The Wickedness of the Crucifixion
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. And they stripped Him, and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after weaving a crown of thorns, they 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!” And they spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. And after they had mocked Him, they took His robe off and put His garments on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him.
And as they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross.
And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink. And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots; and sitting down, they began to keep watch over Him there. And they put up above His head the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him, and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. He trusts in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” And the robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him. (27:27–44)
The crucifixion of Jesus Christ was the climax of redemptive history, the focal point of God’s plan of salvation. God’s redeeming work culminated in the cross, where the Lord Jesus bore the sins of the world. But also in the crucifixion of Christ the wickedness of man reached its apex. The execution of the Savior was the vilest expression of evil in human history, the utter depth of man’s depravity. The death of Jesus Christ was therefore the supreme revelation of the gracious love of God while also being the ultimate expression of the sinfulness of man.
And whereas John’s gospel focuses on the crucifixion primarily from the perspective of God’s redemptive love and grace, Matthew’s focus is primarily from the perspective of man’s wickedness. Man’s wickedness attempted to kill Jesus shortly after His birth, tried to discredit His teaching, and made every effort to mislead and corrupt His disciples. Man’s wickedness had betrayed Him, denied Him, arrested, maligned, and battered Him. But the incomparable manifestation of man’s wickedness was in His crucifixion.
David Thomas wrote:
[For thousands of] years wickedness had been growing. It had wrought deeds of impiety and crime that had wrung the ages with agony, and often roused the justice of the universe to roll her fiery thunderbolts of retribution through the world. But now it had grown to full maturity; it stands around this cross in such gigantic proportions as had never been seen before; it works an enormity before which the mightiest of its past exploits dwindle into insignificance, and pale into dimness. It crucifies the Lord of life and glory (The Gospel of Matthew [Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1979 (reprint of 1873 edition)], p. 536)
Jesus’ enemies so hated Him that even His death seemed to be a disappointment, because it ended their opportunity to spew venom on Him even as He suffered the agony of crucifixion. The heartless intensity of the evil words and deeds of those who participated in His death beggar description.
Matthew 27:27–44 portrays four groups of evil people at the crucifixion who derided and abused Christ: the ignorant wicked (vv. 27–37), the knowing wicked (v. 38), the fickle wicked (vv. 39–40), and the religious wicked (vv. 41–44).
The Ignorant Wicked
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. And they stripped Him, and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after weaving a crown of thorns, they 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!” And they spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. And after they had mocked Him, they took His robe off and put His garments on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him.
And as they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross.
And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink. And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots; and sitting down, they began to keep watch over Him there. And they put up above His head the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” (27:27–37)
The ignorant wicked were the callous Roman soldiers who actually performed the crucifixion under orders from Pilate, who finally had succumbed to the intimidation of the Jewish religious leaders. The Roman governor had publicly declared Jesus’ innocence several times, but for fear of a riot that almost certainly would have cost his career and possibly his life, he capitulated to the execution. He had perverted Roman justice by agreeing to convict a man whom no one was able to legitimately charge with a crime against the state. He had sinned against his own convictions, integrity, and conscience, and against the truth. He bargained his eternal soul for temporary security.
In an even worse way, the Jewish leaders had perverted not only scriptural principles of justice but their own rabbinical traditions. Although they had been unable to properly charge Jesus with sin against God, they were determined to destroy Him, whatever the cost to Scripture, justice, truth, or righteousness.
Although the soldiers of the governor were under his orders to scourge and crucify Jesus (v. 26), they exhibited their own wickedness by far exceeding what basic duty required. As they took Jesus into the Praetorium, they decided to make public sport of their prisoner and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him to watch.
A full Roman cohort amounted to 600 soldiers, and because this particular cohort served the Roman governor at his Praetorium at Fort Antonia in Jerusalem, it was probably composed of elite legionnaires. They were not necessarily all, or even mostly, Italian, because Rome typically conscripted soldiers from among its occupied countries. Because most men would be reluctant to fight against their own countrymen, they were frequently sent to neighboring regions that spoke the same or similar language. We can be sure that none of this cohort was Jewish, because Rome had granted a special exemption of Jews from Roman military service. It is likely that the contingent in Jerusalem was composed largely of Syrians, who spoke Aramaic, the most common conversational and trade language of Palestine.
Because Pilate’s primary headquarters were in Caesarea, this cohort may have been stationed there, traveling from place to place with the governor as his military escort. If so, they would have been even less familiar with Judaism than the average Roman soldier in Jerusalem and probably had never heard of Jesus. To them, He was simply another condemned prisoner, whom they were free to abuse as much as they pleased, as long as he was not killed before the designated execution. If they considered Jesus to be in any way unique, it was only in that He had apparently claimed to be some sort of king. What they did to Him was therefore unrelated to religious or personal animosity. Their torment of Jesus was wicked and inexcusable, but it was done out of spiritual ignorance.
Jesus’ face was swollen from the slaps and beatings He received from the Temple police and was covered with spittle from His Jewish tormentors. He was bleeding profusely from the scourging, with terrible lacerations from His shoulders down, exposing muscles, ligaments, blood vessels, and perhaps even internal organs. Because He had not spoken for the past hour or so, the soldiers may have considered Him mentally deranged and worthy only of ridicule. They played Him as the fool, making sport of the comments they had overheard about His claim to kingship.
It did not matter to them that Jesus had never personally harmed them or that technically He was innocent according to Roman law. They had been trained to obey orders, which frequently required killing and torture. Jesus had been officially condemned, and no sense of justice or propriety, much less of mercy or compassion, tempered their cold-hearted entertainment at Jesus’ expense. Although in an extreme way, they expressed the natural wickedness of every human heart that is ignorant of God.
Pilate did not initiate the mockery, but neither did he oppose it. Despite his half-hearted efforts to acquit Jesus, Pilate was noted for cruelty and mercilessness. Having ordered Jesus’ scourging and crucifixion, he would hardly have had qualms about the relatively mild abuse of mockery. It is possible that the soldiers performed their derisive actions under the governor’s amused eye. The soldiers probably shared their commander’s hatred of Jews and took this opportunity to vent their malice on a Jew condemned by fellow Jews. With every nerve in agony and His body quivering in pain, Jesus became the object of a fiendish game.
Jesus was either naked or nearly naked for the scourging, after which He was probably clothed with His seamless inner garment. First, the soldiers stripped Him of that garment and put a scarlet robe on Him, still further irritating His exposed, bleeding flesh. The scarlet robe probably belonged to one of the soldiers, who used it to keep warm while standing guard on cold nights. Mark and John report that the robe was purple (Mark 15:17; John 19:2), suggesting that the actual scarlet color was the closest the soldiers could come to purple, the traditional color of royalty.
Although it was far from the soldiers’ intent, the use of scarlet was reminiscent of Isaiah’s declaration that “though your sins are as scarlet, they will be as white as snow; though they are red like crimson, they will be like wool” (Isa. 1:18). Just as the soldiers clothed Jesus in the scarlet robe, He willingly clothed Himself in the scarlet sins of the world in order that those who believe in Him might be freed from that sin.
To add to the pain as well as to the ridicule, after weaving a crown of thorns, the soldiers put it on His head. Many kinds of thorns were prevalent in Palestine at that time, and the particular variety used is unknown. The purpose was to mimic the wreath that Caesar wore on official occasions and that could be seen on Roman coins that bore his image. As the mock crown was pressed on His head, blood ran down from the new wounds to mingle with the blood that already covered the rest of His body. Like the scarlet robe, the crown of thorns became an unintended symbol of the sins that Jesus was about to take upon Himself. After the Fall, thorns and thistles became painful reminders of the curse that sin had brought to the world (Gen. 3:18), the curse from which the world ever since has longed to be freed (Rom. 8:22).
Jesus’ face was now even more unrecognizable and His pain more intense. But still not content, the soldiers next placed a reed in His right hand. Like the robe and the crown of thorns, the reed was meant to represent royalty, mimicking a monarch’s scepter, the symbol of his authority and power. Such a scepter could also be seen in Caesar’s hand on Roman coins.
To complete the sarcastic taunt, the soldiers even kneeled down before Him and mocked Him saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” The Jewish religious leaders had mocked Jesus as a prophet (Matt. 26:68), and now the Roman soldiers mocked Him as a king. Then, just as the Jews had done, they spat on Him, casting on Him what was considered the ultimate indignity.
Next in their brutal amusement they took the reed from His hand and, to further ridicule His supposed authority, began to beat Him on the head, which was already swollen, lacerated, and bleeding. It was as if to say, “Your kingliness is a joke. Look how easily we strip you of your dignity and your authority. We beat you with your own scepter. Where is your power? Where is your royal army to defend you from your enemies?” From John we learn that they struck Jesus with their fists as well as with the reed (John 19:3).
One day Christ will wield a true scepter, a rod of iron with which He will rule the world, including His subdued enemies (Rev. 19:15). Then the tables will be turned, and the mocking and derision will be by God of the ungodly. Then He who sits in the heavens will laugh, and the Lord will scoff at them (Ps. 2:4).
But in His incarnation, Jesus’ humiliation was essential to God’s plan for the Son, “who emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:7–8).
Through all of that torment and pain Jesus said nothing either in defense or in reproach. He had predicted His mocking, His suffering, and His crucifixion long before Pilate or his soldiers knew who He was (Matt. 16:21; 20:18–19). That was God’s plan countless ages before it was the plan of wicked men, and it was for that very purpose that He had come to earth. As men fulfilled their evil and destructive design, God fulfilled His gracious and redemptive design. Christ was on the divine schedule, which even His enemies were unwittingly fulfilling in minute detail.
We learn from John that during this time Pilate brought Jesus out before the Jews, asserting again that he found no fault in Him. Jesus stood again on the porch of the Praetorium, “wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe. And Pilate said to them ‘Behold, the Man!’ ” (John 19:4–5). Although he had agreed to the crucifixion and had permitted Jesus to be brutally beaten and mocked, the governor obviously still hoped, perhaps due to his wife’s warning, that Jesus’ life could be spared. But “when the chief priests and the officers saw Him, they cried out, saying, ‘Crucify, crucify!’ ” As if to wash his hands of the whole unjust affair again, “Pilate said to them, ‘Take Him yourselves, and crucify Him, for I find no guilt in Him.’ The Jews answered him, ‘We have a law, and by that law He ought to die because He made Himself out to be the Son of God.’ When Pilate therefore heard this statement, he was the more afraid” (vv. 6–8). Although they repeated only the religious charges against Jesus, the clear implication is that the Jewish leaders were insisting on Rome’s complicity in His execution. In effect, they refused to crucify Jesus by themselves, even with Pilate’s permission.
