Reflections From the Upper Room

“It was just before the Passover Festival. Jesus knew that the hour had come for him to leave this world and go to the Father. Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved them to the end.” (John 13:1 NIV)

On the night before his crucifixion Jesus gathered with his disciples in a room that has become simply known as “The Upper Room”.

Knowing that the events of the next 24 hours would severely challenge their faith and that he had limited time to prepare them to carry on in his absence, Christ poured out his heart to them in a way that is unmatched in all of Scripture.

In fact, some have referred to the Upper Room Discourse detailed in John 13-17 as the “Holy of Holies of Scripture”. As we approach Easter, my next few posts will be anchored in those chapters.  

There are times in our lives when we all need to be reminded of the truths our Lord shares with his disciples that fateful night – times when our faith is being tested; times when God’s ways do not line up with our expectations; times when we need to rest in the perfect love, infinite wisdom, and sovereign control of our Heavenly Father.

In my mind, the Upper Room Discourse contains some of the deepest theology found in God’s Word – theology that is pivotal to understanding and practicing the Christian faith in a world that is often hostile to our message:

  • In Chapter 13, Jesus gives us a new command: “Love one another”, demonstrating his own love toward the disciples in an act normally performed by the lowest slaves – the washing of their filthy feet.
  • In Chapter 14, he speaks of the place he has prepared for us – words that have comforted countless people through the years, knowing that loved ones who have died in Christ are with Him, and that as fellow believers, we will join them there when the Lord calls us home.
  • In Chapter 15, Jesus describes himself as “the true vine”, with the Father as “the gardener”, while we are “the branches”, employing a memorable metaphor to illustrate perhaps the most important key to living the Christian life – staying connected to the vine.
  • Chapter 16 defines the role of the Holy Spirit in maintaining that connection, reminding us of Christ’s words, convicting us when we fail him, and guiding us into even deeper truths than the disciples were able to bear at that time.
  • Chapter 17 contains the longest prayer of our Lord recorded in the Gospels as he prays for himself, for his disciples, and lastly, for all of us who would come to faith through their message. 

Just as these words of Christ were carefully crafted to equip the disciples to carry on in his absence, they equip us to live the life we are called to live as his followers, drawing from the supernatural strength of the Holy Spirit to be bold in our witness, loving to one another, and faithful in following his commands. 

A few blog posts will cover only a small portion of the 155 verses in these chapters, just scratching the surface of the vast treasure that is stored there. I encourage you to find a quiet place and explore further into the depths of the Upper Room Discourse with me. Feel free to add your insights and comments.

There may be no better way to prepare our hearts to celebrate the resurrection of our Lord.

“Sanctify them by the truth; your word is truth. As you have sent me into the world, I have sent them into the world.” (John 17:17-18 NIV)

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Love So Amazing

“This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him? Dear children, let us not love with words or tongue but with actions and in truth.” (1 John 3: 16-18)

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As a fledgling writer I find myself often challenged to present a fresh perspective on very familiar Biblical accounts. At no time is this challenge greater than at Easter. After all, the story of Easter is the bedrock of our faith. The account of the events surrounding the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ comprise a significant portion of each of the four Gospels. Even after the story had been told by Matthew, Mark, and Luke, John still devoted almost 40% of his gospel to those crucial eight days. It is just that important.

Churches all over the world will be filled to capacity tomorrow with worshipers who will hear that familiar message, “He is risen!”. Recalling the traditions ingrained in us from childhood, many of us will be arrayed in our finest Sunday clothes, joining countless others in singing those Easter classics, “The Old Rugged Cross”, “Up From The Grave He Arose” “When I Survey The Wondrous Cross”, and “Because He Lives”.

