The Mocking of the Soldiers (vv.27-31)
¶ 27 Then the soldiers of the governor, having taken Jesus with them to the praetorium, gathered against him the whole band, v.27 During the feast days the Romans (Pilate) would bring down extra troops from Caesarea to Jerusalem to prevent a nationalistic riot. Pilate’s guard was now joined by “the whole band” of soldiers. When the soldiers take command of the situation, something comes out that was not seen before. The cruelty of man is seen, not the hot hatred of the Lord’s religious enemies, but the cold cruelty of those who perhaps had never met the Lord. They were just “average” soldiers, but man is a tyrant by nature, and this was quickly made manifest. Man, when given absolute power over others, invariably descends into barbarous cruelty, finding pleasure in the suffering of others.
28 and having taken off his garment, put on him a scarlet cloak; 29 and having woven a crown out of thorns, they put it on his head, and a reed in his right hand; and, bowing the knee before him, they mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews! vv.28-29 Mocked as a King. The soldiers understood that Jesus had been condemned for claiming to be the King of the Jews. The proceeded to mock the Lord in the capacity of king. Four things they gave the Lord Jesus that were all symbols of royalty:
- “A scarlet cloak“. Scarlet is the color of royalty. Kings for millennia have been clothed in scarlet. Evidently this robe was not only scarlet, but was partly purple as well (Mark 15:17; John 19:2). Purple is the color of nobility, and in Mark and John the emphasis is on the Lord’s being the Son of God, while in Matthew it is on His being Messiah. It was a false robe however, for the purposes of mocking Jesus. Incidentally, Herod’s soldiers did a similar thing (Luke 23:11)… evil minds think alike.
- “A crown of thorns“. Crowns are also connected with royalty. There are two words in the New Testament translated crown; one is ‘wreath’ or ‘crown’, the other is ‘diadem’. Crowns are rewards for service and accomplishments. Diadems are worn by right and title, as by royal birth. Here the word is ‘wreath’ and it is the same word used in Hebrews 2:9. Man awarded Jesus with a crown of thorns, but God seated Him at His right hand and gave Him a crown of glory and honor! Thorns are the fruit of the curse (Gen. 3:18), and unwittingly these soldiers depicted the work Jesus would shortly accomplish as the Lamb of God.
- “A reed in His right hand“. The reed was given to Jesus as a mock-scepter; the symbol of authority. Usually, a scepter is made of gold (Est. 4:11), but this was a flimsy stick. It was given to suggest that Jesus was powerless; that He had no real authority. How bold! Yet the Blessed Savior took this mockery in patient submission. I can’t help but think of Jehovah’s words to His Son in Psa. 2:8-9: “Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.”
- Feigned reverence. Perhaps the most cruel of all, the soldiers then “bowed the knee” before the Savior, and “mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” Such behavior is fitting only for a king, but the soldiers did so in cruel mockery. They were mocking the notion of Jewish sovereignty at the same time. Christ will not only be “king of the Jews” but “King of kings, and Lord of lords”. I can’t help but think of that verse; “I have sworn by myself, the word is gone out of my mouth in righteousness, and shall not return, That unto me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear” (Isa. 45:23).
In John 19:5 we find that, when Pilate brought the Lord Jesus forth wearing the crown of thorns and the purple robe, he exclaimed “Behold the man!” They had done so much to humiliate Him, yet as He came forth, He had a royal dignity that could not be mocked. Looking at the Lord then, Pilate had never seen humanity in such perfection. The more they did to humiliate Him, the more that dignity shone forth!
30 And having spit upon him, they took the reed and beat him on his head. v.30 The Gentiles did as the Jews had done earlier: they spit in His face. There is hardly a more universal action of spite, than spitting in another’s face. Cruelty towards Christ was common to both great sectors of humanity. When they beat the Lord on the head, the thorns were no doubt driven into His head, causing physical pain. But there may also have been cruel symbology in the actions, making the statement that His claim to be a king (the mock scepter) had resulted in this fate. Yet in spite of all this mockery, to the eye of faith Jesus was never more royal and dignified than when He endured all this in perfect peace and calm devotion to the will of His God and Father.
31 And when they had mocked him, they took the cloak off him, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify. v.31 When these cruel soldiers grew tired of abusing their victim, the scarlet robe was removed, but we never read of the crown of thorns being removed. We have every reason to think that Jesus wore the crown until after His death, when loving hand prepared His body for the sepulcher.
