From about midway through Matthew 4 to where we find ourselves in Matthew’s gospel this morning, “this has been the story not of Jesus alone but of Jesus and his disciples.” Now, obviously Jesus has been the centerpiece and text after text has been filled with his teaching and actions. But the disciples have been with him, at his side, accompanying him throughout his ministry. In 27:56, however, we’re going to read that the disciples abandon Jesus (“Then all his disciples left him and fled”), and they won’t have contact again with Jesus until after his resurrection.
Now, Jesus is obviously aware of this. In fact, all along the way he’s been telling them precisely what will happen, how it will happen, and when it will happen. So, Jesus knows that these are his last moments with his disciples. What then does he do? What does he say? What does he deem so utterly important to communicate in these last moments with his disciples before they are separated and not reconnected until after he will be raised?
When we look at our text, we might find ourselves a bit surprised by the answer. The text breaks down in a few sections. In the first (vv. 17-25), Jesus celebrates the Passover meal with his disciples, but in the midst of it, he informs them that one of them will betray him. After providing that news, he then reinterprets for them the elements of the meal. Whereas the Passover meal had been eaten in remembrance of the Lord’s deliverance of his people from bondage in Egypt, he now tells them that these elements of the cup and the bread will be reminders for them of his body which is about to be broken and his blood which is about to be shed not for deliverance from slavery to an enemy nation but for freedom from Satan, sin, condemnation, and death. And then, on the heels of that Jesus tells his disciples that Jesus tells them they all will abandon him before going to the garden of Gethsemane and suffering through a time of great sorrow as he prays and submits himself to the will of his Father (as his disciples slept).
So what is all of this about? What were Jesus’ disciples and now we as readers of the Scripture today supposed to understand? As I’ve thought about the answer to this question, looking at how the disciples walked through their own struggles after Jesus’ resurrection and applied the truths Jesus taught them here, I think the answer, in part, is that Jesus was unveiling some truths to them that would help sustain them as they went forward in their own lives, even as he walked through his own difficult path of obedience.
So, what I want to do this morning is to make the main points of my sermon application. I want to bring the application right up front. Now, that doesn’t mean that I want to skip over explaining the text. I won’t. But instead of making a point, explaining the text, and then applying it, I want to take that last piece and bring it right up front. I want to speak to and about us in light of this text. With that said, then, here’s the first thing I want us to see:
God’s will and plan for our lives will include great difficulty and suffering
That’s the point I want us to understand for ourselves. But the reason I say this is because I think the main thing that Jesus is showing us in this text is that the painful, difficult road that he was about to take, which would include immense suffering, was part of his Father’s will and plan.
Now, I know I said something very similar last week, but we see it even stronger in our text this week. Once more Jesus wants his disciples to know that nothing that happens over these next few moments and days is simply his enemies catching him off-guard or getting this best of him. This is all part of God’s will and plan. Let me show you why I say that.
First, Jesus once more demonstrates his sovereign control over the situation in verses 17-19, he tells his disciples to go to a man’s house, inform him that Jesus is going to share the Passover meal there, and it will happen. Once more, as things are about to look out of control, Jesus demonstrates clearly that he’s directing matters in accord with his sovereign plan.
I think that’s exactly the same thing that happens in verses 20-25 as Jesus tells them “One of you will betray me” (v. 21). I mean, if you were one of the twelve, could you imagine the shock, dismay, and discouragement you would feel that moment that Judas showed up, leading the authorities to arrest Jesus? Perhaps we can feel it a bit if we imagine that we are in a time and place where worshipping the Lord Jesus Christ was illegal, punishable by death. And we’ve decided to gather as a church together and worship in a place where the authorities were unaware of only in the middle of our worship for the doors to swing open with armed authorities, ready to execute us, being led by one of our own members who decided to turn against us and side with those who want us dead.
Judas’ betrayal would have been a crushing blow to the other disciples. But in that moment and in the confusing and terrifying moments thereafter, the disciples could gather themselves and say, “Jesus knew this was coming. He told us during the Passover meal. Nothing is happening outside of what he is allowing to happen. This is all part of his plan.”
Once more we see the same thing with the institution of the Lord’s Supper in verses 26-29. As Jesus takes the elements of the Passover meal, the bread and the wine, and takes the bread, saying, “Take, eat; this is my body” and the cup, saying, “Drink of it, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins,” it’s not as if Jesus found himself going, “Wait a second, now that I’m thinking through this elements of his meal, I might be able to use this as an illustration.” No, from the point that this meal was established in the Old Covenant, it was established for the ultimate purpose of providing for us the elements that would remind us of the victorious death of our Lord.
Therefore, here Jesus is using this meal to picture his death as one more confirmation that his approaching death was part of God’s plan even during the institution of the Passover meal.
