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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Matthew 26

 

 

Verses 1-74

Chapter 26

THE BEGINNING OF THE LAST ACT OF THE TRAGEDY (Matthew 26:1-5)

26:1-5 When Jesus had completed all these sayings, he said to his disciples. "You know that in two days time it is the Passover Feast, and the Son of Man is going to be delivered to be crucified." At that time the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the courtyard of the High Priest, who was called Caiaphas, and took counsel together to seize Jesus by guile and to kill him. They said, "Not at the time of the Feast, lest a tumult arise among the people."

Here then is the definite beginning of the last act of the divine tragedy. Once again Jesus warned his disciples of what was to come. For the last few days he had been acting with such magnificent defiance that they might have thought he proposed to defy the Jewish authorities; but here once again he makes it clear that his aim is the Cross.

At the same time the Jewish authorities were laying their plots and stratagems. Joseph Caiaphas, to give him his full name, was High Priest. We know very little about him but we do know one most suggestive fact. In the old days the office of High Priest had been hereditary and had been for life; but when the Romans took over in Palestine, High Priests came and went in rapid series, for the Romans erected and deposed High Priests to suit their own purposes. Between 37 B.C. and A.D. 67, when the last was appointed before the destruction of the Temple, there were no fewer than twenty-eight High Priests. The suggestive thing is that Caiaphas was High Priest from A.D. 18 to A.D. 36. This was an extraordinarily long time for a High Priest to last, and Caiaphas must have brought the technique of co-operating with the Romans to a fine art. And therein precisely there lay his problem.

The one thing the Romans would not stand was civil disorder. Let there be any rioting and certainly Caiaphas would lose his position. At the Passover time the atmosphere in Jerusalem was always explosive. The city was packed tight with people. Josephus tells us of an occasion when an actual census of the people was taken (Josephus, Wars of the Jews, 6. 9. 3). It happened in this way.

The governor at the time was Cestius; Cestius felt that Nero did not understand the number of the Jews and the problems which they posed to any governor. So he asked the High Priests to take a census of the lambs slain for sacrifice at a certain Passover time. Josephus goes on to say, "A company of not less than ten must belong to every sacrifice (for it is not lawful for them to feast singly by themselves), and many of us are twenty in a company." It was found that on this occasion the number of lambs slain was 256,500. It is Josephus' estimate that there were in the city for that Passover some two and three-quarter million people.

It is little wonder that Caiaphas sought some stratagem to take Jesus secretly and quietly, for many of the pilgrims were Galilaeans and to them Jesus was a prophet. It was in fact his plan to leave the whole thing over until after the Passover Feast had ended, and the city was quieter; but Judas was to provide him with a solution to his problem.

LOVE'S EXTRAVAGANCE (Matthew 26:6-13)

26:6-13 When Jesus was in Bethany, in the house of Simon the leper, a woman came to him with an alabaster phial of very costly perfume, and poured it over his head as he reclined at table. When the disciples saw it, they were vexed. "What is the good of this waste?" they said. "For this could have been sold for much money, and the proceeds given to the poor." When Jesus knew what they were saying, he said to them, "Why do you distress the woman? It is a lovely thing that she has done to me. For you always have the poor with you, but you have not me always. When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me beforehand for burial. This is the truth I tell you--wherever the gospel is preached throughout the whole world, this too that she has done shall be spoken of so that all will remember her."

This story of the anointing at Bethany is told also by Mark and by John. Mark's story is almost exactly the same; but John adds the information that the woman who anointed Jesus was none other than Mary, the sister of Martha and of Lazarus. Luke does not tell this story; he does tell the story of an anointing in the house of Simon the Pharisee (Luke 7:36-50), but in Luke's story the woman who anointed Jesus' feet and wiped them with the hair of her head was a notorious sinner.

It must always remain a most interesting question whether the story Luke tells is, in fact, the same story as is told by Matthew and Mark and John. In both cases the name of the host is Simon, although in Luke he is Simon the Pharisee, and in Matthew and Mark he is Simon the leper; in John the host is not named at all, although the narrative reads as if it took place in the house of Martha and Mary and Lazarus. Simon was a very common name; there are at least ten Simons in the New Testament, and more than twenty in, the history of Josephus. The greatest difficulty in identifying the stories of Luke and of the other three gospel writers is that in Luke's story the woman was a notorious sinner; and there is no indication that that was true of Mary of Bethany. And yet the very intensity with which Mary loved Jesus may well have been the result of the depths from which he had rescued her.

Whatever the answer to the question of identification, the story is indeed what Jesus called it--the story of a lovely thing; and in it are enshrined certain very precious truths.

(i) It shows us love's extravagance. The woman took the most precious thing she had and poured it out on Jesus. Jewish women were very fond of perfume; and often they carried a little alabaster phial of it round their necks. Such perfume was very valuable. Both Mark and John make the disciples say that this perfume could have been sold for three hundred denarii (Greek #1220) (Mark 14:5; John 12:5); which means that this phial of perfume represented very nearly a whole year's wages for a working man. Or we may think of it this way. When Jesus and his disciples were discussing how the multitude were to be fed, Philip's answer was that two hundred denarii (Greek #1220) would scarcely be enough to feed them. This phial of perfume, therefore, cost as much as it would take to feed a crowd of five thousand people.

It was something as precious as that which this woman gave to Jesus, and she gave it because it was the most precious thing she had. Love never calculates; love never thinks how little it can decently give; love's one desire is to give to the uttermost limits; and, when it has given all it has to give, it still thinks the gift too little. We have not even begun to be Christian if we think of giving to Christ and to his Church in terms of as little as we respectably can.

(ii) It shows us that there are times when the commonsense view of things fails. On this occasion the voice of common sense said, "What waste!" and no doubt it was right. But there is a world of difference between the economics of common sense and the economics of love. Common sense obeys the dictates of prudence; but love obeys the dictates of the heart. There is in life a large place for common sense; but there are times when only love's extravagance can meet love's demands. A gift is never really a gift when we can easily afford it; a gift truly becomes a gift only when there is sacrifice behind it, and when we give far more than we can afford.

