The gospel records all take us to an upper room in Jerusalem on the night before Christ died, and to a meal and an evening that he shared with his disciples.
Week by week and day by day
As an ecclesia, week by week we re-enact parts of that meal and evening when we gather together to remember Christ. As individuals too, there are spiritual lessons for life day by day from that evening in the upper room. This is because the upper room presents perhaps the closest, most intimate glimpse we get of the Lord counselling, guiding and sharing fellowship with his loved ones. Through the text of Scripture we witness his presence, his words, his actions and his interactions with the disciples. Day by day, our lives too are still in his presence and his ministry is still active today as he seeks out, comforts and nurtures his own. It is the same Lord that worked with them then who deals with us now. So, for us, the upper room supplies much that is relevant to our daily life spent in a similarly special place – in the presence of Christ.
In an upper room with Christ
Peter and John, sent by the Lord, followed the man with the pitcher of water and found a large furnished upper room. They had asked the master of the house for use of the guest room, a room not required in the daily duties of life but kept ready for the arrival of others. We are told it was an upper room. On a practical level, getting above the street was then, and still is in many parts of the world today, a way of gaining some relief from the noise, the dust, and the distractions of the street. On a spiritual level, our fellowship with Christ also takes place in an “upper room”. Paul in Ephesians talks about our elevated status in Christ, as being with him in high or heavenly places. We have been “blessed with all spiritual blessings in heavenly places in Christ” (Eph 1:3), and God has “raised us up together, and made us sit together in heavenly places in Christ Jesus” (Eph 2:6). We, like the disciples, have been invited to share time with our Lord in an elevated place, to find encouragement and instruction in his company.
Around the meal table
Reading through the records of that evening gives us a picture of the atmosphere of the upper room. It is not monotone or monochrome; we picture a large room, furnished, and a company of people reclining for the meal, each one in a state of expectation after the events of the last few days. We hear enough background noise to allow private conversations to take place. At one point in the evening, a strife developed about who should be accounted greatest, and we can hardly imagine something like that developing in an otherwise silent room with only one person talking at a time. The recorded words of Christ can be read in just a few minutes, yet they were spoken over the course of the evening; some clearly announced to the whole group, and others directed personally to individual disciples. The demeanour of Christ also varied, from his “troubled in spirit” declaration, “one of you shall betray me”, to words of triumph, to solemn prophecy of persecution to come, to careful and patient explanation. The evening would have been punctuated by the singing of psalms and prayers. In quiet moments and in the hubbub of conversation, in moments of exaltation and in lament, in public and in private, Christ connects with the disciples in the rich and changing atmosphere of the upper room. Likewise our Lord works with us across the very real, changing scenes of life.
He knows better than us
One of the most striking contrasts in the upper room is the difference in levels of understanding between Christ and the disciples. They really did not know what was happening or about to happen. He did. John’s record highlights this by starting from the widest possible setting: “Jesus knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he was come from God, and went to God …” (John 13:3). Jesus knew just where this evening lay in the whole purpose of God, and that knowledge guided what he did. We might wonder how the discipleswho walked through Galilee and Judea with Christ for three years could end up at the climax of his ministry with so little real understanding of what was happening. But it is the same for us. We really don’t know the degree to which we don’t understand what is happening in us, around us, ahead of us in our lives. But in the upper room we are in the company of Christ, who does know. If we are wise, we’ll trust his words rather than our own instincts. For both the disciples then and ourselves now, he does not chide our lack of understanding, but in the true spirit of priesthood deals “gently with the ignorant” (Heb 5:2 esv).
Food for tomorrow
Especially in John’s account, much of the teaching in the upper room was to prepare the disciples for when he would no longer be with them. The supper had fed them for the day, but Christ’s words were there to provide for tomorrow. He taught them things that they struggled to understand, but would later on remember and treasure: “these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them” (John 16:4; also John 13:19; 14:29). “These things” would enable them to face persecution and even death with confidence and steadfast faith. It is the same for us, for in the upper room we are in the care of Christ, who thinks not only of our needs for today, but is preparing us for the future we have yet to face.
Peace in his company
When we read the gospel records of the upper room, and especially in John’s gospel, we lose connection with the passage of time and the development of external events. Once Judas has gone out into the night, the events begin which will bring soldiers to arrest Jesus, but the disciples are unaware of this rapidly approaching hour. In the upper room with Christ, there is no sense of impending crisis as he takes time to encourage and patiently explain things. Evil may be taking shape in the night outside but “Let not your heart be troubled: ye believe in God, believe also in me” (14:1); “Peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you: not as the world giveth give I unto you. Let not your heart be troubled, neither let it be afraid” (14:27); “These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace” (16:33). For us too, the fears of the outside world can be stilled in the company of Christ.
