[February 26, 2012] The season of Lent began on Ash Wednesday. We follow the skeleton of the traditional church calendar to maintain some continuity with the practice of other Christians past and present and use it as a way of organizing our meditation on the Gospel. However, because we are a Biblical church, we do not follow the “Revised Common Lectionary” because we have not found it helpful. Instead, we imitate the Reformers and review the entire Old Testament and read the gospels, apostolic writings and psalms in their entirety—in our case, in the course of four years.
So last Sunday we read Matthew 16:21-17:13 on the Transfiguration and, this year, on Ash Wednesday, reread Matthew 16:21-27. In Matthew 16:21 Jesus tells His disciples for the first time that He is going to suffer many things and be killed and on the third day be raised. While other churches reserve the reading of Matthew 26:14—27:66 to just one Sunday, the Sunday before Easter (when they also read Matthew 21:1-11), we spread this out over six Sundays so that we can give it some measure of justice in our reflections. Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556) wrote the collect for the Second Sunday of Advent in the Book of Common Prayer, which reads: “Blessed Lord, who hast caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning; Grant that we may in such wise hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that by patience, and comfort of the holy Word, we may embrace, and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which thou hast given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ.” Our audition and meditation on the Gospel in such wise is our remembrance of Christ as we partake of the Lord’s Supper. Thereby He is really present—in His divinity and His humanity, body soul and spirit, in His eternity and all His time, in His virtues, attainments and obtainments—and we eat and drink Him (this One) spiritually by faith. So during the five weeks of Lent we will take our time and let the story of His passion enter and dwell more deeply in us.
Though the story of the passion begins at the beginning of chapter 26, we will pick it up after the Last Supper when Jesus enters the Garden of Gethsemane, at verse 36.
The Gospel according to Matthew, however, is a whole, and if we want to appreciate the narrative fully, we need to place it the context of the whole. The Gospel according to Matthew is about the Kingdom of the Heavens which comes in the Person of Jesus Christ and is accomplished by His passion, death and resurrection. The heavens rule over all, but specifically the Kingdom of the Heavens is the overcoming of sin, Satan and the world by the overruling of God. After what I am calling the accomplishment of the Messiah, God says to Him, “Sit at My right hand until I make Your enemies Your footstool” (Psalm 110:1; see Psalm 2). Jesus then says, “All authority has been given to Me in heaven and on earth” (Matthew 28:18); and so “He must reign until God puts all His enemies under His feet” (1 Corinthians 15:25), that is, until “He has abolished all rule and all authority and power” (15:24). The Kingdom of the Heavens, then, is not only about the heavenly reign of God but about God’s preemptive overcoming of that which opposes Him.
Yet, Jesus the Messiah does this in the most unexpected way. He does this by renouncing worldly power and the use of force. He embraces the judgment of God and submits to it with the utmost devotion to God who levies and wields it. Peter is offended by Jesus declaration of it and Jesus hears in Peter’s words the voice of Satan, the rebel ruler of the world. The Gospel according to Matthew begins indeed with the kingship of David, but in the self-emptying—the kenosis—of divinity. The child is born in humility and—though recognized by the magi—at once is taken by Joseph to Egypt in flight. When He comes of age (the age of service in Numbers 4), He goes to the Jordan to be baptized by John, taking the way of a penitent, the way that Israel (and all humankind) needs to go—submitting and surrendering to God’s judgment with love and in utter faithfulness to God. From His baptism He was taking the way of the cross. Then, after His first announcement in Caesarea Philippi in 16:21 and His Transfiguration on the slope of Hermon, He began His final journey to Jerusalem where He intended to die. From then on He was on the Via Delarosa, literally on the way of the cross. The Kingdom of the Heavens is accomplished by His taking this way. What in the eyes of the world is the way of utter defeat, for heaven is the way of victory. We need to read the scene in Gethsemane in this light.
Yet in 16:24 Jesus says that those who have come to Him, who have given Him their fidelity and allegiance and thus entered into the sphere of His Person, must also take this same way. “If anyone wants to come after me, let Him deny himself and take up his cross and follow Me” to the gallows. Though Jesus speaks of it for the first time in these terms, it has been defining His teaching from the beginning. The Sermon on the Mount, the Mission Discourse and the Parables each have the way of the cross as their basis. And now, in the long section that follows—16:21—20:34—that puts the church (revealed for the first time in 16:18) in the light of the Kingdom, particularly in 17:22—20:16, Jesus spells out how the disciple within the context of the church must also take the way of the cross in every aspect of her or his life. The disciple cannot be different than the Master; but being in connection to Him, becomes like Him in the world and with respect to the soul and the self.
