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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 26

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-16

The Passion (26:1 27:66)

The Plot Against Jesus and the Deed of a Woman (26:1-16)

Jesus knows that the hour is near "after two days." It is at the Feast of the Passover that he must die. Having revealed to his disciples all that they need to know, he terminates his teaching (vs. 1). And this teaching will find its fulfillment in his death. He is the new Passover which will be sacrificed for the salvation of the world (see 1 Corinthians 5:7). The evangelist is careful to indicate by this prediction of Jesus that everything is carried out in conformity with the plan of God. The plot which is hatched in the darkness is set down in this plan. Everything happens at the appointed hour. This, however, removes nothing of the guilt of those who plot this death and are its immediate cause.

That this death is a denial of justice is thrown into relief by the secret character of the deliberations of the priests and elders (vss. 3-5). They fear the reactions of the Galilean crowds who come to Jerusalem for the feast. It is necessary that everything be done quickly and without their knowledge.

The story of the anointing at Bethany is inserted into that of the plot against Jesus’ life like a ray of light piercing the thick darkness. We have seen that during this last week of his life Jesus withdrew each evening to the little village of Bethany (Matthew 21:17). The Gospels by Mark and Matthew situate the scene in the house of "Simon the leper" (vs. 6; Mark 14:3), doubtless a man whom Jesus had healed and whose name was known. On the contrary, the name of the woman is passed by in silence by those recorders (see John 12:1-8). The woman pours out her perfume on the head of Jesus. In the thought of the evangelist, this act has a Messianic significance. The royal anointing is given to the One who is about to die. He is indeed "the King of the Jews" but a crucified King. Jesus himself declares that this perfume is poured out in advance to prepare him "for burial," the burial which custom refuses to executed criminals. The woman certainly does not have knowledge of the import of her act. But at the hour when the Master is about to be abandoned by some and betrayed by others, it is given to her and to her alone to witness to her faith and love for him. The disciples immediately criticize her. What a waste! But Jesus defends and justifies her: "She has done a beautiful thing." True love does not calculate the outlay. This woman has seized the unique hour which will not happen again. This act will be known "in the whole world," wherever the good news will be preached. From century to century, we will bless the memory of this woman. Does she not incarnate the faithful Church in the hour of supreme abandonment?

"Then one of the twelve, who was called Judas Iscariot" (vs. 14) thus, without transition, the Gospel leads us from the light of faith into the darkness of treason. Judas "delivers" his Master for "thirty pieces of silver." In other words, he agrees to notify the priests when a favorable occasion presents itself for seizing Jesus when there is no time to alert the crowds.

Verses 17-29

The Last Supper and the Treachery of Judas (26:17-29)

The institution of the Passover is described in detail in Exodus 12. It was the greatest feast of the year. It commemorated the great deliverance of Israel, her passage from slavery to liberty. It was celebrated by families. They ate the paschal lamb in remembrance of the one whose blood had preserved the Israelites from the wrath of God (Exodus 12:12-14).

According to the Synoptic Gospels, the paschal meal of Jesus with his disciples took place on the first day of the feast, as custom required (Matthew 26:17; Mark 14:12; Luke 22:7). According to John, it was the evening before the first day (John 13:1; John 18:28; John 19:14). On this view, Jesus would have been crucified on the same day that the paschal lamb was sacrificed. The information given by John is doubtless the more probable, for it is difficult to imagine the chief priests arresting Jesus once the feast had commenced, that is, after six o’clock in the evening. If John is right, then Jesus advanced the paschal celebration with his disciples one day. It is perhaps necessary to see a sign pointing in this direction in the explanation which Jesus gives to the master of the house who is going to lend him his quarters: "My time is at hand; I will keep the passover at your house with my disciples" (vs. 18) . Jesus knows that his hours are numbered. The decisive hour, that of the supreme sacrifice, is about to strike (see John 13:1; John 17:1). But he wishes, once more, to eat the Passover with his disciples (see Luke 22:15). And he is going to institute the new Passover, where the Iamb sacrificed will be himself (see 1 Corinthians 5:7; 1 Peter 1:19; John 1:29; Revelation 5:6; Revelation 5:12-13).

