By: St Cyril’s Theological College Student
The upper room was foundational in the formation of the early church. The use of the upper room is established by Old Testament practice, cradled by early Christian doctrine and acted as the springboard for the spread of early Christianity. Even though there is debate if there is a single or many upper rooms what remains clear is that it was the location where union with God and others could be achieved. The upper room held great significance to the early church as it seemed to be a place for the founders of the Church to congregate, especially during her formative years. This includes events which form the backbone of Christianity such as: the Last Supper, where the New Covenant was instituted and the Eucharist was first celebrated and Pentecost where the Holy Spirit descended. The upper room also proved to be the place of various meetings and miracles which strengthened and emboldened the faith of early Christians, proving to be a place conducive to meeting in fellowship and in prayer which are crucial elements of the Christian faith.
From the time of the Old Testament, the ‘upper room’ was usually a room that was built on the roof of houses and was used as a place of prayer to entreat God’s power. It was so essential to those of the Jewish faith that even the poor kept such a room furnished so that guests could be welcomed. There are a number of examples in the Old Testament of an upper room being used. An example of the upper room being used as a place of prayer and worship occurs in the story of Daniel, where he retreats to his upper room to pray, as it was his custom, even when a decree is put out to kill those who worship anyone besides the king. This is also seen in the book of Tobit, where Sarah goes to her upper room crying and supplicating to the Lord in despair, with her prayers even being answered there. Examples of the use of the upper room in entreating God’s power can be clearly seen in the miracles performed by Elijah and Elisha in raising the widow and Shunammite’s sons respectively Therefore, it is clear that an upper room was common amongst the people of Israel, and that it was considered as a place of retreat and prayer, as well as a place where God’s power was shown.
Key elements of the Christian doctrine have found their roots in the upper room. One of the key events of the early church that occurred in an upper room was the Last Supper with Jesus and His disciples, instrumental members of the early church, being present. It states in the gospels of Mark and Luke that there was a large upper room, that was furnished and prepared for the Passover which the Lord asked to use. It was here that the Lord washed the disciple’s feet, providing for them a model for Christian service which would prove to be a defining characteristic of the early church, continuing to communities such as those established by St Basil. Another key aspect of early Christianity established in the upper room during the Last Supper was the Sacrament of the Eucharist, considered to be the pinnacle of Christian worship, and the centre-thought of many early Christian writers. St Paul describes appropriate decorum when partaking of the Eucharist in his epistle to the Corinthians showing the early Church would meet together to partake in it. Its importance is also clear in the inclusion of the Eucharist, alongside the rituals of baptism, in the Didache, a document that describes some of the practices of the early church as well as its being described by St Justin Martyr in his ‘First Apology’. St Ignatius, an Apostolic father, highlights the Eucharist’s significance to the early church in his epistle to Smyrna, by stating that where a bishop is celebrating the Eucharist, surrounded by the faithful, then there the fullness of the Church is present. Therefore, we see that the upper room was the site of an event which was a fundamental element of the early church.
Similarly, the upper room is the site of a significant and transformative event in the early church. Following the ascension of Jesus, when the disciples are gathered in one accord in prayer and supplication, the Holy Spirit descended upon them on the day of Pentecost, and they prophesied in fulfilment of the words spoken by Joel. There is a clear transformation that occurs in this upper room. Peter, who had previously denied Christ in front of a servant girl, miraculously and courageously converts three thousand men, with his first sermon, during the Feast of the Harvest in Jerusalem. It was from here that the fearful disciples, who previously gathered together for fear of the Jews, were now able to go out boldly, preaching and converting people, even to the point of martyrdom. This model of martyrdom would later be followed by countless others and would be crucial in establishing the early church.
