Monday, March 21, 2011

With Christ at the Table (Matthew 26:20-30)

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Matthew 26:20-30
With Christ at the Table

I was talking to a friend the other night and he was asking me what I was currently preaching on, and I told him that I was going to spend the next six weeks moving from the Last Supper to the Empty Tomb as a spiritual preparation for Easter. He said, “You know if you weren’t Baptist, you would call that Lent.” To which I said, “But I am Baptist, so ‘lent’ only describes that stuff that forms in your pockets and collects in your dryer.” But in the larger Christian world, the 40 days prior to Easter, beginning on Ash Wednesday (which was March 9), make up the season of Lent, a time of introspection and repentance, preparing oneself for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ. Usually this is accompanied by fasting, which is why you hear people speak of “giving something up for Lent.” Following the Reformation tradition, most Baptists have just given up Lent. But you can call this season Lent if you want to, or you can call it “the weeks before Easter.” The point is that over the next few weeks we are going to be looking at the events leading up to the Cross and the Resurrection and considering the great gift of salvation that has come to us through Jesus Christ. I am calling this series, “With Christ Through Easter.”

We begin today by looking at the final Passover meal that Jesus shared with His disciples. Each of the four Gospels sheds light on different aspects of the final meal, but here in Matthew, the narrative revolves around two startling announcements made by the Lord Jesus. These announcements serve to frame in the minds of the disciples the events they will witness over the coming hours and days. Without the information that Jesus imparts to them at the table, everything that unfolds in the hours and days ahead would seem to the disciples to be a grand cosmic accident. It would seem as if God had fallen asleep at the wheel of the universe and rammed the whole thing into wall. But Jesus is careful to tell them that what they are about to witness is all part of God’s perfect plan to redeem humanity.

I. At the table, Jesus announces history’s most spectacular sin (vv20-25)

What is the worst sin ever committed in this history of humanity? I imagine that question could strip up a rousing discussion around the table at the coffee shop, don’t you? When we consider the many heinous atrocities that have been committed in history, it might be hard to single one out. After all, if we understand the whole of Scripture, balancing the Old Testament Law with the Sermon on the Mount and other expressions of New Testament ethics, wouldn’t we be inclined to say that sin is sin? If lust is tantamount to adultery and hatred is murder committed in one’s heart, then the sins I have committed are as foul as anyone else’s. When we fully grasp the holiness of God, we can’t escape the conclusion that all human sin is equally worthy of divine wrath. Yet it does seem that one sin in history stands above the rest. As John Piper has written: “The most spectacular sin that has ever been committed in the history of the world is the brutal murder of Jesus Christ, the morally perfect, infinitely worthy, divine Son of God.” Jesus Christ came into the world to save humanity from sin. And how did humanity respond? We killed Him. Jesus was God in the flesh, and we murdered Him. And the murder of Jesus Christ was the culmination of many evil acts, but as Piper writes, “probably the most despicable act in the process of this murder was the betrayal of Jesus by one of his closest friends, Judas Iscariot.”[1]

On a mission trip some years ago, I was introduced to playing dominos. I had owned a set of dominos for most of my life, but I never knew anyone actually played a game with them. I thought the only thing you could do with dominos was stand them up in a line, and flick the first one over and watch them all fall down in a chain reaction. Many events in the world occur like those dominos falling down. What causes the last domino to fall? The next-to-last domino falls into it. But the whole chain of events starts with the flicking of the first domino. And many events occurred leading up to the death of Jesus, like a long line of dominos falling into one another. But only one of those events is said in Scripture to be the direct result of Satan’s influence. And that is the betrayal of Jesus by Judas.

Judas was hand-picked by Jesus as one of His disciples. They didn’t volunteer, they were chosen. When Jesus chose the twelve, it wasn’t a lottery or random selection. The Bible tells us that He spent the night in prayer over it (Luke 6:12-13). Over the next three years, Judas would spend nearly every moment of his life together in close, intimate fellowship with Jesus. He would witness the miracles and hear the teaching. He was even entrusted by Jesus with a significant position among the disciples. He was the keeper of the money, the treasurer if you will. At this last supper Judas was seated so close to Jesus that they could have their hands in the same bowl at the same time. And it was there at the table that Jesus announced, “One of you will betray me.”

