Holy Week is here. For evangelicals, that means focused attention on Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday. However, there is another day during Passion Week that was critical to the story but that we often miss—Maundy Thursday.
More liturgical Protestant denominations and the Catholic Church direct much of their attention to Maundy Thursday, but in many American evangelical churches, this day is often overlooked.
Certainly, the focal point of Passion Week is the accomplished work of Jesus in his death and resurrection. Nevertheless, missing what happened on Maundy Thursday is missing a huge aspect of the work of Jesus.
The accounts of Maundy Thursday are likely familiar to you, but you might be less familiar with the fact that all of these events happened on the same day. This was intentional. It was planned.
The events of Maundy Thursday were setting up what was to come for Jesus’ followers long after he ascended into heaven.
Time Spent With His Disciples
After Palm Sunday, the details of Jesus’ time become highly speculative. That is, until Thursday—the day before his crucifixion.
A very grand and public display of Jesus’ ministry happens on Palm Sunday with the triumphal entry. The crowds are praising Jesus, shouting hosanna and waving palm branches as he rides in on a donkey. This foretold event was another affirmation that Jesus truly is the Messiah.
Then we fast forward to Thursday, and the events that unfold are far more intimate and personal.
Jesus spent the entire day before his death in community with his closest friends. It was already an important day, because Jesus and his disciples were celebrating Passover—a day of remembering how God delivered his people from Egypt.
The significance of this moment was not lost on Jesus, as he would be the one to bring about ultimate deliverance and redemption for the people of God.
Jesus Washes the Disciples’ Feet
When Jesus and his disciples were in the middle of sharing the Passover meal together, Jesus just got up and started washing his disciples’ feet. I imagine they were caught off guard by this.
From a cultural perspective, it was normal for feet to be washed prior to eating a meal. Most people were walking around in sandals or even just bare feet all day, and roads were primarily dirt. So as you can imagine, people’s feet were dirty.
It was common practice for feet to be washed to keep houses clean. In fact, it was a symbol of hospitality throughout the region. Oftentimes, a basin of water for washing could be found near the entrance of people’s homes. And if the gathering were large enough, a servant would wait by the basin to wash guests’ feet.
Jesus and the disciples were meeting in an upper room, which was a borrowed space and would likely not have had a basin waiting by the door. With all of this in mind, it would not have been customary for the guest of honor to wash anyone’s feet. This is what was so significant and shocking about Jesus’ actions.
The day before Jesus would be crucified, he modeled what it looked like to serve others. Jesus was a servant leader to his disciples, men who were often far more focused on determining who was the greatest among them. Jesus flipped the model of importance on its head, as he demonstrated what he had been teaching his entire ministry: to be great is to serve others.
Alongside this example of servanthood was spiritual symbolism. Jesus’ conversation with Peter as he washed his feet was pointing towards salvation in Jesus.
Commentator Joseph Dongell puts it this way: “The foot washing first signified salvation offered through Jesus’ death. As Jesus explained to Peter, ‘Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.’ … The issue was more than an attitude adjustment for a stubborn disciple; it was acceptance or rejection of Jesus and His redemptive mission as a whole.”
Jesus washing the feet of his disciples was a precursor to the sacrificial love he would display on the cross.
The New Command
After Jesus washes the feet of his disciples the Passover meal continues. During this time, we are given insight into the details of Judas’ betrayal. The other disciples did not understand what was happening and were confused by the words of Jesus. But this was not uncommon. As Jesus is calling Judas out and telling him to act quickly, he tells the rest of his disciples that he won’t be with them much longer.
At this moment, he gives them a new command.
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34).
The word “Maundy” actually comes from the Latin phrase mandatum novum, which means “new commandment.” It is this verse in John where we get the term Maundy Thursday. The day before Jesus’ death is the day of the New Commandment.
The command to love God and others is not new. It is a command found in the Old Testament. The difference in this command and what was given in the Old Testament is that it is given through the love Jesus displayed.
The measure of love we are commanded to give is the love Jesus demonstrated as a humble servant. His entire ministry showcased the kind of love his followers are to give. His ministry was about others. It was a laying down of himself in every way imaginable for the sake of others. This is the kind of love we are commanded to live out.
Of all the aspects of the Christian faith Jesus could have focused on the day before his death, he chose love. He showcased love as he washed the disciples feet, he taught on love by giving a new command, and later in the day he would demonstrate the strength to love in the way he commanded.
Maundy Thursday is the day Jesus introduces the Lord’s Supper and calls his disciples to reframe the way they view the Passover in light of his own sacrifice. This is one of the two ordinances Jesus commands his people to follow.
We are to participate in the Lord’s Supper (also called communion) as a way of remembering and commemorating the sacrifice Jesus made.
High Priestly Prayer
Jesus’ longest recorded prayer is known as the High Priestly Prayer. In the Old Testament, the high priest acted as the intercessor between the people and God. They were also called to be pure physically and in their conduct. Jesus embodied the role of the high priest in every way.
In his prayer, Jesus addresses his relationship with the Father, his disciples, and the Church. This prayer was likely intended for the disciples to overhear. The disciples only understood the significance of Jesus’ prayer after he ascended into heaven.
This is the prayer they needed, because they would soon be tasked with spreading the gospel throughout the world. Jesus prays for unity for his people with God and with others.
In many ways, his prayer is pointing back to the new command he gave them to love God and love others, just as he loved them.
Garden of Gethsemane
Jesus’ final hours prior to being arrested and crucified are spent in prayer. He asks his disciples to stay awake with him while he prays, but they can’t. They’re too exhausted. A lot transpired in this one day, but Jesus was agonizing over what the next few hours meant for him. His prayer is a request for there to be another way to bring salvation and redemption to the world.
In this moment, we see the humanity of Jesus. Yet, he follows through in obedience. Oftentimes, we think Jesus’ obedience was easy, because he’s God after all. But as he sat in the garden, pleading for another way, it became evident that he still very much endured the difficulties of humanity. He understood the strength it takes to step forward in obedience and love others sacrificially.
In fact, he understood this more than any of us likely ever will. Many of us are faced with the pains of sacrificially loving others, but the majority of us will not know what that looks like to the point of death.
The Theme of Maundy Thursday
The final day before Jesus’ crucifixion exemplified the love he has for the world—the love he is calling us to have for the world. He showcased love, taught love, and displayed the strength of love all in one day. Every aspect of Thursday intentionally pointed to the greatest display of love the world has ever seen.
As we remember and reflect on the great sacrifice our Savior made for us, may it cause us to carry out the command he gave the day before his death: to love others even when it is the most painful and challenging thing we will ever do.
Now, this isn’t to say Jesus’ message to the world is void of truth and a very serious understanding of sin. But what we can see is that all of that was motivated and driven by his love for others, the very same love we are called to live out each and every day.