The Actual Crucifixion of Jesus (vv.32-37)
¶ 32 And as they went forth they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; him they compelled to go with them that he might bear his cross. v.32 It would appear, from John 19:17, that Jesus went forth to the place of crucifixion “bearing his cross”. Often a condemned man was forced to carry his own cross, as a symbol of shame and humiliation. But often, after being beaten and scourged, a condemned man would not have the physical strength to complete the journey under such a heavy load, and might possibly die of exhaustion. The soldiers were under strict orders to execute by crucifixion, and therefore they would need to carry the cross themselves when the prisoner was exhausted. Apparently, Jesus was physically weak, and so the soldiers surmised that He would not be able to carry the cross all the way alone. Though He was physically weak, the soldiers had no way of knowing that it was impossible for the Lord’s life to be taken by man; “no man takes it from me” (John 10:18). Later, while hanging on the cross, Jesus cries twice with a loud voice (v.46, v.50), strengthening the fact that His life was not taken from Him. Seeing a North African man, Simon of Cyrene, the soldiers conscripted him to bear the cross of Jesus when He could go no further alone. Indeed the time came when “on him [Simon] they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus” (Luke 23:26). It would appear that Jesus carried the cross all the way “to the place” (John 19:17), but part way along Simon was compelled to carry the back part (“after” or “behind Jesus”). Although it was an expression of the soldiers’ cruelty, years later Simon must have looked back at the experience and regarded it a special privilege! Having carried the cross, Simon no doubt witnessed the crucifixion of Christ. Mark identifies Simon as “the father of Alexander and Rufus” (Mark 15:21), indicating that Simon was well known at the time of writing by early Christians. In Romans 16:13 Paul salutes a brother named Rufus, who was likely the son of Simon. William Kelly said; “The Lord repaid with interest the burden of that day.” His son Rufus is found among the elect! And not only Rufus, but his mother (Simon’s wife) was saved as well, and became a mother-figure to the Apostle Paul!
33 And having come to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a skull, v.33 The place of crucifixion was just outside the gate of Jerusalem (John 19:20; Heb. 13:11-13), morally outside the religious system that had rejected Christ; i.e. “without the camp”. It was called ‘Golgotha’ by the Jews (John 19:17), and by the Latins, ‘calvariae locus’ from which we get our English word ‘calvary’ (Luke 23:33). Both have the same meaning; “the place of a skull”. It was probably thus named for the exposed bones of many criminals and zealots who had met their fate at the hands of the Romans. Morally, a skull is an empty head… and the scene that unfolded at this awful sight revealed that the wisdom of this world is but foolishness with God (1 Cor. 1:20; 2:8). Evidently, this site was near to the road leading up to the gate, because the “passers-by” were able to see and mock the Lord hanging on the cross.
34 they gave to him to drink vinegar mingled with gall; and having tasted it, he would not drink. v.34 Just before the Lord was crucified, the soldiers taunted the hungry and thirsty Man with vinegar and gall. Vinegar was wine that had gone bad and become nauseous and unfit to drink. Gall or “bile” is a bitter and poisonous plant, perhaps the Poppy, which grows abundantly in Palestine. It was offered to those who were about to die in mockery, because the poison would stupefy the brain in those moments of agony. The Lord tasted it… felt the bitterness of human ingratitude, but would not drink of it (Matt. 27:34). He would accept no alleviation of the pain. The cruel soldiers were not content with merely refusing to give Jesus refreshment; instead they aggravated and embittered His sufferings by offering Him poisonous food and revolting drink. In short, they treated Him worse than an animal. “They gave me also gall for my meat; and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink” (Psa. 69:21). Note: the word “wine” (‘oinon’) in v.34 is a different word than “vinegar” (‘oxous’) used in Matt. 27:48, Mark 15:36, Luke 23:36 and John 19:30, according to six manuscripts including the Codex Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. In the later instance (v.48), it was a thin wine that was unpleasant to drink. In Luke 23:36, the soldiers mock Him by offering the Lord a drink… but their offer was in jest. At the end of three hours of darkness, the Lord did drink what was brought to Him after saying, “I thirst”, that the scripture might be fulfilled (John 19:28). But He refused to drink the vinegar mingled with gall because it would have dulled His physical senses. So Jesus was presented with some form of vinegar three times: first to dull His senses, which He refused, second to mock His thirst, and thirdly after He issued a Divine command as the Son of God. It is important to understand that the numbing poison Jesus refused was different from what He drank after the three hours.