We will be reminded by the Scriptures that our Lord gave up the glory of Heaven to make His dwelling among us, only to be rejected by so many whom He came to save. We will recall the agony He experienced at Gethsemane, the excruciating pain of scourging, the humiliation of being mocked at, spit upon, and having His beard plucked out. We will cringe as we imagine the spikes being driven into his hands and feet. And we will mourn as we consider what His death by crucifixion entailed. When I reflect on all that, knowing that He possessed the power to prevent it, it is almost more than I can fathom that he chose to endure it out of His love for us.

But then our hearts will rejoice once again that the grave could not hold Him. Pilate told the guards, “Go make the tomb as secure as you know how.” (Matt. 27:65) How God must have laughed at that comment, thinking “Good luck with that!”.

As we celebrate Easter, it is appropriate to remember those events. Certainly it is fitting to reflect on their implications for our lives as followers of Christ. We can rejoice as we sing to the world that we serve a risen Savior. But while doing so, we should also consider that Easter demands a response from us beyond basking in the glory of the miracle that occurred that fateful Sunday long ago.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus gathered his disciples in the upper room and spoke these words, “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35) Later he added, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

With those words, our Lord clearly articulated the appropriate response to the message of Easter. And yet, surveys continue to reveal that love is seldom the first thing that comes to mind when those outside the faith think of Christians. How that must grieve the heart of God. And it should grieve us as well.

My Sunday School class is exploring the early chapters of Acts. Acts 2:47 says “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” What was the key to that kind of growth in the early church? Certainly, the arrival of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost played a large role. But I believe another strong factor is hinted at earlier in that verse where it speaks of them “enjoying the favor of all the people.”

What caused the favor they enjoyed among all the people around them? More than anything else, I firmly believe it was the love they had for one another. As we celebrate Easter this year, may the good news of the Gospel be just as real to us as it was to those early eyewitnesses. May the love that was poured out for us on the cross so resonate in our hearts that it overflows to those around us. May it be that love that defines us as followers of Christ. And may it be that love that once again turns the world upside down. (Acts 17:6 KJV)

Happy Easter to you all. He is risen, indeed!

“Love so amazing, so divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.” – Isaac Watts, When I Survey The Wondrous Cross

Note: Unless otherwise specified, all Scripture references taken from the New International Version (NIV)

 

The Message Of Easter

“Why do you look for the living among the dead? He is not here; He has risen! (Luke 24:5-6)

These familiar words from Luke’s gospel articulate the central truth upon which our faith is based. As I said in my last post, the Easter story is so familiar that teachers and preachers often struggle to offer some fresh insight or present some deeper truths to consider. But in reality, Easter is truly a time to just reflect on the truths that we already know so well – the truths that are foremost on our mind when we think of that first Easter morning … the message of Easter.

As you reflect on the message of Easter, what one word would you use to complete this sentence? ..  The message of Easter is a message of _________.  As I reflected on that first Easter this week, I thought of numerous words that fill in that blank quite well.

A Message Of Love

Jesus’ death on the cross is the ultimate manifestation of God’s love for us. The first Bible verse you likely memorized is John 3:16. If you’re from my generation, you probably quote it as it is translated in the King James Version, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”  This foundational verse is the message of Easter in a nutshell. On the night before His crucifixion, Jesus told His disciples, “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13)

A Message of Life

imagePerhaps the most basic and encouraging truth imbedded in the Easter message is that simple truth spoken to the women at the tomb – the truth with which Christians have greeted each other for centuries – the truth stated in three simple yet extraordinarily profound words, “He is Risen!”  The message of Easter is a message of life. We serve a living Savior through whom is available the gift of eternal life – a Savior who lives in us in the person of the Holy Spirit that we might experience the abundant life He promises in John 10:10.

A Message Of Power

1 Cor. 1:18 says, “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.”  Think of the awesome power that was demonstrated that first Easter morning. Paul says in Eph. 1:18-21, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart might be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is like the working of his mighty strength, which he exerted in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms.”