(iii) It shows us that certain things must be done when the opportunity arises, or they can never be done at all. The disciples were anxious to help the poor; but the Rabbis themselves said, "God allows the poor to be with us always, that the opportunities for doing good may never fail." There are some things which we can do at any time; there are some things which can be done only once; and to miss the opportunity to do them then is to miss the opportunity for ever. Often we are moved by some generous impulse, and do not act upon it; and all the chances are that the circumstances, the person, the time, and the impulse, will never return. For so many of us the tragedy is that life is the history of the lost opportunities to do the lovely thing.

(iv) It tells us that the fragrance of a lovely deed lasts for ever. There are so few lovely things that one shines like a light in a dark world. At the end of Jesus' life there was so much bitterness, so much treachery, so much intrigue, so much tragedy that this story shines like an oasis of light in a darkening world. In this world there are few greater things that a man may do than leave the memory of a lovely deed.

THE LAST HOURS IN THE LIFE OF THE TRAITOR (Matthew 26:14-16; Matthew 26:20-25; Matthew 26:47-50; Matthew 27:3-10)

Instead of taking the story of Judas piece-meal as it occurs in the gospel record, we shall take it as a whole, reading one after another the last incidents and the final suicide of the traitor.

The Traitor's Bargain (Matthew 26:14-16)

26:14-16 Then one of the Twelve, called Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests and said, "What are you willing to give me, if I hand him over to you?" They settled with him for a sum of thirty shekels; and from that time he sought for an opportunity to betray him.

We have seen that the Jewish authorities wished to find a way in which to arrest Jesus without provoking riotous disturbances, and now that way was presented to them by the approach of Judas. There can be only three real reasons why Judas betrayed Jesus. All other suggestions are variations of these three.

(i) It may have been because of avarice. According to Matthew and Mark it was immediately after the anointing at Bethany that Judas struck his dreadful bargain; and when John tells his story of that event, he says that Judas made his protest against the anointing because he was a thief and pilfered from the money that was in the box (John 12:6). If that is so, Judas struck one of the most dreadful bargains in history. The sum for which he agreed to betray Jesus was thirty arguria (Greek #694). An argurion (Greek #694) was a shekel, and was worth about three shillings. Judas, therefore, sold Jesus for less than five pounds. If avarice was the cause of his act of treachery, it is the most terrible example in history of the depths which love of money can reach.

(ii) It may have been because of bitter hatred, based on complete disillusionment. The Jews always had their dream of power; therefore they had their extreme nationalists who were prepared to go to any lengths of murder and violence to drive the Romans from Palestine. These nationalists were called the sicarii, the dagger-bearers, because they followed a deliberate policy of assassination. It may be that Judas was such, and that he had looked on Jesus as the divinely sent leader, who, with his miraculous powers, could lead the great rebellion. He may have seen that Jesus had deliberately taken another way, the way that led to a cross. And in his bitter disappointment, Judas' devotion may have turned, first to disillusionment, and then to a hatred which drove him to seek the death of the man from whom he had expected so much. Judas may have hated Jesus because he was not the Christ he wished him to be.

(iii) It may be that Judas never intended Jesus to die. It may be that, as we have seen, he saw in Jesus the divine leader. He may have thought that Jesus was proceeding far too slowly; and he may have wished for nothing else than to force his hand. He may have betrayed Jesus with the intention of compelling him to act. That is in fact the view which best suits all the facts. And that would explain why Judas was shattered into suicide when his plan went wrong.

However we look at it, the tragedy of Judas is that he refused to accept Jesus as he was and tried to make him what he wanted him to be. It is not Jesus who can be changed by us, but we who must be changed by Jesus. We can never use him for our purposes; we must submit to be used for his. The tragedy of Judas is that of a man who thought he knew better than God.

Love's Last Appeal (Matthew 26:20-25)

26:20-25 When evening had come, Jesus was reclining at table with the twelve disciples. While they were eating he said, "This is the truth I tell you--one of you will betray me." They were greatly distressed and began one by one to say to him, "Lord, can it be I?" He answered, "He who dips his hand with me in the dish, it is he who will betray me. The Son of Man is going to go away, as it stands written concerning him, but alas for that man through whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It had been good for that man if he had not been bom." Judas, who betrayed him, said, "Master, can it be I?" He said to him, "It is you who have said it."

There are times in these last scenes of the gospel story when Jesus and Judas seem to be in a world where there is none other present except themselves. One thing is certain--Judas must have gone about his grim business with complete secrecy. He must have kept his comings and goings completely hidden, for, if the rest of the disciples had known what Judas was doing, he would never have escaped with his life.

He had concealed his plans from his fellow-disciples--but he could not conceal them from Christ. It is always the same; a man can hide his sins from his fellow-men, but he can never hide them from the eyes of Christ who sees the secrets of the heart. Jesus knew, although no other knew, what Judas was about.

And now we can see Jesus' methods with the sinner. He could have used his power to blast Judas, to paralyse him, to render him helpless, even to kill him. But the only weapon that Jesus will ever use is the weapon of love's appeal. One of the great mysteries of life is the respect that God has for the free will of man. God does not coerce; God only appeals.

When Jesus seeks to stop a man from sinning, he does two things.

First, he confronts him with his sin. He tries to make him stop and think what he is doing. He, as it were, says to him, "Look at what you are contemplating doing--can you really do a thing like that?" It has been said that our greatest security against sin lies in our being shocked by it. And again and again Jesus bids a man pause and look and realize so that he may be shocked into sanity.

Second, he confronts him with himself. He bids a man look at him, as if to say, "Can you look at me, can you meet my eyes, and go out to do the thing you purpose doing?" Jesus seeks to make a man become aware of the horror of the thing he is about to do, and of the love which yearns to stop him doing it.

