7 Ways Jesus Shepherds in the Upper Room
The Apostle John’s record of Jesus’ farewell discourse on the eve of his crucifixion and of his high priestly prayer opens a window into the heart of the Savior for his disciples. Earlier in his ministry Jesus announced that he was the Good Shepherd (John 10:11, 14). Jesus is the good shepherd because: 1) he lays down his life for his sheep, and 2) he does not flee his sheep when the wolf is coming. Nowhere were these two reasons truer than when Jesus gathered his disciples before him on the night before he laid down his life for the sheep. Jesus knew the great wolf was preying close at hand seeking to sift the disciples, and he knew that his Father had given all things into his hands. Knowing all these things Jesus loved his own to the end (John 13:1-3).
Jesus loved his disciples to the end not only by laying down his life for them, but also by shepherding them in those most tense and confusing hours before the events for which he came into the world unfolded. There are many ways that Jesus cares for and shepherds his disciples, but I will draw attention to just seven.
1. Christ shepherds his disciples by instructing them in humility (13:3-17). The disciples entered that upper room tense and contentious. They disputed among themselves who was to be the greatest among them (Luke 22). In the midst of the meal Jesus arose and washed the disciples’ feet. Such as task was typically left to the lowliest of servants and this was not lost on the disciples. The servant is not greater than the master, nor the messenger greater than the one who sent them (13:16). Jesus, the King of kings and Lord of lords, not only washed the disciples’ feet, he gave himself for them. Consider the similarities between John’s record of this event and Paul’s theological description of the humility of Christ in Philippians 2:6-8. The application of both is the same. In humility count others more significant than yourself.
2. Christ shepherds his disciples’ faith by warning them of his betrayer (13:18-30).
I remember in the past reading this portion and thinking that this announcement was some final statement by Jesus to let Judas know that he was aware of his impending act of treason. However, Jesus says there is one who will betray him and that Scripture will be fulfilled. He then says, “I am telling you this now, before it takes place, that when it does take place you may believe that I am he” (13:19). This is remarkable. Jesus’ comment about the betrayer was for their benefit. Certainly, when a leader or alleged trusted disciple of Christ sins it can often be used by the accuser to shake the faith of other Christians. Reading on in the account we learn that even at this time the other eleven did not suspect Judas. What a shock and devastation it must have been. And Jesus Christ knew that would be the case. So Jesus shepherds and guides their faith so they would remain committed to the belief that he was indeed the long awaited and promised Messiah. Jesus is who the Bible says he is, and the failures of followers cannot change that.
3. Christ shepherds his disciples by comforting them in their confusion and in their loss (14:1-14).
John 13 ends and chapter 14 begins with palpable emotions. Anxiety, confusion, and sadness fill the room. Judas has left and the remaining eleven have just been informed that one would betray the Savior, their spokesman would deny the Savior, the rest would flee, and Jesus would go to a place they could not come, at least in the moment. In the midst of such emotions Jesus shepherds them by comforting them. “Let not your hearts be troubled.” Humanly speaking they had every reason to be troubled. Yet, Christ directed their attention above their present circumstances and even beyond their present limited understanding of the occurring events to fix their trust in him. He was going to prepare a place for them with the Father by giving himself as a sacrifice for them. Jesus announced that he is the only way to the Father. What great comfort it is that Jesus took our sins on himself and returned to the Father by dying on the cross. In doing so, Jesus is our way to the Father. He is the truth and he is the life for all those who believe in him.
4. Christ shepherds his disciples by giving to them gifts upon his departure (14:15-31).
The few times I am away from home I enjoy purchasing some small gift for my son and daughter to let them know that I think about them when I am gone. Christ, on the other hand, promised the gifts of presence, remembrance, and peace to his disciples prior to his departure so that they would be assured of his thoughts while he was away. First, he promises them that he will not leave them as orphans. His departure is not abandonment. The Holy Spirit will be given to the disciples and through him they will know the presence of Christ. For any disciple of Christ the greatest fear is absence of presence. Therefore, Jesus promises them his Holy Spirit so they will be able to enjoy communion with him. Second, he promises them remembrance. The disciples were never far from Christ during his public ministry. They relied heavily on his teaching and his guidance. But Jesus assures them that though he is departing, he will grant them remembrance. This would come also through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. There is an immediate application here for the disciples and a broader application for us today. They enjoyed an immediate recollection of Christ’s teaching in their ministries. We, today, enjoy this promise by having God’s written word in the Old and New Testaments. Finally, Christ gives them his peace. Believers enjoy a peace with God the Father through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Believers also enjoy a peace that is stable and true in the midst of this world’s troubles.
5. Christ shepherds his disciples by empowering them to bear fruit (15:1-17).
Jesus instructs his disciples of the glorious truth of union with him. He is the vine and we are the branches. Our acceptance with the Father is as we are united to the Son. The life of a Christian is also dependent on union with Christ. Apart from him we cannot do anything. Positively, in union with him we can. Jesus is both our acceptance and our transformation. Being united to Christ enables and empowers us to keep God’s commandments and to enjoy all the benefits of the love of God. Christians were appointed to bear fruit (15:16). It is God’s will to be holy, and union with Christ is the vital empowerment that we have to obey God joyfully.
6. Christ shepherds his disciples by promising them both trouble and victory (15:18-16:33).
It is not always easy to tell other people hard truths. Yet, we must do so in love. Jesus shepherds his disciples by giving to them an honest and upfront assessment of what they will be facing after he ascends to his Father. The world will hate them (15:18-4). In the Parable of the Sower Jesus describes some hearers that appear to embrace the gospel but when the heat comes, they wither. Persecution has the sifting effect. Jesus, however, promises his disciples that there will be persecution and he promises this in order to keep them from falling away (16:1). It is too easy to think that God has abandoned us or let us down when trouble comes. But Jesus promised trouble in this world. Instead of abandoning us he returns to the gift of the Holy Spirit again to bring comfort in the midst of a hard promise (16:5-15). But trouble is not the only promise Jesus made to his disciples. He also promised them victory. “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (16:31). There will be trouble in this life. But fear not, Jesus has overcome the world.
7. Christ shepherds his disciples by interceding for them (ch. 17).
Christ’s High Priestly prayer is holy ground. Here we are granted permission to eavesdrop upon the prayer of the Son to his Father. Christ prayer falls into three sections: 1) he prays for himself and his work (17:1-5), 2) he prays for his disciples with him (17:6-19), and 3) he prays for all those given to him (17:20-26). As with the entire Farewell Discourse there is much to ponder and to consider in this prayer. Let it suffice for now to relish and rejoice in the reality that moments before his crucifixion the mind and heart of Christ was not only on his disciples that were present with him, but also upon you. Before you were ever born Jesus lifted you up before his Father and prayed that all that had been given to him would indeed come to him in time. And not only did Jesus pray for you then, according to Hebrews 7 Jesus ever lives to make intercession for you even now. Christ continues his ministry of shepherding by praying for all those that the Father had given him that we might know the love with which the Father has loved Christ may be in us.
Jesus is the Good Shepherd. Nowhere is this truth more evident than on the night in which he was betrayed. As he stood with the cross close at hand he shepherded his people and loved them to the end.
Charles M. Barrett serves as Associate Minister at Wayside Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Signal Mountain, Tennessee.