What God sovereignly determines to come to pass (and that encompasses everything!) never interferes with man’s freedom and responsibility in bringing it to pass. Let me repeat that for it is vital that we understand it. What God sovereignly determines to come to pass never interferes with man’s freedom and responsibility in bringing it to pass.
This is sometimes hard for our minds to comprehend, for we cannot comprehend exactly how sovereign determination is able to work hand-in-hand with individual freedom. It would seem to us that the one would cancel out the other (and vice-versa), but that there is no contraction between the two is certain.
No greater example of the two working side-by-side can be found than in the death of the Lord Jesus Christ. His death was sovereignly determined by God before the world was created, and yet the men who plotted and planned to put Him to death acted freely and are, therefore, fully responsible for their sinful actions.
Let us look for a moment at the first half of that truth—God’s sovereign determination. It was the will of God for Jesus Christ to lay down His life as a sacrifice for man’s sins on the cross. This was determined in eternity. The book of Revelation speaks of Christ as “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (13:8).
The expression, “foundation of the world,” speaks of the creation of the world, the visible order. It is mentioned 10 times in the NT. For example, Jesus speaks of a kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world (Matt. 25:34) and Paul speaks of the believers’ election before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4).
Revelation 13:8 means that the death of Christ was a redemptive sacrifice decreed in the counsels of eternity (Mounce). This event being part of God’s decree, was certain to come to pass, for the counsel of God shall stand (Isa. 46:10).
However, while our Lord’s death was sovereignly decreed, at the same time the individuals involved in bringing it about acted freely. They accomplished the will of God but did so willingly and freely. There are several passages in the NT that declare this second half of the above stated truth—man’s freedom and responsibility.
Take Luke 22:22 as an example. “And truly the Son of Man goes as it has been determined, but woe to that man by whom He is betrayed!” Because our Lord’s death was determined does not mean the betrayer is guiltless. The evil acts of men are overruled by God and are used to bring to pass His will in a way whereby the perpetrators are fully responsible for their evil acts. Judas was not coerced; he acted freely (and we might add, greedily) of his own accord.
Also, Acts 2:23 is relevant. “Him, being delivered by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God, ye have taken, and by wicked hands have crucified and slain:” The death of Christ “is attributed simultaneously both to the purpose of God and to the wickedness of men” (Stott).
And then there is Acts 4:26-28. “The kings of the earth took their stand, And the rulers were gathered together Against the LORD and against His Christ.' For truly against Your holy Servant Jesus, whom You anointed, both Herod and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles and the people of Israel, were gathered together to do whatever Your hand and Your purpose determined before to be done.” Herod and Pilate, the Gentiles and Jews, joined together in a conspiracy against Jesus, but they were unknowingly carrying out what God had decided would be done a long time ago!
When Matthew begins the passion narrative in his Gospel record, he starts by setting forth both the divine determination and the human involvement in the death of the Son of God. He weaves the two together in telling the story how Christ came to die.
Chapter 26 begins the last section of this Gospel account. The remaining three chapters of Matthew make up his final narrative. The chapter divisions separate the material well (Blomburg). Chapter 26 describes the last round of events leading up to and including Jesus’ arrest and delivery to the Jewish high court. Chapter 27 narrates proceedings before the Roman tribunal, leading up to and including Jesus’ death and burial. Chapter 28 conveys the marvelous events surrounding Christ’s resurrection and subsequent appearance in Galilee.
The introduction to the passion narrative will be the focus of our study today. It is in the introduction to his last section that Matthew intertwines the sovereign purpose of God for Christ to complete His foreordained mission with the wicked plot of the religious leaders to put Him to death. We will be looking at God’s sovereign purpose and man’s evil designs at work.
I. God’s Sovereign Purpose at Work (1-2)
“Now it came to pass, when Jesus had finished all these sayings, that He said to His disciples, You know that after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.’” Verse one is Matthew’s transitional statement from the Olivet Discourse to the passion narrative. The words that mark his passing from one section to another are, “now it came to pass.”
What he notes is the completion of “all these sayings.” Specifically, this marks the end of the Olivet Discourse, but in a sense, it refers to all that He had taught prior to this. Matthew means that Jesus was now “finished” with His teaching ministry. He is not closing one discourse in order to take up another; He is through teaching. The “all” signifies that. On the other occasions when He had completed one discourse in order to take up another, the word “all” was never used. This then is not just the close of one discourse; it is the close of Jesus’ recorded teaching (Morris). His teaching ministry had come to an end.
After this transitional statement, Matthew then conveys what Jesus said to His disciples. Jesus announced once again that He would “be delivered up to be crucified.” This is not the first time Jesus told His disciples about His forthcoming death. This prophecy is the fourth passion prediction in Matthew. The others are found in:
Matthew 16:21 - “From that time Jesus began to show to His disciples that He must go to Jerusalem, and suffer many things from the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and be raised the third day.”
