Servant Leadership on Maundy Thursday

By Mark D. Roberts

April 2, 2015

You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

John 13:13-15

Today is Maundy Thursday according to many strands of Christian tradition. Growing up in a non-liturgical Christian culture, I thought people were calling this day “Monday Thursday,” the silliness of which confirmed my bias against liturgical versions of Christianity. Later, I learned that folks weren’t saying “Monday Thursday” but rather “Maundy Thursday.” Of course, this didn’t help much because I didn’t know the word “Maundy.” Finally, in my twenties, I took a course on church order at Fuller Seminary, where I finally learned the meaning of “Maundy.” It is derived from the word mandatum, which appears in the Latin version of the Gospel of John, where Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment [mandatum novum], that you love on another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another” (John 13:34). Thus, Maundy Thursday is the day Jesus issued the “new commandment,” the mandatum novum that we should love each other as he loved us.

On this same day, shortly before giving the new commandment, Jesus loved his disciples in a striking way. As they were eating supper together, Jesus got up from the table and put on the garb of a servant. He then proceeded to do servant’s work, washing the feet of his disciples. After he finished, Jesus explained the meaning of his unexpected gesture: “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have an example, that you also should do as I have done” (John 13:13-15). Jesus was the Teacher and Lord of his disciples. He was the Master of his apprentices. They acknowledged this distinctive relationship and so did he. They were used to learning from him, serving him, and following his leadership. Yet, in a stunning reversal of cultural expectations, Jesus took on the role of a servant by washing the feet of his disciples.

Why did Jesus do this? John’s Gospel sees Jesus’s foot washing as an expression of love for those who were “his own” (John 13:1). This action also foreshadows the ultimate act of loving servanthood that Jesus will make by giving up his life on the cross. Yet Jesus says he washed the disciples’ feet as a model for how they are to treat each other. This kind of sacrificial, humble servanthood is to be the mark of those who follow Jesus and who will one day become the leaders of his community (see Mark 10:35-45).

Ever since 1970, when Robert Greenleaf first published his seminal essay, “The Servant as Leader,” the notion of “servant leadership” has been bandied about by theorists and practitioners. For Christians, the events of Maundy Thursday provide a vivid picture of true servant leadership. Jesus, who is Teacher, Lord, and Master, chooses the way of a servant, calling those who follow him to do as he has done. Jesus’s foot-washing foreshadows what will happen on Good Friday, when Jesus offers the most dramatic example of servant leadership ever, taking the role of the Suffering Servant in Isaiah by giving up his own life for our sake. As those who have received the benefits of Jesus’s sacrifice, we have been called to follow Jesus’s example in our own lives, including our exercise of leadership (see, for example, Phil 2:1-11). Like Jesus, we choose to serve others out of love, following his mandatum novum, the “Maundy Thursday” command to love one another. Love motivates servant leadership. Servant leadership is an expression of love.


As you read the story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, how do you respond? What do you think? How do you feel? How might you have felt if you were one of the disciples? How do you live out Jesus’s call to servanthood in your life: at work, at home, in your Christian community, in your city? In what ways is the story of Jesus on Maundy Thursday relevant for marketplace leaders?


Jesus, my Teacher and Lord, thank you for your moving example of servanthood in John 13. Thank you for the events and teachings of Maundy Thursday. Thank you for serving me and loving me, most of all through your death on the cross.

As I gratefully receive the benefits of your servanthood, may I follow your lead by becoming a servant to others. Give me a servant’s heart, Lord. Show me how I can serve people in ways that matter. In particular, help me to serve those whom I’m privileged to lead in my work, as well as in the rest of life.

Help your people, Lord, to love one another in word and deed. Help me! To you be all the glory! Amen.

Mark D. Roberts

Senior Strategist

Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders,...

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