Stand before the cross

by Scott Grant

Matthew 27:27-56

Watch what transpires

The story of the crucifixion of Jesus is a drama of cosmic proportions. It is the culmination of a love story - God's love for humanity. On the face of it, it is riveting enough. But when we see that this all means so much to us, we are drawn in. It's not only a drama of cosmic proportions, it's a drama of cosmic significance - cosmic personal significance.

In Matthew's account of the crucifixion, a group of soldiers watch Jesus. They watch everything that happens to him, and everything he does. Matthew, in describing the actions and observations of the soldiers, thus invites us into the story. He invites us to stand before the cross with the soldiers and watch what transpires before us.

Romans mock Jesus (27:27-37)

Matthew 27:27-37:

(27) Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. (28) And they stripped Him, and put a scarlet robe on Him. (29) 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!" (30) And they spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. (31) And after they had mocked Him, they took His robe off and put His garments on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him. (32) And as they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross. (33) And when they had come to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, (34) they gave Him wine to drink mingled with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink. (35) And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves, casting lots; (36) and sitting down, they began to keep watch over Him there. (37) And they put up above His head the charge against Him which read, "THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS."

The Roman soldiers first strip Jesus of his normal clothing and then dress him up as a king. They give him a robe, a crown and a scepter. But it's a makeshift robe, a crown of thorns and a reed for a scepter. They pretend to worship him, falling on their knees and hailing him as king of the Jews. They spit on him and strike him in the head with the reed, demonstrating, in their minds, the foolishness of such a one being considered a powerful king. They certainly don't believe that he is king of the Jews, for the Jewish leadership has rejected him. So they mock him on that count. But they are also mocking the Jews in general, saying, in effect, "This is what happens to your king." In spitting on him and beating him, they are trying to show that he, the supposed king of the Jews, has no power to resist Roman authority.

After mocking him, they strip him of his "kingly" attire and clothe him with his normal attire before leading him to be crucified. When the Romans crucify him, they show him to be a man stripped of any kingly authority, crushed under the iron fist of Roman rule.

As they lead him away to be crucified, they force a man named Simon from Cyrene to carry the cross of Jesus. Why does Matthew include this part of the story, and why is he so specific in recounting the details of it? The man's name is Simon, which is the same name of the man who confessed Jesus as Christ and was instructed by Jesus to take up his cross and follow Jesus (Matthew 16:16, 24). Simon Peter, at this point in his life, wants nothing to do with crosses, so another Simon is there to carry Jesus' cross. This Simon is from Cyrene, which is on the North Coast of Africa. Simon is a Jewish name, so he is a Jew living outside the land. But here he is, beside the Messiah, carrying his cross. By including this story, Matthew is indicating that the long-anticipated regathering of Israel has begun (Isaiah 43:5-7, 54:1-3).

They crucify Jesus at Golgotha, which means "Place of a Skull." An early legend has it that Adam was buried at the very spot that Jesus was crucified. Some paintings and stained-glass windows of the crucifixion scene therefore depicted Adam's skull at the foot of the cross. Whether true or not, it is a wonderful picture of God's answer to the sin of Adam. The death of Adam's sin is overcome by the death of God's Son, the cross of Christ being inserted into the skull of Adam.
The soldiers give him a wine-gall mixture, a bitter drink evidently intended to torment Jesus. Matthew's description originates in Psalm 69:21. In Psalm 69:20, King David writes, "Reproach has broken my heart, and I am so sick. And I looked for sympathy, but there was none, and for comforters, but I found none." Jesus the king, just like his predecessor, finds no sympathy, only torment.

The soldiers then divide his garments and cast lots for them. This is the first in a series of references to Psalm 22 (Matthew 27:39, 43, 46). In Psalm 22, David feels abandoned by humanity and God. Matthew shows that Jesus feels similarly, fulfilling the Davidic experience. The division of his garments and the casting of lots for them may be a subtle reference to the land of Israel, which was divided among the tribes of Israel by lot. The land was Israel's "inheritance." Perhaps Matthew is implying that Israel's true inheritance is found not in the land but in Jesus. The soldiers are completely ignorant of how Jesus could benefit them, however. All they want from the crucifixion is the garments of Jesus. Then they sit down and keep watch over him. After the mocking, there's really nothing left to do but sit and watch.

They place the written charge against Jesus above his head: "This is Jesus the king of the Jews." Again, it's a statement and warning to Israel: "This is where any king of yours ends up."
Jesus, of course, is the king of Israel - not to mention all of creation. What does the king of Israel do? As Israel's representative, he assumes Israel's role. He takes on Israel's sin, and he incurs its punishment. God elected Israel to save the world (Genesis 12:1-3, Exodus 19:6), and now the true Israel, Jesus the Messiah, is doing precisely that.

