This day is historically referred to as Maundy Thursday. The Maundy comes from the Latin mandatum, which means command, and refers to the new commandment Jesus gave to his disciples to love one another, as recorded by John (Jn. 13:34-35).
Jesus gave this command in the midst of the celebration of the Passover with his disciples. It is helpful to recount the events of this day of this final week of Jesus’ life prior to the cross. Jesus initially instructs his disciples Peter and John to get a room for the celebration of Passover (Matt. 26:17-19; Mk. 14:12-16; Lk. 22:7-13). Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover meal, at which time he informs them of the coming betrayal, and he institutes the Lord’s Supper (Matt. 26:20-29; Mk. 14:17-23; Lk. 22:14-30). This Passover becomes the Last Supper and the Lord’s Supper, which marks a transition between the two, and marks the beginning of the new covenant ushered in through Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection, the new covenant in my blood” (Lk. 22:20; 1 Cor. 11:25). Finally, Jesus washes the disciples’ feet, interacts with them and gives the Upper Room Discourse (Jn. 13:1-17:26). One has written that the purpose of this section of John’s Gospel “is to ‘unpack’, before the event, the significance of Jesus’ departure – his death, burial, resurrection, exaltation and the consequent coming of the Holy Spirit.”
In this section of John’s Gospel focusing on the Passover and the washing of the disciples’ feet (Jn. 13:1-38), there are a number of key truths that are important for us to grasp to understand the significance of Jesus and his work, leading to the cross.
- When John reaches this point in his Gospel, he notes of Jesus that “his hour had come to depart” (13:1a). The “hour” is related to the culmination of Jesus’ earthly ministry which is the cross, the place where Christ experiences the depths of sin, yet also the beginning of his exaltation through resurrection and glorification. It is important to note John’s transition. When Jesus was asked to do certain things, He made it clear that the “hour had not yet come” (Jn. 2:4; 7:30; 8:20). But Jesus final journey to the cross marks his transition such that John records Jesus as saying, “The hour has now come for the Son of Man to be glorified” (Jn. 12:23; cf. 12:27(2x); 13:1; 17:1). The cross is the unique way through which He will be glorified. Jesus’ High Priestly prayer begins, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you” (Jn. 17:1).
- God loved the world that led to the giving of his only-begotten Son (Jn. 3:16). God’s love for the world is not that it was good, but in order to draw men and women out of it. This is why he gave his Son. God's love is the reason he sent his Son, and the Son's death was the propitiation for our sins. God is not moved from wrath to love because of Christ's death. Rather, it is God's love that leads to his satisfaction of his wrath against us and our sin. This is how John states this truth: "In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins" (1 Jn. 4:9-10).
- Jesus loved his own from the beginning, but now he reveals the full extent of his love (13:1b). This expression could mean either “to the end,” viz., he loved them to the uttermost that he could not love any more. Or it could mean Jesus loved them to the very end of his life. Whichever way it is understood, “the text presupposes that the way Jesus displays his unflagging love for his own is in the cross immediately ahead, and in the act of self-abasing love, the foot-washing, that anticipates the cross.” Jesus "loved them to the end," which culminates in Jesus' statement "It is finished" (Jn. 19:30), and bowing his head and giving up his spirit (Jn. 19:30). God the Father's love was the ground and basis of the sending of his Son to be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:9-10). God the Son loved to the end, to death on the cross (Jn. 13:1; 19:30). The Father and Son are one in will, intent and purpose.
- Jesus, being the God-man, knew the “Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God” (13:3). Jesus knew his purpose and he trusted his Father. We confess that Jesus is fully God and fully man, one person in two natures. This is revealed in Jesus' prayer in the garden of Gethsemane where "his sweat became like great drops of blood falling down to the ground” (Lk. 22:44). Knowing what was before him he prayed, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will" (Matt. 26:39). And yet, the Scriptures also reveal that “Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb. 12:2).
- Because he knew who he was and what his purpose was, he served. Jesus takes the humble posture as he “laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him” (13:4-6). This reflects the nature of God, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8).
- In addition to revealing the sacrificial love of God, which will be expressed fully by Jesus giving his life at the cross, this foot washing also serves as an example to Jesus’ followers. Jesus says, “If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you” (13:14-15). Jesus takes the form of a servant and serves. We, as his followers, also serve.
- It is in knowing the Lord Jesus and the truths about him and doing them, living by them that brings blessing. Jesus emphasizes, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them” (13:17). It is the knowing and doing. The doing is not the basis of life, but the fruit and manifestation of life.
- After Jesus stated one will betray him, he also acknowledged that it was through this means he and the Father would be glorified: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once” (13:31-32). The purpose for which Jesus came was to be the propitiation for our sins (1 Jn. 4:10) and to destroy the works of the devil (1 Jn. 3:8). And the means by which these would be realized, and the way in which God the Father and God the Son would be glorified is through his death on the cross.
- Finally, Jesus gives a new command: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (Jn. 13:34-35). This command is not new because nothing like it had ever been said previously. Rather, as noted by D. A. Carson, it was new on the basis of it being a “new standard (‘As I have loved you’) [and] with the new order it both mandates and exemplifies. . . . This commandment is presented as the marching order for the newly gathering messianic community, brought into existence by the redemption long purposed by God himself. It is not just that the standard is Christ and his love; more, it is a command designed to reflect the relationship of love that exists between the Father and the Son (cf. 8:29; 10:18; 12:49-50; 14:31; 15:10), designed to bring about amongst the members of the nascent messianic community the kind of unity that characterizes Jesus and his Father (Jn. 17). The new command is there not only the obligation of the new covenant community to respond to the God who has loved them and redeemed them by the oblation of his Son, and their response to his gracious election which constituted them his people, it is a privilege which, rightly lived out, proclaims the true God before a watching world. That is why Jesus ends his injunction with the words, All men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. Orthodoxy without principial obedience to this characteristic command of the new covenant is merely so much humbug.”
On this day, may we reflect on two critical truths: Jesus “loved them to the end” and on this basis we are commanded and enabled to “love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.”