Today is Maundy Thursday, also called Holy- or Covenant Thursday. It is celebrated every Thursday before Easter to commemorate the “maundy” Jesus gave His disciples on that night many centuries ago — the night before Jesus died.
What is a “maundy”?
The word comes from the Latin term, used in the Vulgate — a 4th century translation of Scripture that was very popular all the way into the middle ages — to translate the Greek word ἐντολή, which in English we translate, “command” or “commandment.” The term is lifted from the first word in the Vulgate (Latin) translation of John 13:34, “Mandatum novum do vobis ut diligatis invicem sicut dilexi vos.” In the ESV, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another.” But more popularly, the term has come to mean “the washing of the feet,” because it was just before this passage in John 13 that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet (John 13:3-15). He then instructs them to follow His example and serve one another. Then, “I am going away and you can’t come with me right now…” — I’m paraphrasing — “… but a new command (maundy) I give you, that you love one another, as I have just demonstrated by washing your feet.”
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s back up to John 13:1.
A few hours earlier…
Jesus knew He was going to die. It was for this reason that He came to this world and became a man (John 12:27). He was well aware that these were His last few hours of freedom, and that in less than a day, He would be hanging on a cross, becoming a curse for us (Gal 3:13) so that we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor 5:21). Therefore, Jesus decides to gather His disciples together for a final, very intentional meal.
I’d like to use John 13-17 (with some support from Luke) to get a sense of what was on Jesus’ mind as He gathered His disciples for the final time. What was important to Him as He prepared to go to the cross for you and me?
What Jesus was thinking about the night before He died?
1) He wanted to glorify His Father by completing the mission
Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God [the Father] is glorified in Him. If God [the Father] is glorified in [the Son], [the Father] will also glorify [the Son] in Himself, and glorify Him at once. (John 13:31-32)
Jesus, the Eternal Son and Second Person of the Divine Trinity, being in His very nature God of gods, did not consider that reality something to be protected or exploited or clung to. Instead, He humbled Himself, stepping down off His eternal throne, to become a man, and walk among His creatures. He got hungry. He got tired. He got dirty. He was abused and despised by other people (those He Himself had created, and for whom He came to die). He humbled himself to the point of death, even death on a cross — a Roman instrument of torture, reserved for slaves and anarchists. Jesus came to earth on a mission. Not just to be one of us, but to die in place of us — to become the very curse that God justly placed upon humanity for our disobedience (Phil 2:5-8, paraphrased and amplified).
And all that would be amazing enough, but Jesus did not only come to that first Maundy Thursday to complete the work God had set before Him, but He did so knowing that it would bring great glory to His Father, and to Himself as well. Exactly because He is God, He lovingly stepped down into our cesspool of a world, in order to rescue us from ourselves, draw us to Himself, take us with Him into death, and then rise again (with us still along for the ride) to eternal victory and glory. There was an exaltation awaiting Jesus that night which was beyond even being the Eternal Son, who is King over a world of those who rebel against Him, break His law and desecrate His cosmos. Jesus’ ultimate glory lay in becoming the exalted King over a renewed world full of redeemed worshippers … a King uncontested and with a name above any other conceivable name. (Phil 2:9-11, paraphrased and amplified)
This is the great glory of divine love: redemption and rescue … the transfer of helpless slaves to sin in the kingdom of darkness into a new reality in which they become adopted and beloved children in the Kingdom of God’s one and only Son. (Col 1:13)
2) He wanted to be with His friends and teach them one last time
Now before the Feast of the Passover, when Jesus knew that His hour had come to depart out of this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. (John 13:1)
This is only one of the many Passover meals. In fact, Passover wouldn’t really start in earnest until Saturday, but Jesus was still very much looking forward to it (Luke 22:15). If you knew you were going to die tomorrow, wouldn’t you too want to spend tonight with friends and family eating a dinner that carried special significance? That’s what Jesus did too. He gathered His disciples, His dearest friends and companions, around a table, and shared a meal that had deep, highly-significant roots in the hearts and minds of the Jewish people.
But then, He did the unexpected… He radically updates its meaning.
