We have come to the end of the Gospel of Matthew, and a lot happens in a very short time, beginning with the plot to kill Jesus. Almost from the beginning of His earthly ministry Jesus has been followed by scribes and Pharisees. They do not or will not recognize who He is and they are constantly looking for ways to trap Him so they can arrest and eliminate Him. Jesus is a threat to their power, position, and prestige, not to mention the loss of income they might suffer is He should come to power. The irony we will see here is that the Son of Man, who is to judge the nations must first be wrongly judged and condemned to death by evil people. Jesus’ death was the ultimate Passover sacrifice. The leaders of the religious community met at Caiaphas’s house. He was the high priest, a man of great influence, power and wealth. This was not the normal meeting place so this meeting was most likely ad hoc, urgent, and probably secretive. The traditional meeting place for the Sanhedrin was located at the south end of the Court of the Israelites in the temple. Caiaphas was high priest from 18-36 A.D. They had to eliminate Jesus soon because His following was growing by the day. But, it had to wait until Passover was over because they were also afraid of the crowds. If there would be a revolt, Rome would step in to rule and all of the elite and religious leaders would lose everything. They were not willing to risk anything. Jesus and the disciples were in Bethany at the home of Simon who had been a leper. While Jesus was there a woman came with a jar of very expensive perfume and she poured it over Jesus’ head, an anointing of sorts. There was outcry on some of the disciples part because the perfume could have been sold for a high price. The value of this nard was worth nearly a years wages. Jesus quieted the disciples saying she had just anointed Him for burial. Matthew has set this woman’s praise worthy actions over and against those of the leaders plot and Judas’ betrayal. It’s is quite likely that no one fully understood what Jesus was saying here. Judas sold himself to the religious authorities, concealed his actions, and then led them to Jesus so they could carry out their plans. Judas was apparently known for his greed and many suspect that as the group’s treasurer he probably took money out of the purse for himself. He was paid the price of a common slave to betray Jesus, 30 pieces of silver. But, whatever his motivation was, Judas was part of God’s sovereign plan.
It was the Passover season and Jesus and His disciples were to eat the meal together. The disciples prepared everything and Jesus joined them in an upper room, probably in a poorer section of Jerusalem. Many believe the house belonged to John Mark’s father. This is Mark who wrote the gospel that bears his name. Jesus told them His time had come but again they didn’t know what He meant. As they ate Jesus told them one of them would betray Him. It was shocking news and many asked if it was them. Even Judas asked. It was custom that everyone gathered around the table would dip their food into a common bowl which probably contained a purée of herbs and a fruit purée. Sharing a meal was a sign of friendship and trust, making Judas’ presence even more startling. You will notice that all the disciples called Jesus Lord except Judas. He called Jesus Rabbi, meaning teacher. Judas did not recognize Jesus as Lord. Jesus reminded the disciples that to fulfill scripture, the Son of Man had to die but it would be better for the betrayer to have never been born. The scripture Jesus was referring to here is Isaiah 53:8-9. There will always be debate about Judas. Many will argue that he was simply doing the will of the Father because scripture had to be fulfilled. Judas was just being obedient. Others will argue that he betrayed the Son of God and deserved to spend eternity in hell. Matthew presents both the human and the divine sides of verse 24. From the divine point of view, Judas’ treachery was predicted in scripture and it was part of God’s plan. But from a human point of view, Judas was guilty of a base crime and was completely responsible for what he did. Divine sovereignty and human responsibility are not in conflict, even though we may not be able to understand how they work together to fulfill God’s will.
