Don't know why I've only just thought of this now, but here's my Good Friday meditation on Matthew 27:
It is such a vivid story, such that you can almost picture yourself there. And inevitably, our attention is drawn to that man hanging there on the cross, at the end. But to look only there would miss out so many features and themes and details and messages of this story. A few days ago, at an assembly at the Denes, I explained that the message of Good Friday, why it is good, is that Jesus is the substitute for men and women as he dies to bear the full force of God’s anger. And when you have to reduce the message of Good Friday into one sentence, that is it. But there is so much more.
So this morning, we’re going to do something a bit different. We’re going to look at some themes which weave their way through this episode, and through Matthew’s Gospel, which we sadly miss much of the time in the crucifixion story, two in particular. The themes are the overthrow of old Jerusalem and old Israel in preparation for the new Jeruslaem and new Israel, and the dramatic rule of Jesus Christ, the king of kings, in every instance of this event.
First, let’s think about the calamitous failure and judgement of the old Jeruslaem and old Israel.
We saw last week on Palm Sunday that wonderful moment where Jesus is acclaimed by the crowds as he approaches Jerusalem. We saw the crowds going before him, the pilgrims heading up to Jerusalem for Passover, proclaiming their king. But the residents of Jerusalem, the people of the city of God, don’t recognise him. Imagine the Queen in her golden coach on the way to the State Opening of Parliament, with the crowds waving and shouting and praising her. But when she enters Parliament itself, the servants and security staff, the cooks and administrators, the MPs and Lords, they turn their backs and deny her. Those who should be most aware, most exultant, most obedient are instead the most rebellious and disobedient and murderous.
While the crowd outside Jerusalem cheered Jesus, the crowd inside Jerusalem in v. 22 shout “Crucify Him, Crucify Him!”
While Pilate, the ignorant Gentile governor, is amazed at Jesus in v. 14, and sees he is innocent in v. 18, 19, 23, 24, the chief priests and the elders, the men of God, the leaders with knowledge and wisdom, they accuse Jesus, they incite the crowd to murder, they mock the Son of God.
Verse 25 is particularly chilling. Throughout recent chapters, Matthew has talked of the crowd, different groups of people, mobs gathered around various leaders. Here he consciously changes. “All the people answered.” This isn’t just for variety. Matthew is saying, this group represents the whole of Jerusalem, the whole of Israel. Here are the chief priests, the elders, the teachers of the law, and the ordinary people. The people of God, and their leaders, in the city of God, are demanding the death of the Son of God. And what do they cry?
“Let his blood be on us and on our children!” Pilate says, this is nothing to do with me (rather unconvincingly – he is after all sentencing a man he knows is innocent to death). He says, this is not my responsibility, and the people of God eagerly claim responsibility. No, this is our doing, and we’re proud of it.
Of course, it is true, the guilt of Jesus’ blood is on them. As Peter speaks on the Day of Pentecost he says “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” The guilt of Jesus’ blood also does fall on their children. It is their children’s generation which suffers the catastrophic final invasion and destruction of Jerusalem in AD70, as the Romans sweep through the city, murdering all they can, and raze the Temple to the ground.
Jesus himself has anticipated this. In 23:35 he promises “And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah, son of Barakiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. I tell you the truth, all this will come upon this generation.” There is no blood more righteous than that of Jesus, and the people embrace the responsibility for his death.
Then, as Jesus hangs on the cross, the people and the leaders mock him. In v. 40, they say “You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself!” Little do they realise that this is imminent. As Jesus dies, the curtain in the Temple is destroyed, and with it all that the old Temple order stood for, while Jesus’ body, the new Temple, is built in his resurrection.
And God’s judgement on old Jerusalem, his sentencing of the old Israelite order comes at this point. People observe that darkness in the middle of the day is a sign of God’s judgement, his anger outpoured. But where is that judgement directed? Yes, God’s anger is poured out on Jesus on the cross, his anger at our wrongdoing exhausted upon the one who stands in our place. But is that all? The darkness is not just over Jesus. The darkness comes over “all the land.” What land? The land around about Jerusalem, Israel. Amos 8:8-10 promises that God’s own people, his own land, is ripe for judgement, that that judgement will be like the judgement that fell on Egypt in the Exodus, that that judgement will be marked by darkness in the daytime and an earthquake.
So, at the time of the Passover, when the people are remembering God’s judgement falling on the land of Egypt, a judgement marked by a plague of darkness, so that same darkness, accompanied by an earthquake in v. 51, falls upon Jerusalem. God’s judgement is falling on the innocent Jesus in our place, but his judgement is also being poured out on rebellious, disobedient Jerusalem. The tearing of the curtain is a foretaste of what is to come. God’s final judgement of Jerusalem and the old order is delayed until the Roman destruction 40 years later. We could liken it to the judgement and sentencing in a law court. God’s verdict of guilt on old Jerusalem is passed at the crucifixion, but the sentence isn’t carried out until AD 70.
This overthrow of Jerusalem of course carries good news and some warnings for us today.
The tearing of the curtain and the destruction of the Temple in AD70 points us to the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city. We no longer need to look to the old physical Jerusalem. Some Christians think the earthly Jerusalem still has some special claim n Christians: it doesn’t. It has been judged and abandoned by God. Now we look to the greater Jerusalem, the true city of God. The end of the Temple and its sacrifices, its no entry barriers brings in a time of free access to God. Jesus is the true Temple, and through Him we come to God the Father. We need no human priest, Jesus is our priest, we need no animal sacrifice, Jesus is our sacrifice. We can bring our prayers and thanksgivings to God at any time, in any place.
