Matthew 27:11-14. ARE YOU THE KING OF THE JEWS?
11Now Jesus stood before the governor: and the governor asked him, saying, “Are you the King of the Jews?” Jesus said to him, “So you say.” 12When he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing. 13Then Pilate said to him, “Don’t you hear how many things they testify against you?” 14He gave him no answer, not even one word, so that the governor marveled greatly.
“Now Jesus stood before the governor” (v. 11a). Pilate is procurator (governor) of Judea, a post that he began in 26 A.D. and will continue for a total of ten years. He began office badly, offending Jews by his insensitivity to their beliefs and customs, thereby putting himself on the defensive. He will eventually lose office because of accusations of unnecessarily brutality (Barclay, 394-399).
“Are you the King of the Jews?” (v. 11b). Earlier, Caiaphas, the high priest, asked Jesus, “tell us whether you are the Christ, the Son of God” (26:63). Pilate, however, has no interest in Jewish religious matters except as they impact Rome’s civil authority. Jewish leaders involve him because they want Jesus executed and only Rome has the authority to perform executions. The Sanhedrin accused Jesus of blasphemy (26:65), but know that Pilate will not prosecute Jesus on that charge. Luke tells us that the Jewish leaders charged Jesus with forbidding the people to pay taxes and claiming to be a king (Luke 23:3), both of which are capital crimes against Rome. This Gospel does not specify the charges, but Pilate’s question makes it clear that Jesus is charged with treason, a charge that Pilate must take seriously. The Emperor will not tolerate treason, and Pilate is obligated to prosecute it.
Jesus responds, “So you say” (v. 11c), the same response that he made to Judas (26:25) and to Caiaphas (26:64), a response that neither admits nor denies the charge. If Jesus were to admit that he is a king, Pilate would be obligated to execute him. However, he cannot deny the charge, because he was born King of the Jews (2:2). His is the kingdom of heaven, a kingdom of no interest to Pilate or Rome.
“When he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing” (v. 12). Jesus refuses to answer further charges, and does not speak again until his last words from the cross (v. 46). This is in keeping with Isaiah 53:7, “He was oppressed, yet when he was afflicted he didn’t open his mouth” Pilate is amazed, because men faced with crucifixion usually do everything possible to defend themselves.
Matthew 27:15-18. JESUS BARABBAS OR JESUS THE CHRIST?
15Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the multitude one prisoner, whom they desired. 16They had then a notable (Greek: episemon) prisoner, called Barabbas. 17When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus, who is called Christ?” 18For he knew that because of envy they had delivered him up.
“Now at the feast the governor was accustomed to release to the multitude one prisoner, whom they desired” (v. 15). In accord with a custom that we cannot document outside the New Testament, Pilate offers to release to the people a prisoner of their choice.
“They had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas” (v. 16). “They had” is plural, which suggests that the antecedent to “they” is “the crowd” instead of “the governor” (v. 15). If this is Matthew’s intent, it means “the crowd had a notorious prisoner.” The crowd doesn’t have physical custody of Jesus Barabbas, of course, but they could have him in mind as a candidate for release at the festival.
Matthew doesn’t explain why Jesus Barabbas is notorious, but Mark and Luke tell us that he was “in prison with the rebels who had committed murder during the insurrection” (Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19). It would seem, then, that Barabbas is a zealot who participated in a violent act against Rome in the hope of driving out the occupying Roman soldiers. If so, this would make him anathema to the Romans but a sympathetic figure to the Jews.
“Whom do you want me to release to you” (v. 17a). Pilate obviously wants to release Jesus, so he gives the crowd the choice of Jesus the Messiah or Jesus Barabbas, assuming that the crowd will choose the Messiah instead of a notorious criminal. In asking the crowd to make the choice, he demonstrates his weakness. His later statements will show that he believes Jesus to be innocent, but he does not take decisive action to protect him.
