Jesus has just completed his discussion with the disciples concerning the end of the age and his return. He has told them that when “the Son of Man comes in his glory and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne” (25:31) and say to his people “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (25:34). The disciples are listening intently, eyes glazed over, with the glories of that time filling their imaginations. But quickly the Lord brings them back to the current concern. At the opening of chapter 26, Jesus shakes them up a bit by saying, “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified” (26:2).
Recall that it is Tuesday afternoon during which this conversation takes place. He had first entered Jerusalem on the donkey’s colt on Sunday, Nisan 10. After spending the night in Bethany, he had returned to Jerusalem on Monday, cursing the fig tree on the way and clearing out the temple after he arrived. Once more he returned to Bethany for the evening. Tuesday morning, Nisan 12, he explains the lesson of the fig tree before entering the temple once more for the series of questions from Herodians, Pharisees, and Sadducees and to deliver the seven woes to the Pharisees. He left the temple with his disciples and has spent Tuesday afternoon in his discussion of the temple destruction and his coming (two separate events that the disciples had confusingly fused into one). So it is still Tuesday, Nisan 12. The Passover begins at sundown, Nisan 14. Thus, Jesus speaks correctly in mentioning that Passover is two days away (although probably only a little over 24 hours from the time he is speaking).
But the significance of his statement is not merely for purposes of timing. This now is the fourth time we have recorded that Jesus directly tells his disciples that he will be killed. How do they respond to this? Peter for one is not saying anything. He tried to talk Christ out of it the first time he mentioned it in chapter 16, only about two weeks earlier. For that Jesus called him Satan! Now Peter isn’t talking, and apparently the other disciples have taken his cue and also remain silent. But what may they be thinking? Their actions don’t indicate a deep concern that Christ’s death will soon occur.
This talk of death, however, may be bothering Judas. We find out in another Gospel that Judas held the money for the group and didn’t mind embezzling a little now and then. That tells us that Judas is more or less out for himself. The crowds and triumph earlier in the week probably were pleasing to him because if Jesus really did take over Palestine as king, he’d surely have an exalted position—or so he imagined. But the whole discussion all the way from Galilee about servanthood and how nobody was to be greater than anybody else was probably a bit unsettling to him. And now, after standing up so magnificently to Herodians and priests and Pharisees, Jesus is going to give up?! He’s going to let them take him? He’s going to die? Well…then what? What about them? What about him?!
Matthew quickly changes scenes to the palace of Caiaphas, the high priest, indicating that as Jesus and the disciples converse on the Mount of Olives, the chief priests were, at the same time, discussing how they would put Christ to death. They decide that they would wait until the festival is over (Passover and the Feast of Unleavened Bread) so that the crowds of people that had flooded Jerusalem at this time would have returned home.
Jesus and his disciples return to Bethany where they spend the evening. It so happens that on this evening, a supper is held at the home of Simon the leper with some familiar guests. Matthew 26:6-13 recounts the events but leaves out several details that John’s Gospel fills in. At this supper, a woman opens an alabaster flask of expensive perfume and anoints Jesus’ head. The disciples reprove her, saying that this expensive perfume could have been sold and the money given to the poor. We learn from Mark’s Gospel that this perfume is nard—extracted from a plant that grew in east India about 2500-3000 miles away. And importing by camel from that distance certainly gives reason for the 300 denarii price that is estimated. A denarius was a day’s wage for a common laborer. So 300 denarii was almost a year’s salary, equivalent to about $25-30,000 for us today.
The fact that no one is stunned by her action indicates that the pouring of the perfume on a person was not so shocking an action. In fact, all though not done often enough to call it custom, an honored guest may indeed receive such treatment from a host. So the disciples may understand the honor that the woman performed, but are shocked at the extravagance of the gesture. Jesus immediately defends the woman, saying that she did this as preparation for his burial. And that wherever the gospel is preached, what she has done will be told as a memorial to her. Surely this must give us pause to consider the action more. Why was this woman’s anointing so significant that it would be tied to the gospel message for all time?
John’s Gospel gives us a few more clues. First, in John 12, we learn that Jesus had been in Bethany since Friday of the previous week (six days before Passover – 12:1). We also learn that at the supper were Lazarus, his sister Martha, and their sister Mary, friends of Jesus from earlier in his ministry. And we discover that it is in fact Mary that is the woman who anoints Jesus. Mary, remember, is the one who broke all social custom by sitting among the men at the feet of Jesus to learn from him at a previous visit. In Luke 10, we find that Martha, apparently embarrassed by her sister’s act, petitioned Jesus to send Mary back to the kitchen. But Jesus refused, saying that Mary had chosen the good portion, and that would not be taken away from her. So we know that Mary is a woman who is intensely interested in what Jesus has to say and that she will not be held back by a mere cultural taboo.
The fact that Christ mentions the anointing as preparation for his burial also indicates that Jesus had been discussing his coming death. The disciples again seem to be taking his death talk in stride. But Mary is different. She hears Christ’s explanation and appears to understand. She slips away to retrieve the alabaster flask—probably hidden away among the items of her dowry—and brings it back, breaks it open (not literally breaking it, but undoing the seal for the first time), and pours it out on Jesus’ head and feet, wiping his feet with her hair. Jesus defends her, tying the action forever to the deliverance of the gospel message because she is perhaps the very first person to understand the complete gospel message. Remember it is only at this point in his ministry that Jesus is providing as much revelation as he is concerning his purpose in coming to the earth. His death for the remission of sins will be explained further at the Last Supper, but here in Bethany, Mary appears to be the first to really understand. So that fits in well why Jesus states that her action will be remembered in connection with the gospel. Mary is the first to respond in faith to God’s revealed enlightenment of the redemption of Christ!