It is just here that we see the real awfulness of sin in its terrible deliberation. In spite of love's last appeal Judas went on. Even when he was confronted with his sin and confronted with the face of Christ, he would not turn back. There is sin and sin. There is the sin of the passionate heart, of the man who, on the impulse of the moment, is swept into wrong doing. Let no man belittle such sin; its consequences can be very terrible. But far worse is the calculated, callous sin of deliberation, which in cold blood knows what it is doing, which is confronted with the bleak awfulness of the deed and with the love in the eyes of Jesus, and still takes its own way. Our hearts revolt against the son or daughter who cold-bloodedly breaks a parent's heart--which is what Judas did to Jesus--and the tragedy is that this is what we ourselves so often do.

The Traitor's Kiss (Matthew 26:47-50)

26:47-50 While Jesus was still speaking, there came Judas, one of the Twelve, and a great crowd with swords and cudgels, from the chief priests and the elders of the people. The traitor had given them a sign. "Whom I shall kiss," he said, "that is the man. Lay hold on him!" Immediately he went up to Jesus and said, "Greetings, Master!" and kissed him lovingly. Jesus said to him, "Comrade, get on with the deed for which you have come!" Then they came forward, and laid hands on Jesus, and held him.

As we have already seen, the actions of Judas may spring from one of two motives. He may really, either from avarice or from disillusionment, have wished to see Jesus killed; or he may have been trying to force his hand, and may have wished not to see him killed but to compel him to act.

There is, therefore, a double way of interpreting this incident. If in Judas' heart there was nothing but black hatred and a kind of maniacal avarice, this is simply the most terrible kiss in history and a sign of betrayal. If that is so, there is nothing too terrible to be said about Judas.

But there are signs that there is more to it than that. When Judas told the armed mob that he would indicate the man whom they had come to arrest by a kiss, the word he uses is the Greek word philein (Greek #5368), which is the normal word for a kiss; but when it is said that Judas actually did kiss Jesus, the word used is kataphilein (Greek #2705), which is the word for a lover's kiss, and means to kiss repeatedly and fervently. Why should Judas do that?

Further, why should any identification of Jesus have been necessary? It was not identification of Jesus the authorities required; it was a convenient opportunity to arrest him. The people who came to arrest him were from the chief priests and the elders of the people; they must have been the Temple police, the only force the chief priests had at their disposal. It is incredible that the Temple police did not already know only too well the man who just days before had cleansed the Temple and driven the money-changers and the sellers of doves from the Temple court. It is incredible that they should not have known the man who had taught daily in the Temple cloisters. Having been led to the garden, they well knew the man whom they had come to arrest.

It is much more likely that Judas kissed Jesus as a disciple kissed a master and meant it; and that then he stood back with expectant pride waiting on Jesus at last to act. The curious thing is that from the moment of the kiss Judas vanishes from the scene in the garden, not to reappear until he is bent on suicide. He does not even appear as a witness at the trial of Jesus. It is far more likely that in one stunning, blinding, staggering, searing moment Judas saw how he had miscalculated and staggered away into the night a for ever broken and for ever haunted man. If this be true, at that moment Judas entered the hell which he had created for himself, for the worst kind of hell is the full realization of the terrible consequences of sin.

The Traitor's End (Matthew 27:3-10)

When Judas the traitor saw that Jesus had been condemned, he repented, and he brought the thirty shekels back to the chief priests and the elders. "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed an innocent man." "What has that got to do with us?" they said. "It is you who must see to that." He threw the money into the Temple and went away. And when he had gone away, he hanged himself. The chief priests took the money. "We cannot," they said, "put these into the treasury, for they are the price of blood." They took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to be a burying place for strangers. That is why to this day that field is called The Field of Blood. Then there was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, when he said: "And they took the thirty shekels, the price of him on whom a price had been set by the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the field of the potter, as the Lord instructed me."

Here in all its stark grimness is the last act of the tragedy of Judas. However we interpret his mind, one thing is clear--Judas now saw the horror of the thing that he had done. Matthew tells us that Judas took the money and flung it into the Temple, and the interesting thing is that the word he uses is not the word for the Temple precincts in general (hieron, Greek #2411), it is the word for the actual Temple itself (naos, Greek #3485). It will be remembered that the Temple consisted of a series of courts each opening off the other. Judas in his blind despair came into the Court of the Gentiles; passed through it into the Court of the Women; passed through that into the Court of the Israelites; beyond that he could not go; he had come to the barrier which shut off the Court of the Priests with the Temple itself at the far end of it. He called on them to take the money; but they would not; and he flung it at them and went away and hanged himself. And the priests took the money, so tainted that it could not be put into the Temple treasury, and with it bought a field to bury the unclean bodies of Gentiles who died within the city.

The suicide of Judas is surely the final indication that his plan had gone wrong. He had meant to make Jesus blaze forth as a conqueror; instead he had driven him to the Cross and life for Judas was shattered. There are two great truths about sin here.

(i) The terrible thing about sin is that we cannot put the clock back. We cannot undo what we have done. Once a thing is done nothing can alter it or bring it back.

"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ?

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

No one needs to be very old to have that haunting longing for some hour to be lived over again. When we remember that no action can ever be recalled, it should make us doubly careful how we act.

(ii) The strange thing about sin is that a man can come to hate the very thing he gained by it. The very prize he won by sinning can come to disgust and to revolt and to repel him, until his one desire is to fling it from him. Most people sin because they think that if they can only possess the forbidden thing it will make them happy. But the thing which sin desired can become the thing that a man above all would rid himself of--and so often he cannot.

As we have seen, Matthew finds forecasts of the events of the life of Jesus in the most unlikely places. Here there is, in fact, an actual mistake. Matthew is quoting from memory; and the quotation which he makes is, in fact, not from Jeremiah but from Zechariah. It is from a strange passage (Zechariah 11:10-14) in which the prophet tells us how he received an unworthy reward and flung it to the potter. In that old picture Matthew saw a symbolic resemblance to the thing that Judas did.