“Barabbas or Jesus who is called Christ” (v. 17b). There is irony in Barabbas’ name, which means son (bar) of the father (abba). Jesus the Messiah is the true Son of the Father. Rabbis are sometimes addressed as father, and Barabbas may be the son of a prominent rabbi. Some manuscripts say Jesus Barabbas, but others say only Barabbas. To include it is to require the crowd to choose between two men whose name is Jesus. Matthew tells us only that Barabbas is a notable or remarkable (episemon) prisoner. Luke tells us that he was jailed for insurrection and murder (Luke 23:19), making it likely that he is a zealot whose crime was opposing Rome. If so, the crowd’s choice of Barabbas becomes more understandable. The people hate Rome, and could be expected to favor a man opposed to Rome. The chief priests and elders also use their influence to sway the crowd’s decision against Jesus (v. 20).
“For he knew that because of envy they had delivered him up” (v. 18). Pilate is far from an ideal governor, but he isn’t stupid. He understands that the Jewish religious leaders are trying to get rid of a popular young leader who has become a thorn in their side. He doubts that Jesus has committed any offense punishable under Roman law, and knows that the religious leaders care about Roman law only when it serves their purposes. He also knows that, while the religious leaders have certain powers of enforcement, those do not include putting someone to death. Rome jealously guards the prerogative of exercising the death penalty. These religious leaders want Jesus put to death, so they must persuade Pilate to pronounce a death sentence.
Matthew 27:19-23. WHAT EVIL HAS HE DONE?
19While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.” 20Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. 21But the governor answered them, “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” They said, “Barabbas!” 22Pilate said to them, “What then shall I do to Jesus, who is called Christ?” They all said to him, “Let him be crucified!” 23But the governor said, “Why? What evil has he done?” But they cried out exceedingly, saying, “Let him be crucified!”
“While he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent to him, saying, ‘Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him'” (v. 19). Only Matthew tells us of this incident with Pilate’s wife. In this Gospel, God speaks to people in dreams (1:20; 2:12, 13, 19-20). Pilate’s wife suffers because of her dream. It would be unseemly for her to interrupt the proceedings personally, but she sends word for her husband to have nothing to do with that innocent (dikaio—righteous) man. In one sense, the wife’s action increases Pilate’s responsibility because it confirms Jesus’ innocence. In another sense, Pilate follows his wife’s counsel by washing his hands of the affair. Legend has it that Pilate’s wife becomes a Christian. The Greek church canonized her (Buttrick, 596).
“Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes to ask for Barabbas, and to destroy Jesus” (v. 20). In this Gospel, crowds were neutral or favorable to Jesus until his arrest (26:47). They welcomed him into Jerusalem in his Triumphal Entry (21:1-11). Now the chief priests and elders persuade the crowds to save Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. One explanation for the crowd’s fickle nature is that this could be a different crowd from the one on Palm Sunday. That crowd may have been composed primarily of pilgrims who had come to celebrate Passover in Jerusalem—many of them Galileans, like Jesus. The chief priests and elders may have handpicked this crowd. It might be composed only of citizens of Jerusalem, a city known for its hostility to Jesus.
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” (v. 21a). Pilate’s attempt to save Jesus backfires. Jews hate Romans, and can be expected to oppose the governor in this situation where they can express opposition without being punished.
“They said, ‘Barabbas'” (v. 21b). At first reading, this seems like an unlikely choice. However, we can be sure that the religious leaders have done everything possible to sway the crowd’s choice. If Barabbas is a zealot who has risked his life to oppose Rome, it would not be difficult to persuade the crowd to ask for his release.
“Then what should I do to Jesus who is called Christ?” (v. 22a). Pilate attempts once again to save Jesus, asking the crowd what he should do with him. He reminds them that Jesus is called the Messiah, suggesting that they reconsider until they can determine Jesus’ true status.
“Let him be crucified!” (v. 22b). The crowd, inflamed by its leaders, cries out, “Let him be crucified!” When Pilate asks what evil Jesus has done (v. 23a), they shout all the more, “Let him be crucified!” (v. 23b).
Matthew 27:24-26. MAY HIS BLOOD BE ON US, AND ON OUR CHILDREN!
