Chapter 26 marks a dramatic shift in Matthew’s gospel as he transitions from a teaching on things to come in chapters 24 and 25 to a retelling of things that are, from predictions of Jesus’s future return to predictions of Jesus’s soon departure, from powerful scenes of victory and vindication to pathetic scenes of vulnerability and apparent defeat. Whereas Matthew 25 promises that the Son of Man is coming in glory and with angels to be finally and eternally enthroned, Matthew 26 promises that the Son of Man will be tortured and executed.
Matthew 26 and 27 describe what’s often called the passion of Christ—that is, the unjust events and brutal sufferings that pave our Lord’s road to the cross. And it’s horrific. But, at the same time, it’s wonderful.
And the section we’re studying today holds that same paradoxical tension. In it we’re going to see, on one hand, ugly corruption—hatred and hard-heartedness, blindness and betrayal. But, on the other hand, beautiful provision—sovereign and sacrificial, precious and powerful. Our task is to remember both, the suffering that secured our freedom and the death that brought us life.
On One Hand, Ugly Corruption
But let’s start with the bad news. As we read the first half of Matthew 26, we’re confronted with, on one hand, ugly corruption (vv. 1–5).
This scene is wretched. The chief priests and elders—the religious leaders of God’s chosen nation—gathering together in the court of the high priest—the place where divine justice was to be discerned and enacted—to plot Jesus’s assassination. It’s like a surgeon murdering patients on the table, a mother slowly poisoning her children, or a teacher abusing his students. It’s intentional harm being done when guidance and protection is expected. It’s evil.
Matthew 26 records the actions of desperate, conniving, calloused leaders, those entrusted with the job of leading God’s people to truth, along God’s way, and toward abundant life but are here seen planning the slaughter of he who is the way, the truth, and the life.
And there’s betrayal. These leaders are betraying God, their position, and the people of Israel. But this is also a national betrayal (v. 3a). While not every individual Israelite rejected Jesus, the nation as a whole had.
God had formed them, cared for them, protected them, disciplined them, was patient with them, and made promises to them. Now, with his love for Israel reaching its crescendo in the sending of his Son to redeem them, they conspire against him. That’s a national betrayal.
But it gets more ugly as the betrayal gets more personal (v. 14). Notice that one of the twelve is going to them, his initiative (v. 15). It’s not even a lot of money and, actually, was the amount an Israelite had to pay if his ox attacked his neighbour’s slave (see Ex 21:32). How much is Jesus worth to Judas? Apparently not a whole lot (vv. 16–21).
It’s an intimate setting. Picture your last Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner table. Who sat around it? Those you love most. It’s the same here. These are Jesus’s closest friends gathered for a meaningful feast when the Lord announces: it’s “one of you.”
What can the disciples say (v. 22)? They don’t question the veracity of his prediction, only the depravity of their own hearts. “Master, please let it not be me!” In response, Jesus emphasizes how personal the coming betrayal will be (v. 23). Today we may say, “we broke bread together” (vv. 24–25). Judas, who is in the process of stabbing Messiah in the back, can’t even bring himself to call Jesus “Lord” like the other eleven.
This opening scene of Christ’s cross-bound suffering is, on the one hand, full of ugly corruption. Desperate, weak leaders blinded by insecurity and envy to their own wickedness. There’s betrayal on a national level and, tragically, on the most personal level as well.
If you’re like me it’s easy to shake your head at rotten characters like these. But as we grow in our understanding of God, his word, and his holiness, we also grow in our understanding that we’re not so different. We’re capable of ugly corruption too.
It’s been said “the only things described as sinful anymore are those things that show up on a dessert menu.” Our world is in the process of systematically normalizing and celebrating basically every perversion there is (think Jgs 21:25). And while our world in confused about right and wrong, Scripture is not: we’re all sinners, rebels against the King, repeated offenders of cosmic treason. (Consider, for example, some of the following texts: Jer 17:9; Mark 7:20–23; Rom 3:23; 6:23a; Jas 4:17; 1 John 1:8a.)
We need to stare in the face of the ugly corruption presented in the pages of Scripture and in the pages of our daily lives. The hard truth is that while, yes, Israel’s leaders and Judas Iscariot exemplify extreme wretchedness, the idolatry and pride that made those betrayals possible lives in my heart as well. And yours.
John Stott once wrote, “Before we can begin to see the cross as something done for us, we have to see it as something done by us.” As we sometimes sing: “Behold the man upon a cross / My sin upon His shoulders / Ashamed, I hear my mocking voice / Call out among the scoffers / It was my sin that held Him there / Until it was accomplished / His dying breath has brought me life / I know that it is finished”
Until we accept and understand the depths of our own sin, how much we deeply offend the God of the universe, we will never fully understand the height of his grace, the extent of his love, the weight of his sacrifice. And that’s where we’re going next.
On the Other Hand, Beautiful Provision
This is a text showcases human depravity at its apex—malicious, rotten, jealous, and evil. But, as we know, there’s more going on here. On one hand, ugly corruption but, on the other hand, beautiful provision.
