Breaking down resistance
In church circles, we talk much about the forgiveness of sins.
Ostensibly, we believe in it. The first thing we learn is that
Jesus died for our sins and that God forgives us on that basis.
It's true. The scriptures say so. But beneath the doctrine and
the words and the belief, is there something within us that tends
to question whether we're forgiven? Are we resistant to receiving
this gift? If we believe Jesus loves us and God forgives us, are
we missing out on some of the joy that comes with being loved
and forgiven? There is resistance in all of us. The story of what
happened one night at a house in Jerusalem can break down some
of that resistance and allow us to receive the forgiveness that
Jesus has all along been redefining the central symbols of Israel and placing himself in the center of them. He does the same thing with the most important annual meal in Israel: the Passover. For his disciples, it will be the strangest Passover they've ever seen.
Jesus prepares to give (26:17-19)
(17) Now on the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying, "Where do You want us to prepare for You to eat the Passover?" (18) And He said, "Go into the city to a certain man, and say to him, 'The Teacher says, "My time is at hand; I am to keep the Passover at your house with My disciples."'" (19) And the disciples did as Jesus had directed them; and they prepared the Passover.
The Jewish Feast of Unleavened Bread had by this time had been
combined with the Passover. They were seen as one feast, commemorating
the Lord's redemption of Israel them from slavery in Egypt. The
Passover also looked forward to a new exodus. Israel had been
freed from Egypt, yes, but now it was being oppressed by Rome.
Israel enjoyed a period of freedom in its own land under Solomon,
but immediately thereafter the kingdom was divided, and both kingdoms
were conquered by foreign powers, the northern kingdom by Assyria
in 722 B.C. and the southern kingdom by Babylon in 586 B.C. After
returning from Babylonian exile, the Israelites were re-established
in the land, but under foreign occupation. The foreign power of
the moment is Rome. So the Passover anticipated a new exodus,
something along the lines a new return from exile, the true advent
of the kingdom of God.
The disciples ask Jesus an ordinary question for this time of year: "Where do you want us to prepare for you to eat the Passover?" Representatives from families would make preparations for the Passover. Jesus is in essence the head of this family. He has defined his family as those who follow him (Matthew 12:49). As it turns out, this is the true family and kingdom of God, comprising 12 disciples, just as the family and kingdom of God comprised 12 tribes.
Jesus instructs the disciples to go into the city, meet a certain man and make preparations. It is unclear whether Jesus supernaturally knew of this man or whether he had already spoken to him. At any rate, when the disciples approach Jesus because they want to prepare for Jesus to eat the Passover, it is clear that Jesus has already made preparations for them to eat the Passover. He says to tell the man, literally, that he is to "make," or "do," the Passover at the man's house "with my disciples." It's Jesus who is doing the Passover, and he's doing it with his disciples. He knows the place. He knows what needs to be said to the owner of the place. He has already made preparations so that he can say to his disciples, "Take, eat; this is my body" (Matthew 26:26).
As faithful disciples, they want to make preparations, and they make preparations. But Jesus in verse 18 makes the point that something has been prepared for them. What's been prepared for them is the greatest gift they'll ever receive. And Jesus has all along been preparing to give it to them. Before the disciples even ask how they can prepare for Jesus, he has already prepared for them. This is evidence of his love for them.
It's easy to get caught up in all our "preparations," isn't it? Oh, it's good to plan and prepare. It's part of being a faithful disciple. We want to give something to Jesus. But there's something more important than "preparing"; it's understanding the "preparing" that Jesus does for us. This understanding throws our preparations into the proper light. We prepare, we plan, we give to Jesus, because he prepares, plans and gives to us. In the Passover, he has done it. But in the everyday occurrences in our lives, he's still doing it. As we make our preparations, then, let us remember, even in the midst of them, that Jesus loves us so much that he has made preparations for us and he is making preparations for us.
It makes a difference to us if someone prepares something for us, doesn't it? It really shows us that the person cares for us. The preparations that Jesus made for the Passover show us how much he loves us, as do his ongoing preparations for us.
The disciples follow Jesus' instructions, and the meal commences.
