Mission Given, Promise Kept: The Deep Significance of Maundy Thursday

 

Have you ever broken a promise?

I know I have. I’d like to tell you that I’m a solid, dependable fellow who would never go back on his word. I’d love to be able to put myself up there with Honest Abe. But to make such a claim would be entirely self-defeating, as the claim itself would be a falsehood of the highest degree. In fact, I have a piece of tragic news to share with you:

Abraham Lincoln was a lawyer before he was President.

So… Honest Abe was clearly a liar.

I know, what a terrible accusation. Offensive both to lawyers, and President Lincoln.

But I digress. The point I’m trying to make is simple: Everybody breaks promises. Everybody lies. Absolutely everyone has, at some point, failed to live up to their word.

Everyone, that is, save for one.

In a very real sense, the history of humankind can be viewed as the history of a relationship; a relationship between a holy God and His unfaithful people. Time and again, God’s people have rebelled against Him, turned their backs, and broken their promises to Him. Yet time and again, God has pursued His wayward children, returned the wandering sheep to the flock, and offered His adulterous bride renewed, unconditional love. God’s promises never fail.

Today is a day of commemoration; a time of spiritual and historical reflection on a night of monumental significance. Today is Maundy Thursday, and it is on this day that the Christian church remembers that final Passover meal that Jesus shared with His disciples. It is on this night that we honor Christ’s humble servant-hearted love, His establishment of a new Covenant, and His emotional anguish as He awaited the betrayal of one of His own. We observe this special day as a way of fulfilling Christ’s command: “Do this in remembrance of me.”

As evangelical Christians, I think we have an unfortunate tendency to focus on Christ’s death and resurrection without acknowledging some of the most essential context surrounding His death. It was not, after all, merely the death of Jesus that saved us. It was the life He lived, the covenant He established, the death He died, and the resurrection He secured that bring us new life in Him. Easter is vitally important, but it cannot be separated from the rest of Holy Week, nor should it be separated from the rest of Jesus’s life.

Before Jesus was arrested and crucified, He spent a final evening with His disciples; and it was on this night that He established the new covenant between God and humanity that is the focus of the book of Hebrews. In Hebrews 8:6, we find it written that, “Christ has obtained a ministry that is as much more excellent than the old as the covenant he mediates is better.” And in 9:16, it is written, “Therefore He is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.”

The language of Hebrews, speaking of a new covenant, refers to Jesus’s words on that final, fatal night. We find these words recorded in the Gospel of Luke:

“And he took bread, and when he had given thanks, He broke it and gave it to them, saying, ‘This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.’ And likewise the cup after they had eaten, saying, ‘This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.’”
(Luke 22:19-20)

When Jesus ate His final meal before the events of Good Friday, it was more than just a “last goodbye” to His friends and disciples. It had a theological significance far beyond the understanding of those present. Only after Christ’s death and resurrection would the disciples come to understand what Jesus had truly done that night. When Jesus took that Passover meal, he replaced the old Mosaic covenant—the covenant that began with God’s salvation at the first Passover—with a new covenant which would begin with God’s salvation on the hill of Golgotha.

In order to understand the true importance of this covenant, let’s stop for a brief history lesson. All throughout the Old Testament, we see the story of God choosing people to serve Him and glorify His name throughout the earth. God made numerous solemn agreements, called “covenants,” with these people. The Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible defines the term in this way:

“Arrangement between two parties involving mutual obligations; especially the arrangement that established the relationship between God and his people, expressed in grace first with Israel and then with the church.[1]

In other words, a covenant is simply a binding arrangement that lays out the nature of the relationship between two parties. In the Biblical sense, we use the word to refer to the arrangements that God established with His people. We see various covenants established in the Old Testament. The first major covenant we see is God’s promise to Abraham. This covenant was an unconditional promise: “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” (Genesis 12:2) Later, as a step in fulfilling this promise, God made a more specific covenant with Moses. At Mount Sinai, God established a special agreement with the people of Israel. God begins his description of the new law in Exodus 34:10, saying, “Behold, I am making a covenant. Before all your people I will do marvels, such as have not been created in all the earth or in any nation.” God made a covenant with Israel. He would be their God, and would preserve them and make them a great nation; and they would be His people, and would honor His laws and bring glory to His name.

Unfortunately, the people did not obey God’s law. They did not uphold their end of the covenant. Time after time, God’s people rebelled against Him; and time after time, He punished them, they repented, and He forgave them. But this endless cycle of a faithful God ransoming a faithless people could not go on forever. This covenant was not meant to be a permanent solution. Hebrews 10:4 says that it is “impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sin.” But why, then, the old covenant? Paul explains in Galatians 3.

