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Bible Commentaries

William Barclay's Daily Study Bible
Matthew 27

 

 

Other Authors
Verses 1-66

Chapter 27

THE MAN WHO SENTENCED JESUS TO DEATH (Matthew 27:1-2; Matthew 27:11-26)

27:1-2,11-26 When the morning came, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus, to put him to death; so they bound him, and led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor put the question to him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said to him, "You say so." While he was being accused by the chief priests and the elders, he returned no answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear the evidence which they are stating against you?" Jesus answered not a single word, so that the governor was much amazed. At the time of the Feast the governor was in the habit of releasing one prisoner to the crowd, a prisoner whom they wished. At that time he was holding a very well-known prisoner called Barabbas. So, when they were assembled, Pilate said to them. "Whom do you wish me to release to you? Barabbas? Or, Jesus who is called Christ?" For he was well aware that they had delivered Jesus to him because of malice. While he was sitting on his judgment seat, his wife sent a message to him. "Have nothing to do with this just man," she said, "for today I have had an extraordinary experience in a dream because of him." The chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for the release of Barabbas, and the destruction of Jesus. "Which of the two," said the governor, "am I to release to you?" "Barabbas," they said. "What then," said Pilate to them, "am I to do with Jesus who is called Christ." "Let him be crucified," they all said. "What evil has he done?" he said. They kept shouting all the more: "Let him be crucified." When Pilate saw that it was hopeless to do anything, and that rather a disturbance was liable to arise, he took water, and washed his hands in presence of the crowd. "I am innocent of the blood of this just man," he said. "You must see to it." All the people answered, "Let the responsibility for his blood be on us and on our children." Then he released Barabbas to them; but he had Jesus scourged, and handed him over to be crucified.

Matthew 27:1-2 describe what must have been a very brief meeting of the Sanhedrin, held early in the morning, with a view to formulating finally an official charge against Jesus. The necessity for this lay in the fact that, while the Jews could themselves deal with an ordinary charge, they could not inflict the death penalty. That was a sentence which could be pronounced only by the Roman governor, and carried out by the Roman authorities. The Sanhedrin had therefore to formulate a charge with which they could go to Pilate and demand the death of Jesus.

Matthew does not tell us what that charge was; but Luke does. In the Sanhedrin the charge which was levelled against Jesus was a charge of blasphemy (Matthew 26:65-66). But no one knew better than the Jewish authorities that that was a charge to which Pilate would not listen. He would tell them to go away and settle their own religious quarrels. So, as Luke tells us, they appeared before Pilate with a threefold charge, every item in which was a lie, and a deliberate lie. They charged Jesus first with being a revolutionary, second, with inciting the people not to pay their taxes, and third, with claiming to be a king (Luke 23:2). They fabricated three political charges, all of them conscious lies, because they knew that only on such charges would Pilate act.

So, then, everything hung on the attitude of Pilate. What kind of man was this Roman governor?

Pilate was officially procurator of the province; and he was directly responsible, not to the Roman senate, but to the Roman Emperor. He must have been at least twenty-seven years of age, for that was the minimum age for entering on the office of procurator. He must have been a man of considerable experience, for there was a ladder of offices, including military command, up which a man must climb until he qualified to become a governor. Pilate must have been a tried and tested soldier and administrator. He became procurator of Judaea in A.D. 26 and held office for ten years, when he was recalled from his post.

When Pilate came to Judaea, he found trouble in plenty, and much of it was of his own making. His great handicap was that he was completely out of sympathy with the Jews. More, he was contemptuous of what he would have called their irrational and fanatical prejudices, and what they would have called their principles. The Romans knew the intensity of Jewish religion and the unbreakable character of Jewish belief, and very wisely had always dealt with the Jews with kid gloves. Pilate arrogantly proposed to use the mailed fist.

He began with trouble. The Roman headquarters were in Caesarea. The Roman standards were not flags; they were poles with the Roman eagle, or the image of the reigning emperor, on top. In deference to the Jewish hatred of graven images, every previous governor had removed the eagles and the images from the standards before he marched into Jerusalem on his state visits. Pilate refused to do so. The result was such bitter opposition and such intransigence that Pilate in the end was forced to yield, for it is not possible either to arrest or to slaughter a whole nation.

Later, Pilate decided that Jerusalem needed a better water supply--a wise decision. To that end he constructed a new aqueduct--but he took money from the Temple treasury to pay for it.

Philo, the great Jewish Alexandrian scholar, has a character study of Pilate--and Philo, remember, was not a Christian, but was speaking from the Jewish point of view. The Jews, Philo tells us, had threatened to exercise their right to report Pilate to the Emperor for his misdeeds. This threat "exasperated Pilate to the greatest possible degree, as he feared lest they might go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government--his corruption, his acts of insolence, his rapine, his habit of insulting people, his cruelty, his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never-ending gratuitous and most grievous inhumanity." Pilate's reputation with the Jews stank; and the fact that they could report him made his position entirely insecure.

We follow the career of Pilate to the end. In the end he was recalled to Rome on account of his savagery in an incident in Samaria. A certain impostor had summoned the people to Mount Gerizim with the claim that he would show them the sacred vessels which Moses had hidden there. Unfortunately many of the crowd came armed, and assembled in a village called Tirabatha. Pilate fell on them and slaughtered them with quite unnecessary savagery, for it was a harmless enough movement. The Samaritans lodged a complaint with Vitellius, the legate of Syria, who was Pilate's immediate superior, and Vitellius ordered him to return to Rome to answer for his conduct.