Jesus alone bears the judgment of God, for He alone can, but we too must embrace God’s judgment on the world and on ourselves, our circumstances and on our very souls. We cannot atone for our own or anyone else’s sins, but the world is still under God’s judgment and still opposes us as it opposed Christ, and we are still in the world—in solidarity with Israel under the judgment of God—and our repentance requires that we affirm the rightness of God’s judgment of it. Though Christ’s soul was sinless, He denied it and surrendered it to God’s judgment as an intercession for us. He denied it in the wilderness when Satan tempted Him, and He laid it down in death on the cross. There is nothing righteous about our souls, and therefore there is nothing atoning about our denying it like Christ denied His own. We deny our soul in acknowledgment of the rightness of God’s judgment of it, and we surrender it to death in praise of God’s righteous judgment of us. We need to read the scene in Gethsemane in this light too—not only the light it sheds on what Christ was accomplishing, but on the way we must tread to follow Him.
His death was atoning, though what was atoning about it was not the extinguishing of His human life, the releasing of His spirit and the death of His soul and body, but rather the way in which He died, the obedience and faithfulness and love with which He did it. Death itself came after this was accomplished and marked the utmost extent and absolute human limit of His obedience, faithfulness and love. Through that atonement, however, our sins are forgiven, the judgment of God is accomplished with respect to our relationship to God, we are—in Christ—righteous in the sight of God, as righteous as Christ Himself, and therefore in that place of blessedness which He alone deserves, which therefore for us is the place of unmitigated grace and favor, where we without any deserts of our own, become the objects of God’s blessing. Moreover, in Him where “we have obtained access by faithfulness into this grace in which we stand,” we “boast because of the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:2). This glory was shown to us in Matthew 16:28—17:8. What Jesus accomplished on the cross, not only reconciles us to God immediately—when it creates faith in us through the Word, but will eventually bring us into the glory of God, that is, we will participate fully (or more and more into infinity) in the divine nature. The original nature of Christ is divine, but for our sake He took on our human nature, participating in it fully. Our original nature is created, and always will be creaturely, but by grace we will participate in the divine nature more and more so that there will be more and more completely a perfect “intercommunication of properties.” We will be glorified, shining with the glory of God, our created nature transparent to it and brighter than the sun. Yet our created nature will be so as itself, unchanged in its essential nature. Our soul and body will not be lost but will be fully saved. Even in eternity our individual identity (our self) will not be lost, but will become part of the perichoresis of divinity as time is taken up—sublated—into eternity, and we become what we are but also more than what we are in a unity of love and oneness that is incomprehensible now.
Jesus’ Prayer (Matthew 26:36-46)
The prayer in Gethsemane is holy ground, for here we observe our Lord’s inner life. Like the Transfiguration, Jesus only takes three disciples with Him to be His companions and witnesses. Not all believers will be ready for their own transfiguration when Christ comes in glory, though all are called to it, for not all believers are able to take this way, the way of the cross, though it is demanded of all. We cannot enter the inner place of our Lord’s life unless we follow Him into the olive press (what the name Gethsemane means). There probably was an olive press in the garden from which oil was extracted from the olives. Jesus was pressed by His passion, and from it the oil of His life, the Holy Spirit, would be given to us.
Our beloved Lord began to be sorrowful (lupeō) and deeply distressed (adēmoneō), His soul (psychē) exceedingly sorrowful (perilupos), even to death. Was this because He was afraid to suffer? People imagine that Jesus must have felt as they would have. But I think that Jesus is speaking about was not fear, at least not as we think of it, that is, fear of pain, because I do not think that what He was reacting to had to do with Him. Rather, it had to do with us. It was more akin to horror, and therefore grief for our sakes. What He was feeling was an aspect of His intercession for our sakes, His sympathy for us under the awful judgment of God. We simply cannot perceive it. What we see is our misery and suffering, and we complain. What was Jesus looking at? He saw the reality of our abandonment of God and the corresponding abandonment of us by God (see 27:46). To behold this is far more than we can endure. Yet in this moment in the Garden, He beheld it in all its incomparable awfulness. To touch this horror was death to the soul.
What the Father was demanding of His Son was that He do more than behold it, that He would enter into it, and in entering into it the Father and Holy Spirit would enter with Him. Only the divine itself can do this horrendous thing, for no creature could survive; Jesus Himself would not survive. He would die, and die a death that no creature ever has. No creature has ever been abandoned to the judgment of God to the extent that Jesus was about to be. What we have ever experienced is a mere token. We have died; countless have; and died in the most awful misery and torments. But never has God completely abandoned His creature even in such awful moments. We should fear the torments of hell, for they will even more approximate what we bring upon ourselves by turning our backs on God. But even in hell God does not abandon His creatures. What Jesus was facing was just this. What the Father and Holy Spirit were facing in the human experience of the Son was this. God suffered in His death; the Father embodied in the human body of His Son, suffered this. We cannot appreciate this; we cannot even comprehend this; we can only worship and allow God’s light to slay us until it raises us up.
