In the medieval Latin translation (Vulgate) of John 13:34 Scripture says, Mandatum novum do vobis, “A new commandment I give to you, that you should love one another as I have loved you, so also should you love one another.” In the church calendar this is Maundy Thursday, or Commandment Thursday. Our English word maundy is derived from the Latin mandatum. On this day, in preparation for the Passover (and in preparation for his own death as the lamb of God (John 1:29, 36), our Lord took off his outer garment, wrapped a towel around his waist, and washed his disciples’ feet (John 13:1–11). Of course you know that Peter resisted but our Lord insisted all the more, “If I wash you not, you have no part with me.” Peter would come to understand but at that moment, he could not.
His actions mystified his disciples. What sort of what way was that for a king to act? Had not Jesus just entered the city like King David? This is a time for power and conquering, not for self-denial and humiliation but our Lord had a different eschatology than the disciples. He knew that this is precisely the time of humiliation. He knew what the disciples would learn: first the cross, then glory. This is how he explained his actions by an appeal from the greater to the lesser. If the teacher (greater) can do such things, how much more should those who are lesser (disciples) do them (vv. 12–17).
Even more remarkably, our Lord gave this lesson in a spiritually mixed company. He knew that the betrayer, Judas, was present (vv. 17, 18, 21–30). If, as we will see, our Lord intentionally set a pattern for Christian teaching and community, then Judas is a part of that pattern. The visible covenant community is always mixed and any attempt at an absolutely pure visible covenant community comes out of an over-realized eschatology. The dark spiritual realities before him rightly troubled him (v. 21).
In v. 31 Jesus further clarified and characterized his eschatology: “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him.” He was speaking of his cross, the ugliest, most violent, most humiliating way that the Romans knew to punish enemies of the state. who lacked citizenship. Jesus, who had no home (Luke 9:58), was not a Roman citizen. He was a subject and yet he was King of kings. So, there is irony in his exhortation that he should be glorified now, since to all watching human eyes there was no glory before him but only nakedness, shame, and death. The Roman soldiers would not see it as they mocked and beat him. His disciples would not see it as they fled and denied him three times (vv. 36–38). Yet, the cross was his exaltation. “When I be lifted up from the earth, I draw all men to myself” (John 12:32). We need not guess to what he was referring. John adds, “He said this ft show by what kind of death he was going to die” (John 12:33). If the cross is not our glory, if we think that we are done with the cross, then we still have the disciple Peter’s eschatology and not Jesus’ eschatology.
Finally, here we find an objective characterization of love. It is not mushy feelings. Jesus was deeply troubled but he loved his disciples nevertheless. He humiliated himself. He did for them what they could not do for themselves: He cleansed them. This is the “new commandment,” which, of course is not absolutely new. Leviticus 19:18 says, “You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am Yahweh.” How is this commandment new? Calvin understood this commandment to be a renewal of the moral law. This is probably correct but Jesus was often intentionally difficult in his teaching. Surely no one had ever seen love like this: God the Son incarnate, wearing a towel, washing the dusty feet of his disciples, before his betrayer, and contemplating his own crucifixion.
Love takes up Christ’s cross (Luke 9:23). It abandons power in this world (John 18:36). It is fixed on the heavenly city and thus gives itself over to the well-being of the brothers and sisters even to the point of death in confidence that the God who raised Christ from the dead shall also raise us.