Even verses 30-35 reinforces that the events that are going to unfold leading up to Jesus’ death were part of God’s plan. Jesus not only tells Peter that he’ll deny Jesus and that all the rest will abandon him (again, providing comfort for them in the aftermath of Jesus’ death), but he notes that this abandonment itself is in fulfillment of Zechariah 13:7, as Jesus notes, “For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (v. 31).
And finally, when Jesus prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, asking his Father if there be any other way, he’s praying in the context of submitting to the Father’s will. That is to say, “Jesus doesn’t look ahead at his upcoming death and think of it in terms of his enemies getting the best of him.” His enemies, those who will arrest him, those who will falsely accuse him, and those who will nail him to the cross aren’t even registering in this moment of prayer. This is simply Jesus saying to his Father, “If it’s possible for this cup to pass, let it pass, nevertheless, not as I will but as you will.” It’s a matter of Jesus simply submitting to the will of his Father.
The implication, of course, is that when Jesus goes to the cross, this is in accord with the Father’s will, which is the main point made throughout all of this. Everything leading up to and including the death of our Lord is happening as a fulfillment of God’s plan.
But, as I said, I want to apply this clearly to us. I mentioned last week that the disciples in the early church held to this theme of knowing that they were walking under God’s sovereign control because in Acts 4:27-28, they applied it to their situation. They were obeying Jesus, being persecuted, and then, in their prayer said, “For truly in this city there were gathered together against your holy servant Jesus, whom you anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, along with the Gentiles and the peoples of Israel, to do whatever your hand and your plan had predestined to take place.” That is, they reflected on God’s sovereign control, even over the suffering of Jesus, to encourage them to hope and trust in the Lord.
Now, I want to say to us, then, this morning, if the Father’s perfect will for the perfect Son included great difficulty and suffering, we shouldn’t think that our road will be different. Sometimes we can get the idea in our conversations with one another that if we are walking in accord with his will, then all will be lilies and roses. But that simply isn’t scriptural. Jesus obviously was right in the will of the Father throughout all of this. In fact, his prayer in Gethsemane makes that clear, doesn’t it? “Your will be done,” from the lips of Jesus was an acknowledgement that obedience for him meant obedience to death, even death on a cross.
Therefore, the fact that you’re suffering right now, walking a road of difficulty and pain, doesn’t mean the Lord’s abandoned you. It doesn’t mean that somehow the Lord has gotten caught off guard and his grip on your life has slipped. Still less does it mean that any who have caused your suffering are somehow superior to God and thwarting his plans for your life. It simply means that God’s good will for his beloved children will sometimes involve a road of difficulty, pain, and suffering, and that’s okay. We can take comfort in knowing that the Lord is still in control. The Lord is still shaping us and working all for our good. And we are sharing in a fellowship of suffering that our Lord Jesus himself knew so well.
And I want to say something else to you as my second point that may sound like it shouldn’t follow, but I say it both because it’s a point in the text and because I think it is the next thing we need to hear as we walk through a path of difficulty and pain. Here it is:
There is always hope and reason for rejoicing when we repent and believe
Now, why am I bringing up the hope and cause for rejoicing when we repent and believe? Well, first of all because Jesus is making clear in our text this morning that these next few days will not only include a difficult path for himself but also for his disciples.
He tells them in verse 31, “You will all fall away because of me this night. For it is written, ‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered’” (v. 31). When Jesus is betrayed, arrested, and assaulted, the disciples will flee. Peter will even deny knowing him three different times, as Jesus predicts in verse 34, and we know that happened.
So, how will they recover from this? After all, if you’ve ever been disappointed in yourself for your failures and sins, think about how terrible this would have to feel. As the disciples reflected on Jesus’ great suffering and death, they also had to picture him all alone because they’d abandoned him and Peter even having denied knowing him.
Well, here’s how they’ll recover. They’ll remember verse 32, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” That is, Jesus is confirming, “You’ll stumble, but I won’t cast you off. When you repent, you’ll find forgiveness and grace.” And this is before they’ve even sinned.
They’ll remember the words of verses 26-29, as Jesus told them that he was giving his body and shedding his blood “for the forgiveness of sins,” and subtly reminding them that he’d preserve them till the end as he told them in verse 29 that he’d drink with them again in his kingdom (reminding them that they’d make it there). He was telling them, you’ll making it through this time, despite your own sinful actions, because there is hope and reason for rejoicing in repenting and believing. And the reason there hope and cause for rejoicing is because Jesus lived, died, and was raised so that we might be forgiven of our sins.
Brothers and sisters, I know that when you’re walking down a road of difficulty, pain, and suffering, and you’re attempting to comfort yourself that God is still at work, carrying out his will for your life, you still have an enemy. And I know what he says. He’s an accuser, so he’s predictable. He’s saying to you, “You’re comforting yourself by saying that God’s will often involves suffering, pain, and difficulty? Well, let’s not forget, the road that led you here has been filled with your sin. Don’t comfort yourself. Realize that this is punishment. Your God is casting you off, for your sin is too great.”