Judas refuses to receive (26:20-25)
(20) Now when evening had come, He was reclining at the table with the 12 disciples. (21) And as they were eating, He said, "Truly I say to you that one of you will betray Me." (22) And being deeply grieved, they each one began to say to Him, "Surely not I, Lord?" (23) And He answered and said, "He who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl is the one who will betray Me. (24) The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him; but woe to that man by whom the Son of Man is betrayed! It would have been good for that man if he had not been born." (25) And Judas, who was betraying Him, answered and said, "Surely it is not I, Rabbi?" He said to him, "You have said it yourself."
Evening was the time when the Passover meal was eaten. At this
time, he was reclining at the table, or eating, with the 12 disciples
- literally, "the 12." At this time, when Jesus partakes
of the meal that defines Israel, he does so not with the 12 tribes
or with representatives of the 12 tribes but with 12 men. Jesus
is redefining Israel. Those who follow him now constitute Israel.
When we understand Jesus as Yahweh incarnate, it's not much of
a redefinition, really. Israel was always defined as those who
follow Yahweh. Not only is he redefining Israel, he is redefining
the meal that defines Israel, investing it with new meaning. As
it turns out, he is investing it with himself.
The Passover meal takes a strange twist beginning in verse 21. Actually, it takes two strange twists with the words "as they were eating" (verse 21) and "while they were eating" (verse 26). As they were sharing the Passover meal, two strange things happen. The first strange thing is talk of betrayal. Jesus announces to the group that one of them will betray him.
The disciples are deeply grieved and each respond, "Surely, not I, Lord?" Each of them is grieved by talk of betrayal and even more grieved by the possibility that he might be the betrayer. Each man's response, motivated by his grief, indicates that each is entertaining the possibility that he could be the one. Jesus has not turned out to be the kind of Messiah they or anyone else envisioned. They have gotten the idea that following Jesus is not what they thought it was. Taking up crosses is not what they had in mind. Jesus wrecked his entry into Jerusalem by throwing tables around in the temple and offending the Jewish leaders. The disciples have been rocked. When Jesus identifies the one who will betray him as being among the 12, each has to wonder whether he is capable of such an action.
Jesus identifies the one who will betray him as "he who dipped his hand with me in the bowl," which probably fails to eliminate any possibilities. The bowl contained a mixture into which bread would be dipped. Even if all hadn't dipped into the precise bowl as Jesus, they all would have dipped into one of the bowls. The expression is probably an idiom for "one who has eaten with me." Psalm 41:9 says, "Even my close friend, in whom I trusted, who ate my bread, has lifted up his heel against me." Jesus saw this as being fulfilled by Judas' betrayal of him (John 13:18). Sharing a meal was a sign of friendship. Sharing the Passover meal was a special sign of friendship. Jesus is saying that one who will betray him is one of the 12, one of his closest friends, one of the people to whom he has shared special friendship. This one, then, is not a true friend. Worse still, he is imitating friendship by sharing this meal with Jesus at the very time he is planning on betraying him. Such a betrayal by one who was sharing such a meal would be horrifying to Matthew's readers, for whom friendship as expressed in the sharing of a Passover meal was highly valued.
Jesus says that the scriptures foretold that the Son of Man would "go," evidently to a suffering death. The Son of Man figure in Daniel triumphs after suffering. Isaiah 53 may also be in his thoughts. But just because the scriptures predict that the Son of Man would suffer doesn't let the one who betrays him off the hook. That man will experience something worse than death, for Jesus tells him it would have been better if he had never been born.
By this time, some or all of the other disciples had responded to Jesus' announcement that one of them would betray him. The group "began" to respond (verse 22), but Jesus evidently interrupted them before all could do so. Jesus, then, speaks of the betrayer's fate before Judas responds. This gives Judas the opportunity to hear all the things Jesus says about the one who will betray him, including that man's fate. Jesus has thereby given Judas every opportunity to confess. Jesus hasn't fingered Judas in front of the others, but he has let Judas know, at the least, that he is aware that someone is betraying him. He has further pointed out the horrific sin of betraying an intimate table partner. And he has revealed the consequences for such betrayal. In all this, Jesus is reaching out to Judas, offering him the opportunity to be a true friend, not a fake friend.
Yet Judas responds, "Surely not I, Rabbi?" Judas refuses to confess. He could have said, "It is I. Please forgive me." Jesus had made preparations for the Passover meal, which, as we shall see in a moment, extended God's forgiveness to the disciples. Instead, Judas continues to imitate friendship. Even so, his response gives him away. Although the other disciples called Jesus "Lord," Judas calls him "Rabbi," a lesser title that gives him room to wiggle.