35 And having crucified him, they parted his clothes amongst themselves, casting lots. v.35
Crucifixion was a method of execution used by the Romans for slaves, pirates, and enemies of the state. It was considered a most shameful and disgraceful way to die (Phil. 2:8). Condemned Roman citizens were usually exempt from crucifixion except for major crimes against the state, such as high treason. The victim was either tied or more often nailed to a large wooden cross and left to hang until dead. Iron spikes were driven between the wrist bones, and ankle bones. Gravity prevented the victim from using the chest muscles to breathe. Shallow breathing was only possible using the abdominal muscles. A painful pushing up with the legs was required to exhale. The intention was to inflict rapidly increasing pain to achieve a prolonged, agonizing death. Death usually came by asphyxiation which was hastened in some cases by breaking of the legs below the knee, as was the case with the two thieves. Crucifixion is referred to in scripture as being "lifted up" (John 3:14; 8:28; 12:32), as "hanging on a tree" (Acts 5:30; 10:39; 13:29; Gal. 3:13), and as "stretching forth the hands" (John 21:18).
Jesus was not only denied basic humanitarian needs, but He was treated like an animal. As He hung on the cross, the soldiers divided His garments into four parts (one for each soldier) and gambled for His coat (John 19:23-24). This was all done before His very eyes. One great thing that differentiates humans from animals is that we wear clothing. What deep suffering our Lord must have endured as those last memoirs of human identity were stripped from Him. “They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture”
36 And sitting down, they kept guard over him there. v.36 At this time there was a tremendous surge in Jewish nationalism, and insurrections against Roman authority were frequency seen in Judea. The soldiers sat down and kept guard over the Lord on the cross, to prevent His followers from taking Him down. We cannot help but think of them sitting down and taking their ease while Jesus was struggling for each breath on the cross.
37 And they set up over his head his accusation written: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. v.37 It was customary for the victim of crucifixion to have their “accusation” written over the cross, that onlookers might learn by example, and further crime be deterred. Since Jesus had done no crime, and since Pilate knew this and also knew Jesus had been delivered for political reasons, he had the placard over Jesus’ cross state the truth that Jesus had claimed; that “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews”. It was a backhanded way to mock the Jews, by showing the public how Rome could dispense with any form of “Jewish royalty”. In Mark, the title given there means; “The king of the Jews, this fellow!”, as if Jesus was the last person the Jews would want for their king. In the wisdom and sovereignty of God, the title actually proclaimed the truth! In John 19:21-22 we find that the Jewish leaders complained about this title, but Pilate refused to change it. God was in control! Elsewhere we find that it was written in Hebrew (likely Syriac or Aramaic), Greek, and Latin (John 19:20). What was called Hebrew was likely Syriac or Aramaic, and was the language of the Jewish country people, who would have been arriving for the feast. Greek was the language of the common Roman citizen. Latin was the language of the Roman government. The truth the Jesus is the King of the Jews was declared for all the world to read! The full accusation, by comparing all four gospels, read: “This is Jesus of Nazareth, the King of the Jews”. Matthew leaves out the part about Nazareth, because this gospel focuses on the presentation of Christ to Israel as Messiah, and His rejection as such.
The Mocking of the Jews (vv.38-44)
38 Then are crucified with him two robbers, one on the right hand and one on the left. v.38 By crucifying the Lord between two malefactors, His enemies were associating Him with evildoers. The difference between Jesus and the thieves is summarized best in the words of the repentant thief; “we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss” (Luke 23:41). This indignity was suffered by our blessed Lord until His death. This, as Mark 15:28 brings out, was a fulfillment of Isa. 53:12; “And the scripture was fulfilled, which saith, And he was numbered with the transgressors.”
