Matthew Week 10
The Son of Man Goes as It Is Written of Him: Matthew 26:1–27:66
Seattle Pacific University Professor of New Testament Studies
Read this week’s Scripture: Matthew 26:1–27:66
The final sermon has been preached. Now we enter into the last section of Matthew’s gospel, describing Jesus’ passion and resurrection. Once again we can easily divide these chapters into three units: events before Jesus’ arrest (26:1–56), events that bring about his death (26:57–27:26), and the death itself (27:27–66). Much of this material will be familiar to readers, so my comments will focus specifically on how these chapters develop Matthew’s key themes.
The Death Plot Unfolds: 26:1–56
One of the central themes of Chapter 26 is the fact that Jesus knows precisely what is going to happen to him, because he is the obedient Son of God focused entirely on the fulfillment of God’s will. The story begins with Jesus’ matter-of-factly reminding his disciples that he is about to be betrayed and executed (26:2) [see Author’s Note 1]. Matthew repeats the Greek verb for “betray” (literally “hand over”) 10 times in this chapter for emphasis (26:2, 15, 16, 21, 23, 24, 25, 45, 46, 48).
Immediately we are whisked into the palace of the high priest, where a group of leaders are meeting to plot Jesus’ arrest by stealth (26:3–5). It is ironic that the very people who think they are thwarting Jesus’ work are actually just playing their part in helping him get his work done.
The irony continues in the next section. Recalling that the good news was preached to the poor (11:5), and that Jesus told a rich man to give his money to the poor (19:21), the disciples assume they are speaking for Jesus when they criticize a woman for pouring expensive ointment on his head. They are not wrong in their concern (Jesus’ answer echoes Deuteronomy 15:11), but again Jesus knows more, interpreting her generous act as a preparation of his body for burial (26:12) [see Author’s Note 2].
Though the disciples have been with Jesus all along, they are revealed to be clueless as to what is about to happen. Only this unnamed woman acts appropriately in the context, and Jesus celebrates her faith by insisting we always remember what she did.
Matthew does not provide us with her name that we might remember it, though we do remember the name of Judas. Once again we are whisked back to the chief priests and the arrival of the predicted betrayer (recall 10:4). Matthew alone tells us the betrayal price was 30 pieces of silver (a paltry amount in comparison to the cost of the ointment the woman poured out on Jesus).
Matthew has particular Old Testament passages in mind, showing once again that events are playing out according to prophecy; Matthew wants us to think especially of Zechariah 11:4–17 (see 27:9), where it is the payoff price for a rejected prophet, a “shepherd doomed to slaughter” [see Author’s Note 3]. Later, a remorseful Judas will throw the money into the temple (27:5, again echoing Zechariah 11:12–13), confessing that he has broken the law by betraying an innocent person (Deuteronomy 27:25).
While the priests show no concern for him or their own possible breach of the laws of justice, they are concerned about the performance of the purity rules: it is “blood money” that cannot be brought into the treasury, so instead they take the unclean money and buy a field to be an unclean burial place for unclean non-Jews (27:7–8). Their hypocrisy is self-evident.
But we have gotten ahead of ourselves. We left Jesus and his disciples preparing for the Passover (26:17–19). Again Matthew reminds us that Jesus knows precisely what lies ahead for him, directing the disciples to tell the householder who will host their Passover celebration, “my time is near” (26:18). The joyous feast recalling Israel’s deliverance from Egypt takes a depressing turn when Jesus informs his disciples for the first time that one of them will be his actual betrayer. Amidst their distressed replies Jesus contrasts the necessity of what is coming for him (“the Son of Man goes as it is written of him”) with the possibility of repentance for his betrayer.
But despite Jesus’ pronouncement of woe over the traitor, Judas continues to conceal his treachery: “Surely not I, Rabbi?” [see Author’s Note 4]. Jesus’ response, “you have said so,” leaves the ball in Judas’ court. The scriptures must be fulfilled, but Judas has a choice, and he alone is responsible for his actions [see Author’s Note 5].
But Jesus has more bad news to share: not only will one of his own disciples betray him, but all the others will desert him. Another reference to Zechariah’s prophecy (26:31) indicates their desertion is also part of God’s plan. The disciples, it turns out, are mere sheep; without Jesus they have nothing in them to secure their faithfulness. Jesus goes on to insist that his death is not the end, that in fact he will meet them in Galilee after his resurrection (26:32) — but the disciples are caught up in themselves and can’t get over Jesus’ insistence that they will all betray him.
