Christ’s Earthshaking Death

It’s Memorial Day weekend. We remember with gratitude those who have given their lives for their country. As Matthew 27:45–56 describes the death of Jesus, the text does not simply move us to gratitude for someone willing to die for a noble cause. Rather, he presents the death of Christ as an earthshaking event — literally and figuratively.

Christ’s death means the Day of the Lord has come. Jesus is forsaken. Matthew quotes only one of the seven last words of Jesus, and he reproduces the Aramaic that Jesus used before translating, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the Apostles’ Creed we confess, “he descended into hell.” That is not a contradiction of what Luke tells us, that Jesus assured the repentant thief. “today you will be with me in paradise,” nor of the fact that as he died he commended his spirit into the hands of the Father. The essence of hell is separation from the favor and blessing of God, and that is what Jesus endured as the sin-bearer. Some lightly use expressions such as “war is hell.” They may be using figurative language, but I suspect that if they had ever experienced even a little of hell, those expressions would be much less frequent. That afternoon very literally, Golgotha was hell. Jesus takes up Psalm 22:1 to express that pain. Yet, something in that cry keeps it from being utter despair. In all the pain of abandonment, Jesus still addresses the Father as “My God.” Jesus died as the sin-bearer. Because he did, you never need to fear that God has or will abandon you.

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Baptized into His Death

A baptism is a time for rejoicing. A child may not understand what is going on, but his parents realize that this is not just about him or them, it is first of all God marking his people as belonging to him. There are rich blessings in that. But there is a judgment and suffering side to baptism as well. The suffering of Jesus described in Matthew 27:27–44 is, in a real sense, the baptism of Jesus. And further, your baptism means that you are united to him in his suffering and death as well as in his resurrection.

Christ’s suffering is his baptism by fire. Christ suffered the mocking for you. Although our text does not use the word baptism, Matthew’s Gospel, together with the rest of Scripture, treats Jesus’ suffering and death as his baptism by fire, his undergoing judgment in the place of his people. Remember the request of James and John to sit at the right and left sides of Jesus in his kingdom? Jesus, looking forward to his suffering, asked them. “Are you able to drink the cup I am going to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). Mark 10:38 gives Jesus’ response in slightly fuller form: “Can you drink the cup I drink or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?” Jesus thought of the suffering and mocking described in out text as his baptism. At the beginning of the public ministry of Jesus, John the Baptist promised that Jesus would baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire. Matthew then records the baptism of Jesus, emphasizing the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Jesus, and then the work of Jesus as the second Adam, enduring the temptation of Satan. “[F]or the Messiah’s Spirit-and-fire baptism to be a saving baptism, for that baptism to be experienced by the messianic community as salvation, as blessing, the Messiah himself must first be baptized with the Spirit in order that he may remove the condemnation and bear away the wrath that their sins deserve. With pointed reference to the Spirit, a basic significance of the Jordan event is this:If the Messiah’s people, those for whom he is the Messiah, are to receive the Spirit as gift, as blessing, then the Messiah himself must first receive the Spirit in order to undergo cursing, to bear the curse that their sins deserve.” (Richard B. Gaffin, Jr., In the Fullness of Time: An Introduction to the Biblical Theology of Acts and Paul, p. 113) Baptism is rich in blessing, but like the Old Testament sign, it has a judgment side to it. And that is what Jesus is undergoing here. The soldiers fill the time between the sentencing and the execution of Jesus by mocking him. The accusation that Jesus was a king gives rise to their cruel sport. Matthew, along with the other Gospels, emphasizes this aspect of Christ’s suffering. (Luke doesn’t mention it, though he describes a similar mocking before Herod.) The mocking degrades and humiliates the Savior. He is stripped, then hooded with a scarlet garment, perhaps a discarded officer’s cape, imitating a royal robe. A king needs a crown, so twisted thorns serve the purpose, as well as adding to the pain of the prisoner. The stick placed in his right hand caricatures a royal scepter. The kneeling and the cry “Hail” imitate the approach to the emperor. The spitting and striking him on the head with his “scepter” show their utter contempt for the prisoner. But he is undergoing this for you, as Calvin points out: “Christ, in order to present us pure and unspotted in the presence of the Father, resolved to be spat upon, and to be dishonored by every kind of reproaches…. Here too, is brightly displayed the inconceivable mercy of God towards us, in bringing his only-begotten Son so low on our account.” (John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists)

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Vote for One of the Above

Marking your ballot can be challenging, especially when differences are not clear cut. Though there was no written ballot, look at Matthew 27:15–26 and the choices that Pilate put before the people for a voice vote.

