(1) The portion of the Gospel narrative on which we now enter is common, as far as the main facts are concerned, to all the four Gospels, and this gives to every detail in it a special interest. We cannot ignore the fact that it brings with it also some peculiar difficulties. The first three Gospels are in substantial agreement as to the order of the facts and the time at which they occurred. But the fourth, in some respects the fullest and most striking, differs from the Three: (1) in omitting all mention that the Last Supper of our Lord with His disciples was also the Paschal Supper, and at least appearing to imply (John 13:1; John 18:28) that it was before it; (2) in also omitting all record (a) of the institution of the Lord’s Supper as the sign of the New Covenant, and (b) of the agony in Gethsemane; (3) in recording much, both as to our Lord’s acts and words, which the Three do not record. It will be enough to discuss once for all the problems which thus present themselves, and it is believed that the right place for the discussion will be in the Notes on the Gospel which first presents the difficulties. Here, therefore, our work will be confined to the text actually before us, with only such passing references to the narrative of St. John as occasion may require. As far as the variations in the first three Gospels are concerned, they are sufficiently explained by the hypothesis that they had a common origin in a history at first delivered orally, and reduced afterwards to writing, with the diversities which are, in the nature of the case, incident to such a process.
All these sayings.—The words clearly point to the great discourse of Matthew 24, 25. The “disciples” to whom our Lord then spoke of His betrayal and death, may have been either the four who are named in Mark 13:3, or the whole company of the Twelve. In the latter case, we must assume that the rest had joined Him, either during the utterance of the discourse or after it was finished.
The high priest, who was called Caiaphas.—The name was a distinctive one added to his proper name of Joseph. Of his previous history we know that he had married the daughter of Annas, who had filled the office of high priest before him (John 18:13), and who still occupied, possibly as Nasi or President, an influential position in the Council and retained his titular pre-eminence. (See Note on Luke 3:2.) He had been high priest from the commencement of our Lord’s ministry, and had, therefore, watched His ministry in Jerusalem with a jealous fear. We may probably trace his influence in the mission of the scribes from Jerusalem, whom we have seen as opponents of that ministry in Galilee (Mark 3:22; Luke 5:17). The meeting in his house implied a coalition of parties commonly opposed, for Caiaphas and his personal adherents were Sadducees (Acts 5:17), and as such, courted the favour of their Roman rulers (John 11:48), while the scribes were, for the most part, Pharisees, and assertors of national independence.
In the house of Simon the leper.—Of the man so described we know nothing beyond the fact thus mentioned. It is not likely, had he been a leper at the time, that men would have gathered to a feast at his house, and it is natural to infer that our Lord had healed him, but that the name still adhered to him to distinguish him from other Simons. We learn from St. John (John 12:2) that Lazarus was there, and that Martha, true to her character, was busy “serving.” The Twelve were also there, and probably many others. The incident that follows is narrated by all the Evangelists except St. Luke, who may either not have heard it from his informants, or, if he had heard it, may have passed it over as having already recorded a fact of like character (Luke 7:37-40).
An alabaster box of very precious ointment.—The box was probably a vase of the material described as alabaster (according to one etymology, however, that word described originally the shape of the vase, as made without handles, and was subsequently extended to the material of which such vases were commonly made), with the lid cemented down, so as not to admit of extraction like a cork or stopper. St. John (John 12:3) describes the quantity as a pound (litra=about twelve ounces); and both St. John and St. Mark add that it was “of spikenard.” The word so rendered, however (pistikè), is found only in those two passages (Mark 14:3, John 12:3), and it is open to question whether it bears this meaning, or means “pure, genuine, unadulterated.” The “nard” so described is identified by botanists with the Nardostachys jatamansi, the sumbul of India, but was probably applied by Greeks and Romans to other perfumes. The value of the ointment is roughly estimated afterwards at three hundred denarii (John 12:5). Such preparations, like genuine âtar of roses in the modern East, consisting, as they did mainly, in the essential oils of carefully cultivated flowers, often fetched an almost fabulous price. The fact that Mary had such an unguent by her indicates that the household of Bethany belonged to the comparatively wealthy class, and so agrees with the general impression left by the record of John 11. It is a probable conjecture that a like costly unguent had been used in embalming the body of the brother who had so recently been raised from the dead, and that this gave a special point to our Lord’s comment on the act. St. Mark adds that she broke or crushed the vessel in order to pour out the ointment; St. John, that she anointed His feet, and wiped them with her hair.