24So when Pilate saw that nothing was being gained, but rather that a disturbance was starting, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous person. You see to it.” 25All the people answered, “May his blood be on us, and on our children!” 26Then he released to them Barabbas, but Jesus he flogged and delivered (Greek: paredoken—from paradidomi) to be crucified.
“So when Pilate saw that nothing was being gained, but rather that a disturbance was starting, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude” (v. 24a). We have no record of ritual handwashing in the Roman world, but it is a common Jewish practice. Deuteronomy 21:6-7 prescribes ritual handwashing when a body is found and guilt is undetermined. Psalms 26:6 and 73:13 speak of washing hands in innocence. Ritual handwashing is a routine Jewish practice, and Jesus has been criticized for not requiring it of his disciples (Matthew 15:2). Pilate may have gotten the idea for handwashing from seeing it practiced among Jews. Hand washing is a powerful symbol, making its point graphically.
“I am innocent of the blood of this righteous person” (v. 24b). Pilate seeks to separate himself from an unjust act. His self-proclaimed innocence and half-hearted defense of Jesus, however, cannot help him to avoid the stain of guilt. Pilate is the one person in Jerusalem with the power to set Jesus free. His failure to do that in the face of popular opposition constitutes cowardice. It would be interesting to see how Pilate would judge a Roman soldier who displayed cowardice of this sort on the battlefield. In the Roman world, cowardice is a capital offense. By Roman standards, it is Pilate rather than Jesus who should die.
However, to be fair to Pilate, he is doing more than declaring his innocence here. He is confronting the crowd by telling them that they will have to assume the guilt associated with Jesus’ crucifixion. It is one thing for people to demand a particular course of action when nothing is going to be required of them, but it changes the equation when they know that they will be held accountable. Pilate tried to get the crowd to ask for Jesus’ release (vv. 15-22). Then he asked, “Why, what evil has he done?” (v. 23). Now he declares himself innocent and the crowd guilty. It is his last stab at swaying the crowd so that they will allow him to release Jesus.
“You see to it” (v. 24c). These are essentially the same words used by the priests and elders to reject Judas’ attempt to return the money that he received for betraying Jesus (27:4). Faced with a tough choice—injustice on the one hand or a possible riot on the other—Pilate buckles. He can refuse to use his power to save Jesus, but he cannot avoid the responsibility for his decision.
“All the people answered, ‘May his blood be on us, and on our children!'” (v. 25). The crowd accepts responsibility and guilt. This does not make Pilate guiltless, but it does make the people guilty. Their willing acceptance suggests that they consider their actions blameless, because they would not willingly saddle their children with this kind of guilt. Matthew might have included this phrase, “our children,” knowing that it would be the children who would suffer later when Rome destroyed Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (France, 1058).
Matthew clearly intends to convict the Jewish people. “It is theologically important to the Evangelist to transfer as much of the responsibility as possible from Pilate to the Jewish leaders” (Hare, 317). Until now he has used the word crowd (ochlos), but now he uses the word people (laos)—”a collective term used in the Gospel to refer to people as a whole (e.g., 1:21, ‘for he will save his people from their sins’ or the repeated phrase, ‘elders of the people’)…. Of particular importance is the warning of Jeremiah directed at ‘all the officials and all the people’ (26:12) that if they kill him ‘you will be bringing innocent blood upon yourselves and upon this city and its inhabitants’ (26:15)” (Senior, 324). The people’s response “gives voice…to the theological conviction that Israel as a whole has rejected its Messiah in a final and definitive way and in consequence deserves to be deselected as God’s special people” (Hare, 317-318). Matthew probably feels that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. (24:1-2) was God’s judgment on the Jewish people for their part in Jesus’ death.
In Matthew’s time, the church was opposed both by Jews, who excommunicated and persecuted Christians, and Romans, who discounted Jesus because of his execution as a criminal. To influence Romans, Christians need to show that Jewish leaders misled Rome and that Jesus was innocent of the crimes for which he was crucified (Gomes).