It might have been that, if Judas had remained true to Jesus, he would have died a martyr's death; but, because he wanted his own way too much, he died by his own hand. He missed the glory of the martyr's crown to find life intolerable because he had sinned.

THE LAST SUPPER (Matthew 26:17-19; Matthew 26:26-30)

As we took together the passages which tell the story of Judas so now we take the passages which tell the story of the Last Supper.

The Ancestral Feast (Matthew 26:17-19)

26:17-19 On the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus. "Where," they said, "do you wish that we should make the necessary preparations for you to eat the Passover?" He said, "Go into the city to such and such a man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, my time is near. I will keep the Passover with my disciples at your house.'" And the disciples did as Jesus instructed them, and made the preparations for the Passover.

It was for the Passover Feast that Jesus had come to Jerusalem. We have seen how crowded the city was at such a time. During the Passover Feast all Jews were supposed to stay within the boundaries of the city, but the numbers made that impossible; and for official purposes villages like Bethany, where Jesus was staying, ranked as the city.

But the Feast itself had to be celebrated within the city. The disciples wished to know what preparation they must make. Clearly Jesus had not left the matter to the last moment; he had already made his arrangements with a friend in Jerusalem, and he had already arranged a password--"The Teacher says, my time is near." So the disciples were sent on to give the password and to make all the necessary preparations.

The whole week of which the Passover Feast occupied the first evening was called The Feast of Unleavened Bread. In following the events we must remember that for the Jew the next day began at 6 o'clock in the evening. In this case the Feast of Unleavened Bread began on Thursday morning. On the Thursday morning every particle of leaven was destroyed, after a ceremonial search throughout the house.

There was a double reason for that. The Feast commemorated the greatest event in the history of Israel, the deliverance from slavery in Egypt. And when the Israelites had fled from Egypt, they had to flee in such haste that they had not time to bake their bread leavened (Exodus 12:34). Dough without leaven (that is, a little piece of fermented dough) cooks very quickly, but produces a substance more like a water biscuit than a loaf; and that is what unleavened bread is like. So the leaven was banished and the bread unleavened to repeat the acts of the night on which they left Egypt and its slavery behind them.

Second, in Jewish thought leaven is the symbol of corruption. As we have said, leaven is fermented dough and the Jews identified fermentation and putrefaction; so leaven stood for all that was rotten and corrupt, and was, therefore, as a sign of purification, cleansed away.

When, then, were the preparations which the disciples would make?

On the Thursday morning, they would prepare the unleavened bread and rid the house of every scrap of leaven. The other staple ingredient of the Feast was the Passover Lamb. It was indeed from the lamb that the Feast took its name. The last terrible plague which fell on the Egyptians and which compelled them to let the people go, was that the Angel of Death walked throughout the land of Egypt and slew the firstborn son in every house. To identify their houses, the Israelites had to kill a lamb and smear the lintel and the side posts of their doors with its blood, so that the avenging angel seeing that sign would pass over that house (Exodus 12:21-23). On the Thursday afternoon the lamb had to be taken to the Temple and slain, and its blood--which was the life--had to be offered to God in sacrifice.

There were four other items necessary for the Feast.

(i) A bowl of salt water had to be set upon the table, to remind them of the tears they had shed while they were slaves in Egypt and of the salt waters of the Red Sea through which God's hand had wondrously brought them.

(ii) A collection of bitter herbs had to be prepared, composed of horse-radish, chicory, endive, lettuce, horehound and the like. This was again to remind them of the bitterness of slavery, and of the bunch of hyssop with which the blood of the lamb had been smeared on the lintel and the door-posts.

(iii) There was a paste called the Charosheth. It was a mixture of apples, dates, pomegranates and nuts. It was to remind them of the clay with which they had been compelled to make bricks in Egypt, and through it there were sticks of cinnamon to remind them of the straw with which the bricks had been made.

(iv) Lastly, there were four cups of wine. These were to remind them of the four promises of Exodus 6:6-7 : "I will bring you out from under the burdens of the Egyptians; I will deliver you from their bondage, and I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and with great acts of judgment; I will take you for my people, and I will be your God."

Such then were the preparations of the Thursday morning and afternoon. These were the things that the disciples prepared; and at any time after 6 p.m., that is when Friday, the 15th Nisan, had began, the guests might gather at the table.

His Body And His Blood (Matthew 26:26-30)

26:26-30 While they were eating, Jesus took bread and blessed it and broke it, and gave it to his disciples and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them. "Drink all of you from it," he said, "for this is my blood, the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many, that their sins may be forgiven. I tell you that from now on I will not drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in the Kingdom of my Father." And when they had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives.

We have already seen how the prophets, when they wished to say something in a way that people could not fail to understand, made use of symbolic actions. We have already seen Jesus using that method both in his Triumphal Entry and in the incident of the fig tree. That is what Jesus is doing here. All the symbolism and all the ritual action of the Passover Feast was a picture of what he wished to say to men, for it was a picture of what he was to do for men. What then was the picture which Jesus was using, and what is the truth which lies behind it?

(i) The Passover Feast was a commemoration of deliverance; its whole intention was to remind the people of Israel of how God had liberated them from slavery in Egypt. First and foremost then, Jesus claimed to be the great liberator. He came to liberate men from fear and from sin. He liberates men from the fears which haunt them and from the sins which will not let them go.

(ii) In particular the Passover Lamb was the symbol of safety. On that night of destruction it was the blood of the Passover Lamb which kept Israel safe. So, then, Jesus was claiming to be Saviour. He had come to save men from their sins and from their consequences. He had come to give men safety on earth and safety in heaven, safety in time and safety in eternity.

