Have you ever wondered why Christians refer to the Thursday of Holy Week as Maundy Thursday? It’s the day we celebrate and observe the events that occurred in the upper room of a building between Jesus and His disciples, including partaking in the Passover mean or what had been long referred to as The Last Supper.
But what does the term Maundy mean? It’s an abbreviated form of the Latin word “mandatum.” That is where we get the English expression “mandate,” which also means a command, directive, decree, ruling, or order. So. how does the word Maundy relate to the events that unfolded that evening centuries ago? To answer that question, let’s turn in our Bibles to John 13:5-20. However, before we read that passage of Scripture together, let’s set the stage by recounting an event that occurred that evening.
If there is one thing we each learn all too quickly in life, it is to be competitive. Growing up, we compete to get the best grades, triumph in sports, and for popularity to win the heart of that special girl or for girls that special boy. Simply put, we develop a mindset to compete for almost everything and often carry that mindset into adulthood.
Interestingly, this mindset is nothing new in the 21 century because, as we see in the pages of Scripture, it also existed in the first century when James and John, the Sons of Thunder, approached Jesus to make a request. Listen to how they make their request.
James and John, the two sons of Zebedee, came to Jesus saying, “Teacher, we want You to do for us whatever we ask of You.Mark 10:35
The phrase has all the hallmarks of someone seeking a genie in a lamp, someone to grant your every wish. Translated into modern terms, the phrase would go like this: “Here’s my plan, Lord; now bless it.”
The two brothers asked that when the Lord came into His kingdom, He would grant them to sit, one on His left, the other on His right. They were bucking to be Jesus’s lieutenants, His top “go-to” guys in the kingdom of heaven.
However, Jesus told them they did not know what they were asking. The Bible says the other disciples became disgruntled toward James and John, and they all had a heated argument about who would hold the top positions in Jesus’s kingdom.
After spending some three years under the Lord’s mentorship and teaching, after seeing miracle after miracle, sadly, their thoughts were of worldly ambition as they hungered for power and control. They were seeking status, ranking, and importance, and once that crept into their fellowship, it began to divide them against one another.
Sadly, churches today succumb to that same demise every day because some people hunger for worldly power and control over others. They create division, not unity; chaos, not order; pride, not humility. It all culminates when God is no longer prevalent, the fellowship fragments and the church dies.
The disciples’ behavior must have been so disappointing for Jesus. Knowing that His time with them was in the final hours, Jesus needed a way to get His message across to them in an intense, visually pointed way. The disciples needed to learn that serving others is the path to exaltation, not power and control. Therefore, Jesus decided to wash the disciples’ feet. The Bible says:
1 Now before the Feast of the Passover, Jesus, knowing that His hour had come that He would depart from this world to the Father, having loved His own who were in the world, He loved them to the end. 2 And during supper, the devil having already put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, the son of Simon, to betray Him, 3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had handed all things over to Him, and that He had come forth from God and was going back to God, 4 *got up from supper and *laid His outer garments aside; and He took a towel and tied it around Himself. Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet. 5 Then He *poured water into the basin, and began washing the disciples’ feet and wiping them with the towel which He had tied around Himself. 6 So He *came to Simon Peter. He *said to Him, “Lord, You are washing my feet?” 7 Jesus answered and said to him, “What I am doing, you do not realize right now, but you will understand later.” 8 Peter *said to Him, “Never shall You wash my feet!” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no place with Me.” 9 Simon Peter *said to Him, “Lord, then wash not only my feet, but also my hands and my head!” 10 Jesus *said to him, “He who has bathed needs only to wash his feet; otherwise he is completely clean. And you are clean—but not all of you.” 11 For He knew the one who was betraying Him; it was for this reason that He said, “Not all of you are clean.” 12 Then, when He had washed their feet, and taken His garments and reclined at the table again, He said to them, “Do you know what I have done for you? 13 You call Me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’; and you are correct, for so I am. 14 So if I, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I gave you an example, so that you also would do just as I did for you. 16 Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them. 18 I am not speaking about all of you. I know the ones whom I have chosen; but this is happening so that the Scripture may be fulfilled, ‘He who eats My bread has lifted up his heel against Me.’ 19 From now on I am telling you before it happens, so that when it does happen, you may believe that I am He. 20 Truly, truly I say to you, the one who receives anyone I send, receives Me; and the one who receives Me receives Him who sent Me.”John 13:5-20
Jesus knew that His hour had come, and the lesson the disciples needed to learn had to occur at that time because His time was short. He knew the enemy was about to strike and betray Him. So Jesus got up, laid aside His outer garment, took a towel and a water basin, and began washing the disciples’ feet.
