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Message 18, OPTIONAL SESSION: Lessons From the Upper Room:

In this session, Dr. Sinclair Ferguson highlights his new teaching series, Lessons From the Upper Room, which walks through John 13-17, and reminds us of the centrality of Christ in all of life. 

Message Transcript

I hope I’m not interrupting your dinner plans tonight. And I’m personally very grateful to you even if you happen to be in the room by a divine accident and not by any intention to listen to what I’m about to say, because it’s a very encouraging opportunity to talk to you about what was on the screen a moment or two ago, the DVD series that Ligonier has produced on the Upper Room.

And I thought since most of the people at this conference will not come along to this optional session. That it probably would be a rather nice thing as long as you promise — you will promise won’t you? — as long as you promise never to share this with anyone who is not in this room.

So, later on you can say, “Did you hear Ferguson’s secret about the DVD series on the Upper Room?” And, if they say, “No I didn’t, I wasn’t there.” You can say “Well, I’m not allowed to tell you what the secret is.”

And I thought since it’s so kind of you to come, it would be — it just would be fun for us if I told you just a little about the backstory to the making of this particular DVD series. It’s on John 13-17, the Savior’s Upper Room discourse. I don’t know — maybe you are a pastor, maybe you sometimes think when your pastor begins a new series, a particular book of the Bible or a particular theme and you maybe wonder why is he doing this?

Has he heard a message from heaven? No, he’s thought about it. He’s thought I need to do this series for these reasons. So why would anyone want to respond to Ligonier’s invitation and make a DVD series on John 13-17? Well, when you get an invitation like that there are certain parameters given to you. In this case to give 12 23-minute talks. There is a reason why it’s 23 minutes and not 25 minutes. They’ll never tell you what the reason is. But 12 23-minute talks.

And so there’s a very obvious consideration, what can I break down into 12 23-minute talks? And then there’s another consideration, and that is: What has Ligonier not done already so that whatever you are doing in some sense would contribute to the overall vision and ministry of Ligonier Ministries.

And then there is this question. People very graciously come — and this is a great help to any of us who make a DVD, that we’re not just standing there talking to a camera, but there are, there are real living people in the room perhaps, three dozen people who will come. And these three dozen people are going to sit with you for six messages on day one and another six messages on day two.

And so, you think, I need to do something that will engage the people who come so graciously to help me speak by being a congregation to me. I need to do something but will sustain them. Most of us do not listen to six different messages on any day of the week, far less six messages on two consecutive days of the week. And then this is a personal factor I think to myself, I am going to have lights beaming down on me. I’m going to have cameras all over the place, a director, a sound man. What am I capable of doing?

You know, I’m like you, I have limited gifts. I don’t have a TV face. I’ve got a lot of natural limitations. So, I need to be sustained. So that’s the backstory to making the DVD. But there is actually in this case also a backstory to the backstory. And the backstory to the backstory is really a very personal one.

It begins when I am 18 years old and it dawns on me; as a young teenager I was in my second year at university. I can see myself sitting in my study bedroom in the university, the day it dawned on me that although all Scripture is God-breathed, there are some books in Scripture that are more central to the message of Scripture than other books of Scripture.

One wouldn’t say, for example, that 2 Chronicles was as central to the message of Scripture as Paul’s letter to the Romans. Or for that matter the book of Genesis, equally breathed out by God but fitting into the big picture in a way that supported the center rather than actually being the center.

And, the day that dawned on me I determined that there for the first thing I needed to do if I was going to grow in my understanding of Scripture was to focus on what seemed to me to be the key books. And John’s gospel — I’d been reading the Bible for actually nine years, very consistently. I kind of knew my way around, and I decided I needed to give special attention to — among a number of other books — the Gospel according to John.

And as I did that, I found myself, reflecting on the whole of the gospel. I remember some of the commentaries I bought and read. I particularly remember a statement that John Calvin made in his introduction to his commentary on the Gospel of John, which I found very, very helpful. He says, “The other three gospels show us Christ’s body. John’s gospel shows us Christ’s soul.” And the place where John does that most of all is in John 13-17. It’s a hugely important section of the Gospel of John.

If you think about it this way, 22 chapters in John’s gospel. In the upper room, 13-17, there is a description of an event, a Passover meal probably the whole thing might have lasted five hours. So, 25 percent of the gospel of John focuses on five hours of the Savior’s life and ministry. That’s actually a higher percentage in John’s gospel than focuses on His crucifixion. That’s not saying that’s more important than His crucifixion. But it is saying there’s something here that was enormously important to John as he wrote the gospel.

