- Main Text: Matthew 27:27-61
- Accompanying text: Psalm 22:1-2, 14-18
What the passage means to us
” I guess what’s so compelling for me about the Incarnation is God’s incredible act of solidarity with us in changing his own nature to become part of his creation. God… needing nothing to complete or fulfil his nature to any greater completeness or fulfilment than he already has… merges his own essence with humanity to take on our ‘frail flesh’, to experience hunger, cold, weariness, sorrow, desire, pain and, yes, even death. And he triumphs over all deathliness from within the messy part of his human existence — and leads me, beckons me, strengthens me, shows me the way to do the same” .
Throughout his Gospel account Matthew has illustrated how the incarnate Son of God is our King, who was moved by compassion for the human condition (Matthew 23:37), and who, being fully human as well as fully divine, got hungry (Matthew 21:18), found time to be alone (Matthew 14:13), and experienced emotions just as we all have (Matthew 21:12). In his account of the Crucifixion Matthew stresses the suffering of Jesus — how Jesus was taken away forcibly by a Roman Cohort (about 600 soldiers), how he was stripped, dressed in a scarlet robe, had a crown of thorns thrust painfully on his head, was mocked in derision, spat upon with contempt, and struck repeatedly on the head with a wooden rod before being dressed again in his own clothes and dragged away to be crucified. “Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death — that is, the devil — and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). The cross was regarded as the most horrible and most degrading form of punishment. The Roman lawyer and philosopher, Cicero, wrote of it that it was “a most cruel and disgusting punishment” . Sometimes the protracted agony of the victims lasted for days, and the eventual death would be caused by pain, hunger and thirst. After his scourging and humiliation at the hands of the Roman soldiers, Matthew records that in his physical weakness Jesus struggled to carry his own cross to the site of crucifixion (as was the custom), and that a passer-by called Simon of Cyrene was made to help him on his way to Golgotha (Aramaic)/Calvary (Latin). Romans 16:13 suggests that Simon later became a Christian. As Jesus, assisted by Simon, carried the cross he comforted those who were weeping for him (Luke 23:28), and he tasted but refused to drink wine mingled with myrrh, a concoction that was offered to condemned criminals just before their execution, in order to stupefy them. Jesus would endure the full scope of the pain, his mental faculties unimpaired as he died not just for believers but for the whole world. The executioners had rights to the victim’s clothes, and they cast lots for what Jesus was wearing. Some who watched him die, even the rebels who were crucified with him and especially “the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders” (Matthew 27:41), continued to heap insults on Jesus. A comparison of the Gospel accounts sheds light on the various phrases Jesus spoke on the cross. One of the details that Matthew records is that of an unknown man (a soldier?), who, presumably out of compassion, soaked a sponge with some of the common sour wine that soldiers drank, and offered it to Jesus. After committing himself to God the Father, Jesus the Son of God died voluntarily for our salvation, “For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Hebrews 12:2). Jesus, the Immanuel, “God with us” (Matthew 1:23), remains with us and for us still, even at the cross.
“…the cross – for Christians – represents the perfection not only of Christ’s self-outpouring life of love, but also of the entire ‘sacrificial’ logic of Israel’s Day of Atonement: an offering up of all things in love to God that allows us to draw near to him, and to be reconciled with him, under the shelter of his mercy…it is…the restoration of a communion with the divine glory…a return of all that has been lost in sin and death” . Matthew records how the temple veil was torn in two when Jesus died, thus signifying that access to God is available to all (for a supporting thought, see Ephesians 2:14).
As we read Matthew’s and the other Crucifixion accounts, we might think that it is the Roman and the Jewish authorities that are in complete control but, in so doing, we forget the plan and purpose of God. “Having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross” (Colossians 2:15). The spiritual reality is that the grace of God reigns supreme, and it did so also on the cross. When Jesus “gave up his spirit” (Matthew 27:50), it is a note of victory for him and for us. Thus, we can join with Paul in declaring, “I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). We participate in Jesus’ crucifixion — “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Galatians 5:24).
Context and Story-line
Matthew records that, after the betrayal of Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, Jesus is led away for trial by the Sanhedrin. False witnesses come forward to reinforce the accusations against him (Matthew 26:60). The religious leaders accuse Jesus of blasphemy, which in their law is punishable by death, and in anger “they spit in his face and struck him with their fists. Others slapped him and said, ‘Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?’” (Matthew 26:67-68) Afterwards they deliver Jesus to Pilate, who, according to Luke, sends him onto Herod, who in frustration sends Jesus back to Pilate (Luke 23:1-12). Pilate offers to release either Jesus or a notorious criminal called Barabbas, and the crowds choose Barabbas and, urged on by the priests, call for Jesus to be crucified. It is then that Pilate washes his hands to show his own innocence, echoing the custom described in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. “When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. ‘I am innocent of this man’s blood,’ he said. ‘It is your responsibility!’ All the people answered, ‘His blood is on us and on our children!’ Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (Matthew 27:24-26), and Jesus dies a few hours before the weekly Sabbath begins.
Joseph of Arimathea, a member of the Sanhedrin who had not consented to Jesus’ death, petitions Pilate for the body of Jesus, and he is assisted by Nicodemus in taking the body down from the cross. “Pilate was surprised to hear that he (Jesus) was already dead. Summoning the centurion, he asked him if Jesus had already died. When he learned from the centurion that it was so, he gave the body to Joseph” (Mark 15:44-45). Strictly speaking, Jesus had no right to an honourable burial, and his body should have been put in a place reserved for convicted criminals. Joseph, however, had another plan. “Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb (Matthew 27:59-61) …
- Hebrews 12:1-2
- Romans 6:1-14
Other GCI resources
Footnotes and references
- Justin Butcher, Walking to Jerusalem (London, UK: Hodder & Stroughton, 2018). 164.
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion, accessed 9th April 2019.
- David Bentley Hart, The Hidden and the Manifest (Michigan, USA: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017). 265.