Taking Jesus back into the Praetorium, Pilate asked Him where He was from but received no answer. When he then told Jesus that he had power of life and death over Him, the Lord responded, “You would have no authority over Me, unless it had been given you from above; for this reason he who delivered Me up to you has the greater sin” (John 19:10–11). Although he had little comprehension of what Jesus meant, Pilate was convinced all the more of His innocence of any civil crime and once again “made efforts to release Him, but the Jews cried out, saying, ‘If you release this Man, you are no friend of Caesar’ ” (v. 12).
Still holding out against them, Pilate brought Jesus to “the judgment seat at a place called The Pavement, but in Hebrew, Gabbatha,” and mockingly said, “Behold your King!” Infuriated by Pilate’s continued defiance of them, the Jewish leaders “cried out, ‘Away with Him, away with Him, crucify Him!’ ” In one last taunt, Pilate asked, “Shall I crucify your King?” to which the chief priests hypocritically replied, “We have no king but Caesar.” Frustrated and exhausted, Pilate resigned himself to the injustice and “delivered Him to them to be crucified” (John 19:13–16).
As representatives of the people, the chief priests here pronounced the culminating apostasy of Israel. Rejecting God’s Son, they publicly, although insincerely, declared allegiance to the pagan emperor.
Picking up the account at this point, Matthew reports that after they had mocked Him further, they took His robe off and put His garments on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him.
Some interpreters suggest that only the cross-beam or the upright post was carried, but in all probability it was the entire cross, weighing in excess of 200 pounds, that the victim carried. He would normally be surrounded by a quaternion, four soldiers who would escort the prisoner through the crowds to the place of execution. A placard bearing the prisoner’s indictment was often placed around his neck, giving notice to others of the high price to be paid for the crime.
It was during the grueling procession through the streets of Jerusalem that Jesus gave His last, and very brief, public message. “There were following Him a great multitude of the people, and of women who were mourning and lamenting Him,” Luke reports. Turning to them Jesus said, “Daughters of Jerusalem, stop weeping for Me, but weep for yourselves and for your children. For behold, the days are coming when they will say, ‘Blessed are the barren, and the wombs that never bore, and the breasts that never nursed.’ Then they will begin to say to the mountains, ‘Fall on us,’ and to the hills, ‘Cover us.’ For if they do these things in the green tree, what will happen in the dry?” (Luke 23:27–31).
Having children was considered the greatest blessing a Jewish woman could have, and only a tragedy of awesome dimensions could cause her to wish otherwise. Jesus’ reference to the green and dry tree related to a popular proverb that meant if something bad occurred under good circumstances, it would be much worse under bad. His point was that if the Romans did such a terrible thing as to crucify one innocent Jewish man, what could they be expected to do to the guilty nation of Israel? If they executed a man who had committed no offense against them, what would they do to a people who rebelled?
The Lord was, of course, referring to a.d. 70, when the Temple would be utterly destroyed and the majority of its inhabitants slaughtered by the Roman legions of Titus. From that holocaust the nation of Israel has not yet fully recovered even in modern times, because there is still no temple in Jerusalem, no sacrifices, no priesthood to offer them, and no priestly records to verify lineage. That was the horror of which Israel should have been fearful, Jesus said.
Because He was sinless and completely undefiled in body as well as in mind and spirit, Jesus was physically all that Adam was before the Fall and more. But Jesus’ severe beatings and the scourging had made even Him too weak to carry the heavy cross. Not only was He suffering excruciating physical pain, but He had had no sleep the previous night and was suffering the added agonies of betrayal, defection, and denial. In addition to that, He was still suffering the accumulated pain of having been tempted by and being in continual spiritual battle with Satan. There were now no angels sent to minister to Him as they had after the wilderness temptations, and His body was all but depleted of strength. More even than all of that, He knew perfectly that He faced the indescribably painful prospect of taking upon Himself the sin of all mankind, of becoming sin for their sakes. And for that He would suffer the wrath of His heavenly Father which that sin deserved.
All of those agonies-physical, emotional, and spiritual-combined to utterly weaken His perfect but now emaciated body. Consequently, as they were coming out from the Praetorium, the soldiers found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross.
Cyrene was a Greek settlement located west of Alexandria on the North African coast of the Mediterranean, directly south of Greece in what is modern Libya. It was a prosperous trade center and had a large population of Jews. Simon was a common Jewish name, and in all probability this man was a pilgrim who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.
Simon was “a passer-by coming from the country” (Mark 15:21) as Jesus was being taken out of the city. Perhaps because he looked strong he was conscripted by the Roman soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross. Mark also identifies Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (v. 21), indicating that those two men were Christians known to Mark and to many other believers at the time he wrote his gospel. Because Mark probably wrote from Rome, Alexander and Rufus may have been active in the church there. This Rufus may have been the man Paul greeted in his letter to Rome, and, if so, “his mother and mine” would refer to Simon’s wife (see Rom. 16:13).
It may have been the carrying of Jesus’ cross that led Simon to faith in Him. What began as a forced and probably resented act of physical servitude became the opportunity for spiritual life. Not only Simon himself but his entire family came to salvation, and his wife became like a mother to the apostle Paul.
Because the Mosaic law required that executions be performed outside the city (Num. 15:35) and also because hanging on a tree was considered a curse (Deut. 21:23; cf. Gal. 3:13), Jesus was taken outside Jerusalem to be crucified. And because crucifixion was a vivid means of showing the populace the price for opposing Rome, crosses were generally erected beside a well-traveled road, if possible on a hill, bluff, or other promontory where they would be visible to all.
The place chosen for Jesus’ crucifixion was a hill on the outskirts of Jerusalem called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull. As an outcast both of Israel and of Rome, Jesus “suffered outside the gate” (Heb. 13:12).
Luke refers to the hill of crucifixion as “the place called The Skull” (23:33), and as several gospels explain, Skull translates a Greek term (kranion) equivalent to the Hebrew/Aramaic Golgotha (see John 19:17). The name Calvary is derived from the Latin word (calvaria) for skull, or cranium.
Contrary to what some scholars have suggested, the Place of a Skull was not a burial ground where skulls were commonly found. Jews would not allow dead bodies to be exposed, and no part of a human skeleton was to be seen in Israel. Rather the name referred to a particular site that had the appearance of a skull. Such a hill, commonly called Gordon’s Calvary, is the traditional site and can still be viewed today a short distance from Jerusalem’s northern wall.
Before the soldiers nailed Jesus to the cross and it was placed upright in the ground, they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall. The word translated gall simply referred to something bitter, which Mark identifies as myrrh (15:23), a narcotic that also was used as a perfume (see Ps. 45:8; Prov. 7:17), as an ingredient of anointing oil for priests (Ex. 30:23), and for embalming (John 19:39). It was quite expensive and was one of the gifts presented to the infant Jesus by the magi (Matt. 2:11).
Because crucifixion was designed to inflict maximum pain, the gall, or myrrh, was not offered as an act of mercy on the part of the soldiers. It was simply used to stupefy a victim to keep him from struggling violently as the nails were driven into his hands and feet.
From extrabiblical sources it is known that wealthy Jewish women would often provide wine mixed with myrrh to those about to be executed, especially by crucifixion. Contrary to the soldiers, their purpose was to ease the pain of “him who is perishing,” following the admonition of Proverbs 31:6. It may have been that such a group of women also offered Jesus the stupefying drink.
But Jesus did not want His senses dulled, and after tasting the mixture, He was unwilling to drink. As He had already declared in the garden, first in prayer to His heavenly Father (Matt. 26:39) and then to Peter as He was being arrested (John 18:11), He was determined to drink the cup the Father had given Him. He would endure the full measure of pain-physical, emotional, and spiritual.
When they had crucified Him does not refer to the finished execution but to raising Him upright and placing the vertical beam into the hole prepared for it. It was at that point that the actual crucifixion began.
Crucifixion originated in Persia, where a deity named Ormazd was believed to consider the earth sacred. Because a criminal who was executed had to be raised above the earth in order not to defile it, he was suspended on a large pole and left there to die. The practice was picked up by the Carthaginians and then by the Greeks and especially the Romans, whose extensive use caused it to become identified with them. It is estimated that by the time of Christ the Romans had crucified some 30,000 men in Israel alone, primarily for insurrection. The crucifixion of only three men outside Jerusalem was therefore virtually insignificant in the eyes of Rome.
None of the gospel writers describes the procedure for securing Jesus to the cross. The literal Greek text is even less revealing than most English renderings, saying simply, “The having crucified Him ones parted His garments.” It is only from Thomas’s comments several days after the resurrection that we learn about Jesus’ being nailed by His hands and feet (John 20:25), rather than being tied with cords or thongs as was often the case.
Judging from nonbiblical descriptions of crucifixion in New Testament times, Jesus was placed on the cross as it lay flat on the ground. First His feet were nailed to the upright beam and then His arms stretched across the horizontal beam and nailed through the wrists just above the hand, allowing a slight bend at the knees when the body was extended. The cross was then picked up and dropped into the hole, causing excruciating pain as the weight of His body pulled at the already torn flesh around the nails.
In his book The Life of Christ, Frederick Farrar describes crucifixion as follows:
A death by crucifixion seems to include all that pain and death can have of the horrible and ghastly-dizziness, cramp, thirst, starvation, sleeplessness, traumatic fever, shame, publicity of shame, long continuance of torment, horror of anticipation, mortification of intended wounds-all intensified just up to the point at which they can be endured at all, but all stopping just short of the point which would give to the sufferer the relief of unconsciousness.