In those days, most people wore sandals, and their feet would become excessively dirty from the filth and grime of the world. Therefore, each home would have a water basin at the entrance where the poor guests could wash their feet, and the rich would have their feet cleaned by a servant. It was considered one of the lowliest jobs– to wash someone’s feet.
Seeing Jesus washing their feet must have come as quite a shock to the disciples, which was His intent for them to learn the importance of the lesson at hand. However, I believe all but one of the disciples were shocked by what Jesus was doing.
I imagine Judas enjoyed having the Lord wash his feet. So much so that he likely tilted each foot to the left, then to the right, and even spread his toes. Yes, I imagine Judas, who had already decided to betray the Lord, took pleasure in Jesus washing his feet.
However, Peter’s reaction was quite the opposite. By washing the feet of others, Peter thought Jesus had degraded Himself to the level of a lowly servant. More than likely, the others were thinking the same thing, but how quickly they forgot the words Jesus spoke, recorded in Matthew 20:28. Jesus said:
28 “…the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many.”Matthew 20:28
In protest, Peter spoke in humility and somewhat authoritatively, saying to Jesus, “Never shall You wash my feet!” In hindsight, knowing the disciples were arguing earlier about who would be greatest in the kingdom, it could be that Peter was also trying to elevate himself above the others by refusing to allow his Lord to wash his feet whereas the others were willing.
However, Jesus’s response, “If I do not wash you, you have no place with Me,” shook Peter to the core, so much so that He asked Jesus to not only wash his feet, but his hands and his head.
In retrospect, we know the Lord’s act of washing feet and His response to Peter reveals He is teaching on two levels: the physical and spiritual.
- In the physical sense, Jesus taught the disciples about humility and servant leadership and that no one among them is greater than the other. We are to serve one another royally and sacrificially, bearing each other’s burdens and calling one another to repentance to have the filth and grime of this world washed clean by Jesus.
- Washing, in the spiritual sense, which Peter and the other disciples did not understand until after Jesus’s death and resurrection, refers to cleansing one’s soul of the dirt and grime of sin by the shed blood of Christ. We don’t understand how it works, but what we do know is that apart from being cleansed by the redeeming blood of Christ, the unclean soul can have no part with the Lord, which is what Jesus told Peter.
Another point we can glean from this passage of Scripture is that a person’s spiritual cleansing is neither automatic nor does it occur by mere association. We see that vividly in the life of Judas Iscariot, who was associated with Jesus for some three years and had all the outward trademarks of a true disciple. However, on the inside, his heart was corrupt, and his soul was lost in the mire of sin.
After washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus put His outer garment back on and reclined at the table. Then, He asked:
12 “Do you know what I have done for you? 13 You call Me ‘Teacher’ and ‘Lord’; and you are correct, for so I am. 14 So if I, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I gave you an example, so that you also would do just as I did for you. 16 Truly, truly I say to you, a slave is not greater than his master, nor is one who is sent greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.”John 13:12-17
The visual example given by Jesus provides us with a spiritual understanding that there is only One who is great in the kingdom of heaven— God. And, as much as we are to love and serve one another in this life, so it will be in heaven where no one is above another. Why? Because we will all be made perfect in Christ Jesus, one and together with the Lord.
So why do Christians refer to the Thursday of Holy Week as Maundy Thursday? It centers around the command, the mandate that Jesus gave to the disciples, less Judas Iscariot who had already departed to do his evil deed, Jesus said:
34 “I am giving you a new commandment, that you love one another; just as I have loved you, that you also love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples: if you have love for one another.”John 13:34-35
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture is taken from the New American Standard Bible®, Copyright © 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission.
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