There is a word here which is a key word and enshrines the whole of Jesus' work and intention. It is the word covenant. Jesus spoke of his blood being the blood of the covenant. What did he mean by that? A covenant is a relationship between two people; but the covenant of which Jesus spoke was not between man and man; it was between God and man. That is to say, it was a new relationship between God and man. What Jesus was saying at the Last Supper was this: "Because of my life, and above all because of my death, a new relationship has become possible between you and God." It is as if he said, "You have seen me; and in me you have seen God; I have told you, I have shown you, how much God loves you; he loves you even enough to suffer this that I am going through; that is what God is like." Because of what Jesus did, the way for men is open to all the loveliness of this new relationship with God.

This passage concludes by saying that, when the company of Jesus and the disciples had sung a hymn, they went out to the Mount of Olives. An essential part of the Passover ritual was the singing of the Hallel. Hallel means Praise God! And the Hallel consisted of Psalms 113:1-9; Psalms 114:1-8; Psalms 115:1-18; Psalms 116:1-19; Psalms 117:1-2; Psalms 118:1-29, which are all praising psalms. At different points of the Passover Feast these psalms were sung in sections; and at the very end there was sung The Great Hallel, which is Psalms 136:1-26 . That was the hymn they sang before they went out to the Mount of Olives.

Here is another thing to note. There was one basic difference between the Last Supper and the Sacrament which we observe. The Last Supper was a real meal; it was, in fact, the law that the whole lamb and everything else must be eaten and nothing left. This was no eating of a cube of bread and drinking of a sip of wine. It was a meal for hungry men. We might well say that what Jesus is teaching men is not only to assemble in church and eat a ritual and symbolic Feast; he is telling them that every time they sit down to eat a meal, that meal is in memory of him. Jesus is not only Lord of the Communion Table; he must be Lord of the dinner table, too.

There remains one final thing. Jesus says that he will not feast with his disciples again until he does so in his Father's Kingdom. Here, indeed, is divine faith and divine optimism. Jesus was going out to Gethsemane, out to trial before the Sanhedrin, out to the Cross--and yet he is still thinking in terms of a Kingdom. To Jesus the Cross was never defeat; it was the way to glory. He was on his way to Calvary, but he was also on his way to a throne.

THE COLLAPSE OF PETER (Matthew 26:31-35)

We now gather together the passages which tell the story of Peter.

The Master's Warning (Matthew 26:31-35)

26:31-35 Then Jesus said to them, "Every one of you will be made to stumble because of me during this night; for it stands written, 'I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered abroad.' But after I have been raised, I will go before you into Galilee." Peter answered him, "If all are made to stumble because of you, I will never be made to stumble." Jesus said to him, "This is the truth I tell you--During this night, before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." Peter said to him, "Even if I have to die with you, I will not deny you." So also spoke all the disciples.

In this passage certain characteristics of Jesus are clear.

(i) We see the realism of Jesus. He knew what lay ahead. Matthew actually sees the flight of the disciples foretold in the Old Testament in Zechariah 13:7. Jesus was no easy optimist, who could comfortably shut his eyes to the facts. He foresaw what would inevitably happen and yet he went on.

(ii) We see the confidence of Jesus. "After I have been raised," he says, "I will go before you into Galilee." Always Jesus saw beyond the Cross. He was every bit as certain of the glory as he was of the suffering.

(iii) We see the sympathy of Jesus. He knew that his men were going to flee for their lives and abandon him in the moment of his deepest need; but he does not upbraid them, he does not condemn them, he does not heap reproaches on them, or call them useless creatures and broken reeds. So far from that, he tells them that when that terrible time is past, he will meet them again. It is the greatness of Jesus that he knew men at their worst and still loved them. He knows our human weakness; he knows how certain we are to make mistakes and to fail in loyalty; but that knowledge does not turn his love to bitterness or contempt. Jesus has nothing but sympathy for the man who in his weakness is driven to sin.

Further, this passage shows us something about Peter. Surely his fault is clear; over-confidence in himself. He knew that he loved Jesus--that was never in doubt--and he thought that all by himself he could face any situation which might arise. He thought that he was stronger than Jesus knew him to be. We shall be safe only when we replace the confidence which boasts by the humility which knows its weakness and which depends not on itself but the help of Christ.

The Romans and the Jews divided the night into four watches--6 p.m. to 9 p.m.; 9 p.m. to midnight; midnight to 3 a.m.; 3 a.m. to 6 a.m. It was between the third and the fourth watch that the cock was supposed to crow. What Jesus is saying is that before the dawn comes Peter will deny him three times.

The Failure Of Courage (Matthew 26:57-58; Matthew 26:69-75)

26:57-58,69-75 Those who had laid hold of Jesus led him away to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where the Scribes and the elders were assembled. Peter followed him at a distance, right into the courtyard of the High Priest's house, and he went inside and sat down with the servants to see the end.

Peter was sitting outside in the courtyard. A maid-servant came up to him and said, "You, too, were with Jesus the Galilaean." He denied it in the presence of them all. "I do not know," he said, "what you are saying." When he went out to the porch, another maid-servant saw him, and said to those who were there, "This man too was with Jesus of Nazareth." And again he denied it with an oath: "I do not know the man." A little later those who were standing there said to Peter, "Truly you too were one of them; for your accent gives you away." Then he began to curse and to swear: "I do not know the man." And immediately the cock crew. And Peter remembered the saying of Jesus, when he said, "Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times." And he went out and wept bitterly.

No one can read this passage without being struck with the staggering honesty of the New Testament. If ever there was an incident which one might have expected to be hushed up, this was it--and yet here it is told in all its stark shame. We know that Matthew very closely followed the narrative of Mark; and in Mark's gospel this story is told in even more vivid detail (Mark 14:66-72). We also know, as Papias tells us, that Mark's gospel is nothing other than the preaching material of Peter written down. And so we arrive at the amazing fact that we possess the story of Peter's denial because Peter himself told it to others.

