THE UPPER ROOM
The upper room -- the place where Jesus ate the last Passover with his disciples. We visited a site in Jerusalem that might actually have been the upper room referred to in the Gospels. Just outside the Zion Gate of the old city in Jerusalem, near the crest of Mount Zion, there are some partial remains of an ancient house. They’ve been incorporated into a building called “the Upper Room” that was built by the crusaders.
Epiphanius in the fourth century, claimed that when the Roman emperor Hadrian visited Jerusalem around 131 AD he “found the entire city devastated and the temple of God trampled down, except for a few houses and the church of God, which was small, where the disciples, after they returned when the savior was taken up from the Mount of Olives, went up to the upper room.”
Is the site we visited that Church of God that was built over the original upper room? We don’t know but it has strong claim. It’s in a wealthy area -- and we can assume the owners of the house where Jesus ate his last supper were wealthy. They had servants and a large upper room.
Whose house was it? Most scholars think it’s likely the same house mentioned in Acts 12. After the angel delivered Peter from jail it says, “he went to the house of Mary the mother of John, also called Mark, where many people had gathered and were praying.”
The John Mark mentioned in that verse is the same Mark who wrote the Gospel of Mark. The church was meeting in his family home and most likely it was his home where Jesus ate the last supper with his disciples.
Most Bible scholars think Mark was the young man of Mark 14.51, 52 who was not a disciple but who was there in the garden the night Jesus was arrested and who ran away naked. “A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving his garment behind.”
Mark fits the description. He was a young man at the time. It’s likely he was downstairs while Jesus was upstairs having the last supper with his disciples. It’s easy to imagine him throwing on a wrap and following at a distance when they left the house that night. Only he would have known that embarrassing little tidbit of information – that he ran away like all the rest of the disciples only he ran away naked.
Let me read Mark’s description of what happened that night – based on what Peter told him. It’s an abbreviated version compared to John’s Gospel but one that contains a very intriguing little detail:
Mark 14.17-26 “When evening came, Jesus arrived with the Twelve. While they were reclining at the table eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me — one who is eating with me.” They were saddened, and one by one they said to him, “Surely not I?” “It is one of the Twelve,” he replied, “one who dips bread into the bowl with me. The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”
While they were eating, Jesus took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take it; this is my body.”
Then he took the cup, gave thanks and offered it to them, and they all drank from it.
“This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many,” he said to them. “I tell you the truth, I will not drink again of the fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it anew in the kingdom of God.”
When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.”
They sang a hymn before they left. Jesus sang! It’s the only time in the Gospels where we read of Jesus singing. What was the hymn he sang? Wouldn’t you like to know? I’ve been doing research on what happened in the upper room that night and it turns out we probably DO know the hymn Jesus sang with his disciples. They were most likely singing Psalm 118 -- which is a tremendously significant psalm.
(song -- Psalm 118 in Hebrew)
Hearing Psalm 118 sung in Hebrew helps me imagine Jesus and his disciples singing it that night. But why do we think it was Psalm 118 they sang?
Because we know that Jewish people of Jesus day sang it as part of their celebration of the Passover. It was part of what was called the “Egyptian Hallel”. Psalms 113 -118 made up the Hallel and at the time of Jesus these psalms were built into the celebration of Passover. Psalms 113 and 114 were sung before the meal, before the second cup was passed, and Psalms 115 to 118 were sung after the meal. As the last psalm of the liturgy it would have been the last psalm Jesus and his disciples sang at that last Passover before he died.
It’s a tremendously significant Psalm -- significant because of what it celebrates. Originally it probably celebrated the coronation of David. It tells a story of a great hero who has faced great odds but who, by faith in God, has been delivered out of them all and won a great victory – a victory for his people. David could certainly have sung this psalm – the words fit his life. He’d been rejected and close to death many times, and the Lord had always shown him mercy. And on the day he was finally enthroned as King verses 19-24 would have perfectly fit the occasion:
Psalms 118.19 “The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
But fast-forward through history – David dies, he’s followed by a lot of bad kings, the kingdom is divided, the people drift far, far from the Lord and eventually they’re exiled to Babylon. But then God in his unfailing love brings back a remnant and helps them rebuild the temple. We know from Ezra 3: 10-11 that this same Psalm 118 was sung to celebrate when the foundation of the temple was laid. They saw themselves – the people of Israel as the ones who had been chastened severely – and yet delivered by God’s mercy. And as they laid the cornerstone of the temple they could easily have understood it as representing themselves. The nations had rejected them, but God had used them to rebuild his temple and his kingdom.
