by Joel Beeke
Matthew 26 offers a series of short but brilliantly lit scenes surrounding the betrayal of Jesus. The chapter opens with Christ announcing the end of His public preaching ministry. After this, He says to His disciples: “After two days is the feast of the passover, and the Son of man is betrayed to be crucified” (v. 2, KJV).
To us, looking back on history, Christ’s intent to die on the cross could not be clearer. But the disciples do not grasp His meaning; they are still clinging to their own hopes for Christ and His kingdom. Some Christians today are similarly blind to Scripture. They only consult the Word to confirm their preconceived ideas and expectations.
Like a filmmaker, Matthew moves his focus to a different scene. The Sanhedrin, the highest court of the Jews, is assembled in the hall of Caiaphas. They duly observe the formalities of meeting, but their purpose is to plot the murder of Jesus. After deliberation, a motion is passed to take Jesus quietly and kill Him (v. 4). An amendment is added, specifying that this arrest not be done “on the feast day, lest there be an uproar among the people” (v. 5). What a mix this meeting is of parliamentary procedure, political savvy, and heinous sin!
Matthew next swings his focus back to Jesus, who is being entertained in the house of Simon the leper in Bethany. The all-male dinner party is interrupted by a woman who carries a beautiful alabaster container filled with perfumed oil. She breaks the container and pours its liquid upon the head of Jesus.
The disciples (stirred by Judas; John 12:4–5) protest this seemingly purposeless waste. Jesus points out that the disciples may give to the poor any time they care to. What’s more, He says that the woman grasps what they refuse to accept: He is about to die, and this woman acknowledges that fact by pouring her ointment on her Savior.
Christ’s rebuke reminds us that He weighs our deeds against the motives of our hearts. At times we Reformed Christians promote utility at the expense of beauty. But Psalm 90:17 tells us that our profession of true religion should be adorned with the beauty of the Lord. Furthermore, our public worship should reflect that beauty. “Strength and beauty are in his sanctuary” (Ps. 96:6).
Matthew then moves to Judas, who slips away from the disciples and goes to the priests to make a deal with them if he delivers Jesus: “What will ye give me, and I will deliver him unto you?” he asks.
Matthew tells us that “they covenanted with him for thirty pieces of silver” (26:15). Some scholars translate the Greek verb for “covenant” here literally (“to weigh”), meaning that the priests weighed the silver to assure its value and paid Judas on the spot. The King James translators, however, use the word covenant to mean “to establish” or “stand firm,” inferring a solemn oath or religious covenant. Either meaning still reveals that heinous sin is again cloaked with the formalities of religion and the law.
The thirty pieces of silver also reflect contempt for Jesus. This small sum represents the damages assessed against a farmer whose ox happens to gore a servant and cause his death (Ex. 21:32). Christ’s life is sold for a paltry price, showing the vast chasm between Christ’s sworn enemies and the willing Sufferer (Ps. 22; Isa. 53; Zech. 11:12–13).
The focus finally returns to the Passover. During the meal, Christ states with certainty: “One of you shall betray me” (Matt. 26:21). The solemn joy of the feast gives way to sorrow. The disciples fearfully ask, “Lord, is it I?” (v. 22). Jesus offers a cryptic response: “He that dippeth his hand with me in the dish, the same shall betray me” (v. 23). The problem is that at some point in the meal all of the men would have dipped their hands into the dishes set before them. Christ is thinking of prophecy, however, and what was written concerning the one who should betray Him (Ps. 41:9).
Christ adds, “The Son of man goeth as it is written of him: but woe unto that man by whom the Son of man is betrayed” (Matt. 26:24), bringing together the two ideas of divine sovereignty and human responsibility. In His divine sovereignty, God can use the sinful actions of men to accomplish His holy purpose, without in any way diminishing the guilt of the sinner.
At last, Judas works up the nerve to ask, “Master, is it I?” (v. 25). Christ’s answer, “Thou hast said,” seems less than direct; however, the original is strongly affirmative. We today would say, “You have taken the very words out of my mouth; I couldn’t have said it better myself.”
Thus Matthew pictures the betrayal of Christ by focusing on all the characters involved. He uses the same technique to describe Christ’s subsequent sufferings and death. The care with which Matthew offers each detail reveals the importance of those sufferings. However awful are the deeds of wicked men and false friends, Christ is accomplishing the plan of God for the salvation of His people.