39 But the passers-by reviled him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou art Son of God, descend from the cross. 41 And in like manner the chief priests also, mocking, with the scribes and elders, said, 42 He saved others, himself he cannot save. He is King of Israel: let him descend now from the cross, and we will believe on him. 43 “He trusted upon God; let him save him now if he will have him.” [Psa. 22:8] For he said, I am Son of God. 44 And the robbers also who had been crucified with him cast the same reproaches on him. vv.39-44 We have three classes here that mock the Lord Jesus: the passers-by, the Jewish leaders, and the thieves. Generally speaking, they represent middle, upper, and lowest social class. Society united in their mockery of the Son of God, the Messiah of Israel. It shows that the human heart is basically the same in every place. “All they that see me laugh me to scorn: they shoot out the lip, they shake the head” (Psa. 22:7). Given the opportunity, each one of us would have had our hand it this greatest of all atrocities.
- The passers-by (v.40) would have been Jews from all over Palestine that had come to Judea and were passing through the gate to celebrate the Passover in Jerusalem. Think of that, these ones walked by the true Passover as He hung on the cross, and they shook their heads at Him in mockery. The misconstrued statements of our Lord in John 2:19 and Matt 24:2 had gone out over all the country. They mocked His power, as He hung there crucified in weakness, and they also mocked His Divinity; “If thou art Son of God, descend from the cross.”
- The Jewish leaders (vv.41-43) rose even higher is their insults. Down through history, the worst crimes can often be laid at the feet of false religion. They mocked His apparent helplessness in the face of all Jesus had done to help others; “He saved others, himself he cannot save.” They mocked His Messiahship, the fact that He claimed to be King of Israel, yet was crucified outside Jerusalem. They falsely promised to believe in Him, if He would come down from the cross. Finally, they dishonored Him as Son of God. What is most awful about this suffering is that they were calling into question His identity as the Son of God, and His eternal relationship to the Father! If ever there was love, it was the Father’s love for the Son. If ever there was acceptance, it was the Son’s acceptance with the Father. If ever there was honor, respect, appreciation, and relationship, it was between the Father and the Son. All this was denied and thrown in the face of the suffering Savior. As if God would not have His Son! And Jesus had to let that mockery stand unanswered, not because it was true – nothing could be further from the truth – but because He had a deeper motive. But what suffering that must have caused in His inmost being. To me, this insult from the Sanhedrin was the deepest wound that humanity inflicted on His soul, apart from the weight of our sins. They quote from Psa. 22:8, unwittingly fulfilling the voice of the godless mockers. But what was the true reason He could not save Himself? Because He was not thinking of Himself. One hymn (L.F. #257) so beautifully describes the reasons why He could not save Himself; all of which are well supported by scripture. “Himself He could not save;” because: He must satisfy the righteous claims of a Holy God, He must stand in our place as our Substitute and our Surety, and because of His love and devotion to His Father. That is why He did not save Himself. That is why He hung there in silence while the seed of the serpent railed against Him. But God be praised, that insult has been answered in the resurrection and glorification of His Son!
- The robbers (v.44) who were suffering along with the Savior joined in the mockery. They vented their anguish on the blameless One. Even degraded criminals insulted Him. Jesus went below the lowest of the low, such that He could say; “I am a worm, and no man” (Psa. 22:6). Matthew doesn’t record it, but at some point in the first three hours one of the thieves repented (Luke 23:40-44), rebuked his fellow who continued to rail against Christ, and ultimately received the assurance that after death, he would be with Jesus in Paradise. Matthew leaves out those details because he focuses on the testimony to the nation, and their rejection of their Messiah.
Much of this mockery was inflicted in the form of words. Perhaps this is what the writer of Hebrews described as “such contradiction of sinners” (Heb. 12:3). The word contradiction means opposition (‘contra’) through words (‘diction’).
Himself He could not save,
For He the Surety stood,
For all who now rely,
Upon His precious blood.
The Three Hours of Darkness (vv.45-49)
Christ's Atoning Sufferings are what Christ endured on the cross to put away sin in three hours of darkness. At Gethsemane the Lord came to terms with his Father about the cross, but at Calvary He paid the debt. For all the sufferings that came before this awful hour, our minds can only begin to comprehend. But that which Christ suffered to make expiation for sin transcends the powers of the human mind, and the confines of the human heart.
