May 26, 2024

A Beautiful Thing

Speaker: Bret Rogers Series: The Gospel According to Matthew Passage: Matthew 26:1–16

Charles Caleb Ward was a Canadian artist during the mid 1800s. On the screen, you see his best-known painting. A family observes several posters nailed to the side of some wooden barns. But read the tops of each poster and his point becomes clearer. “A Horned Horse! An Egyptian Mummy! P. T. Barnum’s Great Show!” In other words, the circus is coming to town. He titled the painting Coming Events Cast Their Shadows Before.

Matthew’s Gospel has done something similar. We’ve learned much about Jesus. He’s the promised seed of Abraham. He’s the long-awaited King in David’s line. He’s Lord of the Sabbath. He’s the better temple, the better Prophet. He’s powerful to cast out demons. He heals our brokenness. He is Immanuel, God with us.

But along the way, Matthew has thrown up several posters of coming events central to Jesus’ mission. In 1:21, “he will save his people from their sins.” In 8:17, Jesus will fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy about a suffering Servant. In 10:4, Judas Iscariot, the one who betrays him. In 16:21, Jesus prophecies how he must “go to Jerusalem and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” In 21:42, Jesus is like a stone rejected by the builders.

The coming events of Jesus’ sufferings and death have cast their shadows before. Today, we begin those chapters where Jesus’ sufferings and death become the focus. Jesus was born for this moment. The Gospel was heading here all along. Without these events, there is no Gospel. So, let’s pay them attention. Read with me in verse 1…

1 When Jesus had finished all these sayings, he said to his disciples, 2 “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” 3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him. 5 But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.” 6 Now when Jesus was at Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, 7 a woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment, and she poured it on his head as he reclined at table. 8 And when the disciples saw it, they were indignant, saying, “Why this waste? 9 For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” 10 But Jesus, aware of this, said to them, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me. 11 For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me. 12 In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial. 13 Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” 14 Then one of the twelve, whose name was Judas Iscariot, went to the chief priests 15 and said, “What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?” And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. 16 And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.

The Sovereignty and Submission of the Son of Man

Let’s take this in three parts. First, the sovereignty and submission of the Son of Man. If you’ve joined us a while in Matthew, I wonder if verse 1 sounds familiar? “When Jesus had finished these sayings.” It follows every major block of teaching in Matthew, all five discourses on the kingdom. But here Matthew adds the word “all”: “When Jesus had finished all these sayings…” Not only the words of chapters 24-25, but all his major blocks of teaching are complete. Another time has come—the time of his sufferings and crucifixion. The cross, foreshadowed earlier in Matthew’s story, now draws near.

He mentions it there in verse 2: “You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” His death isn’t a distant thought anymore. On a late Tuesday night, he lets them know: “My death is this Friday.” Which tells us something about Jesus: he’s still in charge. It’s ironic how the religious authorities in verse 5 say, “Not during the feast,” but Jesus says that it will happen during the feast. “The Passover is coming, and [I] will be delivered up.”

Jesus is in control. He’s sovereign over these events. The plan all along was for Jesus to be crucified on Passover. We’ll spend more time on this next week, but Passover commemorated God’s deliverance of his people from Egypt. Every household that hid themselves beneath the blood of a lamb—God delivered them from death. All along it was pointing forward to Jesus and how he would die to deliver us. Jesus knows the plan. He’s sovereign over the timing; he’s sovereign over the meaning of his death.

Even more, let’s not forget who’s speaking: the Son of Man. Didn’t we just hear about the Son of Man in 25:31? He will come with glory. He will sit on a glorious throne. He will gather all nations for judgment. In 24:30, wasn’t it also the Son of Man who comes on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory? Isn’t this the same Son of Man once promised by the prophet Daniel? “To him was given dominion and glory and a kingdom, that all peoples, nations, and languages should serve him; his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed.” Who’s going to mess with this King? He is sovereign.

Yet, Jesus says this same Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified. Willingly, he will submit himself to crucifixion. Nobody takes his life from him. He lays it down of his own accord. Those words, “[he] will be delivered up,” have appeared before. Sometimes they refer to Judas delivering him up—the Son of Man will submit himself to unjust human authorities. But other times those words refer to God delivering him up through the acts of unjust men. Ultimately, Jesus submits himself to the will of his Father. God the Father does not spare his only Son, but delivers him up for us all.

This is a humility like no other. If you’re new to Christianity—if you’re wondering, “What’s at the heart of the Christian message?”—don’t miss this. Jesus is King of the world; yet he stoops to serve the world. Jesus is the mighty Son of Man, the rightful Judge to call our sins to account and declare our sentence; yet he submits himself to a plan that first leads him to a cross where he forgives your sins.