Peter boasts of his heroic capacity to remain faithful to the point of death, but Jesus knows perfectly well what Peter is about to do (26:34). The disciples obviously have a willing spirit, but their flesh is weak (26:41) — and the following scene in the garden of Gethsemane makes it plain that Jesus’ uniqueness as the Son of God leaves him isolated and alone among his companions, who are asleep when the moment of truth arrives. In this, the Messiah who is powerless before his enemies is revealed to be the only human with the power to perform God’s will.
The quiet of the garden erupts in a flurry of activity. The betrayer arrives with a kiss for his rabbi. Jesus calls him “friend.” The armed crowd grabs at him, and a disciple flails at one of them with a sword of his own. Jesus calls the chaos to a halt; armed force will not bring about the fulfillment of God’s will. Don’t they realize that he has within him the power to call on the whole army of heaven to come in force to his rescue? “But how then would the scriptures be fulfilled, which say it must happen in this way?” (26:54).
Jesus is here to be struck down for the sake of others, and those who follow him are not to strike back (recall 5:38–48). At this point, “all the disciples,” who just hours earlier boasted of their heroic capacity to die for him, “deserted him and fled” (26:56).
Jesus on Trial: 26:57–27:26
Jesus is brought before the high priest, the scribes, and the elders. Though the Ten Commandments expressly forbade the bearing of false witness against a neighbor (Exodus 20:16; Deuteronomy 5:20), the leadership moves ahead, in knowing violation of the law, with seeking false testimony to condemn Jesus.
The only testimony that sticks is his apparent claim to be “able to destroy the temple of God and build it in three days” (26:61; John 2:19–22 informs us that Jesus was speaking of his body when he said this). Taken literally, this is a serious charge; the temple is the place where God dwells, and who would dare claim to be able to tear down God’s house?
Jesus refuses to answer the charge [see Author’s Note 6]. The chief priest, Caiaphas, cuts to the chase and demands an answer to the fundamental question of the whole gospel: “I put you under oath before the living God, tell us if you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” Jesus has already condemned the use of oaths (5:33–37), so he responds as he did with Judas, saying “You have said so.” But now he goes further, creatively quoting the Scriptures to provide his questioners with a more precise identity statement. Psalm 110:1 says of Israel’s Messiah, “The LORD said to my Lord, ‘Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies your footstool.’”
The words of this royal psalm are woven together with the description of a mysterious “son of man” from Daniel 7:13–14, a human who comes “with the clouds of heaven” and is presented before God to receive “dominion and glory and kingship, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed.”
“Yes,” Jesus says, “I am the Messiah of Israel’s expectation [connection], but I am not just another king in a line of kings [disconnection]; I am the Son of Man described in Daniel, ruler of Jew and Gentile alike, the eternal king over the whole of creation” [see Author’s Note 7]. Caiaphas charges Jesus with blasphemy, and in this we see more irony. On the one hand he is correct: a human being (who was obviously not the Messiah, in their minds) has just ascribed divine authority to himself; he has blasphemed God’s name and must die for it (Leviticus 24:16). Of course, readers know that Jesus has in fact not blasphemed, for he is “God with us.”
Chapter 26 ends with a return to Peter. Earlier we were told that he “was following [Jesus] at a distance … in order to see how this would end” (26:58). Such a striking statement: Peter followed Jesus at a distance; and though Jesus told him several times how these final events would unfold, Peter trails along in order to see how this would end.
Now, at the very moment that Jesus is revealing his identity before his enemies, Peter conceals his identity, repeatedly insisting, “I do not know the man!” Again, this is an ironic statement; clearly it is true that Peter does not know who Jesus really is. If he did, he would not have followed at a distance and would have trusted Jesus’ word.
The Jewish leadership does not have authority to execute Jesus themselves, so they must take him before the Roman governor — Pontius Pilate — to gain permission. Jesus answers Pilate’s question as he answered Caiaphas, and once again he remains silent before his accusers. Pilate is amazed at Jesus’ silence; what kind of prisoner would refuse to defend himself?
When the opportunity arises to release a prisoner as part of the Passover celebration, Pilate sets Jesus before the people, alongside a “notorious,” or “famous,” prisoner called Barabbas. Mark identifies him as one of “the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7). The choice is between a healer who gave life to others and an insurrectionist who took life from others — and Pilate is amazed to find that the people seek the release of Barabbas.
Apparently a fighting Messiah is preferable to one who teaches and heals. Pilate knows that the Jewish leadership wants Jesus dead “because of envy” (27:18); he knows that an injustice is occurring, since Jesus has done no evil (27:23); he hears from his wife that she has had a nightmare revealing Jesus to be a “righteous man” (27:19) [see Author’s Note 8].
Nevertheless, he does what most human political leaders do, caving in to public pressure and sacrificing the truth in order to retain his control. Indeed, he is more concerned about proclaiming his own innocence than the truth of Jesus’ blamelessness (27:24).
