Many Protestants have attended churches that have had focused worship services on Good Friday and Easter Sunday. However, in Protestant churches that do not strictly adhere to the liturgical calendar and do not celebrate Maundy Thursday, some may be unfamiliar with the terminology and practice of Maundy Thursday. Historically, the Christian church celebrated Maundy Thursday at the beginning of the Triduum (i.e., the three days of Christ’s suffering). The Christian church has done so in commemoration of Jesus’ institution of the Supper, His washing the disciples’ feet, and His giving the new commandment in the upper room on the night He was betrayed.
The word Maundy comes from the Latin word mandatum, which, in English, simply means “mandate.” In the upper room (John 13–17), Jesus gave His disciples the new commandment (i.e., the new mandate) after washing their feet. This new commandment is found in John 13:31–35. Having set an example by washing their feet, the Lord Jesus told the Twelve: “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” (John 13:35).
It has not been uncommon for believers to misunderstand the symbolism of the foot washing and Jesus’ subsequent new commandment. Christ was not instituting a practice of foot washing as a sacrament in this act; neither was He teaching us that we fulfill the new commandment by literally washing the feet of other believers. Rather, He was acting out in His service of His disciples a parable regarding what He would do on the cross. Jonathan Edwards helpfully explains:
There were . . . symbolical representations given of that great event this evening; one in the passover, which Christ now partook of with his disciples . . . another in this remarkable action of his washing his disciples’ feet. Washing the feet of guests was the office of servants, and one of their meanest offices: and therefore was fitly chosen by our Savior to represent that great abasement which he was to be the subject of in the form of a servant, in becoming obedient unto death, even that ignominious and accursed death of the cross, that he might cleanse the souls of his disciples from their guilt and spiritual pollution.1
By rising, stooping, and rising again, Jesus was acting out His incarnate humiliation and subsequent exaltation (cf. John 13:3–14; Phil. 2:1–11). In the new commandment, Jesus is giving His disciples—who would become the foundation stones of the new covenant church—a mandate to serve and care for the spiritual good of His people. As Christ would die on the cross to wash the filthy souls of those He came to redeem, so He commands His disciples to follow His example in caring for the spiritual needs of others. This command is fulfilled in the preaching of the gospel and the calling of sinners to the Savior. By way of application, believers are also to care for the temporal needs of other believers. Since Jesus is the Savior of soul and body, so He calls elders and deacons to care for the spiritual and temporal (i.e., material, physical, etc.) needs of His people.
The commandment to love and serve others is not unique to the New Testament. In the old covenant law, God gave His people the command, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). What is distinct about the “new commandment” is that Jesus is fulfilling it in His sacrificial life and death for the redemption of His people. No one but Christ had ever so kept the command to “love your neighbor as yourself.” Through His sacrificial service, Jesus fulfilled Leviticus 19:18 for the redemption of His people and set the example of what it means to love and serve others.
- Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, vol. 2, “Sermon XVI: Christ the Example of Ministers, John 13:15, 16” (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson Publishers, 1993).↩