Other religions will demand that you work your way up to God. But those other religions are false because the true God comes down to us. He’s high; but he also draws near to us. He identifies with our humanity. He becomes one of us to save us from our desperate predicament. History knows no greater humility than God the Son taking the form of a servant, even to the point of death on a cross. Jesus doesn’t assert his power at the expense of others; he uses his power to serve and save others. This is the message of Christianity; and it is the only good news out there.

The Plot and Betrayal against the Son of Man

The Son of Man is sovereign. But he willingly submits for our salvation. As I alluded to before, part of what he must submit himself to is unjust treatment. That brings us to the second part of today’s message: the plot and betrayal against the Son of Man.

Matthew has structured his story to show a stark contrast. Notice how verses 3-5 and verses 14-16 begin in a similar way: “Then the chief priests and the elders;” “Then one of the Twelve.” At first glance, you might get the impression that everything in verses 3-16 happens sequentially, including the account with the woman. But that’s not the case. When John’s Gospel tells the story of the woman anointing Jesus, it happens before Jesus’ triumphal entry—which in Matthew would’ve been chapter 21. But Matthew arranges his material differently. Here, it’s thematic rather than chronological.

So, when verse 6 says, “Now when Jesus was at Bethany…,” it’s like he’s saying, “Now, [four days ago] Jesus was at Bethany.” But Matthew sticks this account of the woman anointing Jesus right between two accounts of people plotting against Jesus. He means for us to see a stark contrast; and that contrast will stick out more the further we dive in. So, let’s take verses 3-5 and 14-16 together.

In verses 3-5, “the chief priests and the elders of the people gathered in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas. They plotted together in order to arrest Jesus by stealth and kill him.” But they said, “Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.” The chief priests and elders are those who’ve hated Jesus all along. Some believe he’s a blasphemer for claiming to forgive sins (Matt 9:3). He also healed on the Sabbath (Matt 12:14). He claimed to be greater than the temple (Matt 12:6). Jesus questioned their traditions (Matt 15:3). He challenged their authority (Matt 21:27). He exposed their hypocrisy in public (Matt 23). They’re not big fans of Jesus.

So, they plot against him. That word, “plotted together,” is the same word we find in Psalm 2:1-2, “Why do the nations rage and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD and against his Anointed.” Also in Psalm 31:13—the righteous king prays to the Lord, “For I hear the whispering of many—terror on every side!—as they scheme together against me, as they plot to take my life.” The chief priests and elders don’t know it, but they have become participants in what has been for centuries a battle against God himself. By opposing God’s appointed King, they have set themselves against God. They’re even more concerned with offending Rome than they are with offending God. That’s why they don’t want an uproar among the people.

Judas plots with them as well. But what’s more shocking is how verse 14 begins: “Then one of the Twelve.” We expect it from the chief priests and elders. But Judas is an insider. He’s one of Jesus’ closest followers. They traveled together, broke bread together, did ministry together. When Jesus taught the disciples in private, Judas was there. But here it says, “he went to the chief priests and said, ‘What will you give me if I deliver him over to you?’ And they paid him thirty pieces of silver. And from that moment he sought an opportunity to betray him.”

We’ll talk about this more in 27:9, but there’s some Old Testament precedent for paying thirty pieces of silver. In Zechariah 11:12-13, the Lord proves himself to be a faithful Shepherd of Israel. He tends his people with Favor and Union. But the people of Israel eventually reject the Lord; and when they do they make a payment of thirty pieces of silver to get him out of their life. They come before the God of infinite worth and they say, “You ain’t worth that much. Take thirty pieces of silver and leave us alone.” Judas does that to Jesus. Thirty pieces of silver was like four months wages at this point. That’s enough for him to join the plot against the glorious Son of Man.

Maybe a couple of things should be said here. One, if you’ve ever experienced betrayal, you know it’s not an easy thing to endure. The hurt over a broken relationship, the letdown of where you thought things were heading, the erosion of trust, the temptation to anger and bitterness, the loss of closeness—Jesus knows what it’s like to experience betrayal. He suffered great betrayal by one of his closest friends; and he went through that betrayal like some of you have experienced betrayal.

But the good news is that he did it without sin. Hebrews tells us, “We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need”—in times like betrayal by others (Heb 4:15-16). Because Jesus suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted (Heb 2:18). So, if you know betrayal, don’t hesitate to bring that to Jesus. He knows how to walk through it; and he has made a way for us to get help from heaven when we walk through it.