The unnatural position made every movement painful; the lacerated veins and crushed tendons throbbed with incessant anguish; the wounds, inflamed by exposure, gradually gangrened [when a victim took several days to die]; the arteries-especially at the head and stomach-became swollen and oppressed with surcharged blood, and while each variety of misery went on gradually increasing, there was added to them the intolerable pang of a burning and raging thirst, and all these physical complications caused an internal excitement and anxiety, which made the prospect of death itself-of death, the unknown enemy, at whose approach man usually shudders most-bear the aspect of a delicious and exquisite release.
One thing is clear. The first century executions were not like the modern ones, for they did not seek a quick, painless death nor the preservation of any measure of dignity for the criminal. On the contrary, they sought an agonizing torture which completely humiliated him. And it is important that we understand this, for it helps us realize the agony of Christ’s death. (Vol. 2 [New York: E. P. Dutton, 1877], pp. 403–4)
Dr. Truman Davis gives an additional description of Jesus’ crucifixion:
At this point another phenomenon occurs. As the arms fatigue, great waves of cramps sweep over the muscles knotting them in deep, relentless, throbbing pain. With these cramps comes the inability to push Himself upward. Hanging by His arms, the pectoral muscles are paralyzed and the intercostal muscles are unable to act. Air can be drawn into the lungs but cannot be exhaled. Jesus fights to raise Himself in order to get even one short breath. Finally, carbon dioxide builds up in the lungs and in the blood stream and the cramps partially subside. Spasmodically He is able to push Himself upward to exhale and bring in the life-giving oxygen.…
Hours of this limitless pain, cycles of twisting, joint-rending cramps, intermittent partial asphyxiation, searing pain as tissue is torn from His lacerated back as He moves up and down against the rough timber; then another agony begins. A deep crushing pain in the chest as the pericardium slowly fills with serum and begins to compress the heart.
It is now almost over … the compressed heart is struggling to pump heavy, thick, sluggish blood into the tissues. The tortured lungs are making a frantic effort to gasp in small gulps of air. (“The Crucifixion of Jesus; The Passion of Christ from a Medical Point of View,” Arizona Medicine, vol. 22, Mar. 1965, pp. 183–87)
It was not Matthew’s purpose, however, to focus on the physical particulars of the crucifixion that led to Christ’s yielding up His life, but rather on the character of the crucifiers.
Through all of that torment the callous soldiers sat impassively, as they had done many times before. They had no idea who Jesus was, except for what was written on the sign above His head as a sarcastic taunt by Pilate. They doubtlessly were aware that Pilate, governor of the region and their military commander, had repeatedly declared Jesus innocent of any crime against Rome. But Jesus was probably not the first innocent man they had seen executed. They had no religious concern about Jesus’ identity and no moral concern about His innocence. Out of their wicked ignorance they, too, eventually joined in mocking Jesus, saying, “If You are the King of the Jews, save Yourself!” (Luke 23:36–37).
Jesus had repeatedly told the disciples of His coming suffering, scorn, and death, and it had been predicted by Isaiah and other prophets hundreds of years before that. The Messiah would be “despised and forsaken of men, a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief; and like one from whom men hide their face, He was despised, and we did not esteem Him” (Isa. 53:3). Not only was He to suffer unjustly at the hands of wicked men but He endured that affliction for the very sake of those responsible for it—which, in the fullest sense, includes every fallen, sinful human being who has ever lived and who will ever live. “He was pierced through for our transgressions,” Isaiah goes on to say, “He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed.… The Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him” (vv. 5–6).
Christians in the early church are reported to have begged God’s forgiveness for the unknown sufferings they caused Jesus, realizing they could not conceive of the full extent of the pain He endured at men’s hands, a pain to which they knew their own sins had contributed.
The King James Version of verse 35 contains the additional words: “that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.” The oldest known manuscripts of Matthew, however, do not include those words, suggesting that some well-intentioned scribe added to Matthew’s gospel the prediction from Psalm 22:18 that is quoted in John 19:24.
Jewish men normally wore five pieces of clothing: sandals, an inner cloak, a headpiece, a belt, and an outer cloak, or tunic. The four soldiers divided up the first four pieces of Jesus’ garments among themselves by casting lots. Because “the tunic was seamless, woven in one piece,” they decided not to cut it into four pieces but to “cast lots for it, to decide whose it shall be” (John 19:23–24). Having done that, they sat down near the cross and began to keep watch over Him there. The quaternion was required to remain with the victim until his death was certain, making sure that friends or family members did not rescue him or seek to reduce his suffering by putting him to death by a swifter means.
As a final mockery of Jesus and affront to the Jewish leaders, Pilate had instructed the soldiers (see John 19:19a) to put up above His head the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” Matthew recorded an abbreviated version of the full inscription, which read, “JESUS THE NAZARENE, THE KING OF THE JEWS,” and was “written in Hebrew, Latin, and in Greek” (John 19:19b–20). Greek was the most nearly universal language in the empire at that time, Aramaic (closely related to Hebrew) was the language of Palestine, and Latin was the official language of Rome. By those three languages the governor made certain that virtually every person who passed by could read the inscription.
The chief priests insisted that the wording of the inscription be changed to “He said, ‘I am King of the Jews.’ ” But Pilate refused to concede to them again, declaring with finality, “What I have written I have written” (John 19:21–22).
The Knowing Wicked
At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. (27:38)
The second group present at the crucifixion was simply composed of the two robbers, who might be described as the knowing wicked. Robbers translates lēstēs, which denotes a brigand who plunders as he steals. These men were not petty thieves or even common robbers, but cruel bandits who took pleasure in tormenting, abusing, and often killing their victims. It is possible they were associates of Barabbas, who had probably been destined for the middle cross between them before he was released and Jesus took his place. They were not patriots who plundered the Romans to help secure the freedom of their country but hardened criminals whose only loyalty was to themselves. They were as great a threat to their own countrymen as to the Romans.
In all likelihood the two robbers were Jewish or at least lived in the Jewish society of Palestine. Consequently, they would have had some knowledge of Judaism and the Jewish Messiah. They likely would have known something about Jesus of Nazareth and the fact that He and His followers claimed He was the predicted Messiah. Therefore their rejection of Jesus was more serious than that of the soldiers.
Like the soldiers, they must have known about the groundless charges of the Jewish religious leaders and the numerous exonerations by Pilate. Yet they were not content to ignore Jesus but rather, as Matthew mentions later in his account (v. 44), cast insults at Him.
The specific, conscious reason for their hatred of Jesus is not clear. They apparently were not driven by religious concerns, and Jesus had certainly done them no harm. But their naturally wicked hearts somehow recognized His life as a righteous judgment on their sinfulness, and they joined the jeering crowds and the religious leaders in the mocking.
Like those of many people today, the lives of the two robbers revolved around material possessions and fleshly satisfaction. They had as little concern for religion, common morality, and justice as did the pagan Roman soldiers. Having a greater love for the things of the world than the things of God, they used their dying breath to vent their pent-up anger on the only one who could give them hope.
The Fickle Wicked
And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (27:39–40)
Another group present at the crucifixion might be called the fickle wicked. Referred to by Matthew simply as those passing by, this crowd was probably composed largely of Jewish pilgrims who had come to celebrate the Passover. Because Jerusalem could not house all the visitors, the majority of them had to camp outside the city or stay in nearby towns and villages. Consequently, there was much heavier traffic in and out of Jerusalem than usual.
This particular crowd of passers-by almost certainly included inhabitants of Judea and Galilee who had previously admired Christ and perhaps even followed Him for a while. They had heard Him preach and seen Him perform miracles and expose the malicious hypocrisy of the scribes, Pharisees, and other religious leaders. Some of them no doubt had participated in His triumphal entry a few days earlier and had joined in shouting hosannas to His name. They had seen Him cleanse the Temple of the money changers and sacrifice sellers and probably cheered Him for that while listening to His teaching.
It is also almost certain that these former admirers had earlier in the day called for Jesus’ crucifixion and had followed the soldiers and Jesus to the Place of the Skull to witness the execution they had demanded. These were the fickle wicked who had a place for Jesus only when He satisfied their wants. They were fascinated by Him, knew who He claimed to be, and had witnessed countless demonstrations of power that verified that claim.
But although they were grateful for His miracles and awed by His preaching, they had no desire for Him to cleanse them of cherished sins or to give Him control of their lives. They had expected Him to be their kind of Messiah, a Messiah who would overthrow Rome and establish Israel as sovereign over the Gentile world. The fact that He had allowed Himself to be arrested, mocked, beaten, scourged, and tried before the pagan Pilate while offering no verbal, much less miraculous, defense was proof enough in their minds that He was not the Messiah whom they, and most of Israel, wanted and expected.
As they passed by beneath the cross they were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads. The verb behind hurling abuse is in the imperfect tense, indicating repeated, continuous defamation. To emphasize their disdain, they were also wagging their heads in mockery, and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself!” Just as David had predicted some thousand years earlier, those who looked on the Messiah sneered at Him, mocked Him, and wagged their heads, saying, in essence, “Commit yourself to the Lord; let Him deliver him; let Him rescue him, because He delights in him” (Ps. 22:7–8).
You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days referred to the testimony of the false witnesses during the hearing before Caiaphas. Misusing a statement Jesus had made almost three years earlier referring to His death and resurrection (see John 2:19–21), those witnesses accused Him of claiming power to rebuild the Jerusalem Temple in three days (Matt. 26:61). “If you could really do such a miraculous thing as that,” His tormentors were saying, “surely You can save yourself from death now. If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
While Pilate was listening to the warning sent by his wife, the chief priests and elders had been inciting the multitude to demand the release of Barabbas and the crucifixion of Jesus, perhaps telling them of His claims to rebuild the Temple and to be the Son of God (see Matt. 27:19–20). Some of those people were now throwing the accusations in Jesus’ face as He was suspended on the cross. It was not enough that He was dying in agony. The wicked, mindless, heartless, and fickle crowd had changed in a few days from acclaiming Jesus as the Messiah to condemning Him as a blasphemer.
