Read the passage here.
Today is the second Sunday of Lent and we’re continuing on in the Passion narrative in the gospel of Matthew. Last week, we looked at the Last Supper passage, and hopefully everyone got that we were trying to understand the Last Supper – which is to say, trying to understand that Jesus’ death – is the constitutive element of who we are as the people of God. Now, in looking at the Last Supper, and because of what we were focusing on, we passed over the verses dealing with Jesus’ acknowledging that Judas would betray him. Matthew 26:20-25 say:
20 When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. 21 And while they were eating, he said, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me.”
22 They were very sad and began to say to him one after the other, “Surely you don’t mean me, Lord?”
23 Jesus replied, “The one who has dipped his hand into the bowl with me will betray me. 24 The Son of Man will go just as it is written about him. But woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”
25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?”
Jesus answered, “You have said so.”Matthew 26:20-25
Thematically, our passage today is closely related to these verses. In these verses, we see Jesus acknowledging that He knows that 1) He is going to die (this is something He’s communicated to the disciples several times), and 2) that Judas would be the primary actor in Jesus’ betrayal. So, recognizing that, let’s look at today’s passage. We will start by considering verses 31-35.
31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written:“‘I will strike the shepherd,
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
32 But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”
33 Peter replied, “Even if all fall away on account of you, I never will.”
34 “Truly I tell you,” Jesus answered, “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.”
35 But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same.Matthew 26:31-35
Now remembering the previous passage, it’s easy to single Judas out – and certainly he is the one who most directly, that is, intentionally – contributes to Jesus’ crucifixion. However, if we read these two passages directly next to each other, it’s hard to miss that all of the disciples are similarly (though not identically) guilty. In other words, while Judas betrays Jesus, all of the disciples abandon Him.
In verse 21, Jesus says, “one of you will betray me,” by which He means Judas. But in verse 31, he also says, “you will all fall away…”, referring to the rest of the disciples.
Now, as a bit of an aside, I don’t mean to say (and I don’t think that Jesus was implying) that the failure of the eleven was the same as the betrayal of Judas. With respect to the discussion that we had a couple of weeks ago, Judas’ betrayal was likely a result of the incompatibility of His own expectations, desires, and ambitions. Judas’ betrayal was an abandonment or rejection of the kind of Kingdom that Jesus was actually working towards. The disciples’ failure was not a betrayal, but precisely a failing. We know this because the eleven all returned after Jesus’ resurrection and then worked to continue Jesus’ kingdom. So their failure was the kind of stumbling, stuttering, or lapse that we have all suffered.
Nevertheless, what Jesus’ foretelling indicates is that 1) none of the disciples are completely faithful. The faith of none of the disciples is perfect. Which is also to say that, 2) Jesus’ work is his work alone. None of the disciples can or will go with Him. It’s something that He alone accomplishes. Now I have more to say about this but we will carry on.
The scripture that Jesus quotes in v. 31:
…for it is written:
“‘I will strike the shepherd,Matthew 26:31b
and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’
Is from Zechariah 13, which says:
7 “Awake, sword, against my shepherd,
against the man who is close to me!”
declares the Lord Almighty.
“Strike the shepherd,
and the sheep will be scattered,
and I will turn my hand against the little ones.Zechariah 13:7
Now this passage is one which, by Jesus’ time, was taken to be an eschatological passage – that is, having to do with the time when the people of Israel would be restored. And these, and the accompanying verses, have to do with the purifying or refining of “the sheep.”
In my head, this is important because the idea of the restoration of God’s people can’t be seen as a simple, straightforward victory. Israel does not become restored without consideration of its sins and failures. Rather, with restoration, there is work that needs to be done. And as we know, this work can only truly and ultimately be done through Jesus on the cross.
Now the rest of this first section focuses on Peter’s claim that he will never abandon Jesus – and we’re going to return to this – but it’s important to note that, though Peter is highlighted, all of the disciples say the same thing.
Having said that, let’s carry on with our passage. The next section of our passage is Jesus in Gethsemane.
36 Then Jesus went with his disciples to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to them, “Sit here while I go over there and pray.” 37 He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee along with him, and he began to be sorrowful and troubled. 38 Then he said to them, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.”
39 Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.”
40 Then he returned to his disciples and found them sleeping. “Couldn’t you men keep watch with me for one hour?” he asked Peter. 41 “Watch and pray so that you will not fall into temptation. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”
42 He went away a second time and prayed, “My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”
43 When he came back, he again found them sleeping, because their eyes were heavy. 44 So he left them and went away once more and prayed the third time, saying the same thing.Matthew 26:36-44
I want to note three things about this passage:
Firstly, compare this passage, and the actions of the disciples, to the previous “I will never fall away” statements (vv. 33-35). When Jesus predicted their failure, all of the disciples insisted that they would never abandon Jesus. But if they could not do so little a thing as stay awake, how could they do the greater thing? On the one hand, this seems to anticipate their actions only a few verses later, when they do in fact abandon Jesus. Yet on the other hand, does this (comparatively) anticipate the zeal and commitment of the disciples/apostles (they would mostly all be martyred). In other words, the change in the disciples brought about by Jesus’ resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit (in the book of Acts) is pretty remarkable.
The second thing we see in this passage is that it also reiterates and anticipates that Jesus must go to his death alone. Though Jesus brings his disciples with him to the garden, presumably for support, He is essentially alone. Later, we will see Jesus on the cross and he cries out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” He is truly alone.
46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).Matthew 27:46
My point, I think, is that we cannot underestimate what Jesus actually went through. We shouldn’t fall to the temptation of understating it. When we read those passages, quoted in the gospels but written in the prophets, about the suffering servant – the servant who suffers – this isn’t merely a title. It’s not merely a figure of speech. We have to (I believe) come to grips with the fact that our salvation is won through Jesus’ suffering.
