Jesus Died for Our Sins

 

Week of April 1, 2012

 

Bible Verses:  Matthew 26:26-29, 36-39; 27:45-46, 50-54.

 

Lesson Focus:   This lesson is about Jesus’ death on the cross and why He died.

 

Jesus’ Death Brought Forgiveness of Sins:  Matthew 26:26-29.

 

[26]  Now as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and after blessing it broke it and gave it to the disciples, and said, "Take, eat; this is my body." [27]  And he took a cup, and when he had given thanks he gave it to them, saying, "Drink of it, all of you, [28]  for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. [29]  I tell you I will not drink again of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom."

 

[26]  Matthew tells us that the service we know as Holy Communion began as they were eating, which means that Jesus began it in the context of a meal, not as a separate piece of religious ceremony. He took bread, not any special bread, but the bread they were using for the meal. After saying a blessing Jesus broke the bread and gave it to the disciples. He would, of course, have broken bread and given thanks at the beginning of the meal, but He was now starting something new and it was appropriate that this new observance be marked off with a new beginning, a special thanksgiving. Since Jesus is about to speak of this bread in terms of His body and since that body was about to be broken on the cross, there is a special suitability about breaking the bread in this observance. Jesus told them to eat and went on to some words that have caused endless controversy: this is my body, words that are identical in all three Synoptists. We should perhaps notice that the bread was one of the three things to be explained at the Passover celebration (the other two were Passover and bitter herbs), so that some words about bread would be natural in the context. These words have sometimes been made the basis for some “realistic” views of the presence of Jesus in the bread; indeed, the consecrated bread has been regarded as in some sense the body of Jesus. It is difficult to know how this could have been understood at this first service, for the body of Jesus was there before the disciples. The meaning of the words seems to be given by Paul, As often as you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes [1 Cor. 11:26]. Jesus is certainly saying something about His death and about His broken body, but there is no warrant for saying that the bread is that body in any realist sense. That it proclaims the Lord’s death is clear, and we may certainly say that sacramentally it enables believers to partake of all that that death means, to feed on Him “in their hearts by faith with thanksgiving,” as the Book of Common Prayer puts it. We should not miss the point that Jesus commanded His followers to perform actions that brought before them His death, not anything in His life. What is certain is that Jesus bids us commemorate, not His birth, nor His life, nor His miracles, but His death.

 

[27-28]  There are similar words about the wine. Jesus took a cup, gave thanks and gave it to the disciples with the command, Drink of it, all of you. Jesus then tells the disciples: this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. The same should be said about realistic understanding of the wine as of the bread. Jesus is certainly calling on His followers to drink the wine reverently, and He is saying explicitly that it points them to the meaning of His death. It is thus to be received solemnly and thankfully, but not as though Jesus were somehow physically identified with it. He speaks of his blood as my blood of the covenant, which takes up a thought that is important throughout the Old Testament for the covenant God made with Israel was central. In the making of that covenant, blood was thrown on the people [Ex. 24:8], a most uncommon procedure. Indeed, blood was put on people in only two other places in the whole Old Testament, the consecration of the priests [Lev. 8:22-24] and the cleansing of the leper [Lev. 14:14,25]. In both it seems that the action signifies cleansing from earlier defilement and consecration to a new life of service to God. All this indicates that the covenant with God was central to Old Testament religion; it dominated the relationship of Israel to Israel’s God. But the tragedy is that Israel did not keep the covenant; it persisted in the ways of sin and thus forfeited the blessing. So the prophet Jeremiah looked forward to the time when God would make a new covenant [Jer. 31:31]. That is important for an understanding of Jesus’ words here. When Jesus spoke of His blood as blood of the covenant, He was surely claiming that, at the cost of His death, He was about to inaugurate the new covenant of which the prophet had spoken. This was a big claim. Jesus was saying that His death would be central to the relationship between God and the people of God. It would be the means of cleansing from past sins and consecrating to a new life of service to God. It would be the establishing of the covenant that was based not on people’s keeping it [Ex. 24:3,7], but on God’s forgiveness [Jer. 31:34]. Jesus goes on to speak of His blood as poured out, which is a vivid way of referring to His death. His time on earth is drawing to a close, and He is facing a violent death. But this death, He says, is for many, which means that it is a vicarious death. It is also for the forgiveness of sins. This is central to the covenant He was about to inaugurate. Jesus had taught people a good deal about the way they should live their lives in the service of God, but He had also spoken of their need for divine help and forgiveness. Now He makes it clear that that forgiveness would be brought about by His death. None of the Gospel writers have the command to continue the observance, but Paul has it [1 Cor. 11:23-26], and this is supported by the practice of the church from the earliest times.