Many people today are like them. They may have been raised in the church, heard the truths of the gospel many times, and know that Jesus Christ claimed to be the Son of God. They may have been baptized, made a profession of faith, and attended church regularly for a while. But because Jesus does not fulfill their worldly, selfish expectations they lose interest in the things of God. They may be quite willing to have the church attack evils in society but are quite unwilling to be confronted with their own sin and need for repentance and forgiveness. In effect, they mock and sneer at Jesus as they turn their backs on His truth, His righteousness, and His lordship. The world is full of passers-by who once praised Jesus but now ridicule Him.
The Religious Wicked
In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him, and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe in Him. He trusts in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” And the robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him. (27:41–44)
By far the most wicked of those who harassed Jesus at the cross were the religious leaders, in particular the chief priests and the scribes and elders. They were the primary instigators of the crucifixion, just as Jesus had predicted (Mark 8:31; Matt. 20:18; cf. Mark 14:43). The Pharisees had been Christ’s earliest and most persistent critics, and they had begun to plot His death many years before (Matt. 12:14) and were involved in His arrest (John 18:3). But apparently they played a somewhat secondary role in His trials and condemnation, not being mentioned again until the day following the crucifixion, when, with the chief priests, they asked Pilate to order the tomb sealed (Matt. 27:62–64).
The chief priests and the scribes and elders represented the entire religious leadership of Israel, including the reigning and the retired high priests and the Pharisees and Sadducees, all of whom resolutely opposed Jesus and sought His destruction. Although its hearings and condemnation of Jesus were illegal by its own standards as well as by Mosaic law, the supreme ruling council of Israel, the Sanhedrin, fully approved the ultimate and irreversible decision to put Jesus to death (26:59; Mark 15:1).
Those men were the religious authorities and the supposed spiritual leaders of Judaism. Many of them, such as the scribes, had devoted their lives to the study of God’s Word and the rabbinical traditions. Because Judaism was rightly seen as the only true religion, these men were held to be the most revered religious men not only in Israel but in the world. If any group of people should have known God’s truth and recognized and received the Messiah, it was those men. Yet they not only opposed and condemned Jesus themselves but enticed the people to support them in their wicked rejection of Him.
Perhaps because they felt above addressing Jesus directly as He hung like a criminal on the cross, the leaders spoke to the crowds as they were mocking Him, and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself.” In saying that Jesus saved others, those men again acknowledged the reality of His miracles, which they had never been able to deny. They criticized Him for healing on the Sabbath (Mark 3:2) and accused Him of receiving His miraculous power from Satan (Matt. 12:24), but the reality of His miracle-working power was far too obvious and extensive to repudiate. But because He attacked their apostasy and they were convinced that God was on their side, the religious leaders were also convinced that Jesus was not of God and therefore could not now save Himself.
If He is the King of Israel, as He claims, they continued, let Him now come down from the cross, and we shall believe Him. That declaration, of course, was knowingly false and meant only as a taunt. They had not believed Jesus either for the truths He taught or for the miracles He performed. If He came down from the cross, they would not believe Him, any more than they believed in Him when He rose from the dead, just as Abraham had declared in Jesus’ story about Lazarus (Luke 16:30–31). One more miracle, or a dozen more, would not have persuaded them to believe Him.
The only kind of power, natural or supernatural, with which those religious leaders were concerned was that which would serve their own expectations and interests. It would seem certain that, if Jesus had used His power to conquer Rome and establish Israel as the supreme nation on earth as most Jews expected, those leaders and most other Jews would have followed Him enthusiastically. But they would not have believed in Him as Lord and Savior but only given Him the superficial loyalty necessary to achieve their own ends-just as His nominal followers have done throughout history and continue to do today.
Jesus was not their kind of Messiah, and they had no desire to follow Him in the way He demanded. They did not want to be made righteous but successful. They did not want to be cleansed but selfishly satisfied. They did not want to give up anything for God but wanted from Him only the worldly, material advantages they cherished. When they realized Jesus offered no such favors, they had no more use for Him.
“He trusts in God,” they continued hypocritically; “let Him deliver Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him.” They did not believe Jesus truly trusted in God but that He was an ungodly fraud. And they obviously did not think God would deliver Him or that God took pleasure in Him, because they considered Jesus a blasphemer. Nor does it seem likely that they intentionally quoted Psalm 22:8, derisively applying it to Jesus. Even to their perverse minds that would have been an irreverent treatment of Scripture. It was rather that they unwittingly fulfilled Scripture as they mocked Jesus, just as Judas, Caiaphas, Pilate, and many others had unwittingly fulfilled it.
Next they mocked Jesus’ person, throwing in His face the many claims He had made, but which they had never believed, to being the Son of God. To their unbelieving and ungodly minds, the fact that Jesus either could not or would not save Himself was ultimate proof that He was not the Messiah and God’s Son. It was inconceivable to them that the Messiah would permit such mistreatment of Himself or that God would permit such mistreatment of His Son. They were utterly blind to what Scripture taught about the Messiah’s suffering and atoning death, and they took Jesus’ crucifixion to be final and irrefutable proof that His claims were spurious.
Those men had much to do with religion but nothing to do with God. But because they professed great knowledge of Him and presumed to be pleasing to Him, they were the guiltiest of those who participated in Jesus’ death (cf. John 19:11). Although they claimed to stand in Moses’ seat, they contradicted what Moses taught, and although they claimed to speak for God, they were in fact His enemies and children of Satan (John 8:44).
One day the Lord “will pour out on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the Spirit of grace and of supplication, so that they will look on Me whom they have pierced; and they will mourn for Him” (Zech. 12:10). In the crucifixion the religious leaders represented all Israelites who at that time rejected their Messiah and “pierced” Him. Everyone who rejects Christ shares in the guilt of His crucifixion and of putting Him to open shame, even more so if, like those religious leaders, a person has had special privileges from God and exposure to His truth (Heb. 6:4–6).
Matthew again mentions (see v. 38) the two robbers … who had been crucified with Him. As already noted, they took the lead of the chief priests, scribes, and elders in vilifying Jesus, casting the same insult at Him.
However, one of them would have a change of heart and come to saving faith. Through the Holy Spirit he came to see Jesus for who He really is and pleaded in his dying moments: “Jesus, remember me when You come in Your kingdom,” to which the Savior graciously replied, “Truly I say to you, today you shall be with Me in Paradise” (Luke 23:42–43).
Many others who had mocked Christ at the cross later came to trust Him as Savior and Lord. After Peter’s Spirit-empowered message at Pentecost, the hearers “were pierced to the heart, and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’ And Peter said to them, ‘Repent, and let each of you be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.’ … So then, those who had received his word were baptized; and there were added that day about three thousand souls” (Acts 2:37–38, 41).
By the working of God’s sovereign grace, even some of the scoffing, condemning religious leaders came to salvation during the early days of the church, including “a great many of the priests” (Acts 6:7).
The Roman Trial
Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?”
“Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied.
When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.
Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.
While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.”
But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed.
“Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor.
“Barabbas,” they answered.
“What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked.
They all answered, “Crucify him!”
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate.
But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!”
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, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!”
Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Three chapters ago when we began the study of Christ’s trials, I pointed out that they present a unique situation. Jesus was tried, on the one hand, by an ecclesiastical court, seeking to apply the revealed law of God to Jesus’ case, and, on the other hand, by a civil court, seeking to apply what is generally thought to be the most highly developed law known to man. Jewish law was the most humane of legal systems. It did everything possible to preserve life and avoid executions. Roman law was known for its comprehensiveness, systematization of statutes, specification of procedures, and affixing penalties. It has been said of the ancient world that Judea gave religion, Greece gave letters, and Rome gave law.
We might think based on the very nature of Roman law that the Roman part of Jesus’ trial would be easy to understand. But the opposite is the case. We can understand the Jewish trial. Jesus was condemned because he was hated by the religious leaders who resented his exposure of their sin. But Pilate did not hate Jesus. He seems to have respected him; he pronounced him innocent. Why then, in the end, did he turn Jesus over to be crucified?
Who Was Pilate?
The greatest puzzle of the Roman trial is the contrast between what we know of Pilate’s character from secular sources and his conduct at the trial of Jesus as reported in the Gospels. Pilate was not a noble person. He had come from Spain, served under Germanicus in the wars on the Rhine, and had risen to his relatively minor post as governor of Judea through his marriage to Claudia Proculla, a granddaughter of the emperor Augustus. The marriage was a smart career move but a moral disgrace. Claudia’s mother, Julia, was notorious for her coarse immorality even in decadent Rome, and her daughter was like her. Augustus would refer to them saying, “Would I were wifeless or had childless died.”
Pilate revealed his nature by his oversight of Judea. He was the sixth procurator of that region, having assumed his post in a.d. 26. The governors who had served before him had been sensitive to Jewish sensibilities and had generally avoided acts that could offend or inflame the people. But Pilate showed no such sensitivity. When he arrived in Judea the first time, he sent his legions to Jerusalem by night, bearing standards blazoned with the images of Tiberius, which the Jews considered idolatrous. That he did it by night shows that he knew what he was doing, but that he did it at all betrays his brutish nature. On another occasion he appropriated money from the sacred Corban treasury to build a fifty-mile aqueduct to the city, provoking outrage from the citizens. When the people gathered to protest the sacrilege, Pilate sent soldiers into the crowd disguised as common people who, on a prearranged signal, pulled out hidden clubs and daggers and attacked the demonstrators. Luke refers to an apparently similar massacre in which Pilate “mixed” the blood of certain Galileans “with their sacrifices” (Luke 13:1). Pilate was not an upright nor noble man.
Yet here is the fascinating thing. As far as the trial of Jesus is concerned, at least in its opening stages, no one could have conducted it with greater attention or integrity. Pilate seems to have understood what was going on, recognized that Jesus was innocent, and used every means he could think of to get him acquitted and discharged.
I suggested in an earlier study that Pilate had probably been contacted the previous night by one of the Sanhedrin, probably Caiaphas, to be sure that he would hear the case in the morning. He must have agreed to a quick pro forma trial. But when the leaders appeared the next day, they were startled to find that the governor wanted to begin a formal hearing. They seem to have been caught off guard since they did not have their charges against Jesus well thought out. John gives the fullest account of these proceedings, indicating that when Pilate reopened the case, demanding, “What charges are you bringing against this man?” the best they could do was retort, “If he were not a criminal, we would not have handed him over to you” (John 18:29–30). When they were forced to produce a charge, Luke says they dragged up everything they could think of, hoping that one of the accusations might stick: “We have found this man subverting our nation.” “He opposes payment of taxes to Caesar and claims to be Christ, a king” (Luke 23:2). The first two of these were lies, but the third was both true and important. Therefore, each of the Gospels records it. It is the charge Matthew presupposes in his shortened account of the trial when he has Pilate demand of Jesus, “Are you the king of the Jews?” (Matt. 27:11).
