Coop's Column - The Lord's Example, the Teacher's Command

Maundy Thursday. The name comes from the Latin, novum mandatum or “new commandment” and recalls the event of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.


“Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet. I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you. A new command I give you: Love one another.” (John 13:14-15)

Maundy Thursday. The name comes from the Latin, novum mandatum  ornew commandment” and recalls the event of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet.

The setting is remarkable. Jesus and his disciples have gathered at a room in Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover meal together. But with the meal about to begin, Jesus does something that must have had the disciples scratching their heads in disbelief.

Near Eastern custom called for washing the feet of guests who had travelled far to attend a banquet meal. Foot-washing was work done by only the lowliest of low servants; not even Jewish slaves were asked to perform the irksome, humiliating duty.

But at this gathering it was Jesus himself who took a towel, bent low, and began to wash his disciples’ feet. How astonishing: The very one whom the disciples were honored to call “Teacher and Lord” (cf. John 13.13) was now surrendering his position of authority over them and stooping to a level far beneath them.

Washing Away

Jesus’ act of humility is too great for Peter to accept. He protests: “No, you shall never wash my feet.” But Jesus responds: “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me.” That being the case, Peter then pleads with his Lord: “Not just my feet, but my hands and head as well.”

How remarkable that Jesus’ act of foot-washing on Thursday anticipates his supreme act, one day later: washing away sins by dying on the cross. Bruce Milne calls the washing of the disciples’ feet a “symbolic prefigurement…[which] uncovers a number of aspects of the death of Christ.”

Like the event of his crucifixion, Jesus’ footwashing presents:

1. Our Savior’s heart of love and care for his disciples—and for us.

Except for his eagerness to obey and please his Father in heaven, no motive prompted Jesus more than deep and inexhaustible love for his disciples. The Gospel writer John introduced his story of the foot-washing event with these words: “Having loved his own who were in the world, he now showed them the full extent of his love.” Humbling himself, Jesus washed his disciples’ feet. A day later, humbling himself even more, he was willing to be mocked, scourged, stripped and, finally, to be crucified for them.

What shall be our own appropriate response, in view of our Savior’s self-humbling, self-sacrificing love? We must sing him our thanks and praise:

“Amazing love! How can it be
          That thou, my Lord, should’st die for me!”

2. God the Father’s overarching sovereign control and guidance.

Throughout his entire life on earth, Jesus was aware that each of his life’s events—and every hour of his every day—had a predetermined Divine purpose and destiny to it. Never was he more aware of this fact than during the tension-filled hours directly preceding his crucifixion. He sensed that things were coming swiftly to a climax, a final fulfilling of the Divine purpose for which he had come. Thus, with the Passover meal in the Upper Room about to begin, Jesus’ mind and heart become overwhelmed and gripped by an incontrovertible conviction. He knew—for sure—“that the time had come…and that the Father had put all things under his power, and that he had come from God and was returning to God.” (John 13.1-3)

And so, in response to that conviction, Jesus knelt down and washed his disciples’ feet. Likewise, in response to that conviction, Jesus walked toward Golgotha and willing offered himself to be crucified. God’s purposes in salvation history play themselves out in perfect time. Willingly, unhesitatingly, and without a trace of foot-dragging or holding back, Jesus fell in step with the timing his Father had set for him.

3. A challenge to his disciples

Jesus’ challenge, says Bruce Milne, is both personal and corporate.

At the Thursday Passover meal Jesus’ stooped to wash each of his disciples’ feet. On Friday, he went to Calvary and willingly offered his body on the cross to wash them—and us—from sin.

It goes without saying: No sin is too grievous, nor any stain too deep, that it cannot be removed by our Savior’s cleansing. Jeremy Taylor encourages: “Let no one despair of [Christ’s] mercy to forgive him, unless he believes that his sins are greater than Christ’s mercy.”

The question before each one of us, then, is: “How willing are you, in simple trust and obedience, to allow yourself to become washed by Jesus?”

The corporate challenge comes in that having washed his disciples’ feet, Jesus called them to imitate him: “Now that I, your Teacher and Lord, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.” (John 13.15) The health of a Christian community can be gauged by how humbly willing its members are to serve one another and others. It’s a measure, too, of how seriously they acknowledge him as Teacher and Lord. (cf. 13.13)

Says Milne: “Humility is a universal Christian virtue to be expressed through sincere and costly service of others in Christ’s name. Christian churches and fellowships are possible only where this attitude is expressed. They have no promise of permanence where it is lacking.”

On Maundy Thursday only one day remains before Jesus shall be led away to be crucified. During these awesome, holy hours of waiting with him, ponder well his words. Having washed his disciples’ feet, he then turned toward them, looked each squarely in the eye, and challenge them:

“I tell you the truth, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.” (John 13.16-17)

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