She hath wrought a good work upon me.—The Greek adjective implies something more than “good”—a noble, an honourable work. The Lord Jesus, in His sympathy with all human affections, recognises the love that is lavish in its personal devotion as noble and excellent in itself. After His departure, as the teaching of Matthew 25:40 reminds us, the poor are His chosen representatives, and our offerings to Him are best made through them. How far the words sanction, as they are often urged as sanctioning, a lavish expenditure on the æsthetic element of worship, church architecture, ornamentation, and the like, is a question to which it may be well to find an answer. And the leading lines of thought are, (1) that if the motive be love, and not ostentation, He will recognise it, even if it is misdirected; (2) that so far as ostentation, or the wish to gratify our own taste and sense of beauty, enters into it, it is vitiated from the beginning; (3) that the wants of the poor have a prior claim before that gratification. On the other hand, we must remember (1) that the poor have spiritual wants as well as physical; (2) that all well-directed church-building and decoration minister to those wants, and, even in its accessories of form and colour, give to the poor a joy which is in itself an element of culture, and may minister to their religious life by making worship a delight. It is a work of charity thus to lighten up lives that are otherwise dull and dreary, and the true law to guide our conscience in such matters is to place our noblest churches in the districts where the people are the poorest.
Where wilt thou that we prepare for thee to eat the passover?—Our Lord had passed each night since His entry at Bethany (probably in the house of Lazarus or Simon the leper), or in the garden of Gethsemane (John 18:1), but the Paschal lamb was to be slain and eaten in Jerusalem, and therefore special preparations were needed. Once before, and probably once only (John 2:13), had the disciples kept that feast with Him in the Holy City. Were they expecting, as they asked the question, that this feast was to be the chosen and, as it might well seem, appropriate time for the victorious manifestation of the Kingdom? We learn from St. Luke (Luke 22:7) that the two who were sent were Peter and John.
My time is at hand.—For the disciples, the “time” may have seemed the long-expected season of His manifesting Himself as King, and the memory of such words as those of John 7:8 (“My time is not yet full come”) may have seemed to strengthen the impression. We read, as it were, between the lines, and see that it was the “time” of the suffering and death which were the conditions of His true glory (John 12:23; John 13:32).
It had been good for that man . . .—Awful as the words were, they have their bright as well as their dark side. According to the estimate which men commonly form, the words are true of all except those who depart this life in the fear and faith of God. In His applying them to the case of the Traitor in its exceptional enormity, there is suggested the thought that for others, whose guilt was not like his, existence even in the penal suffering which their sins have brought on them may be better than never to have been at all.
Dealing with the words, we note (1) that the word “covenant” is everywhere (with, possibly, the one exception of Hebrews 9:16, but see Note there) the best equivalent for the Greek word. The popular use of the “New Testament” for the collected writings of the apostolic age, makes its employment here and in the parallel passages singularly infelicitous. (2) That the “blood of the covenant” is obviously a reference to the history of Exodus 24:4-8. The blood which the Son of Man was about to shed was to be to the true Israel of God what the blood which Moses had sprinkled on the people had been to the outward Israel. It was the true “blood of sprinkling” (Hebrews 12:24), and Jesus was thus the “Mediator” of the New Covenant as Moses had been of the Old (Galatians 3:19). (3) That so far as this was, in fact or words, the sign of a new covenant, it turned the thoughts of the disciples to that of which Jeremiah had spoken. The essence of that covenant was to be the inward working of the divine law, which had before been brought before the conscience as an external standard of duty—(“I will put My law in their inward parts,” Jeremiah 31:33)—a truer knowledge of God, and through that knowledge the forgiveness of iniquity; and all this, they were told, was to be brought about through the sacrifice of the death of Christ.
Which is shed for many.—The participle is, as before, in the present tense—which is being shed—the immediate future being presented to them as if it were actually passing before their eyes. As in Matthew 20:28, our Lord uses the indefinite “for many,” as equivalent to the universal “for all.” St, Paul’s language in 1 Timothy 2:6 shows, beyond the shadow of a doubt, how the words “for many” had been interpreted.
