The New Testament in Review: Matthew 24 – 28
Thank you for coming back to read more of this series, The New Testament in Review. We’ve reached the end of the Gospel of Matthew already. That was a lot of ground to over in two weeks! The end section of all of the Gospels are a major downer. The death of Jesus Christ was gut-wrenching, violent and cruel. Even when one of the Gospel authors try to soften the end, or to add glory and honor to it, it is still hard to read. Many say that the resurrection makes his death worthwhile, and depending on your religious views, it was. But that doesn’t negate the fact that Jesus’s torture and death are among the most gruesome events ever recorded. And reading about it is very difficult.
This is Jesus’s description of what the end of the world will be like. And it won’t be pretty:
19 How terrible it will be for women who are pregnant or who are nursing babies in those days!
20 Pray that it may not be in winter or on a Sabbath when you flee.
21 For at that time there will be great suffering, the kind that has not happened from the beginning of the world until now and certainly will never happen again.
22 If those days had not been limited, no life would be saved. But for the sake of the elect, those days will be limited.
Most of the sane descriptions of the Apocalypse that exist in our culture come from Matt 24. Wars, famines, earthquakes, persecution of Christians, false prophets, solar and lunar eclipse, Christ returning riding clouds in the sky. It’s all here. As is Christ’s warning that no one knows the day or the hour when this will happen. Christ says that even he doesn’t know, only the Father does. Which raises a question for Unitarians, but not for me.
Interesting note: Christ again hints that the second coming is not far away. “Truly I tell you, this generation will not disappear until these things happen.” (Matt 24:34)
Jesus is approaching the end of his ministry, and he wants to make sure that his followers hear and understand everything that they need. He starts out with a parable of the 10 bridesmaids: the five wise women take extra oil for their lamps, so they are ready for the groom when he finally gets there.
Verses 14-30 tell a parable I remember, but don’t remember it ending as it does. Or maybe I am just not getting the point. In the parable, a man gives his servants money to keep while he is away. One servant gets $5, invests it and turns it into $10. One servant gets $2, invests it and turns it into $4. The last servant buries the $1 he gets. When the man gets back, he praises the two who invested the money, but calls the servant who didn’t make money worthless and has him thrown into the darkness.
So since when does Jesus condone those with more over those with less? Or those with nothing?
The chapter ends with Jesus sounding more like himself. He says that when you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, clothe the naked and care for the sick, you are doing this for Jesus, also.
Grief, treachery, betrayal, injustice. Chapter 26 has all of it and more. It’s no wonder that every book and movie made about the death of Christ focus so much on the details of this chapter. It is riveting and heart-breaking at the same time.
Most tellings of this story have Jesus going into this ordeal in a brave, determined manner. Yet – in Matthew’s gospel, at least – he doesn’t seem that at all. He seems dejected and fatalistic. He actually asks for the ordeal to end if possible. Jesus knows what is going to happen to him, and knows that it has to happen, but wants nothing more than to run away.
The chapter starts with Jesus’s final Passover celebration. In a touching scene, a woman (Mary?) anoints Jesus with perfume. Jesus likes this – defending her against his disciples, but his gloominess still comes out (“she was preparing me for burial”). During the Passover meal itself, Jesus warns the disciples that they will all end up fleeing, one will betray him, and one will deny him. Judas of course is the one who will betray Jesus – for the sum of 30 pieces of silver. Peter will deny he is a follower of Jesus three times.
After the feast, Jesus takes his three favorite disciples up to Mount Olive. Jesus’s depression has finally gotten to a point that he can no longer handle. He tells the men with him “My soul is deeply grieved, even to the point of death. Wait here and stay awake with me.” Jesus then leaves them to pray by himself. His prayers are heartbreaking pleas to God that he not have to do this. “O my Father, if it is possible, let this cup pass from me.”
Of course, Jesus also says he will submit to God’s plan. He and the disciples come down from Mount Olive just in time to bump into an armed guard. Judas completes his betrayal with a kiss, and Jesus is arrested.
And finally, the Pharisees are able to spring their trap. They are able to get Jesus arrested on a false charge of heresy. When asked if he is the Son of God, Jesus answers “you have said so.” And if he’d left it at that… well, the Pharisees still would’ve found some way to have him killed. But Jesus finished his answer saying “you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” That pretty much cemented a Guilty verdict.
Jesus was arrested, had his robes torn, and was openly mocked and abused. What a pleasant way to end a chapter.