This is a vote for freedom! The release of a prisoner was tied to the religious history of Israel. This was Pilate’s custom. We are not told if he instituted it, or if there was some Jewish tradition which he accommodated. There is no record of specific Biblical antecedents for the practice. It may have looked back to the Year of Jubilee. The theme of the release from debt and servitude ran through the celebration. We don’t know if the Year of Jubilee was ever celebrated in Israel (2 Chronicles 36:21), but the liberation of that celebration formed an important part of the messianic expectation (Isaiah 61, Luke 4). The Passover celebrated the deliverance the Lord provided for his people. The original Passover brought about the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The annual celebration continued to have overtones of freedom and deliverance.

God’s people were looking to Caesar for freedom. Pilate, seeking some way of releasing Jesus, gives the people a choice. Which shall he release? Note that as Pilate refers to Jesus he uses his messianic title, “the Christ.” The release of Barabbas reflected the desire for political liberation. Mark’s Gospel tells us that Barabbas was an insurrectionist. The request for the release of Barabbas indicated a desire for freedom—from Roman political rule. The people were seeking freedom by looking to Caesar. They were under Roman rule, but instead of looking to the One who was the stone, not cut with human hands, instead of looking to the Son of Man, they demanded the release of Barabbas. If they were going to obtain freedom, it would be their way, not through the path of humiliation chosen by the Lord. “These names constitute a ballot in which self-redemption by means of one’s own power and redemption through grace are placed next to each other. Salvation without humiliation and salvation by way of humiliation are placed in juxtaposition. Barabbas sacrifices others; the Nazarene sacrifices Himself. The one acts in the visible world; the other in the invisible. The first stands for revolution; the second for satisfaction. The former pleases the heart; the latter offends it. All this the heart of Pilate and of whatever is human puts together upon a single ballot.” (K. Schilder, Christ on Trial, p. 466)

This “ballot” is a sign of humiliation. This trial places Jesus outside the law. It was humiliating for Jesus to be paired with Barabbas. There is no written ballot, but the name of Jesus the Christ is set forward by Pilate alongside of that of Barabbas. It was also humiliating for Barabbas to be paired with the outlaw, Jesus. Barabbas may have been an insurrectionist, but he had been arrested, tried according to the law, and scheduled for execution according to the law. The One whose name was paired with his had been placed outside the law. He was not being judged by the law, but the law was being used as an excuse to execute him. You could say that Barabbas was an honest criminal, one who deserved execution for murder and insurrection. But his name is place alongside one who doesn’t even rise to the level of being judged by the law. Imagine if the trials of Kyle Rittenhouse or of Ahmaud Arbery’s murderers had not taken place in courtrooms, but that the judge had stood on the courthouse steps and asked assembled crowds for their verdicts!

Yet, the condemned criminal is the King. The very process of this vote displayed the way the Savior was abandoned. Jesus is abandoned by the law of Israel and by the law of the Gentiles. His own people select the insurrectionist, Barabbas, instead of him, when one is to be released. His own Father in heaven, the one who is the very source of justice, abandoned his Son to be abused and rejected in this way. Yet, because he was humbled in this way Jesus emerged as the victor. The voice vote (actually a mob scream, manipulated by the elders of Israel) picks Barabbas the insurrectionist over Jesus, the Christ. But this is not a democracy. It is really a monarchy. And despite his appearance, bound before Pilate, the prisoner standing there is the King. This King chooses to suffer the indignation of being rejected, the pain of the crucifixion, the unspeakable torment of being abandoned by his Father. In his choice of that, the Messiah goes to the cross, but emerges the third day. This Messiah calls you to trust in him. Because of Christ’s choice, go ahead and mark your ballot in this election. Apply the principles of God’s word to the ballot measures. Evaluate the candidates for how well they will reflect God’s justice in this world. But don’t begin to think that the salvation of the world or of our nation ends, or even begins, with the ballot box. Remember that in being a good citizen of this nation, you first of all have a higher allegiance: to King Jesus.