The leaders must have said, “This man claims to be a king.” So Pilate asked if that were true. Jesus admitted that he was indeed a king, but even then Pilate knew this was a religious matter and that Jesus was innocent of treason or rebellion. So he tried to acquit him.
The Warning from Proculla
Why did Pilate try so hard to acquit Jesus, grasping at no less than four stratagems, when he probably did not really care much about such matters and certainly did not have any natural instinct to act justly? One explanation is that he was probably impressed with Jesus. He seems to have marvelled at his calm self-possession and the fact that he did not try to defend himself against his accusers. Matthew reports this reaction saying, “Then Pilate asked him, ‘Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?’ But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor” (vv. 13–14).
But there was another reason too, though Matthew is the only one of the four Gospel writers to record it. Pilate’s wife sent him a message while he was seated on his judgment seat. “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him,” she said (v. 19).
Frank Morison writes more about this incident than others, reminding us that the Romans were particularly superstitious where dreams were concerned and seldom undertook any great enterprise without inquiring what the gods or fate deemed favorable. He suggests that Pilate and Proculla were probably together the night Jesus was arrested, that Proculla would have known about the Sanhedrin’s request for a trial, would have gone to bed thinking about Jesus and what she had heard about him, and when she awoke the next morning to find Pilate gone would have known he was beginning the trial. Her message to him had to be swift and urgent. “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man,” she warned him. Her dream would have been a serious matter for Pilate and may well have been the reason he sought to release Jesus.
Morison says of Proculla,
It was she who stiffened the Roman instinct for justice in Pilate, at a moment when he was tempted, from personal considerations, to humor the prejudices of the Jewish camarilla, and commit Jesus on their recommendation alone.… While the stimulus lasted his handling of this difficult and perplexing case was well-nigh perfect.… It was only as the stimulus faded against the grinding and growing opposition of the Jewish party that the threat of Caesar’s intervention became paramount, and he ended as he had intended to begin, by delivering the Prisoner into their hands.
Seeking a Way Out
Up to this point Pilate’s handling of the trial was fully commendable. Matthew’s account is short, but looking at it carefully and linking it to the reports of the other Gospel writers, we realize that Pilate followed the four stages of a proper Roman trial without deviation: (1) the charge, (2) the evidence, (3) the defense, and (4) the verdict. Pilate heard the charge, investigated the evidence, knew that the real reason behind the accusations was the Jewish leaders’ envy of Jesus (Matt. 27:18), and spoke the verdict: “I find no basis for a charge against him.” Absolvo! Non fecisse videtur! John says that Pilate spoke those words three times (John 18:38; 19:4, 6). But instead of doing what he should have done at that point, releasing Jesus or at least placing him under protective custody as a later Roman commander did with Paul when his life was threatened by this same judicial body (Acts 21:31–33; 23:12–24), the governor launched a pattern of irregular proceedings that led eventually to Jesus’ execution.
Pilate tried four expedients to avoid pronouncing sentence: (1) sending Jesus to Herod, when he learned that Jesus was from Galilee, which was under Herod’s jurisdiction (Luke 23:6–12); (2) offering to punish him without an execution (Luke 23:16, 22); (3) asking the people to choose either Jesus or Barabbas as the one to be released at the Passover (Matt. 27:20–26; Mark 15:6–15; John 18:38–40); and (4) producing Jesus in a beaten, bloody condition to stir the people’s pity (John 19:1–5). All these measures failed.
The only one of the schemes that Matthew includes in his Gospel is the offer to release either Jesus or Barabbas to the crowd, though surprisingly the offer is in each of the Gospels. It is not surprising that we find it in Matthew, however, in light of Matthew’s emphasis throughout the Gospel that Jesus was Israel’s true King. Barabbas was not just a common murderer. He was an insurrectionist, that is, a revolutionary who wanted to raise an army, drive out the occupying Romans, and establish himself or someone like himself as Israel’s king—like Judas Maccabaeus. That is why he was being held for execution. Matthew does not explain who Barabbas was, though John, who was writing for a Gentile audience, explains that he had taken part in a rebellion (John 18:40). Every Jew knew about Barabbas. He must have been something of a celebrity, a hero, what the people wanted. The people wanted a king they could understand, an earthly king offering earthly advantages, rather than a king from heaven who offered truth, righteousness, and eternal salvation.
John makes the nature of the people’s choice crystal clear when he records Pilate asking them, “Do you want me to release ‘the king of the Jews’?” and they shout back, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas” (John 18:40). It is a powerful lesson. Sinners will always prefer a manageable earthly ruler, however self-serving, violent, or even evil, to Jesus Christ.
Christ’s Fate Sealed
Pilate was trapped by his own scheming. He had miscalculated. But his stubborn character still came through. He was caught, but he did not want to be defeated by the Jews’ religious rulers whom he obviously despised. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” he demanded.
“Crucify him,” they answered.
“Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. He understood very well that Jesus had done nothing at all to merit punishment, certainly not crucifixion.
They had no answer. There was none. All they could do was cry louder, “Crucify him! Crucify him!”
Matthew indicates that the situation was getting out of hand, that “an uproar was starting” (v. 24). The leaders were stirring it up, of course. It was part of their plan. It was the thing Pilate had to avoid at all costs. But the leaders were doing something else too, according to John’s version of the story. They were badgering Pilate with the threat of an unfavorable report of his conduct to Caesar. “If you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar,” they said (John 19:12). That tipped the scales, of course, for although Pilate may actually have feared Jesus a bit—perhaps Jesus was a kind of god (the ancients believed in such things) and might actually do him harm—and although Pilate feared the hatred of the religious leaders and the fickleness of the crowds even more, Pilate feared the emperor most of all and dared not risk his disfavor. So at last he called for water and washed his hands before the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” (v. 24).
How ironic! Innocent? That is precisely what Pilate was not. All the water in the world could not wash the guilt of Jesus Christ’s blood from his hands, as countless generations since have realized. There was another great irony too. When Pilate told the Jews, “It’s your responsibility,” he was saying precisely what they had said to Judas earlier: “What is that to us? That’s your responsibility” (v. 4). They had not escaped their guilt by passing it off on Judas, and neither could Pilate escape his guilt by passing it off on them. They were all guilty. And so are we! Though we cannot wash away the stains of Christ’s blood by any acts of our own or by ceremonial washings, by the blood of Christ we can indeed be cleansed. His death takes away our sins. “What can wash away my sin?” It is a searching question to which there is only one answer: “Nothing but the blood of Jesus!”
“Hail, King of the Jews”
The last verses of this section take the kingship theme a bit further, for Matthew reports that even after Jesus had been flogged in preparation for the crucifixion, he was given to the soldiers who mocked him mercilessly, placing a scarlet robe on his shoulders, a crown of thorns on his head, and a staff in his hand. Then they fell before him in mock homage, crying, “Hail, king of the Jews.” They spit on him and struck him on the head again and again. This was human nature in its most brutal and inhumane form. Yet even so, theirs was an innocent brutality, if one can use that word, for it was a lesser sin than that of Pilate, who sinned against his knowledge and responsibility, or that of the leaders, who sinned against their law and knowledge of the Bible, or that of Judas, who had betrayed his Lord.
At the moment of this sadistic beating, no one on earth looked less like a king than Jesus. His flesh had been stripped to ribbons by the scourging. Roman scourgings were so severe that many prisoners died from them before they could be crucified. Blood would have been running down Christ’s head from the wounds inflicted by the thorns. Spit would have been clinging to his face. Jesus didn’t look like a king then. But no ruler seated upon any earthly throne at the pinnacle of worldly power was ever more entitled to be called a king than was Jesus.
Jesus was not only a king, he was “the King of kings,” not only a lord, but “Lord of lords” (Rev. 19:16). Today he rules the universe, and one day he will return in judgment, as he told Caiaphas, “In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (Matt. 26:64).
The King and His Kingdom
This is of immense importance, for what was true of the King in the days of his humiliation is no less true of his kingdom. Charles H. Spurgeon, a great Baptist preacher, wrote about the similarity between the King and his kingdom more than a century ago. He wrote that today “pure Christianity in its outward appearances is an equally unattractive object and wears upon its surface few royal tokens. It is without form or comeliness, and when men see it there is no beauty that they should desire it.” Nominal Christianity is tolerantly approved by most men, but the pure gospel is scorned and rejected. “The real Christ of today, among men, is unknown and unrecognized as much as he was among his own nation eighteen hundred years ago,” Spurgeon said.
Evangelical doctrine is at a discount, holy living is censured, and spiritual-mindedness is derided.…
Few now-a-days will side with the truth their fathers bled for. The day for covenanting to follow Jesus through evil report and shame appears to have gone by. Yet, though men turn round upon us and say, “Do you call your gospel divine? Are you so preposterous as to believe that your religion comes from God and is to subdue the world?”—we boldly answer: “Yes!”
Even as beneath the peasant’s garb and the wan visage of the Son of Mary we can discern the Wonderful, the Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father! so beneath the simple form of a despised gospel we perceive the royal lineaments of truth divine. We care nothing about the outward apparel or the external housing of truth; we love it for its own sake. To us, the marble halls and the alabaster columns are nothing, we see more in the manger and the cross. We are satisfied that Christ is the king still where he was wont to be king, and that is not among the great ones of the earth, not among the mighty and the learned, but amongst the base things of the world and the things which are not, which shall bring to nought the things that are, for these hath God from the beginning chosen to be his own.
Is Jesus King?
No one can be neutral concerning Jesus Christ, for Jesus claims to be the only ultimate King whether we acknowledge or refuse to acknowledge him. Which brings us back to Pilate. Pilate was not a follower of Jesus. He only wanted to be neutral, to be innocent of his death, but he failed miserably. He was not able to be neutral, and in the end he took his stand against Jesus. So will you unless you decide for Jesus now.