But something else: don’t be duped by Judas-like joys. Jesus said earlier in the Gospel, “You cannot serve God and money.” “Where your heart is, there your treasure will be also.” Judas served money. John’s Gospel tells us that Judas was a thief. He had charge of the money bag, and he used to help himself to what was put into it (John 12:6). That’s why he was so upset that this woman didn’t sell her bottle and add that money to the money bag. But this is where the love of money will get you—betraying your Lord, blinding you to his infinite worth, trading him for some quick cash. Judas thought there was more worth in thirty pieces of silver than in the kingdom of heaven. How agonizing it will be for him to know that he chose four-months cash over an eternity of riches.

In 1 Timothy 6:9-10 Paul writes, “The love of money is a root of all kinds of evils. It is through this craving that some have wondered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pangs.” That describes Judas perfectly. So be warned here on how you view money (or any Judas-like pleasure). Know what they can do to your soul.

To protect ourselves from such folly, we need a heart that loves Jesus for who he really is. We need spiritual eyes that behold the true value of his person and work. If anybody should’ve seen that, it would have been those trained in the Scriptures like these chief priests and elders. Even more, it should’ve been Judas, the insider, who witnessed his miracles and knew the power of the Spirit working through their ministry.

A Beautiful Anointing that Honors the Son of Man

Instead, the one who gets it—the one who sees Jesus’ worth truly—is an unnamed woman from a little town in Bethany. That brings us to the third part of today’s message: a beautiful anointing that honors the Son of Man. Sandwiched between these two accounts of calculated deception is a scene of costly devotion.

Jesus was at Bethany. They’ve gathered in the house of Simon the leper. Likely, a man who once had leprosy but had been healed by Jesus. Still, he goes by Simon the leper; and Matthew notes this to contrast Jesus with the religious elite. While they gather to plot murder in their palace, Jesus gathers with the leper to enjoy a meal. John’s Gospel fills in a few more details. Jesus recently raised Lazarus from the dead; and everyone had gathered to hold a dinner for Jesus. John also tells us the woman’s name: Mary, the sister of Lazarus, is the woman who anoints Jesus (John 11:2; 12:3).

But when Matthew tells the story, he leaves the woman unnamed. He’s done this before. In 8:5, it was an unnamed man, a centurion, who’s confident that Jesus has authority to heal his servant. Jesus responds, “With no one in Israel have I found such faith.” Then in 9:20, it was an unnamed woman who had suffered a discharge of blood for twelve years. She reaches out for healing by touching the hem of his garment. Jesus responds, “Take heart, daughter, your faith has made you well.” In 15:22, he does it again. It’s an unnamed Canaanite woman, who wanted her daughter healed. She doesn’t flinch when Jesus rebuffs her and then says, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.” Jesus responds, “O woman, great is your faith.”

Now, we get another unnamed person. If we’re tracking with Matthew, we’re expecting another display of great faith. Perhaps these examples fit with Matthew’s broader themes of Jesus coming for outsiders, or the last becoming first. But maybe he’s also telling us that you don’t have to have a name to come to Jesus. You don’t have to be significant in the world’s eyes to hold a special place in God’s saving story. What matters most isn’t your name in this life, but how you respond to Jesus. We come to him like the eunuch in Isaiah 56—no family, no inheritance, no name. But by coming to the Servant, he gets a name that’s better than sons and daughters. Same with this woman. She’s unnamed here because what matters most is how she responds to Jesus.

How did this woman respond to Jesus? Verse 7 says, “[the] woman came up to him with an alabaster flask of very expensive ointment.” John 12:3 says it was pure nard. John 12:5 estimates that it could’ve been sold for 300 denarii. That’s about a year’s worth of wages back then. If you’re into the essential oils, that’d be like a coke-bottle full of rose oil from dōTerra. Not cheap. Worth tens of thousands.

She takes this expensive ointment, and she pours it on his head as he reclined at the table. This is no small spritz. She empties the entire contents of the flask. When John tells the story, there’s enough falling from his head that she begins anointing his feet, wiping them with her hair (John 12:3). What an act of costly devotion.

We’re not told if she understands the full extent of this moment. But what we do know is that she’s faithful with what she does understand. She acts on what’s clear to her about Jesus. She doesn’t hold back, second guessing herself, wondering if Jesus is worth such a precious heirloom. She pours it all out. She gives up her most precious possessions. She knows he’s worth this and infinitely more. She sees his value.

The disciples don’t get the significance of this moment. In verse 8, they become indignant, saying, “Why this waste? For this could have been sold for a large sum and given to the poor.” Now, in John’s Gospel Judas says these words as a cover for his own greed. But that doesn’t mean the rest of the disciples shared the same motives. Some, from better motives, may have genuinely thought it was wasteful. “Think of how many mouths we could’ve fed or people we could’ve clothed.”