It was this night that Jesus took the elements of the Passover meal and gave them new meaning. Ever since the reformation there have been three dominant interpretations of Jesus’ statements concerning the bread and wine. The first is that the bread and wine change into the actual body and blood of Jesus Christ. This is called transubstantiation. The second is that in the bread and wine Christ is mysteriously present either spiritually (real presence), or “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. This is consubstantiation. The third is that the bread and wine symbolize the body and blood of Christ, benefiting the recipient through the Spirit by faith. This is symbolism. We as Lutherans believe that Jesus is present “in, with, and under” the bread and wine. Jesus affirmed that He is the new covenant, God’s unilateral commitment to establish salvation for humanity, fulfilling the promise to Abraham. Jesus gave Himself up as the perfect sacrifice so that we would have eternal life with He and the Father. Though the kingdom had been inaugurated in Jesus’ ministry, it awaits final consummation. This is pictured as a feast like Passover, symbolizing an eternal fellowship of love and peace. The hymn Jesus and the disciples sang was part of the Great Hallel, probably psalm 136.
Jesus predicted Peter’s denial along with the rest of the disciples being scattered like sheep because the shepherd would be taken. Out of the scattered sheep there will come a remnant, a purged and purified remnant. In the short term the disciples would soon be scattered and deny any association with Jesus. Verses 26:36-46 reveal the depth of Jesus’ awareness of the suffering that awaited Him in the cross. We also see His utter commitment to doing God’s will. Many believe that salvation was won in the Garden of Gethsemane that Thursday night, when Jesus aligned His will with that of the Father. It is clear that Jesus and His disciples met in the garden often. As He often did, Jesus took His inner circle with Him farther into the garden. The most significant things in Jesus’ ministry happened with Jesus, Peter, James, and John. Jesus prayed probably contemplating the Father’s plan for Him and to figure out how to absorb God’s wrath towards humans for their sins. Various translations say Jesus was overwhelmed, crushed, or exceedingly sorrowful at what was about to befall Him. Jesus asked, if it is possible. Jesus’ hearts desire was for uninterrupted communion with the Father instead of coming under God’s wrath. After all, Jesus knew what that wrath looked like. But Jesus also had aligned His will with the Father’s and He submitted His will to the Father’s. The disciples needed to stay awake and pray because they were about to be tested as well. Flesh here refers to human weakness. The contrast between the weakness of the disciples and the strength of Jesus is staggering.
Judas showed up with the temple guards and Roman soldiers like they were going to arrest a wanted fugitive. He kissed Jesus and Jesus was seized. The fact that Judas used the sign of affection to betray Jesus shows even more the heinousness of his betrayal. One of the disciples, probably Peter, in a show of forcedrew his sword and cut off the ear of the high priests slave. Luke tells us that Jesus touched the man’s ear and it was healed. John tells the slaves name was Malchus. Jesus was not about violence and He reminded the disciples that He had at His disposal 12 legions of angels who would come to fight. A legion consisted of 6,000 soldiers. It is important to remember that Jesus was not a helpless victim here. He allowed His own arrest. And as Jesus had predicted earlier in the evening all the disciples deserted Him.
Jesus trial is found in 26:57-27:26. The gospels record no less than five hearings: an informal one before Caiaphas, a night hearing before the Sanhedrin, a hearing before Herod Antipas, and a two stage trial before Pilate. There were two trials, a Roman trial and a Jewish trial. The Jewish leaders were under considerable pressure to keep this incident quiet lest their actions caused a riot. Once inside the Sanhedrin chambers they were looking to find false evidence one translation says. That means the Jewish religious authorities didn’t care about the evidence. The trial was a sham but they had to do something to appear legitimate. They had already decided what the outcome would be. It took some doing to find two witnesses, required by Jewish laws, that didn’t contradict themselves. The high priest demanded to know if Jesus was really the Messiah. He did not deny this and the authorities charged Jesus with blasphemy. Then the abuse of Jesus began. They spit in His face and slapped him, all the while jeering and mocking. As we read this we must keep in mind that Jesus did this for us. He endured all this abuse for you and me. While the trial was going on inside,Peter was being tested as well. Three times people pointed out that he had been with Jesus, and three times Peter swore he did not know Jesus. After the third denial a rooster crowed, just as Jesus had said would happen. Peter realized that Jesus had been right and he went out and wept bitterly. This passage always makes the hair on the back of my neck stand up. Jesus went from the Jewish trial to Pilate, the Roman governor. As this was occurring, Judas realized he had made a huge mistake, one he could not undo. He went back to the leading priests and authorities and told them he had been mistaken, but it fell on deaf ears. Judas tossed the bag of coins back into the temple, went out and hung himself. We can always wonder if he had asked for forgiveness what Jesus would have done.