A deep mystery hangs over this last meal: "Truly, I say to you, one of you will betray me" (vs. 21). A great perplexity seizes the disciples. An anguished doubt is revealed in the question, "Is it I, Lord?" The reply of Jesus is not a precise accusation but rather a recollection of the words of Psalms 41:9 (see John 13:18) "Even my bosom friend in whom I trusted, who ate of my bread, has lifted his heel against me."

Jesus knows that in dying be fulfills the destiny of the Son of Man, according to the pre-established plan of God. He is the Suffering Servant announced by the prophet (Isaiah 53:3-8). He is the "shepherd of the sheep" who gives his life for his own (Zechariah 13:7; compare John 10:11; John 10:17-18). Everything that happens he has foreseen and known, including the treason of Judas. But the guilt of Judas is not attenuated: "It would have been better for that man if he had not been born" (vs. 24; see Matthew 18:6-7).

The mystery of Judas does not cease to trouble the Christian. How could one of the Apostles, intermingling each day in the life of Jesus, betray him? Why did Jesus, who reads the heart, choose this man and make him one of the Twelve? (Matthew 10:4). Did such a fate rest upon Judas that he was "destined" to betray? (see John 13:27).

We will never resolve this enigma. But we must place the case of Judas within the whole of the biblical revelation so as not to falsify its meaning. Note first of all that in affirming the responsibility of Judas, Jesus excludes all "fatalism." We are ignorant of the motives of this man. John makes of him a covetous person, a "thief (Matthew 12:6), which does not seem to exhaust the depths of his treachery. It is allowable to ask whether Judas was not a Zealot for whom the Messianic Era signified a political revolution. He had waited in vain for Jesus to manifest his power, Perhaps in "delivering" him he desired to force him to manifest himself. This could explain his final remorse (Matthew 27:3-4).

The Old Testament cites an analogous case of a man chosen by God and afterwards rejected King Saul. The line between "rebels" and "chosen ones" is not drawn between the Elect People and the pagan nations but through the very midst of Israel and through the very midst of the Church. Indeed, is it not necessary to add, through the very heart of each one of us? Are we not all pardoned "rebels"? The whole Bible reminds us that those who are called to co-operate in the work of salvation are "signs" of the mercy of God, always wholly without merit (see Exodus 33:19), just as the rebels are "signs" of a humanity in revolt against God which, without God’s mercy, would utterly perish. The gospel tells us that on the cross Jesus Christ takes on himself the consequences of this rebellion in order to set us free. This is the "good news,"

But are not certain ones, by their conscious refusal of God’s grace, forever shut out from this mercy, and is not Judas one of these? That remains the secret of God (Matthew 12:31-32). This betrayal by one who belonged to the most intimate circle of followers remains a serious warning for the Church in every age.

The institution of the Lord’s Supper is reported not only by the first three Gospels but also by Paul (1 Corinthians 11:23-26). Jesus returns thanks, breaks the bread, and gives it to his disciples, saying, ’Take, eat; this is my body" (some manuscripts of Luke add: "which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me," Luke 22:19, margin; see 1 Corinthians 11:24). The broken bread is the visible sign of the body of Jesus which is about to be broken on the cross for the salvation of the world. In eating it his disciples become one with him in his death and in his resurrection, members of his Body. Jesus is "the bread of life" which nourishes his people with his own substance and gives them life (see John 6:32; John 6:48; John 6:51; John 6:63).

Afterwards Jesus takes the cup and gives thanks anew. In the Jewish tradition, a giving of thanks preceded each course. Jesus passes the cup to his disciples, saying: "Drink of it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." This saying refers to the institution of the Covenant at Sinai (Exodus 24:6-8; compare Zechariah 9:9-11). Moses sprinkled the people with the blood of the victim after having poured out half of it on the altar. This blood, according to the ancient conception, put the people in communion with the altar where the sacrifice was offered. It sealed the Covenant of the people with God. The Apostles drink from the same cup that Jesus drank from, even as they eat the same bread he ate (see 1 Corinthians 10:16-17) . By his blood Jesus seals the New Covenant which Jeremiah had proclaimed. This Covenant, of which the Covenant of Sinai was an anticipation, restores their communion with God and also then: unity in him. It involves the conversion of the heart. It removes sin (Jeremiah 31:31-34).

