Which Way?

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Have you ever come across a split in life’s road where you aren’t sure which path to follow?  Maybe it involved changing jobs or moving to a new town, or it could be a time when you are considering moving to a different church.  It could even be when you are facing a temptation; should you go back to the old way of living?

I think we have all had this kind of experience; what did you do?  Did you follow the right path, or did you follow the wrong one?  If you’re anything like me, you’ve done both.

There is a principle that can help at these times of indecision.  The principle is that we should try to do the thing or make the choice that will best advance the will and purposes of God, rather than our will or purposes.  Oh, I know that this isn’t always an easy decision to make, because often our purposes and God’s purposes don’t quite line up together.  Yet whenever I’ve followed my own purposes instead of God’s, I’ve come to grief sooner or later; how about you?

These incidents remind me of a passage from Joshua 24 when the people of Israel faced a major turning point when they were renewing their covenant with God; follow God or go back to the old way.  Joshua made a stark contrast and a bold statement for them to consider:

 “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.Throw away the gods your forefathers worshiped beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.  But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your forefathers served beyond the River, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”

Joshua 24:14-15

As we remain steadfast in our faith and steadfast in our service to the Lord, our choices are often made easier because we will follow His path and leave our own.  Yes, the choice might be easier, but the path is sometimes harder, but our Lord will never leave us alone to fend for ourselves; He will sustain us as we go.

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Arrested!

Matthew 26:47-56

As Jesus was saying the words of 26:46, the party sent to arrest Him is entering the scene with Judas in the lead. In the events that follow, there are few actions that have an almost comical quality to them, even though this is serious business. Judas had a sign for the arresting party: Grab the one I kiss. So old Judas walks up to Jesus as though everything was completely normal and says, “Greetings Rabbi,” and kisses Him. Now to be quite sure, this was a normal sort of greeting back in the day, but I almost want to laugh at the comic nature of it. Judas came onto the scene at the head of an armed mob, and pretends nothing is amiss, even though Judas Knew that Jesus knew what he was up to; incredible.

Jesus was placed under arrest, and then lo and behold, who should produce a sword and start swinging it? Our pal, Peter! Peter’s action should get high marks for courage, low marks for intelligence, and failing marks for understanding. Yes, it was courageous, maybe even heroic, but if a battle were to follow, Jesus and the Eleven are dead right then and there. But then Jesus, from Peter’s point of view, is a sort of “wild card”; what would He do in the situation?

Jesus stepped in instantly, and put a stop to the whole business of violence, heals the man that Peter had struck, and tells Peter to stand down. Perhaps reading Peter’s mind, Jesus said:

Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels? But how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way? (26:53-54)

If you wonder about such things, 12 legions of angels would produce about 75,000 very unhappy angels, but the cavalry would not be coming to the rescue on that night, for God’s will went in a different direction. Then Jesus addressed the mob that had come to arrest Him:

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. But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled. (26:55-56a)

Actually, that He was leading a rebellion was most likely exactly what everyone thought, for they saw Him as the son of David come to reclaim the throne; the Messiah come to conquer and restore Israel to greatness, the King of the Jews. Jesus rubbed their noses in their error by pointing out that they could have grabbed Him at any time, but they had waited until now, under cover of darkness, and with that, Jesus would address the crowds no more; He went away quietly and meekly to do his Father’s will and accomplish the real mission of the Messiah.

That was also when His disciples finally comprehended that His mission was not conquest and the reinstatement of the Nation of Israel among the Pantheon of Nations. Of course, that is not to suggest that they yet comprehended what His mission really was; that would come later. Many scholars have written that they believe this also included Judas, who might well have been shocked that those legions of angels did not come. These scholars believe that Judas betrayed Jesus to force the issue and get Jesus’ messianic mission completed more quickly, a sort of helping push in the right direction.

