This is a guest post by Russ Ramsey, pastor of Midtown Fellowship Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Six Simple Words
A number of years ago, while preparing a sermon for the church I pastored in Kansas, I came upon a clause in Matthew’s Gospel that set my imagination spinning. Six simple words. A transitional statement. Still, in those words I saw a picture of the strength of Jesus that led me to worship and write.
This was the clause: “When they had sung a hymn…” (Matthew 26:30, Mark 14:26). The statement comes at the end of the Last Supper on the night Jesus was betrayed. Here it is in context: “When they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all fall away because of me this night.’”
I wondered what that song was like for Jesus. I wondered because of the other details the Gospel writers also included about that evening—and there are many.
One detail we’re given is a picture of Jesus’s emotional continuum that night. John tells us that Jesus came into that supper already deeply troubled in his spirit because he knew Judas would soon betray him (John 13:21). Then we learn from Luke that, by the time Jesus knelt to pray in Gethsemane later that night, his stress had escalated to the point that his pores were releasing blood mixed with sweat (Luke 22:44). He started the meal deeply troubled and by the time he arrived in the garden his stress had manifested physiologically.
What happened between those emotional bookends? Jesus washed His disciple’s feet (John 13:1-20). Somewhere in there, probably as the disciples were jockeying for the best seats at the table, Jesus silenced an argument among them over which one was the best (Luke 22:24-30). Then he told them that one of them was about to betray him (John 13:21-30) and, soon after, Judas left to do just that.
Also during that meal, Jesus broke the bread and poured the cup. He told his friends that those elements were his body and blood, and that he was offering himself up for them (Mark 14:22-25). Then He prayed for them and for the work God would do through them (John 17). It was a high priestly prayer about the imminent change only hours away.
When Jesus Sang
Jesus knew they couldn’t stay in that upper room forever. He needed to go to the Garden to wait for Judas. It was time. And here comes that detail that moves me to worship: they wouldn’t leave that room before singing. And since Jesus was the head of the meal, he likely led the song—this doxology.
Historians and scholars say they probably sang from Psalm 118, the last of the Passover Psalms. The refrain of this Psalms is, “His steadfast love endures forever.”
Imagine it. Imagine Jesus rising to his feet. Imagine him asking his friends to do the same. Imagine a singing Savior coming to these words as the last bit of Scripture he and his disciples would share together before heading for Gethsemane.
Imagine Jesus singing:
“The stone the builders rejected has become the cornerstone.
This is the day that the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we pray, O LORD!
Blessed is he who comes in the name of the LORD!
The LORD is God, he has made his light to shine upon us.
Bind the festal sacrifice with cords, up to the horns of the altar!
Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:22-29)
Though Jesus would soon become that festal sacrifice bound to the horns of the altar, he never stopped playing the role of shepherd. He never stopped caring for his disciples. He never stopped preparing them for what was coming. He set the tone for the trouble to come.
Drawing Near to God
Would you have felt like singing to God in that moment? I wouldn’t have. I would have withdrawn into myself. I could teach a class on how to isolate. One of the most beautiful implications of Jesus singing in the upper room is that he would have called his friends to join him. This is a call I need to hear.
James said, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you” (James 4:8). I love that in his greatest hour of trial, Jesus drew near to his Father. Given the circumstances, who would have blamed him if he declared the whole Passover a misfire and ended the Last Supper by saying, “Usually we would end in song, but I’m too upset.”
But he didn’t. Instead, Jesus sang. I’m sure it wasn’t easy. But it was strong, and I need a Savior with that kind of strength.
Where I am tempted to turn inward, Jesus turned Godward. Why? Because, as Psalm 118 tells us, God “is good; his steadfast love endures forever.” And in this wonderful little detail—the singing of a hymn—we see Jesus shepherd his disciples, both then and now, with strength, grace, tenderness, and resolve, and it draws my heart to worship.
Russ Ramsey (ThM, Covenant Theological Seminary) serves as a pastor at Midtown Fellowship Church in Nashville, Tennessee. He is the author of Behold the Lamb of God: An Advent Narrative and Behold the King of Glory: A Narrative of the Life, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. He also writes for the Rabbit Room, a website devoted to the discovery and celebration of truth and beauty.