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Three parts to Atonement. It is important to understand that there are three parts to atonement; the sufferings, death, and blood-shedding. The sufferings of Christ at the hand of God, both to bear the punishment that we deserved and to render a perfect satisfaction to God, were required to make atonement. But if He had come down from the cross after the three hours, atonement still would not be complete. In the death of Christ, we have His whole Person offered up as a sacrifice to God. The death of the Victim was required. Then His blood was shed; blood which contained all the value of His atoning-sufferings and atoning-death. The blood from the scourging, the nail prints, and the crown of thorns was shed before the atoning sufferings and death. It was the blood that flowed from the side of a dead Christ that contained all the value of His sufferings in three dark hours, and all the value of His life offered up to God in death. Atonement could not be accomplished without all three of these components. But the subject at hand is the atoning sufferings, which is the first of the three components.
45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour; v.45 The hours of darkness. The next phase of the Lord’s sufferings are distinguished clearly by the period “from the sixth hour … until the ninth hour”. During this period, “there was darkness over the whole land”. What took place in those three hours? We read in other places that Jesus suffered for sin (1 Pet. 3:18), that He bore our sins (Isa. 53:6; Rom. 4:25; 1 Cor. 15:3; 1 Pet. 2:24), and that He was made sin for us on the cross (2 Cor. 5:21). We sometimes call this type of suffering atoning or expiatory sufferings; i.e. God judging Christ on account of sin. Jesus hung on the cross for six hours before He died, and there is nothing in the first three hours that answers to the atoning sufferings. Therefore, the atoning sufferings must have taken place in the darkness from 12:00PM (the sixth hour in Jewish reckoning) until 3:00PM (the ninth hour in Jewish reckoning). This is confirmed by the cry of abandonment in v.46 that Jesus uttered at the end of the three hours, and also the victorious cry uttered before His death (John 19:30). The work was not “finished” until the end of the three hours. Why was it dark? I’ve heard a number of thoughts, but two commend themselves especially. First, the physical darkness was a symbol of the spiritual darkness into which Jesus entered at that time. Second, that God, by the darkness, shut out everything else while He dealt with the issue of sin.
46 but 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?” [Psa. 22:1] v.46 The cry of abandonment. Not only did Jehovah “lay on Him the iniquity of us all”, but also “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). To put away sin, Jesus went down into the place of sin itself, and was judged as sin by a Holy God. He was judged as a man alone with God… never wielding His divine power to shelter Him from the unmitigated wrath of God. As the Incarnate Love, He felt in His own holy soul the horror of sin, and endured the wrath of God against it. While making atonement, He was forsaken by His God. At the end of three hours, He uttered the cry of abandonment; “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” in perfect fulfillment of Psa. 22:1, and so we could know what transpired in those three hours. There in Psa. 22, we have the inner thoughts and feelings of the suffering Christ, as He pours out His heart. The depth of emotion is incredible; “O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not… Our fathers trusted in thee: they trusted, and thou didst deliver them… But I am a worm, and no man” (Psa. 22:1-6). Note that the words “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani” are in Aramaic.
Seven Utterances of Christ. The cry of abandonment is one of seven utterances of Christ as He hung on the cross. I will try to give the seven in chronological order, as far as we can tell:
- “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34)
- “Today thou shalt be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43)
- “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (Matt. 27:46; Mark 15:34)
- “Woman, behold thy son!… Behold thy mother!” (John 19:26-27)
- “I thirst” (John 19:28)
- “It is finished” (John 19:30)
- “Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46)
One thing you notice is that the first and last are prayers to His Father. Another thing is that, in spite of all the indignities heaped upon Him, nothing but gracious words proceeded out of His mouth toward men. What perfection! As to the order, John does not mention the three hours of darkness, and therefore it is not clear whether the Lord addressed Mary and John before or after the three hours. Yet it would appear that it is connected with “it is finished”, in which case the victor’s cry followed immediately the address to John and Mary.
47 And some of those who stood there, when they heard it, said, This man calls for Elias. 48 And immediately one of them running and getting a sponge, having filled it with vinegar and fixed it on a reed, gave him to drink. 49 But the rest said, Let be; let us see if Elias comes to save him. vv.47-49 The reaction of the bystanders. The Lord had uttered the cry of abandonment in the Aramaic language, which was falling out of use in Israel, being rapidly replaced by Greek. Some of the bystanders mistakenly thought He was calling for Elijah to come and save Him. One standing by, upon hearing the awful cry, out of pity it would seem, ran to get vinegar (thin wine) and administered it to the Lord by means of a sponge attached to a reed. The Lord received the vinegar, which was not “mingled with gall” as what the soldiers had presented earlier. In John 19 we have the same event from a different angle; the vinegar brought to Him in response to His statement, “I thirst”. But the rest of the bystanders tried to discourage the one person, saying “let be” (i.e. don’t help Him), and quite sarcastically, “let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.”
