Christ Died – Matthew 27:45-56

In his account of the death of Jesus Christ, Matthew chooses to report more about the supernatural events surrounding Jesus’s death than about the crucifixion itself. In particular in our text, he describes five signs directly linked to the death of Christ – darkness (v. 45), the split veil (v. 51a), an earthquake (v. 51b), open tombs and resurrected bodies (v. 52-53), and the salvation of a pagan soldier (v. 54). Much time is wasted trying to discover how these things occurred; instead we ought to occupy ourselves seeking to understand why they happened.  The importance of the three hours of darkness, for instance, is not whether this was the result of an historical First Century eclipse, but that darkness was a sign of the presence of great evil resulting in the judgment of God.

Of Christ’s seven sayings from the cross, Matthew records just one – chronologically, the fourth of seven. Shortly before his death, Jesus desperately cries out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”(v. 46).  Matthew joins the Hebrew “Eli” (meaning, “my God”) with the Aramaic, “lema sabachthani” (meaning, “why have you forsaken me?”). The crowd of mockers mistakenly interpret His words as calling for the prophet Elijah (v. 49); but make no mistake, Jesus was genuinely experiencing the loss of communion with His Father. As human beings, we cannot fathom the agony of the feeling of abandonment by the One with whom He knew eternal intimacy. Christian theology developed the belief that it was at this moment that Christ bore the sins of all humanity, thus spiritually separating Him from His Father. One might ask, how is it possible for the eternal Son to be divided from the Father with whom He is in eternal Unity?  We will not find the ontological nature of this division addressed in Scripture, and delving too much into this has led to much error. All we know for sure is that Jesus’s words, along with the testimony of the surrounding darkness, point to the absence of God at this significant point of human history. It must suffice for us to accept that while Jesus was forsaken, He was never separated from God.

Our text leaves us with great hope, as darkness is not the final sign. After Christ bows His head and yields up His spirit, tombs are miraculously opened and a pagan man is saved. This points to the fact that, in Christ, not only was atonement made and the wrath of God fully satisfied, but that His sacrifice was accepted and leads to new life – from death come resurrection to those who are in Christ!

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The Disciples’ Trial – Matthew 26:69-27:10

On the eve of the Passover, after Jesus celebrated the meal with his disciples, he told them that they would all stumble because of Him that night (26:31). Specifically, he prophesied that Peter would deny Him three times before the rooster crowed (26:34).

Arguably no disciple was placed higher in the gospels than Peter, and almost no disciple fell lower. No one argued his loyalty more vehemently, and no one denied Jesus more repeatedly. Earlier that morning, Jesus was arrested, bound and taken to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest, under the cover of darkness; Peter followed at a distance (26:58). During these early morning hours, while Jesus was confronted with three verbal threats (false witnesses, valid witnesses, and Caiaphas, 26:59-63), Peter was also being tested three times. While Jesus stands up for truth in the courtroom, Peter caves into the pressure in the courtyard. As Jesus’s prophetic office was being mocked by the Sanhedrin (26:67-68), ironically, his prophecy of Peter’s three-fold denial was coming to pass outside.

We can learn much from Peter’s testing that night. John Calvin wrote, “Peter’s fall, here described, brilliantly mirrors our own infirmity. His repentance in turn is a memorable demonstration for us of God’s goodness and mercy. The story told of one man … teaches those who stand to take care and caution; it encourages the fallen to trust in pardon.” Like Peter’s trial, tests of our own discipleship do not often happen when we are at our best, but they come upon us unexpectedly and from the unlikeliest of sources. When at last the rooster crowed, it was like a wake-up call to repentance. It was then that Peter remembered the Word that Jesus said (26:75). Remembering Jesus’s Word has changed and can change and save disciples. God’s amazing grace was demonstrated by the fact that Peter was restored and used mightily by God.

The same cannot be said of another disciple; Judas’s death and Peter’s denial are set in contrast. Matthew is showing us the difference between a remorse that repents leading to renewal, and a remorse that ruins. While Peter “went out and wept bitterly” (26:75), Judas “went out and hanged himself” (27:4). Though Judas demonstrates some signs associated with repentance, unlike Peter, his heart is not broken but despairing. While a broken heart longs for forgiveness, a despairing heart only thinks of what one can do for oneself.  When both hearts hit bottom, one realizes it is powerless and repents, the other tries everything else.

 

 

Jesus on Trial: The Jewish Trial – Matthew 26:57-68

On the same evening of the Passover, after praying in Gethsemane, and having been betrayed by Judas, Jesus was bound and brought to the house of Caiaphas, the high priest. It was the post-midnight early morning hours, and by now the disciples have scattered, just as Jesus prophesied in the Upper Room earlier that evening. Only one disciple, Peter, followed at a distance to watch the events. The so-called trial took place in three phases, the first two being completed in the very early hours of the morning; this was illegal according to Jewish law, which only permitted trials during daylight hours.

