The Lord's Upper Room Ministry(1)
D. J. Williams, Penygraig
As we consider the Lord’s ‘farewell ministry’ to His own, we note that first He talked to them about many subjects, including the truth about His Father, chapters 13-16, before, in chapter 17, He speaks to the Father about them and all who will come to believe on Him.
Farewell addresses are not easy.1 The great difference between all others and our Lord’s is that He not only spoke of certain truths, but He actually demonstrated the truth to them. His words and actions harmonized.
Chapter 12 closed with a reference to the Lord from the ‘servant passage’ of Isaiah chapter 53, where God said, ‘Behold my servant’. When we step into John chapter 13, the first thing we observe is Jesus doing the lowly work of ‘a servant’ – washing the feet of His disciples. So we will consider the sovereignty of the servant and His service.
First, in an overview of verses 1-35, the Lord is seen in a four-fold relationship to:
- His Father: here we learn the lesson of humility, vv. 1-5;
- Simon Peter: here we discover the secret of holiness, vv. 6-11;
- The other disciples: here we find the key to happiness, vv. 12-17;
- Judas Iscariot: here we view the awful fact of hypocrisy, vv. 18-30.
In these thirty verses, three men are prominent: John, Peter, and Judas. Three conditions are seen: pride, presumption and perversion. The Lord, in addition to His words, demonstrates three actions: laying aside of His garments, washing the disciples’ feet, passing the sop to Judas.
The details of our Lord’s movements in the last week are not quite clear. We know He arrived in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and cleansed the Temple on the Monday. Tuesday appears to have been a day of conflict and controversy with the religious leaders as they sought to trip Him up and so get evidence to arrest Him. Wednesday was a problem day, some telling us it was a day of rest, and others believing that He met with His own in the Upper-Room. On Thursday He was taken to Calvary to die.
We shall focus first on the discourse at the table.
Jesus’ relationship to his Father – humility, vv. 1-5
The context makes clear that Jesus and the disciples are together in the upper-room, and were seated, reclining, at the table. The first three verses form the background to all that follows.
Jesus and His future
The main thought in this opening section is what Jesus knew. The very first words are: ‘Jesus knew that His hour was come that He should depart out of this world unto the Father’. This chapter speaks three times of the perfect knowledge of Christ. John, more than any other, speaks of ‘His hour’, emphasizing the fact that Jesus lived by a ‘heavenly timetable’ as He did the Father’s will.2
That hour had been present in His thoughts, not only from eternity, but from the very beginning of His ministry. He spoke of it first to His mother, ‘mine hour is not yet come’, 2. 4. As Calvary loomed closer He said: ‘what shall I say? Father save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour’, 12. 27. Jesus was the only man in all history that was never taken by surprise! He knew the precise moment of each event.
That dreadful hour had now come in which He would, through death, resurrection and ascension, return to the Father, and leave ‘this world’. He was going home, and, like a dove returning to its nest, He would return to the Father’s home. He knew that suffering lay ahead for Him, suffering on a scale that no other ever knew, but, instead of thinking of Himself, Jesus thought of others, especially these favoured men. Before He did anything for them, we are told just how much He thought of them.
Jesus and His feelings
Two precious thoughts are here: (a) ‘His own’; (b) ‘which were in the world’. Consider the second thought first: (b) soon He would be out of this world, with His Father, but they would be left in the world. He knew the world in which they would be left was a wicked, hostile place, and the days ahead were going to be extremely hard. Soon the world would show its true colours, and they would experience its hatred. Yet, from His place in the Father’s presence, they would be assured of His love to sustain and strengthen them. (a) Whatever faults they had, and they had many, and however many times they had been faithless, He still called them ‘His own’. They would never be anything else – they belonged to Him.3 We all know the joy and delight of calling something or someone our own. That joy belonged also to our Lord.
We are also told that ‘having loved . . . he loved them unto the end’. The RV states ‘unto the uttermost’, suggesting ‘to the furthest extent of their need’, to the very end in time. In terms of His willingness, readiness, and ability to save and serve them, His love knew no bounds. None will ever be able to plumb the depth, or measure the immensity, of His love. There is no reason why He should have ever set His love upon us, but He did, and He did so when we were so utterly unlovely and unlovable.