For the remission of sins.—This had been from the outset the substance of the gospel which our Lord had preached, both to the people collectively (Luke 4:16-19) and to individual souls (Matthew 9:2; Luke 7:48). What was new in the words now was this connection with the shedding of His blood as that which was instrumental in obtaining the forgiveness. Returning, with the thoughts thus brought together, to the command of Matthew 26:27, “Drink ye all of it,” we may see, as before in the case of the bread, an allusive reference to the mysterious words of John 6:53-54. In the contrast between the “sprinkling” of Exodus 24:6 and the “drinking” here enjoined, we may legitimately see a symbol, not only of the participation of believers in the life of Christ, as represented by the blood, but also of the difference between the outward character of the Old Covenant and the inward nature of the New. It is, perhaps, not altogether outside the range of associations thus suggested to note that to drink together of a cup filled with human blood had come to be regarded as a kind of sacrament of closest and perpetual union, and as such was chosen by evildoers—as in the case of Catiline (Sallust, Catil. c. 22)—to bind their partners in guilt more closely to themselves. The cup which our Lord gave His disciples, though filled with wine, was to be to them the pledge of a union in holiness as deep and true as that which bound others in a league of evil.
We cannot pass, however, from these words without dwelling for a moment on their evidential aspect. For eighteen centuries—without, so far as we can trace, any interruption, even for a single week—the Christian Church, in all its manifold divisions, under every conceivable variety of form and ritual, has had its meetings to break bread and to drink wine, not as a social feast (from a very early date, if not from the beginning, the limited quantity of bread and wine must have excluded that idea), but as a commemorative act. It has referred its observance to the command thus recorded, and no other explanation has ever been suggested. But this being granted, we have in our Lord’s words, at the very time when He had spoken of the guilt of the Traitor and His own approaching death, the proof of a divine prescience. He knew that His true work was beginning and not ending; that He was giving a commandment that would last to the end of time; that He had obtained a greater honour than Moses, and was the Mediator of a better covenant (Hebrews 3:3; Hebrews 8:6).
They went out into the mount of Olives.—We must think of the breaking up of the Paschal company; of the fear and forebodings which pressed upon the minds of all, as they left the chamber and made their way, under the cold moonlight, through the streets of Jerusalem, down to the valley of the Kidron and up the western slope of Olivet. St. Luke records that His disciples followed Him, some near, some, it may be, afar off. The discourses reported in John 15, 16, 17, which must be assigned to this period in the evening, seem to imply a halt from time to time, during which the Master poured forth His heart to His disciples, or uttered intercessions for them. St. John, who had “lain in His bosom” at the supper, would naturally be nearest to Him now, and this may, in part at least, explain how it was that so full a report of all that was thus spoken appears in his Gospel, and in that only.
I will smite the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock shall be scattered.—The citation of this prophecy, from Zechariah 13:7. is every way suggestive, as showing that our Lord’s thoughts had dwelt, and that He led the disciples to dwell, on that chapter as applicable to Himself. To one who dealt with prophecy as St. Matthew dealt with it, much in that chapter that is perplexing to the historical critic would be full of divinest meaning. It told of a “fountain opened for sin and for uncleanness;” of One with “wounds” in His hands, who was “wounded in the house of His friends;” of the Shepherd to whom Jehovah spake as to His “fellow.”
And began to be sorrowful and very heavy.—The Greek word for the latter verb occurs only here, in the parallel passage of Mark 14:33, and Philippians 2:26, where it is translated “full of heaviness.” Its primary meaning is thought by some philologists to have been that of “satiety,” hence, “loathing” and “ill at ease.” Others, however, find its root-thought in being “far from home,” and so weary and perplexed. There is, it is obvious, a mysterious contrast between the calm, triumphant serenity which had shone in the look and tone of the Son of Man up to this point, and had reached its highest point in the prayer of John 17, and the anguish and distress that were now apparent. The change has, however, its manifold analogies in the experience of those who are nearest to their Master in sufferings and character. They, too, know how suddenly they may pass from confidence and joy as to a horror of great darkness. And in His sufferings we must remember there was an element absolutely unique. It was His to “tread the wine-press” alone (Isaiah 63:3). It was not only, as it might be with other martyrs, the natural shrinking of man’s nature from pain and death, nor yet the pain of finding treachery and want of true devotion where there had been the promise of faithfulness. The intensity of His sympathy at that moment made the sufferings and sins of mankind His own, and the burden of those sins weighed upon His soul as greater than He could bear (Isaiah 53:4-6).