For me, that’s a bit of a stretch too far, but it is an interesting theory. Whatever motivated Judas, there was no going back now and old Judas was in a very bad state, and the whole Creation held its breath…

In the Garden

Matthew 26:36-46

Matthew shifts the scene to the Garden of Gethsemane (which means “oil press”). This is another scene that is no doubt a familiar one for most all of us, a scene that has an odd feel to it, when we see the contrast between the Jesus of the prior scenes, confidently predicting His death, secure in the knowledge that He is doing His Father’s will, and the Jesus of Gethsemane who is troubled and mournful, asking His Father for another way. It might prompt us to ask, “Is there an internal conflict going on?”

I don’t think there is, but at the same time I must admit that off the top of my head, I can’t think of another scene in which Jesus seems conflicted about anything, maybe we’d better have a look at His Gethsemane prayer!

Here’s the scene: They went to Gethsemane where Jesus left 8 disciples, went a little further with 3 disciples, left them and went still further to be alone and prayed. As the disciples were being placed in their positions, Jesus “began to be sorrowful and troubled” (26:37).Jesus told the three that   “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me” (26:38) Matthew records these words as His prayer:

“My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.” (26:39)

“My Father, if it is not possible for this cup to be taken away unless I drink it, may your will be done.”  (26:42)

Matthew also tells us that Jesus “fell with his face to the ground” in 26:37, and that He prayer the same thing a third time in 26:44. Interestingly, he only gives us one-liners for the prayers, yet Jesus was praying long enough for the disciples to fall asleep, so we can safely assume that more was said in those prayers…

One of the highest and boldest forms of piety in Israel was the prayer of lament (cf. Ps. 31:10; 40:11-13; 42:6, 9-11; 43:1-5; 55:4-8; 116:3-4) and it was not all that unusual for someone to ask God to change his mind (f. Ex. 32:10-14; 2Kings 20:1-6; 2Sam 15:25-26).

Jesus knew His mission, He was OK with His mission; He was determined. Yet, as the hour approached, He seemed to wonder if there might be another way to accomplish it, for He was fully human after all. Notice what he did: He took this to His Father in an attitude of submission; for He would do His Father’s will whatever that will turned out to be. Please take special note of this, for He was troubled and He cried out to God in submissiveness, not in rebellion. That is where we tend to go wrong, don’t you think? We might cry out to God, but we don’t always do so in submission to His will, preferring our own plan instead.

Apparently, Jesus got the “go ahead as planned” message from His Father, for we see these words in the concluding verses of this passage:

Then he returned to the disciples and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and resting? Look, the hour has come, and the Son of Man is delivered into the hands of sinners. Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (26:45-46)

From that moment forward, there were no doubts, no questions; God’s redemption of Mankind would move into full execution.

Those disciples? Obviously they had failed to grasp the gravity of the situation, as they would continue to do, as the most momentous events in all of history unfolded…

Predictions of Desertion

Matthew 26:31-35

In the entire series of events beginning with the plot of Judas and ending with his suicide, the disciples aren’t portrayed in a very flattering light, but Jesus isn’t surprised by any of this, in fact He predicts it. It is really quite easy for us to look down our very righteous noses at the disciples’ actions that night; yes they failed miserably. Would we have acted differently in their places?

I rather doubt it. Trying to honestly place myself in their shoes, I must (grudgingly) admit that the scene in the Garden when the mob comes to arrest Jesus would probably have done it for me, for seeing this Man who I had witnessed walking on water and calming storms being taken away quietly by such a motley force would simply have blown my mind, and even now, knowing how the story ends… it still blows my mind! No, I don’t think I’ll be joining the finger-pointers on this one.

Jesus tells them that on this night they will all disown Him, citing the prophecy from Zech. 13:7, and they are astonished, and proclaim their faithfulness; Peter is their spokesman. Notice that just as they did when Jesus predicted His death, they missed the last part. Shouldn’t be saying something like, “What  did you say ‘after you have risen”?” But they didn’t say that.