In verses 57-63, deposition of (false) witnesses was sought that would incriminate Jesus with blasphemy. After some time, two witnesses announced that they heard Jesus say, “I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to rebuild it in three days.” Ironically Jesus did make this statement in John 2:19, but because their testimony did not agree (Mk 14:59), it was overthrown. Up to this point in the trial, Jesus remained silent, refusing to defend himself. Frustrated and angry, Caiaphas made a bold and devious move that changed the direction of the proceedings. He came right out and directly asked Jesus to swear an oath telling if he was indeed “the Messiah, the Son of God.” This was a crafty challenge, for reasons we will discuss on Sunday.

Curiously, Jesus finally spoke up and answered Caiaphas’s challenge in verse 64, “You have said so. But I tell you, from now on you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” These powerful words drawn from Daniel 7:13-14, became the turning point of the trial. Caiaphas and the judges did not misunderstand that reference – they had the blasphemy they were waiting to hear, and their indictment was that Jesus’s crime was worthy of death. He would be officially charged and sentenced in the morning (27:1).

Imagine that you were Jesus’s defense attorney at this trial; could you defend his claim to be the Messiah and the Son of God? On what texts would you build your case? One could go to any number of witnesses from the Old Testament to show that Jesus was the Messiah; but how about “the Son of God?” What do the following texts reveal about this title that Jesus claimed? (Ps 2:7, Is 9:6, Is 7:14, Ge 16:13, 18:13, 17, 26, Dan 3:25)

 

The True Man and true men – Matthew 26:31-46

In the final three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel, we have been seeing how the events leading up to and including the Passion of Jesus Christ are intensely dramatic, only occasionally relieved by pleasant interludes. Once again in our text, no sooner have the disciples celebrated the gift of the Lord’s Supper and finished singing the triumphant Hallel psalms, than Jesus breaks the mood with a prediction of their complete collapse. Jesus foresaw that His shameful betrayal, arrest, trial, and crucifixion would so scandalize the disciples that they would all lose their faith. Identifying Himself as the shepherd of Zechariah 13:7, Jesus said, “I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.” And indeed, this very night, all of his disciples would utterly deny and forsake Jesus Christ, thus demonstrating the weakness of all humanity.

Throughout the Bible, in both the Old and New Testaments, the heroes of Scripture are rarely from among God’s people; Israel, the church, disciples, religious folks are almost always painfully fragile – even those who appear most adamant in their dedication. Our text unashamedly displays the weakness of humanity, as the spokesman for the twelve and arguably the most dedicated apostle, Peter, affirms that his deeply felt commitment for Christ would last forever; but in fact, Jesus tells him that it would not even last the night. “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” But despite his and all of the disciples’ failure, Christ promises that He is not finished with them. Despite our sins, weaknesses, failures, and even denials, Christ will never leave or forsake His people.

Nowhere is the human weakness of the disciples contrasted with the strength of Christ more clearly than in the garden of Gethsemane. While the scene in the garden that night teaches Jesus’s true humanity, as we find Him confused, depressed, and even fearing death; nevertheless, His poise and resolve to carry out His Father’s will, prevail as He anguishes in prayer. While Jesus overcomes His grief through prayer, the disciples are found sleeping. Instead of being watchful in prayer, they did not find prayer very important. The result of Gethsemane is that Jesus emerged confident to face the trials that lay ahead of him, while the disciples were unprepared for what came next, and ended up forsaking Jesus in His most difficult hour.

 

Portals to Passion – Matthew 26:1-16

“You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” Mt. 26:2

After Jesus’s final public discourse delivered from the Mount of Olives on the Last Things, Matthew tells us that it is just two days before the Passover feast when Jesus would be handed over to be crucified. Though Jesus’s public teaching ministry is complete, the Gospel is far from over as He moves from his ministry as prophet, to the office of His priestly ministry in His Passion. In the final three chapters of Matthew’s Gospel Jesus teaches us through the events of His suffering. The main point and power of Matthew’s entire gospel account lies in the message of these three chapters – Jesus’s sacrificial suffering (chapters 26-27) and glorious resurrection (chapter 28).

In prophesying His death two days before His crucifixion, Jesus is demonstrating that He is in full control of the events that would soon appear to engulf Him and His disciples. The Passover feast which was just two days away was to be the Passover to end all Passovers; it would be the Passover to which all previous Passovers pointed, and to which every future Passover would look back. Where once the feast recalled how the angel of death passed over the Jewish homes where the blood of the lamb was spread over the doorposts, in this ultimate Passover, the blood of Jesus will shield the proverbial “doors of believers’ lives” from the angel of eternal death.