A place called Gethsemane.—The word means “oil-press,” and was obviously connected with the culture of the trees from which the Mount took its name. St. John’s description implies that it was but a little way beyond the brook Kidron (John 18:1), on the lower western slope of the mount. There was, a garden (or rather, orchard) there which was the wonted resort of our Lord and the disciples when they sought retirement. The olive-trees now growing in the place shown as Gethsemane, venerable as their age is, can hardly have been those that then grew there, as Josephus expressly records that Titus ordered all the trees in the neighbourhood of Jerusalem to be cut down, and the Tenth Legion was actually encamped on the Mount of Olives (Jos. Wars, v. 2, § 3). They probably represent the devotion of pilgrims of the fourth or some later century, who replanted the hallowed site.
Sit ye here, while I go and pray yonder.—Partly in compassion to the weakness and weariness of the disciples, partly from the sense of the need of solitude in the highest acts of communing with His Father, the Son of Man withdraws for a little while from converse with those whom, up to this time, He had been strengthening. He had been (as in John 17) praying for them; He now needs to pray for Himself.
(38) Exceeding sorrowful, even unto death.—The infinite sadness of that hour leads the Master to crave for sympathy from the three who were, most of all, His brothers. If they may not see, or fully hear, the throes of that agony, as though the pangs of death had already fallen on Him, it will be something to know that they are at least watching with Him, sharers in that awful vigil.
If it be possible, let this cup pass from me.—We shrink instinctively from analysing or commenting on the utterances of that hour of agony. But, happily, words are given us where our own words fail. Thus it was, we are told, that “He learned obedience by the things that He suffered” (Hebrews 5:8). He had spoken before to the very disciples who were now near Him of the “cup” which His Father had given Him to drink (Matthew 20:23). Now the “cup” is brought to His lips, and His human will at once shrinks from it and accepts it. The prayer which He had taught His disciples to use, “Lead us not into temptation,” is now His prayer, but it is subordinated to that other prayer, which is higher even than it, “Thy will be done.” In the prayer “If it be possible” we recognise, as in Mark 13:32, the natural, necessary limits of our Lord’s humanity In one sense “with God all things are possible,” but even the Divine Omnipotence works through self-imposed laws, in the spiritual as in the natural world, and there also ends cannot be obtained except through their appointed and therefore necessary means. God might have redeemed mankind, men have rashly said, without the sufferings and death of the Son of Man, but the higher laws of the Divine Government made such a course, if we may venture so to speak, morally impossible.
What, could ye not watch . . .?—Literally, Were ye thus unable to watch? St. Mark (Mark 14:37) individualises the words—“Simon, sleepest thou?” He had boasted of his readiness to do great things. He could not so much as rouse himself to watch for one hour. The last word may be fairly taken as partly measuring the time that had passed since their Master had left them. As the words are reported we must believe that the disciples were just so far roused as to hear them, and that they sank back powerless into slumber.
That ye enter not into temptation—i.e., as in the Lord’s Prayer, to which our Lord manifestly recalls the minds of the disciples—the trial of coming danger and persecution. In their present weakness that trial might prove greater than they could bear, and therefore they were to watch and pray, in order that they might not pass by negligence into too close contact with its power.
The spirit indeed is willing.—Better, ready, or eager. There is a tenderness in the warning which is very noticeable. The Master recognises the element of good, their readiness to go with Him to prison or to death, in their higher nature. But the spirit and the flesh were contrary the one to the other (Galatians 5:17); and therefore they could not do the things that they would, without a higher strength than their own.
Drew his sword.—We learn from Luke 22:33 that there were but two swords in the whole company of the twelve. One of these naturally was in Peter’s possession, as being the foremost of the whole band.
A servant of the high priest’s.—St. John (John 18:11) with the precision characteristic of his narrative, especially in this part of the Gospel history, gives the servant’s name as Malchus, and states that it was the right ear that was cut off. He came, it would seem, not as one of the officers of the Temple, but as the personal slave of Caiaphas. Three of the four Gospels use the diminutive form of the Greek for “ear,” St. Luke only (Luke 22:50) giving the primitive word. It is doubtful, however, whether the former was used with any special significance. St. Luke also (Luke 22:51) alone records the fact that our Lord touched and healed the wound thus made.
