If you have your Bibles, I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew, chapter 26, as we continue our study in the gospel of Matthew. All along we have said that Matthew 26 provides us a prelude to the death of Christ and repeats a number of scenes over and over, two of which we’ll see again today. The sovereignty of God and the whole process is seen again in the passage today. And yet at the same time Jesus’ willing suffering, his willingness to be captured, to be arrested, to be persecuted and to die on our behalf. It’s made very clear in this passage.
J.C. Ryle says, “We see in these verses the cup of our Lord Jesus Christ’s sufferings beginning to be filled. We see Him betrayed by one of His disciples, forsaken by the rest, and taken prisoner by His deadly enemies.” Indeed, let’s hear then God’s holy and inspired word found in Matthew 26, beginning in verse 47:
Our Lord and our God we ask that You would open our hearts to see the Lord of Glory in His humiliation in this passage. We pray that You would challenge us by His example, that You would encourage us to see our own weakness, and so to flee to Him for grace. And if we come this day without a saving relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ, then perhaps if we come this day skeptical of Him, may this display of His sheer character and glory in the midst of betrayal, in the midst of the most difficult of trials, draw us inexorably to the Savior. We ask it earnestly in Jesus name, Amen.
William Hendriksen says that in this present paragraph we are told about three things. The onslaught of the treacherous. That is, Judas the betrayer and the multitude that comes with him. We’re also taught about the defeat of the defenders. We see Peter and the disciples fail to restrain Jesus’ arrest and eventually flee, just as He predicted. And we also see the triumph of the captain. Jesus willingly embraces this betrayal. He willingly embraces this arrest that He might sacrifice Himself on our behalf. Hendriksen’s description is a good description of the passage, and I’d like you to see two or three things in this passage along those lines this morning.
I. The character and calmness of Jesus stand out in this sad event.
If you look at verses 47 through 50, you’ll see a description of Jesus’ betrayal by Judas. It’s interesting to know that in the garden that night, as far as we know, the only thing that Jesus prayed for was that God would spare Him the cup of His judgment, that is Jesus perceiving that He was to bear the sins of the world, praise in accordance with the Father’s will, and submission to the Father’s will. But if it is possible that the Lord will allow that cup of judgment to pass. But nowhere, as far as we know, does He pray that Judas would not betray Him or does He pray that His disciples would not desert Him. He is wholly and solely focused on facing the judgment of God.
Now remember that later in this passage. At any rate, in verses 45 through 50 we see a beautiful display of the character and calmness of Jesus Christ. As everything is falling apart before His eyes, as He is being betrayed by one of His own disciples, as His other disciples are beginning to take a few steps back, ready to run at the first opportunity. At that moment in time, any ordinary mortal, even the most exulted of men, would surely be perplexed. And yet Jesus Christ shows an incredible display of His character and His calmness in the midst of this event.
You remember Jesus has already aroused His disciples from their sleep, and He has gotten them up and they are marching towards Judas, and those who are here to arrest Jesus. And at that time they are approached by Judas and the crowd. Judas identifies himself to Jesus, and he identifies Jesus to Jesus’ captors by kissing Him, by greeting Him as a teacher, Hail Rabbi, and then giving Him a kiss. It would have been a normal way that those in the Near East would have greeted one another, an affectionate sign. And because it is an affectionate sign, it actually heightens the despicableness of what Judas has done. He has used a sign of affection to mark Jesus for arrest. And so Jesus is identified by Judas in this way. That was important of course because it was dark, and it would have been very easy for Jesus in the midst of darkness to slip away from those who were attempting to arrest Him. And of course this was before the days of photographs and television and video cameras, and so it would have been very easy for even a relatively well-known person like Jesus not to be recognized by the temple guards, or not to be recognized by the part of the Roman cohort which came to capture Him, and so He had to be identified. And this is exactly what Judas does.
But the way, that Judas does it emphasizes the bitterness and the despicable nature of this crime of betrayal. Hendriksen has a beautiful phrase to describe this. He says, “They came with torches and lanterns to seek out the light of the world. They came with swords and clubs to subdue the Prince of Peace.” The despicableness of it is very, very apparent. This armed crowd was made up of some of the temple guard and some of the Roman cohort. They were there, John tells us in John 18:3, probably to keep things from getting out of hand. The temple guard had been dispatched by the Sanhedrin, the Chief Priest, the Scribes and the Pharisees. The three parties which made up the body of the Sanhedrin. Now Matthew only mentions again, and he does this frequently, the Chief Priest and the Pharisees, the Elders of the people. He does this, probably again, tongue-in-cheek, because there was not much need for interpreters of the law in this incidence. Nobody was paying much attention to what the law of God said in this passage.
