What in the world does “maundy” mean? The word comes from the Latin word mandatum, which means “order” or “command.” During this day of Holy Week, we observe Maundy Thursday because of Jesus’ 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” (John 13:34). Jesus’ command here is to be understood in the context of what came before. Before He said these words, Jesus performed a great service of love—washing the disciples’ feet. This is highly significant when we understand the cultural context of Jesus’ actions.
After a long day’s work, the lowest servant of the house had the duty to wash the dirty, nasty, bloody feet of the master. After a long day’s work, now sitting to celebrate the Passover, Jesus—Lord and Master—lowered Himself to this position of the lowliest servant by washing the disciples’ feet. This is why Peter was so troubled and said, “You shall never wash my feet” (v. 8). But Jesus washes his and the other disciples’ feet anyway, saying, “Do you understand what I have done to you? You call Me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 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” (vv. 12-15). In this context, Jesus’ command is to love one another in the example He showed His love to the disciples.
What is this love? Jesus is Lord and Master, no doubt, but as Lord He decided to lower Himself to the position of servant. That is how we are to love one another. Jesus showed the example of ultimate self-denial—denying His Lordship by becoming servant. And so we are to lower ourselves from our high positions—both real and imagined—to the position of servant for one another. The love of Christ gets down and dirty with people—the love of Christ takes our filth and makes us clean. Thus, on this day, we remember the Lord’s command to walk in the filth of sin with one another, cleaning each other up with the Gospel.
Also on this night Jesus instituted the Lord’s Supper, which is beyond a mere remembrance of what He has done for us:
Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And He took a cup, and when He had given thanks He gave it to them, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins.” (Matthew 26:26-28)
So today we also attend our local congregation and partake of His body and blood in the bread and wine to receive forgiveness of sins. In this institution we have the command to partake of His body and blood, which comes with the promise of forgiveness of sins.
Maundy Thursday is a bittersweet day. It is not only the day in which we remember His command to love as He has loved us as we taste the sweetness of forgiveness in the bread and wine, but it is also bitter in that the Lord’s Supper is a foreshadowing of what we will observe tomorrow: the breaking of Jesus’ body and the shedding of His blood on the cross.