April 17, 2014
The world pivots the moment when God the Son was forsaken by God the Father.
I. The Son of God Crucified (Matthew 27:32-38) (Physically)
II. The Son of God Reviled (Matthew 27:39-44) (Emotionally)
III. The Son of God Forsaken (Matthew 27:45-50) (Spiritually)
IV. The Son of God Revealed (Matthew 27:51-54)
This evening we want to think together about the crucifixion. Two Sundays ago we celebrated communion, focusing on Jesus’ transformation of the Passover celebration into a remembrance of His body broken and His blood shed. We’ll celebrate again tonight with more focus on what the bread and cup symbolize, the crucifixion of our Lord. We’ll think together about the physical nature of the crucifixion, its emotional impact, its spiritual work and its victory.
Before we read the first segment of the text, let’s summarize what happened between the Last Supper and the crucifixion. After the meal in the upper room, the disciples all claimed that they were willing to die with rather than deny or desert Jesus. We know how that worked out. Then Jesus went to Gethsemane, and in the midst of temptation prayed “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.” Jesus didn’t want to go to the cross. He knew the physical, emotional and spiritual trauma that awaited him there. But he also knew that he could not and would not put his own desires above his Father’s plan. Even though it meant the deepest suffering the world has ever known, he still chose to do His Father’s will.
After Jesus had prayed, Judas came with a mob and soldiers from the Temple Guard. They took Jesus to the Sanhedrin, where Caiaphas the high priest brought false witnesses to accuse him, and finally condemned him for his seeming blasphemy, that they would see “the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power and coming on the clouds of heaven.” They sent him to a reluctant Pilate, asking for his death. Under pressure Pilate finally washed his hands of the situation and ordered a brutal flogging and crucifixion, both particularly Roman tortures. On top of that the Roman soldiers took it upon themselves to abuse and scorn him, to put a crown of thorns on his head and a robe, to mock him, spit on him, and beat him before finally leading him away to be crucified.
Matthew 27:32-38 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right, one on the left.
Let’s think about the physical nature of the crucifixion. Jesus was apparently so weakened he could not carry his cross. He’s been beaten and brutally flogged according to Roman custom, he’s been slapped, mocked and crowned with thorns. The cross, even if just the cross beam, would have been heavy. A man in shock from loss of blood couldn’t carry it far. It was at least half a mile out to Golgotha. I suspect the Romans may have had to frequently force someone to carry a condemned man’s cross, as they did Simon. The location of Golgotha, which, as Matthew says, means ‘skull,’ is uncertain. The traditional spot, the Church of the Holy Sepupchre, is not really unlikely. Though it is now in the heart of the city, in those days that spot was outside the city wall, on a hill, and not far from the road.
Before they crucified him, they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but he would not drink it. Some say this was an act of compassion, that the mixture would deaden some of the pain of crucifixion, and that Jesus refused in order to bear all the pain. But Mark says they offered Jesus wine mingled with myrrh, and myrrh is not a tranquilizer. It is extremely bitter, as Matthew’s word ‘gall’ implies. So this was probably not compassion but further torment: the bitter taste would intensify the sufferer’s thirst. All this fits with Psalm 69:21 “They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” The vinegar of verse 48 is probably given with the same intent. Like David in the Psalm, Jesus looked for sympathy but found none.
Verse 35: “And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots.” I’ve always been struck by the lack of description of the crucifixion. None of the Gospels give details. Part of the reason, of course, is the Gospels were written for people familiar with this Roman punishment. It was the common death sentence for rebels and anyone of low status. It was done publically, as a warning to others. For example, a century before Jesus’ death six thousand of the slave who revolted under Spartacus were crucified at once. Josephus reports that at times crosses lined the roads of Judea.
We’ve all seen the details, depicted in much detail in movies and paintings. Crosses had several shapes, but in Jesus’ case the cross was probably t shaped. Some victims were tied to the cross, but Jesus was nailed; after the resurrection Jesus showed those scars. Death, usually from asphyxiation, could take days; the victim survived until he could no longer lift himself to breathe. Death would be sooner if, as in this case, the victim had lost a lot of blood. And the Romans were in the habit of hastening death by breaking the victim’s legs or stabbing him through. Usually the body was left on the cross to decay, but occasionally family members obtained permission to remove and bury the victim. All this is in the historical literature.
Usually the Romans would crucify their victims naked. Out of sensitivity to Jewish law they may have permitted a loin cloth in Palestine. But the victim's clothes belonged to the executioners; they divided them among themselves by casting lots. They probably had no idea that they were fulfilling Psalm 22:18 “they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Verse 37 “And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” It was common to identify the crucified’s crime. Pilate, of course, wrote more of the truth than he believed. He wanted to rub the noses of the Jews' in their vassal status: your king is dead at our hands. But to a Jew, "king of the Jews" meant "Messiah"; so the charge on which Jesus was executed was, in their eyes, that he was a messianic pretender.