 

[29]  The death of which Jesus has been speaking will inaugurate a whole new religious world. One of the significant things about that world is that the kind of table fellowship Jesus had enjoyed with His disciples is coming to an end. Never again in this life would Jesus drink with them at table, for He was about to go to His death. The disciples did not know it, but they were at a decisive moment; things would never be the same for them. In my Father’s kingdom indicates that Jesus is looking forward to the end of this world system and the setting up of the perfect kingdom of God. Then, and not till then, He will have table fellowship with the disciples. The words mark a solemn farewell to the familiar intercourse they had been having during the time of Jesus’ ministry here on earth, but also are a sure indication that at some unspecified time in the future that fellowship will be renewed.

 

Jesus’ Death Fulfilled God’s Plan:  Matthew 26:36-39.

 

[36]  Then Jesus went with them to a place called Gethsemane, and he said to his disciples, "Sit here, while I go over there and pray." [37]  And taking with him Peter and the two sons of Zebedee, he began to be sorrowful and troubled. [38]  Then he said to them, "My soul is very sorrowful, even to death; remain here, and watch with me." [39]  And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, "My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”  [ESV]

 

There is a tragic irony in the placing of our Lord’s agony right after the boasting of the apostles in verse 35. The Apostles are so sure of their own strength that they will not allow the possibility of failure, even when they are forewarned of it by Christ. The Son of Man is so conscious of the weakness of His humanity that He prays to the Father that He may be spared the approaching trial. He feels the need of being strengthened by prayer. Jesus leads the disciples to a place called Gethsemane which was evidently a place that Jesus and His disciples frequented. Jesus had not come to this quiet spot in order to engage in some light conversation. This was to be His last period of freedom in His life here on earth, and He was facing rejection and an agonizing death. So He told the disciples to sit where they were, while I go over there and pray. The important thing is that He saw the need for quiet prayer, time alone with His Father, before the terrible ordeal He was facing. But Jesus did not immediately separate Himself from the whole band. He took Peter and the two sons of Zebedee (James and John) with Him. In view of what lay ahead of Him it is not surprising that Jesus should be sorrowful and troubled. It is not clear how this was expressed, but Matthew makes it clear that Jesus was deeply stirred at the prospect of what lay before Him. Jesus’ deep anguish comes out in the further words spoken to Peter and the sons of Zebedee. In words reminiscent of Psalm 42:6,11; 43:5 Jesus speaks of His soul as very sorrowful, even to death. Matthew does not leave his readers to think that Jesus was troubled in the same way as we all are from time to time. In Gethsemane He underwent a most unusual sense of being troubled that we must feel is connected not only with the fact that He would die, but that he would die the kind of death He faced, a death for sinners. Jesus was a brave man, and lesser people by far, including many who have owed their inspiration to Him, have faced death calmly. It is impossible to hold that it was the fact of death that moved Jesus so deeply. Rather, it was the kind of death that He would die that brought the anguish. In due course Matthew will record the cry from the cross that says the Father has forsaken Jesus at the point of death (27:46; Paul says, him who knew no sin he made sin for us [2 Cor. 5:21]). Jesus would be one with sinners in His death, He would experience the death that is due to sinners, and it seems that it was this that brought about the tremendous disturbance of spirit that Matthew records. In His anguish Jesus calls on the three: remain here, and watch with me. Jesus appeals to the three disciples to share with Him in this difficult time. Clearly He wanted to feel their fellowship with Him in the great crisis that was so near. It is perhaps a little puzzling that He went on a little as He prayed, but perhaps Matthew wants us to understand that the three were near enough to provide company and support while Jesus prayed a prayer that only He could pray. There is a sense in which He had to be alone in prayer, for only He could pray the prayer He prayed. But there is also a sense in which He could have been encouraged by the support of His closest followers nearby. He does not ask them to pray, but to watch. Jesus fell on his face and prayed, an expression that means that Jesus adopted the lowliest posture for this very significant prayer. He began with the warm and tender approach, My Father. Even in this time when it would seem that He was abandoned to ignominy and death Jesus knew that His Father was near. If it be possible precedes the substance of the prayer and makes clear that Jesus was not pressing for anything that was against the will of the Father. The question at issue was not whether Jesus should do the Father’s will, but whether that necessarily included the way of the cross. But we discern also Jesus’ firm determination that the Father’s will be done. So He prays for the avoidance of the death He faced, but only if that accorded with the divine plan. The petition is let this cup pass from me. In the Old Testament, the cup has associations of suffering and of the wrath of God (e.g., Psalm 11:6; Isaiah 51:17; Ezekiel 23:33), and we should observe the same kind of symbolism here. Jesus’ death meant suffering the full wrath of God being poured out on Him for the full payment due for sin. The death Jesus faced was a horrible death that no other human being could ever experience. So He prayed that if it were possible it might be avoided. But the final petition of the prayer rests in the will of God. Jesus is not seeking to impose His will on the Father, but to accept the will of the Father. Throughout His whole life He had sought only to do the will of the Father, and throughout His life He had steadfastly moved toward the accomplishment of the divine will. As He now faces the climax of it all, He insists that it is the will of the Father that is His chief concern.