Trust the innocent Savior who was humbled for you. Hand washing did not remove responsibility. Pilate was trying to release Jesus. He knew that Jesus was innocent, that the leaders of Israel had handed him over out of envy, verse 18. His own wife had sent a messenger telling of a troubling dream (v.19), asking Pilate to have nothing to do with this innocent man. Yet Pilate knew that it was dangerous to resist the desire of the crowd before him. Thus he offered the choice of Barabbas or Jesus for release, only to have the crowd pick Barabbas. Pilate tried to avoid responsibility, but the decision was his. And, as the Roman governor, he had both the authority and the army to enforce justice. This hand washing was an empty, hypocritical display. Hand washing was a symbol understood by Pilate as well as by Israel. The antecedents in Deuteronomy 21:6 (and Psalm 26:6) make the action especially significant for the Jews. They recognized the curse God placed on the shedding of innocent blood. But no basin could contain enough water to absolve Pilate of responsibility for what he was doing. The ceremony was worse than empty. It was a lie. The people accept responsibility. They cry, “His blood is upon us and upon our children.” Their cry involves a further rejection of the Messiah. They know that blood innocently shed cries out to the Lord, Genesis 4:10. Who would willingly accept that responsibility for himself and for his children? Rather, the crowd is confident (to the degree that they think about it at all) that this case in no way involves the shedding of innocent blood. Jesus is guilty, and he must die. They don’t really think that the blood of this Man will cry out from the ground.

You cannot escape the blood of Jesus—flee to him! You cannot escape the blood of Christ. This blood cries out against those who reject Jesus. This verse has been misused as an excuse for persecution of Jews. That is wrong. This was the hoarse cry of a manipulated mob. It had no authority to speak for the nation. Judgment did come on Israel for its rejection of the Messiah. The sufferings involved in the war and destruction of Jerusalem in 70 A.D. is part of that. But don’t just look at the many crosses surrounding Jerusalem in 70 A.D. Don’t just look at the grim history through which the sons of Abraham have passed since that day. “The kingdom of heaven is no longer to be focused in the laos [the people], the city and the temple, but in the vindicated and and enthroned Son of Man who, after the temple is destroyed, will gather his chosen people from all the corners of the earth. All this will happen within this generation (cf. ‘us and our children’)…. As early as 8:11–12 Matthew has given notice of this impending change when he talked of many coming from the east and west to share in the banquet of the kingdom of heaven with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob while those who seemed the natural ‘sons of the kingdom’ would be thrown out.” (R. T. France, The Gospel of Matthew, p. 1058) Judgment comes ultimately upon all who treat the Messiah and his kingdom as something insignificant, something they can take or leave. Ultimately the reason that Christ died was not that Pilate chickened out of acting responsible, not that the mob was willing to have his blood on their hands, not that Judas betrayed him, or that Peter denied him. The reason that the blood of the Messiah was shed is that your sins needed forgiving. You cannot wash your hands of responsibility for the death of the Messiah. But his blood does not cry out for vengeance. Because he humbled himself willingly to this death, because he died as the great Priest of his people, his blood communicates a far more hopeful message than that of Abel, Hebrews 12:24. Because he gave himself for you, his blood communicates mercy. grace, and forgiveness, instead of shouting for vengeance. Mankind still tries to play the blame-shifting game that Adam and Eve, Pilate and the priests played. We blame our parents, our environment, our culture, our politicians, anyone except ourselves. But God doesn’t let you get away with that. He holds you accountable. Yet, at the same time, as you turn to his Son, he covers your guilt with the blood that he willingly shed.

No hand scrubbing can cleanse you from the guilt of your sin. But what you cannot do, God does, ironically, through the blood of his Son, the one whose life was wrongfully taken but willingly given, so that you could have forgiveness. As you come to your Lord’s Table, come, not with pretended innocence, but with the forgiveness that only his blood can provide.

Your Silent King

When false accusations are made, the natural reaction is to respond and deny. But Matthew 27:11–14 tells you that Jesus, before Pilate, was silent. He did tell Pilate he was King, but in the face of false accusations, he was silent.

Jesus acknowledges his kingship before Pilate. Jesus is accused of being a king. The Sanhedrin had condemned Jesus for blasphemy, but before Pilate they needed a charge which the governor would understand. Thus they apparently accuse him to Pilate of claiming to be a king. Pilate was not in a position to appear soft on opponents of Roman rule. Pilate’s efforts to release Jesus (as well as the warning from his wife) indicate that he recognized that these charges were not true. By all appearances Jesus was not a rebel leader. So Pilate asks Jesus if he is the king of the Jews.

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