The words spoken by Jesus during this last meal clearly express what was only an implication until then the redemptive significance of his death. He gives his life for the salvation of his people.

We have seen the figure of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53 taking form more and more clearly throughout our study of the Gospel. Jesus is this Servant, unrecognized, rejected, led as a sheep to the slaughter. No one understands, at the moment, the meaning of these sufferings, the meaning of this death, not even the closest disciples. It is said of the Servant that "he poured out his soul to death," that "he bore the sin of many," that he "made intercession for the transgressors." He is the True Israel who bears the sins of the people and atones for them in his own Person. He announces the coming of the Son of Man who alone can effectively take on him the sin of humanity and open the way of life and of liberty, because he alone is innocent.

That is why the celebration of the Passover ends on a note of victory and of joy. Jesus will no more drink of the fruit of the vine in this world, but he will drink it "new" with his people in the Kingdom. This glorious certainty makes of the Lord’s Supper a joyous meal. It is a "eucharist," that is to say, a thanksgiving for the salvation won by the sacrifice of Jesus Christ But it has also an eschatological meaning; that is, it is directed toward the coming of the Lord it announces the Messianic banquet, the unity of the children of God in the joy of his love and grace.

By what grievous mystery has this meal where Jesus crowns his love, this meal which celebrates his sacrifice and announces his coming, this meal which seals the unity of believers nourished by the same word and the same bread by what mystery has this meal become a sign of division between Christians? Satan not only set himself up in the heart of Judas and in the midst of the chamber of the Last Supper; he has established himself at the very heart of the sanctuary, tearing Christendom apart, preventing it from being reunited at the same table to announce the victory of the Risen One. The meal of love and of pardon has become the occasion for Christians mutually to exclude one another. The sin of the Pharisees has become ours. We have preferred our forms to the grace of God humbly received. Have not we also, by our divisions and our shortcomings, betrayed our Lord and his holy will?

Each celebration of the Lord’s Supper is the joyous announcement of his victory and the sad remembrance of our betrayals, a renewed offering of our lives "as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God" (Romans 12:1), and the hope of the final fulfillment.

Verses 30-46

Luke 22:39-46

On the Mount of Olives (Matthew 26:30-46; Mark 14:26-42; Luke 22:39-46)

The hymns which were sung at the close of the Passover meal were Psalms 115-118. Jesus betakes himself to the Garden of Olives, separated from the city by the Brook Kidron. He announces to his disciples those indeed who had just celebrated the Last Supper with him! that he is going to be for them, that night, an occasion of falling. He cites the words of Zechariah 13:7 "I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered" (Matthew 26:31).

Jesus knows the weakness of the Apostles much better than they do themselves; he knows that they will forsake him. Once more he announces to them his resurrection. It is in Galilee, there where they have worked together, that he makes an appointment to meet them.

Peter shows himself to be the impulsive one which he has always been. The idea that he could deny his Master scandalizes him. He is dangerously sure of himself: "Though they all fall away because of you, I will never fall away." He believes himself to be stronger than his brothers. It will be necessary to shatter his presumption by the dreadful experience of denial. Jesus warns him. But Peter does not believe it. He is ready to die for his Master! "And so said all the disciples." If it had been a question of fighting for Jesus, without doubt they would have done that! But it involved something entirely different. Temptation takes us unawares; it comes under forms for which we are not prepared. This is why it is the part of wisdom to fear it and to count on nothing but the sole fidelity of God (compare the petition in the Lord’s Prayer, Matthew 6:13).

The last hour is come. Jesus awaits his arrest. The place to which he has withdrawn, Gethsemane "oil press," calls to mind the words of the prophet:

I have trodden the wine press alone, and from the peoples no one was with me; I looked, but there was no one to help; I was appalled, but there was no one to uphold (Isaiah 63:3-5).