Now Mark tells us in Mark 14:43, that the Scribes were involved in sending these people to capture Jesus as well. Matthew’s point, and the rest of the gospel writer’s point, however, in telling you this is that once you understand that all of the main religious leaders of the people of Israel had a part, had a role in issuing the warrant for Jesus’ arrest. They all were culpable. They were all responsible. They were all part of this action, just as Jesus had been predicting to the disciples that they would. You remember, over and over He said to them, the Chief Priest and the Scribes and Elders of the people are going to hand Me over to the Gentiles. He’s repeated this to His disciples, and now it comes to pass.
And then Jesus does something absolutely mind boggling in verse 50. He basically gives permission to Judas and this mob to arrest Him. Friend, He says, “Do what you have come to do. Just go ahead and get it over with.” Jesus is virtually giving permission to Judas and his captors to arrest Him. This again shows the sovereignty of our Lord Jesus Christ. His character, His resolution and His majesty are brought into bold relief against a backdrop of this betrayal.
You know often times in the midst of a conflict with nonChristians. And unfortunately, sometimes with Christians who are acting in an unChristian way. We ourselves, no matter how hard we try, get dragged down to their level. One of the things that strikes you about this passage is that Jesus is always on the high moral ground. Throughout this whole process where He is not only being betrayed, but is being dealt with illegally and unethically, He is consistently never on the same level as His wrongful persecutors. He is consistently on the high moral ground. And so His character shows through. His character was shaped by the word of God and shaped by his awareness of the providence of God. He knew that God’s plan was going to be worked out. He knew that God moves in mysterious ways and that this was the plan of God, and therefore He was confident. And His calmness in the Garden of Gethsemane, in the midst of His arrest, certainly is related to those things as well. He knew the Scriptures. In fact, twice in this passage He will say, look, friend, everything that is happening right now is in fulfillment of the Scriptures. Because He knew it was in accord with the Scriptures, He was calm. He was at peace with it. He was ready to trust in God. And He was able to trust and be calm because of His trust in God’s providence.
His calmness, too, was based on God’s word and providence. You know, crises have a way of revealing our character. In the midst of a trial, we sometimes learn things about ourselves that we would rather not know. Then sometimes we see friends really rise to the occasion in the midst of a crisis. I had a friend who was on a trip to Europe, and there was a group of college students who were going to go up a ski lift onto the Matterhorn. Right as they got to the top, a blizzard came through; and they found themselves alone at the top of a mountain with no shelter and driving snow, and the snow was two or three feet deep and gathering by the moment. And there was a young man with them, and his girlfriend was part of this group, and in the midst of this crisis they feared, “How are we going to get back down? The ski lift has stopped running. We don’t know what we’re going to be able to do.” The young man panicked, and he ran away. And he found his own way down the mountain. And when the rest eventually found their way back down the mountain with the help of someone who knew the area, you can imagine that they weren’t too happy with this friend who had deserted them. His character had shown through in a moment of crisis.
Well Jesus’ character in the opposite way shows through in this moment of crisis. Don Carson says in all of the various trials and mockery that Jesus underwent, His character stood out more and more clearly against the backdrop of moral corruption and failed loyalty and cheap cruelty around it. And it’s so true. We cannot but admire the dignity of the Lord Jesus Christ as He goes through this indignity. He does it with magnanimity, and He does it with the sense that He is not forsaken. He is not out of control. God’s providence is ruling over all. And so the character and the calmness of Jesus remind us and provide an example for us in the midst of our own trials.
II. Peter’s action reveals a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus ministry.
But there’s more to learn in this passage. If you look at verses 51 through 54, you will see Peter’s feeble attempt to resist the arrest of the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter had pledged to Jesus that he would be faithful to Him to the end, and he had pledged that he would die with or for Him if necessary. And this is Peter seeing his opportunity to be a faithful disciple to the Lord Jesus Christ. And I want you to understand that Peter’s actions, as brave as they are, in fact reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of Jesus’ mission and the purpose of His death.
As Jesus is being arrested, Matthew tells us that one of His disciples attempted to resist that arrest by taking out his short sword and actually reaching out and cutting off the ear of the servant of the High Priest. Now this is a very interesting exchange. Matthew, very kindly, doesn’t finger Peter. He doesn’t tell you that this is Peter. But Peter, as he assists Mark in the writing of his gospel, Peter raises his hand in the corner of the room and he fesses up. He says friends, it was me. I’m the numbskull that did that. Because Peter, by doing that, shows us that he didn’t understand at all the purpose of what Jesus was going to do in the next twenty-four hours. He is revealing to us a deficiency of understanding. You remember Jesus, all the way back in Matthew 16 at Caesarea Philippi, as soon as Peter confessed Him to be the Messiah, the Son of the living God, Jesus began preparing His disciples to understand what? That He had to die. And now Peter once again is not only just saying, Lord forbid it, he is attempting physically to prevent the Lord Jesus Christ from being arrested, persecuted and killed.
