Jesus’ Last Days
In this lesson, Jesus is now entering the final moments before the cross. The world, even the universe, begins to face the most crucial moment in the history of creation.
So many lessons can be derived from the events that we will look at this week, but as we read, let’s focus on one—freedom and free will. Look at how the various characters used the great and costly gift of freedom. Look at the powerful and even eternal consequences that arose from the use, one way or another, of this gift.
Peter, Judas, and the woman with the alabaster box all had to make choices. But most important of all, Jesus, too, had to make choices, and the greatest one was to go to the cross, even though His human nature had cried out against it: “ ‘O My Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from Me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as You will’ ” (Matt. 26:39, NKJV).
The irony is incredible: the gift of free will that we had abused brought Jesus to this very moment, where Jesus—using His own free will—had to choose whether or not to save us from the destruction that our abuse of free will would otherwise have brought us.
* Study this week’s lesson to prepare for Sabbath, June 18.
We are now entering the last days of Jesus’ life on earth. He has yet to go to the cross, has yet to be resurrected, and has yet to reveal Himself fully as the crucified and risen Savior of the world. However much those who followed Jesus loved Him and appreciated Him, they still had so much to learn about who He was and all that He would do for them. Looking back, with the entirety of the Bible at our disposal, and especially Paul’s powerful explanations of the atoning death of Jesus, we know so much more about what Jesus was going to do for us than His followers did at the time of this story.
Notice how Matthew places the story of Jesus’ head being anointed (which probably happened prior to the triumphal entry) within the growing plot to kill Him. While some of His own people were planning to do Him harm, this woman poured out unrestrained love and devotion upon Him, with her “alabaster flask of very costly fragrant oil” (Matt. 26:7, NKJV).
While the disciples were lamenting the waste, Jesus called what she did “a beautiful” work. By this action, very extravagant outwardly, the woman was revealing the true depth of emotion in her heart toward Jesus. Though she surely didn’t know all that was to come or what it would mean, she understood enough to know that she owed so much to Jesus; and thus, she wanted to give back so much, as well. Perhaps she had heard His words, “ ‘For everyone to whom much is given, from him much will be required’ ” (Luke 12:48, NKJV). Meanwhile the disciples, who had surely seen more of what Jesus had done than had that woman, still missed the point entirely.
“That ointment was a symbol of the overflowing heart of the giver. It was an outward demonstration of a love fed by heavenly streams until it overflowed. And that ointment of Mary, which the disciples called waste, is repeating itself a thousand times in the susceptible hearts of others.” —Ellen G. White, The SDA Bible Commentary, vol. 5, p. 1101.
The story of the Exodus is, of course, a story of redemption, of deliverance—a work that God does for those who could not do it for themselves. What an appropriate symbol for what Jesus was soon to do for us all!
Jesus was pointing them to the deeper meaning of the Passover. Deliverance from Egypt was a wonderful manifestation of the Lordship and power of God, but in the end it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t the Redemption that the Hebrews, or any of us, really needed. We need the Redemption that is in Jesus: eternal life. “And for this reason He is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance” (Heb. 9:15, NKJV). Jesus points them to the real meaning of the wine, the real meaning of the bread; they were all pointing to His death on the cross.
Thus, unlike the animal sacrifices that pointed forward to the death of Jesus, partaking in the Communion service points us back to it. In each case, the emblems point us to Jesus on the cross.
And yet, the Cross doesn’t end the story. When Jesus says to the disciples that He won’t drink of the fruit of the vine until that day “ ‘when I drink it new with you in My Father’s kingdom’ ” (Matt. 26:29, NKJV), He’s pointing them to the future, to the Second Coming, and beyond.
During Passover week, the priests sacrificed thousands and thousands of lambs at the temple just up the hill from the Kidron Valley. The blood from the lambs was poured onto the altar and then flowed down a channel to a brook that ran through the Kidron Valley. The brook may have actually turned red from the blood of the lambs. Jesus and His disciples would have crossed over the red waters of this brook on their way to the Garden of Gethsemane.
It wasn’t physical death that Jesus was afraid of when He prayed that the cup would pass from Him. The cup Jesus dreaded was separation from God. Jesus knew that to become sin for us, to die in our stead, to bear in Himself the wrath of God against sin, He would have to be separated from His Father. Violation of God’s holy law was so serious that it demanded the death of the perpetrator. Jesus came precisely because He was going to take that death upon Himself in order to spare us from it. This is what was at stake for Jesus, and for us.