Jesus is about to descend into the last solitude where no one can follow him. He takes with him his three most intimate disciples, Peter, James, and John, and confides his anguish to them: "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death." He asks them to "watch" with him a request unique in the entire Gospel but even that will be refused him.

The Gospels show Jesus prostrate, face to the ground, beseeching his Father to spare him "this cup" the bitter cup of abandonment and death (compare 20:22). But the entreaty concludes in an act of total submission: "not as I will, but as thou wilt." Is not the will of the Father his life, his reason for existence? "Thy will be done" (vs. 42; see Matthew 6:10; Matthew 12:50; John 6:38; Hebrews 10:5-9). But this will costs him; it is in this that he is made truly our brother (Hebrews 4:15; Hebrews 5:8-9).

Jesus three times entreats his Father. Three times he arises and finds his disciples sleeping. Peter this Peter so sure of himself has not been able to watch one hour with his Master. And Jesus warns the Apostles once more: "The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak." In biblical language the "flesh" designates human nature in all its weakness and fallibility. It is opposed to the spirit, which comes from God and draws us toward him. Paul has characterized the struggle which sets man at war with himself: "I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do" (Romans 7:18-20; Romans 8:5-6). Temptation is going to find the disciples tragically disarmed since they have not had the strength to watch one hour with their Master. Who are the "sinners" into whose hands the Son of Man is betrayed? (vs. 45). An Apostle, the leaders of Israel, a Roman magistrate the religious authorities and the secular authorities, the "qualified" representatives of a humanity which does not want God.

Some people are astonished that the prospect of death should have thrown Jesus into such an agony. The objection is not new. Socrates, dying stoically without uttering a complaint, has been contrasted with him. Why did Jesus’ spirit recoil at the last minute before a death which he had foreseen and announced? Is Jesus in his turn unsettled by the scandal of the Cross which disturbed the disciples?

No one could without rashness seek to penetrate the mystery of the agony of the Son of God. Jesus has let us know his anguish, but not what passed between him and his Father at this hour. Let us recall simply that in the biblical revelation death is not something "natural," something "normal." Life is natural and normal, for God is the God of life, and death is the negation of him. According to a word of the Book of Job, death is "the king of terrors" (Job 18:14). The Bible does not proclaim the immortality of the soul as a property which belongs to it by nature. It proclaims the miracle of the Resurrection. John shows Jesus deeply agitated at the tomb of Lazarus (John 11:33; John 11:38). He measures, as no mortal man can, the horror of this break, this "end" which is death.

In the second place, let us understand what sort of death is involved for Jesus. God has come to his people in the Person of his Anointed, and his people respond to him with a deicide; they kill the "heir" (Matthew 21:38). The acme of love is about to produce the acme of hate. The coming of the Son causes men to commit the worst crime they have ever committed. God "delivers" him. "into the hands of sinners."

Let us be thankful to the evangelists for having reported to us this struggle. The one whom God has given us as Savior is not a Stoic, nor a god whose humanity was only specious. No, he is one who cried out to God with tears (see Hebrews 5:7), and begged him to spare him. This is why he is able to sympathize with our griefs, carry our sorrows, and give us the strength to pray, in our hours of greatest confusion and abandonment, "Not as I will, but as thou wilt"

Let us be thankful also for the honesty with which the Apostles have confessed their own failures. They have preserved and transmitted the memory of this dreadful night when they could not watch one hour with their Master and afterwards abandoned him. They tell us this for our warning. Pascal has reminded us that Jesus is in agony until the end of the world, and we should not sleep during this entire time. Pascal understands that the combat of the Lord against the powers of evil and death continues to the end of time, "until he has put all his enemies under his feet" (1 Corinthians 15:25-26). Is the Church watching with him? Or are our eyes "heavy"?