That’s a profound statement Paul makes – that the same power by which the Father raised Jesus from the dead is available to us who believe. Let that sink in for a moment. Paul goes on to say in Eph.3:20, “Now to him who is able to do more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us…”  I have often heard it said that we use less than 10% of our brain’s capacity. Imagine how much of God’s power we actually use compared to what is available to us.

A Message Of Hope

In recent years I have spoken at the funerals of several loved ones, including my mother, my sister, my brother, aunts and uncles, and a very dear friend. A number of people have commented that they did not understand how I was able to do that. And I must admit that initially I felt a little unsure myself. The grief that I experience at such times  is so overwhelming. But as I seek the Lord’s comfort in the pages of His Word and am reminded of His promises, I am always filled with hope – a hope that redirects my focus from my own personal sense of loss to my loved one’s present reality. Ultimately, the message of Easter is a message of hope.

While I always share my personal memories of the deceased, I am mindful that there is only one message which gives hope – the gospel message of Jesus Christ. Because the central message of the gospel is the resurrection of Christ from the dead, and the resulting hope of resurrection and eternal life for every believer. To comfort Martha upon the death of her brother, Jesus said. “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies.” (John 11:25)

The only reason I am able to overcome my own grief and speak on such occasions is the assurance I have that death is not the end for those loved ones. That because of our shared faith, we will be together again someday with our Lord and Savior.

At my sister’s funeral, I discovered that one of her favorite songs was “In Christ Alone”, written in 2002 by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend – a song I mentioned in my last post. It has become one of my favorite songs, although I can hardly sing along with it now without choking up. As it was being sung that day, the lyrics ministered to me and reminded me of those tremendous truths – the truths that enable believers to grieve differently from those who have no hope. (1 Thess. 4:13) – the truths of Easter.

“There in the ground His body lay, Light of the world by darkness slain. Then bursting forth in glorious Day, Up from the grave He rose again. And as He stands in victory, Sin’s curse has lost its grip on me. For I am His and He is mine, Bought with the precious blood of Christ.

No guilt in life, no fear in death. This is the power of Christ in me. From life’s first cry to final breath, Jesus commands my destiny. No power of hell, no scheme of man, Could ever pluck me from His hand. Till He returns or calls me home, Here in the power of Christ I stand.”

Those verses so clearly and concisely articulate the message of Easter – the message of love, the message of life, the message of power, and the message of hope. But wait – there’s more!

A Message To Be Shared

Certainly, the message of Easter could never be adequately conveyed in just one word.image It is indeed the thread that runs throughout God’s Word. But let us never forget that the message of Easter is also good news. And what do we do with good news? … We share it. The message of Easter is not just for those of us who believe – it is a message we have been commissioned and empowered to share with the world – the living hope that is ours through the glorious resurrection of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead.” (1 Pet. 1:3)

Note: Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture references taken from the New International Version (NIV)

A Time To Remember

“Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember ….” (Ez. 16:63)

imageFor a Bible teacher, Easter always presents a special challenge. The story of Easter is essentially the central message whose thread binds God’s Word together. But it is such a familiar account that we struggle sometimes to present a lesson that brings a fresh perspective. One way that I tried to accomplish that as a teacher was to unravel the thread of the Easter message from whatever passage of Scripture our class was studying at the time, rather than turning to the more familiar passages from the gospels.

Never was that challenge greater for me than when my class was studying the Book of Ezekiel a few years ago. In fact, on that particular Easter Sunday we were in the 16th chapter of Ezekiel, an allegory which paints a graphic picture of unfaithful Israel. God portrays Jerusalem as an abandoned newborn baby left out in a field to die. He describes how he in essence married Jerusalem, and established her as his queen, only to see her prostitute herself, committing adultery with surrounding nations.

But even in this graphically vile and lengthy account, three words leap off the page which identify the thread of the Easter message: wrath, remember, and atonement. In Ez.16:37, God promises to bring upon Israel the vengeance of his wrath. The wrath of God is a topic we don’t hear preached much today, but it is a critical element of the Easter story. On that fateful Friday, the wrath of God that we deserve was poured out on the Lord Jesus Christ.