“Jesus felt it all; but the anguish of His trial, where after all He was a calm and faithful witness, the abyss of His sufferings, contained something far more terrible then all this malice or abandonment of man. The floods doubtless lifted up their voices. One after another the waves of wickedness dashed against Him; but the depths beneath that awaited Him, who could fathom? His heart, His soul — the vessel of a divine love — could alone go deeper than the bottom of that abyss which sin had opened for man, to bring up those who lay there, after He had endured its pains in His own soul. A heart that had been ever faithful was forsaken of God. Where sin had brought man, love brought the Lord, but with a nature and an apprehension in which there was no distance, no separation, so that it should be felt in all its fulness. No one but He who was in that place could fathom or feel it.”
The Death of Jesus and the Signs the Followed (vv.50-54)
Seven testimonies that this was no ordinary event: (1) the three hours of darkness, (2) the loud cry before death, (3) the earthquake, (4) the rent veil, and (5) blood from the dead Christ.
50 And Jesus, having again cried with a loud voice, gave up the ghost. v.50 The Death of Jesus.
We can see clearly from this verse that Jesus did not die of exhaustion. His cried with a loud voice. We find in John 19 what He said; “It is finished!”
The Lord had finished everything proper to Him as a man as well as the Savior, including the work of redemption, fulfillment of prophecy, and the responsibilities of human relationships. After all was completed, then He “gave up the spirit”
, laying His life down as a sovereign act of His own Divine will, and as a willing victim. No one but the Lord could do this; “There is no man that hath power over the spirit to retain the spirit; neither hath he power in the day of death”
(Ecc. 8:8). Man was only the instrument of His death, but does stand responsible for the crime committed there. In death, His spirit was separated from His body, and He was with the thief “in Paradise”
. Some have mistakenly taken 1 Pet. 3:19 to mean that Jesus went to the lake of fire for three days. Certainly, the lake of fire is not Paradise. Nor can the Messianic expression Psa. 16:10 be twisted to support that; “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption”.
The word “hell” is really Sheol, or Hades. It refers to the intermediate state
51 And lo, the veil of the temple was rent in two from the top to the bottom, and the earth was shaken, and the rocks were rent, 52 and the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints fallen asleep arose, 53 and going out of the tombs after his arising, entered into the holy city and appeared unto many. vv.51-53 The Signs that Followed. The signs following the death of Christ showed the nation of Israel, and the whole world, that Jesus was no ordinary man, and that His claims were true. But more than that, the signs symbolized the great spiritual victory that was won through the death of Christ:
- The Veil… the barrier between man and God. In the tabernacle and later in the temple, there was a thick curtain that blocked the entrance into the holy of holies, which was where the ark was, and the presence of God. Only the high priest was allowed to enter once a year, and not without blood. “The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest” (Heb. 9:8). When Jesus died, the veil (ten cubits tall) was physically torn “from the top to the bottom” showing the hand of God at work. But really, it pictured the spiritual opening up of the way into the presence of God. The veil had to be torn so that God could come out to man in blessing, and so man could go in to God for worship. As a result of Jesus’ death, we have “boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh” (Heb. 10:19-20). God was also showing that the whole system of Judaism (or of any religious element that interposes between God and man) was set aside, although Judaism continued thereafter in a condition of deadness. The priests might very well have seen the veil being rent, as they would have been in the temple; because the ninth hour was the “hour of prayer” (Acts 3:1), and the time offering the evening burnt sacrifice (2 Chron. 2:4; 1 Kings 18:36).