Jesus’ trial before Pilate was even worse that the one before the Sanhedrin. First there was a hearing before Pilate, then Herod, and back to Pilate. At each hearing Jesus was abused, mocked and beaten or flogged. The Jews charge of blasphemy meant nothing to the Romans so the Jews had to come up with a charge that would matter to them. Jesus needed to be seen as a political rebel. Pilate was in a tough spot. His standing with Rome was somewhat precarious so he didn’t want to cause a riot. His custom of releasing a prisoner was a way to appease the Jews without causing too much grief. Barabbas was somewhat of a hero. He was an insurrectionist, a revolutionary and opposed to Roman rule. Through all, of this, Pilates wife sent him a message to have nothing to do with Jesus because she had been having dreams about Him. It seemed clear to Pilate that Jesus had done nothing wrong. It was also clear that he would have anuprising over Jesus if he didn’t convict him of something. Finally Pilate washed his hands of all responsibility for Jesus death and released Him to be crucified. Soldiers took Jesus and mocked him, bowing down to Him as the king of the Jews. Little did they know! And they flogged Jesus, a beating so severe that many times people didn’t survive this. In the Jewish trial Jesus was mocked as a prophet. Here Jesus is mocked as a king. The ironic thing is that the taunts and ridicule of the crowd expresses the truth about Jesus: He was indeed the Son of God and the King of Israel, the Messiah.
Normally the victim carried the crossbeam for the cross he would be nailed to. Simon of Cyrene was enlisted to carry Jesus’s, probably because He was so weak from the beatings and flogging He could hardly stand up. But the act of enlisting of Simon could have also been further mockery. Jesus was treated as one who deserved a servant even though He was being marched to His death. Giving Jesus wine mixed with gall was probably intended for ridicule, but once Jesus tasted it He rejected it. Gall was a sedative and Jesus was determined to suffer fully for our sins. Gall is also known as wormwood, a bitter narcotic made from the oil of Artemisia. The sheer cruelty and the public spectacle of crucifixion worked as a powerful deterrent in the Roman world. Victims were flogged and then crucified naked, adding to the humiliation. Crucifixion was seen as the most painful of all possible deaths. It involved intense suffering, exposure to weather and insects, suffocation, and often a final violent thrust of a spear to end life. And, since crucifixion was seen as a curse from God (Deuteronomy 21:22-23) the act was particularly heinous to the Jews. Paradoxically that which was so despicable among humans became the instrument for our salvation. The charge for a persons crime was always fastened to the top of their cross. Jesus identity was questioned again, just like in His temptation in the wilderness…if you are the Son of God, save yourself and come down from the cross. Everybody ridiculed Jesus; the religious authorities, the crowds that had gathered to watch, the men who were hanging on either side of Him, at least until one of them realized who Jesus was.