So far from suppressing this story, Peter made it an essential part of his gospel; and did so for the very best of reasons. Every time he told the story, he could say, "That is the way that this Jesus can forgive. He forgave me when I failed him in his bitterest hour of need. That is what Jesus can do. He took me, Peter the coward, and used even me." We must never read this story without remembering that it is Peter himself who is telling of the shame of his own sin that all men may know the glory of the forgiving love and cleansing power of Jesus Christ.

And yet it is quite wrong to regard Peter with nothing but unsympathetic condemnation. The blazing fact is that the disaster which happened to Peter is one which could have happened only to a man of the most heroic courage. All the other disciples ran away: Peter alone did not. In Palestine the houses of the well-to-do were built in a hollow square around an open courtyard, off which the various rooms opened. For Peter to enter that courtyard in the centre of the High Priest's house was to walk into the lion's den--and yet he did it. However this story ends, it begins with Peter the one brave man.

The first denial happened in the courtyard; no doubt the maid-servant had marked Peter as one of the most prominent followers of Jesus and had recognized him. After that recognition anyone would have thought that Peter would have fled for his life; a coward would certainly have been gone into the night as quickly as he could. But not Peter; although he did retire as far as the porch.

He was torn between two feelings. In his heart there was a fear that made him want to run away; but in his heart, too, there was a love which kept him there. Again, in the porch he was recognized; and this time he swore he did not know Jesus. And still he did not go. Here is the most dogged courage.

But Peter's second denial had given him away. From his speech it was clear that he was a Galilaean. The Galilaeans spoke with a burr; so ugly was their accent that no Galilaean was allowed to pronounce the benediction at a synagogue service. Once again Peter was accused of being a follower of Jesus. Peter went further this time; not only did he swear that he did not know Jesus; he actually cursed his Master's name. But still it is clear that Peter had no intention of leaving that courtyard. And then the cock crew.

There is a distinct possibility here which would provide us with a vivid picture. It may well be that the cock-crow was not the voice of a bird; and that from the beginning it was not meant to mean that. After all, the house of the High Priest was right in the centre of Jerusalem, and there was not likely to be poultry in the centre of the city. There was, in fact, a regulation in the Jewish law that it was illegal to keep cocks and hens in the Holy City, because they defiled the holy things. But the hour of 3 a.m. was called cock-crow, and for this reason. At that hour the Roman guard was changed in the Castle of Antonia; and the sign of the changing of the guard was a trumpet call. The Latin for that trumpet call was gallicinium, which means cock-crow. It is at least possible that just as Peter made his third denial the trumpet from the castle battlements rang out over the sleeping city--the gallicinium, the cock-crow--and Peter remembered; and thereupon he went and wept his heart out.

What happened to Peter after that we do not know, for the gospel story draws a kindly veil over the agony of his shame. But before we condemn him, we must remember very clearly that few of us would ever have had the courage to be in that courtyard at all. And there is one last thing to be said--it was love which gave Peter that courage; it was love which riveted him there in spite of the fact that he had been recognized three times; it was love which made him remember the words of Jesus; it was love which sent him out into the night to weep--and it is love which covers a multitude of sins. The lasting impression of this whole story is not of Peter's cowardice, but of Peter's love.

THE SOUL'S BATTLE IN THE GARDEN (Matthew 26:36-46)

26:36-46 Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go away and pray in this place." So he took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, and began to be distressed and in sore trouble. Then he said to them, "My soul is much distressed with a distress like death. Stay here, and watch with me." He went a little way forward and fell on his face in prayer. "My Father," He said, "if it is possible, let this cup pass from me. But let it be not as I will, but as you will." He came to his disciples, and he found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, "Could you not stay awake with me for this--for one hour? Watch and pray lest you enter into testing. The spirit is eager, but the flesh is weak." He went away a second time and prayed. "My Father," He said, "if it is not possible for this to pass from me unless I drink it, your will be done." He came again and found them sleeping, for their eyes were weighted down. He left them, and went away again, and prayed the third time, saying the same words over again. Then he came to his disciples and said to them, "Sleep on now and take your rest. Look you, the hour is near, and the Son of Man is being delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise; let us go; look you, he who betrays me is near."

Surely this is a passage which we must approach upon our knees. Here study should pass into wondering adoration.

In Jerusalem itself there were no gardens of any size, for a city set on the top of an hill has no room for open spaces; every inch is of value for building. So, then, it came about that wealthy citizens had their private gardens on the slopes of the Mount of Olives. The word Gethsemane very probably means an olive-vat, or an olive-press; and no doubt it was a garden of olives to which Jesus had the right of entry. It is a strange and a lovely thing to think of the nameless friends who rallied round Jesus in the last days. There was the man who gave him the ass on which he rode into Jerusalem; there was the man who gave him the Upper Room wherein the Last Supper was eaten; and now there is the man who gave him the right of entry to the garden on the Mount of Olives. In a desert of hatred, there were still oases of love.

Into the garden he took the three who had been with him on the Mount of Transfiguration; and there he prayed; more, he wrestled in prayer. As we look with awed reverence on the battle of Jesus' soul in the garden we see certain things.

(i) We see the agony of Jesus. He was now quite sure that death lay ahead. Its very breath was on him. No one wants to die at thirty-three; and least of all does any man want to die in the agony of a cross. Here Jesus had his supreme struggle to submit his will to the will of God. No one can read this story without seeing the intense reality of that struggle. This was no play-acting; it was a struggle in which the outcome swayed in the balance. The salvation of the world was at risk in the Garden of Gethsemane, for even then Jesus might have turned back, and God's purpose would have been frustrated.