So that’s an abstract look at crucifixion, this extreme of human cruelty and torture. But Jesus was not an abstract victim. He was Jesus, the one who lived among us without sin, truly innocent, sent to bring the love of the Father to his lost children and to rescue us. In the Upper Room he took bread and said ‘this is my body’ and he broke it, to have us remember what would be done to him. I don’t believe his physical suffering was the main focus of his sacrifice, but it was the instrument by which that sacrifice was accomplished. We can’t see or fully describe the emotional torment or the spiritual torment he suffered, But we can see and describe this see how cruel and undeserved this punishment was. Jesus intended that we take hold of the crucifixion at this level – he told us to remember in communion his body given for us. Let’s do that.
Communion: The Bread
Matthew 27:39-44: And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” 41So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42“He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
Let’s think about the emotional nature of the crucifixion. Jesus has already been betrayed. He’s been deserted and denied – and he knows it; he looked at Peter when the cock crowed. He’s been rejected by his people and wept over it. He’s been mocked and scorned by the Jewish leaders and now by the Romans. And all this rejection and hatred comes to a head on the cross.
He not only bore physical pain, but he bore emotional onslaught. When I was a kid the phrase ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me’ was still used to deny emotional hurt. But we knew deep inside that names and hatred, mocking, dismissal, gossip and verbal bullying did great harm.
Now Jesus is on the cross. It’s not enough that he’s beaten, whipped, pierced and in agony with every breathe; He’s also despised. ‘Those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads.” With the Passover meal behind them and Sabbath not to begin till sundown, people went out to "hurl insults" at Jesus. Shaking their heads, in fulfillment of the prophecy of Psalm 22:7, the passersby repeat the charge that had been central to Jesus’ trial: ‘You were going to destroy the temple, but the temple is not destroyed, and you are.” Physical torment hadn’t made Jesus defy the cross, but, Satan hoped, emotional rejection would.
And it’s widespread: the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, all the elements of the Jewish leadership stand there in front of the cross mocking him in his pain: “He saved others; he cannot save himself.” Jesus’ healing ministry was well known, but if he cannot save himself, they will mock his supernatural power. But Matthew’s Christian readers know that Jesus could have saved himself, but he would not do so, so that he could save others from their sins.
The second taunt, "He's the king of Israel," substitutes the covenant term Israel for "the Jews" in the plaque above his head. But the words "Let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him" are again aimed at Jesus' helplessness. The leaders piously and hypocritically promise faith if Jesus will but step down from the cross; but again the reader knows that if Jesus did step down, there would be no "blood of the covenant for the forgiveness of sins," no ransom, no salvation from sin, no gospel of the kingdom to be proclaimed to nations everywhere and no keeping of God’s deepest promises.
In an unconscious allusion to Psalm 22:8, the leaders taunt a third time: "He trusts in God, let him deliver him." They recognize that Jesus' claim to be the "Son of God" was a claim to messiahship and more, but they see Jesus’ hopeless condition as proof his claims are wrong. It is the crucifixion that frees them to express their evil hearts, but their malice reveals God’s redemptive purposes. On the one hand, God will indeed deliver his Son at the Resurrection: Matthew does not end his Gospel with Jesus in the grave. On the other hand, the leaders are right: Jesus is facing his most severe test, the loss of his Father's presence.
Finally, just to add insult to insult, the criminals who were crucified with them added their own mockery to the leader’s cruel words. Of course we know that one of them eventually repents of that and admonishes the other. But even those worthy of death were unwilling to sympathize with the man dying with them.
So this is emotional torment of the most bullying kind. It’s Satan trying to do through despair what he could not accomplish through direct temptation or physical torture. And don’t think Jesus didn’t feel this emotion. From the joy of serving his Father to the sadness of Lazarus’ death, Jesus felt every human emotion. This is one of the ways he is able to sympathize with us in our weakness: he became one of us, feels our pain, carries our sorrow. When people disbelieved him, or sinned against him, or were hypocritical, he felt the hurt and the hatred.
And it peaked at the crucifixion. Imagine if you had been sent into a prison camp to perform a great rescue of people who had been your friends before they were captured. But instead of greeting you in love and joining in the rescue plan, they argue with you, brand you a liar, question your sanity, and turn you over to the camp authorities. Then they laugh and jeer while you are tortured. They rejoice in your death. Even if they never touch you physically, this is torment.
Matthew 27:45-50 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
Let’s think about the spiritual nature of the crucifixion. Notice that it is accompanied by a sign of judgment or tragedy: darkness covered the land from noon till 3:00 p.m. This fulfills Amos 8, “And on that day,” declares the Lord God, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. . . . I will make that time like mourning for an only son” This darkness is a sign of judgment on the land and its people, but it is also a judgment on Jesus; for out of this darkness comes his cry of desolation: ‘And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’ The words are in Aramaic, which is why Matthew translates them into Greek. They are verse 1 of Psalm 22, an amazing prophecy of the crucifixion, almost an eyewitness account: “All who see me mock me; . . . “He trusts in the Lord; let him deliver him; let him rescue him, for he delights in him!” . . . I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; . . . they have pierced my hands and feet; I can count all my bones; they stare and gloat over me; they divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.”
