Upper Room Access
“Even after Jesus had performed so many signs in their presence, they still would not believe in him. This was to fulfill the word of Isaiah the prophet. . . .
‘He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so that they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn – and I would heal them.’ Isaiah said this because he saw Jesus’ glory and spoke about him.
Yet at the same time many even among the leaders believed in him. But because of the Pharisees they would not openly acknowledge their faith for fear they would be put out of the synagogue; for they loved human glory more than the glory of God. Then Jesus cried out, ‘Those who believe in me do not believe in me only, but in the one who sent me. When they look at me, they see the one who sent me. I have come into the world as a light, so that no one who believes in me should stay in darkness.’” John 12:37-38, 40-46
We begin outside the upper room. On Wednesday of Holy Week, Jesus and his disciples are with a mixed crowd of unbelievers. Unbelief is evident in two distinct ways. The first group is obvious because it remains adamant in their refusal to believe in Jesus. Drawing on the prophet Isaiah, John writes, “He has blinded their eyes and hardened their hearts, so they can neither see with their eyes, nor understand with their hearts, nor turn — and I would heal them” (John 12:40; Isaiah 6:10). The roots of unbelief go deeper than any claim to freedom of choice. Ultimately, there is no such being as the sovereign self. We are not free atoms careening around our own little universe. We are all dependent beings reacting to an array of life-altering forces that we only slightly understand. The unbeliever may characterize his or her state as acute rational awareness or courageous existential honesty, but John characterizes unbelievers as spiritually disabled. They are blind and dumb. There is a negative synergy here between their persistent denial and God’s permissive will. Denial has its roots in spiritual blindness. Unbelief is unnatural.
The second group, the believing unbelievers, want to believe but they cannot bring themselves to acknowledge publicly that Jesus is the Christ. John describes this as a clash of glories: human glory versus the glory of God. The crux of the matter is that they are more worried about what people think than what God thinks. Ironically, the pursuit of human glory here is totally religious. If they “openly acknowledge their faith” they will be thrown out of the synagogue. The perversity of this type of unbelief may be worse than outright angry rejection. Religion keeps people from Jesus. A private faith in Jesus is like no faith at all.
There are two groups outside the upper room. One group pretty much despises Jesus and the other group is drawn to Jesus, but both groups are on the outside. Unbelief comes in two forms: public denial and private faith. Sadly, the pursuit of human glory, even when it is framed religiously, keeps well-meaning and sincere people from experiencing upper room discipleship.
John’s sharp distinction between human glory and God’s glory may be jarring. We’d prefer a diplomatic middle way that comforts the undecided and timid, but John is having none of it. My sense is that we should read his description of “outsiders” with our own ears, and not judge how others might react to this verdict. John is preaching to me. The message is clear: private faith without public confession is really no faith at all. The joyful truth of the gospel is sobering.
Jesus gives the one and only ground for resolving unbelief and he gives it with a shout! To paraphrase, he says, “Look at me and you’ll see not only me but the one who sent me.” Jesus has said and done everything to substantiate this claim. All that is left for him to do is to declare it. Insider access to the upper room begins and ends with Jesus only. In his light we come to the end of our darkness; the end of our secular cynicism, the end of our religious pride. Change of heart comes from seeing Jesus and ourselves in his true light.
In Daniel Defoe’s novel, Robinson Crusoe the plot pivots on the gift of repentance. In the providence of God, Crusoe was marooned on a South Pacific island. His solitary life eventually led to deep self-examination. Suffering opened his heart and mind to God. It has a way of doing that. Stripped of everything worldly, he saw himself as he really was, “without desire of good or conscience of evil.” He began to lament his “stupidity of soul” and his ingratitude to God. Illness led him to pray for the first time in years, “Lord be my help, for I am in great distress.” He began to ask, “Why has God done this to me? What have I done to deserve this?” His conscience checked him, “Wretch! Ask what you have done! Look back upon a dreadful misspent life and ask what you have done. Ask, why you have not been destroyed long before this!”
Like the prodigal son, who ran off to the far country, Crusoe became deeply convinced and convicted of his wickedness. In his anguish, he read this in the Bible: “God exalted him to his own right hand as Prince and Savior that he might give repentance and forgiveness of sins to Israel” (Acts 5:31). His reaction was immediate, “I threw down the book, and with all my heart as well as my hands lifted up to Heaven, in a kind of ecstasy of joy, I cried out aloud, ‘Jesus, Son of David, Jesus, exalted Prince and Savior, give me repentance!”
Deliverance from his sin and peace with God meant more to him than being rescued. His redemption was “a much greater blessing than deliverance from affliction.” “…I began to conclude in my mind that it was possible for me to be happier in this forsaken, solitary condition than it was probable I should ever have been in any other particular state in the world; and with this thought I was going to give thanks to God for bringing me to this place.”
The story of Robinson Crusoe captures the beauty of upper room access. In a state of utter desolation and abandonment, but without any change in location or circumstances, Crusoe becomes a disciple with upper room access. His soul, no longer marooned and doomed to reside in itself, is at home with God. Jesus is the host. He is seated at the table along with Jesus and the disciples.
Unbelievers, whether resentful of Jesus or respectful, remain on the outside. But upper room access is no secret. The gift of repentance is only a prayer away. God’s gracious, non-judgmental invitation is offered to all. In the clash of glories, God’s glory prevails.
Upper Room Reflection
Has either public denial or private faith been a struggle for you?
Does the form of unbelief make it easier or harder to gain upper room access?
How would you describe the “outsider” experience?
Have you ever prayed for the gift of repentance?
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