Matthew 17:22-23 - “Now while they were staying in Galilee, Jesus said to them, ‘The Son of Man is about to be betrayed into the hands of men, and they will kill Him, and the third day He will be raised up.’ And they were exceedingly sorrowful.”
Matthew 20:17-19 - “Now Jesus, going up to Jerusalem, took the twelve disciples aside on the road and said to them, ‘Behold, we are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and to the scribes; and they will condemn Him to death, and deliver Him to the Gentiles to mock and to scourge and to crucify. And the third day He will rise again.’”
When these predictions are put together, several important facts about our Lord’s death emerge.
1. The Lord Jesus was well aware that this was the reason for which He had come to earth. He was not ignorant of what would happen to Him. For this purpose He came into the world. 2. His death is declared to be a necessity. A divine “must” compelled Him to go to the cross and not to avoid it. If men are to be forgiven of sins in a way which accords with justice, then the Son of God must offer Himself as their atoning sacrifice. 3. Wicked men would act in agreement together to bring about His death. Christ said He would be betrayed and that the religious leaders of Israel would condemn Him to death and that the Gentiles would carrying out the execution (a disciple, ecclesiastical leaders, and Roman officials participated). 4. The manner of His death is set forth. Jesus declared that they would crucify Him. 5. Jesus makes it known that this would take place in Jerusalem, the holy city of God. 6. Last of all, the first three predictions speak of His subsequent resurrection.
One new element is added now in the prediction Jesus makes in our text. He specifically announces that His crucifixion will happen in conjunction with “the Passover.” And He says the Passover is just days away. NOTE - The prediction is probably made on Tuesday. Jesus then instituted the Lord’s Supper on Thursday evening, was betrayed that night and crucified the next day, Friday. The most likely year in which this occurred is 30 AD, though some argue for 33 AD.
“Passover” is the name given to the chief of the three great historical annual festivals of the Jews (Easton). It was kept in remembrance of the Lord's passing over the houses of the Israelites when the first born of all the Egyptians were destroyed (Ex. 12:13). It is also called the "feast of unleavened bread" (Ex. 23:15; Mark 14:1; Acts 12:3) because during its celebration no leavened bread was to be eaten or even kept in the household (Ex. 12:15). The word afterwards came to denote the lamb that was slain at the feast (Mark 14:12-14; 1 Cor. 5:7). A detailed account of the institution of this feast is given in Exodus 12 and 13.
Passover was an appropriate time for Jesus to die as a substitute for sinners! Passover speaks of deliverance from bondage. The sacrifice of Jesus at the cross sets guilty sinners free! That is why Paul could speak of Christ as “our Passover” (1 Cor. 5:7). It was no coincidence that Jesus died on the day that the Passover lamb was sacrificed!
Take any of the lambs offered as sacrifices in the OT and Jesus is the fulfillment of them. Abraham’s sacrifice on Mt. Moriah, the lamb offered on the Day of Atonement, etc. But given the fact that Jesus was slain on the day of the Passover, this type becomes more declarative of our rescue and deliverance from sin than the others.
Christ’s death as the Passover Lamb was predicted by Him because it was the eternal plan of God. Jesus could confidently assert, “after two days is the Passover, and the Son of Man will be delivered up to be crucified.” He would be delivered up by the Jews to the Romans for crucifixion, but that was only because He had been delivered up to death in the eternal counsel of God.
II. Man’s Evil Design at Work (3-5)
Matthew now describes the evil plotting of the religious leaders to arrest and then kill Jesus Christ. He writes, “Then the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people assembled at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas, and plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him. But they said, ‘Not during the feast, lest there be an uproar among the people.’”
Spurgeon said, “While Jesus was prophesying, his enemies were plotting.” Let us look a little closer at the details Matthew sets forth.
1. The men who assembled. Those who were involved in this evil scheme were influential leaders of the nation. Three groups are mentioned: “the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders of the people.”
Although Matthew does not use the term, it appears that he has in mind an informal meeting of at least part of the Sanhedrin. The word “Sanhedrin” (Gk. synedrion) means, “a sitting together,” or a “council.” This word is frequently used in the NT to denote the supreme judicial and administrative council of the Jews (Matt. 5:22; 26:59; Mark 15:1). This “council” is referred to simply as the “chief priests and elders of the people” (Matt. 26:3, 47, 57, 59; 27:1, 3, 12, 20) before whom Christ was tried on the charge of claiming to be the Messiah. As the highest court of judicature, “in all causes and over all persons, ecclesiastical and civil, supreme,” its decrees were binding, not only on the Jews in Palestine, but on all Jews wherever scattered abroad (Easton).
I say this was probably an informal meeting because they were gathered “at the palace of the high priest, who was called Caiaphas” (France says it ‘sounds like a semi-formal meeting of at least a sub-committee of the Sanhedrin’). The word “palace” denotes the residence of the high priest. Because he didn’t live in an ordinary house, the word “palace” was certainly appropriate for his residence.