The church has sometimes used this text to justify persecution of Jews. However, Jesus was Jewish, as was most of the early church—and God still loves the Jewish people. To do violence to Jews people would only wound Jesus further. For those who seek to persecute Jews for crucifying Jesus, “He who is without sin among you, let him throw the first stone at her” (John 8:7).
“Then he released to them Barabbas, but Jesus he flogged and delivered (paredoken—from paradidomi) to be crucified” (v. 26). Flogging is a terrible punishment, administered by whips studded with metal or bone. Flogging kills some victims and hastens the death of others during crucifixion. The Gospels, however, do not go into graphic detail regarding Jesus’ suffering during the flogging and crucifixion. Their interest lies more in the meaning of Jesus’ death and less in the details of his suffering (Morris, 709).
“delivered (paredoken—from paradidomi) to be crucified” (v. 26b). The word paradidomi (arrested, handed over, or delivered up) is important to the New Testament story:
• Only after Jesus heard that John the Baptist had been arrested (paradidomi) did he begin his ministry (4:12).
• Jesus had told his disciples that the Father had delivered (paradidomi) all things to him (Jesus) (Luke 10:22).
• Jesus had told his disciples that he would “be delivered (paradidomi) to the chief priests and scribes, and they (would) condemn him to death, and (would) hand him over to the Gentiles to mock, to scourge, and to crucify; and the third day he (would) be raised up” (20:18-19; Mark 10:33; Luke 18:32).
• At the tomb, the angels asked the disciples why they sought the living among the dead. Then they reminded the disciples that Jesus had said that “the Son of Man must be delivered up (paradidomi) into the hands of sinful men, and be crucified, and the third day rise again?” (Luke 24:7).
•At Pentecost, Peter will tell the crowd that they had delivered up (paradidomi) Jesus (“a man approved by God to you by mighty works and wonders and signs which God did by him in the midst of you”) to be crucified in accord with the counsel and foreknowledge of God (Acts 2:23).
Matthew 27:27-31. MOCKING THE CLOWN-KING
27Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium, and gathered the whole garrison (Greek: speiran—cohort) together against him. 28They stripped him, and put a scarlet robe on him. 29They braided a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and a reed in his right hand; and they kneeled down before him, and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31When they had mocked him, they took the robe off of him, and put his clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.
“Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium” (v. 27a). While Pilate told the crowd, “You see to it,” he cannot allow them to carry out the execution. He turns Jesus over to his soldiers, who take him to the governor’s headquarters. The governor’s permanent headquarters are in Caesarea, but he would also have a headquarters in Jerusalem where soldiers could be garrisoned—possibly at Herod’s palace or the tower of Antonia.
“and gathered the whole garrison (speiran—cohort) around him” (v. 27b). A full cohort numbers about six hundred men, but this verse might simply mean that all the soldiers present gathered around Jesus. Jesus is weak from flogging. In this kind of setting, the soldiers could be quite rough, but with the exception of the crown of thorns and striking Jesus with a reed, the soldiers mock Jesus rather than inflicting additional physical injuries.
“They stripped him, and put a scarlet robe on him” (v. 28). They strip him and dress him in a scarlet robe, a color worn by Roman officers. Mark tells us that the robe is purple, the royal color (Mark 15:17, 20).
“They braided a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and a reed in his right hand; and they kneeled down before him, and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!'” (v. 29). For a crown, the soldiers use thorns. For a scepter, they use a flimsy reed. They spit at Jesus and strike him on the head with the reed. Some of these soldiers may have known soldiers who were targeted by zealots. Jesus presents them with an opportunity to strike back (Bruner, 1037).
“They spat on him, and took the reed and struck him on the head” (v. 30). These gestures add a measure of physical discomfort, but are designed to humiliate rather than to injure.
“When they had mocked him, they took the robe off of him, and put his clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him” (v. 31). The soldiers could have marched Jesus naked to the site of his crucifixion, but instead allow him to wear his clothes—probably in deference to Jewish sensibilities about public nakedness.