And in those moments, you know what you can’t say. You can’t say, “Devil, I’ve been perfectly righteous and without sin.” Jesus could say that, but you and I never can say that. So, how do we not get crushed by an accuser who can speak truthfully about the fact that we haven’t been perfectly righteous? Well, we can answer with my favorite Martin Luther quote. He writes, “When the devil throws our sins up to us and declares that we deserve death and hell, we ought to speak thus: ‘I admit that I deserve death and hell. What of it? Does this mean that I shall be sentenced to eternal damnation? By no means. For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction in my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, the Son of God.”
That’s why Jesus says, “This is my blood of the new covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 28). He is saying, “I’m shedding my blood so that your forgiveness might be guaranteed.” And it’s why he says, “But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee” (v. 32). It’s because he wants you to know that when we see our sins, repent and turn our eyes in faith to the crucified and risen Lord, he’s not waiting to cast us off but to say, “This is why I died. You’re forgiven. I love you. Let’s rejoice and get on with a God-honoring life.” There is always hope and a reason for rejoicing when we repent and believe. And finally,
Our Lord wants us to run to him in our pain and walk with him in our suffering
This point I want to make simply because of Jesus’ example in the Garden. It’s funny that throughout the history of the church many have wanted to deny that Jesus is indeed God. He is God the Son. I think for us, we may find ourselves struggling over his humanity.
We may well feel like if Jesus is indeed the God-man, then his struggles don’t really count, his emotions were real, etc. But this scene in the garden is really overwhelming. Jesus even says to his disciples in verse 38, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death.” And by that I think he means that he is so sorrowful that he feels like it is killing him.
Now, I think we can all agree that everything Jesus does is good. And I think we would all say that it would be silly of us to think that we can be holier than Jesus. However, there may be one area where we are tempted to think that in order to do good, we can’t do what Jesus did, or in order to be holy, we must hold ourselves to a standard that we actually don’t see in Jesus.
We may well say, even in light of this sermon, “If God is sovereign and carrying out his plan in my life, even working all things together for my good, and if he loves me and has forgiven me of my sins, then I should never find myself feeling sorrow, especially deep sorrow to the point that I feel like it is going to kill me. Otherwise, I’ve taken my eyes off the fact that God is in control, or I’ve forgotten about the fact that I’m forgiven.”
But, brothers and sisters, verses 36-46 is a picture of Jesus in deep sorrow, so deep he felt like it was killing him. These verses give us a picture of Jesus saying, “Father, if my path could go in a different direction, I’d love for it to go that way. Nevertheless, your will be done.” This is a picture of Jesus in agonizing sorrow. So, let’s not think that there’s no place for this in the life of a believer. It is not only okay but good and right to feel sorrow when a loved one dies, you feel the painful effects of sin, etc. This side of eternity the world around us is not as it’s supposed to be. It’s okay for the Christian to feel and express deep sorrow.
But here’s what’s so instructive about Jesus’ example. In our sorrow there is no better place to run than to our Lord who loves us, is in control, has reconciled us to himself, and works all things for our good. Jesus was in sorrow but submitting to his Father in whom he delighted, whom he loved. In fact, I think this is the very thing that our Lord wants for us in our suffering, often allowing our suffering to bring us to this very point of running to him.
Develop a habit of simply walking and living life before the Lord. You don’t have to put on a façade before the Lord, pretend you’re not sorrowful, etc. Just flee to him. Pour out your lament to him. God’s love for us and sovereignty over our lives doesn’t mean we will avoid pain and sorrow. But he wants us in our pain and sorrow (and in our blessings and joys) to go to him, cry out to him, trust him, and grow in relationship with him. What a glorious model our Lord provides for us here.
So, this morning, you may find yourself in a place of great difficulty, pain, and sorrow. This doesn’t mean that somehow God has stopped working out his purposes, plans, and will for your life. It simply means that, like his Son, his purpose, plan, and will includes paths of difficulty and pain. And it may mean that the accuser has used this as an opportunity to attack you relentlessly. If so, you don’t have to pretend you’ve not sinned. Instead, you can simply look in repentance and faith to the Lord who shed his blood for your forgiveness (which we’ll celebrate in the Lord’s supper in a bit), and the enemy will have no answer for that. And, finally, you may have walked through this suffering feeling distant from the Lord or feeling like you are unable to be real in your sorrow and pain before the Lord in prayer. Brother or sister, run to him. Tell him your sorrow is great, bring to him your requests, share with him your pain. And know that he is your loving Father, there to hear your cries, see your tears, and love you more than you can imagine. If you ever need a reminder, he’s given us a meal to make it clear. One we’ll celebrate right now. Amen.