For those keeping count, it was to a woman, Mary the mother of Jesus, that knowledge of God coming in the flesh was first revealed. It was a woman, Mary Magdalene, that first preached the news of the risen Christ. And now we learn that it was also a woman, Mary of Bethany, that first understood the gospel message of redemption through the death of Christ for the remission of sins.
This event is the final blow to the dreams of glory that Judas has been harboring. Not only is Jesus talking of his death, but when Judas (we learn from John’s account) is the first to speak against the Mary for her actions, Jesus embarrasses him by taking the side of a woman over him! He cannot tolerate this any longer. When daylight comes (Wednesday, Nisan 13), Judas leaves Jesus and the other disciples in Bethany as he heads over to Jerusalem and to the chief priests, offering them his services for 30 pieces of silver.
As evening approaches, Jesus and the disciples start to head for Jerusalem. Matthew 26:17 states that it is the first day of unleavened bread. The first day of the feast of Unleavened Bread occurs on Nisan 15. According to our timetable, it is only Wednesday evening or actually, since the Hebrew day starts at evening, it is the new day, Thursday, at evening). But this is Passover—Nisan 14, not the feast of Unleavened Bread starting on the 15th. Although the feast starts on the 15th, unleavened bread is eaten on the 14th as well. So the Jews looked at this time in combination. It was eight days of unleavened bread of which the 14th was the first (Exodus 12:18).
As they approach Jerusalem, possibly stopping in Gethsemane, Jesus sends Peter and John (Luke 22:8) ahead into Jerusalem to prepare the Passover for that evening. Jesus and the others arrive later. Matthew 26:20-25 recounts the identification of Judas as the betrayer. Jesus first mentions that one of them will betray him. Several of the disciples, worried, ask, “Is it I?” Jesus says that it is someone with whom he has dipped his hand in the dish. Of course, all of them had done that, but Jesus is emphasizing that the betrayer is one of them—one of the trusted companions of the last 3½ years who was hypocritically eating and fellowshipping with them as he planned a betrayal. John 13 tells us that Peter urges John to ask who it is. Jesus replies that it is the one to whom he will give the morsel of bread after he dips it (John 13:26).
Now, imagine the scene. No one is speaking; everyone has his eyes riveted on Christ. Jesus dips the bread in the pot and extends it toward Judas. Here is where we pick back up in Matthew 26. With the bread outstretched to him and with the eyes of all the room, including Christ’s, now fixed on him, Judas, with feigned innocence, asks, “Is it I, Rabbi?” (26:25a). And Jesus says yes: “You have said so” (26:25b). “What you are going to do, do quickly” (John 13:27). And Judas exits into the night. Again embarrassed and angered, Judas heads straight for the chief priests to reveal where they can come to take Christ.
After Judas leaves, Jesus initiates what has become known as the Lord’s Supper. The Passover meal is apparently over. And, actually, the celebration of the Passover meal has ended for all time. The Jews had celebrated the Passover as a memorial to God’s salvation of these covenant people from Egypt. But with the end of that covenant, the celebration too was to end. Jesus now picks up bread and wine to institute a new memorial celebration. Notice that the Greek word for unleavened bread is a;zumoj (azymos). Whenever unleavened bread is specified, this word is used. The common term for regular, leavened (yeasted) bread is a;rtoj (artos). When Jesus picks up the bread to relate it to his body, the Greek word used is the common one for regular, leavened bread. And although this is not a proof that the bread could not have been unleavened, it does seem to fit this new picture that Christ is presenting.
Remember, leaven is not a universal symbol for sin. The leavening process has been used in the Bible to represent the infiltration of sin. But it has also been used to describe the spread of the gospel. The unleavened bread of the Passover was not meant to symbolize freedom from sin, but merely the readiness in preparation for leaving. Leaven took time to infiltrate to make the bread rise. God was emphasizing that they had no time for that. They ate the Passover with staff in hand and sandals on their feet, ready to leave. So with the end of that covenant, the symbol for readiness to leave Egypt no longer applies. Instead, Christ relates the bread to himself—to his body given for us. That is bread with life in it. Jesus is the Bread of Life. Leavened or yeasted bread makes the better picture here. And so, our Communion meal of bread and wine should probably include regular, yeasted bread. (The should of that sentence is not meant as a command or strict legal requirement. It is meant only to emphasize a fuller representation of symbolic meaning.) This life-giving bread and the wine bring to mind the sacrifice for our sin and the New Covenant everlasting relationship we have in Christ.
Again, other Gospels present more activities of this evening. We read in John that Jesus washed the disciples’ feet and in Luke that another argument about who was greatest came about. Most likely, the treachery of Judas was settling more and more firmly in their minds. And it led to thoughts of “I would never do something like that!” From their thoughts of being better than Judas, encouraged with Christ’s words of New Covenant and the kingdom, the disciples soon were comparing themselves to each other in spiritual pride. But Jesus cuts them all short by telling them that they would all fall away that very night. Peter attempts to proclaim his righteous devotion, and Christ turns to him, saying, “Truly, I tell you, this very night, before the rooster crows, you will deny me three times.” Yet, still Peter protests as they leave, heading for Gethsemane.