And I think the reason for that was because it was through the teaching that was a given there that John himself discovered two things. The first was — and essentially this is just what I’ve said — it was here that Jesus showed His disciples His soul.

You remember how He says in the upper room, “I’m not going to call you disciples any longer. From now on you’re going to be friends.” “A servant doesn’t know what his master is doing, but I’m bringing you right into the heart, right into the heart of God, right into fellowship through the Spirit with the Father and with the Son.”

So there’s something profoundly significant about that section in John’s gospel. It shows us Christ’s soul. And not only does it show us Christ’s soul, but it’s particularly striking for this reason that this is the great hour of crisis both for Jesus and for His disciples. And yet, fascinatingly, I think you could go anywhere in the whole of the New Testament and conclude there is no deeper theology, no deeper doctrine to be found in the pages of the New Testament than you’ll find from John chapter 13 through John chapter 17.

And as a youngster trying to make my way in the Christian life and to grow in my understanding of the Lord and His gospel, that was a huge thing to me. That here Jesus was illustrating a principle that I don’t think at that time I would’ve been able to articulate. But the principle was this: the deeper down you go in your knowledge of God, the stronger you’re going to be when the crisis comes and the storm breaks.

And so, when I saw that, kind of naturally, the section of Jesus teaching in the Farewell Discourse — His foot washing of the disciples at the beginning, His prayer for them at the end became, I guess I would’ve said, just one of my favorite sections of Scripture. It became like a hot bath into which I would continue to go to linger, and actually, the metaphor is not bad, because in the residence I stayed in, the bath I used was vast and there was ceaseless hot water.

And I used to luxuriate in that bath turning the tap on when I began to get tepid, and to meditate on — I guess this was my Archimedes experience in the bathtub.

Within a year, two events happened within six weeks of each other. If you knew anything about me you would know there was one minister who shaped my life, his name was William Still. He was my minister all the way through my student days. He wrote his autograph into my life. He cared for me pastorally. He was about as different from me as one Scotsman could be from another. He was — I almost said he was slightly eccentric. That would not be a complete difference I don’t suppose.

His preaching style — he had had no formal education during the ages of about 14 and 28. And so there was — there was something about the way in which he thought that was kind of different from anything you would learn in western education. And, his sermons were long; sometimes you wondered where he was going. And then like a deep-sea diver he would come up with some deep-sea pearl of great price. And, we would be filled with awe at this and wonder where he had found it.

His elderly mother had died and I was involved in our intervarsity group and we had asked him for our winter weekend conference when we all went off into the Highlands of Scotland to a hotel. I had asked him if he would speak to us over the weekend Friday through Sunday on John 13-17. I still have the master tapes of his addresses. I no longer have a tape recorder that matches these.

Were they 7-1/2 inch reels? But I still have the fragrance of the atmosphere of Mr. Still, standing surrounded by students and chairs, many of us sitting on the ledges, some on the floor, this great fire crackling, and him spending the whole weekend taking us through the Farewell Discourse. And my guess is, that to my dying day, I will think that was as near to being in the upper room as I’ll ever get.

Later on — because, I had noticed that Mr. Still had on the podium — he had a small page of notes. It was the only page he had. It was the same every one of the several addresses he gave. And later on I told him about how memorable this weekend had been for us all.

Now, of course he was especially sensitive in spirit because his mother had just died. And, he said, oh I — he never threw a piece of paper away. I was one of his literary executors and when we were going through his papers we even found that he kept the very bad jokes that he had told at a wedding reception. So he never threw — oh he says, “I’ve still got those notes.”

And there were three lines. He was such an illustration of being immersed in Scripture that we just walked through the Upper Room discourse. And you know how really special, spiritual experiences in your life, you don’t prepare for them, they come sovereignly into your life?

Often they’ve got nothing to do with your age or where you are, and sometimes very little to do with the amount of progress you have made. They simply — God comes and that weekend is one of the great memories I have of what it means to live in the atmosphere of the presence of the Holy Spirit with the people of God.

The other thing that happened — and of course, so that deepened my love for the Farewell Discourse. The other thing that happened was, by that time I’d fallen in love with a fellow student. And of course she was beyond me. I mean, some of you men know the experience exactly. You know, these handsome hulks around you. And you know, you know she will not even — she will not even look at me, and, you know, and all the rest of it.

And we had become friendly. And, just before Christmas this package arrived. It was quite a large package, because she had bought something for me for Christmas, and the thing that made the package large, was by my way of thinking quite expensive. You know, I’m a Scotsman so I’m thinking how much did she spend on me. Not really.