Now the most remarkable thing, to me, about this passage is the reaction of the disciples. Notice, not a one of them says, “I bet He’s talking about Judas.” Verse 22 says that they were deeply grieved, and they each one began to say to Him, “Surely not I, Lord?” These men had a long way to go in their understanding of spiritual matters, but one thing they knew for certain was that the capacity for unthinkable evil was present in each of their own hearts. Are you aware of this about yourself? If I were to say, “Later today, someone in this room will commit an unthinkable sin.” What would your reaction be? Would you begin to look around suspiciously trying to figure out who it might be? Or would you say to yourself, “It would not be beyond me to do such a thing in a moment of weakness. I pray that it will not be me.” I can remember in 1995 being in a preaching class with about eight other men, and the professor said, “Men, look at the man on your left and look at the man on your right. If statistics hold true, then in ten years only one of you will still be in the ministry.” To the man, each of us considered it a very strong possibility that he could be speaking directly to us. And time has proven it true. Out of that group of about nine men, I am one of maybe only three who are presently still in the ministry. Not all of those who have gone another way have been disqualified by egregious sin, but some have. And the lessons I have learned from the fall of some of my brothers in ministry is this: if you think you stand, take heed lest you fall. “Lord, is it me?” is a question that anyone who understands the wickedness present in every human heart must be willing to ask.

Jesus identified the betrayer in verse 23, saying, “He who dipped his hand with Me in the bowl is the one who will betray Me.” Judas Iscariot is the betrayer, and Jesus knows it. Now, we might ask, “Why did Judas do what he did?” There are layers in the answer that the Bible offers. There are primary and secondary causes. But Luke’s Gospel tells us that “Satan entered into Judas” (22:3). Does that give you pause? Do you wonder, as you contemplate that statement, if you could be going about your business in life, loving Jesus and serving God with right motives and sincere integrity, and find yourself suddenly and unwittingly the pawn of Satan for the purpose of evil? I would say that the answer to that question is likely, “No.” But when it comes to Judas, we aren’t talking about someone who is loving Jesus and serving God with right motives and sincere integrity. Judas had given Satan some raw material to work with in the scheme to destroy Jesus. John 12:6 says that he was a thief. As the keeper of the money box for the disciples, Judas used to pilfer the money for himself. And as Jesus began to disclose to His disciples that the Father’s plan was not for Christ to establish a political reign in Jerusalem, but rather to suffer and die to redeem humanity from sin, Judas suddenly realized that he was not about to become the Secretary of the Treasury of the next great world empire. Because Judas loved money more than he loved Jesus, Satan put it into his heart to strike a deal with the Pharisees and scribes. Betraying Jesus offered more financial profit for Judas than following Him did. And for thirty pieces of silver, the equivalent to about four-months’ salary for an average worker of that day, he arranged to be the agent of betrayal. So, there is no “devil made me do it” excuse that can relieve us of responsibility for our moral actions. The devil can make someone do unthinkable evil, but only when the seed of evil is already present in the desires of an individual’s heart. This is exactly what James 1:14 says: “Each one is tempted when he is carried away and enticed by his own lust.” Satan entered into Judas and used him to commit history’s most spectacular sin. But he entered in through the open door of Judas’s own evil desires.

Now, two theological questions emerge as we think about humanity’s most spectacular sin. First, why would Satan desire for Jesus to go to the cross? The death of Jesus and His resurrection are the fatal blow to Satan’s head that was prophesied in the first preaching of the gospel in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 3:15). And Scripture seems to be clear that Satan knew this. Satan’s temptations of Jesus recorded in Matthew 4, Mark 1, and Luke 4 seem to be aimed at diverting Jesus from the cross. When Jesus began to teach His disciples that He must go to the cross, Peter rebuked the Lord and said that this must not happen. But you recall that in that moment (Matt 16:21-23), Jesus said to Peter, “Get behind Me, Satan.” It is not in Peter’s best interest for Jesus to avoid the cross, but it is in Satan’s best interest. All talk of Jesus escaping the cross originates in the heart of Satan. So, why would he want this betrayal to happen? Hear what Piper says here:

Satan saw that his efforts to divert Jesus from the cross had failed. Time after time Jesus kept the course. His face was set like flint to die (Luke 9:51, 53), and Satan concluded that there was no stopping him. Therefore, he resolved that if he couldn’t stop it, he would at least make it as ugly and painful and as heartbreaking as possible. Not just death, but death by betrayal. Death by abandonment. Death by denial (Luke 22:31-34). Death by torture. If could not stop it, he would drag others into it and do as much damage as he could.[2]

So, that is one very compelling answer to the theological question of why Satan prompted Judas to commit history’s most spectacular sin. But there’s another important theological question:
Did Jesus know that Judas would do this? And of course He did. Each of the four Gospels records that Jesus announced the betrayal beforehand at the table. So, why did He choose Judas anyway? Why did He not stop Judas somehow? And to answer that question, we move to look at the second announcement at the table.

II. At the table, Jesus announced humanity’s most spectacular salvation (vv26-30)

The first announcement set the stage for humanity’s most spectacular sin. The events that will take place within the next few hours, as Judas comes into the garden with an entourage of armed soldiers, and betrays Jesus with a kiss, must not be seen as a surprise or accident. But rather, these events are furthering a divine plan to save humanity from sin that originated in the heart of God from the beginning. In God’s instructions to Adam in the Garden of Eden, there was a penalty for sin spelled out. You remember what it was? Do not eat from the fruit of this tree, “for in the day that you eat from it, you will surely die” (Gen 2:17). So, though Paul says, “the wages of sin is death” in Romans 6:23, it was not Paul who came up with the idea that the wages of sin is death. That idea comes from God. Now, when Adam and Eve sinned, did death occur? I agree with those who carefully articulate that at that very moment, the spiritual death of humanity occurred in Adam and in Eve, but what about physical death? Was there a physical death “in the day” that they ate “thereof”? After all, we are told in Genesis 5:5 that Adam lived a total of 930 years. But on the day that they sinned, did physical death occur? And the answer is “yes.” In Genesis 3:21, we read that the Lord God made garments to cover Adam and Eve. What were they made of? Fig leaves? No! The Bible says that the Lord God made garments of skin for Adam and his wife and clothed them. Now, where did that skin come from? It seems very obvious that there was a sacrifice made, and the skin of that animal that was offered as a sacrifice became their covering. So from the beginning, from the very first sin, we see the Lord enacting this principle that a sacrificial substitute can be offered as an atonement for sin. And we have good reason to believe that Adam and Eve got it! They understood this, because apparently they taught their children this. We see Abel in Genesis 4 bringing an offering of the firstlings of his flock to God as an offering, and God was pleased with that offering.

Generations later, the people of God find themselves enslaved in Egypt for four hundred years. When Moses confronted Pharaoh with the demand to “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel, let my people go,” Pharaoh increasingly hardened his heart against the Israelites. Therefore, in order to shatter his hardened heart, God sent a series of ten plagues upon the land of Egypt, each one increasing in severity. In the tenth and final plague, God declared that He was going to take the life of every firstborn male child in every household of Egypt. But Israel would be spared this judgment, so long as they kept God’s instructions to sacrifice a lamb. The meat of that lamb would be eaten with unleavened bread in a last supper before they fled Egypt. And the lamb’s blood was to be smeared on their doorposts. And the Lord promised, “'The blood shall be a sign for you on the houses where you live; and when I see the blood I will pass over you, and no plague will befall you to destroy you when I strike the land of Egypt.” This is the origin the name Passover. And it happened just as the Lord said it would. And in the Law, the Lord instructed His people to have an annual meal commemorating this event to continually remind them of what He had done for them. And the Law set forth other seasons and circumstances of sacrifice, in which blood was shed, death was doled out, to provide redemption, to provide atonement, to provide a covering for sin.

Jesus and His followers observed three Passover meals together. But it was in this final one that Jesus completely redefines the significance of the Passover meal. Henceforth, for those who believe in Him, it will be a reminder, not of the deliverance of the nation from Egypt, which was sealed by the blood of a lamb, but of the deliverance of humanity from sin, which was sealed by the blood Christ. At this table, Jesus would make it clear to His followers just what John the Baptist meant when he pointed to Jesus and said, “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

He takes the bread, and He blesses it, and He breaks it, and He gives it to the disciples and says, “Take, eat; this is My body.” And then He takes the cup, with its deep red fruit of the vine, and He says, “Drink from it, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for forgiveness of sins.” These two visible symbols, the bread and the cup, accompany and illustrate the announcement that all of those sacrifices and all of that blood was pointing forward to what was going to happen just hours later as Jesus died on the cross.