Sharing the spotlight with Jesus in this section are the Roman soldiers. They start out mocking and end up watching. As Yogi Berra says, "You can observe a lot just by watching." These soldiers now have the opportunity to observe a lot. Their observations are going to lead them to conclude that Jesus, who they mocked as king of the Jews, is something even more than that.
We too occasionally arrive at the point in life where there's really nothing left to do but sit and watch. We do our jobs; we have some fun, sometimes at others' expense, just like the soldiers. At the end of the day, perhaps we wonder what it all means. And maybe, like the Roman soldiers, our gaze turns to Jesus.

Jews reject Jesus (27:38-50)

Matthew 27:38-50:

38) At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left. (39) And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads, (40) 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." (41) In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him, and saying, (42) "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. (43) He trusts in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He takes pleasure in Him; for He said, 'I am the Son of God.'" (44) And the robbers also who had been crucified with Him were casting the same insult at Him.

(45) Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. (46) And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" that is, "My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?" (47) And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, "This man is calling for Elijah." (48) And immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. (49) But the rest of them said, "Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him." (50) And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.

The narrative shifts from Roman response to Christ to Jewish response to Christ. The passersby, priests, scribes, elders and criminals are all Jewish. They all abuse him. They all have a problem with Jesus. As it turns out, they all have the same problem. The words of the chief priests, scribes and elders echo those of the passersby, and the robbers cast the "same insult" at Jesus.

They have a problem with this title "Son of God." Israelite kings were called "sons of God" (Psalm 2:7, 2 Samuel 7:14). First, then, it is a kingly title. Second, it came to be associated with the king who was to come, that one king who would come from the tribe of Judah and the line of David who would set things right: the Messiah (Matthew 1:1). He would restore the temple; he would save Israel; the nation would believe in him; he would trust in God; God would deliver him; God would take pleasure in him.

But God would not leave him to die, of all places, on a Roman cross. The Son of God, when he came, was supposed to lead Israel to victory over her enemies. The enemy is Rome. Crucifixion was a Roman form of execution. Take issue with Rome's right to rule, and you end up on one of its crosses. The cross was a symbol of Rome's brutal form of oppression. But the Messiah, when he came, would rid the land of Rome and its crosses. For Jesus to be called the Son of God and to die on a Roman cross was a misidentification of the grossest proportions.

The passersby, the Jewish leaders and even those dying on crosses next to his are offended that this one would call himself the Son of God. He showed no interest in their causes. He did not at all act like the Son of God. Mostly, he did not endorse their nationalist agenda, which involved casting off the fetters of Rome, the evil empire. Worse still, he identified Israel, not Rome, as the evil empire. The problem, he said, was not with Rome but with Israel, which had forsaken its God and replaced him with a very pagan-like nationalist agenda. He not only failed to meet their messianic expectations, he repudiated them. No wonder they mock him. They mock him as a false Messiah, and a wrong-headed one at that.

The passersby say, "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." The chief priests, scribes and elders say, "He is the king of Israel; let him now come down from the cross ... " The condemned criminals say the same thing. "If you are the Son of God, then what in God's name are you doing on that Roman cross? That's the last place you should be." They facetiously suggest that if his messianic claim is true, he should come down from the cross.

It is not the first time it has been suggested to Jesus what he should do as the Son of God. In the wilderness, he heard the voice of Satan (Matthew 4:1-11): "If you are the Son of God, command that these stones become bread." "If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down." "All these things I will give you if you fall down and worship me." Satan was challenging the identity of the Son in order to tempt him to fulfill his vocation in a way that would have conformed to popular expectations and steered him neatly away from chaos of the cross. Now on the cross, he hears the voice again: "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." Satan did everything he could to get Jesus to avoid the cross. Now that Jesus is on the cross, Satan hits him with everything he's got at Jesus' weakest possible moment, both physically and emotionally. Everything about this scene screams for Jesus to come down from the cross.

What does the Son of God do? As he hears the irresistible voice of temptation, he does nothing. He just hangs there! Why does he stay? The answer is in the words of the passersby, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders and the criminals. They intend to insult Jesus. Unintentionally, they tell us why Jesus remains on the cross. Their words no doubt remind Jesus of his identity and call.

They mock him as one who would destroy the temple and rebuild it. They have no idea that at this very instant, as Jesus hangs on the cross, he is doing precisely that. At the moment of his death, the veil of the temple would be torn in two (Matthew 27:51). The temple was no longer needed, and in due time would be destroyed by Rome. Three days after his death, Jesus would rise to build a new and better temple comprising living stones, the people of God (1 Peter 2:5). If he comes down, what kind of temple is he left with? That shell of a building in Jerusalem that God long ago lost interest in because the people had abandoned him. The people hurling abuse at him at this very moment would not benefit from such a temple. So he stays. He stays for them.