One of my favorite Christian songs is “In Christ Alone”. It was written in 2002 as a collaborative effort between Keith Getty and Stuart Townend with the expressed goal of encapsulating the gospel story in one song. The following verse stirred up a bit of controversy a couple of years ago. Till on that cross as Jesus died, The wrath of God was satisfied; For every sin on Him was laid, Here in the death of Christ I live.”

In 2013 a hymn committee with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A) wanted to add “In Christ Alone” to their new hymnal. But they requested they be allowed to change “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied” to “Till on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified.” When Getty and Townend rejected the proposed change, the hymn committee voted not to include “In Christ Alone” in their hymnal.

When asked why they would not allow the lyric to be altered, Townend responded, “We believe altering the lyric would remove an essential part of the gospel story as explained throughout Scripture. The main thread of what we see revealed throughout the Old and New Testament is the need for man to be made right with God. The provided path toward reconciliation came through Christ’s predetermined and perfect sacrifice on the cross, satisfying God’s wrath once and for all. The hymnal committee wanted to change the lyrics to focus on how Christ’s death on the cross magnifies God’s love for the world. And indeed, God’s love was magnified on Calvary’s hill. Yet the way this occurred was through Christ doing for us what we could not do for ourselves – shedding His own perfect blood to atone for our sins.”

The wrath of God is clearly in evidence in the 16th chapter of Ezekiel. But in that chapter is also a glorious glimpse of the new covenant which was instituted at the cross of Calvary.  Verse 60 says “Yet I will remember the covenant I made with you in the day of your youth, and I will establish an everlasting covenant with you.” Chapter 16 then closes with these words, “Then, when I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed and never again open your mouth because of your humiliation, declares the Sovereign Lord.” (Verse 63)

Easter is a time to remember. But as we remember the atonement, let us also remember the price God paid for that atonement. The 16th chapter of Ezekiel is disturbingly graphic, but it needed to be graphic in order to have the emotional impact that God intended. Sin is ugly and offensive to God. How else can we explain the obscenity of the cross? An innocent man – the only truly innocent man who ever lived- is convicted in a rigged trial, mocked and spit upon, tuffs of his beard torn out, scourged with a leather whip tipped with sharp stones that tore into His flesh, a crown of thorns jammed onto his head, forced to carry His own cross on a back that had been flayed raw, nails hammered into his hands and his feet, and then jarred upright as his cross is allowed to fall into its place.

And then to hang there as the crowd continued to taunt him, until He had no more strength to push himself up against the nails in His feet, causing him to suffocate – the most cruel death one could ever experience. Mel Gibson’s movie “The Passion of The Christ” portrayed the horror of that scene perhaps more graphically than it has ever been done by any filmmaker. Remember how you felt when you watched that movie. Don’t celebrate the resurrection this year without remembering the crucifixion.

How could God permit such a death by anyone, much less One who had lived a perfect life, and who was His own beloved Son? Why did it have to be such a gruesome death? The answer is because our sin is so offensive to God that only such a death could serve to properly atone for it.

God says “When I make atonement for you for all you have done, you will remember and be ashamed.” His words through Ezekiel are designed to spark us to remember that we were once that abandoned baby – lost and without hope. But because of the price Christ paid at the cross, we are now a new creation, reconciled with God, and destined for eternal fellowship with the One who died that we might live eternally with Him.

But let us also remember that we are surrounded by lost souls who have not been released from the bondages of sin and are still destined for hell. This Easter, may remembering what we once were and celebrating what we are now by the grace of God have such an evangelistic impact on our lives that we are compelled to share the gospel message with those among us who have never met our Jesus.

