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Preparation for Jesus’ Death,
by Scott Sperling
1When Jesus had finished saying all these things, He said to His disciples, 2“As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.”
3Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill Him. 5“But not during the Feast,” they said, “or there may be a riot among the people.”
6While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, 7a woman came to Him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on His head as He was reclining at the table.
8When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. “Why this waste?” they asked. 9“This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor.”
10Aware of this, Jesus said to them, “Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. 11The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me. 12When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial. 13I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her.” (Matt. 26:1-13)
Matthew begins this chapter: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things…” (vs. 1). This is a quite appropriate opening, because this chapter brings to a close Jesus’ teaching and ministering to the public at large. Never again would Jesus personally sit on the side of a hill and teach the people; never again would He walk through a crowd, healing all whom He touched. This was surely a sad day in human history.
In this chapter, the focus is not on the teachings of Jesus; rather, the focus shifts to preparations for Jesus’ arrest and death: Jesus speaks again to the disciples of what is going to happen (vss. 1-2); the rulers begin to plot how to arrest Jesus (vss. 3-5); a woman anoints Jesus in preparation for His sufferings and death (vss. 6-13); Judas meets with the rulers, and arranges to deliver Jesus to them (vss. 14-16). Things come to a head, as events align toward the most significant event in human history.
Jesus tells the disciples: “As you know, the Passover is two days away – and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (vs. 2). Significantly here, Jesus connects His death with the Passover, “not only as indicating the day and hour, but to mark the typical meaning and importance of this solemnity, when He, our Passover, should be sacrificed for us.” (Pulpit Commentary). At the original Passover, in the midst of the plagues of Egypt, during the time when the Israelites were enslaved by Pharaoh, a lamb was sacrificed in each Israelite household to save the people (see Exodus 11 and 12). This event was typical of (pointing ahead to) the sacrifice of Jesus to save the people from their sins. When John the Baptist was ministering, and saw Jesus coming toward him, he said: “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world” (John 1:29). Paul explicitly tells us: “Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast—as you really are. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed” (I Cor. 5:7). That Jesus was indeed sacrificed during the Passover feast underscores for us that Jesus’ death and resurrection has been part of God’s plan from time immemorial. Peter tells us: “For you know that it was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish or defect. He was chosen before the creation of the world, but was revealed in these last times for your sake” (I Pet. 1:18-20). In the book of Revelation, Jesus is called “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). And so, it was foreordained that Jesus be sacrificed, and it was foreordained that His death come during the Passover. “[The disciples] probably did not fully comprehend [that] the one great Passover was about to be observed” (Spurgeon).
Jesus had spoken of His death a number of times before (see Matt. 16:21; Matt. 17:22; Luke 9:22; Luke 12:50; Luke 22:37; et. al.). In this case, Jesus tells of the exact time, and method of His death. This demonstrated that Jesus was going to His death voluntarily. “Two purposes were thus served by this statement: first, that the Son of God willingly surrendered Himself to die, in order to reconcile the world to the Father, (for in no other way could the guilt of sins have been expiated, or righteousness obtained for us) and, secondly, that He did not die like one oppressed by violence which He could not escape, but because He voluntarily offered Himself to die… And it was necessary that He should do so, because God could not be appeased but by a sacrifice of obedience.” (Calvin). “With what amazing calmness and precision does our blessed Lord speak of this awful event!... What a proof does He here give of His prescience in so correctly predicting it; and of His love in so cheerfully undergoing it!” (Clarke). Not only does Jesus go to His death willingly, His death is planned within the counsels of the Trinity, and carried out according to the will of the Father. It is more God’s plan than it is the plan of the evil ones on earth carrying it out. “Before the consultations of the chief priests had taken place, Jesus speaks of it as a settled thing. Afterwards the priests, the scribes, and the elders assemble to concert their plans for obtaining possession of His person, and ridding themselves of Him. In a word, first, the marvelous counsels of God, and the submission of Jesus, according to His knowledge of those counsels and of the circumstances which should accompany them; and, afterwards, the iniquitous counsels of man, which do but fulfill those of God.” (Darby).
Next, Matthew tells of the planning of the conspirators against Jesus: “Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, and they plotted to arrest Jesus in some sly way and kill Him. ‘But not during the Feast,’ they said, ‘or there may be a riot among the people’” (vs. 3-5). How perfectly does this fulfill the prophetic words in Psalm 2: “The rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One” (Ps. 2:2). Ironically, as mentioned above, the plotting of the rulers was foreordained by God, and according to His perfect plan, though the plotters themselves were uncertain about it. “While Christ was announcing His approaching death, the rulers were plotting its accomplishment. He was certain; they were in doubt and perplexity about it” (Pulpit Commentary). The plotters did not want the arrest and murder “during the Feasts”, but God had already ordained that it be during the Passover. And as we know, Jesus was killed during the Feasts, so even as the plotters strived to do things their own way, God worked things out according to His plan. “God Himself and not man appoints the time that Christ should be crucified… [I]t came to pass through God’s providence, that Christ suffered at that time, so that all the people of Israel might be witnesses of his everlasting sacrifice.” (Geneva Bible). “The providence of God frustrated their artful machinations; and that event which they wished to conduct with the greatest privacy and silence was transacted with all possible celebrity, amidst thousands who resorted to Jerusalem, at this season, for the keeping of the Passover… It was, doubtless, of the very first importance that the crucifixion of Christ, which was preparatory to the most essential achievement of Christianity, viz. His resurrection from the grave, should be exhibited before many witnesses, and in the most open manner, that infidelity might not attempt, in future, to invalidate the evidences of the Christian religion, by alleging that these things were done in a corner” (Clarke). As we shall see in vss. 14-16, it will be according to the proposition of Judas that the rulers change their plans and arrest Jesus during the Feasts.
