Jesus is Crucified

33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of the Skull), 34 they gave Jesus wine to drink mixed with gall. But when he had tasted it, he refused to drink. 35 After they had crucified him, they divided his garments by casting lots; 36 then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And they placed over his head the written charge against him: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. 38 Two revolutionaries were crucified with him, one on his right and the other on his left. 39 Those passing by reviled him, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself, if you are the Son of God, (and) come down from the cross!” 41 Likewise the chief priests with the scribes and elders mocked him and said, 42 “He saved others; he cannot save himself. So he is the king of Israel! Let him come down from the cross now, and we will believe in him. 43 He trusted in God; let him deliver him now if he wants him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 The revolutionaries who were crucified with him also kept abusing him in the same way. 

45 From noon onward, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. 46 And about three o‘clock Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 Some of the bystanders who heard it said, “This one is calling for Elijah.” 48 Immediately one of them ran to get a sponge; he soaked it in wine, and putting it on a reed, gave it to him to drink. 49 But the rest said, “Wait, let us see if Elijah comes to save him.” 50 But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit. 51 And behold, the veil of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth quaked, rocks were split, 52 tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had fallen asleep were raised. 53 And coming forth from their tombs after his resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 The centurion and the men with him who were keeping watch over Jesus feared greatly when they saw the earthquake and all that was happening, and they said, “Truly, this was the Son of God!” (27:33-56)

Note: this is where the ‘short form’ ends

Christian preaching throughout the millennia and recent movies such as The Passion of the Christ have stressed the grim and cruel details of the scourging and the crucifixion. But the Gospel writers do not do so, and Matthew remarkably passes over the actual fastening to the cross in a bare participle (v. 35a). In the Greek the crucifixion is a subordinate clause of the main sentence. Matthew’s interest is more in the meaning of the event, and his emphasis falls again, as in vv. 27–31, on the element of mockery, not now by Gentiles, but by Jews reviling their ‘king’. Even more remarkably, in this improbable setting some of the highest Christological titles come to expression: King of the Jews, temple-builder, Son of God, King of Israel, and again Son of God. In their very mockery, they ironically reinforce those titles, for it is in the degrading fate of crucifixion that Jesus’ noble mission is accomplished. The shocking paradox of a crucified Messiah could hardly be more sharply underlined.

The drink of wine mixed with gall (‘myrrh’ in Mark) is usually understood as a narcotic to reduce the pain of crucifixion, and Sanhedrin 43 a tells us that such a drink was offered by the noble ladies of Jerusalem to those about to be executed (a practice inspired by Prov. 31:6–7). If so, Jesus’ refusal of it might mean that he was determined to undergo his fate in full consciousness. At any rate, for Matthew its main significance lies in the reminiscence of Psalm 69:22 (heightened by his use of the lxx word gall, not ‘myrrh’), which will be echoed again in v. 48. This psalm, together with Psalm 22, will re-echo throughout the account of the crucifixion, thus presenting Jesus as the fulfillment of the figure of the ‘righteous sufferer’ of those psalms.

The imagery from Ps 22 begins with the soldiers casting lots (Ps 22:19) an otherwise standard Roman practice. But also here Matthew mentions that from this point on Jesus is guarded by the Roman authorities perhaps to counter later 1st century rumors of Jesus’ escaping death on the cross. It also paves the way for their exclamation in v. 54, which forms the theological climax of the story.

The deep irony of the whole trail, mocking and crucifixion scene is concentrated on the placard placed on the cross. It was intended as a coarse joke, but the reader knows its profound truth as the most fundamental of Christian professions: This is Jesus, the King of the Jews. This would-be profession stands in stark contrast to the mocking that follows.

On the cross Jesus is derided by three groups: passersby (v.39), the whole Sanhedrin (v.41), and the revolutionaries (v.44). The narrative recalls taunts from the earlier trials (e.g., reviled here is the same as blasphemed used in 26:65) while echoing imagery from Ps 22

All who see me mock me; they curl their lips and jeer; they shake their heads at me: “You relied on the LORD–let him deliver you; if he loves you, let him rescue you.” (Ps 22:8-9)

At the same time Matthew subtly points back to Jesus’ own teaching to the disciples. The challenge for Jesus, who saved others, to save himself, while a taunt on the lips of those passing by is ironically Jesus’ teaching (For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 16:25).  Their last taunt if you are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” is paradoxical. It is exactly because he is the Son of God that he is on the cross, to come down would be to repudiate the will of his Father. The Sanhedrin and the revolutionaries join in the same chorus. There are no repentant thieves in Matthew’s account. There are none among them who will believe.

Now the picture begins to change, as we see both in the accompanying events and in Jesus’ own words and attitude something of the true significance of what is happening. As before, Matthew shows no interest in the physical nature of Jesus’ suffering, or the medical cause of death, but by a series of clear allusions to Old Testament passages continues to point to Jesus’ death as the moment of fulfillment, leading up in v. 54 to a climactic confession of faith from the most unlikely source.