The murder of Jesus is the final domino of a long line of events, a chain reaction that included Satan’s exploitation of Judas’ love of money, the plot of the religious leaders to rid the world of Jesus, the sins of humanity going all the way back to the Garden of Eden, and every animal sacrifice ever offered. But who flicked the first domino? What was the catalyst that caused the chain reaction that culminated in God-Incarnate being nailed to an instrument of torturous execution? The whole thing flows forth out of God’s infinite love and amazing grace, and His sovereign plan to rescue humanity from sin. Everything that took place leading up to and including the crucifixion of Jesus happened in explicit fulfillment of prophecies that God had revealed over centuries. Notice in verse 24 that Jesus says, “The Son of Man is to go, just as it is written of Him.” In the verse 31, Jesus quotes Zechariah 13:7 which speaks of the striking of the shepherd and the scattering of the flock. Psalm 118 is referenced in Matthew 21:42, saying that evil men would reject the Messiah. John 15:25 points to Psalm 35’s promise that He would be hated without cause. John 19:34-37 harkens back to Psalm 34:20 and Zechariah 12:10 which speak of Him being pierced and His bones being left unbroken. In John 13:18, Jesus cites Psalm 41:9 about the one who ate bread with Him lifting up his heel against him. In Matthew 27:9-10, there is reference to Jeremiah 19:1-13, which is also similar to Zechariah 11:12-13, and which speaks of thirty pieces of silver being the price of the blood money. And Jesus Himself announced to His disciples numerous times that when they came to Jerusalem, He would be delivered over to the chief priests and scribes, condemned to death, handed over to Gentiles, tortured and killed, and that He would rise from the dead (e.g, Mark 10:33-34). You see that God was spelling out the events that would take place at the pinnacle of human history as Jesus made His way to the cross. They were taking place in accordance with His sovereign will. Isaiah 53 had announced that it was the Lord who would lay upon the Messiah the iniquity of us all; that it was the will of the Lord for Him to be crushed and put to grief. And in Acts 2, as Peter preached the great sermon of Pentecost, he proclaimed that the people of Israel nailed Jesus to a cross by the hands of godless men (implicating Jew and Gentile alike in the murder of Jesus), but that Jesus had been delivered over by the predetermined plan and foreknowledge of God. In Acts 4, as the early church’s leaders prayed, they spoke to God saying, “in this city there were gathered together against Your holy servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose predestined to occur.”

So you see, when Jesus announced at the table that His body would be broken just like the bread, and His blood would flow like the juice of crushed grapes, He was announcing the culmination of redemptive history was at hand. God’s sovereign plan to redeem humanity from sin had reached its climax in the imminent death of Jesus on the cross. His was the final and full sacrifice for the sins of humanity. And with His announcement of these things also comes an invitation: “Take and eat,” “Drink from it, all of you.” You have been invited to participate in this glorious redemption, this spectacular salvation, and be rescued by the amazing grace of God from your state of sin.

Just as God ordered Israel to regularly observe the Passover as a reminder of their redemption from bondage in Egypt, so Christ has ordained for His Church to regularly reenact this covenant meal. As we take the bread and drink the cup, we remember that we have been redeemed from slavery to sin. And the New Testament instructs us to examine ourselves as come with Christ to the table. Is Christ the supreme love in your life? Have you committed yourself to Him by faith as Lord and Savior? Or are you just hanging around with Him and His people, not unlike Judas, while your heart remains far from Him? You will notice as you read the Gospels that it was not until Judas left the room that Christ shared these symbolic elements with His disciples. This is not a meal for everyone. The symbols are reserved for those who have participated in the reality. The reminder of His sacrifice is served to those who have received His salvation. So today, I would invite you to examine yourself, and if you have never personally received the gift of salvation that Christ has purchased for you with His own blood, then today you can. You can acknowledge to God that you are a sinner, and that you turn from that life of sin claiming Jesus as your Lord and your Savior.

[1] John Piper, History’s Most Spectacular Sin (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2008), p5.
[2] Piper, p9.

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