Matthew 26:1 marks the end of the final teaching section on readiness for Christ’s coming with the words that have concluded each discourse section, "And it came about when Jesus had finished [all] these words… ." Significantly, the word "all" appears only in the final conclusion formula of Matthew 26:1. Not only was the discourse finished, so was Matthew’s presentation of Jesus the teacher. His attention turns to the final hours of Jesus’ earthly life. Matthew’s account of the events we know as Jesus’ passion (his suffering, arrest, trials, and crucifixion) is very close to that of Mark. However, there are small variations and additions to the Markan narrative that continue to reveal Matthew’s distinctive theological vision of Jesus. Matthew 26:3-56 describe the preparation(s) for Jesus’ death. Matthew 26:57-27:26 relates the condemnation of Jesus to death. The account of the death itself appears in Matthew 27:27-56.
Jesus Anointed for Burial - Matthew 26:6-13
A story of Jesus being anointed by a woman appears in all four gospels, though it is not clear that all four are recounting the same incident. The story in Luke appears relatively early in his gospel (Luke 7:36-50) and is least similar in detail to this account by Matthew. John places the event at Bethany but presents it as happening before the Triumphal Entry and in the house of Lazarus. Matthew and Mark agree in the timing, place, and major details of the story. Verse 6 states that Jesus was in the house of Simon the leper. Nothing is known of this person who is mentioned in the New Testament only here and in the parallel passage in Mark. Simon’s leprosy was past or he could not have hosted a meal with guests. Some commentaries speculate that Jesus had healed Simon, but we have no evidence for or against that supposition.
The woman who anointed Jesus is not named despite the fact that verse 13 promises that her story will be told wherever the gospel will be preached in the whole world. It is possible that her name is not mentioned because she was a woman, but other women were named in the gospel accounts. The ointment with which the woman anointed Jesus is described was very valuable. Mark identifies it as "nard" or "spikenard" which was extremely expensive, in part because it was imported from India. One of its uses was anointing the dead. The text gives no indication of the woman’s purpose, but Jesus declared that she had anointed him in preparation for burial.
The disciples protested that the ointment she had poured on Jesus’ head could have been sold for a high price and the money could have been given to the poor. This complaint of the disciples is a bit puzzling. Whatever else the woman might have intended, her action clearly expressed devotion, honor, and love for Jesus. Why should disciples object to such a generous declaration of allegiance to Jesus, unless it convicted them of following Christ for their own selfish motives?
Jesus’ reply affirms that the woman had prepared his body for burial. This, too, is a puzzling statement. One did not normally prepare bodies for burial until they were dead. Jesus’ comment shows his understanding of what was coming and his acceptance of that painful will of God for him. It should also be noted that the records of Jewish discussions show that they believed burying the dead was more meritorious than almsgiving, hospitality, or visiting the sick. Thus Jesus deflected the disciples’ criticism of the woman’s extravagance with an appeal to which thoughtful Jews could relate.
We should not take Jesus’ comment that the poor would always be present as justification for mistreating them or failing to help them. Jesus’ words are nearly a quotation from Deuteronomy 15:11, which continues by commanding the listener to open his or her hand to help the poor and needy. However, in this case, concern for the poor takes second place to the preparation for Jesus’ death. Jesus’ passion is all-important at this point; everything else must become subordinate to that central purpose that is unfolding.
Judas Joins the Plot - Matthew 26:14-16
The second scene in this section reveals Judas joining the plot of the priests and elders. Brief as these verses are they present a picture of Judas even more despicable than that found in the other gospels. Matthew portrays Judas haggling with the chief priests over the price they would pay for him to betray his teacher. It is possible that money was Judas’ only or primary motive. It is possible that Matthew wished for us to think that by the way in which he portrays Judas bargaining for Jesus’ life.