The Maundy: Washing the Feet
It was traditional in their day to wash your feet before eating, and Jesus took the opportunity to teach His first lesson for the evening. Even though He is God and their Rabbi, He disrobed and washed their feet — serving them in a profoundly-culturally-upside-down way. And then He exhorted them NOT that they should now reciprocate by washing His feet, but rather that they should wash one another’s feet (John 13:1-20). This was completely revolutionary. Notice that nowhere in this picture does the Master’s feet get washed. That’s just crazy!
And in an instant, Jesus totally redefines leadership. He completely overturns all socially-accepted power structures, and commands His followers simply to demonstrably love one another. If you want to be like Jesus, who left heaven for the cross, then love and serve one another. It’s not about getting your own way. It’s about getting a towel, getting on your knees, and washing muddy camel crap off the other person’s smelly feet. That’s the way life works in the Kingdom of heaven.
As an aside, Jesus can’t get through this lesson without Peter sticking His newly-washed foot in his mouth. But that’s a whole different matter, which I wrote about in another setting, if you’re interested.
The Lord’s Supper
The next thing Jesus does is to institute the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper (see Luke 22:19-23). In a very profound move, Jesus redefines the elements of the Passover meal. The bread and wine have always commemorated God’s loving, gracious work on behalf of His people, but the reality, Jesus says, is that every person who has partaken of that meal in its hundreds of years of history has actually been anticipating Jesus. Yes, God rescued His people from Egypt and from the avenging angel of death because of the blood of the Passover lamb (Exodus 12). Yes, he fed them in the wilderness with manna from heaven (Exodus 16). But all this was just foreshadowing. The Lamb who takes away the sins of the world (John 1:29) is the One dipping bread in the wine around this table with twelve broken Jewish men who are about to learn just how scary it is to cross the Roman empire … and then learn just how glorious it is to be indwelled and empowered by the Spirit of the Living God.
Jesus doesn’t really change the meal or somehow discard it or its meaning. Quite the opposite, in fact. He reveals its ultimate meaning. He shows how it is fulfilled in Himself. (Kinda like the Law, but we’ll save that discussion for another time.) Everything about this meal … every time the disciples eat it, ever again, it will remind them of Jesus, who the very next day would die in the act of redeeming them from their sin. Jesus calls His followers for all time in all placers to this meal of remembrance. And we celebrate it even to this day.
3) He wanted to assure the disciples that He wasn’t leaving them behind
“Don’t be afraid,” Jesus says, “I am going ahead of you, so that I can bring you to myself.” (John 14:1-14, paraphrased)
Jesus knows that it is going to be very difficult for the disciples for their mentor and friend of three years — the One they know to be God’s Messiah who will restore Israel — to be viciously mocked and brutally executed the next day. They are, no doubt, going to wonder how they could have been so deceived. How could God’s Messiah be slaughtered on a Roman cross? How does that make any sense of the Scriptures they’ve trusted for so long and which this Man, Jesus, taught with such great authority? Heck, by morning, Peter (2nd in command!) will be calling down curses and swearing he’s never seen Jesus before in his life. Things, to say the least, are not going to go well tomorrow (see John 18).
So, part of Jesus’ motivation for this dinner is to reassure them, “It’s not going to be what it looks like.” Yes, I’m leaving, but I will not leave you forever. I will not leave you as orphans, I will come for you. And the next time I leave, I’m taking you with me (John 14:18-19). Later, the Apostle Paul would talk about God’s adopting us as children (Rom 8:14–17; Gal 4:4-7), but in a sense he’s just providing commentary on Jesus’ words on this night.
In truth, the primary metaphor Jesus uses here is marriage imagery, the language of betrothal. He’s going away like a groom goes away, having been betrothed to his bride-to-be, to prepare for their future life together.
Why does he leave? To go to his father’s house and build a room — to prepare a place — where he and his bride can live forever together. Having prepared that room, he will return with his entourage, claim his bride, whisk her away with him, and then she will always be with her lord.