And so that was very, very nice. It was something to wear, which told me “Ah, she’s one of those girls who sees me and says I can improve this fellow.” But the other thing that was inside it was, let me see, I think it was — in those days it would probably have cost about 75 cents. It was a little paperback book by an old Scottish minister in the 19th century called Charles Ross. It was entitled — and you can still buy it — it was entitled “The Inner Sanctuary.” And it was an exposition of John 13-17.

As soon as I saw, as soon as I saw the book I thought, I think I’ve got a chance here. The clothing was nice. But, it was as though seeing this book made me think: this is somebody who understands me through and through, that she would give me this book. She knows my heart.

I’d really like to tell you that we got married, and lived happily ever after. But we got married and we’ve been living happily now for 44 years. And hopefully, if not ever after. OK. So, with all these things going on in my mind it was this that drew me to the thought, I think it really would be — it would be lovely to think that one could be with a small group of people for a couple of days — for five hours, as it actually happens, in terms of the number of addresses.

And even to have a taste of that and to leave with a sense that I especially think John got out of the Farewell Discourse. I am the disciple Jesus loved. Now, you see, John couldn’t possibly have said that as though he meant I’m the disciple Jesus loved more than others. He couldn’t have thought that, could he?

Jesus doesn’t have favorites like that. It was just that he realized that actually what is true of Jesus in relationship to all His disciples, I am the disciple Jesus loved. And you remember how the Farewell Discourse begins? Jesus, knowing that the Father had put all things into His hands and that He had come from God and that He was going to God.

After supper He laid aside His outer garment, took a towel, knelt before all of the disciples astonishingly including Judas Iscariot and washed their feet. For Judas, in a sense that was the last straw wasn’t it? You know if you’re antagonistic to somebody, if that person demonstrates love and grace and humility towards you, it only hardens your heart. But for the Apostle John apparently, this was a moment in which he began to discover just how deeply the Lord Jesus loved him.

And what’s so wonderful about that whole Upper Room discourse is the way in which, in some ways John 13-17 is in John’s gospel what Matthew 28:18-20 is in Matthew’s gospel. Now, we associate Matthew 28:18-20 with two things. Usually baptismal services, and commissioning of missionaries. Baptize them, go into the world, and baptize them.

What we don’t usually associate Matthew 28:18-20 with is, that in Matthew’s gospel this is the first time — and indeed in the whole of history — this is the first time anyone has told believers how to pronounce the name of God properly and fully.

When you get to Matthew 28:18-20 for the first time in all history, the Lord Jesus says, ‘I want to tell you what God’s name is. I want to tell you who He is.

He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.’ And when you think about Matthew 13 through John 13-17, and read it, you realize it’s almost as though Jesus is taking that statement at the end of Matthew and saying to the Apostles in the Upper Room, now I’m going to tell you how to pronounce the name of God, but first of all what I want to tell you about is what it means that He is your Father, what it means that I am your Savior, and what it means that the Holy Spirit is going to be sent to you. And He will be to you in His ministry everything that my presence has meant to you during our life together.

And so, that’s the backstory to the DVD series on the Farewell Discourse at the Upper Room. I have a dream in connection with it. It’s really a very simple dream. But it’s a dream that if it came true would be a dream come true. Culturally the nearest experience most of us have in the United States to the Passover meal is what? Well, you’re going to say the Lord’s Supper. But I mean culturally, not Christianly, culturally. It’s Thanksgiving dinner, isn’t it?

First time I went to a Thanksgiving dinner I thought: How could people sit at a table as long as this? This is fantastic. And I have this dream, this vision of an elderly couple somewhere who have bought the DVD, and there’s nobody with them for thanksgiving dinner. And so they say to one another, “Why don’t we spend the morning preparing the dinner?”

And then as it gets towards evening when we’ve got all the courses prepared, and just ready to be heated up or to be eaten, ‘Why don’t we get that DVD out and we’ll put it in our large-screen television.’ And every two sessions we’ll pause it and we’ll, we’ll get more food. And we’re going to spend Thanksgiving dinner in five hours with the Master.”

And in this dream, can you see them? You know, we see these gray-haired elderly lady with a slight stoop, with a stick. And the old man whose, you know, he’s got an old football wound in one leg, and an old war wound in another leg. And they kind of go to the kitchen and they come back with more food. And they’d been married 60 years. And then at the end when the thing finishes they look at each other and they say, ‘We are the disciples Jesus loved, and we love Him all the more because we’ve been with Him in the Upper Room.’

I don’t suppose it will ever happen. But it’s a great dream to have. And that’s the Upper Room. And thanks for coming and for listening.