In the UK a few years back a group of church leaders used a Maundy Thursday church service to do something extraordinary. As people entered the church for the Thursday gathering of Holy Week, elders greeted them on their knees in the entryway. Every attendee was invited to sit, and there, in the entrance of the church, the elders removed shoes and socks and washed the reluctant feet of every stunned attendee.
Maundy Thursday is like that — it shocks.
The term maundy in Maundy Thursday comes to us from the Latin root mandatum, or commandment, from Jesus’s words in John 13:34:
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.
Jesus had just finished washing the disciples feet. But what Jesus instituted here points to a sacrificial love of eternal significance.
Slavery and Foot Washing
For the sandal-wearing disciples, washing feet was a common cultural practice, as common in their day as brushing teeth is for us. And while proper hospitality called for a basin of water to be made available for guests, the guests in your home were expected to wash their own feet. Washing the dirt off someone else’s feet was a task reserved for only the lowest-ranking Gentile servants, and Jewish slaves were exempted from the task. In a household without a low-ranking Gentile slave, everyone was expected to was his or her own feet.1
It is meant to startle us when Jesus drops to his knees to the position of an extra-low slave in John 13:1–20. We hear the shock in the voices of the disciples who were at first embarrassed by his act of humility. There is no record in either Jewish or Greco-Roman sources of a superior washing the feet of an inferior. None.2
When Simon Peter refused to have his feet washed, Jesus said, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand” (John 13:7). Whatever the meaning of the foot washing, it was not immediately evident to the disciples. The washing provided an example of love towards one another (John 13:12–17), but it also forecasted something.
Hold that thought for a moment.
Slaves and Crucifixion
If foot washing was a task reserved for lowlife slaves, public crucifixion was a unique threat to lowlife slaves. Death on a cross was reserved for slaves, scumbags, and traitors — and with few exceptions, Roman citizens and the upper classes were completely spared from crucifixion. Slaves, on the other hand, were especially vulnerable, and they were made to know it.
Many scholars believe crucifixion was used as a tool of public intimidation to discourage dishonesty, retaliation, and rebellion among the slave class.3 If the slaves got out of hand, chaos would ensue in populated first-century cities. Nowhere was this more starkly illustrated than in 71 B.C. After a slave rebellion was suppressed in Spartacus, more than 6,000 slaves were crucified together along the Via Appia between Capua and Rome.4 The message to the remaining slaves was made clear in the bloodbath. In other instances, when a slave committed a crime, the law expected the entire slave community in a home to be rounded up and crucified together, irrespective of individual guilt.5
So while the brutal punishment of crucifixion was used for dangerous criminals and for political insurrectionists (as Jesus was accused), it was especially a tool to intimidate the slave class. Public crucifixions kept slaves in line, and for that reason crucifixion eventually became known by a convenient circumlocution, “the slaves’ punishment.”
Writes one scholar,
It is hardly an accident that crucifixion, the most dishonorable form of public humiliation that socially conscious Roman elites could employ in their efforts to punish and discourage rebellion among the lower classes, was so closely associated with slavery, the lowest class in the stratified social world of Roman antiquity. The juxtaposition of the two ideas — σταυρός [cross] and δούλος [slave] — served to compound the social stigma associated with both slavery and crucifixion in the ancient world and thereby to reinforce in the public arena the social hierarchy that served the interests of the dominant culture.6
Slavery and crucifixion merged closely together in the social consciousness of the first century.
Back to Maundy Thursday
When we look again at Jesus’s humble act of foot washing, we see why the disciples were unable to immediately grasp the significance of the act. Jesus lowered himself into the position of a lowly slave, he served like a slave, he washed the disciples’ feet like a lowest-of-the-low slave, because ultimately he was preparing to die the dehumanizing death of a slave. In John 13:1–20 we watch Philippians 2:5–8 unfold in real-time.
The Creator on His Knees
On Maundy Thursday the Creator of the universe bent down to his knees to wash the dirt from the callused feet of his followers. And as he scrubbed away the dirt, he scrubbed from his Bride all possible justifications for ethnic and economic hierarchies. He radically upset cultural norms. And now he calls us to go low in foot-washing-like service to one another.
But most importantly, Maundy Thursday reminds us the Son of Man willingly came to earth as a lowly slave, to serve us, to be crushed for us, to free us from the sin slavery that leads to eternal death. On his knees Jesus enacts for us a parable of the cross.
The disciples could not yet see the symbolic anticipation. The full explanation for why Jesus washed their feet would only become clear after the blood-bought atonement on Good Friday. Then the disciples would look back and understand the act of deep humility in the cross that brought us a once-for-all, head-to-toe, cleansing from all our sin.
1 Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Baker, 2007), 192.
2 D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans, 1991), 462n11.
3 A point made in Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Augsburg, 1977).
4 James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Eerdmans, 2002), 468.
5 This point is dramatically illustrated by the story recorded by Tacitus in The Annals, 14.42–45
6 Joseph H. Hellermana, “The Humiliation of Christ in the Social World of Roman Philippi, Part 2,” BibSac 160:640 (2003), 420.