Read Matthew 26:17–30; Mark 14:12–26; Luke 22:7–30, John 13:1-20
Holy Thursday or Maundy Thursday as some refer to it, is the day that Jesus celebrated His last Passover with the disciples. This event is most often called the Last Supper and is the event that instituted the Christian sacrament of Communion. Many churches have a special communion service on this day to commemorate this event. At this meal, Jesus reiterates His purpose using visual symbols that would be central to the church that was about to be born. At this meal, Jesus also predicts Judas’ betrayal, Peter’s denial and teaches about true greatness. After the meal, Jesus prays in the garden of Gethsemane where he is arrested by the religious leaders and carried off to begin the longest night of His life.
At the beginning of the day, Jesus sends His disciples, only Peter and John, to prepare the Passover meal. A couple of quick points here is that the way Jesus does this indicates that He knew the Jewish leaders were about to come for Him, so He needed the preparation and place of the meal to be secretive to avoid arrest before the meal was done. By sending only Peter and John, He kept the location of the meal secret from Judas who was looking for a quiet place, away from the crowds, to turn Jesus over to the religious leaders. Another reason for only sending Peter and John is that only two people were allowed to go to the killing of the lamb because of the law and for practical reasons. Based on historical documents, there were 1000’s upon 1000’s of lambs slaughtered during a two hour window, so as you can imagine space was limited!
The process by which they would have prepared the Passover would have gone something like this: Peter and John would purchase an approved lamb and take it to the temple to be slain. They would then go to the place where it would be held and roast the lamb and make sure all was ready for the meal. In the Jewish calendar, a new day began at nightfall, so Wednesday nightfall to Thursday nightfall was the day of preparation for the Passover meal. The Passover meal itself included: 1) Roasted Lamb 2) Bitter Herbs 3) Unleavened Bread 4) Fruit Sauce 5) Four cups of Wine. The meal would have been shared after sundown that evening (Thursday nightfall to Friday nightfall).
In the original Passover, the blood of the lambs had been applied to the homes of the Israelites in Egypt to protect them from the outpouring of God’s judgment upon the Egyptians (Exodus 11-12). Matthew alone records Jesus telling his disciples that His time is at hand on the morning of the day on which the Passover lamb was sacrificed. This is a good place to mention that up until this time, Jesus consistently told the disciples that His time had not yet come, but now the time has come. From the place that they would have the Passover meal to the arrest to His eventual crucifixion, God Himself is in control down to the last detail! While He will suffer a horrific death, Jesus’ death is not a result of a series of unfortunate events out of His control. On the contrary, everything is a part of His plan, His plan to save the world!
While we can assume that the actual Passover meal was taken in the traditional way, the reason taking the meal this night was so important was because Jesus needed to use elements from this meal to symbolize what He was about to do and what He wanted them to do in the future to commemorate this event. As He takes the unleavened bread, He holds it up and tells them, this is “my body”. Unleavened bread is used during the Passover because it represents the Israelites leaving Egypt so quickly that they didn’t have time for the bread to rise. However, in the gospels, Jesus actually uses leaven to describe the hypocrisy of the Pharisees. Bread without leaven actually suggests the idea of something being without hypocrisy- real, genuine. In John 6:35-51, Jesus refers to Himself as the Bread of Life that has come down from heaven and anyone who eats of this bread will live forever…” As Jesus breaks the unleavened bread on this night, He reveals that He is the REAL sacrifice that will be given for all men!
With the cup of wine, He gives new meaning to the covenant that Israel has had with God for all these years. In Israel’s covenant with God, blood has always been required for the remission of sins. The blood of the Passover lamb represented God “saving” the Jews from death and rescuing them from slavery. Now, as Jesus takes the cup, He explains that a new covenant is being established between Israel and God: “this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” (Matt. 26:28) This new covenant that He is establishing with Israel was prophesied by Jeremiah (Jer. 31:31-33), and on this night, Jesus announces that this prophecy will be fulfilled as His blood is poured out for all!
A quick note here about blood. For devout Jews, blood has always represented forgiveness (Lev. 17:11). All the way back to when God established His first covenant with His people, blood was the means by which men’s sins were forgiven. But many people struggle with this concept of blood. They are horrified by the thought of blood and don’t understand, but as John Phillips states in a commentary, “Sin is a radical and terrible reality that calls for a radical and terrible cure”. If you struggle with this, consider what David Guzik says, “Modern (unbelieving, Biblically ignorant) people think that sin is remitted (forgiven) by time, by our good works, by our decent lives, or by simply death. But there is no forgiveness without the shedding of blood, and there is no perfect forgiveness without a perfect sacrifice.” Our forgiveness required a perfect sacrifice, and only Jesus fulfills those requirements! Revelations 5:9 confirms this truth:
“Worthy are you to take the scroll
and to open its seals,
for you were slain, and by your blood you ransomed people for God
from every tribe and language and people and nation”
As we reflect on the events of the this day, may we truly understand the significance of the practice of communion and what each element represents. May it never get old as we come to the table remembering our Lord as He willingly came to the cross!
While this last meal with the disciples held monumental significance for the disciples and for us as believers today, one very important event that we can’t leave out is detailed in John’s gospel:
3 Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God, 4 rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist. 5 Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him…12 When he had washed their feet and put on his outer garments and resumed his place, he said to them, “Do you understand what I have done to you? 13 You call me Teacher and Lord, and you are right, for so I am. 14 If I then, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. 15 For I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you. 16 Truly, truly, I say to you, a servant is not greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him. 17 If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them. (John 3-17)
This account of Jesus washing the disciples feet just hours before He goes to the cross is almost too much for us to comprehend, the God of the universe stooping down and taking the form of a servant. Of course, this is what the incarnation is all about. God becoming a man, stooping down to become like one of us, so that He could show us what true LOVE looks like and to set an example for how we can live! He could not be more clear! True “greatness” is found in humility and service to others. While most of us have heard this story, I am not sure we truly understand the full significance of this in 1st century AD. Make no mistake, this was not the action of a typical ruler. Leaders and rulers would NEVER serve their subjects. In fact, all throughout history, this has never been the posture of those in power. This is why this scene and the one that will happen less from 24 hours from now is so remarkable. In Mark 10:45, Jesus defined his purpose: For even the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” but today through washing their feet and tomorrow as He goes to the cross, His purpose is fully illuminated!
Willingly placing ourselves in a position of humility is not the normal way we operate as humans, in fact, our default mode is to strive for “greatness” by pushing our way to the top. We long for significance in the world’s eyes by getting more degrees, a better job, a bigger house, more stuff, or praise from men. Yet, our Lord defined significance through taking up the towel! His example should challenge us, convict us and, ultimately, change us!
If we are followers of Jesus, serving others is not an option. He led the way! We need to understand that life is NOT all about us. In fact, serving is the behavior of a true disciple!
Paul explains it this way:
5 In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:
6 Who, being in very nature[a] God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
7 rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8 And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Tomorrow we will read all about the power of the cross, but today, let’s focus on the Towel!
(Phillips, John: Exploring the Bible Series: An Expository Commentary)