When Pilate awoke that morning, he did not expect to be confronted by the greatest crisis of his career. All he expected to do was go through a pro forma trial for which he cared nothing. He would humor the Jewish leaders. Yet suddenly Jesus stood before him, and Jesus was either the King he claimed to be, or he was not. He was either innocent or guilty. What would Pilate do? We know what he did. He failed in his great crisis and condemned to death the very Son of God despite his knowledge of the case, his better judgment, and even the warnings of his wife.
Don’t let that happen to you. Jesus is before you every bit as much as he was before Pilate in a physical form that day. “Are you the King?” you ask. “Yes,” Jesus answers. Is he right? You have to face that claim. If he is the King, say, “Yes, Jesus, I acknowledge who you are, and I want to become your subject today.” Bow before him. If you do not, you will bow before him in terror at the judgment.
The King on a Cross
As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!”
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ ” In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Where do you go to find kings today? It is difficult to find kings anywhere, because we live in a democratic age and most kings have been replaced by presidents and other elected officials. Some have been supplanted by dictators. Still, a few kings are left, and if you find them anywhere, you will find them in a king’s house, in a palace. You do not find them in apartments or common digs or hovels or merely walking down the street. The last place you would ever expect to find a king is on a cross. Yet here in Matthew 27, we find the King of Kings, the ruler of the universe, occupying the lowest possible place that men in their baseness have devised. He is hanging on a cross of rough wood, beaten, bleeding, mocked, and left to die.
The Offense of the Cross
The cross was so offensive to the Romans that they refused to allow their own citizens to be crucified, no matter what they had done. Cicero (106–43 b.c.) called crucifixion “a most cruel and disgusting punishment.” He said, “It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination.”2 Indeed, writes Pastor Philip Ryken, “There was no word for it. No polite word, at any rate, for the word for ‘cross’ was taboo in Roman society.” That is why Cicero also said, “Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears.”4
If mention of the cross was offensive to the Romans, it was even more abhorrent to the Jews, for they saw it in the light of Deuteronomy 21:22–23, which reads, “If a man guilty of a capital offense is put to death and his body is hung on a tree, you must not leave his body on the tree overnight. Be sure to bury him that same day, because anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” They understood this to mean that a crucified person was abandoned by God. This explains why Jesus was crucified outside Jerusalem. The act was so offensive to the Jews that they would not allow it to take place within the sacred precincts of their city.
The early Christians knew all this. They often spoke of Jesus having been hanged on a tree, in specific reference to those critical verses in Deuteronomy (see Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13; 1 Peter 2:24). Yet they were not ashamed of Christ’s cross. Nor are we! Like the apostle Paul, who wrote about the glory of the cross, we do not hesitate to let everyone know that Jesus died in this way. In fact, we use crosses to mark our graveyards and churches, and many wear crosses on their lapels or on chains around their necks. Why this remarkable transformation? Obviously because Christians know that it was by crucifixion on a cross that Jesus took the curse of God for our sin on himself. Paul made this explicit when he wrote, “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree’ ” (Gal. 3:13). The cross is not our shame but our glory, which is why we sing,
In the cross of Christ I glory,
Towering o’er the wrecks of time;
All the light of sacred story
Gathers round its head sublime.
Simon of Cyrene
None of the Gospels describes the actual crucifixion in detail. The details were well known; there was no point in dwelling on its horrors. But the Gospels do tell in general terms what happened. Matthew begins by telling of a man from the North African town of Cyrene who was drafted by the soldiers to carry Jesus’ cross. His name was Simon. A condemned person usually carried his own cross, but Jesus must have been too weakened from his scourging and beatings to do it. Jesus carried his cross from the Praetorium to the gates of the city, but when he staggered, the soldiers seized the first able-bodied man they could find, who just happened to be Simon.
Simon is an interesting person. Mark calls him the father of Alexander and Rufus (Mark 15:21), who may be the persons referred to in Acts 19:33 (Alexander) and Romans 16:13 (Rufus). The sons must have been known by the church to which Mark wrote or he would not have had a reason to mention them. Cyrene is mentioned in Acts 2:10; 6:9; 11:20; and 13:1.
William Barclay considers this one of the great “hidden romances” of the New Testament. Simon was a Jew who, like all Jews, would have hated the Romans. To be pressed into service by a Roman soldier and forced to carry the cross of a condemned man must have been a bitter experience for him. But something important may have happened to Simon that day. Instead of merely flinging down the cross at Golgotha, Simon may have been struck by the person of Jesus, stayed to watch the crucifixion, and either then or shortly afterward been converted. After the Passover he would have returned to Cyrene and may have told his family about Jesus. It is not unlikely that the family became Christians through his testimony.
William Barclay goes further, remembering that it was “men from Cyprus and Cyrene” who came to Antioch and first preached the gospel to the Gentile world (Acts 11:20). Was Simon one of the men from Cyrene? Was Rufus with him? In Ephesus, a riot is instigated by people who served Diana of the Ephesians, and the crowd would have killed Paul if they could have gotten to him. Who stands out to face the mob? A man called Alexander (Acts 19:33). And when Paul sends greetings to the Christians in Rome in the last chapter of Romans, two of the people he addresses are “Rufus … and his mother” (Rom 16:13). Are these the same people? We do not know. Simon, Alexander, and Rufus were common names. But stranger histories have unfolded. These events may have happened as a result of an apparently chance encounter between Simon and Jesus on the road to Calvary.
If Simon remained by the cross that day, he would have witnessed the aspects of the crucifixion that Matthew reports. There are six of them, and most are fulfillments of specific Old Testament prophecies, mostly from Psalms. Matthew frequently cites Old Testament passages that Jesus fulfilled, but surprisingly, he does not call attention to them specifically.
- “Wine … mixed with gall” (v. 34). Each of the Gospels contains a reference to this, but it is likely that two different acts were involved. Matthew and Mark describe an offer that Jewish sources say was customarily made by wealthy women of the city as a compassionate attempt to deaden pain. They offered the victim wine mixed with gall. This drink was offered at the start of the crucifixion, and Matthew and Mark both say that Jesus refused to drink it, presumably to experience the fullness of his suffering and retain a clear mind to the end. John seems to refer to something the soldiers did later. He reports that when Jesus said, “I am thirsty” (in order to fulfill Ps. 69:21), the soldiers soaked a sponge in cheap wine, put it on a staff, and lifted it to his mouth, and that this time Jesus took what was offered. This happened at the end of his ordeal, for immediately after this, Jesus said, “It is finished,” and gave up his spirit (John 19:28–30).
- Gambling for Christ’s clothes (v. 35). Each of the Gospels reports how the soldiers divided Christ’s clothing, though John alone explains that the gambling was actually only for Christ’s seamless outer robe. John is also the only one who says specifically that this was to fulfill Psalm 22:18, which says, “They divided my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” (see John 19:24). A few Greek manuscripts of Matthew include this verse, but it seems to be a late addition made to conform Matthew’s text to that of John.
- The written charge against Jesus (v. 37). Each of the Gospels also records this detail, though they vary in the actual wording of the placard. Matthew states, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.” Mark writes, “The king of the Jews” (15:26). Luke reports the words as: “This is the king of the Jews” (23:38). John, who has the fullest version, writes: “Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews” (19:19).
Bible students have wrestled with these slight variations, trying to reconcile them, but the effort is unnecessary in my judgment. Some suggest that since the words were in “Aramaic, Latin and Greek,” according to John 19:20, the Gospels translate different languages. That is unlikely. What we have are probably partial reports. The full text might have read, “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the king of the Jews.” The important thing is that Jesus was killed for claiming to be the Messiah, which is exactly what he was. He was rejected as king by both the Jews and Romans, but he lives today as the only true ruler of all people, whether Jew or Gentile, bond or free, male or female. Jesus is indeed the King of kings and Lord of all.
- “Two robbers … with him” (vv. 38, 44). Each of the Gospels also reports that two others were crucified at the same time, though only the first three call them robbers and only Luke reports the conversion of one. Robber is the same word that was used to describe Barabbas (leistes), and it probably means more than just “thief.” The word refers to what we would call a guerrilla soldier or revolutionary and probably suggests that those who were crucified along with Jesus were Barabbas’s companions. This is more than likely because stealing was not a capital offense. Was Barabbas intended for the cross in the center? Probably. If so, Jesus literally took his place, just as in a figurative sense he took the place of all who believe on him and trust him alone for their salvation.
Luke explains that both robbers cursed Jesus along with everyone else, but one eventually settled down and rebuked his friend: “Don’t you fear God, since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”
Then, turning to the Lord, he pled, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”
Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:39–43). What a wonderful promise! One Bible student said, “One thief was saved so that no one might despair, but only one so that no one might presume.” None of the Gospels refers to Isaiah 53:12 at this point, but it is difficult not to think of these strange circumstances as its fulfillment. Isaiah wrote, “He poured out his life unto death, and was numbered with the transgressors.”
- Insults from those passing by (vv. 39–40). The insults of those who were passing by seem to have fulfilled Psalm 22:7: “All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.” It is a sorry observation on our corrupt natures that people are seldom more heartless than when they see another person suffering, as Jesus was.
- Mocking by the chief priests, teachers of the law, and elders (vv. 41–43). Reference to these three groups of people indicates that they were members of the Sanhedrin, the very body that had arrested, tried, and then condemned the Lord. They challenged him to have God deliver him, unwittingly fulfilling the taunt of Psalm 22:8: “He trusts in the Lord; let the Lord rescue him. Let him deliver him, since he delights in him.”
He Died for You
That is the straightforward account, but this is where we have to stop and go back over it in our mind, remembering what Jesus did for us. Can we imagine it? Perhaps we can think of a lacerated body bleeding from head to foot. His form is so marred that he is hardly recognizable, even to his friends. No representation of Jesus’ crucifixion that I have ever seen, even by the greatest of artists, does justice to this horror. They are all too clean, too sterile. The crucifixion was bloody and vulgar, ugly and repulsive. Yet he was the Son of God! Think of that and try to understand something of the horror of your sin and of the grace, love, mercy, and compassion of our God.
