“I am telling you now before it happens, so that when it does happen you will believe that I am who I am.” John 13:19
The cross of Christ overshadows everything said and done in the upper room. We have explored the relationship between the doctrine of the atonement and the praxis of discipleship. We have examined the fault lines running through this text. We have embraced the tension between Jesus’ passion narrative and our own as we join him on the path of discipleship. Like our Lord we are moving to the cross. From foot-washing to martyrdom, there is a place for us on this continuum of humility and glory. Foot-washing is neither a liturgical rite nor a moralistic act of kindness. God himself on bended knee has given us a way to live that runs counter to the world’s understanding of success and significance. Our fallen human quest for recognition and admiration is seen for what it is in the light of Jesus’ humility. The honorific culture that pervades the church is critiqued by the humble glory of the God who kneels.
The clash between our fallen human condition and God’s redemptive provision strikes at the heart of John 13. The church continues to wrestle with sin-twisted personalities and ambitions along a spectrum that ranges from Peter’s ego-needs to Judas’ self-destructive contempt. Table fellowship in the upper room was the context for exposing and confronting these challenges. Most preaching takes place today in a large room with a large audience. Preachers give a sermon and the congregation listens. Little dialogue or interaction exists either before or after the sermon. Instead of wrestling as a group with the implications of what it means to follow Jesus, each individual is left to interpret and apply the sermon for themselves.
English Puritan John Bunyan (1628-1688) author of the classic, Pilgrim’s Progress, describes in his lesser known work, Grace Abounding, an encounter with a group of women “sitting at a door in the sun, and talking about the things of God.” Bunyan describes their conversation as filled with joy and spiritual depth. They discussed specific Bible passages and applied them personally. Bunyan found their knowledge and sincerity impressive and by observing their true spirituality his own spiritual condition came under review.
Scottish Pastor Alexander Whyte draws an impressive lesson from Bunyan’s description. God uses godly, intimate conversation “for the deeper awakening and the deeper undeceiving” of those who follow Christ. Left to ourselves we do not know ourselves. We need a gathering small enough and intimate enough so that true friends can help one another grow in Christ. Preachers alone, no matter how good, cannot produce this soul-searching spiritual formation. But a small group of people who are earnest about their souls, will make a difference. “Not a club for questions of theological science, or for questions of Old and New Testament criticism, or even for pulpit and pastoral efficiency,” insists Whyte. “But for questions that are arising within us all every day concerning our own corrupt hearts.”
The upper room was the right setting for the deep awakening and deep undeceiving that needed to take place, not only for the original Twelve, but for all Christ’s disciples. Prayerful meditation on John 13 undermines the mis-perception that allows for nominal Christianity. There is no room in the upper room for name-only admirers of Jesus. If we cannot find ourselves in this picture of purity of heart, soul-cleansing intimacy with the God, then we need to re-examine our relationship with the Lord Jesus. As we have seen, Jesus gently exposed Judas’ sham performance and patiently worked with Peter’s stubborn character. But the description does not end with two individuals, instead it extends to all of us. The God who kneels insists on washing all of the disciples feet. Figuratively speaking, all who follow Christ belong around this table to be cleansed, redeemed, and discipled.
The whole Church fits into the upper room. We all need the scrutiny and intensity of this intimate encounter with Jesus. To receive the God who kneels is to be open to Jesus’ soul-defining, life-transforming ministry. The whole Church needs his soul-cleansing power and his mission-defining love.
Jesus embodied his teaching ministry in the upper room dramatically. What had been said before was now demonstrated in an act of humility. Jesus contrasted top-down hierarchical leadership with sacrificial service. He disqualified the superior/inferior axis of power and in its place instituted humble service. To be first was to be a slave of all. Jesus linked the praxis of discipleship and the doctrine of the atonement by modeling sacrificial service after his atoning sacrifice.
“You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:42-45).
We have seen how Jesus’ humility, patience, wisdom and love grew out of his self-understanding. He knew the hour had come. He knew he was going to leave this world and go to the Father. He knew who were his own and he loved them to the end. He knew the Father had put all things under his power and he knew he had come from God and was returning to God. But in the midst of all of this empowering self-knowledge, there was also the negative knowledge of Judas’ betrayal and Peter’s denial. Nevertheless, Jesus remained true to his calling and his mission. Life in Christ is like that. Knowing and being known by God does not eliminate conflicts, in fact it only deepens them. If we are going to follow Jesus and obey the will of the Father as he obeyed, and lead the way he led, and love the way he loved, then we are in for a life marked by the cross.
Upper Room Reflection
How does your setting help you embrace the deep truth of John 13?
Why can’t nominal Christianity survive in the upper room?
What can we learn from the upper room that inspires effective disciple-making?
How have you learned that cross-bearing is not optional?