As the rulers prepare for Jesus’ arrest, a humble servant of our Lord prepares for Jesus’ burial: “While Jesus was in Bethany in the home of a man known as Simon the Leper, a woman came to Him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume, which she poured on His head as He was reclining at the table” (vs. 6-7). Simon the Leper was, most probably, a man whom Jesus healed (he could not still have leprosy, or the Jewish laws would prevent the gathering at his house). From John’s gospel, we learn that it was Mary, sister of Martha (not Mary Magdalene, as some think), who anointed Jesus here (see John 12:3). Lazarus, the brother of Mary and Martha, whom Jesus raised from the dead, was also in attendance.
Mary, we have learned, had a heart for the worship of her Lord, and the desire to ever be with Him. She was previously commended by Jesus (after being chastised by Martha) for sitting at His feet listening to Him (see Luke 10:39ff). Here, she is chastised again for her act of worship: “When the disciples saw this, they were indignant. ‘Why this waste?’ they asked. ‘This perfume could have been sold at a high price and the money given to the poor’” (vss. 8-9). Poor Mary! Always rebuked for her desire to sit at our Lord’s feet, and worship! Yet, Jesus always comes to her defense, as He does here: “Aware of this, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me’” (vss. 10-11). Jesus here emphasizes the value, and necessity to worship the Lord, even at the expense, at times, of doing other good works. When asked what the greatest commandment was, Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment” (Matt. 22:37-38). Then He said, “And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’” (Matt. 22:39). So, we are “first” to “love the Lord our God with all heart, soul and mind”, and then tend to our neighbors. Worship trumps service. The world mocks, and rebukes, pure worship of our Lord. Worshippers are called fanatics. They are thought of as lunatics. But Jesus, our Lord, commends those who worship. This was a lesson even the disciples had to learn. “Whatever fitly manifests, and by reaction strengthens, devout affection—true religious sentiment—is in itself acceptable to Christ and useful to us; for these sentiments are a necessary part of developed and symmetrical Christian character. Nor should they be hastily condemned as unpractical, for they stimulate to corresponding action.” (Broadus). “What she had done was done out of a principle of love to Christ, and for His honor and glory, so it was a good work” (Poole).
Matthew tells us that the “disciples” were “indignant”. This implies that the disciples did not merely give some sort of suggestion to Mary about the use of the perfume, but rebuked her sharply and angrily. They did not understand the importance of Mary’s act of worship. “It is so hard for some people to allow others liberty for their own personalities to express themselves. It is easy to raise small objections to what we do not like and do not understand” (Robertson). “When you do the best you can do, from the purest motives, and your Lord accepts your service, do not expect that your brethren will approve all your actions” (Spurgeon).
In the parallel passage of this event in the book of John, John tells us that “Judas” rebuked Mary; in the book of Mark, it says that “some” of the disciples did so; here, Matthew implies more of a general indignation by the disciples. We can reconcile these accounts by inferring that it was first Judas who made the rebuke, and then the other disciples, eventually one-by-one, joined in. “One murmurer may infect a whole company” (Dickson). We must take care that we do not join in with the unjust murmurers, in order to be part of the crowd. Err on the side of grace.
Jesus approved of the action: “Aware of this, Jesus said to them, ‘Why are you bothering this woman? She has done a beautiful thing to me. The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me’” (vss. 10-11). The clause “Aware of this” implies that Jesus “came to know” about the rebukes of the disciples, which further implies that the disciples rebuked Mary outside of Jesus’ presence (presumably at a later time). The disciples demonstrate by this a bit of cowardice, and lack of surety about their rebuke, to show their indignation when they thought Jesus wasn’t looking.
Far from rebuking Mary, Jesus accepted her act of worship as a “beautiful thing”. The disciples will have plenty of opportunities for good works, for “the poor we will always have with us”. The opportunity to perform such an act of worship, in the direct physical presence of Jesus, would never come again. Moreover, in light of the coming events, the anointing of Jesus served a symbolic purpose: it was done in preparation for the burial of Jesus, in anticipation of His death. Jesus said: “When she poured the perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial” (vs. 12). Mary alone, it seems, grasped the import and gravity of Jesus’ statement that He would “be handed over to be crucified”, and she responded with this beautiful act of worship. Ironically, if Mary had performed this anointing after Jesus’ death, the disciples probably would not have objected. We seem to give more grace to acts benefitting the dead, than those benefitting the living.
Finally, Jesus rewards Mary with a prophetic statement about this act of love: “I tell you the truth, wherever this gospel is preached throughout the world, what she has done will also be told, in memory of her” (vs. 13). This prophecy, of course, has been fulfilled. In fact, our very study of this passage partially fulfills it. Though at the time she was rebuked, she has been commended over and over throughout the ages for her act of worship, and she has taught us, by her act, a lesson about true worship, and its importance. “It was worthy to be recorded in all ages that one heart estimated the Saviour, when the world was gone against Him” (Darby). “He gives a commendation beyond all other words of praise He ever spoke; looking down the ages, and out to the ends of the earth, and recognising that this love to Himself, this personal devotion to a dying Saviour, was to be the very central force of the gospel, and thus the hope of the world” (Gibson).
Parenthetically, I find fascinating the similarity of these events, and those referenced in the fifth verse of the beloved 23rd Psalm: “You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” (Ps 23:5). The reference in this Psalm to “enemies” (Judas), and “anoint”, and the “cup” (of communion possibly), could lead one to a whole new reading of that Psalm. I leave this as a valuable exercise in meditation for the reader!