However, the price that was set suggests otherwise. Only Matthew mentions the detail that the price was thirty pieces of silver. This appears to be directly influenced by Zechariah 11:12 and Exodus 21:32. The Exodus passage identifies thirty shekels of silver as the price of a slave. The Zechariah passage describes the Shepherd being given the insulting price of a slave. The picture Matthew’s Jewish readers would have seen was of Jesus and/or Judas by the price that was offered. More importantly, from Matthew’s perspective, the scriptural background shows that all the events leading up to Jesus’ death were part of the divine plan. God foreknew even the price that would be paid for Jesus to be betrayed.
The contrast between Judas who was willing to sell out his teacher for a small price and the woman who poured very expensive perfume upon him could not be more pointed. Being called and named one of the twelve did not guarantee a right heart for Judas. Being unnamed and despised by both disciples and Jewish religious leaders did not prevent the woman from being recognized for her authentic worship. Matthew concludes this scene with the remark that Judas began to look for an opportunity to betray Jesus.
Preparation for Passover - Matthew 26:17-19
The action of Judas set him on a collision course with Jesus. Chapter 26 began with Jesus declaring that his death was soon. Meanwhile, the high priests and elders took their own steps to achieve his death. Judas then began preparing to betray Jesus to death. Jesus made preparation for his final Passover with the disciples. In this section Matthew has reduced the detail from Mark’s gospel to a bare minimum. Only enough of the story is told for us to understand the basic flow of thought. The first day of Unleavened Bread normally refers to the first day of the seven-day festival of Unleavened Bread. Technically, that first day was also the day of Passover, but both Matthew and Mark portray it as the day before Passover. It is possible that the word "first" should have been translated from Aramaic into Greek as "before" rather than "first."
The Passover/Feast of Unleavened Bread was one of the three great Jewish festivals prescribed in the Old Testament. All Jews of Jerusalem and Judea were required to participate. Those who lived farther away had to participate in one festival per year. Jews who lived outside the Holy Land were expected to make one pilgrimage in a lifetime to celebrate one of these festivals. Passover/Unleavned Bread came at the early Spring and so it was more difficult for those who traveled a great distance to attend that festival. However, it held preeminence among the festivals simply because without the first Passover, Pentecost and Tabernacles would not have existed. Passover/Unleavened Bread celebrated Israel’s departure from Egypt. One assumes that Matthew saw the irony that Jesus was about to die to atone for the sins of the people at the time of Passover - a time when the blood of a lamb saved Israel from the Death Angel.
Jesus’ instructions to disciples were simply that they enter Jerusalem, find a certain man, and announce to him that the teacher wished to eat the Passover at his place. Mark mentions that the identifying detail by which the disciples will recognize the man with the room would be that he would be carrying a water jar on his head. Since, only women normally carried water jars on their head, some scholars have surmised that the man with the room was an Essene. This group (copyists of the Dead Sea Scrolls) had some locations in which marriage was forbidden. The fact that the traditional site of the upper room was in the Essene quarter supports this idea. Matthew’s omission of the identifying mark for the man with the room heightens the impression he is trying to make. Jesus knows before hand all that will take place. He knows the right words to convince this man to rent them the room. The disciples went and did as Jesus said and prepared for the Passover celebration.
The Betrayer Revealed - Matthew 26:20-25
Though the disciples had prepared the Passover, Jesus was also attentive to the need to prepare for and bring to completion his own death. As a result Matthew only describes the gathering of the disciples and the meal with the briefest of terms. Jesus’ words, "I tell you, one of you will betray me," come quickly in the story like the sudden thrust of a spear. Though Jesus had made several predictions of his death in Matthew’s gospel, this is the first time that he identified one of the disciples as the instrument of his betrayal. The disciples responded with horror, and yet their question was not "who?", but whether they would be the guilty party. Jesus’ reply did not answer their question. He stated that one who dipped in the bowl with him would betray him. However, since they ate from a common bowl each of the disciples would have "dipped in the bowl" with Jesus as some point that night.