Do you understand that it was for you that Jesus endured this? And not just as an example of how to endure great suffering. Jesus endured the agonies of the cross in your place. The cross was God’s punishment for your sins, and when Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” it was for you that his eternally ancient bond with the Father was broken. We find this theme again and again in the Bible. “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness; by his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:24). “Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God” (1 Peter 3:18). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21). “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people” (Heb. 9:28). Best of all perhaps, this great text from Isaiah:
But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,
and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray,
each of us has turned to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
the iniquity of us all.
The great evangelical Anglican bishop John Ryle, who refers to these texts, drives their point home.
Was he scourged? It was that “through his stripes we might be healed.” Was he condemned, though innocent? It was that we might be acquitted, though guilty. Did he wear a crown of thorns? It was that we might wear the crown of glory. Was he stripped of his raiment? It was that we might be clothed in everlasting righteousness. Was he mocked and reviled? It was that we might be honored and blessed. Was he reckoned a malefactor, and numbered among transgressors? It was that we might be reckoned innocent, and justified from all sin. Was he declared unable to save himself? It was that he might be able to save others to the uttermost. Did he die at last, and that the most painful and disgraceful of deaths? It was that we might live for evermore, and be exalted to the highest glory.
Let us remember these things and never forget them. Substitution! A vicarious atonement! These texts and the doctrines they express are the very foundation of the gospel.
All the Gospels tell about Jesus’ crucifixion, of course, for it is the chief point of their narratives. But each also contains its own special emphasis, and the mocking of Jesus seems to be the dominant note in Matthew. The paragraphs we are studying contain thirteen verses, but five of them are about the taunts of those passing by and of the leaders. The last verse even adds that the robbers “also heaped insults on him” (v. 44).
The interesting thing about these insults is that they were all highly ironic. The first was about Jesus’ claim to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. This accusation had been raised at his trial, but the leaders had been unable to prove it by the strict standards of Jewish legal procedure. Yet Jesus had said it, and the accusation seemed to have been floating among the people. “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” (v. 40). They ridiculed him for his words, but it was by his death that he was destroying the temple of his body, and it was by his resurrection that he would raise it again.
The leaders did not address Jesus directly. They spoke to one another, probably to show their scorn for him: “He saved others, but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God’ ” (vv. 41–43). Ironically, they used the words that Satan had used in two of his temptations of the Lord, recorded in Matthew 4: “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (v. 3) and, “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down” (v. 6). They were saying the same thing now: “If you are the Son of God, ask God to save you!”
“They thought they were so clever,” writes D. A. Carson,
but the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. Precisely by voluntarily going to the cross, Jesus was destroying “this temple”—the temple of his body—and in three days it would be “rebuilt.” And precisely because he was the Son of God, he would not come down from the cross! Similar double irony extended to all the mockery he endured. “He saved others … but he can’t save himself!” (27:42) they taunted. At one level, they were questioning the legitimacy and reality of his claims. Surely the real Messiah would not be forced to bear such shame and suffering. But at a deeper level, the taunt was largely right. If the Lord Jesus was to save others, he had to sacrifice himself, and he could not save himself.
Surely God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding. We would never have thought up a gospel like this, but this is true Christianity. Jesus died for us because without that death we could not be saved. To God be the glory!
When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: this is jesus, the king of the jews. Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. (Matt. 27:35–38)
It is possible to see exactly what happens and not know what it means. A stranger gives you a wink. You think, “What did that mean?” Sometimes, while I am preaching or teaching I can see two people suddenly start laughing. Are they laughing with me or at me? Is there an inside joke, a cute child nearby? Tears rouse our curiosity too. Whenever we see tears, we want to know: “Why are you crying?” We want to know why people show strong emotions. The crucifixion is a story that rouses strong emotions. We want to know what it means.
The Fact of the Crucifixion
The crucifixion of Jesus is the best attested, most emotional, and most misunderstood event in ancient history. We know more about the death of Jesus, from more early sources, than about any other ancient event.
- The ancient Jewish historian Josephus said, “Pilate, at the suggestion of the principal men amongst us … condemned [Jesus] to the cross.”
- The Roman historian Tacitus says, “Christ, during the reign of Tiberius, had been executed by the procurator Pontius Pilate.”
- The Stoic philosopher Mara bar Serapion says that misfortune overtakes those who persecute wise men, such as Socrates, Pythagoras, and Jesus: “What did it avail the Jews to kill their wise king, since their kingdom was taken away from them from that time on?… Socrates is not dead, thanks to Plato. Nor is the wise king [Jesus] because of the new law which he has given.”
- Jewish sources also refer to the death of Jesus. One rabbi says “he was hanged on the eve of the Passover” for leading the people astray.
The Gospels’ account of Jesus’ death offers both the most facts and the best interpretation. We know the Gospel accounts are true because the crucifixion is hardly a story Christians would fabricate. Who would choose to start a new movement by declaring that its founder was executed for sedition and blasphemy?
At a factual level, we also know that crucifixion was a painful way to die. The physical pain, which the Bible does not describe, defies imagination. It caused dislocated limbs, extreme hunger and thirst, a struggle to breathe, and an agony that lasted until suffocation, heart failure, or blood loss took the victim. The ancients said so little about crucifixion that we only partially understand the practice and the agony it brought.
Crucifixion was also a shameful way to die. Victims were executed in public before a bloodthirsty mob. This manner of execution was reserved for criminals, slaves, and rebels and used to terrorize the masses. Finally, it was an accursed way to die. Moses says, “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). Jesus suffered all this on our account. It is harrowing even to study it. Yet we must, for it is integral to God’s plan of deliverance. So let us follow the Gospels, not dwelling on physical events, but on the spoken words that lead us to the meaning of the cross.
To move from the facts about the cross to the reasons for Jesus’ death on the cross, we most hold two truths in dynamic tension. The humans who placed Jesus on the cross were motivated by hatred, envy, and fear, yet the crucifixion unfolded as God planned. The Greek term paradidōmi, translated as “hand over” or “betray” (used forty times in the passion narratives), makes the point. Judas handed Jesus over to the priests out of greed and took money for it. The priests handed Jesus over to Pilate out of envy and self-righteousness. Pilate handed Jesus over to soldiers out of cowardice and they killed him (26:14–49; 27:18; 27:26). Yet God handed him over for us all (Rom. 4:23–25; 8:32). Thus the motive was not (ultimately) Judas’s desire for money, Pilate’s fear, or the Jews’ envy, but the Father’s love.
The Soldiers Mock Jesus as the King of the Jews
Just before the crucifixion, Pilate’s soldiers decided to have some fun at Jesus’ expense. So then, “the whole company of soldiers [gathered] around” Jesus (Matt. 27:27). Jesus was condemned, officially, for claiming to be the king of Israel. The rowdy soldiers took the charge of kingship and mocked it.
First, they took Jesus into the Praetorium, which probably included the barracks for the soldiers keeping order in Jerusalem. They engaged in cruel horseplay, dressing Jesus as a king. They took off his old clothes “and put a scarlet robe on him” to mock the proper royal color, purple (27:28). Next, they put a crown or garland of thorns on his head to mock a crown. That surely drew blood.
Next, “they put a staff in his right hand”—to look like a scepter—“and knelt in front of him and mocked him. ‘Hail, king of the Jews!’ ” they said. Later, tired of giving Jesus faux royal treatment, they became more brutal: “They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again” (27:29–30). Soon the time for crucifixion approached, so “they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him. Then they led him away to crucify him” (27:31).
The goal was to mock and to degrade Jesus, and in a way the soldiers succeeded. But they surely degraded themselves even more. It reminds us that whenever we attack someone, we hurt ourselves, not just the target of our wrath.
The Soldiers Crucify the King
A condemned criminal ordinarily carried the horizontal beam for his own cross to the site of the execution. But by this time Jesus had suffered two ferocious beatings, as well as other blows, so that he was too weak to carry the beam far down the road. So the soldiers pressed into service a passerby, one Simon “from Cyrene … and they forced him to carry the cross.” With Simon’s help, “they came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull)” (27:32–33).
Having arrived, “they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it” (27:34). Gall is a bitter poison. Some say it was meant as a narcotic, to relieve pain. They cite old traditions and Proverbs 31:6: “Give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress” (ESV). But gall is no analgesic. More likely, the gall was one more bit of mockery and torment from the soldiers: they pretended to offer wine to comfort him, but it was too bitter to drink.
The Gospels do not accent the crucifixion itself. In the Greek text of Matthew, the crucifixion itself gets just three words, “and crucifying him.” The emphasis lies on the witnesses and their responses to the event. The soldiers are the first witnesses. Leading up to the crucifixion, they joke around and act cruelly—they mock, spit, and strike. But once the process begins, they are businesslike. When Jesus cannot carry his cross, they get a bystander to do the job. When they arrive, the four soldiers in charge perform their duty, then settle in to await death, watching Jesus, lest anyone try to rescue him (27:36, 54). Their sole pastime is gambling. Clothing was expensive, so they cast stones, like dice, for his remaining clothes, an inner and an outer garment (27:35).
Finally, “above his head they placed the written charge against him: this is Jesus, the king of the Jews” (27:37). This “title” advertised the cost of rebelling against Rome. In one of many ironies, the soldiers tell the truth, despite themselves. They mean to humiliate both Jesus and the Jews, but Jesus is king; he reigns from the cross! A king must defend his people and deliver them from harm. On the cross, Jesus delivers us from the greatest harm, the power and the guilt of sin, and our greatest enemies, Satan and death. But the soldiers no more perceive this than cows in the field perceive the beauty of sunrise and sunset. The significance of the hour is entirely lost on them as they sit by Jesus and gamble for his clothes. The crucifixion is just another day’s work.
To this day, many people respond to the crucifixion as the soldiers did. It may be a fact, but they simply do not care. Or just as the soldiers saw the chance to gain valuable clothing, some see a chance for gain—perhaps something can be marketed to these Christians.