Presently.—The modern English reader needs to be reminded once more that the word means immediately, without a moment’s delay.
Twelve legions.—The number is probably suggested by that of the Apostles. Not twelve weak men, one a traitor and the others timorous, but twelve legions of the armies of the Lord of Hosts. Note the Roman word appearing here, as in Mark 5:9; Mark 5:15, as the representative of warlike might.
I sat daily with you teaching in the temple.—The statement referred primarily, perhaps, to what had passed in the three days immediately preceding, but it looks beyond this in its wide generality, and is important as an indication, occurring in one of the first three Gospels, of a ministry in Jerusalem, which their narratives pass over. The “sitting” in the Temple implied that our Lord took the position of a teacher more or less recognised as such (comp. Note on Matthew 5:1), not that of one who was addressing the multitude without authority.
Then all the disciples forsook him, and fled.—We read with a sorrowful surprise of this cowardly abandonment. Better things, we think, might have been expected of those who had professed their readiness to go with Him to prison and to death. Yet we may remember (1) the weariness and exhaustion which had overcome them, making the resolve and courage, to say the least, more difficult; and (2) that they had been told not to resist, and that flight might seem to them the only alternative to resistance. We have to fill up St. Matthew’s record with the strange episode of the “young man with a linen cloth cast about his naked body” of Mark 14:51, where see Note.
Where the scribes and the elders were assembled.—It was against the rules of Jewish law to hold a session of the Sanhedrin or Council for the trial of capital offences by night. Such an assembly on the night of the Paschal Supper must have been still more at variance with usage, and the fact that it was so held has, indeed, been urged as a proof that the Last Supper was not properly the Passover. The present gathering was therefore an informal one—probably a packed meeting of those who were parties to the plot, Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathæa, and probably not a few others, like the young “ruler” of Luke 18:18, not being summoned. When they had gone through their mock trial, and day was dawning (Luke 22:68), they transformed themselves into a formal court, and proceeded to pass judgment.
To see the end.—There is something singularly suggestive in this account of Peter’s motive. It was, we may believe, more than a vague curiosity. There was something of sorrowful anxiety, of reverential sorrow, but there was no fervent devotion, no prayer for himself or his Master, only the fevered restlessness of uncertain expectation, and so all the natural instability of his character had free play, with nothing to control it.
What is it . . .?—The question was clearly put, as it had been before Annas (John 18:19), with the intention of drawing out something that would ensure condemnation.
The right hand of power.—The Greek article here can hardly be reproduced in English, but it is well to remember that our Lord speaks of “the power,” that which belonged pre-eminently to the Eternal.
(1) On his entry into the court-yard of the palace, in answer to the female slave who kept the door (John 18:17).
(2) As he sat by the fire warming himself, in answer (a) to another damsel (Matthew 26:69) and (b) other by-standers (John 18:25; Luke 22:58), including (c) the kinsman of Malchus (John 18:26).
(3) About an hour later (Luke 22:59), after he had left the fire, as if to avoid the shower of questions, and had gone out into the porch, or gateway leading out of the court-yard, in answer (a) to one of the damsels who had spoken before (Mark 14:69; Matthew 26:71), and again (b) to other by-standers (Luke 22:59; Matthew 26:13; Mark 14:20).
There were thus three distinct occasions, but as the hasty words of denial rose to his lips, it is probable enough that they were repeated more than once on each occasion, and that several persons heard them.
As far as we can analyse the impulse which led to the denial, it was probably shame not less than fear. The feeling which had shown itself in the cry, “Be it far from thee, Lord,” when he first heard of his Master’s coming passion (Matthew 16:22), came back upon him, and he shrank from the taunts and ridicule which were sure to fall upon the followers of One whom they had acknowledged as the Christ, and whose career was ending in apparent failure. It was against that feeling of shame that our Lord on that occasion had specially warned him (Mark 8:38). The element of fear also was, however, probably strong in Peter’s nature. (Comp. Galatians 2:12.)
Immediately the cock crew.—St. Mark alone records the first cock-crow. The Greek has no article; “a cock crew.” We find from Mark 13:35 that “cock-crowing” had become a familiar phrase, as with us, for the earliest hour of dawn.