The Maundy in Maundy Thursday comes from the Latin root mandatum, or commandment, taken from Jesus' 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.
Just prior to speaking these words, Jesus knelt down to wash the disciples' feet, a model of love for the disciples. But Maundy Thursday celebrates more than a new mandate of sacrificial love, it points to a sacrifice of eternal significance.
Slaves and Foot Washing
For the sandal-wearing disciples, washing feet was a common cultural practice. It was proper hospitality to offer your guests a basin of water for their feet. But guests were usually 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 often exempted from this duty. In a household without slaves, everyone washed his or her own feet.1
Yet Jesus willingly dropped to his knees in the position of this extra-lowly slave to wash the disciples' feet in John 13:1–20. The disciples were immediately shocked, and it seems, embarrassed by this act of humility. But their surprise should be no surprise to us. "There is no instance in either Jewish or Greco-Roman sources of a superior washing the feet of an inferior."2 And this was the Creator of the universe on his knees washing the dirt from the callused feet of his followers!
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 one moment.
Slaves and Crucifixion
If foot washing was the task of the lowest slave, public crucifixion was a unique threat to the slave class. With few exceptions, Roman citizens and the upper classes were spared from crucifixion. Slaves were especially vulnerable.
Crucifixion was a public tool to discourage dishonesty, retaliation, and rebellion among the slave class.3 In 71 B.C., after a slave rebellion was suppressed in Spartacus, over 6,000 slaves were crucified together along the Via Appia between Capua and Rome.4 In other instances, if one slave was caught breaking the law, the entire slave community within a single household could 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 (of which Jesus was accused), it was especially used to intimidate the slave class. Public crucifixions kept slaves in line. So much so that crucifixion eventually became known by a convenient circumlocution, "the slaves' punishment."
Slavery and crucifixion merged in the social consciousness, writes one author:
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
Back to Maundy Thursday
When we look again at Jesus' 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 essence this is the connection made in Philippians 2:5–8.
As he washed out dirt from between the disciples' toes, Jesus performed a parable of the cross. The disciples could not see the the symbolic anticipation, not here, not now. The full explanation for why Jesus washed their feet would only become clear after the substitutionary atonement of the Savior on Good Friday. Then they 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 our sin.
On Maundy Thursday Jesus dropped to his knees to scrub away every ethnic and economic hierarchy from the church. He upset cultural norms. He now calls us to go low in foot-washing-like service to one another. But most importantly we are reminded that the Son of Man came to earth as a slave to serve us, to be crushed for us, to free us from our own slavery to sin that leads to eternal death, and to open the way for us to enjoy and delight in God's presence now and forever (Matthew 20:28; Psalm 16:11).
1Richard Bauckham, The Testimony of the Beloved Disciple (Baker, 2007), 192.
2D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John (Eerdmans, 1991), 462n11.
3A point made in Martin Hengel, Crucifixion (Augsburg, 1977).
4James R. Edwards, The Gospel According to Mark (Eerdmans, 2002), 468.
6Joseph H. Hellermana, "The Humiliation of Christ in the Social World of Roman Philippi, Part 2," BibSac 160:640 (2003), 420.