But the fate of Jerusalem also warns us. In v. 18, Pilate understands that the motivation for the priests’ opposition to Jesus was not religious zeal but envy. Jesus was attracting listeners and followers who should have been hanging on the priests’ words. Jesus made them look foolish in debate despite his lack of theological training. Jesus was threatening the positions of power and wealth and authority they had. Many of us have religious authority, be we clergy, churchwardens, small group leaders, Sunday school teachers. And it is easy to be more concerned with protecting our position than submitting to the challenges Jesus poses. Perhaps we are afraid to admit we got something wrong. Maybe we can’t face the fact that someone else with less training, less experience, less position, got something right. Maybe when a brother challenges our conduct we feel, who are you to correct me? Beware the protection of our position.
The other theme which we can miss is the astonishing kingship of Jesus. In the resurrection or the transfiguration, or as he is teaching, it’s easy to see Jesus’ authority. Less so, as he hangs on the cross, but it is clearer than ever there.
It comes throughout the story. First, his control of all that is happening. In v. 14, Pilate is amazed at Jesus. The judge is taken aback, stopped in his tracks, by the accused. Who is really in control of this trial? In v. 19, Pilate’s wife tells him not to have anything to do with that innocent man. She has been troubled in a dream. A Gentile woman understands that Jesus is innocent.
Back in 20:19 Jesus predicted that he would be “condemned to death, mocked, flogged and crucified” having been handed over to the Gentiles by the chief priests and teachers of the law. In 27:2, the chief priests hand him over; 27:26, he is condemned, and flogged; 27:29, he is mocked, and in 27:35 he is crucified. This didn’t come as a surprise to Jesus. He knew every little detail of what would happen to him before the chief priests or the Romans or the crowd knew it.
And finally, he is in control at the time of his death. Most crucifixion victims would be delirious or unconscious by the time death came round, but Jesus can speak lucidly, in v. 46, and has the breath to cry out in a loud voice in v. 50. Finally, he gave up his spirit, perhaps suggesting that he retained control of deciding the exact moment he would die.
In the midst of suffering and humiliation and imprisonment and death, it is easy to think that the cross was some terrible mistake, or that it was the moment of Satan’s triumph, which God was just powerful enough to trump with the resurrection. But, we see here that Jesus is in complete control throughout his trial and execution.
Secondly, there is Jesus’ depiction as a king. The charge against him is his kingship of the Jews, not his radical teaching, not his miraculous healings, not even his alleged Sabbath-breaking. The charge against him is that he claimed to be King of the Jews. And he does not deny this. Then, much of the focus on Jesus’ humiliation is to do with kingship. It is interesting that there is actually comparatively little space spent here in describing Jesus’ physical suffering. The focus is much more on his mock enthronement. In v. 28 they dress him wth robe, crown and sceptre and pay mock homage to him. In v. 37, his title, King of the Jews, is displayed for all to see. The final irony is the mocking of the chief priests in v. 42.
“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.”
But of course it is precisely by dying on the cross, by not saving himself, that he saves others. And it is because he is the King of Israel that he is being crucified, because his kingship was a threat to those same chief priests. The cross, if you like, is his throne.
Thirdly, Jesus’s kingship is seen in his subversive threat to the power of Rome. Sadly, this is something that people often miss. First of all, look at Jesus’ parallel with Barabbas. From Mark’s gospel, we know that Barabbas was not just a petty criminal, but that he had led an insurrection against Roman government. He was a political prisoner. And Jesus takes the place of this political prisoner, indirectly he saves Barabbas’ life. Despite his reluctance, Pilate is willing to let a freedom fighter go free – he himself knows Jesus is a threat to Rome. In v. 38, the word Matthew uses to describe the two men crucified with Jesus is often used to describe rebels against Rome. So we have this picture of Jesus, with the title, King of the Jews, above his head, in the centre of two political prisoners. To many bystanders, the execution would have looked very political, defending Roman political authority against subversion. And finally, there is the cry of the Roman soldiers in v. 54.
These are the same men who mocked Jesus a few verses earlier. These are the same men who paid fake homage to the king. Yet here, as Jesus dies, they see with new eyes.
“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!”
I don’t think we are meant to understand that these Gentile soldiers had suddenly fully gasped Jesus’ identity, though certainly Matthew expects us to listen, to see they spoke better than they knew perhaps. But the title Son of God was a political one. The Roman emperor himself was titled Son of the God… These soldiers see someone on the cross, they see something in the way Jesus dies, that has supreme authority, at least on a par with their own emperor, the greatest authority in the world. And they were right. Jesus was a threat to Rome, to the emperor. Jesus’ gospel is inescapably political. Because Jesus Christ is the King of Kings, and he claims authority over all the kings of the earth.
Certainly Jesus did not come to cause a political rebellion. He told his disciples to put their swords away. He had not come to throw the Romans out of Jerusalem. But Jesus did not just come to be the king of our hearts. We cannot relegate him to some spiritual-only realm. As Jesus hangs on the cross, there is no sacred-secular split. He is the king of the whole world, which was why he was a threat to Rome, not because he would overthrow Rome, but because he claimed a higher authority and a higher allegiance from others than the Emperor could claim.
Christ crucified, the judge of faithless Jerusalem, and the king above all kings.