Maundy Thursday and Jesus Washing the Disciples’ feet

Maundy Thursday is observed the Thursday before Easter Sunday and commemorates Jesus washing the Apostles’ feet and establishing the Lord’s Supper. footwashingJohn’s Gospel is the only Gospel that recounts the footwashing. In this post, I make a couple observations on John 13:1-30.

John 13:1-30 introduces a larger unit often called the “Farewell Discourse,” which covers John 13:31-17:26. As Jesus bids “farewell” to his disciples, he cleanses them through the act of footwashing. The Farewell Discourse concludes with Jesus praying for his followers to continue his mission. The discourse itself features Jesus preparing his followers for his departure by teaching them about their relationship to the Father, to Jesus, to the Spirit, to one another, and to the world.

The description of the footwashing is intertwined with Jesus’ predictions about his betrayal, something that the other Gospels recount with the institution of the “Lord’s Supper.” John’s Gospel places the footwashing at a meal, but does not include the explicit establishment of the Lord’s Supper. However, the act of footwashing symbolizes Jesus’ humble self-sacrificial service through his death on the cross – something also symbolized by the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper.  In his commentary on John, Craig Keener (2003, 902-914) observes that the interspersing of the footwashing and its significance (13:3-10) with the betrayal (13:2, 10-11) point to Jesus’ impending death. The betrayal of a friend or close associate was a terrible act in all first-century cultures and the act was especially heinous because it took place during a meal. Eating together was a symbol of trust and unity. And yet, Jesus did not make a mistake in choosing Judas (6:70) since he was chosen to fulfill the prophesied role of betrayer, as the quotation of Psalm 41:9 in John 13:18 points out.

Jesus tells his disciples beforehand about this betrayal so that they would not doubt Jesus because of this betrayal. Instead, Jesus’ foretelling would cause them to believe “I am he” (13:19). At the most basic level Jesus was showing that he was a legitimate prophet of God despite Judas’ betrayal; Jesus was still aware and in control of the situation. Telling of the events before hand was one way prophets were shown to be from God (Deut 18:22).

Keener (2003, 914) also states this language of Jesus “choosing” the disciples echoes the language of God choosing Israel as he was creating a covenant community. The choosing of Judas and the crucifixion – they were all a part of God’s plan to draw together a new community/family of God. By introducing the idea of voluntary humble service through footwashing, John emphasizes that the betrayal and death were consciously taken up by Jesus in love and service to God’s people. The humiliation of the cross and its cleansing of sinners were foreshadowed in the act of footwashing.

Jesus’ footwashing also serves as an object lesson in humility. Footwashing was the task usually done by the lowest servant. It was certainly not to be done by a renowned teacher or leader. Jesus says in John 13:14-15  If I then, the Lord and the Teacher, washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I gave you an example that you also should do as I did to you.” Jesus clearly states that one purpose for washing their feet is to give them an example they should follow. Only through humble, Christ-like service could the disciples truly continue Jesus’ ministry and mission.

Ending on a note of application, we church leaders must receive Jesus’ cleansing like anyone else. It is through Christ’s sacrificial death (the Lamb of God) that we are cleansed and adopted as children of God (John 1:12; 29). Christian leaders must be converted and cleansed by Christ. Too many have seized the mantle of leadership without having received Christ’s cleansing. We must also pay close attention to Jesus’ example. Jesus calls us to servant-leadership that is ready to humble oneself in service to the other. This includes doing the tasks no one else wants – the task of the lowest servant like washing the feet. Too many have seized the mantle of Christian leadership without taking up the mantle of service like Christ. Christ-like leadership is servant leadership.

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