, I don’t think it was. Here’s what I mean.
First, when Jesus washed the disciple’s feet, He was not asking the disciple’s forgiveness. The washing of feet ceremony we are seeing used currently, seems to me to be a kind subservience. We are encouraged in scripture to, “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, even as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32). We forgive one another because Jesus forgave us. There is only One to whom we bow. In adoration for the forgiveness He obtained for us on the bloody cross, we bow to Jesus. Because Jesus died for us, we can freely forgive each other. If we are humbled at the foot of the cross of Christ, then we will not require humiliation from others as the cost of our forgiveness. That would be to add to Jesus’ work. And that is offensive to God. Nothing can be added to the finished work of Jesus crucifixion. The Bible says that is like trampling Jesus and His blood sacrifice (Hebrews 10:26-31). Jesus atoning work stands alone; nothing should or could be added to it; not even foot washing.
Second, the Bible doesn’t teach forgiveness by proxy. In other words, I don’t confess or seek forgiveness for someone else’s sins. It’s unscriptural to ask the present generation of people to repent for sins of a past generation. We seek forgiveness for our own sins. I seek forgiveness for my own sins. If I have actually offended someone, then yes, I need to seek forgiveness and reconciliation. But a person is not responsible for someone else’ sins.
The Bible states, “The soul who sins shall die. The son shall not bear the guilt of the father, nor the father bear the guilt of the son. The righteousness of the righteous shall be upon himself, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be upon himself” (Ezekiel 18:20). And the only basis for forgiveness is Jesus’ substitutionary atonement not washing people’s feet (Heb. 2:17; 9:28). We don’t substitute or atone for the sins of others, only Jesus can and has done that. There’s only One Savior, Jesus.
The glory of the gospel is that sin, no matter how heinous, has been justly atoned for in Christ on the cross. That means, through faith in Christ, as a gift of God’s grace, the worst sinner can receive forgiveness for their sins. That’s the good news and glad tidings of the kingdom of God. That’s something we need to accept by faith. That’s something we find easier to accept for ourselves than for others. But we are all sinners. We all need the atoning work of Jesus to deal with our sin.
It’s at the cross that we truly find justice. It’s only when we fail to fully comprehend or fully consider the atonement of Jesus on the cross that it seems inadequate for us. If we fail to see the cross and what it means, we will succumb to the tempting idea that perpetrators get off easy. But consider what Jesus endured to atone and justly deal with humanities’ sin, even its darkest dirtiest sins. “His visage was marred more than any man, and His form more than the sons of men” (Isaiah 52:14). Prayerfully look at Christ on the cross. Consider what He endured to atone for sin. Prayerfully meditate on the gospel crucifixion accounts. Ask the Lord to reveal the cross of Christ to you. If you do that, and receive from the Lord, you will see that foot washing is a poor alternative and unnecessary supplement to the atoning work of Jesus on the cross.
The cross of Christ is the only true and satisfactory basis for our reconciliation to God and to each other. Vengeance is something God takes care of, not us (Romans 12:17-21). Perpetrators and victims find reconciliation in Jesus. “For He Himself is our peace, who has made both one, and has broken down the middle wall of separation, having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two, thus making peace, and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Eph. 2:14-16). Now, these words pertain to Jew and Gentile, but they also apply to us in principle. The sinful things that divide us can be done away with and destroyed, in Christ, at His cross. The walls of racial prejudice and injustices can all be dealt with, at the foot of the cross of Christ. Are you willing to come together in Christ, at His cross?
Third, we are to be reconciled to one another particularly not generally. Jesus said, “Therefore if you bring your gift to the altar, and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24 leave your gift there before the altar, and go your way. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift” (Mt. 5:23-24). In other words, being reconciled is something that is personally done between the actual perpetrator and victim. We take personal particular responsibility for something we have actually done to someone. When we refer to sin generally and not the actual particular sins, we cloud the seriousness of sin and miss the depth of pain it caused.
Fourth, foot washing is an expression of humility. Foot washing says, “I will humble myself before you to serve you and help you even if it means doing the lowest dirtiest most humiliating thing to help you.” Foot washing is an object lesson that teaches the opposite of pride. It teaches I am willing to do whatever the Lord requires to help someone; serve someone. If that is what is being communicated, then foot washing is applicable. We wash someone’s feet to say, “I may not have been directly involved, or directly culpable, but I want to do everything in my power to help alleviate that pain and suffering.”
