THE CRUCIFIXION Matthew 26–28
“When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, ’Surely He was the Son of God!’ “ (Matt. 27:54)With these last chapters of Matthew we enter the Christian’s holy of holies. With a sense of deepest awe we witness again the death and the resurrection of our Lord.
Jesus predicted His imminent death (26:1–13) as Judas plotted with the chief priests to betray Him (vv. 14–16). During a final meal Jesus instituted Communion, and predicted Peter’s denial (vv. 17–35). Jesus prayed in Gethsemane (vv. 36–46), where He was arrested (vv. 47–56) and taken before the Jewish high court (vv. 57–68). Peter did deny his Lord (vv. 69–75), and Judas hanged himself (27:1–10). Jesus was condemned by Pilate (vv. 11–26), mocked by His executioners (vv. 27–31), and crucified (vv. 32–56). He was buried (vv. 57–61) and His tomb placed under guard (vv. 62–66). But death is not the end! On the third day Jesus was raised from the dead (28:1–15), and later commissioned His disciples to “go and make disciples” (vv. 16–20).
Understanding the Text
“A woman came to Him with an alabaster jar of very expensive perfume” Matt. 26:1–13. This is one of Scripture’s fascinating “little stories.” As the high Jewish council plotted to arrest Jesus; as Judas mulled over the possibility of betraying Him; as Christ Himself spoke of imminent crucifixion; an unnamed woman slipped into the house in Bethany where Jesus was staying. Without saying a word she poured her perfume on His head and, so another Gospel tells us, washed His feet with her tears. And Jesus, calling what she did “a beautiful thing,” promised that “wherever this gospel is preached . . . what she has done will also be told.” But why? What was so special here? Perhaps it’s just that everyone around was caught up in the great events then unfolding. The city was astir with rumors after Jesus’ triumphal entry. The priests and Judas were plotting. The disciples were excited by the possibility that Christ might soon set up His kingdom. But no one was sensitive to Jesus and the pain He then felt so deeply. No one, but the here unnamed woman, who wept with and for Him, and anointed Him with her greatest treasure. You and I can become so busy. We can get caught up in our plans, in our dreams. Even when our bustling activity is religious—doing things for Jesus—we can be like the people who surrounded Jesus then. How much we need to pause, set aside our projects, and wait quietly to sense Christ’s mood, and pour out our greatest treasures—worship and love. “This is the blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” Matt. 26:17–30. In these words Jesus summed up the significance of His death. His death is God’s guarantee that new promises to mankind have gone into effect. Through the death of Christ forgiveness of sins is made available to all human beings. And His resurrection is the guarantee that Jesus will come again, to escort us to our place in His “Father’s kingdom” (v. 29). As we share what different traditions call Communion, the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist, we affirm our complete trust in His promises. We celebrate our forgiveness. And we anticipate Jesus’ return. “Yet not as I will, but as You will” Matt. 26:36–46. Throughout the Old as well as the New Testament, “cup” frequently stands for some distinct experience. Thus the “cup of His wrath” (Isa. 51:17) stands for the experience of divine judgment, and the “cup of salvation” (Ps. 116:13) stands for the psalmist’s experience of salvation. Jesus’ cup was not so much the physical torment He was about to experience as it was the awful prospect of taking on Himself the sin of humankind. At that prospect, He said, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death” (v. 38). The disciples could not understand, or even stay awake to share the awful loneliness with Him. Yet today we can watch, worship, and learn. Each of these is important. We watch, by meditating on Christ’s sufferings, tuning our hearts to empathize. We worship, praising and thanking Him for the extravagant love He displayed. And we learn, growing in the conviction that like Jesus we must take whatever cup God offers us, and say with our Lord, “Not as I will, but as You will.” As the Resurrection proves, God’s will is best. “Legions of angels” Matt. 26:47–56. Looking at this part of Matthew’s description, we’re tempted to focus on the perfidy of Judas, or the bold defense of Jesus attempted by that “one of Jesus’ companions” other Gospels name as Peter. But it’s appropriate, in this account of Jesus’ last hours, to focus instead on our Lord. What is so impressive here is the fact that doing the will of the Father was not just a matter of surrender for Jesus, but also of resolve. Jesus had just said, “Not as I will, but as You will.” Yet as the crowds advanced to arrest Him, Jesus was fully aware that He did not have to go with them. Even then, He could have called on His Father for armies of angels! But He did not do so. His surrender was real, for it was expressed in the firm resolve that rejected every other option than that of God’s will. It’s easy for you or me, moved by some emotion, to privately or publicly surrender to the Lord. We sing the old hymn, “I’ll do what You want me to do, dear Lord,” and hasten forward. And we mean it with our whole heart. Then. Yet even heartfelt surrender is meaningless unless it is expressed later in firm resolve. As Jesus