Matthew tells us that “the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’” (27:25). Here we find the root of the shameful history of Christian anti-Semitism — but is the eternal curse of Jews what Matthew had in mind? No. The crowd is simply responding in righteous accordance with the law, which insisted that the whole congregation of Israel participate in the execution of a blasphemer (Leviticus 24:14–16). Back in 23:34–35, the condemnation of blood-guilt was placed specifically on the Jewish leadership, and these are clearly the ones directly responsible for Jesus’ death.
One also can’t help but recall that Jesus has just described his spilled blood as “the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (26:28). In Exodus 24:8, Moses sprinkled the blood of the covenant over the heads of the people of Israel. So also now, the blood of Jesus is poured out over all, a new covenant of forgiveness for the whole world, Jew and Gentile alike.
Jesus’ Torture and Death: 27:27–56
One gets the sense that events rush forward quickly after the unjust judicial proceedings ended. The soldiers mockingly worship Jesus as King of the Jews (27:27–31) — which is of course another example of the irony that dominates this part of the story. More irony is found in the repetition of “save” words in 27:40–49; the onlookers mock Jesus’ apparent inability to save himself, unaware that his intention is to sacrifice himself in order to save them (20:28).
The moment of crucifixion itself is not depicted. Instead, Matthew describes the events by careful, repeated allusion to Psalm 22, a poem that starts with lament in the face of imminent death, alternates with words of hope, and ends with praise and thanksgiving for God’s deliverance. The soldiers divide Jesus’ clothes among them by casting lots (Psalm 22:18), onlookers mock him and shake their heads (Psalm 22:7), ridiculing Jesus’ trust in God’s power to deliver him (Psalm 22:8).
When Jesus finally cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1), he is not expressing shock that God has abandoned him, or somehow doubting the truth of his mission, or his status as Son of God. He is doing what any righteous Jew would be doing in the face of death: he is praying the psalms, channeling his anguish into a scriptural form that enables the expression of grief and pain in a way that leads to statements of faith in God’s power to save. Indeed, Psalm 22 goes on to say “you have rescued me. … [God] did not despise or abhor the affliction of the afflicted; he did not hide his face from me, but heard when I cried to him” (Psalm 22:21, 24).
Darkness, earthquakes, and resurrections are common themes in Old Testament texts that describe the “end time” events of God’s final victorious deliverance (e.g., Isaiah 26:19; Ezekiel 37:12; Joel 2:10; Amos 8:8–9; Zechariah 14:4–5). Shockingly, these long-expected events occur at Jesus’ death. Matthew’s point is clear: the great and powerful victory of God occurs in the atoning death of Jesus. The signs combine to indicate the truth of the psalm: what appears to be the powerless death of a righteous person is revealed to be the powerful act of a God who hears the cry of the afflicted and comes in strength to save.
Jesus’ death is therefore not a punishment that occurs in order to change the mind of an angry God; but an act of faithfulness designed to express the mind of a loving God who does not wish any to be lost (18:12–14) but comes in power to save even his enemies. “God proves his love for us,” Paul says, “in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
Accordingly, Matthew ends the story of Jesus’ death with responses from a collection of people considered “outsiders” by the religious leaders: Gentile soldiers confess Jesus to be the Son of God (27:54), women followers stand vigil (27:55–56), and a rich man comes forward to care for his body (27:57–60). The curtain of the temple is torn open; access to God is not controlled by the religious authorities of Israel, but is open to all who follow Jesus to the cross, whether Jew or Gentile, slave or free, rich or poor, male or female. Because of the faithfulness of the Son of Man who goes as it was written of him, the gospel of God goes forth to all.
Questions for Further Reflection:
- Peter followed Jesus “at a distance… in order to see how this would end” (26:58). I wonder if this resonates with you as it does with me. As you reflect on the vision of discipleship presented in this gospel, do you feel that you, like Peter, have been following Jesus at a safe distance?
- Matthew tells us that “the people as a whole answered, ‘His blood be on us and on our children’” (27:25). Reflect for a moment on the ugly history of Christian anti-Semitism. We’ve spent time thinking about our attitudes toward the Old Testament; what about our attitudes toward Jews? How might we be called to confront tendencies toward scapegoating or anti-Semitism in the church?
- “Jesus’ death is therefore not a punishment that occurs in order to change the mind of an angry God; it is an act of faithfulness designed to express the mind of a loving God who does not wish any to be lost (18:12-14) but comes in power to save even his enemies.” How do you conceive of the function of Jesus’ death in the outworking of our salvation? What difference does this conception make in your daily expressions of discipleship?
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