“For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with Him.” (1 Thess. 5:9-10)

Note: All Scripture references from the New International Version (NIV)

In The Garden

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I come to the garden alone
While the dew is still on the roses
And the voice I hear falling on my ear
The Son of God discloses.
Refrain:
And He walks with me, and He talks with me,
And He tells me I am His own;
And the joy we share as we tarry there,
None other has ever known.

He speaks, and the sound of His voice,
Is so sweet the birds hush their singing,
And the melody that He gave to me
Within my heart is ringing.
(Refrain)

I’d stay in the garden with Him
Though the night around me be falling,
But He bids me go; through the voice of woe
His voice to me is calling.
(Refrain)

Words: Charles Austin Miles (1912)

This classic old hymn has always been a favorite of mine for a number of reasons, but recently it has taken on an even deeper meaning for me personally. My sister Paulette loved it and requested that it be sung at her funeral. More recently, it was presented by my cousin Sandra and her husband at my Aunt Carolyn’s funeral. In preparation for that message, I reviewed the lyrics to develop an introduction to my remarks and discovered the story behind the song.

When reflecting on those lyrics in the past, I have always envisioned someone like Paulette or Carolyn rising early in the morning and strolling through their garden in a time of quiet meditation and communion with the Lord. But what I discovered is that Charles Austin Miles actually wrote those lyrics with Mary Magdalene in mind.

John 20 describes how she came to the garden tomb on that first Easter morning and discovered that her Lord, who against all hope had been crucified on Friday, had gloriously and miraculously risen from the dead. Here is the account of the composing of that hymn in the words of the writer himself, Charles Austin Miles:

“One day in April, 1912, I was seated in the dark room, where I kept my photographic equipment and organ. I drew my Bible toward me; it opened at my favorite chapter, John 20 – whether by chance or inspiration let each reader decide. That meeting of Jesus and Mary had lost none of its power and charm. As I read it that day, I seemed to be part of the scene. I became a silent witness to that dramatic moment in Mary’s life, when she knelt before her Lord, and cried, Rabboni!

My hands were resting on the Bible while I stared at the light blue wall. As the light faded, I seemed to be standing at the entrance of a garden, looking down a gently winding path, shaded by olive branches. A woman in white, with head bowed, hand clasping her throat, as if to choke back her sobs, walked slowly into the shadows. it was Mary. As she came to the tomb, upon which she placed her hand, she bent over to look in, and hurried away.

John, in flowing robe, appeared, looking at the tomb; then came Peter, who entered the tomb, followed slowly by John. As they departed, Mary reappeared; leaning her head upon her arm at the tomb, she wept. Turning herself, she saw Jesus standing, so did I.  I knew it was He. She knelt before Him, with arms outstretched and looking into His face cried, Rabboni!

I awakened in sunlight, gripping the Bible, with muscles tense and nerves vibrating. Under the inspiration of this vision I wrote as quickly as the words could be formed the poem exactly as it has since appeared. That same evening I wrote the music.”

While I have always loved this song, knowing its background has given me a whole new perspective and has caused its words to take on an even deeper meaning. How fitting that it was sung at Paulette and Carolyn’s funeral, as we celebrated the living hope that they had in the resurrected Christ and the new birth that they are now experiencing.

Whenever I hear it in the future, my mind will now take me to that first Easter morning when Mary Magdalene discovered the risen Lord! In that brief moment, Mary’s profound grief was turned into unbridled joy. I’m sure she wanted nothing more than to stay at her Master’s side. But Jesus had other plans, telling her, “Go instead to my brothers and tell them, ‘I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.’” (John 20:17)  And so in obedience, “Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: ‘I have seen the Lord!’” (John 20:18)

This Easter, as you reflect on that first Easter morning, take that imaginary journey to the empty tomb, be filled with the joy that Mary surely felt, think of loved ones who are basking in the presence of our Lord, and then go and tell everyone you meet that we serve a living Savior!

Until next time, may the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all.

“As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” (John 20:21)

Note: All Scripture verses taken from the New International Version (NIV)