And the sky turned an inky dark, for three hours, noon until 3:00 pm. The darkness symbolized the judgement of God, or some believe, the arrival of the day of the Lord. At some point Jesus quoted Psalm 22, “ My God, My God why have you forsaken me?” It is a cry that echos through the ages. Jesus was experiencing the wrath of God for the sins of humanity. Some thought Jesus was calling Elijah. It was widely believed that Elijah would return before the day of the Lord. Each of the gospels highlights different aspects of Jesus’ last moments. Matthew tells us that Jesus released His spirit. At that moment the temple curtain was split in two, from top to bottom. This curtain was 60 feet high and 4 inches thick. This curtain was what had been dividing the people from access to God. Now, in Jesus death, access had been granted. The earth shook and rocks split apart. These are signs of the arrival of judgement. Jesus’climactic death inaugurated the Kingdom of God by breaking the powers of death and establishing the final resurrection. These godly ones either did not enter the city until after Jesus resurrection or they were not raised until then, as the first fruits. If that is the case Matthew has included this episode to form a more powerful commentary on the impact of Jesus’ death. TheRoman officer and the soldiers were Gentiles. They were responding to all of the natural phenomena that occurred when Jesus died and the centurion confessed that Jesus was in fact the Son of God. In Roman crucifixions the bodies are often left to rot on the crosses, but Deuteronomy 21:22-23 prohibits a body from remaining on a cross or gallows overnight. Joseph’s action was in accordance with Jewish law, while his motivation was probably his loyalty to Jesus. Pilate was surprisingly accommodating, perhaps because he believed Jesus was innocent.
Burial customs were important in Judaism, especially in contrast to the Greeks and Romans who typically cremated their dead. Leaving a corpse unburied was the severest form of judgement. For the Jews, death was lamented and mourned. The body was washed and anointed, wrapped in burial cloths, and placed in a tomb that had been cut out of a rock or the side of a cave. The entrances were then Usually closed off by a large stone and sealed to prevent ceremonial uncleanness or robbery. Both the clean linen and new tomb represented ceremonial purity. There was still dis-ease about Jesus being buried. The religious authorities were convinced the disciples would steal Jesus body and they demanded a guard be placed and the tomb officially sealed. Each of the four gospels present a different emphasis in their resurrection account. Matthew focuses on the reunion in Galilee, the attempt by the Jewish leaders to discredit the resurrection, and the significance of the resurrection for the salvation of the world.
The mention of two women as witnesses lends credibility to the historicity of the resurrection account. One who invented stories would have never used women as witnesses since their testimony was considered less reliable than a man’s. Again there was an earthquake because an angel of the Lord had come down and rolled away the stone. He was sitting on it when the women arrived. His face shone like lightning. Think about Moses whose face shone after he had met with the Lord. This angel came from the presence of the Lord and he glowed with His light. His clothing was white as snow, the color of purity. This angel spoke to the women, something else that would be unheard of and his first words were do not be afraid. This angel made the greatest announcement ever. Jesus is not here. He has risen!!! Now…go and tell the disciples. As they ran they encountered Jesus who also told them not to be afraid. Jesus also told them to go and tell. The women were on their way back to the disciples and the guards were on their way to report what had happened. This kind of news could not get out so the guards were bribed, which was contrary to Jewish law, and sent on their way with a different story to tell, one that blamed the disciples for stealing Jesus’ body. Tomb robbery was common so this wouldn’t be out of the ordinary.
The disciples had been instructed to go to Galilee, so they did. The eleven left, going to the mountain Jesus had told them to go. They worshiped Him but some doubted. There may have been many more who tagged along as well and it could be that these folks were the ones who doubted. It seems pretty clear that the disciples now believed Jesus was the long awaited Messiah. Jesus’ power is delegated from the Father’s authority though He is not using all of it yet. He will manifest this power when He returns in glory. Matthew ends his gospel with what we call the great commission. It is a command by Jesus to go. Sending people out in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit means entrance into a relationship and it’s benefits, which come to those who truly believe. The Great Commission rests on the authority of Christ. And because He has authority over all, everyone needs to hear His gospel. This is not however the first call for world evangelism. Genesis 12:1-3 is God’s command for Abraham and his descendants to be a blessing to other nations. Making disciples involves three things: going, baptism, and teaching. It was assumed that when a person trusted in the Lord they would be baptized. Jesus ended His commission with a promise. Jesus promised He would be with us always, even to the close of the age. He has just revealed that He is indeed the true Immanuel, “God with us”.
In His Grip
Pastor Matt W