Fifth, foot washing is a symbol of sanctification. Foot washing symbolizes sanctification in that it washes away the daily dirt accumulated in life. We are washed once and for all completely from all our sins by the blood of Jesus (1 Peter 1:18-19; 1 John 1:7). We are washed daily or sanctified by the word of God (Ephesians 5:26). Foot washing therefore, becomes a symbol of how our daily accumulation of sins are identified, exposed, and dealt with by the application of God’s word on a regular basis. We learn how to deal with sins like prejudice and partiality as we interact with each other according to the word of God.
Sixth, foot washing pictures true greatness. The One washing feet (Jesus) is, by washing feet, expressing the true way to greatness. Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45). Jesus said, “For he who is the least among you all will be great” (Luke 9:48). Foot washing brings us low to make us great. Greatness in the kingdom of God, greatness, according to Jesus, is humbly serving others. In this sense, the One washing feet, while taking a subservient position, is actually greater than the one whose feet are washed. God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble (1 Peter 5:5-6). In this sense we should be washing each other’s feet.
The present use of foot washing seems to imply the exact opposite. The use of foot washing in the present context seems more like a kind of atoning work. “Your ancestors hurt my ancestors; therefore, you need to wash my feet to make up for what they did.” There seems to be a kind of public display of humiliation. There is a satisfaction being taken in another’s humiliation. That’s not scriptural.
In the present use of foot washing there seems to be the idea of penance. The idea of penance is to do some good deed to offset our sins. Penance is not a scriptural truth. That is saying we are saved by our works. That is completely contrary to the gospel. The gospel is, “not by works of righteousness which we have done, but according to His mercy He saved us, through the washing of regeneration and renewing of the Holy Spirit, whom He poured out on abundantly through Jesus Christ our Savior” (Titus 3:5-6). Salvation and forgiveness for sins is something accomplished as a gift of God’s grace received by faith alone in Christ alone. When you take it to heart, it is truly a gloriously magnificently beautiful blessing.
Seventh, Foot washing is something we can do. It’s a powerful illustration of humble service. Jesus did it. And if done in the spirit of Jesus, according to His word, so should we. When Jesus was finished washing the disciple’s feet, He said, “I have given you an example, that you should do as I have done to you” (John 13:15).
Other Miss-Used Biblical Practices
There are additional misuses of biblical practices. When the New Testament ordinances of Baptism and Communion are made a means of salvation instead of symbols of aspects of it, they are reduced to strange fire. Paul, for instance, went so far as to say, “I thank God that I baptized none of you” (1 Cor. 1:14a). And while Jesus said to take Communion, “in remembrance of Me” (Matthew Luke 22:19; 1 Cor. 11:25), He did not stipulate how often for us to take it. And He did not make our salvation dependent upon taking it.
Salvation is a gift of God’s grace received by faith in Jesus. That, and that alone, is the correct and only acceptable means of salvation. This is emphasized clearly in the God inspired epistles of Romans and Galatians and throughout the New Testament. Deviate to other means of salvation and you are using strange fire.
When human traditions are given equal authority or priority over the word of God, you’re playing with strange fire. Jesus was very clear on this in the gospels. He rebuked the religious leaders of His day for nullifying scripture by way of their human traditions (cf. Matthew 15; Mark 7). Act in these ways, and you will be burned and miss God’s blessing.
God uses fire in His holy judgments. God demonstrated the fire of judgment to Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10. All sinners, along with the devil, Antichrist and false prophet, will, in the end, be cast into “the Lake of fire” (Rev. 20). There is such a thing as the fire of Gods’ judgment.
Fire is used as a metaphor to convey the idea of purifying. Peter was inspired to write about this saying:
- 1 Peter 1:6–9 – 6 In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while, if need be, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 that the genuineness of your faith, being much more precious than gold that perishes, though it is tested by fire, may be found to praise, honor, and glory at the revelation of Jesus Christ, 8 whom having not seen you love. Though now you do not see Him, yet believing, you rejoice with joy inexpressible and full of glory, 9 receiving the end of your faith—the salvation of your
We are being, “tested by fire” right now. In this world the fires of difficulty and trial, the fires of persecution and suffering, all serve to prove the genuineness of our faith. There is that purpose in the circumstances we are experiencing right now. How will we respond? Will we only react? Will our faith be proven genuine, or profane; strange to what God desires for us?
God uses fire to communicate His holy presence. God revealed His presence to Moses in a fiery burning bush (Exodus 3). On the day of Pentecost, God showed His presence at the birth of the Church with “tongues, as of fire” over each of the 120 disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 2). Those fired up saints were used by God to change the world. Will the same be said of us? It will be if we lay down the profane strange fire and seek out the fire of God’s presence.
In the end, when we see Jesus, His eyes will be, “like a flame of fire” (Rev. 1:14). When we see Jesus, His fiery eyes will either expose the profane and strange, or be a warm welcome to the holy. Which will it be for you?