“With the issues of the conflict before Him, Christ’s soul was filled with dread of separation from God. Satan told Him that if He became the surety for a sinful world, the separation would be eternal. He would be identified with Satan’s kingdom, and would nevermore be one with God. . . . The awful moment had come—that moment which was to decide the destiny of the world. The fate of humanity trembled in the balance. Christ might even now refuse to drink the cup apportioned to guilty man. It was not yet too late. He might wipe the bloody sweat from His brow, and leave man to perish in his iniquity. He might say, Let the transgressor receive the penalty of his sin, and I will go back to My Father. Will the Son of God drink the bitter cup of humiliation and agony? Will the innocent suffer the consequences of the curse of sin, to save the guilty?”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, pp. 687, 690.
How sad the story of Judas! Had he died before his last journey to Jerusalem, he might have been among sacred history’s most venerated heroes. Church buildings could have been named after him. Instead, his name is forever linked to betrayal and treachery.
Of course, blaming Satan for what Judas did is fine, but it raises the question: What was it about Judas that enabled the devil to lead him to such treachery? After all, it was even said that Satan wanted to get Peter, as well (see Luke 22:31). The difference, however, must be that Judas refused to give himself fully to the Lord; he must have hung on to some sin, some character defect that enabled Satan to come in and lead him to do what he did. Again we see another powerful consequence of free choice.
In Matthew 26:47–50, we see Judas guiding a detachment of soldiers (about 600 soldiers), as well as chief priests and elders. What a tremendous moment of power for Judas! When you’ve got something that people really want, you possess tremendous power, as Judas does here. That’s fine, at least for as long as you have what they want. But if they care about you only because of what you have and then eventually they get from you what they want, they finally no longer need you. Within hours, Judas will be alone, and with nothing.
Another important lesson focuses on what Judas lost his soul over. Thirty pieces of silver? In today’s terms, the amount has been said to equal between one and four months’ wages, depending upon which silver coin is meant. Even if it were ten or a hundred times that amount, look at what it cost him! And as the story shows, he lost even that. He didn’t get to enjoy any of it; instead, he threw it all back at the feet of the ones who first gave it to him. What a powerful example of how, in the end, anything that causes us to turn away from Jesus, anything that causes us to lose our soul, is as useless as was that money to Judas. Judas was so close to eternal life; and yet, he chose to throw it away for nothing.
Jesus knew beforehand about Judas’s freewill decision to betray Him, one of many instances in the Bible showing that God’s foreknowledge of our free choices in no way infringes upon the freedom of those choices. And He knew not only of Judas’s betrayal but also that Peter, despite all his bravado, would at the crucial moment flee and then deny Him.
Often we have the idea that Peter denied Jesus simply because he was afraid. Yet, it was Peter (according to John 18:10) who had the courage to pull his sword against Roman soldiers! Peter was willing to go out in a blaze of glory—until Jesus stopped him.
So, what changed in Peter from the moment he’s brandishing a sword to just a little while later, when he’s denying he knows Jesus? Why did he say that he wasn’t a disciple? Why does Peter say, “ ‘I do not know the Man!’ ” (Matt. 26:72, NKJV)?
Maybe because Peter realized that he didn’t know the Man, didn’t know what His coming was for and didn’t know what His arrest meant. So, in a moment of panic, he denied he ever knew Him. Perhaps Peter denied Jesus when he realized that he didn’t understand what Jesus was doing. He gave up when he saw what he thought was Jesus giving up. Peter was still putting too much faith in his own understanding rather than putting his full faith in Jesus, even despite all the incredible signs he had seen and even despite his bold confession of faith in Jesus as the Christ (Matt. 16:16). Peter’s denial should tell us that all the miracles and signs in the world won’t keep us faithful to God until our hearts are fully surrendered to Him.
Further Thought: In 1959, two hoodlums entered a home in Kansas and murdered two teenage children and their parents. Before the killers were found, the brother of the murdered mother wrote this letter to the local paper: “ ‘There is much resentment in this community. I have even heard on more than one occasion that the man, when found, should be hanged from the nearest tree. Let us not feel this way. The deed is done and taking another life cannot change it. Instead, let us forgive as God would have us do. It is not right that we should hold a grudge in our hearts. The doer of this act is going to find it very difficult indeed to live with himself. His only peace of mind will be when he goes to God for forgiveness. Let us not stand in the way but instead give prayers that he may find his peace.’ ”—Truman Capote, In Cold Blood (New York: Modern Library, 2013), p. 124.
Putting aside questions about capital punishment, we can see here a powerful expression of the kind of grace that Christ offers to us all. Even after Peter’s inexcusable denial, Christ forgave him and entrusted him with the work of winning souls. “Peter had just declared that he knew not Jesus, but he now realized with bitter grief how well his Lord knew him, and how accurately He had read his heart, the falseness of which was unknown even to himself.”—Ellen G. White, The Desire of Ages, p. 713. He knew what was in Peter even before Peter knew; and He knew what Peter would do even before Peter knew. And yet, His love and grace remained constant despite Peter’s having no one to blame but himself for his actions. As we deal with people who make similar mistakes, how crucial that we learn to extend grace to them just as we would wish it for ourselves.