Verses 47-56

The Arrest (26:47-56)

A "great crowd" draws near, made up doubtless of the Temple guard, which is armed, besides slaves or mercenaries furnished with clubs. What a deployment of forces to arrest a man who does not dream of resisting! Judas salutes his Master and kisses him, which is the sign agreed upon. The response of Jesus, "Friend, why are you here?" may mean either, "Why have you come to this place?" or "Why do you kiss me?" This remark is sad, not harsh. It does not close the possibility of repentance to Judas. How great is the temptation to defend Jesus with arms! There is no doubt that the Apostles would gladly have died in such a defense. But a more difficult sort of courage is demanded of them the courage which the Sermon on the Mount requires. The saying, "All who take the sword will perish by the sword," is likely a maxim; in any case, it is a fact. Murder calls out murder; war invites war. This is the plane of human vengeance, or at best, the law of retaliation. But the Kingdom which Jesus inaugurated is of another order: to defend him by violence is to betray him. Would that the Church had always remembered this, and that it had never put the sword at the service of the cause of God!

Verse 53, which Matthew alone reports, emphasizes the sovereign liberty of Jesus. Had he wished, he could even at that hour have implored his Father, who would have dispatched to him "twelve legions of angels." It is God, and not man, who controls his destiny. The Scriptures are being fulfilled (vs. 54). Everything unfolds as the prophets had announced, right up to this cowardly nocturnal enterprise against a man who spoke daily in the Temple in the sight and to the knowledge of all without being hindered (vss. 55-56).

Verses 57-75

The disciples lose heart and flee.

An Examination and a Denial (26:57-75)

The two stories of the examination of Jesus before the Sanhedrin and the denial of Peter in the court of the high priest follow each other; there is no doubt that the contrast is intended. At the very hour when Jesus is openly confessing his Messiahship before men, his disciple denies knowing him. The Sanhedrin has to be brought together hastily in the middle of the night The trial preserves, outwardly at least, the accepted legal forms. The presence of two or three witnesses is required (Deuteronomy 17:6). The saying regarding the destruction of the Temple is the first valid charge, for it has a Messianic significance: the Messiah was to renew all things and construct a new Temple. By testifying that Jesus said, "I am able to destroy . . . ," the witnesses twist Jesus’ words (Matthew 24:2; see also John 2:19-22) . Jesus remains silent. Then the high priest decides on a direct attack: "I adjure you by the living God, tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God."

It is sometimes asked whether the "You have said so" of Jesus was an affirmative reply. What follows immediately thereafter permits no doubt. It refers to Daniel 7:13 the vision of the Son of Man coming on the clouds from heaven and to Psalms 110:1. Both of these passages are regarded as Messianic. It is at the hour when he is going to die that Jesus, for the first time, publicly affirms his royalty (Matthew 16:16-17; Matthew 16:20). He knows that this confession is his undoing.

One who heard a blasphemy was supposed to tear his garments. The high priest officially accuses Jesus of blasphemy and the condemnation to death is pronounced. Jesus is taunted with mocking and spitting. Since he is a prophet, let him divine who has struck him! In this, prophecy was fulfilled (Isaiah 50:5-6).

Peter is in the court, anxious no doubt over the fate of his Master, eager for news. A servant recognizes him. "You also were with Jesus the Galilean." To be with Jesus was not that yesterday still his privilege and his pride? "Even if I must die with you, I will not deny you" (Matthew 26:35). And now, the question of a servant is sufficient to make him respond, "I do not know what you mean." This is the first step toward total denial, leading to a second where he says with an oath, "I do not know the man," and a third in which he invokes a "curse" on himself and swears, "I do not know the man." Do not judge Peter too quickly. Do not we, in the course of petty conversations or in an ironic or hostile group, slip into subtle denials? It is probably not danger which provokes Peter’s denial; it is more likely his confusion, and the tone of the maid, and the fact that his accent makes him stand out.

But such explanations in the last analysis explain nothing. Anything can make us fall when God withdraws his hand, Simon Peter must learn that, given over to himself, he can do nothing. That alone could heal him of his presumption. The saying of Jesus about his denial comes back to Peter; he weeps. When he later meets the Risen One he will for the first time know what grace is.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 26". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-26.html.
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