Matthew 27:34-46. PSALMS OF LAMENT—PSALM 22 AND PSALM 69
There are several links to Psalms 22 and 69 in this passage. While both Psalms begin with lament, both conclude with triumphant faith. Boring sees Psalm 22 as “an outline of the whole cross/resurrection salvation-event, which leads to the Gentile mission” (Boring, 492):
• Matthew 27:34. “They also gave me gall for my food. In my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psalm 69:21).
• Matthew 27:35. “They divide my garments among them. They cast lots for my clothing” (Psalm 22:18).
• Matthew 27:39. “All those who see me mock me. They insult me with their lips. They shake their heads” (Psalm 22:7).
• Matthew 27:43. “He trusts in Yahweh; let him deliver him. Let him rescue him, since he delights in him” (Psalm 22:8).
• Matthew 27:46. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Psalm 22:1)
Matthew intends these links to the Hebrew Scriptures to show that, however chaotic this day might seem, Jesus is following God’s plan and achieving God’s purpose. These scriptures authenticate Jesus’ identity and purpose.
Matthew 27:32-37. THE CRUCIFIXION
32As they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name, and they compelled him to go with them, that he might carry his cross. 33They came to a place called “Golgotha,” that is to say, “The place of a skull.” 34They gave him sour wine to drink mixed with gall. When he had tasted it, he would not drink. 35When they had crucified him, they divided his clothing among them, casting lots, 36and they sat and watched him there. 37They set up over his head the accusation against him written, “THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.”
“they compelled (Simon from Cyrene) to go with them, that he might carry (Jesus’) cross” (v. 32b). Usually, the condemned criminal carries his own cross (or the horizontal cross-piece). A sign noting the charges against him would be hung about his neck or carried aloft by a soldier, announcing his crime. A long route insures that people would see his plight and be warned not to repeat his crime. In this case, soldiers compel Simon from Cyrene (modern Libya) to carry Jesus’ cross. The soldiers would not stoop to perform such a service, and would not compel a bystander to do so unless it were clear that Jesus, weakened by flogging, could not manage on his own.
That the man’s name is Simon reminds us that neither Simon Peter nor most of the male disciples are anywhere to be found at the foot of the cross.
We do not know if Simon is a Gentile, a Jew of the Diaspora, or a man from Cyrene who now lives in Jerusalem. Some scholars make him a Gentile at the foot of the cross, a beginning of the ministry to Gentiles that Jesus will commission at the end of this Gospel (28:19-20), but that honor goes more properly to the centurion and soldiers who will proclaim, “Truly this was the Son of God” (27:54). Mark identifies Simon as the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), probably Christians known to Mark’s readers. It is possible that Simon became Jesus’ disciple because of the events of Good Friday and passed the legacy of faith to his sons.
“They came to a place called ‘Golgotha,’ that is to say, ‘The place of a skull'” (v. 33). We do not know the location of Golgotha or the reason for its name—whether it was shaped like a skull or was somehow associated with skulls or bones. The word “skull” gives it a sinister character. Tradition places the crucifixion on a hill, but the scriptures do not specify a hill.
“they gave him sour wine to drink mixed with gall. When he had tasted it, he would not drink” (v. 34). Who is “they”? Presumably soldiers, but possibly women bringing a bit of grace to the cross (Buttrick, 603). Mark says that the wine is mixed with myrrh (Mark 15:21), which would have a sedative effect. Matthew changes that to gall, an allusion to Psalm 69:21, which says, “They gave me poison for food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.” It is impossible to know for sure whether the offering of wine mixed with gall is a gesture of mercy or contempt. In any event, after tasting it, Jesus refuses to drink. Perhaps the problem is bitterness, but more likely, Jesus wants to stay fully alert throughout this pivotal moment in his ministry.
In verse 48, Matthew will tell us of a second offer of wine.
“When they had crucified him” (v. 35a). Matthew chooses these few words to summarize the process by which they crucified Jesus. Unlike some modern-day sermons, there are no graphic details about the soldiers stripping Jesus naked—or hammering nails through his hands and feet. There is no mention of Jesus’ cross being dropped into a hole, with nails tearing his flesh. This reticence is true of all the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke). None of them dwell on the gory details. For the most part, it is also true of the Gospel of John, although that Gospel does mention the spear that pierced Jesus’ side (John 19:34).