They tell him to save himself and come down from the cross. If he comes down, they tell him, they will believe in him as the Son of God, presumably following him as he saves them from Rome. But if he saves himself and comes down from the cross, he wouldn't be saving them. They needed salvation not from Rome but from sin. If he comes down and they believe, their faith won't mean anything. They want him to come down to save himself. He stays to save them.
They suggest that God would deliver him "now" if God takes pleasure in him. God doesn't deliver Jesus now because he is delivering them now. He is delivering them by extending forgiveness to them in the broken body of his Son. God takes pleasure in them, so he doesn't deliver Jesus. Neither does Jesus cry out for deliverance. It must be that Jesus, too, takes pleasure in the passersby, the chief priests, the scribes, the elders and the criminals. He stays for them.
He has proved to be a laughable disappointment to these people to the point that they abuse him mercilessly at his weakest moment, but he stays because his heart breaks for them, even these who are mocking him. But they don't see it.

Verses 45 through 50 further show that the Jews are in the dark. Not only are they in the dark, but all the land - the land of Israel - is as well. From the sixth hour until the ninth hour, noon to 3 p.m., darkness falls on the land. The darkness is symbolic of God's judgment on Israel for rejecting its Messiah (Amos 8:9-10, Exodus 10:21-22).

Jesus then cries out, uttering the words of Psalm 22:1: "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" Matthew records Jesus as speaking the words in Hebrew. Jesus probably spoke in Aramaic and Hebrew most of the time, but the gospel writers translate them into Greek. Here, Matthew leaves these words untranslated, probably to show how it came about that they were misunderstood by the bystanders.

Why did God forsake Jesus? He forsook Jesus for the sake of humanity. The sins of humanity were heaped onto Jesus, and for this reason God forsook him on the cross. Jesus is being forsaken by God for their sake, but again, the Jews can't see it. More to the point, they can't hear it. They hear him speaking, but they misunderstand him. They hear the words "Eli, Eli," which means "My God, My God," and think he's calling for Elijah.

It's not simply that they misunderstand what Jesus is saying. Behind their misunderstanding is a world view that is predisposed toward misunderstanding. The Jewish belief was - and is - that the prophet Elijah would come back to deliver God's people or at least prepare the way for deliverance (Malachi 3:1, 4:5-6). At the Passover meal, a door was left open for Elijah to enter, and a cup of wine was left for him to drink. The hope was that Elijah would return to save them.

The bystanders think Jesus is calling for Elijah. They think that Jesus is crying out for deliverance. He is not. He told his disciples that Elijah had already come (17:12). The forerunner had already come, preparing the way for the Messiah, preparing the way for deliverance. Jesus' cry of God-forsakenness, then, is indicative that the deliverance Elijah (John) came to prepare the people for is happening now. But they miss it.

One of the bystanders, hearing what he thinks to be a cry for deliverance, offers him relief in the form of "sour wine," probably wine vinegar diluted with water - a drink enjoyed by laborers and soldiers. But the rest objected to this act of kindness, saying, in effect, if deliverance is to come, let it come from Elijah.

Jesus cries out again with a loud voice, but there can be no mistaking this time that he is calling for deliverance. When he cries out, he yields his spirit. He yields his spirit, so that God can send his Spirit to renew Israel and all humanity.

Like the Jews at the scene of the crucifixion, we can miss what it's all about. Perhaps our preconceptions blind us to the reality of Jesus - the reality of his love for us. Perhaps we have constructed blinders for ourselves that prevent us from seeing that Jesus loves us - or seeing that anyone loves us. The drama of the crucifixion shows us that God loves us, that Jesus loves us - that there never has been and never will be a love like this. Jesus resisted tremendous temptation to stay on the cross, gather us to God and enfold us in his temple as the people of God. What keeps him on the cross? It isn't the nails. Michael Card sings: "And why did it have to be a heavy cross he was made to bear? / And why did they nail his feet and hands? His love would have kept him there."

The Jews miss it. Meanwhile, the Roman guards keep watch.

Romans recognize Jesus (27:51-56)

Matthew 27:51-56:

(51) And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom, and the earth shook; and the rocks were split, (52) and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; (53) and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many. (54) Now the centurion, and those who were with him keeping guard over Jesus, when they saw the earthquake and the things that were happening, became very frightened and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!" (55) And many women were there looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him, (56) among whom was Mary Magdalene, along with Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Matthew uses the word "behold" in describing the events that ensue upon the death of Jesus. The Jews at the scene of the crucifixion failed to behold the reality of Jesus, but Matthew encourages his readers - us! - to take it in.