Some say that because the Psalm ends in victory, Jesus’ use of the first verse is really a claim to the victory at the far end. But it doesn’t work. He was living through the first part of the Psalm; that’s what his cry is about. Jesus has been separated from his Father. As one who knew the Father with constant intimacy, such abandonment must have been agony. In this cry the horror of the world's sin, the cost of our salvation are revealed. In Elizabeth Browning’s words: Yea, once Immanuel's orphaned cry his universe hath shaken. It went up single, echoless, "My God, I am forsaken!" It went up from the Holy's lips amid his lost creation that, of the lost, no son need use those words of desolation.
Jesus was abandoned so that we could be rescued. In that moment he bore every consequence of our sin. Scripture teaches that the wages of sin is death, so he was dying for our sin. Scripture teaches that the wrath of God is poured out on all unrighteousness – so he was receiving that wrath in our place. Paul says that “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Blood sacrifice was God’s picture of atonement; without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins. Jesus shed his blood for us. This is the heart of the spiritual meaning of the cross.
But of course those standing there don’t get it. Some mistake his Aramaic cry as a call for Elijah. Jewish tradition held that he would rescue the righteous in their distress. But waiting to see if Elijah would come and save him after the Father, Elijah’s God, has abandoned him is useless. Verse 50: And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. The Gospel of John records words in this cry “It is finished.” The work he had come to do was complete, God’s purpose was accomplished – but oh the cost. The sinless one has become sin, the perfect one has been marred, his holy blood has been shed and his eternal relationship with the Father broken, all for us. Jesus suffered because we deserved a death sentence for our rebellion.
Caroline Cobb personalizes this in her song ‘Your Wounds.’ As I play this video, listen to this as a prayer from us to Jesus.
Communion: The Cup
Matthew 27:51-55 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
Let’s think about the outcome of the crucifixion. We’ve seen the tortuous reality of the crucifixion physically. We’ve seen the agonizing reality of the crucifixion emotionally. We’ve heard the ultimate spiritual reality of the crucifixion in Jesus’ cry of desolation; forsaken by the Father, bearing wrath, becoming sin, shedding blood for us and our forgiveness. But the outcome is victory.
Spiritually this was the greatest victory that could be imagined. Paul teaches us that, inheriting Adam’s sin, we are all willing sinners. But in Jesus one died that many might receive forgiveness and eternal life. Paul says “if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. . . For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification.” This is the achievement: justification for all those who by faith believe in Jesus and his work. This is the victory that changes everything, the cosmic moment of reconciliation.
And this hidden spiritual work was so powerful that a few tiny hints leaked around the edges of heaven, hell and eternity to touch the earth. Matthew says the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. At the center of the temple were two rooms, the holy place and the most holy place, separated by a thick curtain. In the Holy Place priests came daily to light the lamps and offer bread and incense. But to the Most Holy Place the high priest came only once a year, and with blood, because that inner room was the place where God promised his presence would dwell, and to enter it without the blood of a sacrifice meant certain death. But Christ has become our sacrifice. The book of Hebrews says that we “have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh.” This is the spiritual victory of the crucifixion.
Matthew tells us there was a great earthquake. In the presence of such a victory the earth itself had the good sense to tremble in fear and joy, terror and wonder. Should we do any less? Matthew says the tombs of the dead were opened and later, at Jesus’s resurrection, these dead were raised and appeared to many. This has, of course, been a controversial verse; there have been many opinions as to who these people were and how many. I personally believe there were not many, only those who believed in Jesus during his earthly life and then died. They were raised, like Lazarus, as witnesses to Jesus in His resurrection.
So the outcome of the crucifixion was spiritual victory, a victory we enjoy today, for it rescues us from sin and death and hell. By faith we receive forgiveness, eternal life and eternity with God. As Caroline Cobb said “Your wounds, our healing; your stripes, our peace; your suffering, our hope.”
This is also an emotional victory, seen in the transformation from derision to wonder. “When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ ” We don’t know how much these soldiers and their centurion knew about Jesus, but what they’d heard of his life, his betrayal, his suffering and his death was confirmed by the earthquake and they saw him not just as ‘a Son of God’ but as ‘the Son of God,’ unique in power authority. What had been mockery that he could not save himself was now turned to wonder that he had not saved himself, despite his evident power.
But physically this was not the victory. This was the loss that made the other victories possible. Jesus died under the weight of this physical, emotional and especially spiritual suffering. And God chose to certify this death by allowing him to lie in the grave until the third day. It was Friday when he died - that’s the first day. Saturday the second day; not until Sunday would the physical victory be won. God graciously chose to allow the body to be seen, held, witnessed, sealed in a tomb, even guarded so that when the resurrection came it would be without dispute. Not that people don’t doubt the resurrection anyway – Jesus predicted they would. But imagine if he had died and then immediately returned to life. No one would believe he had really been dead. As it was, the soldiers believed him dead, his followers believed him dead. Pilate carefully inquired and believed him dead, the leaders believed him dead. Because he was dead. Spiritual victory, but it cost him his life. Emotional repentance, by some, but it cost him his life. His physical sacrifice gives us the space, these days ahead, to mourn the suffering he endured in the crucifixion for us, emotionally, physically, and most of all spiritually.