At this moment all that Jesus knew was that he must go on, and ahead there lay a cross. In all reverence we may say that here we see Jesus learning the lesson that everyone must some day learn--how to accept what he could not understand. All he knew was that the will of God imperiously summoned him on. Things happen to every one of us in this world that we cannot understand; it is then that faith is tried to its utmost limits; and at such a time it is sweetness to the soul that in Gethsemane Jesus went through that too. Tertullian (De Bapt. 20) tells us of a saying of Jesus, which is not in any of the gospels: "No one who has not been tempted can enter the Kingdom of Heaven." That is, every man has his private Gethsemane, and every man has to learn to say, "Thy will be done."

(ii) We see the loneliness of Jesus. He took with him his three chosen disciples; but they were so exhausted with the drama of these last days and hours that they could not stay awake. And Jesus had to fight his battle all alone. That also is true of every man. There are certain things a man must face and certain decisions a man must make in the awful loneliness of his own soul; there are times when other helpers fade and comforts flee; but in that loneliness there is for us the presence of One who, in Gethsemane, experienced it and came through it.

(iii) Here we see the trust of Jesus. We see that trust even better in Mark's account, where Jesus begins his prayer: "Abba, Father" (Mark 14:36). There is a world of loveliness in this word Abba (Greek #5), which to our western ears is altogether hidden, unless we know the facts about it. Joachim Jeremias, in his book The Parables of Jesus, writes thus: "Jesus' use of the word Abba in addressing God is unparalleled in the whole of Jewish literature. The explanation of this fact is to be found in the statement of the fathers Chrysostom, Theodore, and Theodoret that Abba (Greek #5), (as jaba is still used today in Arabic) was the word used by a young child to its father; it was an everyday family word, which no one had ventured to use in addressing God. Jesus did. He spoke to his heavenly Father in as childlike, trustful, and intimate a way as a little child to its father."

We know how our children speak to us and what they call us who are fathers. That is the way in which Jesus spoke to God. Even when he did not fully understand, even when his one conviction was that God was urging him to a cross, he called Abba, as might a little child. Here indeed is trust, a trust which we must also have in that God whom Jesus taught us to know as Father.

(iv) We see the courage of Jesus. "Rise," said Jesus, "let us be going. He who betrays me is near." Celsus, the pagan philosopher who attacked Christianity, used that sentence as an argument that Jesus tried to run away. It is the very opposite. "Rise," he said. "The time for prayer, and the time for the garden is past, Now is the time for action. Let us face life at its grimmest and men at their worst." Jesus rose from his knees to go out to the battle of life. That is what prayer is for. In prayer a man kneels before God that he may stand erect before men. In prayer a man enters heaven that he may face the battles of earth.

THE ARREST IN THE GARDEN (Matthew 26:50-56)

26:50-56 Then they came forward and laid hands on Jesus and held him. And, look you, one of these who was with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck the servant of the High Priest, and cut off his ear. Then Jesus said to him, "Put back your sword in its place; for all who take the sword shall perish by the sword. Or, do you not think that I am able to call on my Father, and he will on the spot send to my aid more than twelve regiments of angels? How then are the Scriptures to be fulfilled that it must happen so?" At that hour Jesus said to the crowds, "Have you come out with swords and cudgels to arrest me, as against a brigand? Daily I sat teaching in the Temple, and you did not lay hold on me. All this has happened that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled." Then all his disciples forsook him and fled.

It was Judas who had given the authorities the information which enabled them to find Jesus in the privacy of the Garden of Gethsemane. The forces at the disposal of the Jewish authorities were the Temple police, under the command of the Sagan, or Captain of the Temple. But the mob which surged after Judas to the Garden was more like a mob for a lynching than a detachment for an orderly arrest.

Jesus would allow no resistance. Matthew simply tells us that one of the disciples drew a knife and, prepared to resist to the death and to sell his life dearly, wounded a servant of the High Priest. When John tells the same story (John 18:10), he tells us that the disciple was Peter, and the servant was Malchus. The reason why John names Peter, and Matthew does not, may simply be that John was writing much later, and that when Matthew was writing it was still not safe to name the disciple who had sprung so quickly to his Master's defence. Here we have still another instance of the almost fantastic courage of Peter. He was willing to take on the mob alone; and let us always remember that it was after that, when he was a marked man, that Peter followed Jesus right into the courtyard of the High Priest's house. But in all these incidents of the last hours it is on Jesus that our attention is fastened; and here we learn two things about him.

(i) His death was by his own choice. He need never have come to Jerusalem for the Passover Feast. Having come, he need never have followed his deliberate policy of magnificent defiance. Even in the Garden he could have slipped away and saved himself, for it was night, and there were many who would have smuggled him out of the city. Even here he could have called down the might of God and blasted his enemies. Every step of these last days makes it clearer and clearer that Jesus laid down his life and that his life was not taken from him. Jesus died, not because men killed him, but because he chose to die.

(ii) He chose to die because he knew that his death was the purpose of God. He took this way because it was the very thing that had been foretold by the prophets. He took it because love is the only way. "He who takes the sword will perish by the sword." Violence can beget nothing but violence; one drawn sword can produce only another drawn sword to meet it. Jesus knew that war and might settle nothing, but produce only a train of evil, and beget a grim horde of children worse than themselves. He knew that God's purpose can be worked out only by sacrificial love. And history proved him right; for the Jews who took him with violence, and who gloried in violence, and who would gladly have dipped their swords in Roman blood, saw forty years later their city destroyed for ever, while the man who would not fight is enthroned for ever in the hearts of men.

THE TRIAL BEFORE THE JEWS (Matthew 26:57; Matthew 26:59-68)

26:57,59-68 Those who had laid hold of Jesus led him away to the house of Caiaphas the High Priest, where the Scribes and the elders were assembled.