So the third thing follows in that Jesus’ distress is real and severe, even as he anticipates the cross. Thus, there is a distinct contrast between want and need. It is clear that Jesus does not want to die. However, the need is determined by God’s plan and purpose – to redeem humanity.
The final verses of our passage describe Jesus’ actual arrest. And again, there are a couple of things that I want to point out:
47 While he was still speaking, Judas, one of the Twelve, arrived. With him was a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people. 48 Now the betrayer had arranged a signal with them: “The one I kiss is the man; arrest him.” 49 Going at once to Jesus, Judas said, “Greetings, Rabbi!” and kissed him.
50 Jesus replied, “Do what you came for, friend.”
Then the men stepped forward, seized Jesus and arrested him. 51 With that, one of Jesus’ companions reached for his sword, drew it out and struck the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear.
52 “Put your sword back in its place,” Jesus said to him, “for all who draw the sword will die by the sword. 53 Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? 54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”
55 In that hour Jesus said to the crowd, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.” Then all the disciples deserted him and fled.Matthew 26:47-56
The first thing to notice is that, though Matthew doesn’t specify (v.51), according to John’s gospel, it is Peter who cuts off the servant’s ear:
10 Then Simon Peter, who had a sword, drew it and struck the high priest’s servant, cutting off his right ear. (The servant’s name was Malchus.)
11 Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”John 18:10-11
I find this interesting because we so often focus on Peter’s failure (and with good reason). We read the passage where Peter denies Jesus three times, and we remember the verses in our passage today predicting that denial. And we read Peter saying to Jesus, “I will never fall away,” and we think, “Oh Peter…”
But we shouldn’t ignore the fact that Peter did in fact demonstrate a willingness to stand by Jesus. Peter’s initial reaction when the crowd came to arrest Jesus was to take up arms, ready to fight.
However, in his eagerness and zeal, Peter didn’t recognize that this is precisely not the way the kingdom is established. As we’ve seen again and again through the gospel of Matthew, the ways of the world are not the ways of the Kingdom of God. Peter and the disciples don’t flee until it becomes clear that Jesus has no intention of resisting, no intention of fighting. They don’t flee until they realize (though perhaps they don’t understand) that this is precisely what Jesus knew would happen all along.
According to John, Jesus says to Peter:
11 Jesus commanded Peter, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?”John 18:11
And according to Matthew, Jesus says:
54 But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?”Matthew 26:54
56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.”…Matthew 26:56
So what is Jesus talking about when He says, “…it must happen this way”? What way? And what is it that must be fulfilled?
Again, remembering our journey through Matthew’s gospel, Jesus is saying that God’s redemption doesn’t come about according to the ways of the world. The way of dominance and power isn’t the way of the kingdom. The way of position and prestige isn’t the way of the kingdom.
Jesus didn’t seek what was “best” for Himself. Jesus never sought to lift Himself up. And He never sought to destroy His enemies. Rather, He gave Himself up. He pursued that which was necessary to seek and save the lost.
Today is the second Sunday of Lent. And as we’ve discussed, and with respect with different perspectives on Lent, it is a time of reflection, confession, and contemplation.
As a preacher, one of the things that you’re supposed to do, in addition to properly explaining the biblical text, is to talk about application – “how am I supposed to apply this biblical text?” This is often a perfectly valid question. However, on the one hand, I think this can sometimes stem from a misunderstanding of how biblical texts often operate, and on the other hand, can run the risk of reducing those texts to a list of dos and don’ts that is frequently not actually all that helpful.
I guess what I’m saying is that sometimes we simply need to stop, listen, reflect, and seek to understand – and we allow this, through the Holy Spirit, affect how we actually live. When we read a passage like this, there are certainly applications we can derive. But what I want to encourage us all to do this Lenten season is to pause, slow down, and listen as the Holy Spirit speaks to us.
Therefore, in considering this passage, here are a few things that we might reflect on.
Firstly, we can reflect on the profound alone-ness of Jesus’ fate. We can reflect upon how Jesus’ mission required Him leave the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit (as far as we can understand it), and enter a world of sin and brokenness. And that that world would ultimately abandon and forsake its saviour. What would it have been like to have all of his closest friends abandon him, to have one of them betray him? What would it have been like to face the religious leaders with no one by his side? What would it have been like to walk to the cross with the burden of the whole world on his shoulders?
Secondly, we can reflect upon the fact that Jesus knew the disciples would abandon Him. But they were chosen anyways. Were they simply the best that were available? Or, as we probably suspect, was being the “best” simply not a consideration at all? If not, then why did Jesus choose those that He chose? And how would that whole experience (of failure, redemption, grace, and etc.) have shaped the disciples’ future ministries?
And thirdly, as Jesus frequently pointed out, all this happened according to the scriptures (and it’s worth noting again that Jesus’ interpretation of scriptures is different from that of the religious leaders and yet authoritative). That is to say, all of this happened according to God’s [real] purposes. If we reflect on it, it seems exceedingly odd that this is the means by which God brings salvation to the world. But it was and it is. Which underlines the fact that Jesus went willingly and intentionally to the cross. For each of us.
There are many other things that this text invites us to reflect upon. But as we continue in the season of Lent, as we continue to read and reflect upon Jesus’ last days, I invite you to be immersed in this story. I don’t know how many of you actually reflect and think about the past Sunday’s message – to be honest, I’d be surprised if many of you do (I frequently don’t). And I’m less encouraging you to reflect on the sermon and more encouraging you to reflect on the scripture. Immerse yourself in the story of what Christ has done and what that has done for us.