Matthew tells the familiar story about Peter’s three denials and the rooster crowing, and again Peter steadfastly says he won’t do any such thing:

But Peter declared, “Even if I have to die with you, I will never disown you.” And all the other disciples said the same. (26:35)

Ultimately, Peter’s claim would turn out to be true, but on this night, they would all falter.

The way I see it, there was much too much at stake for God to let the disciples get in the way of events, for it was vital that Jesus keep His appointment with the cross, for this was at the very core of God’s eternal purpose of redemption. Suppose that the disciples fought the troops in the garden, as Peter started to do, and a general engagement ensued. What would become of God’s purpose if there had been a bloodbath in the Garden?

No, Jesus, the Lamb of God, had to go quietly in submission to do His Father’s will, and the disciples needed to get out of the way and let Him do it, for they had a critical role to play in the early years of the church. Of course, this is just speculation on my part. Next time, we pick up the action in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Bonus Post: The Passion Narrative

Matthew 26:1-28:20

This final section of Matthew’s account of Jesus is quite interesting for several reasons and is deserving of a little extra background information. To begin, it is comprised of three parts, the first of which runs from 26:1-56 in which Jesus actively predicts and accepts the course of events that culminate in His death. In these scenes there is a cohesiveness that is comprised of Jesus’ own words that detail coming events, and even set them in motion; they are punctuation by prophetic announcements concerning upcoming scenes (See 26:3, 12, 18, 21, 24, 31, 32, 34, 45, 50, 54, 56). With this continuing contrast between Jesus’ foreknowledge and His constant determination to do the Father’s will (cf. 26:34, 39, 42, 54, 56) Matthew shows us that the Passion of Jesus was not a strange twist at the end of the story, but a conscious and voluntary self-sacrifice made to accomplish God’s will.

The second part extends from 26:57-27:50, in which Jesus moves away from being an active participant and into a passive role, seldom speaking and silently enduring pain and humiliation as God’s suffering servant. Following Jesus’ death in 27:50, God once again takes an active role in the story, confirming His pleasure with His Son’s actions through miraculous signs of approval. As a result, the mocking of the Jewish leaders in 27:38-41 is replaced by Gentile onlookers claim that Jesus was “the Son of God” (27:54). The Jewish leaders take every precaution to ensure that no one can claim Jesus had risen from the tomb by posting guards; yet He bursts forth from that very same tomb. You no doubt know the story and the series of events; God is quite active in the remainder of the narrative.

There is another aspect of the Passion that might be of interest: The Passion has many parallels with the opening section of Matthew’s Gospel (1:1-4:17). The concluding section of Matthew’s account brings to a climax the rising Jewish opposition that began way back when Herod attempted to kill Jesus at the time of His birth (2:16-18 cf. Rev. 12:1-4). We might also note that early in the story, the “chief priests and teachers of the law” are aligned with political forces in opposition to Jesus (2:4-6). In addition, the final section resumes the emphasis on prophetic fulfillment in a manner parallel to the opening chapters (Chs. 1-5 cf. 26:56, 59; 27:9-10). The latter chapters also abound with references to Old Testament texts (e.g. Ps. 22, 69; Zech. 11:13; Is. 50-53).

There are many themes, ideas and phrases that were found in early chapters which are repeated in the final section such as forgiveness of sins (1:21; 9:6; 20:28; 26:28), as well as terms relative to Jesus such as Christ, King of the Jews, shepherd and  Son of God. Even the mocking scenes have a parallel in the Temptation narrative (4:1-11) when the mockers take on the role of tempters to try and deflect Jesus from his course of doing God’s will.

Finally, the ending of the narrative (28:18-20) recalls the themes of: A mountain as the place of revelation, the universal appeal of the Gospel and the abiding presence of Christ, and with this abiding in the last sentence, it is as though Matthew has taken us full circle, back to Jesus in Galilee. Clearly, with this final command to teach “everything I have commanded you” we find that the entirety of Matthew’s narrative becomes an active part of our Christian lives.