At the death of Jesus, the veil of the temple, which separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place, was torn. Jesus was mocked as one who would destroy the temple and rebuild it. The tearing of the curtain indicates that he is doing just that. The temple had been corrupted (21:12-17), and Christ, its fulfillment, has come. The meeting place of God would now be Christ, not a building, which made the temple not only corrupt but redundant. It would be destroyed by the Romans in 70 AD. Christ is now the temple, as is his body, those who believe in him. There is now universal access to God through Christ (Hebrews 4:16: 6:19-20; 9:3, 11-28; 10:19-22).

The land - another of Israel's sacred symbols - is shaken by the death of Christ. Earthquakes in the scriptures are often representative of the appearance of God. The death of Christ also precipitates the opening of tombs. Many bodies of "the saints who had fallen asleep," God's people who had died, were raised, evidently after the resurrection of Christ. They entered the holy city, Jerusalem, as a testimony to it. This was evidently not a temporary resuscitation but a permanent resurrection, in which the people were given new bodies along the lines of Christ's. After they entered Jerusalem, presumably they went to be with the Father, just like Jesus. This strange event was designed as a testimony to unbelieving Jerusalem, unbelieving Israel. It was designed to show that the long-awaited restoration of Israel, which was comparable to resurrection (Ezekiel 37:12-14), was happening even now. What they were longing for was happening, but it's left to Roman soldiers to make the appropriate observation.

The scene shifts back to the Roman soldiers. When Matthew turned his narrative away from them, they were keeping watch over Jesus (27:36). When he turns back to them in verse 54, they are doing the same thing. The centurion, the leader of the soldiers, joins the story at this point. Keeping watch, the soldiers observed. Matthew says the "saw the earthquake and the things that were happening." What other "things" did they see besides the earthquake? They had a chance to observe the crucifixion from start to finish. They saw everything. They saw Jesus when they stripped him, gave him the cloak, placed the crown of thorns on his head, gave him the reed, mocked him has king, spit on him and beat him with the reed. They saw the criminals, the chief priests, the scribes and the elders abuse him while he was on the cross. They saw darkness fall on the land. They heard Jesus cry out twice, first when he felt abandoned by God and second when he yielded his spirit. And they felt the earthquake. They saw Jesus absorb all this abuse, but they never saw him strike back.

Seeing all this, they become very frightened, perhaps fearing some kind of heavenly wrath. They see in Jesus something they have never seen before - love they have never seen before. What they see leads them to a stunning conclusion: "Truly this was the Son of God." First they mocked him, thinking it not even possible that he was king of the Jews. Now they call him the Son of God. They now acknowledge him as king - more than just king of the Jews but God's king. What they see causes them to believe that they have been in the presence of someone greater than Caesar. The charge against Jesus said, "This is Jesus the king of the Jews." The Jews said, "This man is calling for Elijah." The soldiers say differently, concluding, "Truly, this was the Son of God." When Simon the Cyrenian joined the story, Matthew's message is that God is gathering the dispersed children of Israel. When the Romans - the Romans! - acknowledge Jesus, Matthew's message is that God is gathering the entire world.

The Jews, who had all the advantages to enable them to recognize Jesus as the Son of God, fail to do so. The Romans, who had none of the advantages, acknowledge him as such. They are the ones who weren't supposed to get it. They were on the outside. They were the enemies of Israel. But they did have at least two advantages that helped them see the truth. First, they didn't look at Jesus with Jewish preconception of what the Son of God was supposed to do. Second, they had eyes and nothing to do with them but watch what was happening for a few hours. A fresh pair of eyes and the inclination to watch go a long way toward the apprehension of truth.

Thus the story encourages us to stand before the cross with fresh eyes and watch. If we do, we'll come to the conclusion, this side of the resurrection, not only that "this was the Son of God" but that "this is the Son of God." If the Roman soldiers - the ultimate outsiders - can get it, we can. We can see our sin piled onto him. We can see it crush him. We can see him give back nothing but love. We can hear him cry, "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me," and know that the cry was for us. We can accept what Jesus accomplishes for us as he hangs on the cross. We can bring our sin, our sadness and our fears to that hill and hold them up to the light of the love we see there.

The Roman soldiers weren't the only ones who were watching. Many women who had followed Jesus were, literally, "beholding" from a distance. Here is faithful Israel. The Israel that was supposed to follow Jesus didn't follow Jesus. "That" Israel sent Jesus to the cross and abused him as he hung there. Two of these women beheld more than the crucifixion. Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph visited the tomb of Jesus on Sunday morning and found it empty (28:1-10). Matthew, by including the women in his description of the crucifixion scene, thereby sets the stage for the resurrection of Christ, vindicating him as the king of Israel and the Son of God.

Invitation to watch

So, the invitation is to watch. To spend time before the cross. To spend time looking at Jesus hanging there. To watch him. To see who he really is. To see that he is the Son of God, suffering for our sins, feeling our pain, being forsaken by God so that we could be embraced by God.

- SCG, 5-31-98