 

Jesus’ Death Revealed He Was God’s Son:  Matthew 27:45-46, 50-54.

 

[45]  Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. [46]  And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" [50]  And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. [51]  And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. [52]  The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, [53]  and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. [54]  When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!"  [ESV]

 

[45-46]  All three Synoptists tell us that there was darkness over all the land from the sixth hour (i.e., noon) until the ninth hour (3 p.m.). This cannot be explained as an eclipse, for it was Passover time and with a full moon an eclipse is not possible. We should understand the darkness as supernatural, leading up to the time when the Son of God breathed His last. It was not a local phenomenon, peculiar to Jerusalem and its immediate environs, for all three Synoptists tell us that it was over all the land. They clearly mean that it was not a natural phenomenon but the result of divine intervention. Darkness is associated with judgment in several places in Scripture and it appears that we are to understand it here as pointing to God’s judgment on sin that is linked with the cross. Then at about the ninth hour Jesus died. Matthew and Mark both tell us that Jesus uttered a loud cry. The words, which seem to be a mixture of Hebrew and Aramaic, form the opening of Psalm 22 and are slightly different in Mark,  where they are more clearly Aramaic. Since they are the only words Matthew and Mark record Jesus as speaking from the cross, they must be taken as very significant for these Evangelists (there are six other sayings, but they are all in Luke and John). Speaking loudly as He did, Jesus evidently meant the words to be heard. There is no great difficulty in translating Jesus’ words (as Matthew did for his non-Hebrew-speaking readers): My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? But understanding what they mean is a much more difficult problem. Not until we understand His abandonment by the God and Father whose imminence and closeness He had proclaimed in a unique, gracious and festive way, can we understand what was distinctive about His death. Just as there was a unique fellowship with God in His life and preaching, so in His death there was a unique abandonment by God. There must always be mystery here. We who are finite and sinners do not understand, and cannot even begin to understand, how evil appears to a holy God. It seems that in the working out of salvation for sinners the hitherto unbroken communion between the Father and the Son was mysteriously broken. But abandonment is not the whole story. We must bear in mind that Jesus cried out, My God, my God. The human Jesus felt and gave expression to the abandonment, but He also retained His trust. My points to a continuing relationship. In the anguish of God forsakenness Jesus still cries out in trust. The human Jesus might still be puzzled: Why? But He trusts, and we should not miss this aspect of the cry of dereliction.