Now you have to admire Peter. Before we criticize him, let’s admire him for a minute. I don’t know how many people were with Judas, but it could have been in the hundreds. Part of the Roman cohort was there, John tells us in John 18. Part of the temple guard was there. They were armed. Peter was hopelessly outnumbered. He was out manned. They had more weapons, and yet this man is ready to take out the sword and go out fighting. You have to admire the man. I wonder what we would have done in the same circumstance. But again I must stress his actions were ignorant and uncomprehending, because as Jesus will say twice in this passage, He had to be arrested in order that the Scriptures would be fulfilled. Jesus was conscious that God’s plan was being worked out here and nobody, not Peter, not Judas, not the mob was going to keep that plan from being worked out. In fact, Jesus turns to Peter, and He says do you not think that I could call upon twelve legions of angels and they would not be here like that to protect me? Let’s take Jesus literally for a moment. A Roman legion had about 6,000 men in it. So if an angelic legion had 6,000 angels He was saying that God could send 72,000 angels in the snap of a finger to protect Him if necessary. In other words, there would have been about 6,000 angels for each of the eleven disciples and Jesus to protect them. Not just one guardian angel, but 6,000 guardian angels.
What’s Jesus’ point of saying this? To stress that it is not because God lacks the power to stop it that He is going to the cross. And it is not because Jesus lacks the ability to ask of God to spare Him that He is going to the cross. He is going to the cross because He has chosen to go to the cross. He is not a passive victim. He is the prime actor, and He has chosen to go to the cross. Jesus goes to the cross not because the Father can’t stop it, not because He can’t ask the Father to stop it, but because of His desire to fulfill the word of God. J.C. Ryle explains this beautifully. He says, “We see in these words” and he’s talking about the words how then will the Scripture be fulfilled which says it must happen this way “the secret of His voluntary submission to His foes. He came on purpose to fulfill the types and promises of the Old Testament Scriptures, and by fulfilling them to provide salvation for the world. He came intentionally to be the true Lamb of God, the Passover lamb. He came voluntarily to be the scapegoat on whom the iniquities of the people were to be laid. His heart was set on accomplishing this great work. It could not be done without the hiding of His power for a time. To do it He became a willing sufferer. He was taken, tried, condemned and crucified entirely of His own free will.”
And if you do not understand that, you do not understand the cross. The cross is not some sort of “Plan B” idea that God came up with. You know there was an old theology around that used to say that Jesus really came to offer the kingdom to the Jews. And they rejected it, and, oops, God had come up with another plan. That bears no relation to what Matthew says in this gospel. Jesus came for the purpose of dying.
As we reflect during the holiday season on the incarnation of the Lord, and as we are gloried in the wonder of the Second Person of the Trinity, the Son of God, the Lord of the Universe dwelling as a baby in a manager. Let’s not forget that that baby in a manger came for the purpose of dying. And Jesus understood that, and so He rebukes His disciples. And I want to say that if you’re a sinner who thinks that you’ve done something beyond Jesus’ willingness to receive you, you need to remember this: That the one who was willing to suffer is a willing Savior. The almighty Son of God who allowed men to bind Him and take away Him and crucify Him is desirous that sinners turn from their ways and trust in Him and find salvation. If He’s willing to suffer what He suffered, surely He is full of readiness to save everyone who calls on His name.
III. Jesus proclaims the sovereignty of God and His word to His captors.
And then in verses 55 and 56 Jesus turns His attention away from the disciples. He’s been speaking to Peter and the disciples who are still uncomprehending in terms of His mission. Now Jesus proclaims the sovereignty of God to His captors. Isn’t it interesting in verses 55 and 56 Jesus explains to those who are going to take Him captive what they are doing to Him and why they are being allowed to do it to Him. Look at His words. At that time, Jesus said to the crowd, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest me as you would a robber? Everyday I used to sit in the temple teaching and you did not seize Me. But all this is taking place to fulfill the Scriptures of the prophets.”
After setting Peter straight, Jesus then addresses the crowd that has come to take Him captive. The first thing He does is He chides them for being cowards. He says why have you come under the cover of darkness? I sat in the temple in the daylight, in the open, teaching day after day. Why didn’t you come then? Jesus is pricking their consciences because they know they are cowards. They know that they are afraid of the multitudes, and so they have come by night. Furthermore, He says, and why do you come with swords and clubs? I’ve never carried a weapon. I’m not a revolutionary. Why have you come with swords and clubs as if I’m going to lead a military insurrection against you? You utterly mistake the kind of kingdom that I’m bringing in. And so He shames them.