- Death… the power of the Devil. The next series of events were various upheavals in nature; earthquakes, the rocks rent, and finally, the tombs opened. The death of Christ was outwardly a scene of ultimate defeat, but it was really the foundation for ultimate victory! It was really “through death” that Jesus “destroyed him that had the power of death, that is, the devil” (Heb. 2:14). This was manifested outwardly in the earthquake, and the opening of the graves. The bodies of many of the sleeping saints arose “after his resurrection”, and were publicly manifested in the city. It had to be that way, because Christ is “the firstfruits of them that slept” (1 Cor. 15:20). This event was but a demonstration of what it yet to take place just prior to the rapture, when all those who are Christ will rise at His coming (1 Cor. 15:23). What happened to these risen saints? No one knows, because God has not told us.
54 But the centurion, and they who were with him on guard over Jesus, seeing the earthquake and the things that took place, feared greatly, saying, Truly this man was Son of God. v.54 In addition to the rent veil and the earthquake, etc. God used the mouth of a Gentile bystander to bear witness to the truth that the Jews had refused to accept. There is some disagreement on whether this centurion was actually converted. From this verse I think it is evident that he was either converted or used to bear witness to the truth of the Sonship of Christ. Some have pointed out that the centurion does not use the definite article; he says “truly this man was son of god”. The title “son of god” was one claimed by Caesars, Persian kings, and many other monarchs. However, the Lord Himself did not use the definite article when He claimed to be the Son; “I said, I am Son of God” (John 10:36). Also, the centurion likely had heard the mocking of the Jews, and perhaps understood that Jesus had been crucified for claiming to be the Son of God. Having seen the crucifixion, death, and signs, he “feared greatly”. Now he realized that what Jesus was crucified for was true, and he boldly proclaimed it. In Luke we find that the centurion also said; “Certainly this was a righteous man” (Luke 23:47).
The Women Who Followed (vv.55-56)
¶ 55 And there were there many women beholding from afar off, who had followed Jesus from Galilee ministering to him, 56 among whom was Mary of Magdala, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. vv.55-56 The Spirit through the evangelist takes note of the women which followed Jesus afar off. Where were all the men? They had fled earlier when Jesus was arrested. It is striking that we find not men, but women; first at the cradle, last at the cross, and first at the grave. Those who were by nature “the weaker vessel” (2 Pet. 3:7) are found standing when natural strength has fled. There were many women, but three notable women were mentioned: Mary Magdalene, Mary the wife of Cleopas (also the mother of James and Joses), and Salome who was the wife of Zebedee and mother to James and John. Mary of Magdala was a poor woman “out of whom he had cast seven demons” (Mark 16:9). After her deliverance, she followed Jesus around and “ministered unto Him” (Luke 8:2-3). She was the very first one to arrive at the empty tomb, and she was duly rewarded by the first post-resurrection appearance of Jesus (John 20:11-17). She is characterized by devotion to the Lord, and certainly her heart was broken by this scene. The second Mary is called in John “the wife of Cleopas”, and here “the mother of James and Joses”. In v.61 she is called “the other Mary”. There was a third Mary as well, though not mentioned in Matthew. From John 19 we find that Mary the mother of the Lord was also at the cross, beholding these things. Perhaps at this time the prophecy of Simeon was fulfilled; “Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also” (Luke 2:35).
The Burial of Jesus (vv.57-66)
Joseph’s Tomb (vv.57-61)
¶ 57 Now when even was come there came a rich man of Arimathaea, his name Joseph, who also himself was a disciple to Jesus. 58 “He”, going to Pilate, begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be given up. vv.57-58 Another part of Simeon’s prophecy stated that “this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel… that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed” (Luke 2:34-35). Here was a disciple of the Lord that we read nothing about before this time. He comes forward to care for the body of Jesus. We do not know his circumstances, other than that he was rich. John 19:38 tells us that “he was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly through fear of the Jews”. He was a secret disciple; not prepared to take a stand for Jesus in His lifetime. But here we read of a change for Joseph, who was also joined by Nicodemus, the disciple that came to Jesus by night. Having witnessed the death of Christ, they were driven to bold action. We find in Mark 15:43 that Joseph went in “boldly” to Pilate. Joseph and Nicodemus had much to lose, including their standing in the Sanhedrin (Joseph was a member as well; Mark 15:43), but this did not deter these ones from coming forward. Surely this is an example of the Lord’s words; “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me” (John 12:32).