Verse 24 draws the focus closer. The expression "as it is written" shows Jesus’ understanding (and Matthew’s) that his death was ordained by God. The way to the cross was the will of his heavenly Father and Jesus did not resist it. However, the fact that Jesus’ death was part of God’s plan did not excuse the betrayer. Jesus pronounced a "woe," a word of judgment upon him. To say that it would have been better for that person to have never been born expresses the terrible severity of that judgment. This verse preserves the mysterious tension between divine sovereignty and human freedom. God’s will will be accomplished through sinful people, but that never justifies the sin(s) of those persons.
In verse 25 Judas is singled out for his question, "Surely it is not I?" The words are identical to those of the other disciples (see verse 22) except for one significant difference. The other disciples had addressed Jesus as "Lord" when they asked their, "Surely it is not I?" Judas addressed Jesus as "Rabbi." Consistently in Matthew’s gospel, the title "Lord" appears on the lips of disciples and genuine worshippers of Jesus. The title "Rabbi" has been reserved for Jesus’ enemies. The alert reader already knows the answer to Judas’ question by the very title the betrayer used to address Jesus. Matthew does not mention Judas’ departure but we do not hear of Judas again until he betrays Jesus in the garden.
The Last Supper - Matthew 26:26-30
Once the terrible destiny of Judas had been made clear Matthew turns his attention to the most significant part of Jesus’ final meal with his disciples before his death. The beginning of the meal was mentioned in verse 20. That final meal is now known as the Last Supper. It should not be confused with the Lord’s Supper, a term we use for the sacramental meal that Jesus put in place during the Last Supper.
It appears clear in Matthew (as well as in Mark and Luke) that this meal was the traditional Passover meal. The actual written documents describing the Jewish practices of the Passover meal come from several centuries after Jesus’ time. However, they preserve the traditional patterns that changed very slowly in Judaism (see Introduction to a Christian Seder and Passover Seder for Christians). That Passover meal would have begun with a blessing, the lighting of the lamps, and drinking of the first cup of wine. Attention would have been drawn to historical origins of the Passover as recorded in Exodus 1-15. Next, Jesus and the disciples would have sung together Psalms 113-115. The focus of these psalms is praise to God for the ways he had intervened to help Israel. The blessing and drinking of the second cup of wine would have occurred next, followed by the blessing and breaking of the bread, and then the main meal. That meal would likely have lasted several hours, given the customs of Palestine at that time. To that point everything in the Passover meal had proceeded according to the traditions and customs with which the disciples had grown up.
After Jesus had spoken the traditional blessing over the loaf, he would have broken off a piece and passed on to each disciple to break off a piece for themselves. It was then he spoke the first of the words now known as the "Words of Institution." "Take, eat, this is my body."
It would have been during the main meal that Jesus pointed out that one of them would betray him. Normally this meal would have been characterized by laughter, stories, and good fellowship. No doubt, Jesus’ prediction of one of them betraying him dampened the festivities. His somber words connecting the broken bread with his body echoed mysteriously in their ears. The good cheer and laughter would have been replaced with quiet whisperings and silent, anxious eating.
The third cup of wine came at the end of the meal. Most scholars believe that the cup which Jesus identified as his blood was the third cup of the Passover celebration. In Jewish tradition that cup is called the cup of redemption. Even more shocking than the words that the cup was his blood was the following statement that Jesus would not again drink from the fruit of the vine until he would drink it new in his Father’s kingdom. Following the third cup, the normal Passover celebration then sang Psalm 116-118. Finally came the blessing and drinking of the fourth cup of wine and the Passover celebration was over. However, Jesus had declared at the third cup that he would not finish this Passover celebration with the fourth cup until he drank with his church in the coming kingdom. For that reason, when they had sung the psalms their Passover was over and they left the upper room.
