The men who gathered in the “upper room” with Jesus on the night before He was crucified had been with Him three years. They had walked with Jesus over the length and breadth of that land, from Jerusalem in Judea through Samaria to Nazareth and Capernaum in Galilee. From Caesarea Philippi down the east side of the Jordan River then across to Jericho and Bethany and back to Jerusalem. It had been an amazing journey. They had seen and heard some astounding things.
Could they ever forget how Jesus had made sick people well, fed a huge crowd with a young boy’s lunch, walked on the Sea of Galilee as if it were pavement, and even raised some people from the dead? But if the things He did left them astonished and amazed, many of the things he said left them perplexed and bewildered.
For example, there was something Jesus called “the Kingdom of God.” He talked about it so much that we have to regard it as the central theme of His ministry. Most of his parables, those simple little stories out of everyday life which He used to teach profound spiritual truth, focused on some aspect of the Kingdom of God—who were its citizens, what was its character, how did one enter it, when would it be a reality on earth. And the disciples had difficulty with many of these concepts.
They thought Jesus was talking about the Kingdom in terms of real estate. He was actually talking more about the power and authority which He, the King, wanted to exercise over the lives of his followers, the citizens of God’s Kingdom.
Jesus was also talking about a physical and political Kingdom which He would bring to earth one day, but the disciples thought He meant that it was going to appear immediately. They completely missed Jesus’ point that, before the Kingdom could come in power and glory, the King had to be crucified, and then, for a period of time, the Kingdom of God would exist mainly in the hearts and lives of Christian believers, awaiting a day in the future when the King would return from heaven as King of kings and Lord of lords.
It wasn’t until after Jesus’ death, burial, resurrection, and return to heaven that the disciples began to understand completely what Jesus had meant when He taught them to look at all of life from the perspective of a “kingdom citizen.” That may help to explain why, during Jesus’ lifetime, His disciples were often confused by His teaching. Without this “kingdom consciousness” many of Jesus’ teachings do seem complicated and unrealistic.
For example, while the “conventional wisdom” teaches that success is often measured by wealth, it was Jesus the King who said “blessed are the poor.” Conventional wisdom tells us that, if somebody hurts us, we should hurt them back. Jesus, the King, taught that we should not return evil for evil, but rather pray for our enemies. Conventional wisdom suggests that the more “stuff” we have, the happier we’ll be. Jesus, the King, taught that we shouldn’t “lay up treasures on earth” since our hearts will be wherever our treasure is. Jesus came to turn the conventional wisdom on its head, and it’s easy to see why more than one person has called this kingdom, about which Jesus taught, “the upside–down kingdom.”
In His death and resurrection, Jesus made it possible for people to experience freedom and forgiveness and to become citizens of His kingdom. And throughout His earthly life and ministry, Jesus devoted Himself to preparing and equipping His disciples to live like kingdom citizens and to preach “the good news of the Kingdom” to the whole world. Even on that first Maundy Thursday, the night before He was crucified, Jesus remained faithful to the task of linking His suffering and death, just hours away now, with the truth about the kingdom of God.
Here’s the way Luke records it in chapter 22 of his Gospel.
When the hour came (to eat the Passover), (Jesus) took his place at the table, and the apostles with him. He said to them, I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you, before I suffer, for I tell you, I will not eat it (again) until it is fulfilled in the kingdom of God… You are those who have stood by me in my trials; and I confer on you, just as my Father has conferred on me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.
I began this post by imagining what must have been going on in the minds of the disciples of Jesus as they gathered in that “upper room” to share a final Passover meal with Jesus. The Gospels make it clear that Jesus knew the time of His death was fast approaching. It’s unclear how much His disciples understood.
They may well have misinterpreted what He meant when told them, as Luke records, that He would not eat the Passover with them again until it was fulfilled in the Kingdom. John writes of an exchange between Jesus and Peter in which Jesus says that He will soon be going away. Peter asks where He is going, then vows that he will follow Jesus even to imprisonment and death. I know that Peter could be awfully brash on occasion, but I wonder if he would have made such a bold commitment of loyalty if he had known that it would be put to the test in a matter of hours.
What we do know, from John’s account, is that, early in the evening, after the meal had barely begun, Jesus got up from the table, wrapped a towel around his waist, poured some water into a basin, and began to wash the disciples’ feet. And in that simple, awkward, intimate, and embarrassing act, Jesus, the Master Teacher, provided an object lesson to illustrate the essence of what He had been trying to teach them about Kingdom living for the past three years.
What He taught them in that single act of humble service was the ethic of the Kingdom, and I’ll say much more about that in my next post.