“they divided his clothing among themselves, casting lots” (v. 35b). This verse alludes to Psalm 22:18, which says, “They divide my garments among them. They cast lots for my clothing.”
The custom is to strip men naked before crucifying them—a further humiliation. The soldiers allowed him to wear his clothing on the route to the crucifixion (v. 31), but they remove his clothing prior to nailing him to the cross. They get to keep his clothing. Casting lots distracts the soldiers momentarily from their distasteful and boring duty. The Gospel of John adds two details—the first that the soldiers divided Jesus’ clothing four ways and the second that Jesus’ tunic “was seamless, woven in one piece from the top” (John 19:23).
“and they sat and watched him there” (v. 36). Guard duty is among the least enjoyable of a soldier’s duties. It requires the soldier to stay alert for long periods of time during which he has little to do to occupy his mind or hands. Some crucifixions go on for days before the victim dies, so the guard duty must continue day and night. If there were no guard, most victims would have at least one friend or family member who would be tempted to release them in the middle of the night.
“They set up over his head the accusation against him written, ‘THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS'” (v. 37). The Gospel of John tells us that this sign is an affront to the Jewish leaders (John 19:21-22). They want it changed to read, “This man said, I am King of the Jews,” but Pilate refuses to change it.
Matthew 27:38-44. MOCKED ON THE CROSS
38Then there were two robbers crucified with him, one on his right hand and one on the left. 39Those who passed by blasphemed him, wagging their heads, 40and saying, “You who destroy the temple, and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” 41Likewise the chief priests also mocking, with the scribes, the Pharisees, and the elders, said, 42“He saved others, but he can’t save himself. If he is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now, if he wants him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” 44The robbers also who were crucified with him cast on him the same reproach.
“Then there were two robbers crucified with him, one on his right hand and one on the left” (v. 38). The mother of James and John asked that her sons sit at Jesus’ right and left hand in the kingdom (20:21), but Jesus denied her request. Now thieves occupy those places. In one sense, it is ironic that Jesus’ right- and left-hand men are thieves. In another sense, it is fitting, because Jesus has spent much of his life in the company of sinners (9:10-13; 11:18-19), demoniacs (8:28-34), paralytics (9:2-8), tax collectors (9:9-13), and other marginal people. Much of his ministry has focused on such people, and now he is “numbered with the transgressors” (Isaiah 53:12).
THREE GROUPS MOCK JESUS (vv. 39-44):
1. “Those who passed by blasphemed him, wagging their heads” (v. 39a). This language comes from Psalm 22:7, which says, “All those who see me mock me. They insult me with their lips. They shake their heads.” “You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (vv. 39b-40). Passersby blaspheme Jesus and call on him to save himself, but he cannot do that without sacrificing all that he came for. He taught the disciples, “For whoever desires to save his life will lose it, and whoever will lose his life for my sake will find it” (16:25). Now he must lose his life so that the world will find it. Passersby say, “If you are the Son of God” (v. 40). This is the same challenge that the temper issued in the wilderness (4:3, 6).
2. “Likewise the chief priests also mocking, with the scribes, the Pharisees, and the elders, said, ‘He saved others, but he can’t save himself. If he is the King of Israel, let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him'” (vv. 41-42). The chief priests, scribes and elders constitute the membership of the Sanhedrin, the ruling body of the Jewish people. Jesus is popular with many ordinary Jewish people, but it is their leadership that has rejected him so soundly.
The irony is that these Jewish leaders are correct about Jesus not being able to save himself, but in a different way than they understand. Jesus cannot save himself, because his death is part of God’s plan. The Jewish leaders promise to believe in Jesus if he succeeds in coming down from the cross, but they will continue their disbelief after his resurrection. We believe in Jesus because he stayed put.