Matthew 27 is weird because it is emotionless. It reads more like a newspaper article than a Gospel. The events of Jesus’s death are layed out, almost in a list: The Pharisees turn Jesus over to Pontius Pilate (the Roman governor). Pilate cannot find any good reason to punish Jesus, so he tries to get Jesus to say something – anything – that will allow Pilate to release Jesus. Jesus is hanging on to his right to silence, however. Pilate tries again, this time pleasing to the mob of people who’ve gathered around the palace. Unfortunately, the people all either followed the Pharisees or were easily deceived, and unanimously demand that Jesus be crucified. Pilate washes his hands of the whole ordeal and says “Do as you will, but his blood will be on your hands.”
Here’s a confusing part: Pilate washed his hands of this and turned what happened over to the Pharisees and the crowd. Yet the Roman soldiers were the ones who bound and tortured and ultimately crucified Jesus. How does that work? Back in this time, were Roman soldiers allowed to serve the religious or local governments too? Were they able to moonlight, like police officers will sometimes moonlight as security details nowadays? It just seems to me that Pilate’s hands weren’t clean if he ordered his troops to do as the Pharisees wanted.
Anyway, Matthew continues in his detached, non-emotional recount. The Roman soldiers strip Jesus, put him in a scarlet robe and make a crown out of thorns so they could mockingly bow to him. Then they stripped Jesus and led him to Golgotha – stopping along the way so Simon could help Jesus carry the cross. Jesus was crucified with two others by him. (Note: in a later Gospel, more information is given about the other two. In Matthew, it is just noted that there are two others with him.) Jesus is crucified, mocked some more, gives himself over to grief and despair, shouting “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” And then he dies.
Looking back on this, I think I understand why Matthew’s recount was so emotionless: it’s the only way that Matthew could get through writing it. The whole story is horrifying and heartbreaking to read, it had to be a thousand times worse to witness in person. And then to have to try and write about what you had just seen? Some people can write about loss and grief in a very emotional manner. Some people can’t, and can only recite the facts of an event. I think Matthew is in the latter category.
Way back in the early chapters of this article, I suggested that Matthew could’ve had access to mind-altering substances. In Matthew 27:52-53, Matthew describes something that might be an acid trip. In these verses, Matthew says that bodies of dead saints rise up and walk around the city. Which is just weird.
Anyway, the chapter ends with the Pharisees (with a Roman security force guarding them) sealing Jesus’s tomb.
The Gospel of Matthew ends with the resurrection of Jesus. An angel of the lord (as opposed to THE Angel of the Lord, apparently) meets Mary Magdelene and Jesus’s mother Mary at the tomb. The Marys were afraid (how could they not be: the angel had just rolled the stone away from the tomb) and the Roman guards were terrified. The angel tells the Marys “Jesus has risen! Go tell the disciples!” And then, for some reason, adds “Remember, I have told you!” Almost like an informant telling their handler “Remember to tell Joe that the information came from me!” But once again, I digress.� Jesus met the Marys along the way, and again tells them to find the Disciples and get them ready.
Verses 11-15 are an aside: the guards who saw all of this happened ran into the city, where they told the Pharisees what they had seen. The Pharisees then bribed the guards to say that Jesus didn’t rise, but his disciples actually stole the body so followers would think Jesus had risen. And then there’s a distinct dig made right at Jews who don’t believe Jesus is the Son of God: “This story has been spread among the Jews to this day.” Talk about being harsh! Anyone doubt that this was tacked on a few years after the fact?
Jesus arises and comes to see his Disciples, giving them a charge to spread his teachings, and promising them that he will be with them always.
Matthew is the first Gospel, so I don’t have anything to compare it against. On its own, it is a bit uneven. There are some amazing sections (e.g. The Sermon On the Mount), some boring sections (e.g. Chapter 10), and some agonizing, horrible but powerful sections (all of Chapter 26). I don’t like the mysticism that Matthew tries to bring into the story, but I do love that a lot of his Gospel focuses on what Jesus said, as opposed to second-hand accounts.
New installments of The New Testament In Review will be posted each Monday and Thursday. The new posts will always be on my blog, http://biffster.org. The entire series is accessible via http://biffster.org/ntir. If you are one of my Facebook friends, you can get an advance preview on my Facebook page. You can also follow me (@biffster) on Twitter to be alerted to new posts.