More blessed to give
Observing the events of the upper room, we cannot help but be impressed by Christ as one focused on giving, not taking. For example, “this is my body which is given for you … my blood, which is shed for you … I appoint unto you a kingdom … I have prayed for thee …” (Luke 22). And he didn’t just talk about giving. The waterpot, basin and towel were all there in the room. Anybody and everybody had the opportunity to take up the lowly task. They thought the task was beneath them when actually such spirit of service was above them: “For whether is greater, he that sitteth at meat, or he that serveth? is not he that sitteth at meat? but I am among you as he that serveth” (Luke 22:27). His service given ungrudgingly was a far more powerful lesson than any words of rebuke. How different is the spirit of the upper room – “If you know these things, happy are ye if ye do them” (John 13:17) – to that of the world which tries to find happiness through taking? Along with wholehearted service comes assurance of outcome. The Lord, ever ready to act for the good of the disciples is working still: “Wherefore he is able to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them” (Heb 7:25).
He wants to share with us
With earnest desire Christ wanted to share this meal with his disciples before he suffered (Luke 22:14–15). That particular upper room in Jerusalem was nowhere special of itself, nor were the food and wine unique of themselves. What made the time and place special to the Lord was the presence and company of his dear friends, the ones who had walked with him on his journey, and stayed with him in his trials (Luke 22:28). It is people that matter most. This principle, too, comes to the fore in Paul’s dealing with the breaking of bread in 1 Corinthians 11. People were missing out on a valuable shared experience. His primary solution to the problem, “So then, my brothers, when you come together to eat, wait for one another” (v33 esv). No flawless performance of ceremony or perfection in arrangements in our meetings together can outweigh the importance of being aware of the needs of our brethren or make up for the neglect of any of our number. Throughout that evening in the upper room the Lord would have spent time with each of the disciples, conversing and comforting, reaching out to their particular needs, leaving each in no doubt that he treasured their association with him. In the upper room of our lives too, day by day we can find reassurance in knowing that Christ wants us to share with him, has called us to be with him and desires our company. We are not uninvited guests sitting awkwardly at his table, but rather friends he has delight in welcoming.
Fellowship despite imperfection
Everyone in the upper room that night would let Christ down before the next day was done. Yet through the evening he worked with them all, including Judas who would betray him. Peter three times would deny and disown him, and the others would forsake him and flee. Despite their emphatic declarations of steadfast loyalty (Mark 14:29, 31), Christ knew the time would come when comforters would not be found. Knowing this, Christ still chose to spend his last evening with them. It is the same for us. We don’t share his company, his fellowship, because we are already perfect, but because he is the one who has promised to work to perfect us.
Clean: the great leaven hunt
All around them in the surrounding houses of Jerusalem that night, people would have been going about with candles and leaven tongs, diligently searching to rid their houses of every last bit of leaven. They would have reclined at dinner that night confident that their houses were clean of all defiling influence. And the next morning they would rise and crucify the Son of God. Such evil lay undisturbed beneath an outer layer of ritual righteousness. The city which this evening they would judge to be clean, was the city that had been pronounced leprous by the man who could see further. “Now ye are clean” was not to be achieved through scrubbing brush, candle and leaven tongs, but by being in this place of closeness to the Son of God, receiving his ministrations and, unlike Judas, having open hearts to receive his word. “He that is washed needeth not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and ye are clean but not all” (John 13:10), and “now ye are clean through the word which I have spoken unto you” (John 15:3). In the upper room of our lives, too, we can be made clean through Christ.
Privileged to share tokens of deliverance and blessing
We are privileged that Scripture has recorded for us so many reassuring things in the events of that evening in the upper room. It is our individual joy to know that their Lord is ours, and that we are invited to sit not only week by week, but also day by day, at his table in his presence.
It is said that in the Jewish passover a small portion of bread was eaten before the meal, to remind them of the bondage and hardships of life in Egypt. They later shared the larger remaining portion of the same bread to remind them of their deliverance. As we take this larger portion we remember the deliverance we have through the giving of the body of Christ.
It is said that in the Jewish passover there were four cups through the course of the evening corresponding to the four promises of Exodus 6:6–7, “I will bring you out”, “I will rid you out of their bondage”, “I will redeem you with a stretched out arm” and “I will take you to me for a people”. The third cup, after supper, was called the cup of blessing. For us this cup of blessing reminds us of the new covenant brought about through the death of Christ, the new covenant which brings us into the heavenly places in Christ, the place where grace and mercy can be found in time of need – the place of fellowship with the Father and the Son. Indeed a cup of blessing!