The Son of Man, that kingly heavenly figure introduced to us in Daniel chapter 7, who we just learned was going to come back in great power and glory, must first be handed over into the hands of sinful men to suffer and die on a cruel Roman cross. This is difficult for religious folks to grasp. Religion tends to embrace a theology of glory instead of a theology of the cross, involving suffering. The idea that the Savior must be a victim before He is victor is difficult to accept. In the gospel, however, we discover that our Savior becomes a victor through being a victim, as God raises Him from the dead after He willingly lays down His life as an atoning sacrifice. Lastly we find in our text a great contrast between a woman devoted to worshipping Christ by fully embracing His impending suffering and death, and a treacherous disciple more enthralled with glory than with suffering.

The Olivet Discourse 8: The Final Judgment – Matthew 25:31-46

 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life. Mt 25:46

Following the telling of three parables where the central character returns after a lengthy absence to either save or judge his people, Jesus concludes His Olivet Discourse with a description of that final judgment. He does not describe this “Judgment Day” in terms of a courtroom trial, but rather as the sentencing of those for whom a verdict has already been established. The picture Jesus paints of that Day is one of grandeur and majesty, wherein He comes in glory to be seated on His throne accompanied by angels. In an allusion to Ezekiel 34:17-19, Jesus concludes the discourse with an apocalyptic description of how a shepherd of a flock separates his sheep from the goats.

Since the creation of the world (v. 34), God prepared a kingdom for His people (sheep) to dwell with and worship Him forever; He calls and fashions a “flock” to participate in this eternal fellowship. He calls His sheep, and they listen and follow Him (Jn 10:27-28). But alas, not everyone is part of this flock – there are goats who mingle among the sheep; even if there is not much difference to the physical eye, the shepherd is able to distinguish between those who are his sheep and those who are goats. Jesus, the good Shepherd, does just that on Judgment Day – He separates the sheep (saved people) from the goats (unsaved people), assigning them opposite eternal destinies.

There is an inherent nature whereby sheep are differentiated from goats. The sheep, whom God fashions to occupy His kingdom, are naturally concerned with the welfare of others – in particular the three basic human needs of food, shelter, and companionship. This concern, which is natural for sheep, is far from the thoughts of the goats, who are concerned with self-preservation. Although the Gospel clearly teaches that one is not saved on the basis of his good deeds or humanitarian efforts, it also teaches that the bearer of genuine faith applies his faith in a life of concern for others. The sheep, who are naturally carrying out what is in their hearts by serving others, are surprised to discover that their action of love is in fact serving the Lord Jesus, Himself. A major interpretive crux in the text lies in Jesus’ words in verse 40, as we seek to know exactly who are, the least of these, my brothers, toward whom we are to exercise love and mercy. We will discuss this on Sunday.

The Olivet Discourse 7: What Will You Be Doing at His Coming? – Matthew 25:14-30

 For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. . Mt 25:29

We are nearing the conclusion of our study of Jesus’s Olivet Discourse. We saw last time how Jesus is telling four stories, the central character of each being this “Absent-One” who will return for judgment and salvation – salvation for those who are found waiting for Him, and judgment on those who are not ready. In each story, those who are waiting are not inactive but involved in fruitful activity. The message of the first two stories (24:25-25:13) is the same – Christians must be prepared for Christ’s return. It is not those who are looking up to the sky who are prepared, but it is those who are faithfully serving at a table with oil in their lamps (24:45, 25:8-10); those who are prepared are loyal, trustworthy, and true to the mission they have been given.

In the third story, “the parable of the talents,” Jesus expands on the nature of preparedness, by defining the mission which His disciples are to be faithfully occupied with until He comes – namely, wisely using the gifts they are given. In grace, God gives a variety of gifts to His people, and faithful use of those gifts results in further entrustment; lack of fidelity and laziness leads to spiritual atrophy. Finally the servant found not using his gift is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. The severe consequence of poor stewardship serves to warn Christians who rest on their profession with no desire to serve others.

While the literal meaning of a “talent” refers to money (and there is certainly an application as to how we steward our finances), a “talent” actually illustrates any and all opportunities that God gives us now in this life for which we will give an account later. Even our time may be considered a “talent.” The Master gave no instruction as to how these “talents” were to be put to use, leaving freedom for the recipients’ creativity in their use. But they must be used and not buried. Take an inventory of the natural and spiritual gifts that God has given you. Are you using them to their fullest? If not, what is holding you back from putting them to faithful use?