Yes, there’s human scheming and selfishness in this text, but there’s also divine providence and self-sacrifice. Look again at what Jesus says in verse 2. Compare that with the plans of men in verse 5. Jesus says, “I’m going to be killed during the feast.” They say, “we won’t kill him during the feast.” Who’s right? Jesus, because he knows what’s coming. God is bringing this to pass and Jesus is laying himself down.
Add to that, and we’ll read the whole paragraph in a moment, but look at verses 11 and 12. Jesus knows what’s coming (vv. 18a, 21). Jesus knows what’s coming. Amidst the ugliness, God’s providence—his control of all things—as well as the willingness of Jesus to sacrifice himself, is all on display. It’s a beautiful provision.
And it’s a provision worthy of costly commemoration (vv. 6–9). They’re right, aren’t they? Sure they are! The pragmatist and legalist in me can sympathize with their outrage. Jesus, however, corrects us all (vv. 10–13).
The woman is anointing the King, it’s true, but so much more than that. She’s anointing the King who’s about to die, the King about to be taken away from his people. And, unlike Judas who will sell Jesus out for an insignificant amount, this woman dumps her life savings on his head because this beautiful provision is worthy of a costly commemoration.
There’s a reason the Oscars aren’t held in the Boyd backyard, the Super Bowl played in a secret neighbourhood park, and the Nobel Peace Prize awarded via email. There’s a reason those are all celebrated with extravagance. It’s because our culture has decided that those are events, achievements, and accomplishments worthy of costly commemoration. And such is the passion of Christ.
And what makes it worthy is that Jesus’s death is covenant confirming (v. 26). At the passover meal the disciples had prepared, Jesus picked up the unleavened bread, broke it, and handed out the pieces to his followers to eat, saying, “this is my body.”
With this statement Jesus is connecting things in the past with things about to happen. He’s connecting the deliverance of Israel from Egypt, remembered with the Passover meal, to the deliverance of sinners from sin, which will now be remembered with a new meal. Both rescue missions are beautiful provisions from God for his people, the former foreshadowing and typifying the latter.
That the bread was unleavened is important because leaven represents sin and there was no sin in Jesus’s body, a body that was about to be given over for the sake of sinners. A body of which each sinner would have to personally partake by faith to benefit from its sustenance. (In other words, see 2 Cor 5:21).
Moving on (vv. 27–29). Again, Jesus takes part of the passover ritual, the cup of blessing, and repurposes it in light of what’s about to happen. Just as ancient Israel hid under the blood of a spotless lamp painted on their doorposts to be shielded from coming judgement and, instead, enjoy freedom, so the disciples are being taught they must hide under the blood of the Lamb of God so as to be shielded from coming judgement and, instead, enjoy everlasting freedom.
But what of the covenant? Jesus said of the cup, “this is my blood of the covenant.” With the Abrahamic and Mosaic covenants, blood ratified them and made them active like signing a marriage certificate finalizes the nuptials. Those covenants God made were sealed in blood. But there was another covenant that had never been ratified (see Jer 31:31–34).
Jeremiah predicted that, there would come a day when, God would make a new covenant with Israel. If we add what Ezekiel says about it we find it includes promises of regeneration, forgiveness of sins, and a regathering of the nation to enjoy safety and prosperity in the promised land forever. Obviously, these blessings have yet to be realized for that nation but they will be when Christ returns and establishes his kingdom, which he says is the next time he’ll share this meal with his people.
But in the meantime, the church enters into some of the blessing of the new covenant, most notably regeneration and the forgiveness of sins. While all of the biblical covenants—noahic, abrahamic, mosaic, priestly, and davidic—are wonderful and important, it’s only the new covenant that provides a final solution to our sin problem. The new covenant is with Israel particularly and especially but, praise God, not exclusively. By believing in Jesus, the Lamb of God who’s blood confirmed this new covenant, we experience new birth and the forgiveness of sin.
And that’s why we continue to remember and practice the meal Jesus inaugurated in Matthew 26. He’s initiating a new meal of remembrance, one that celebrates the ratification of the new covenant in his own blood that’s about to be shed. And so, when we take the bread, we remember the Lamb of God, given and slain for us, in our place condemned. With the cup, we remember the covenant-enacting blood shed for us, providing the forgiveness of sins—all the ugly corruption—for all who believe. What a beautiful provision.
On the one hand, the first half of Matthew 26 is a picture of depravity and ugly corruption. But, on the other hand, it showcases the beautiful provision God made for us, one of providence and self-sacrifice, worthy of costly commemoration, and one that confirmed a much-needed covenant in which we are brought by faith and kept by his power. Ugly corruption, yes. But beautiful provision too.
Remember the Worth of His Death!
It’s important that we remember the worth of his death! Not like Judas (v. 15). Not like the disciples (v. 18). But we want to remember the worth of Jesus’s death like the unnamed woman (v. 7). And like Jesus himself (v. 27). We must remember the worth of his death. This comes by understanding the ugliness of our sin and then celebrating the extent of God’s grace.
I’m going to ask you to take the elements right now and we’re going to celebrate this meal together.