Commentary on Matthew 26 (The Last Supper)

During the week before the Passover Feast, the Jewish authorities have been looking for a way to arrest Jesus and they finally find one. In Matthew 26, verses 14-16, Judas Iscariot, one of Jesus’ twelve closest disciples, betrays him. Judas goes to the chief priests and offers to help them arrest Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. This amount represents about four months of wages for Judas. To put this in perspective, this would be the equivalent of about $18k for the average American worker today.

Why would Judas offer to betray Jesus? Scripture does not tell us directly, but we can guess. Craig Blomberg, in vol. 22, Matthew, The New American Commentary, offers the following: “Perhaps most plausible is an intermediate view, which sees Judas as growing increasingly disenchanted with the type of Messiah Jesus is proving to be, a far cry from the nationalistic, military liberator the Jews hoped would free them from Roman tyranny.”

On Thursday afternoon of the Passion Week, Jesus arranges for himself and the twelve disciples to eat the Passover meal that evening in a large upper room in a private home. Jesus and his disciples recline on three couches that form a U-shape (referred to as a triclinium). The food and wine are in the center of the U. The meal would only start after sundown because Passover begins after sundown.

Michael Wilkins, in Matthew, Mark, Luke: Volume One (Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary), explains how the Passover meal would have looked:

The ‘Haggadah of Passover’ was the set form in which the Exodus story was told on the first two nights of Passover as part of the ritual Seder (‘order’). The expression ‘Haggadah of Passover’ then came to be used for the entire Seder ritual as well as for the book containing the liturgy and ritual narration of the events of Deuteronomy 26:5–9 (first referred to in m. Pesah. 10). Central to the meal were three foods—unleavened bread, bitter herbs, and the Passover offering (lamb in temple days)—along with the four (traditional) cups of wine.

During the meal, each of the disciples would dip bitter herbs into a mixture of nuts, fruit, and vinegar to lessen their bitterness. Also, bread would be dipped in sauces. Just before the meal begins, Jesus announces to the disciples that he “who has dipped his hand in the dish with me will betray me.” The mood of the meal turns to sorrow as each of the disciples asks Jesus, “Is it I, Lord?” Judas asks Jesus if it is him, and Jesus answers, “You have said so.” It seems likely that Judas and Jesus’ conversation is private because the other disciples don’t seem aware that it is Judas who will betray Jesus. Otherwise, they surely would have confronted him during the meal.

In verse 24, Jesus affirms that the betrayal was prophesied in the Old Testament and is thus part of the divine plan. However, the person who actually betrays Jesus is responsible for freely choosing to do so. Judas will be damned because of his betrayal. Presumably, Judas leaves the meal at this point, although Matthew does not report it (his departure is reported in John). The other disciples still don’t suspect what he is up to.

Jesus then begins the Passover meal by breaking bread and saying a blessing over it, but he also gives a new command to the disciples: “Take, eat; this is my body.” Blomberg explains Jesus’ meaning:

A common loaf would be distributed to all. The unleavened bread originally symbolized the haste with which the Israelites departed from Egypt (Exod 12). For additional laws about how to celebrate the feast, see Lev 23:4–8; Num 9:1–14; and Deut 16:1–8. Jesus now invests the bread with new meaning. It foreshadows his body figuratively broken and literally killed in his upcoming death.

Deflecting intra-Christian debates about whether the bread is, in some sense, actually Jesus’ body, Blomberg writes,

As Jesus holds up a loaf and declares, ‘This is my body,’ no one listening will ever imagine that he is claiming the bread to be the literal extension of his flesh. Moreover, in Aramaic these sentences would have been spoken without a linking verb (‘is’), as simply, this, my body and this, my blood. As frequently elsewhere, Jesus is creating a vivid object lesson. The bread symbolizes (represents, stands for, or points to) his crucifixion in some otherwise unspecified sense.

During the Passover meal, four cups of wine would be consumed. Each had special significance, according to Michael Wilkins.

(1) The first cup initiated the ceremony with the Kiddush, the cup of benediction, a blessing over wine that introduces all festivals. (2) The second cup just before the meal and after the Haggadah of the Passover concluded with the singing of the first part of the Hallel (Ps. 113–114). (3) The third cup was drunk after the meal and the saying of grace. (4) The fourth cup followed the conclusion of the Hallel (Ps. 115–118) (m. Pesah 10:1–7).

Just before the third cup of wine was to be passed around, Jesus again gives a new command. Blomberg explains that the third cup is “tied in with God’s promise, ‘I will redeem you,’ in [Exodus 6:6c] and hence specifically to his original liberation of the Israelites from Egypt (m. Pesaḥ. 10:6–7).

Jesus ties the cup of wine to the blood he will spill on the cross. This blood sacrifice will result in the forgiveness of sins for many people (those who accept Jesus). This language echoes Isaiah 53, where Isaiah speaks of the Suffering Servant, or the Messiah who will come. But Jesus is also announcing the beginning of a new covenant. Wilkins writes:

The traditional cups of the Passover celebration now offer another stunning illustration for Jesus to show that his sacrificial life is the fulfillment of all that for which the historical ritual had hoped. This is the new covenant that was promised to the people of Israel by God: ‘The time is coming when I will make a new covenant with the house of Israel and with the house of Judah…. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more’ (Jer. 31:31, 34).

In verse 29, Jesus tells his disciples that he will not ever drink wine at another meal with them until the great banquet that accompanies the inauguration of the messianic kingdom at the end of the age.

The combination of eating bread and drinking wine, as Jesus directed during this Passover meal, has become known as the Lord’s Supper. Blomberg believes there are two key reasons for celebrating the Lord’s Supper:

One looks backward; the other, forward. First, we commemorate Jesus’ redemptive death. Second, we anticipate his return in company with all the redeemed. These two points remain central to all three Synoptic accounts and should form the heart of any theology of this ordinance.

After the meal, the disciples accompany Jesus out of Jerusalem and back east to the Mount of Olives, where they will spend the night. When they arrive, Jesus surprises them by telling the eleven remaining disciples that every one of them will abandon him because of the events that would transpire this Thursday night. When a shepherd is struck, his sheep will scatter. However, unlike Judas, the disciples will get another chance to renew their allegiance to Jesus after he rises from the dead and meets them in Galilee.

The disciple, Peter, once again sticking his foot in his mouth, insists that even though all the other disciples abandon Jesus, Peter will never do so. Jesus corrects Peter and tells him that he will deny Jesus three times before dawn breaks Friday morning (before the rooster crows). Peter, however, vows along with the other disciples that he would die before denying Jesus.  How is Peter’s denial of Jesus different from Judas’ betrayal Jesus to the chief priests? Blomberg writes:

Peter’s impulsive denial of Jesus is obviously not as treacherous as Judas’s premeditated betrayal, but Jesus has already said that any who disown him ‘before men’ he will disown before his Heavenly Father (10:33). So the difference between Peter and Judas lies primarily in their subsequent behavior. One may either deny or betray Christ and be forgiven if one genuinely repents. Without repentance (a change of heart followed by right action), both remain equally damning.