This is the seventh topic in our nine-session bible overview, looking at how the bible story takes us from Garden to City, from Creation to New Creation, from Eden to Heaven. This is our first week in the New Testament. We've done a lot of work to get here and we've been left in limbo by the exile. A remnant of God's people are back in God's place, in Israel, but God's blessing seems distant. The glory days under Kings David and Solomon are a very distant memory.
The big question of sin is unresolved. What is the plan that will allow a pure, holy God to relate to sinful, broken mankind, who to a man have rejected his goodness and authority? How can the alienation introduced by Adam and Eve (by mankind, by us) – how can that alienation be resolved once and for all? Well, the Sunday School stock answer holds true here – the answer is Jesus.
In fact the answer is in Jesus' death, so we're skipping straight to that. We're skipping Jesus' birth, baptism, temptation, ministry, miracles, discipling – everything – and heading straight for the six hours that end with his death.
We're in Matthew 27 on page 704, so look that up please. We're going to spend a bit of time looking at what's going on in this passage and also at where it fits in history, in God's Plan for the world. I'll break this into three sections; here's the first:
Jesus was rejected by everyone
39Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads 40and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!" 41In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. 42"He saved others," they said, "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. 43He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" 44In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Crucifixion was the most horrific method of execution that the Romans used, and is probably the most horrific ever devised. Jesus was fixed to the cross by nails through his hands and feet, probably bound to the cross around his arms, probably naked, possibly still wearing the crown of thorns, too weak from the flogging he received to be able to carry the cross itself.
Victims of crucifixion could take days to die. This depended on the blood loss and damage to internal organs as a result of the flogging and the availability of some sort of leverage, like a footrest on the vertical column of the cross. Why was that important?
Hanging by the arms made it almost impossible to breathe. This would be slightly relieved by pushing up with the feet and pulling up with the arms, but with nails in the hands and feet, this was excruciatingly painful. So the victim would hang there, caught between the desperation for oxygen and the desperate pain required to get it.
One Roman statesman is recorded as saying,
"It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what, then, shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find the word for such an abomination."
But did you notice that Matthew says almost nothing about Jesus' physical suffering on the cross? He gives almost no details at all. He just about includes that Jesus refused the wine mixed with gall in v34, probably because it would have had narcotic or anaesthetic effects. As desperately tempting as it must have been to dull the pain even a fraction, Jesus refused. He would be fully awake, fully aware, fully obedient. Matthew says almost nothing the physical suffering. Instead, Matthew's emphasis is on rejection and mockery. In the paragraph before this one – v27-31 – Jesus is rejected and mocked by the Roman soldiers – Gentiles, non-Jews.
One writer has compared v27-31 to the true account of an elderly rabbi captured by Nazi soldiers during the Second World War. He was taken to their headquarters, stripped naked and made to preach the sermon he had prepared for the coming Sabbath at the synagogue while they hooted and prodded him – all this while another Jew was being beaten to death at the other end of the room – sheer humiliation and terror.
That comparison is okay for verses 27-31, but it doesn't scratch the surface of what's happening in this passage. Jesus' own countrymen, the Jews, were goading and mocking him, right from the commoner, those who passed by, v39, to the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders – the full spread of the ruling council – v41, and even the criminals by his side, v44. His own people had arranged the betrayal by Judas, the trumped up charges and the kangaroo court.
More starkly still than that, here was the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, suffering the worst death ever devised, at the hands of his own creation, human beings made to bear his image, Israelites chosen by God to represent God to the nations and Romans more concerned by the potential for civil unrest than by a gross miscarriage of justice. Jesus was rejected by everyone. Secondly,
Jesus was forsaken by God
45From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. 46About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, "Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?"— which means, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
Mark tells us that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, which is about 9am. Matthew tells us, v45, that at midday there was darkness over the whole land, lasting until 3pm when Jesus died. This was the time of the Passover, which falls during a full moon. That means the moon was on the opposite side of Earth from the Sun, so there is no possibility of this being an eclipse. Besides, what eclipse brings total darkness and lasts for three hours?
Writing about the final day of judgement, the prophet Amos says, "20Will not the day of the LORD be darkness, not light— pitch-dark, without a ray of brightness?" This darkness reveals God's judgement. But who is being judged? Could it simply be God's anger against those who crucified his son as I read recently in a Christian book?
Look at v46. Jesus cried out loudly, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" (He's quoting Psalm 22 – why not read that Psalm this afternoon and see the parallels with this passage?) It's Jesus who is suffering God's judgement. This is the only time in the gospels when Jesus calls God 'God' (theos). All the rest of the time he uses 'Father'. God the Father is at this moment somehow distant and removed from God the Son in a way that has never happened before or since. The perfect, mysterious relationship of the Trinity is broken in some way at this moment. Jesus is forsaken, abandoned, cut off. He is experiencing the departure of God's loving presence and the pouring out of God's wrath, the laser-focus of God's right anger against human rebellion and depravity.
This is the moment Jesus anticipated in Gethsemane the night before when he told his disciples, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." Even that night when he prayed, he said "Abba, Father… [if there is any other way please take this suffering away,] yet not my will but yours be done."