Now, I want to say in passing, that this makes it so clear that Jesus is no revolutionary. There are so many biographies of Jesus out that want to paint Him as some sort of a social revolutionary. Jesus in this passage makes it clear that that’s the furthest thing from His mind. He’s no bandit, He’s no highwayman, He’s no social revolutionary. He’s the Son of God coming to bring the kingdom of God.
And then He goes on to announce to these same people why it is that He is going to be taken captive. Their actions, He says, are in accordance with His predictions, and they have been taken in order to fulfill the scriptures. Think of that. Jesus is saying, Judas, all my captors, temple guards, servants of the Chief Priest, Scribes and Elders of the People, Roman soldiers from the cohort of Jerusalem, you are doing just what I predicted because God decreed it before the foundation of the world. He told His prophets, His prophets wrote it in the Scripture, and I came into the world in order to fulfill that Scripture, and you are merely instruments in the hands of God. I am not being taken today against My will, He is saying. I am being taken today in accordance with the will of God which I have freely embraced.
Notice here that Jesus doesn’t just acquiesce to God’s sovereignty. He doesn’t just say, doesn’t shrug His shoulders and say, well I guess God has just allowed this terrible thing to happen. We do that sometimes. We think we are being very Presbyterian. We say, well I guess God has just allowed this to happen. That’s not what Jesus said. Jesus said that God has caused, He has decreed this to happen. This is in accordance with His holy will which He has established before the foundation of the world, and I embrace it because it is the will of my Heavenly Father, and it’s good. It may be horrendous for me, but I willingly embrace it because it’s good for His people, and I love His people. And He’s promised to give them to Me if I lay down My life for them. Jesus reveled in the sovereignty of God, and He proclaims it even to that multitude of captors.
Have you noticed Jesus’ response to His captors in this circumstance? First, to Judas. He called him friend. There’s more there than we could treat in a month of Sundays. I don’t think He means that sarcastically. I honestly don’t. I don’t think Jesus is being sarcastic with Judas there. I think Jesus is once again in the very word friend handing out yet one more warning to Judas. If you have any doubts about the free offer of the gospel, look how Jesus behaved in Matthew 26 and 27. Even to Judas, He is casting out strands of mercy with the hope of pulling him in. And then to His captors He carefully explains why it is that He’s being arrested. Why? Because He’s the Son of God who came into the world to seek and save those who were lost. Even now He’s an evangelistic preacher attempting to plant the seed of grace in the hearts of these men who are part of His betrayal and His arrest.
And then we’re told at the very end of verse 56, right as He’s being led away, perhaps in chains, all His disciples flee, just as He told them that they would. And I suspect that II Timothy, chapter 2, verses 11 through 13 speaks very directly to that situation. Do you remember Paul’s confounding words there. It’s one of these trustworthy things. It goes like this. “It is a trustworthy statement for if we died with Him, we will also live with Him. If we endure, we will also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will deny us. But if we are faithless, He remains faithful for He cannot deny Himself.” Judas had denied Jesus and was thus denied. And it’s tempting for us to lump the disciples in the same lump with Judas because of their desertion. But apparently Jesus’ weak and well-meaning disciples were not denying Him here, they were simply faithless. And so Jesus loved them anyway. He was faithful, though they were faithless.
But it’s also important for us to understand that this too was in the plan of God, because Jesus had to face the cross alone. That’s so important for us to understand. Jesus had to face and bear the cross alone. Lest we think that the most exalted of His servants serves somehow as an additional mediator. Now there’s only one who saves us, and He saved us alone. And so we do not look to His disciples as our mediator, we do not look at the apostles as our mediators, we do not look at the martyrs as our mediators, we do not look at the most exalted saints as our mediators, we certainly don’t look to Mary as our mediator. We look to Jesus Christ alone as our mediator because by Himself, alone, He accomplished our redemption.
But you know the failure of the disciples reminds us of one more thing. Sometimes we don’t know the weakness of our heart until we are tried and tested. Have you ever gotten excited, and you were moved at a Christian meeting of some sort, and you resolved to be faithful to Christ like you’ve never been faithful before. You were filled with zeal for Him; and in forty-eight hours or seventy-two hours you found yourself falling prey to sin once again. Oh, my friends, J.C. Ryle reminds us “Let us settle it in our minds, that there is nothing too bad for the very best of us to do unless he watches, prays, and is held up by the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ.” If the actions of the disciples in verse 56 teach us anything, they teach us not to trust in ourselves, but to wholly lean on Jesus’ name. May God bless you as you do so. Let’s pray.
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