The high priest at this particular time was “Caiaphas.” He was high priest from AD 18 to 36.
“Caiaphas is called the high priest in Matthew and John (11:49); Luke (3:2; Acts 4:6) specifies Annas. There is no real conflict. Annas was deposed by the secular authorities in AD 15 and replaced by Caiaphas, who lived and ruled till his death in AD 36. But since according to the OT the high priest was not to be replaced till after his death, the transfer of power was illegal. Doubtless some continued to call either man ‘high priest.’ Certainly Annas, Caiaphas’s father-in-law (John 18:13), continued to exercise great authority behind the scenes. This joint high priesthood is presupposed by Luke 3:2 and probably by John 18, where the most natural reading of the passage names Caiaphas as high priest in v. 13 but Annas as high priest in v. 19” (Carson).
The people who met on that day to plot the death of Jesus consisted of representatives from several groups. There were “chief priests” present. These were high ecclesiastical officials who were members of high-priestly families (Morris). See also 2:4 . . . Also assembled that day were some “scribes” (some manuscripts don’t include these). The scribes were of the sect known as the Pharisees. They were experts in the law of Moses and teachers of it. Present also were “the elders of the people.” These would have been important lay representatives (Morris).
These influential members of the Sanhedrin were meeting unofficially to try and decide what to do with Jesus.
2. The aim of the meeting. This gathering of high officials was for one purpose—they “plotted to take Jesus by trickery and kill Him” (4). This wasn’t the first time religious leaders had gotten together to plan and scheme in order to get rid of Jesus. After Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, plans were made to kill Him. See John 11:45ff . . .
This came about because of the number of people who believed that Jesus was the Messiah after Lazarus’ resurrection (45). A council comprised of Pharisees and the chief priests was convened (47). Caiaphas became a prophet when he declared that Jesus would die for the people (49-51)! He spoke those words because he believed it would be politically expedient that Jesus die in order to keep a possible revolution from disturbing the peace they had with the Romans. He spoke more than he knew! John tells us “from that day on they plotted to put Him to death” (53).
Why did they want to put Jesus to death? No reason is stated here but we have seen in our study of the Gospel of Matthew why they hated Jesus. They despised Jesus and wanted to get rid of Him because they were envious of Him. That is will illustrated in the event we have just looked at from John 11. The miracles of Christ aroused their jealousy and led them to scheme against Him!
But they must do this “craftily” (NIV) and deceptively (NKJ has ‘trickery.’ Gk. is dolo, meaning ‘bait’ or ‘snare,’ or ‘by cunning or stealth’). There were too many people in Jerusalem for the Passover who might be favorable to Him. People who had heard Him in the outlying areas, or Galileans who might take His side because He was from Nazareth. The religious leaders might be able to count on assistance from the merchants in the temple who had had their businesses disrupted by Jesus, but the crowds of people would have to be carefully manipulated (Morris).
So they calculated and schemed. They wanted to get rid of this Man that the people were being attracted to as the Messiah. Their only question difficulty had to do with the timing of their plan.
Matthew tells us that they decided not to take any action during the feast “lest there be an uproar among the people” (5). They had no scruples in arresting Him and putting Him to death, and even doing it at Passover time. Their only hesitation had to do with the possibility of large numbers of supporters being present who could easily become outraged! Their plan could backfire and they didn’t want a mob after them. They wanted to avoid the wrath of the crowd and even that of Rome, but they didn’t seem to mind incurring God’s wrath; they would save their own lives but lose their souls (Blomburg).
The only way they could precede with their plans would be if opportunity presented itself, which it did when Judas, one of Christ’s own disciples betrayed Him. Their dilemma was solved when information was passed on to them by this traitor of how they might arrest Jesus quietly.
“Not at the Passover,” they decided. “At the Passover,” our Lord said. It happened in accordance to the divine decree. There had been many attempts on His life before, but none were successful (MacArthur). The first attempt was made by Herod shortly after Jesus was born (Matthew 2). There was a time when Jesus declared in the synagogue in Nazareth that He was the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, and the incensed crowds led Him to the edge of a high cliff to throw Him over. He miraculously passed through their midst (Luke 4).
All of those attempts failed because it was not yet God’s time. “No human power could have accomplished it apart from God’s will, and no human power could now prevent it, because it was now God’s plan” (MacArthur). In God’s providence, Jesus would die at the time of the Passover, just as He predicted.
This horrible event was planned by God even before it was planned by men (France). And out of the greatest crime committed by men came the greatest blessing for men! The word of God declares:
Ephesians 1:7 - “In Him we have redemption through His blood, the forgiveness of sins, according to the riches of His grace.” Hebrews 9:28 - “Christ was offered once to bear the sins of many . . .” 1 Thessalonians 5:9 - “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
Thanks be to God, that though wicked men plotted and calculated the death of the Lord Jesus, it was the eternal plan of God to make His death a sacrificial and substitutionary death for the salvation of a multitude no man can number!