“He trusts in God. Let God deliver him now, if he wants him; for he said, ‘I am the Son of God'” (v. 43). This statement is ironic, because they intend it as mockery but it is true—Jesus is God’s Son. The language comes from Psalm 22:8, which says, “He trusts in Yahweh; let him deliver him. Let him rescue him, since he delights in him.” “Here truly is Jesus’ last temptation, to come down off the cross” (Blomberg).
3. “The robbers also who were crucified with him cast on him the same reproach” (v. 44). We are surprised that the thieves join in the mockery. Shouldn’t they identify with their fellow-sufferer! But people in pain often lash out at other people, and the thieves are in pain. Also, they do not represent the best of humanity, and cannot be expected to respond gracefully. Luke tells us that one of the thieves mocks Jesus but the other one defends him (Luke 23:39-43).
Matthew 27:45-50. MY GOD, MY GOD, WHY HAVE YOU FORSAKEN ME?
45Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46About the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lima sabachthani?” That is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”
47Some of them who stood there, when they heard it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48Immediately one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar (Greek: oxous—sour wine or vinegar), and put it on a reed, and gave him a drink. 49The rest said, “Let him be. Let’s see whether Elijah comes to save him.”
50Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit (Greek: apheken to pneuma).
“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour” (v. 45). The sixth hour would be equivalent to noon our time. The ninth hour would be equivalent to three o’clock in the afternoon.
Whether this means all of Israel or the whole world we do not know. We should not understand this as a natural eclipse but rather as a sign of God’s judgment.
“About the ninth hour, Jesus cried out with a loud voice” (v. 46a). “This is the time of the daily bringing of the lamb into the temple” (Bruner, 1049).
“‘Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?’ that is ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'” (v. 46b). These are the first words that Jesus has spoken since he answered Pilate’s question in verse 11. It shakes us to hear such words of despair from Jesus’ lips. Does he lose faith during this climactic hour of his ministry?
• First, we must acknowledge Jesus’ humanity. He came to suffer and die, and he is doing that. He is experiencing human pain—human despair. He has taken the sins of the world on his shoulders, and finds himself crushed by its burden. But still he prays, “My God, my God.” Abandoned though he may feel, he comes to “My God” for solace.
• Second, we must acknowledge that Psalm 22:1, which Jesus quotes, becomes, in its last half, a celebration of faith—”Yes, from the horns of the wild oxen, you have answered me. I will declare your name to my brothers. In the midst of the assembly, I will praise you” (Psalm 22:21b-22).
“This man is calling for Elijah” (v. 47b). Bystanders, hearing Jesus say, “Eli, Eli,” think that Jesus is calling on Elijah to deliver him. Elijah supposedly helps pious people in need. However, Jesus is not crying out for rescue, but is reciting Psalm 22:1.
“Immediately one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him a drink” (v. 48). A bystander offers Jesus vinegar to drink. Others say, “Stand back! Let’s see if Elijah will really help him!” Then Jesus cries again with a loud voice. The Fourth Gospel tells us that he says, “It is finished!” (John 19:30). His mission is complete—or at least well begun. Stand back! Don’t block the mouth of the tomb! But that is a story for another day.
“Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit” (Greek: apheken to pneuma) (v. 50). The Greek phrase, apheken to pneuma, permits several translations. Apheken can mean “sent forth” or “laid aside” or “yielded up.” Pneuma can mean “breath” or “spirit.” Apheken to pneuma can mean “breathed his last,” but the active verb suggests that Jesus is “voluntarily relinquishing his life” (France, 1078). This would accord with Jesus’ comment in the Gospel of John, “Therefore the Father loves me, because I lay down my life, that I may take it again. No one takes it away from me, but I lay it down by myself” (John 10:17-18a).
Matthew 27:51-53. THE VEIL OF THE TEMPLE WAS TORN IN TWO
51Behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom. The earth quaked and the rocks were split. 52The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; 53and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, they entered into the holy city and appeared to many.
“Behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom” (v. 51a). A series of supernatural signs announce the significance of this event. Darkness descends upon the land. The curtain of the temple is torn in two. This could be the curtain at the entrance of the temple sanctuary, but is probably the curtain that hangs between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, blocking access to the latter by all but the High Priest on the Day of Atonement. If so, the torn curtain symbolizes new access to God by all God’s people.
“The earth quaked and the rocks were split” (v. 51b). An earthquake splits rocks and opens tombs.
In Biblical accounts, earthquakes are often associated with God’s coming (Exodus 19:18; Judges 5:4; Psalm 68:8) and apocalyptic judgment (Isaiah 29:6; Matthew 24:7-8). Jesus’ death is signaled by an earthquake, which split rocks and opened tombs of resurrected saints (27:51-53). A great earthquake will announce the opening of Jesus’ tomb (28:2). An earthquake will open prison doors for Paul and Silas (Acts 16:26).
In the book of Revelation, earthquakes will serve as a sign of God’s judgment (6:12) and God’s response to the prayers of the saints (8:5). An earthquake will accompany the ascension into heaven of two saints and will kill thousands of their oppressors (11:11-13). An earthquake will accompany the opening of God’s temple in heaven (11:19). An especially violent earthquake will accompany God’s judgment on the cities of the nations and Babylon (16:18-19).
“The tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (v. 52). Saints—people of God—are resurrected bodily. These would have to be pious Jews, because the Christian church has not yet been established and we have no reason to believe that many of Jesus’ disciples have died. This account is not found elsewhere, but has roots in Ezekiel 37:11-14.
“and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection, they entered into the holy city and appeared to many” (v. 53). Jesus’ resurrection comes first, and then these saints are resurrected. Their appearance in Jerusalem would cause quite a stir and would bear witness to the power of Jesus and to his resurrection. They also serve as forerunners of the future resurrection of the saints.
Matthew 27:54. TRULY THIS MAN WAS THE SON OF GOD
54Now the centurion, and those who were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God.”
“Now the centurion, and those who were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly” (v. 54a). A centurion commands a century–– a unit of 80-100 soldiers.
The New Testament mentions centurions on a number of occasions (Matthew 8:5-13; 27:54; Mark 15:39; Luke 23:47; Acts 10:1-22; 21:32; 22:25-26; 23:17, 23; 24:23; 27:1, 43)––always favorably.
This centurion and those with him see that something cataclysmic is happening here, and they are afraid. Their fear is natural, because they sense that the darkness and the earthquake are not natural—that they are a sign of God’s judgment on this scene.
“Truly this was God’s Son” (v. 54). It is not just the centurion who sees the signs and makes this statement of faith. The verbs in this verse are plural. It is the centurion “and those who were with him”—presumably soldiers—who see the signs and conclude that Jesus was God’s Son.
These soldiers respond in faith at a time when the disciples are still in hiding. Soon Jesus will commission the disciples to make disciples of all nations (28:19), and Gentiles will make up a substantial portion of Matthew’s church.
Matthew, who was writing with Jewish readers in mind, tells us of Gentile Magi honoring Jesus as an infant or toddler (2:1-12). Now a Gentile centurion honors Jesus as God’s Son at Jesus’ death.
Matthew 27:55-56. MANY WOMEN WERE THERE, WATCHING FROM AFAR
55Many women were there watching from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, serving him. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
These verses are not included in the short version of the lectionary reading, but are worthy of note. The disciples fled (26:56), but the women remain as witnesses to the crucifixion, the burial (27:16) and the open tomb (28:1). While Jewish law doesn’t accept the witness of women, God permits these women to serve as witnesses both of Jesus death and his resurrection (28:1-10).
SCRIPTURE QUOTATIONS are from the World English Bible (WEB), a public domain (no copyright) modern English translation of the Holy Bible. The World English Bible is based on the American Standard Version (ASV) of the Bible, the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensa Old Testament, and the Greek Majority Text New Testament. The ASV, which is also in the public domain due to expired copyrights, was a very good translation, but included many archaic words (hast, shineth, etc.), which the WEB has updated.
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Copyright 2009, Richard Niell Donovan