That was the second official use of this Psalm – first to celebrate the coronation of David, second to celebrate the rebuilding of the temple. And that brings us to the third and final use of this Psalm – by Jesus and his disciples.
We have to fast-forward again. The temple was rebuilt but Israel was never fully restored. When Jesus was born, Israel was still oppressed – the ‘day the Lord had made’ seems not to have come after all – not yet. The people were still waiting for the Messiah to lay the true cornerstone and establish God’s kingdom. Every celebration of every festival was full of this intense anticipation. The people were waiting for the final fulfillment of Psalm 118.
And that complete and final fulfillment came – that Messiah came – his name was Jesus. The people welcomed him when he rode into Jerusalem with palm branches singing the words of Psalm 118: 26: “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.” But little did they realize how that very significant Psalm was going to be fulfilled. They didn’t grasp what was going to happen. I doubt if the disciples grasped it when they sang the words of Psalm 118 with Jesus as they left the upper room and went out into the night – the night that Jesus was betrayed and arrested.
“The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.”
What no one understood expect Jesus was that Messiah had to die in order for the true temple to be raised up. Messiah had to die in order for the Kingdom of God to be established. Messiah had to die in order for there to be a new day – the dawn of a new age.
And what is even more shocking is that his death had to come at the hands of the “builders” of Israel. The very people who believed they were most committed to God, who were trying hardest to position themselves as the righteous people of God, the ones who lived their entire lives making themselves ready for Messiah to come. Those very people – those builders – were the ones who rejected God’s stone.
As Isaiah 8:14 predicted, “They stumbled over the stumbling stone.” What made them stumble? It’s the same thing that makes us all stumble. We stumble over our own righteousness.
In order to receive Jesus and become part of the new kingdom we have to give up our righteousness – and take the sinners place -- and say “without his death, without this atoning sacrifice, I myself would be rejected by God.” We have to freely admit that; “It’s in his righteousness alone that I stand.”
Psalm 118: 19-20 says, “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter.”
We have to acknowledge from the bottom of our hearts that we are NOT the righteous who are qualified to enter the gate of the Lord. That gate only swings open for Jesus. AND for those who by faith in Jesus trust in his death for the forgiveness of their sins and who robe themselves in HIS righteousness as their qualification to enter.
Jesus is God’s stone. A stumbling stone for the proud but for those who trust in him – he is a very precious stone. Isaiah 28.16, “This is what the Sovereign LORD says: “See, I lay a stone in Zion, a tested stone, a precious cornerstone for a sure foundation; the one who trusts will never be dismayed.”
The earthly king, the earthly temple – they were never enough, always subject to exile and destruction because of the sin of God’s people. But God had a true stone – Jesus – and he made him the sure foundation of his true temple. Jesus is God’s new creation – his new Day – the beginning of a new age – and of an everlasting kingdom that will not fizzle out in failure.
God accomplished all this by giving his Son over to death. The disciples I’m sure had no clue of what was about to happen when they sang Psalm 118 in the upper room that night. But Jesus knew. He knew there could never be a new day until the sin of God’s people had been paid for.
The rejection of the stone meant death for Jesus – suffering and shame and death – but it had to happen before the new could come. Jesus had to make the final complete atonement for sin. He had to take all the sin of God’s people into himself and suffer and die. And then be resurrected.
And in his resurrection -- the day of the Lord finally dawned. It’s a day that couldn’t come without a complete victory over sin – the victory Jesus won. God laid the foundation of his true temple – he brought into being his new creation – his undefeatable kingdom – when he raised his victorious Son from the dead. It’s a kingdom that will never come to an end. Those of us who are trusting in Jesus can look forward to a great day of consummation – a great day when we’ll enter the gates of God’s new creation with shouts of joy.
Psalm 118: 19-24 “Open for me the gates of righteousness; I will enter and give thanks to the LORD. This is the gate of the LORD through which the righteous may enter. I will give you thanks, for you answered me; you have become my salvation. The stone the builders rejected has become the capstone; the LORD has done this, and it is marvelous in our eyes. This is the day the LORD has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it. This is the day the Lord has made – let us rejoice and be glad in it!”
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