Peter’s Denial Predicted - Matthew 26:31-35
The path from the upper room to the Mount of Olives would have passed across the south side of Jerusalem (at that time) and into the Kidron Valley, a deep ravine on the east side of the city. The site of Gethsemane was part way up the mountain from the valley. On the way Jesus warned the disciples that all of them would stumble that very night. The Greek is quite picturesque and has been translated in many ways here:
NRSV - you will all become deserters
The Greek verb is skandalizo from which our word "scandal" and "scandalize" comes. However, the root idea of the word in Biblical times was to cause to sin, to stumble, or to be offended. Going out to face death Jesus had the painful task of telling the disciples that all of them would fail him that night. To emphasize and support his point he partially quoted from Zechariah 13:7, "I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered." Only Peter had sufficient ego strength to argue with Jesus, claiming that though all the others might fail, he certainly would not. At that point Jesus sadly told him that he (Peter) would deny him (Jesus) three times before cockcrow. Despite the precision of Jesus’ prediction Peter again contradicted the Lord’s words with a promise to die before denying Christ. At that point the other disciples were sufficiently motivated to join in affirming their eternal allegiance to Jesus.
We often condemn Peter for his arrogance and weakness in denying Jesus. We should not forget that Jesus predicted that all the disciples would fail him and all finally joined Peter in affirming that they would not. Peter receives the "bad press" because he was willing to take the lead in claiming greater commitment than he had. At that point he becomes a warning to us. It is easy to claim allegiance to Christ no matter what. It is more difficult to stay true when one’s life is on the line.
Prayer in Gethsemane - Matthew 26:36-46
Matthew and Mark describe Jesus’ destination that night as "Gethsemane." This is an Aramaic word meaning "oil press." Luke states that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives and John 18:1 calls it a "garden." Apparently then, as now, the western slope of the Mount of Olives was covered with olive orchards. Verse 36 states that Jesus asked the disciples to "sit" while he went further to pray and verse 37 mentions that he took James, John, and Peter with him. That verse also describes Jesus as grieved and distressed. The verbs express strong emotion. Verse 38 echoes the words of Psalms 42:6 and 43:5 to describe the deep emotional torment of Jesus’ soul (the Greek word is psyche) at that moment. Matthew reveals the depth of Jesus’ loneliness in his request to the disciples to stay awake with him. For them to fall asleep would leave him alone in the final moments of struggle.
Falling on his face he prayed that "this cup pass from" him. The reference to the cup was Old Testament language for a person’s lot in life or what would happen to him or her. Though it could refer to a good result it was much more common to refer to suffering and shameful treatment (Psalm 75:8; Isaiah 51:17; Jeremiah 49:12; and Ezekiel 23:31-34). In some circles it has been popular to assume that Jesus’ prayer to avoid the cup was an expression of his human fear of death. While his humanness and his fear should not be discounted, the language of this passage points to a more profound understanding of the cup. The Old Testament background suggests that the cup was the punishment for Israel’s sin. Jesus’ agony was not simply a product of human fear. The emotional torment of that hour revolved around the fact that the sin of the world was being placed upon him and that the Father would soon "forsake" him. The path of obedience that Jesus had followed all his life was about to reach its painful climax. His prayer ends with the only authentic conclusion to prayer, "Not what I want, but what you want, God."
The Arrest - Matthew 26:47-56
Matthew 26:45-46 notes that Jesus concluded his prayer and woke the disciples with the announcement that the betrayer was coming. He was not surprised, but prepared by prayer for the moment of betrayal. Matthew states that a large crowd armed with swords and clubs accompanied Judas. The prearranged signal was that the temple guards would arrest the one Judas kissed. This was a "studied insult" that rubbed salt in the wound of betrayal. Furthermore, Judas addressed Jesus as "Rabbi," in direct disobedience of Jesus’ command in Matthew 23:8.