“For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. Why then the law? It was added because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made, and it was put in place through angels by an intermediary. Now an intermediary implies more than one, but God is one. Is the law then contrary to the promises of God? Certainly not! For if a law had been given that could give life, then righteousness would indeed be by the law. But the Scripture imprisoned everything under sin, so that the promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”
(Galatians 3:18-21)

Let’s dig into this a little. First, Paul points out that if the inheritance promised to Abraham’s offspring came by the law, it would not be a promise, but a reward for doing good. Yet God’s promise to Abraham was unconditional: his offspring would be a blessing to all nations. Who was that offspring? Earlier in Galatians 3, Paul states that the offspring was Jesus. In Jesus, every nation and every family of the earth would be blessed. Thus, the Law was clearly not established to fulfill God’s promise to Abraham. That promise would be fulfilled regardless of whether or not the people were righteous. That’s good news, because if it had been dependent on the Israelites following God’s law, we’d all be in bad shape. The Israelites did not follow the law; nobody has ever followed the law as God demands, save for Jesus Christ.

On to the next question. If the law wasn’t put in place to save us, why was it established? It was added, according to Paul, “Because of transgressions, until the offspring should come to whom the promise had been made.” The law was given because of the sinfulness of man, even of God’s chosen people. God was raising up His promised Messiah through the Jews; yet the very people He had chosen to carry His promise into the world were rejecting His statutes and blaspheming His name. Thus, the Law, according to Paul, “imprisoned everything under sin.” That sounds like a major problem, but it has a purpose. The Law exposed the sinfulness of man. When measured up against God’s righteous commandments, it became extremely clear that no human was righteous. “All have sinned, and fall short of the glory of God.” (Romans 3:23). If the law could have been fulfilled—if the blood of bulls and goats could take away sin—then there would have been no need for a new covenant. But that was not the purpose of the old covenant. The old covenant both exposed the sinfulness of man and his need for a savior, and preserved God’s people throughout history in order that the Messiah, the promised offspring of Abraham, might come through them. This was so that ultimately, “The promise by faith in Jesus Christ might be given to those who believe.”

That’s some heady stuff. But in the end, it all comes back to God’s promises. Before Christ’s once-for-all sacrifice, the Hebrew people had to offer sacrifices repeatedly, and the endless cycle of their sin and sacrifices could never provide life. The old covenant could not save. It was never meant to. It was meant to point to, and prepare the way for, the true savior. “For if that first covenant had been faultless, there would have been no occasion to look for a second.” (Hebrews 8:7). The old covenant was not broken because of God; it was broken because of man. And God, in His unending faithfulness, stepped onto the scene to establish a new covenant that no man could break. In fact, neither can anything else. “For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

That’s not to say that the new covenant comes without any responsibility on our end. On the contrary, the new covenant comes with an even greater responsibility: to be Christ’s ambassadors to the world. In the very speech when Christ established this new covenant, He gave a great charge to His disciples. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends… These things I command you, so that you will love one another.” (John 15:12-13, 17) The new covenant comes with a new command: to love others as Christ loved us. This is the ultimate love, a love that lays down life for the sake of another. In fact, Jesus commands us not only to do this for our friends, as He says here, but also for our enemies (Luke 6:27).

This command is where we get the name of Maundy Thursday. The term “Maundy” comes from the Latin word “mandatum.” This word is where we get our English word “mandate,” and it translates to “commandment.” Today is Commandment Thursday. It is a night of remarkable significance for every human being who has ever lived and who ever will live. It commemorates the night that Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, fulfilled the promise of God to Abraham and established a new covenant in His own blood. On that night, we who were condemned under the law were offered justification in the sacrificial atonement of Jesus; and we who have been washed in that blood are commanded to return daily to have our feet washed by our Lord, in order that they may become the beautiful feet that bear good news (Romans 10:15). We may have broken our promises to God, but He will never break His promises to us. We are therefore Christ’s ambassadors, His chosen people, and we are called to be a reflection, dim though it may be, of the supreme love that Jesus displayed for us at Calvary. May we all carry this commandment with us, not as a burden but as a joyful message of hope, today and every day.

 

 

[1] Elwell, W. A., & Beitzel, B. J. (1988). Covenant. In Baker encyclopedia of the Bible (Vol. 1, p. 530). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House.

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