But listen again to Jesus’ response. He says four things. Verse 10, “Why do you trouble the woman? For she has done a beautiful thing to me.” A beautiful thing—literally, a “good work.” The last time Jesus spoke about a “good work” was 5:16. “In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.” Jesus wants them to leave her alone because her light is shining brightly. She’s giving glory to God the Father in this beautiful work.

He explains further in verse 11: “For you always have the poor with you, but you will not always have me.” Initially, some might think Jesus is downplaying ministry to the poor. But the first part of verse 11 is a quote from Deuteronomy 15:11, where God commands care for the poor. Also, were we to glance back at the prior chapter, it was Jesus who showed how our care for Christians in need would serve as evidence on judgment day that we truly loved him.

So, Jesus’ point isn’t to lessen care for the poor. Rather, the point revolves around “always having the poor” and “not always having [Jesus].” This is a unique moment in history. His death is a once-for-all-time occasion. Devotion doesn’t simply ask, “What’s most useful?” It also asks, “What’s the most strategic way to honor the Son of Man, given this moment in the grand sweep of redemptive history?”

He adds in verse 12, “In pouring this ointment on my body, she has done it to prepare me for burial.” At great cost to herself, this woman has lifted high the death of Jesus. Without the historical moment of his death, there is no hope for the poor, or anyone else (for that matter). His death relativizes all other ministries. It centers all other ministries on his death. Stated differently, caring for the poor is right; but if you don’t lift high the cross of Christ, there’s no hope for anybody.

This woman gets the priorities right. Since chapter 16, the disciples have been slow to accept Jesus’ death. This woman not only embraces the cross, but risks everything to lift it high and honor Jesus in his death. Perhaps she sees more clearly than anyone that Jesus, “though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty we might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9). That good news is precious to her. She sees the value of Jesus and his death on the cross. By doing so, she helps us see it as well. Even before it comes in the gospel, her act has tuned us in to the value of Jesus’ cross.

What value have you placed on Jesus? How much do you value his death on the cross? The answer comes in what you’re willing to pour out to see him lifted up. It’s a beautiful thing when a mother—day after day, with little to no thanks, often at great cost to herself—pours out her life to see her children and family cared for and nurtured in the Lord. It’s a beautiful thing when a husband—at great cost to himself—pours out his life to serve his bride and lift high the event of Jesus giving his life for his Bride. It’s a beautiful thing when a family—at great cost to themselves—decides to turn their home into a refuge for children in need; and in so doing lifts high the death of Jesus which secures our own adoption before the Lord.

It’s a beautiful thing when brothers and sisters—recognizing that the needs of others are well-beyond what they can handle, and yet, at great cost to themselves—they pour themselves out to house someone and help someone. In doing so, they display the value of Jesus’ death by welcoming others as Jesus has welcomed us.

How much do you value Jesus’ death on the cross? When we value him truly, we won’t be too concerned with making a name for ourselves. At great cost to ourselves, it will be our joy to point all the attention to Jesus. It will be our joy to take what we have and honor the Son of Man and lift high the death of Jesus.

Jesus adds one more word here. Verse 13, “Truly, I say to you, wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will also be told in memory of her.” We know that came true even by reading the other Gospels. Luke’s Gospel has a story of a different woman anointing Jesus on another occasion. But Mark’s Gospel tells this same story. So does John’s Gospel.

But even before John tells this story, when he first introduces this woman (Mary), he says “it was Mary who anointed the Lord with ointment and wiped his feet with her hair.” He assumes that his readers have heard the story already. This is one of the benefits of having four Gospels to compare. We can see how some of Jesus’ words were already being fulfilled as those Gospels were being written and circulated.

And you know what? Jesus’ words came true again today. You’ve heard this Gospel, and in your hearing what this woman did to Jesus was told in memory of her. What does that mean? It means the gospel is being proclaimed in the whole world. “Wherever it goes in the world, you will hear of her”—and it just happened again. Which means, you’re part of Jesus’ mission. You’re part of the wherever it goes.

But where will it go next? Will you keep it going? Will you tell the story again to someone else? Matthew’s Gospel will eventually end there: “Go and make disciples of all nations.” How are you living your life to draw attention to Jesus’ death? Who are you telling about the value of Jesus’ death? Maybe someone else, maybe some outsider without a name from some small town, might hear the good news from you and join this woman in honoring the Son of Man. At great cost to ourselves, let’s join this woman in honoring the Son of Man. It’s a beautiful thing to lift up his cross.

other sermons in this series