The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin tried to find false witness against him, in order to put him to death; but they could not find it, although many false witnesses came forward. Later two came forward and said, "This fellow said, 'I can destroy the Temple of God, and in three days I can build it again.'" The High Priest rose and said, "Do you make no answer? What is it that these witness against you?" But Jesus kept silent. So the High Priest said to him, "I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us, whether you are the Anointed One of God, the Son of God." Jesus said to him, "It is you who have said it. But I tell you that from now on you will see the Son of Man seated on the right hand of the Power and coming on the clouds of Heaven." Then the High Priest rent his garments, saying, "He has blasphemed. What further need have we of witnesses? Look you, you have now heard his blasphemy. What is your opinion?" They answered, "He has made himself liable to the death penalty." Then they spat upon his face, and buffeted him. And some struck him on the cheek saying, "Prophesy to us, you Anointed One of God! Who is he who struck you?"

The process of the trial of Jesus is not altogether easy to follow. It seems to have fallen into three parts. The first part took place after the arrest in the Garden, during the night and in the High Priest's house, and is described in this section. The second part took place first thing in the morning, and is briefly described in Matthew 27:1-2. The third part took place before Pilate and is described in Matthew 27:11-26. The salient question is this--was the meeting during the night an official meeting of the Sanhedrin, hastily summoned, or was it merely a preliminary examination, in order to formulate a charge, and was the meeting in the morning the official meeting of the Sanhedrin? However that question is answered, the Jews violated their own laws in the trial of Jesus; but if the meeting in the night was a meeting of the Sanhedrin, the violation was even more extreme. On the whole, it seems that Matthew took the night meeting to be a meeting of the Sanhedrin, for in Matthew 26:59 he says that the whole Sanhedrin sought for false witness to put Jesus to death. Let us then first look at this process from the Jewish legal point of view.

The Sanhedrin was the supreme court of the Jews. It was composed of Scribes, Pharisees, Sadducees and elders of the people; it numbered seventy-one members; and it was presided over by the High Priest. For a trial such as this a quorum was twenty-three. It had certain regulations. All criminal cases must be tried during the daytime and must be completed during the daytime. Criminal cases could not be transacted during the Passover season at all. Only if the verdict was Not Guilty could a case be finished on the day it was begun; otherwise a night must elapse before the pronouncement of the verdict, so that feelings of mercy might have time to arise. Further, no decision of the Sanhedrin was valid unless it met in its own meeting place, the Hall of Hewn Stone in the Temple precincts. All evidence had to be guaranteed by two witnesses separately examined and having not contact with each other. And false witness was punishable by death. The seriousness of the occasion was impressed upon any witness in a case where life was at stake: "Forget not, O witness, that it is one thing to give evidence in a trial for money, and another in a trial for life. In a money suit, if thy witness-bearing shall do wrong, money may repair that wrong; but in this trial for life, if thou sinnest, the blood of the accused and the blood of his seed unto the end of time shall be imputed unto thee." Still further, in any trial the process began by the laying before the court of all the evidence for the innocence of the accused, before the evidence for his guilt was adduced.

These were the Sanhedrin's own rules, and it is abundantly clear that, in their eagerness to get rid of Jesus, they broke their own rules. The Jews had reached such a peak of hatred that any means were justified to put an end to Jesus.

THE CRIME OF CHRIST (Matthew 26:57; Matthew 26:59-68 continued)

The main business of the night meeting of the Jewish authorities was to formulate a charge against Jesus. As we have seen, all evidence had to be guaranteed by two witnesses, separately examined. For long not even two false witnesses could be found to agree. And then a charge was found, the charge that Jesus had said that he would destroy the Temple and rebuild it in three days.

It is clear that this charge is a twisting of certain things he did actually say. We have already seen that he foretold--and rightly--the destruction of the Temple. This had been twisted into a charge that he had said that he himself would destroy the Temple. We have seen that he foretold that he himself would be killed and would rise on the third day. This had been twisted into a charge that he had said that he would rebuild the Temple in three days.

This charge was formulated by deliberately and maliciously misrepeating and misinterpreting certain things which Jesus had said. To that charge Jesus utterly refused to reply. Therein the law was on his side, for no person on trial could either be asked, or compelled to answer, any question which would incriminate him.

It was then that the High Priest launched his vital question. We have seen that repeatedly Jesus warned his disciples to tell no man that he was the Messiah. How then did the High Priest know to ask the question the answer to which Jesus could not escape? It may well be that when Judas laid information against him, he also told the Jewish authorities about Jesus' revelation of his own Messiahship. It may well be that Judas had deliberately broken the bond of secrecy which Jesus had laid upon his disciples.

In any event, the High Priest asked the question, and asked it upon oath: "Are you the Messiah?" he demanded. "Do you claim to be the Son of God?" Here was the crucial moment in the trial. We might well say that all the universe held its breath as it waited for Jesus' answer. If Jesus said, "No," the bottom fell out of the trial; there was no possible charge against him. He had only to say, "No," and walk out a free man, and escape before the Sanhedrin could think out another way of entrapping him. On the other hand, if he said, "Yes," he signed his own death warrant. Nothing more than a simple "Yes" was needed to make the Cross a complete and inescapable certainty.

It may be that Jesus paused for a moment once again to count the cost before he made the great decision; and then he said, "Yes." He went further. He quoted Daniel 7:13 with its vivid account of the ultimate triumph and kingship of God's chosen one. He well knew what he was doing. Immediately there went up the cry of blasphemy. Garments were rent in a kind of synthetic and hysterical horror; and Jesus was condemned to death.

Then followed the spitting on him, the buffeting, the slapping of his face, the mockery. Even the externals of justice were forgotten, and the venomous hostility of the Jewish authorities broke through. That meeting in the night began as a court of justice and ended in a frenzied display of hatred, in which there was no attempt to maintain even the superficialities of impartial justice.

To this day when a man is brought face to face with Jesus Christ, he must either hate him or love him; he must either submit to him, or desire to destroy him. No man who realizes what Jesus Christ demands can possibly be neutral. He must either be his liege-man or his foe.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 26:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/matthew-26.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Wednesday, November 13th, 2019
the Week of Proper 27 / Ordinary 32
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