You know, I’m going on sixteen years as a follower of Christ — this after being a “Christian” for the twenty eight years previous — and I still find myself amazed by the depth of God’s love for us, the sheer ABANDON with which He gives Himself for a creation that continuously rejects Him.
This past Sunday, we were studying a book that outlines the last twenty four hours of Jesus’ earthly life — His life before the Cross, and the newness of Life that He walked in after His resurrection. It talks about the Triumphal Entry, where Jesus entered Jerusalem according to prophecy, upon the back of an unbroken donkey. It talks about the Last Supper, and about that fateful proclamation that someone in that upper room would be the one to betray Jesus.
All these things I’ve studied before, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on them. That is, of course, until we started discussing Jewish culture of the day.
When most people consider the Last Supper — myself included — they think of that famous painting by Leonardo da Vinci, which depicted the disciples seated at this long table, with Jesus seated prominently in the center. But that’s not how the Jews actually gathered for their meals, and this turns out to be very significant.
See, in Jewish culture of the day, the table was actually U shaped, and sat low enough to the ground that the diner had to recline. They generally did this seated on their left side, leaning on their left arm and serving themselves with their right, with their feet extended behind them (which makes sense of accounts like Mary pouring perfume on Jesus’s feet, as it was the closest she could get to Him). The people were seated around the outside, leaving the central portion clear for the servants to attend the diners.
The host held the seat of prominence, as in da Vinci’s painting, but it wasn’t in the center of the U. Rather, it was to the furthest counter-clockwise point. He also sat with two guests of honor, one to either side of him, while the other guests sat in full view of him, spaced out along the rest of the U. The placement of these two guest spots is very telling, not only for their prominence with the host, but also for their sheer positioning. Remember, the diners leaned on their left arm. That means that one of the honored guests sat to the host’s breast, while the other sat to his back.
This is where the lightbulb started to flicker.
In the text of scripture, we’re told that John, known colloquially as “the beloved”, leaned on Jesus’ breast to ask who it was that would betray Him. This makes perfect sense if he were seated to Jesus’ right. It shows John leaning back from his seat, toward Jesus, to ask Him this question in confidence.
Jesus replies to this question, “It’s the one that I dip the sop with.” As Jesus only had two seats of honor about Him — the only two seats that could reach the bowl that Jesus sopped from — and as the occupant of one of these seats was asking Him this question, it stands to reason that Jesus refered to the other one who sat in a seat of honor.
Let that sink in for a moment — Jesus didn’t just know that Judas would betray Him, but He intentionally placed Judas in one of the two seats of honor, the most dishonorable disciple coupled with the most devoted.
The implications of that alone are astonishing, evidencing once again that Jesus didn’t come to redeem only those who loved Him, but to even offer that redemption, bought at the immeasurable cost of His own life, to those He knew who would ultimately reject it.
In all my years of studying scripture, I’d never made that connection in that way, never seen the unconditional nature of God’s love in so palpable a fashion. But God had one more shocker for me.
As an armed security officer at a nuclear plant, I tend to think in terms of security, of “If I were a bad guy, what weaknesses would I exploit?” So naturally, my mind went there when considering this seating arrangement, and I was floored.
See, not only was Judas in one of the seats of highest honor, but he, the man whom Jesus KNEW would betray Him, was seated to Jesus’ left, in a spot where the host of a Jewish meal would be most vulnerable to attack from, as that seat faced the host’s unobserved and unprotected backside.
So, you see, not only did Jesus intentionally give His betrayer one of the two seats of honor, but He also gave him the very seat that engendered the greatest level of trust. Such LOVE that Jesus had, even for the man who would ultimately lead Him to the Cross! Such love for a man that would commit suicide in his grief, perhaps never even receiving the salvation that his betrayal helped set in motion.
Though, thinking it over, I do have to wonder about that, for as King David said in his psalm to the Lord, “A broken and contrite heart, O God, thou wilt not despise.”