Jesus says to Judas, literally, "You said." It is the same thing that Jesus would say to the high priest when asked if he was the Christ, the Son of God (Matthew 26:64). Apparently, these words were some kind of idiom meaning that the answer the questioner is supposedly looking for is somehow contained in his question. Jesus thereby lets Judas know that he is aware that he specifically is planning betrayal, but again, without identifying him to the others. Even now, he is giving Judas an opportunity to face the truth. Even now, he is offering forgiveness to Judas. But Judas refuses to receive it.
All Judas has to do is face the truth of his condition and receive the forgiveness Jesus offers. That's all we have to do. But receiving, particularly if it is contingent on acknowledgment of personal sin, is not as easy as it seems. Assuming we understand its implications, it's not easy to acknowledge sin and receive forgiveness in the first place. Once we do so, once we receive forgiveness, it's not easy to continue receiving Jesus. Acknowledgment of sin means acknowledgment of need of something outside oneself. Acknowledgment of need outside oneself means giving up control. Receiving Jesus means giving up sovereignty over one's life.
Receiving a gift, or even a compliment, if we haven't done anything to deserve it, is difficult. If we think we've done something to deserve it, or if we push the gift away or deflect the compliment somehow, if only internally, we stay in control. Thus we push Jesus away to stay in control.
Jesus gives forgiveness (26:26-29)
(26) And while they were eating, Jesus took some bread, and after a blessing, He broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is My body." (27) And when He had taken a cup and given thanks, He gave it to them, saying, "Drink from it, all of you; (28) for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins. (29) But I say to you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it new with you in My Father's kingdom."
If Jesus knows that Judas will betray him, why does he address
betrayal in a way that allows the other disciples to question
whether they are the one he's talking about? The statement of
Jesus, "Truly I say to you, one of you will betray me,"
has found resonance with something that was already there in the
disciples - doubt about Jesus, and doubt about themselves. Jesus,
then, surfaces subterranean doubts. Then, in the Passover meal,
he addresses them. The meal, as Jesus redefines it, tells them
that even if they do betray him, there is forgiveness.
Talk of betrayal at a Passover meal is strange enough. Now Jesus does a second strange thing. During the Passover meal, the head of the household or gathering would pronounce blessings and explain the aspects of the meal. Jesus does these things, but with a strange twist. He adds to the format of the meal in a way that makes himself the center of it. In the case of both the bread and the cup, Jesus, "takes" it, "gives" it to the disciples, tells them to partake and defines the element as representing himself - his body and blood. This is turning out to be unlike any Passover these men have ever experienced.
Originally, the unleavened bread at the Passover meal represented the suddenness with which the Lord rescued his people. It happened so quickly that there was no time for bread to rise (Exodus 12:11-34). It therefore came to represent, in a general way, redemption from Egypt. Now Jesus says that this bread is his body. He thereby connects true redemption with himself. He is offering redemption greater than redemption from Egypt. He is offering redemption not from Egypt or Rome but from sin. That redemption is here, now, and he is offering it in his body.
Then he takes a cup. Four cups of wine would be drunk at the Passover, representing the promises of Exodus 6:6-7: the cup of sanctification, the cup of deliverance, the cup of redemption and the cup of praise. The gospel writers don't specify which of these cups - if any - Jesus took. A cup was also left out for Elijah; it could have been that cup or another one. Perhaps the meaning inherent in each of the cups is fulfilled in this one cup that Jesus gives his disciples.
Jesus says "this is my blood of the covenant," words evocative of Exodus 24:8, where Moses said, regarding the blood of animals that ratified the Lord's covenant with Israel, "Behold, the blood of the covenant ... " Later, the leaders of Israel share a meal in the presence of the Lord, consummating the covenant (Exodus 24:11). Israel, of course, broke its covenant with the Lord, choosing other gods. But there was a longing for the day when the Lord would renew the covenant. Jesus here is renewing the covenant, and he has turned the Passover meal into a meal that consummates the covenant. But the blood has changed. It's no longer the blood of animals but "my blood." The Lord in Isaiah said he would give the Servant of the Lord as a covenant to the people (Isaiah 42:6, 49:8). The Lord has given Jesus, and Jesus gives himself.