The wonder of His love for us is that before Him lay the cross with its unspeakable suffering and pain and its unimaginable horrors. Beyond that was the exquisite joy and bliss of going back to His Father – yet nothing turned His thoughts away from ‘His own’. They took pride of place in His heart. It was for them, and us, that He came into the world, and now He was going to Calvary to die. His love for them is an everlasting love. Equally, there will never be a time when we will not be able to say ‘the Son of God who loved me’.
Jesus and His foe, v 2
At this point John inserts a word about Judas Iscariot. The words of verse 2 really read ‘supper being’, i.e., it was still going on, it had not ended. Here, John tells us ‘the devil having now put into the heart of Judas Iscariot, Simon’s son, to betray him’. The KJV is not really strong enough – the devil had already come and entered into the heart of Judas, and originated the whole plan of handing over the Lord Jesus, Luke 22. 3. It was not just the thought or desire; the devil took possession of the man.
How it must have grieved the Lord to have a traitor at the table, pretending to the others that he was one of them, while all the while plotting the betrayal of God’s Son.
Jesus and His fullness, v. 3
What amazing words in this verse! Our Lord was conscious of His destiny and greatness, yet soon He will condescend to do the menial work of a common household slave.
Jesus knew where He was going, and what He had been entrusted with, yet not one of those disciples was humble enough to wash his Master’s feet. One has rightly said that ‘knowledge determines actions’ and that is certainly the case here: what Jesus knew, vv. 1-3, determined what Jesus did, vv. 4-5.
When we read, ‘He riseth from supper, and laid aside his garment; and took a towel, and girded himself’, the whole emphasis is on ‘He’, i.e., Jesus in the full consciousness of His greatness, majesty and relationship to God His Father, performed this menial task. He had watched and waited, and, knowing that the feet of His guests had not been washed, He assumed the guise of a household slave and moved to do that lowly work.
Luke and John give an account of the Upper-Room ministry of the Lord Jesus. Both give emphasis to a particular feature of the Lord’s life, e.g., Luke speaks of the Lord’s moral and spiritual greatness, Luke 22 – no-one is greater than He. John, however, speaks of the Lord’s moral and spiritual humility, and, in chapter 13, he shows just how Jesus demonstrated humility.
What lessons can we learn?
His action was reminiscent of His coming into the world. ‘He laid aside His garment’. What amazing condescension, reminding us beautifully, and so graphically, of that stoop He took when He came into this world, Phil. 2. 5-8. He came from the throne of heaven to a woman’s womb, from the pinnacle of glory to a poor man’s home, from the worship and service of untold millions of angelic beings to a despised village with an evil reputation, to be rejected, vilified, and shamed and then crucified by the very creatures He had made. The hymn-writer expresses it so beautifully:
Meekness and majesty
– manhood and deity,
In perfect harmony
– the man who is God:
Lord of eternity – dwells in humanity,
Kneels in humility
– and washes our feet.
His action rebuked the selfishness and pride of the disciples. They were disputing about which of them should be the greatest, Luke 22. 24-30. They had their sights set on position, pride of place, and greatness, so they failed to see the basin and towel. Jesus must have shocked them as they watched Him rise from the supper-table and attire Himself like a slave. Sadly, among the Lord’s people, even today, there still exists the desire to be ‘the greatest’ – and we forget, the greatest of all has been here on earth and became the lowly slave.
His action is a reminder of our responsibility. This action by our Lord was not just an example of spiritual humility, it was an exposition of practical humility shown in service. The ministry of ‘feet-washing’ has become a phrase that stands for all kinds of Christ-like acts of love and kindness that we do for other believers, unbelievers not excluded. The only other reference to this is in 1 Timothy chapter 5 verse 10, where Paul speaks of the godly, spiritual character of certain widows, who practically helped fellow saints.
What Jesus did that night in serving His own, was not a ‘one off’ action. The girding for service speaks of a work that He still continues to do for us in the heavenly sanctuary. How precious to know that He, our blessed Lord, is going to minister to our eternal happiness and enjoyment. May the Lord help us to be more like Him in our treatment of fellow believers! No task too menial, no service too great, no saint too unworthy!
1 There are a few of them in scripture, e.g., Moses, Deut. 31-33; Joshua, Josh. 23-24; Paul, Acts 20.
2 See 2. 4; 7. 30; 8. 20; 12. 23; 13. 1; 17. 1.
3 Paul wrote: ‘ye are not your own, ye are bought with a price’, 1 Cor. 6. 19.