showed such resolve, so we too are to live our lives. “Tell us if You are the Christ, the Son of God” Matt. 26:57–68. Again our focus is on Christ. We could, of course, profitably study the Jewish court, which had already determined to condemn Jesus and struggled to find some charge to justify its intention. But instead we look at Jesus, silent until asked to confess His deity. Confess it He did, and added that at the final judgment they would see Him again, seated “at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven” (v. 64). With this statement Jesus left every man with but a single choice. He must acknowledge Jesus as God—or reject Him. Christ is either who He said He was, or a madman. The court had, of course, already made its decision. To them what Jesus claimed was blasphemy, and they exulted in the fact that under Jewish law blasphemy called for the death penalty (vv. 65–66). Today many Jewish scholars seek to distinguish the historical Jesus from the Christ of Christianity. The man Jesus, most argue, was a Hasid, a pious and charismatic Jew who emphasized an intimate and vital faith in Israel’s God. Verses like these in Matthew must have been added after the church deified the young rabbi, whose early death was so tragic. But it won’t wash. Jesus still stands before the court of each man’s mind, still claiming to be the Christ, the Son of God. And our eternal destiny hinges on whether our verdict is yes or no. “He went outside and wept bitterly” Matt. 26:69–75. For a moment the scene seems to shift away from Jesus and onto Peter. But the shift is only apparent, not real. As Peter huddled close to the fires burning in the high priest’s courtyard, cursing and denying that he was one of “that Man’s” followers, we seem to see the saddened figure of Jesus seated earlier at the table, and hear His grief-laden voice tell Peter, “This very night . . . you will disown Me three times” (v. 34). We feel an overwhelming sense of Jesus’ presence, even as Peter spoke. And suddenly, Peter felt it too! He realized what he had done, and “went outside and wept bitterly” (v. 75). Jesus knew all along what Peter would do. And, all along, Jesus was willing to sacrifice Himself for men and women who, even with the best intentions, would fall short. All along, Jesus knew. And He knows now. He knows when you and I disown Him by our words and actions. He observes sadly. And when like Peter we at last sense His presence again, it’s all right to weep. Yet even as we do, we have the Cross to remind us that His love for us never faltered or failed. “He went away and hanged himself” Matt. 27:1–10. Again the focus only seems to shift away from Jesus. This time we’re shown Judas, suddenly filled with remorse, trying to return the 30 pieces of silver he’d taken for betraying the Lord. The priests were unfeeling when he cried, “I have betrayed innocent blood.” Their only comment was, “That’s your responsibility.” And the priests, this time, were right. As we read of the incident, the unseen figure of Jesus again dominates. For it must be that memories of Jesus now filled Judas’ mind. In his mind’s eye he saw Jesus, weary, refusing rest in order to help and heal. He heard Jesus speak of God as a loving Heavenly Father. He sensed the touch of Christ’s hand on his arm, and remembered how the Lord reached out in compassion to cure the leper. All along Judas knew that Jesus was innocent, but now, when it was too late, a sense of His beauty and love overwhelm. Unable to rid himself of his images of Christ, crushed by a sense of guilt, yet unwilling to humble himself and ask forgiveness, Judas went out and hanged himself. For the unsaved as well as the believer, Jesus remains history’s one unforgettable Man. His image will either fill us with hope and love, or will stand as an unavoidable specter pointing silently to our guilt. “He had Jesus flogged, and handed Him over to be crucified” Matt. 27:11–26. By all first-century accounts Pilate was a cruel man. He cared nothing for the beliefs or sensitivities of the people in the province he governed for some 10 years. And he undoubtedly enriched himself while serving as the Roman overseer of Judea. Yet even Pilate was uncomfortable when Jesus was brought to him to be sentenced. Ultimately Pilate bowed to pressure brought by the Jewish leaders and the crowds, and condemned Christ to death. He didn’t want to do it. But it was easier to surrender Jesus than to order His release and risk a riot. Again we see the dominance of Jesus. He forces each individual who meets Him to stop, to face some crucial choice, and to decide. Pilate tried to disguise his choice, telling the Jews, “It is your responsibility.” It was not, of course. Only Pilate had the power to order Christ’s crucifixion. And Pilate had the authority to release Him. Pilate tried to shift responsibility for his decision, but whatever he and the eager Jewish leaders said, Pilate remained responsible for his decision in the case of Jesus Christ. So do we, each and every one. We can never shift responsibility for any decision we may make concerning Him. No one else will be condemned for us. And no one else’s saving faith will save you or me. As with Pilate, Jesus stands before us, and we, alone, must decide His case. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom” Matt. 27:32–56. Crucifixions, though reserved for brigands and slaves, were not at all uncommon in the first-century Roman Empire. Yet this one was different. As a variety of spectators watched and listened (see DEVOTIONAL), Jesus cried out to His Father, the skies darkened, and at the moment of His death the earth shook. Even the hardened Roman soldiers were terrified, exclaiming, “Surely He was the Son of God!” Perhaps the most significant happening went almost unnoticed, for it must have been quickly repaired by the shocked priests and Levites who cared for the temple. There a thick, woven curtain was miraculously torn from top to bottom. That curtain isolated the holy of holies, the inner room where once a year the high priest entered to make atonement for Israel’s sins. The writer of Hebrews tells us that the curtain was symbolic, and showed that as yet no one had direct or immediate access to God. Sin still kept humanity from God’s presence. So the tearing of that curtain announced a new era! The way into the holiest was now open! Through the death of Christ, forgiven sinners have direct and immediate access to Israel’s God. Yes, Christ’s body was torn. But through the nails driven into His hands, and the spear thrust into His side, flowed the crimson lifeblood that, once spilled, bridged the ancient gap between God and man, and even now guarantees that we can come, boldly, to the very throne of grace to find help for every need. “That deceiver said, ’After three days I will rise again’ “ Matt. 27:57–66. His friends buried Jesus with broken hearts. Only His enemies remembered His promise to rise again—and to them it was a threat, not a promise. They posted a guard to prevent the disciples from stealing the body to pretend resurrection had taken place. But they must have been uneasy when they went to bed at night. What if Jesus had been telling the truth? What if Jesus were the Son of God! That question was too awful to contemplate, and I suspect that not one of the leaders imagined Jesus would actually rise. In fact, even when He was raised from the dead, the leaders tried desperately to hide the fact (vv. 11–15). But perhaps this is a question we should be asking our friends who suspend judgment on Jesus today. “I know you don’t believe,” we might say, “but what if Jesus really was raised from the dead? What if Jesus is the Son of God? What would it mean to you, if?” And with those questions asked we can walk away, and wait. For Jesus was raised. He is alive. He is the Son of God. And He has sent His Holy Spirit into the world, to hold Jesus up before the minds and hearts of men, until each one gives his or her answer to just those questions today. “I will be with you always” Matt. 28:16–20. Matthew closed with what is called “the Great Commission.” We are to go to everyone, and make disciples. We are to baptize, and teach others to obey the words taught first by our Lord. And we do not have to do it alone! That wonderful figure who so dominates the four Gospels, and especially the last few chapters of Matthew, still stands tall. The One who taught and healed with such authority, the One who died and was raised again, and so was “declared to be the Son of God with power,” retains “all authority in heaven and on earth.” We meet Him in the Gospels. And we now live with Him every day.
Standing By (Matt. 27:32–56)
One of the most moving Bible studies I’ve ever experienced happened in our living room. It was near Easter, and I had our little group of friends turn in their Bibles to this passage. I gave each a drawing of this scene; a drawing that had three circles drawn at varying distances around the cross. Together we looked into the passage and found those who stood closest to the cross—the centurion, the soldiers, the thieves on the other crosses, the man who hurried up to offer Christ drugged vinegar. We filled in the second circle, and then the third. And then I asked each member of our group to select the one person he or she might most probably have been—to take that person’s place—to witness the Crucifixion—and then to tell what he or she felt and thought as he or she witnessed the death of our Lord. What an exercise for you and me, at any time of the year. Are we hardened, insulated against feelings by a protective shell, like the Roman soldiers? Are we trained, educated, competent, like the Roman centurion? Are we burdened with knowledge of our guilt, like the one thief on the cross, or bitter and angry like the other? Are we simply curious, like the man with the sponge of vinegar? Do our hearts break, as did that of Mary His mother and the other women? Are we cynical, like the priests and scribes? Whatever our nature or present state, we can find a person with whom to identify in this chapter. We can stand with them, near the cross. We can watch the Saviour die. And, perhaps, as we do, we too can suddenly be filled with awe as the events unfold, and realize that—whoever we are, or whatever our condition—Jesus hangs there for us! And through His suffering, we can be healed.
Visit the cross often, and find there answers for your deepest needs.
To God be the glory—great things He has done! So loved He the world that He gave us His Son, Who yielded His life an atonement for sin, And opened the life-gate that all may go in. Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, Let the earth hear His voice! Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, Let the people rejoice! O come to the Father through Jesus the Son, And give Him the glory—great things He has done.-Fanny J. Crosby