The blood of Jesus is shed, or "poured out." As the wine was poured out, Jesus' blood is poured out. The effect is "forgiveness of sins." The renewal of the covenant would include forgiveness of sins (Jeremiah 31:31-34), which Jesus says comes about through the shedding of his own blood. In terms of covenant renewal, that means return from exile (Jeremiah 31:35-40). Thus, the Passover meal now evokes, fulfills and redefines both the exodus and the return from exile. Sins are forgiven, the Lord returns to his people and they return to him. It all comes about through his broken body and shed blood.
What is this like for Jesus? Matthew gives a detailed account of Jesus' actions in relation to both the bread and the cup, and in relation to his disciples. After describing what Jesus did with the bread, Matthew could have said something like, "And he did the same thing with the cup." But we get the description again of how Jesus took, blessed, gave, instructed and explained. Matthew wants us to see something here. He wants us to see Jesus.
What is Jesus thinking as he reaches out and "takes" the bread, knowing that it represents his body? What is he thinking when he "breaks" the bread, knowing that his body will be broken. What is he thinking when he reaches out and "takes" the cup of wine, knowing that it represents his blood? What he thinking when he says "poured out," knowing that his blood will be poured out?
In each case, he says a blessing, which in the case of the cup is specifically noted as involving the giving of thanks. The traditional blessings would begin with the words, "Blessed are you, O Lord our God, king of the universe," and conclude with thanks for what he has done. As Jesus blesses the Lord and thanks him for what he has done, as represented by the bread and the wine, what is he thinking? After all, it's his own body and blood. Perhaps he thinks something like this: "Blessed are you, O Lord God, king of the universe, who has given me this body and this blood to give for your people." For this he's giving thanks?!
As Jesus extends his arms and "gives" the bread and the cup to his disciples, what is he thinking?
The internal agony must be intense, but his love for his disciples must be more intense.
Deliberately, he takes and gives. His love for us must be more intense than the internal agony, because his blood is being poured out not only for his disciples but for "many." Deliberately, he takes and gives to us. He takes and gives his broken body and shed blood to us. Our sins are forgiven. We are redeemed from sin. We return from exile. The Lord comes to us, and we come to him.
This is life in the kingdom of God, the true advent of the kingdom, which Jesus speaks of in verse 29. He says he will drink wine with his disciples in the kingdom of his Father. When is that day? It's the day when Jesus' body is broken and his blood is shed. He told the criminal on the cross, "Truly I say to you, today you shall be with me in Paradise" (Luke 23:43). The messianic feast begins with his death. This fellowship feast with Jesus is something we can enjoy now, and it lasts forever (Revelation 19:9).
What do the disciples have to do to be part of it? Eat. Drink. That's it. The command here is not to do anything but receive. All the disciples had to do is receive what Jesus was giving them. That's all we have to do - receive the forgiveness he offers. But this wasn't so easy for Judas, and it's not so easy for us, because it means acknowledgment of sin and need, which means giving up control. We are resistant to receiving, but here we see what breaks down our resistance. It's love. Jesus takes, blesses and gives to us, for us, because he loves us. His love for us breaks down our resistance and shows us that it's safe, even invigorating, to receive him.
In the movie "Man of La Mancha," Cervantes, who wrote the "Don Quixote" story, is accused of inventing a stories about madmen. He called them "men whose illusions are very real." The musical leaves the impression that the world of illusion should be, or perhaps is, the real one. Don Quixote was delusional, but he loved enormously in his delusion. He was crazy. Perhaps that comes closest to illustrating the love of Jesus - the love of a crazy man. And maybe that's why it's so hard to believe: It seems crazy. But if we would let him, his love would soften our hearts and we'd know the wild joy of being forgiven.
He melts our hearts
Jesus loves us so much he has prepared and is preparing to give us himself. We're resistant to acknowledging personal sin and need, because we're afraid of needing anything or anyone. But the love of Jesus that breaks his body and sheds his blood also melts our hearts and enables us to receive him when he says, "Take, eat; this is my body. ... Drink from it, all of you; for this is my blood of the covenant, which is to be shed on behalf of many for forgiveness of sins."
- SCG, 4-5-98
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