There is debate if there was a single upper room that was used in the early church which held intrinsic value or whether the disciples were merely congregating in many upper rooms. This debate arises because it is unclear whether the upper room used for the Last Supper and in Pentecost were different rooms. In the gospel of Mark and Luke, the word used for the upper room of the Passover comes from the Greek root noun, “anogeon”, and it is the only time it is used in the New Testament. Whereas, in the book of Acts, which is believed to also have been written by Luke, the Greek root noun “huperoon” is used, also referring to an upper room. Therefore, it is uncertain whether Luke meant different upper rooms, or whether he simply used a different term for the same room. However, according to the Coptic Tradition it is believed that St Mark the apostle’s mother, Mary, ministered to the Lord with her resources by offering her house for the Passover to be held, and that this was the same upper room that the Holy Spirit came down upon the disciples as they assembled. This is hypothesised because the man carrying the pitcher of water, of whom Jesus said that they would eat the Passover at his house, is believed to be St Mark. St Cyril posits the reason Jesus did not reveal the owner of the upper room was because the devil had already entered Judas’ heart, and so it was important that the name of the owner of the upper room was kept secret so the betrayal plot could not occur in the upper room during the Last Supper. This was so it did not occur before the institution of the New Covenant and the giving of the Eucharist, again illustrating the importance of the Eucharist to the church. The fact that Mark’s mother’s house was ever used is attested to in the book of Acts, where it is mentioned that St Peter came back to the house of Mary following his release from prison, where many were gathered together praying. Therefore, it can be seen that there is evidence for and against whether it was the same upper room that was used.
However, despite it being unclear whether it was or wasn’t the same upper room, what is clear, is that the use of an upper room is a feature of the apostle’s ministry in establishing the early Church. This is shown in the book of Acts where many events such as miracles and preaching occurred in the upper rooms of the faithful. For example, when entering the city of Joppa, Peter is taken to the upper room to raise a charitable woman called Dorcas. As a result, many people in the city hear about Peter and accept the faith., The aforementioned return of Peter occurred following his release from prison by an angel as he went to encourage the disciples and tell them about the amazing work of God and His care for His church. In and amongst their spiritual atmosphere of prayer, Peter stood to tell them about how he had experienced the power of the Resurrection and how the Lord frees those who are imprisoned and under captivity, freeing them from darkness and taking them into life, drawing both spiritual and literal contemplations, about how God opens doors. Later in Acts we see Paul preaching to a group of people in the upper room, and then a young man called Eutychus falling to his untimely death. Here we see an early form of liturgical worship in the early church with the faithful gathering to listen to the word of God, and then breaking bread at the dawn of Sunday, that is, celebrating the Eucharist. This gathering may have needed to occur in the upper room of a house due to practical reasons as the Jews would have been using the Temple, therefore Christians needed to have their own place of worship. Hence, we see that the upper room was a practical place of meeting for the faithful in the early church, and served as a place for the strengthening of their faith.
However, there isn’t only practical significance to the use of the upper room, with many of the early church fathers seeing spiritual significance to the events being held in such a space. Some, such as St John Chrysostom, see that the upper room is merely a meeting place that is representative of a dwelling together of men and women in prayer, remembering the words of Christ that “where two or three are gathered together in my name, I am there in the midst of them” and that indeed nothing is more powerful then this gathering together of people in the name of the Lord. Whereas others like St Jerome, see that prayer would occur in the upper room, such as with Daniel, as a means to elevate the soul to meet God above earthly matters. St Cyril goes further to state that the upper room represents the exalted and high thought of dwelling with Christ and not remaining on earth, but instead having their thoughts and “their citizenship in heaven.” Therefore, it can be seen that not only was the upper room a space conducive for the gathering together of the faithful, but it was also representative of their elevation above the world to be united with Christ; which is the ultimate aim of the Christian life.
Whether it was the one upper room, or many upper rooms, one thing is clear that many of the early events of the church occurred in an upper room. These events, such as the Last Supper and Pentecost, were attended by the founders of the church and placed an indelible mark on the foundation of the early church. The upper room may have been chosen because it was conducive to the requirements of Christian life, as a place where the disciples could congregate together and pray and offer up their hearts to God. It was from here that they underwent their transformation before going out and preaching to the nations, proving pivotal to the spread of the early church. Finally, the spiritual significance of the upper room means that the upper room is not only foundational to the early Church, but indeed to all Christians who are similarly called to congregate, to raise their hearts in prayer, and to ultimately be transformed and united to Christ.
Glory be to God forever Amen.