The Crowds and Priests Mock Jesus, King of the Jews
The soldiers may be indifferent, but most Jewish witnesses mock Jesus as they watch or pass by. There is a certain logic to their position. If Jesus were the Messiah, he would hardly be on a cross between two criminals (27:38). No Messiah, no true king, could die this way! As they see it, Jesus’ crucifixion proves he is an imposter. Therefore, “those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God’ ” (27:39–40).
It is tragic to see the crowds do this. A year earlier, the crowds seemed to be on the brink of faith in Jesus. They followed him and praised him. They wondered who he was (Matt. 21:10) and called him David’s Son (21:15). But they never called him Lord. Of course, many of them did trust in Jesus, and this crowd, from Jerusalem, may have known Jesus far less than did the crowds in Galilee. But the majority hesitated and because they did, they were susceptible to the malign influence of the priests, who persuaded them to reject Jesus.
Their sad fate reminds us, as the Bible says, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2). If the Lord is speaking today, it is perilous to put off a reply. If we wait and wait, thinking well of Jesus, but refusing to commit to him, we may slowly turn against him and his grace.
The taunts of the crowd make Jesus face, one last time, the temptation to escape the cross. As he drinks the cup of God’s wrath, the temptation continues. If Jesus is mighty, surely he can use his powers to save and prove himself.
The leaders of Israel, who are watching more closely, press the point. “In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others,’ they said, ‘but he can’t save himself! He’s the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him’ ” (27:41–42). The mood was so vicious that “the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him” (27:44).
Once again, we hear ironic truths. In the past, Jesus did indeed save others. It is also true, in a way, that he cannot save himself. He could have come down from the cross, because he is the Son of God. He could have come down to demonstrate his power, just long enough to knock some sense into those scoffers. If I were in Jesus’ place, I would have found the temptation irresistible. Or Jesus could have come down and stayed down. But if he did, he would not save our fallen race. So if he chose to fulfill his mission and save others, he could not save himself—not that day. They said, “He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God’ ” (27:43). For our sake, he let them mock, he let them think they knew it all.
Sooner or later, most adults face a scene that vaguely resembles this. Someone approaches with a grim look. They make an accusation, they pose a question they think you cannot answer. There is a defense to the charge and an answer to the question. But you cannot reply. There is a secret to keep, a reputation to protect. The answer would cause pain to someone, perhaps an innocent party. You know you ought to stand there and take the heat and let them think they know it all, because it would be worse to prove them wrong. It is hard to control the urge to defend ourselves. Indeed, we may falter and answer even though we know we should not.
Jesus resisted a temptation far greater than ours. This mockery he heard was a fist in God’s face. His honor was at stake and Jesus had a perfect answer. Yet with perfect self-mastery, Jesus remained silent. He refused to trade insult for insult: “When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Jesus’ silence announced his reply: “I will not come down from the cross!” He chose to save others, so he did not save himself. Jesus loved his people too much to defend himself. So he did nothing to vindicate himself. When he finally spoke, he called out to God.
Pause to learn the lessons in this episode. First, when accused, let us remember that we are not always obligated to defend ourselves. We can entrust ourselves to God and wait for him to vindicate us, even as Jesus did.
Second, we may contrast Christianity with other ways of life. For example Muslims believe Muhammad must be honored, and many are willing to kill those who insult their prophet. Indeed, many Muslims who believe Jesus was a prophet claim that Jesus was not mocked or crucified either. They say Allah saved him from the shame of crucifixion.
But the bearing of shame is essential to the work of Christ. On the cross, Jesus bore our sin and all its consequences—including the guilt and the shame of sin. If Jesus had not been insulted and slain, there would be no salvation.
David foretold this: “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads” (Ps. 22:7 ESV). Isaiah predicted it: “He was despised and rejected by men … and we esteemed him not” (Isa. 53:3). When the day came, “they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head.… Kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, ‘Hail, King of the Jews!’ ” (Matt. 27:28–29 ESV). Jesus endured all this with perfect patience. This was his saving work: he suffered all the consequences of sin for us.
Most people are enraged by mockery. Christians can take another view. We agree that a “good name” is a good thing—“more desirable than great riches,” Solomon says (Prov. 22:1; cf. 3:4; Eccl. 7:1; Jer. 17:18). The Bible also says that no one who hopes or trusts in God will be put to shame (Ps. 25:3; Rom. 9:33; 10:11). Clearly then, honor is good.
Yet we deserve some dishonor, even shame. We may feel shame if we dress casually for a formal party (wearing a sweater instead of a tuxedo), if we have bad hair or the wrong hair or clothes, or car or nose. We may be ashamed if we have less money or skill than our friends, if we cannot operate a computer or dishwasher.
In the same way we must learn to question our desires and see if they are genuine needs, so we must ask if we are ashamed of the right things. We understand why social failings cause shame, but we ought to feel more shame at our sin, our moral and spiritual failings.
We know Jesus bears our sin. Matthew reminds us that he also endured shame on our behalf and removed the shame that is due to us for our sin. Even if we get caught and our sin becomes public, our shame is gone in part because Jesus was willing to be put to shame. More than that, when we identify with him, his glory becomes ours. Jesus is our champion and we are on his team, so that his glory is ours.
How can we fathom the depth of Christ’s sacrifice and labor on our behalf? I recently came to the conclusion that the garbage at our house is substandard. Our garbage collectors, who evidently have high standards, refuse to empty one of our cans at least once a month. I wonder: is our garbage too messy, too malodorous, too disorderly, so that they refuse it? The question reminded me that even our worst spiritual garbage is not beneath Jesus’ dignity. He takes it on; he rids us of it.
Jesus Cries out from the Cross
After several hours on the cross, when the end was near, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (27:46). It is a startling cry because it was atypical. Until now, Jesus addressed the Father as “Father” or “My Father.” But now he says, “My God, my God.” Until now, Jesus also enjoyed unbroken fellowship with the Father. But now he declares himself forsaken. What has changed? Why does Jesus say this?
First let us admit that it is a sincere cry. Some people try to explain it away. They say pain overwhelmed Jesus so that he was temporarily confused or he was simply quoting Scripture (he did quote Psalm 22). Yet the question “My God, … why have you forsaken me?” rests on a true perception. Jesus was rightly conscious that he was forsaken by the Father and at that moment he did not fully apprehend why. He groped in darkness, for a moment. The God-man did not clearly see all of God’s purposes and asked, “Why?”
Jesus endured the uncertainty, he felt the separation from God that has tested so many of the faithful. But he did not simply feel it. Jesus felt forsaken because he was forsaken. Jesus was forsaken due to the great exchange. He bore our sin and gave us his righteousness. When he bore our sin, he suffered its punishment. The essence of that punishment, which is also the essence of hell, is separation from God. Jesus felt separated from God because he was separated. He who knew no sin became sin for us (2 Cor. 5:21). Christ bore the curse for us (Gal. 3:13). As Elizabeth Browning’s oft-cited poem says:
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 one should use
those words of desolation.
The anguish of separation from God is all the more acute for Jesus, since he had enjoyed perfect fellowship with the Father until that hour (Matt. 11:27). On the cross, as he bore our sins, Jesus “descended into hell,” that is, experienced separation from God.
It is a mysterious cry. How could the triune God suffer separation from himself? This is close to the question “How could Jesus the God-man die?” There are mysteries in the life of God that we cannot fully fathom. But even if we cannot, we can say Jesus’ words are true. The Father separated himself from the Son. Let us accept that Jesus was forsaken by God the Father, so that we, by faith, would never be forsaken. To press deeper and to speculate may lead to error.
It is an obedient cry. Jesus was not simply emoting, he was fulfilling his goal. He bore sin and its consequences, including separation from God. Richard Sibbes, the English Puritan, said Jesus was never more obedient, never pleased the Father more, than when he uttered these words on the cross.
Jesus rightly said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” so that we would never rightly say, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” We may feel forsaken at times, but we are not, if we trust in Jesus. He will never leave us, never forsake us.
Let that be your comfort when you lie sick in bed, when a good friend lets you down, when you cannot see the future and feel anxious, when you feel lonely for no apparent reason. Know then that God will never forsake you. Jesus experienced all the consequences of sin, including separation from God, for you, on the cross.
When the hour is dark, we must also remember that Jesus laid aside the prerogatives of deity and experienced the sorrows of mankind.
- The omniscient God, with his eternal wisdom, experienced ignorance.
- The omnipotent God fatigued and fell under the burden of the cross.
- The omnipresent God was fixed to a cross and did not leave it.
- The unchanging God grieved and wept.
Therefore, he understands our sorrow, and empathizes with us.
The Death of Jesus, Seen through Many Eyes
Matthew says, “when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit” (27:50). Consider the scene in Jerusalem just after Jesus’ death. The mockers and blasphemers stare at his corpse with grim satisfaction. The chief priests and elders have slain their foe. Nearby, as insensitive as flies in an art gallery, the soldiers blithely gather the tools of their trade.
Jesus’ foes wanted to get rid of him and the soldiers wanted to ignore him. But Jesus is “the transcendental interferer. We resent his interruptions into our privacy, his demand for our homage, his expectation of our obedience.” He will not leave us alone or let us mind our own business. He disturbs the peace and insists that we attend to him.
So Christians proclaim the cross: absurd to a Greek, sinister to a Roman, a curse to a Jew. Yet it is ever the church’s core proclamation. It is the way to peace with God. It is also the Christian way of life. It inspires us to action. During the Revolutionary War, a young soldier entered a battle near Princeton. As he advanced toward the battle, he found himself near General George Washington. He wrote: “I shall never forget what I felt when I saw him brave all the dangers of the field and his important life hanging … by a single hair with a thousand deaths flying around him. Believe me, I thought not of myself.”
Paul tells us nearly the same thing. The life of Christ, he says, teaches us not to live for ourselves: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:3–5). Let him be our example, and, more than that, our Lord, whom we love, the one who endured the cross and its shame so that it would not fall to us to bear it.
 MacArthur, J. F., Jr. (1985). Matthew (Vol. 4, pp. 245–263). Chicago: Moody Press.
 Boice, J. M. (2001). The Gospel of Matthew (pp. 604–619). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books.
 Doriani, D. M. (2008). Matthew & 2. (R. D. Phillips, P. G. Ryken, & D. M. Doriani, Eds.) (Vol. 2, pp. 489–499). Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R Publishing.