So Jesus prays not to evade the Father’s will—for He prayed, “yet not as I will, but as You will”—but to ask if there was any other possibility. Jesus is without sin. His will is always according to the Father’s will. But He withdraws—not volitionally but emotionally—from this “cup,” this cup of incomprehensible suffering. In the end, He understands that the cup cannot pass away unless He drinks it, and He surrenders to it.
In a way, it is this decision that is at the heart of the crucifixion, for the crucifixion is merely the carrying out of what He resolved to do here. What is effectual about the crucifixion is not the act itself, but the resolve with which He embraced it. This is why His prayer here is in fact the real act of atonement, even though it was carried out on the timbers of the cross. Indeed, His prayer did not end here. He remained in this prayer until His dying breath.
“The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak,” as it always is with us. We rely on our flesh but our flesh does not have the strength to carry us through. Our spirit is strengthened by exercise; by not relying on our flesh to watch and pray but relying on God. Then watching and praying, our spirit is strengthened to rely on God more.
When Jesus rises up the third time, He does to meet His betrayer. His resolve is set and remains so until His death. When we stay close to Him in remembrance of Him and in prayer, He gives us the strength to deny our soul, to surrender it to death; though daily dying of our soul for His sake and for the sake of His body and for the sake of all others and the creation itself, is an acknowledgement of God’s righteous judgment, not a bearing of that judgment. It is the end, but for us, we can let go for the grace of God supports us. We are not abandoned to the judgment of God but are already reconciled to Him. He carries us through death into resurrection without having to taste what Jesus swallowed on our behalf.
The Arrest (26:47-56)
Jesus met His betrayer. It was someone whom He loved, Judas; and this one betrayed Him with a kiss, an affectionate kiss. Jesus appealed to his conscience: “Friend [hetairos], what are you here for?” He was not afraid of the mob with swords and clubs who came from the chief priests and elders of the people. We know that the governor Pilate had arranged something with his puppet Annas, the high priest’s Caiaphas’ father-in-law, and supplied him with soldiers to make the arrest. Yet the high priestly family, for the sake of its influence with the governor and its position in Jerusalem society, was complicit with the governor, and so were many in the priestly aristocracy. The people of Jerusalem were troubled by this Outsider from Galilee and the chief priests incited their animosity towards Him. Yet Jesus was not moved so much by them as by the one within the circle that He had cultivated in Galilee.
One of the disciples (after Peter had died, John reveals that it was him) drew a sword and tried to defend Jesus and assaulted a slave in the crowd, taking of his ear. Jesus says, “Return your sword to its place, for all those who take the sword will perish by the sword.” Interestingly, he allowed Peter to have a sword, yet he would not allow its use in the work of God. For the principle is always true that violence begets more violence. To counter violence with more violence becomes a “necessity,” and thus violence is a power in the world. Once it is unleashed it takes control. The only way to leash it is to suffer it and thus render it impotent. There is a power greater than violence, however. This is the power that Jesus is using—the power of God. He went on to explain to His disciples, “Do you think that I cannot beseech My Father, and he will provide Me at once with more than twelve legions of angels?” The sheer power of God, and the judgment of God, can put a stop to violence. But Jesus chooses not to exercise this power, though He could have. Instead, He allows the power of the world to condemn itself by what it does. In fact, the world has no power but what it is allowed to have in the mercy of God. Its self-condemnation serves a greater good in that it proves the rightness of God’s judgment.
What the Christian needs to pay attention to is what else is going on: for as Paul says, “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who hold down [katechō] the truth in unrighteousness” (Romans 1:18). Paul is not making a general statement about the ungodliness and unrighteousness of men but is further explaining the Gospel wherein the righteousness of God is revealed out of faithfulness to faith” (1:16-17). The wrath of God is revealed from heaven in the death of Jesus Christ our Lord. The power of revelation exceeds the powers of force which the world wields. We may even die, but the power of the revelation of the Gospel exceeds that; it is imperishable and will eventually overcome the powers of the world. For the revelation to come forth, however, we cannot use the powers of the world (powers such as violence) to defend it or to promote it. It has its own power, and uses the proclamation of the Word and our own faithfulness in the midst of suffering to exert itself. If we use the sword, “How then shall the Scriptures be fulfilled?”
May God move our hearts to come close to Christ and open our minds to perceive the revelation of Himself. May this text humble us and raise us up by no power of our own.