This is exactly what Jesus is preparing to do with His disciples (and us). Having made the promise of everlasting life together to His “bride” — the Church, His people — Jesus is preparing to go away for a brief time to prepare a room in His Father’s great mansion. But He will return, and when He does, they (and we) will never be separated from our Beloved ever again (John 14:1-3). More than that, the disciples can be absolutely certain that this is true for two reasons. First, they know Jesus, who is Himself the way (and the truth and the life) to that place. He Himself is their access to God’s house and to life eternal, as He explains to them (John 14:4-7). And second, Jesus promises to send the Holy Spirit as the downpayment, guaranteeing this eternal life He’s promising (Eph 1:14).
And the Sending of the Holy Spirit
The other reason Jesus is leaving, is to re-ascend the throne (now as both God and man; when He left it, He was God only; this is part of the glory of God’s plan) and be seated at the right hand of the Father to rule (Heb 10:12; Eph 1:20; 1 Pet 3:22). From that position, He will send to us another Counselor, the Holy Spirit, who will always be with us (John 14:16). In fact, He will dwell in you (John 14:17). It is certainly clear that the disciples struggled to understand Jesus’ teaching, but the Holy Spirit, from within this time, will testify about me and teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I (Jesus) have ever said to you (John 14:26, 15:26-27). He will always comfort and counsel us, always empower us to live the life of freedom from sin that Jesus died and rose again to provide, and He will guide us into all truth (John 16:13).
A serious (and seriously needed) upgrade!
4) He wanted to strengthen His followers’ faith
I have said all these things to you to keep you from falling away. (John 16:1)
No way there’s room enough in one post to unpack all of these, so I’ll just send them at you rapid fire. I recommend studying them yourselves…
- John 15:1-17 – I (Jesus) am the Vine, you are the branches. You must abide in me to have life. I will prune you, but don’t be afraid of that; it’s for your good. To become more like me is more greatly to be valued than anything this world could possibly offer you, including a false sense of temporary comfort.
- John 13:34-35; 15:12-17 – A new command I give you, that you love one another. Wash each other’s feet. Lay down your lives for one another. To be first in the Kingdom of Heaven, you must be the servant of all. (Matt 20:26; Mark 9:35)
- John 15:18-25; 16:2-4 – Just as the world hated me, it will hate you. More about this in a second, but suffice it to say that if your life is easy and you fit right in in this world, there is probably something terribly wrong. The mantra of the Christ-follower is sanctification over safety, calling over comfort. It’s not about easy street, it’s about golden streets … forever. Don’t get distracted.
- John 16:25ff – As we said, things will get difficult after Jesus ascends. But the disciples must stand firm in the face of persecution Jesus knows is coming (John 16:16ff). Yes, they’re going to hate you and hurt you, but don’t be afraid, don’t give up. I’ll send you the Counselor, and He will give you all the resources you need to get through. Plus, the real battle will be fought tomorrow on the cross. It’s going to hurt, but all the battles after that are just cleanup skirmishes. “In this world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). Trust the King. Every knee will bow.
(A related post you might find interesting.)
5) He wanted to talk to His Father
Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given Him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given Him. And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. (John 17:1b-3)
The whole of John 17 is devoted to one of the most amazing chapters in all of Scripture. Here is the longest, most detailed prayer we ever hear Jesus pray. He lets us listen in, for our benefit, but this is really a moment between Him and His Father — a rare glimpse into the shared heart and mind of the Eternal Trinity.
- Father, I have glorified you by completing the mission; now I’m coming home.
- I have succeeded in our plan, leaving no aspect of it incomplete.
- They carry a precious treasure the world does not understand; they no longer belong to the world, but to us, so set them apart and protect them until they come home to us
- I desire your fame and glory to multiply throughout the cosmos!
- I’m so excited that I have your love and you have mine and they have ours, and we can all be together.
- It has been my privilege, Dad, to make you known.
So, as God sent Jesus into the world to love it and serve it and redeem it … to make His life a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). So also, Jesus, that first Maundy Thursday, was sending the first apostles … and through them, He is sending us. For our sakes, Jesus set Himself apart, choosing to become a man and die as a criminal and be raised as the King — the King greater than whose glory none can be conceived. He did that so that we too may be set apart in truth … to be made like Him … little Messiahs … Christ-ians. (John 17:18, paraphrased and amplified)
Don’t let Maundy Thursday be just another day. Remember the Lord. Remember the mission He’s given us. Remember the bread and the wine. And remember the command: Love one another.