At that point the temple guard closed in to arrest Jesus. One of the disciples pulled a sword and cut off an ear of one of the servants of the high priest. The attempt of this lone disciple to defend Jesus seems pitiful in contrast to the large arresting mob. But Jesus was clear that neither the disciple’s defense nor the mob’s power mattered. He could have summoned twelve legions of angels to fight for him had that been within the will of God. The language echoes intertestamental apocalyptic Jewish literature describing the final conflict of history that would usher in the Messianic age. Although the transition of ages was Jesus’ goal, cosmic conflict was not his method. Rather, Scripture must be fulfilled; God’s will must be done. Human resources (the sword) lead to human results. Only obedience to God accomplishes God’s ultimate goals. Matthew’s words emphasize the fulfillment of Scripture. God was directing these moments of Jesus’ life. The final comment was that all the disciples left him and fled. Not only was Scripture fulfilled; so was Jesus’ prediction from verse 31.
Study Questions for Reflection and Discussion
These readings and study questions are in preparation for next week's lesson.
As you study each day ask the Lord to help you understand the Scriptures and to apply its meaning to your own heart and life.
First Day: Read the notes on Matthew 26:6-56. Look up the Scripture references given.
1. Identify one or two new insights that seemed important to you. Why are they important?
2. Is there a spiritual truth in this section that is especially significant for you? Write it down and explain why it is important for you.
3. Write a brief prayer telling God of your desire to never desert him. Ask him for strength to live up to your commitment and to not be like Peter and the other disciples who fled when danger came.
Second Day: Read Matthew 26:57-75. Now focus on Matthew 26:57-68.
1. What verse(s) from Isaiah 53 find fulfillment in this description of Jesus’ trial? What do you think is the significance of Matthew mentioning Jesus’ silence?
2. Study Jesus’ answer to the question, "Are you the Messiah, the Son of God?" What does it suggest about the meaning of the title "Son of Man?" What additional insight does Daniel 7:13-14 provide?
3. What was the role of the witnesses in this trial scene? Why did the high priest suddenly conclude he had no need of witnesses? Was he correct? Why do you think Matthew mentions this statement by the high priest?
Third Day: Read Matthew 26:56-27:10. Focus in on Matthew 26:69-75.
1. What was the nature of Peter’s first denial? What would be a similar kind of denial that might take place in the modern world in which we live?
2. How do the second and third denials go beyond the first? What would be modern circumstance that might cause a would-be follower of Jesus to deny a personal relationship with him?
3. What other ways do people deny Christ today? Write a brief prayer asking to Lord to strength you in your commitment, understanding and resolve so that you do not deny him in any way.
Fourth Day: Read Matthew 26:69-27:31. Focus your attention still on Matthew 27:1-10.
1. Compare and contrast the responses of Peter and Judas when they discover what they have done. What should Judas have done?
2. What picture of the chief priests does Matthew paint in these focus verses? What kind of hypocrisy pays to betray Jesus, but then will not use the money when it is returned? What would be comparable hypocrisy in the context of life in the church today?
3. What was the ultimate use of the money paid Judas to betray Jesus? What does this suggest to you about God’s ability to bring good out of evil? What other examples of that can you think of?
Fifth Day: Read Matthew 27:1-31. Now focus in on Matthew 27:11-23.
1. What are the similarities and differences between the trial before Pilate and the trial before Caiaphas that was described in Matthew 26:57-68? Who comes off looking worse, Caiaphas or Pilate? Why do you think so?
2. The name Barabbas was an Aramaic word meaning "Son of a father." What is the irony of Pilate offering [Jesus] Barabbas in exchange for Jesus the Messiah of God?
3. Matthew mentioned several dreams in the birth narratives that revealed the will of God. What is the significance of Pilate’s wife’s dream? What does it say that Pilate should have done?
Sixth Day: Read Matthew 27:1-31. Now focus on Matthew 27:24-31.
1. How effective do you think it was for Pilate to "wash his hands" of Jesus? Did it mean that he was no longer guilty for Jesus’ death? What does this suggest for our habits of "washing our hands" of evil things?
2. Verse 25 states that the Jews called for Christ’s blood to be on them and on their children. Do you think that Christians should continue to condemn Jews today as "Christ-killers?" Why? Or, why not?
3. What is your response to verses 28-31? Consider that this suffering was to atone for your sin. Write a brief letter to Jesus telling him of your feelings about his sacrificial suffering for you.