Friday, April 10, 2009

The Meaning of Holy Thursday


When we think of Holy Thursday (or Maundy Thursday), what usually comes to mind is the Last Supper and the establishment of Holy Communion. Those are the main events of that Thursday evening Seder. But a lot more happened that evening, such as the washing of the disciples’ feet, predictions of disloyalty, and a fair amount of teaching.

Overview of John’s Gospel

The Gospel of John has the most detailed account of the Last Supper – five chapters, but leaves out the establishment of Communion. I presume that’s because John’s was the last Gospel written, and he knew that was well covered by the other three Gospels. John’s account of that Thursday evening over those five chapters covers these events and teachings:

In John Chapter 13, Jesus washed the feet of his disciples – something not recorded in the other three Gospels. He also predicted Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial, and he gave a new commandment to love one another. The term “Maundy” Thursday comes from the Latin for “new commandment”: Latin Vulgate Bible says “mandatum novum do vobis.”

The teachings and prayers of the following four chapters is often refered to as Christ’s Upper Room Discourse. In the next chapter, Jesus told the disciples he is the way to the Father when he spoke these famous words that evening (John 14:1-2, 6):

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?"

Jesus said to [Thomas], “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

Jesus also promised the Holy Spirit would come, and he gave the disciples (and us) his peace:

“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27, NRSV)

Jesus taught about the vine and branches, the Holy Spirit, to love one another, and the world will hate you because of him. Jesus ended the evening by praying for himself, his disciples, and future believers in what has come to be called his High Priestly Prayer. After this, Jesus and his disciples went to the Garden of Gethsemane, at the foot of the Mount of Olives. The 18th chapter of John’s Gospel begins with these words (John 18:1):

After Jesus had spoken these words, he went out with his disciples across the Kidron valley to a place where there was a garden, which he and his disciples entered. NRSV

On Palm Sunday Jesus was hailed as King and Messiah as he passed through the Kidron Valley on his way into Jerusalem. Four days later, he walked through that valley once more, anticipating that the next valley he would encounter was the valley of death.

Theme of Christ’s Ministry

When we look at the events of Holy Thursday and Jesus’ entire ministry, we can see a theme emerge, and that is one of servanthood. Loving and serving others is the major thrust of Jesus’ ministry on earth, and we see it in the events of Holy Thursday and Good Friday. The cynics of the world say, “Take care of yourself first. Look out for number one, do unto others before they do unto you.”

Jesus says, “love one another, serve one another, be humble, do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. Jesus gave powerful demonstrations that he himself – even though he is God – didn’t come to be served, but to serve. If we look at his public ministry, he spent most of his time serving others. He healed the sick, forgave sinners, even raised the dead, preached to the people, and taught his disciples.

That Thursday, he gave still another demonstration of having a servant’s attitude. He washed his disciples’ feet, an unpleasant job considering the filthy streets they had been walking through wearing open sandals. To make sure everybody got his message, he said in John 13:12b-17:

“Do you know what I have done to you? You call me Teacher and Lord — and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you. Very truly, I tell you, servants are not greater than their master, nor are messengers greater than the one who sent them. If you know these things, you are blessed if you do them.” NRSV

To emphasize the point further, he gave the new commandment to love one another, then reinforced it by saying later on (John 15:12-13):

“This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” NRSV

On Friday, Jesus demonstrated the ultimate act of love – he did lay down his life for his friends – you and me. It was the greatest act of serving – he died so that we may live. Jesus went to the cross voluntarily, because it was God’s will that the world would be saved through him.


In washing the disciples’ feet, Jesus did what no one else would stoop to do, even though any one of the disciples could have done it. In dying for our sins, Jesus did what no one else was able to do – only the Son of God could accomplish what he did. This washing of the feet was not an act of weakness, but was done out of strength and confidence, as we read in John 13:3-5 (NRSV):

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going to God, got up from the table, took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself. Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was tied around him.

When we do good things for others in the name of Christ, we also are doing so out of strength, love, and commitment, not out of weakness. So let’s not forget the lesson of Holy Thursday: Jesus came to serve, and we should do likewise. Jesus was rewarded for his obedience to the Father by his Resurrection, and now he is sitting at the right hand of the Father in heaven. We, too, will be rewarded for serving others when we get to heaven, but our main motivation for serving should always be to glorify God. So let us commit to having a servant attitude, just as Jesus did.

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