 

[50-54]  Both Matthew and Mark say that Jesus gave a loud cry, though neither indicates what He said. It seems likely that this is the cry that John reports immediately before Jesus’ death, It is finished [John 19:30]. If so, it points to the completion of the saving work that Jesus came to do. He had taught and He had healed and He had set the example in His own life, and now He gave His life a ransom for many [Matt. 20:28]. With that loud cry Jesus yielded up his spirit. Matthew’s characteristic And behold makes for a vivid introduction to what follows, as the Evangelist goes on to speak of some unusual happenings that accompanied the death of Jesus. He starts with the temple and speaks of the curtain, which appears to mean the curtain that separated the holy of holies, into which even the priests might not go (except the high priest, and he only one day in the year), from the holy place, into which only the priests might go. This means that by the death of Jesus the way into the holiest has been opened. So the thought is of judgment on the temple, and Matthew is indicating that symbolically the way into the holy place was opened by the death of Jesus [see Heb. 10:19-20]. He emphasizes this truth by saying that the curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom, which indicates more than a minor tear. He is speaking of a bisected curtain, a curtain that no longer functioned to keep what lay on the other side of it a secret from all those outside. Religion was never to be the same now that Jesus the Messiah had died for sinners. This phenomenon, Matthew says, was accompanied by an earthquake, the earth shook, and the rocks were split. He leaves his readers in no doubt that what had happened was no minor event. Up to the tearing of the temple curtain Matthew’s narrative has run parallel to that of Mark, but with the earthquake he is using material not found in Mark, or, for that matter, anywhere else. This continues with his reference to the opening of the tombs. But Matthew is not speaking of the natural consequences of a big earthquake, for he goes on to say, many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Matthew is telling his readers something about salvation. It is the death of Jesus which triggers the resurrection of the saints – this is the new feature Matthew brings to the synoptic tradition. But he goes on to say that after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many, so that their rising may possibly not be connected with the earthquake. We could put a full stop after were opened (like the ESV does) and understand the breaking of the tombs as occurring on Good Friday and the rising of the saints on Easter Day. On the one hand, Jesus’ sacrificial death blots out sin, defeats the powers of evil and death, and opens up access to God. On the other, Jesus’ victorious resurrection and vindication promise the final resurrection of those who die in him. Nobody else mentions this, and we are left to conclude that Matthew is making the point that the resurrection of Jesus brought about the resurrection of His people. Just as the rending of the temple curtain makes it clear that the way to God is open for all, so the raising of the saints shows that death has been conquered. Matthew gives us the reaction of the centurion and those who were with him. Mark and Luke speak of the reaction of the centurion, but only Matthew includes his associates, evidently the soldiers who had actually performed the crucifixion and who were watching the sufferer. The earthquake and its accompaniments impressed them, and they linked these happenings with Jesus, for not only were they filled with awe but they went on to say, Truly this was the Son of God, the same confession as that made by the disciples earlier [14:33]. Their Truly points to certainty; they were not making a tentative suggestion. They understood that the death of Jesus showed Him to be the Son of God, and this is important. Even to these Gentiles it was clear that there was something in the death of Jesus, together with the attendant phenomena, that showed that He was not just another man. He had a special relationship to God, and it was important for Matthew that this be made clear.

 

Questions for Discussion:

 

1.         What is the meaning of the bread, the cup and the covenant? How do these result in the forgiveness of sins?

 

2.         Note in 26:36-39 how important prayer was for Jesus. Why was Jesus so troubled about drinking the cup of verse 39? What is the Old Testament meaning of this cup?

 

3.         Why did the Father forsake the Son on the Cross? How does this connect with the cup in verse 39 that Jesus was so troubled about drinking?

 

References:

The Gospel of Matthew, R. T. France, NICNT, Eerdmans.

The Gospel of Matthew, Leon Morris, Pillar, Eerdmans.

Matthew, David Turner, BECNT, Baker.