There could not be a natural eclipse at the time of the Passover full moon. What could account for the darkness? Perhaps it was caused by a dust storm, or heavy cloud cover, but it is more likely to be understood, as Matthew surely intended, as a direct sign of God’s displeasure, as in Amos 8:9 (On that day, says the Lord GOD, I will make the sun set at midday and cover the earth with darkness in broad daylight.)

The scene of Jesus’ cry out from the cross is marked by uniqueness within Matthew’s narrative – from the use of the word anaboaō (cried out used only here in the New Testament) to the remarkable address to God: this is the only time in the Synoptic Gospels where Jesus addresses God without calling him “Father.” The words are, of course, a quotation of the first verse of Psalm 22, a psalm which moves from despairing appeal to triumphant faith, and the Christian reader can, with hindsight, see the appropriateness of this total message. But it is dishonest to interpret Jesus’ words as referring to the part of the psalm which he did not echo – something we perhaps do to allow us to quickly move beyond the cross. As throughout the crucifixion scene, it is the suffering of the righteous man in Psalm 22, not his subsequent vindication, which is alluded to. But the fact that Jesus can still appeal to ‘my God’ places his sense of abandonment worlds apart from a nihilistic despair.  This moment on the cross, this moment of abandonment – this is the ‘cup’ which he has willingly accepted from his Father’s hand (26:36–46).

Jesus’ cry is heard by those nearby as calling for Elijah, understood in Jewish piety as the one who would bring comfort and succor from God to the afflicted one. Perhaps the offer of wine was an act of kindness, to which others in the crowd mockingly objected that, if any relief was to be given, it should be given by Elijah in response to Jesus’ supposed appeal.

But Jesus cried out again in a loud voice, and gave up his spirit. Matthew gives no indication whether the ‘cry’ is the triumphant ‘It is finished’ of John 19:30, or a further cry of agony like that in v. 46, but the use of the verb krazō (‘cry’) may be a further reminiscence of Psalm 22, where this verb occurs in the lxx of vv. 2, 5, 24.  The expression ‘gave up his spirit’ (translated in other texts as “breathed his last”) is perhaps intentionally theological on Matthew’s part.  He could simply have written “and he died.” The Greek aphiēmi means “let go, leave, leave alone, release, forgive” coming from the noun aphesis   release (noun), liberation, forgiveness [EDNT 1:181].  It might be that Matthew intended us to understand that in this point what Jesus gives is redemption, his forgiveness for the sake of not just those nearby who mocked and disbelieved, but to all the world.

At this juncture the eschatological signs witness the great event that has just happened. The tearing of the veil of the sanctuary, while perhaps physically caused by the earthquake, is surely understood as a symbol of the opening of access to God through the death of Jesus. In the light of Jesus’ words about the coming destruction of the temple the tearing of the curtain may also be seen as a foreshadowing of the more drastic events to come in 70 ad.

As to the resurrection of the saints from their tombs, France (1989, p.406-7) writes:

Apart from perhaps explaining how the curtain came to be torn, the earthquake is presented as the means by which the tombs were opened. In the Old Testament an earthquake is a symbol of God’s mighty acts (e.g. Judg. 5:4; Ps. 114:7–8), especially in judgment (e.g. Joel 3:16; Nah. 1:5–6). This extraordinary sequel to the earthquake is nowhere else recorded outside Matthew. Jewish theology had developed from such passages as Isaiah 26:19 and Daniel 12:2 a belief in a bodily resurrection in the last days (Ezek. 37:1–14 was interpreted of that eschatological resurrection, and the words used here suggest that Matthew had that passage particularly in mind), and John 5:25–29 records Jesus as teaching that ‘the hour is coming, and now is’ when this hope would be fulfilled through his agency. This account therefore presents that belief in concrete form, apparently as the result of Jesus’ death. After his resurrection, however, unless it represents an unexplained delay of two days between the rising of the saints and their arrival in the holy city, perhaps suggests that Matthew has not recorded these events in strict ‘chronological’ order, and that the rising of the saints is seen as the sequel not so much to Jesus’ death as to his resurrection, thus reflecting the view ‘that Jesus’ resurrection was the beginning of the general resurrection at the end of time’, a view picked up in e.g. 1 Corinthians 15:20ff. The saints are presumably the people of God in the Old Testament, those who according to Hebrews 11 all died ‘in faith’ looking forward to resurrection to a better life (Heb. 11:13–16, 35, 39–40); through Jesus that hope now  comes to fruition. The theological significance of this event is therefore important for Matthew’s analysis of the meaning of Christ’s death; it was, in any case, a unique occurrence and is not to be judged by the canons of ‘normal’ experience.

The effect of these signs is profound. The soldiers are converted and presage the first of the Gentiles who will believe: “Truly, this was the Son of God!”

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