Jesus was rejected by everyone and Jesus was forsaken by God. Why was Jesus forsaken by God? Third point:
Jesus had to die to deal with sin
50And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split.
There in verse 50 we've got the key moment – Jesus' death. Then suddenly, right at the most important part of the story, Matthew takes his readers away from the scene, across the city, into the centre of the Temple. A great tearing, ripping noise fills the silence – terrifyingly, inexplicably, the heavy duty curtain, some 60 feet high and 30 feet wide, the curtain that separated the holiest part of the Temple from the rest was being torn like a rag from top to bottom. The curtain that hung as a giant safety barrier to the presence of God, a giant 'no entry' sign, the curtain behind which only the high priest could go, and only on one day of the year, the day of Atonement, and only if he was carrying fresh blood of animals sacrificed for his sins and for those of the rest of the people, the curtain behind which was certain instant death for anyone under any other circumstances because of the unapproachable holiness of God, that curtain was torn apart at the moment of Jesus' death. What does it mean?
It means that the perfect, sinless high priest, Jesus, has entered God's presence. He entered, not with the blood of animals but with his own innocent blood which he shed willingly for the sins of the world. And because of that act, the barrier was torn open. God is no longer unapproachable. Anyone who trusts in Jesus, anyone who asks him to pay for their sins with his blood, can approach God himself with confidence. As if to prove the point, Matthew quotes the Roman centurion, a non-Jew, an outsider, confessing that Jesus surely was the Son of God.
The earth shook, rocks split, tombs opened and some of the dead were raised. It's hard to know exactly what's going on here, but the implication is clear. Jesus' death and resurrection have stripped death of its power, power held since Genesis 3. God's people will be gathered into the heavenly Jerusalem, because Jesus demolished death by dying outside the walls of the earthly Jerusalem.
Matthew identifies some women who witness Jesus' death and burial. These are the same women who in chapter 28 will be the first to witness Jesus' resurrection. The message: there is no mistake over the fact the Jesus was dead and no mistake about looking for his body in the wrong tomb. More on that next week.
Jesus was rejected by everyone and Jesus was forsaken by God. Why? Jesus had to die to deal with sin. The Flood, the Law, the Kings, the Exile – nothing in the Old Testament did the job. So that's why the cross is the key moment in history, in God's Plan for the world? Let's investigate how by revisiting our bible overview themes of God's people, God's place and God's blessing and rule.
Jesus was the true Adam (e.g. Romans 5) – the one and only person who lived a perfect life of obedience to God, who bore God's image perfectly, and therefore the only person who does not deserve to be banished from God's presence. Jesus was also the true Israel (Matthew 2.13-15) – he kept the law perfectly, living in a way that pleased God the Father at all times.
Jesus was the true tabernacle, the true dwelling of God with mankind (John 1.1-14). Jesus is the true temple (John 2.12-22, John 4.20-24). Jesus is how we can meet God, how we can approach a holy God safely and with confidence (Hebrews 10.19ff). How did Jesus accomplish this? By being the perfect sacrifice, the true Passover lamb, the true sin offering, who paid for sin once and for all (Isaiah 53, Hebrews 10). By being exiled for us on the cross so that we would no longer have to be exiled from God. He was sent away so that we could draw near. He mediated between us and God. He brokered peace. He reconciled us (Colossians 1.15-23)
God's blessing and rule
A descendant of Abraham (Matthew 1.1), Jesus brought the blessing promised through Abraham (Galatians 3.15ff). He did it by taking the curse of sin off us and onto himself. Galatians 3.13 says Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree. A descendant of David (Matthew 1.1), Jesus is the true King. He is great King David's greater son (Acts 2.22ff). Great King David was just a shadow of King Jesus. The prosperity of the nation under David is the merest hint of the blessing of God's people under King Jesus. Jesus offers eternal life, eternal rest, eternal blessing, starting now in this life but infinitely more abundantly in the next. What are we to do with this information? Well, this episode gives us a prompt this morning to pause for some self-examination. God looked forward from before creation, saw all the sin and brokenness we would cause, saw crucifixion – probably the most brutal death ever devised – and said that is the death for my son. That is the death I choose for my own son to be able to offer forgiveness and blessing to those who will follow him.
If you're not a follower of Jesus, if you – like everyone in this passage – are still rejecting him, however vehemently or indifferently that might be, please change your mind about him. Find out more if you need to, but look at Jesus' death. God longs for you to turn to him and he has done all this to make it possible. All this bible overview knowledge, all this detail – it's all completely useless to you unless you respond in repentance, belief and trust.
If you are a follower of Jesus, will you remember? Will you remember that you once rejected him as well? "Ashamed I hear my mocking voice call out among the scoffers." Will you remember around this table the length Jesus went to in order to make you acceptable to God? Jesus cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" He cried it so that we would not cry it. And will you take the great news to those who are still rejecting Jesus. Will you invite them to Easter Music, when we'll look through Matthew's whole account of the crucifixion and resurrection. Will you pray that God will have mercy on them through Jesus?