59 And Joseph having got the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 60 and laid it in his new tomb which he had hewn in the rock; and having rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, went away. vv.59-60 God saw fit that the body of His Son would be cared for by gentle and loving hands. The actions of Joseph unwittingly fulfilled Isa. 53:9, which says “And men appointed his grave with the wicked, but he was with the rich in his death, because he had done no violence, neither was there guile in his mouth.” Once the atoning work was complete (the sufferings, death, and blood-shedding) God stepped in providentially to overrule any further intentions of men against His Servant and His Son. Men had “appointed” a grave for the dead Christ with the other malefactors; perhaps a mass grave for executed convicts. But instead, God moved Joseph of Arimathea to offer his “new tomb” for the body of the dead Christ. It was cruel hands that nailed Jesus to the cross, but it was loving hands to took His body down. The reason is given in Isaiah: God refused to have His Son buried with criminals, because He was not one; “he had done no violence, neither was there guile in his mouth”. Instead, Jesus was “with the rich” in His death! The tomb was new (hadn’t been used before), and the linen winding-cloth was clean. We get a little picture of this in the law of the burnt offering. After the fire had consumed the sacrifice, the priest was to “put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes without the camp unto a clean place” (Lev. 6:11). The sacrifice of Christ was now completed. In this case, the sacrifice consumed the fire! The dead body of Christ was what was left, sort of like the ashes that remained after the burnt offering. God wanted the priests to care for those ashes, because they were the memory of the sacrifice. In like manner, God saw fit that the body of Jesus would be laid to rest in a “clean place”… how touching!
61 But Mary of Magdala was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the sepulchre. v.61 Even after Joseph (and Nicodemus) had “went away” (v.60), the two Mary’s remained “sitting opposite the sepulchre”. They wanted to stay until the very last minute possible… although they had to leave shortly before the Sabbath day began. Their affections held them there. The object of the hearts lay behind the stone, and they had nowhere else to go.
The Attempt to Secure the Sepulchre (vv.62-66)
¶ 62 Now on the morrow, which is after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees came together to Pilate, 63 saying, Sir, we have called to mind that that deceiver said when he was still alive, After three days I arise. 64 Command therefore that the sepulchre be secured until the third day, lest his disciples should come and steal him away, and say to the people, He is risen from the dead; and the last error shall be worse than the first. vv.62-64 The “morrow, which is after the preparation” is the Sabbath day, which began our Friday evening. Jesus was buried Friday evening (prior to 6:00PM). The chief priests and Pharisees came together to Pilate a few hours later, which was the beginning of Sabbath by Jewish reckoning; c.p. “the end of the Sabbath” (Matt. 28:1). The Jewish leaders could not rest on the Sabbath, because they had an uneasy fear about their evil deed. So often fear is a result of a bad conscience; i.e. the same reason why it is not uncommon for a murderer to return to a buried corpse to move it elsewhere. They well knew that Jesus had predicted His third-day resurrection on many occasions, although they had conveniently misconstrued this to be a reference to temple vandalism in His trials. They really knew what He meant. How deceitful and double-tongued! The chief priests and Pharisees were more intelligent about the Lord’s words than the disciples were, sad to say. They were making an effort to tie up any “loose ends”, so to speak. They were afraid the disciples would steal the body of Jesus that night and claim that He was risen. If Jesus were to be proclaimed as risen from the dead (a miracle of unsurpassed greatness), the chief priests and the Pharisees might lose control of the people; “and the last error shall be worse than the first”. The “first error” the rulers felt was allowing Jesus to get away as long as He had, before they could arrange His death. The “last error” would be if all their efforts were turned upside down because of a few loose ends. They wanted Pilate to secure the sepulcher until three days were passed.
65 And Pilate said to them, Ye have a watch: go, secure it as well as ye know how. 66 And they went and secured the sepulchre, having sealed the stone, with the watch besides. vv.65-66 Pilate would not secure the sepulcher himself, but provided a “watch”, or a small cohort of soldiers, for the Jews to use however they wanted. This was allowed by God such that the leaders of Israel were responsible for trying to suppress the witness of the resurrection. Pilate said, “secure it as well as ye know how”… and they did. They sealed the stone (whether this implies cement or merely an official wax seal as in Daniel 6:17) and set a Roman watch outside the sepulcher. They did the most they could, but their best was far short of the power of God in resurrection. Their efforts to secure the tomb only served to involuntarily underscore and magnify that the resurrection really did take place. They ended up defeating themselves!