The Last Supper

Matthew 26:17-30

This passage opens with Jesus giving instructions to the disciples about the arrangements for the Passover meal that remind us of His instructions to them in 21:1-3 about the arrangements for His entry into Jerusalem. After everything had been arranged, the scene opens at the meal itself. This narrative is broken into two sections, each beginning with the words “while they were eating”. The first, 26:20-25 is all about the betrayal of Jesus, the second (26:26-30) covers Jesus’ institution of the Lord’s Supper.

Matthew’s account, though it gives these details, omits most of the details that John includes, such as Jesus’ washing their feet, and John’s lengthy account of the final discourses, and in this, Matthew is continuing the choppy pace that began at the beginning of this chapter; he reminds us a little of the way Mark covered most everything. Yet while he is leaving out some of the dramatic discussions of that evening, Matthew is once again focusing our attention of the ultimate mission of Jesus: His appointment with the cross.

In the first part, notice that when Jesus tells them that His betrayer is in their midst, the disciples are “sad” and say “surely you don’t mean me, Lord” (26:22). Matthew gives a direct quote from the denial of Judas in 26:25: “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi”. It may be nothing, but there is a slight difference between the eleven who said “Lord” and the one who said “Rabbi”, for in calling Jesus “teacher”, Judas seems to be expressing respect for Jesus as a teacher, but withholding his obedience to the Lordship of Jesus. Whatever his intent, Judas’ remark was disingenuous at best.

In His reply to Judas, Jesus seems to be revealing that He isn’t buying the denial.

In 26:26-30, we have the institution of the Last Supper, one of the most hotly debated aspects of the Faith traditionally, as disagreements among believers have literally divided the Body multiple times for the past thousand years or so. Ironically, however, everyone agrees that the partaking of the bread and the cup point us to the cross, the one thing that unites all Christians.

When you think about it, the sheer stupidity of this behavior almost makes a person want to stop debating altogether… almost.

The Pace Picks Up

Matthew 26:1-16

We have now begun the final section of Matthew’s Gospel. I don’t want to interrupt the narrative of Matthew’s story, so I will compile a Bonus Post for tomorrow afternoon with the background on this section, which is quite interesting. I will say that you will notice that Matthew really picks up the pace from this point forward…

This text has three parts that flow in rapid succession. By arranging the narrative in this way, Matthew shows us that there is quite a lot going on behind the scenes at or about the same time. We begin with Jesus and the disciples (26:1-2) which is set in time as “When Jesus had finished saying all these things…” (26:1). From this transition we come to see that they are all sitting there where Jesus has been giving the Olivet Discourse; Jesus finished the Parable of the Sheep and Goats… and then said…

That He was about to be crucified.

Isn’t it interesting that He has told them everything we have seen in 24-25, and then brings them right back to His messianic mission: He must die?

Matthew immediately follows this statement by shifting to the Jewish leaders behind closed doors plotting His secret arrest and His murder (26:3-5).

Next, in verse 6 we have a scene change; now Jesus and the disciples have left the Mount of Olives and walked the few miles to Bethany where they are in the home of Simon the Leper. Nothing more is said about Simon, and thus we can’t be quite sure of who he was, or if he was even present. The scene centers on an unidentified woman who anoints Jesus with “a very expensive perfume”. The disciples object, saying that the ointment could have been sold for a lot of money, and then the money given to the poor; apparently they had been listening to Jesus’ story of the sheep and goats. Yet Jesus tells them something else that should bring them back to His messianic mission: she was preparing His body for burial!

Is It just me, or are those disciples just not hearing Him when He tells them that He is about to be killed?

Then Judas slips out and goes back into Jerusalem and makes his deal with the chief priests to deliver Jesus into their hands so they can kill Him.

Yes, momentous events are moving quickly now.