When Pilate was on his way to Rome, Tiberius the Emperor died; and it appears that Pilate never came to trial. Legend has it that in the end he committed suicide; his body was flung into the Tiber, but the evil spirits so troubled the river that the Romans took the body to Gaul and threw it into the Rhone. Pilate's so-called tomb is still shown in Vienne. The same thing happened there; and the body was finally taken to a place near Lausanne and buried in a pit in the mountains. Opposite Lucerne there is a hill called Mount Pilatus. Originally the mountain was called Pileatus, which means wearing a cap of clouds, but because it was connected with Pilate the name was changed to Pilatus.

Later Christian legend was sympathetic to Pilate and tended to place all the blame for the death of Jesus on the Jews. Not unnaturally, legend came to hold that Pilate's wife, who it is said was a Jewish proselyte, and was called Claudia Procula, became a Christian. It was even held that Pilate himself became a Christian; and to this day the Coptic Church ranks both Pilate and his wife as saints.

We conclude this study of Pilate with a very interesting document. Pilate must have sent a report of the trial and death of Jesus to Rome; that would happen in the normal course of administration. An apocryphal book called The Acts of Peter and Paul contains an alleged copy of that report. This report is actually referred to by Tertullian and Justin Martyr and Eusebius. The report as we have it can hardly be genuine, but it is interesting to read it:

Pontius Pilate unto Claudius greeting.

There befell of late a matter of which I myself made trial; for

the Jews through envy have punished themselves and their

posterity with fearful judgments of their own fault; for

whereas their fathers had promises that their God would send

them out of heaven his Holy One, who should of right be called

king, and did promise he would send him on earth by a virgin;

he then came when I was governor of Judaea, and they beheld him

enlightening the blind, cleansing lepers, healing the palsied,

driving devils out of men, raising the dead, rebuking the winds,

walking on the waves of the sea dry-shod, and doing many other

wonders, and all the people of the Jews calling him the Son of

God; the chief priests therefore moved with envy against him,

took him and delivered him unto me and brought against him one

false accusation after another, saying that he was a sorcerer

and that he did things contrary to the law.

But I, believing that these things were so, having scourged him,

delivered him to their will; and they crucified him, and, when

he was buried, they set their guards upon him. But while my

soldiers watched him, he rose again on the third day; yet so

much was the malice of the Jews kindled, that they gave money

to the soldiers saying: Say ye that his disciples stole away his

body. But they, though they took the money, were not able to

keep silence concerning that which had come to pass, for they

also have testified that they saw him arisen, and that they

received money from the Jews. And these things have I reported

unto thy mightiness for this cause, lest some other should lie

unto thee, and thou shouldest deem right to believe the false

tales of the Jews.

Although that report is no doubt mere legend, Pilate certainly knew that Jesus was innocent; but his past misdeeds gave the Jews a lever with which to compel him to do their will against his wishes and his sense of justice.

PILATE'S LOSING STRUGGLE (Matthew 27:1-2; Matthew 27:11-26 continued)

This whole passage gives the impression of a man fighting a losing battle. It is clear that Pilate did not wish to condemn Jesus. Certain things emerge.

(i) Pilate was clearly impressed with Jesus. Plainly he did not take the King of the Jews claim seriously. He knew a revolutionary when he saw one, and Jesus was no revolutionary. His dignified silence made Pilate feel that it was not Jesus but he himself who was on trial. Pilate was a man who felt the power of Jesus--and was afraid to submit to it. There are still those who are afraid to be as Christian as they know they ought to be.

(ii) Pilate sought some way of escape. It appears to have been the custom at the time of the Feast for a prisoner to be released. In gaol there was a certain Barabbas. He was no sneak-thief; he was most probably either a brigand or a political revolutionary.

There are two interesting speculations about him. His name Barabbas means Son of the Father; father was a title by which the greatest Rabbis were known; it may well be that Barabbas was the son of an ancient and distinguished family who had kicked over the traces and embarked on a career of magnificent crime. Such a man would make crime glamorous and would appeal to the people.

Still more interesting is the near certainty that Barabbas was also called Jesus. Some of the very oldest versions of the New Testament, for example the ancient Syriac and Armenian versions, call him Jesus Barabbas; and both Origen and Jerome knew of that reading, and felt it might be correct. It is a curious thing that twice Pilate refers to Jesus who is called Christ (Matthew 27:17; Matthew 27:22), as if to distinguish him from some other Jesus. Jesus was a common name; it is the same name as Joshua. And the dramatic shout of the crowd most likely was: "Not Jesus Christ, but Jesus Barabbas."

Pilate sought an escape, but the crowd chose the violent criminal and rejected the gentle Christ. They preferred the man of violence to the man of love.

(iii) Pilate sought to unshoulder the responsibility for condemning Jesus. There is that strange and tragic picture of him washing his hands. That was a Jewish custom. There is a strange regulation in Deuteronomy 21:1-9. If a dead body was found, and it was not known who the killer was, measurements were to be taken to find what was the nearest town or village. The elders of that town or village had to sacrifice a heifer and to wash their hands to rid them of the guilt.

Pilate was warned by his sense of justice, he was warned by his conscience, he was warned by the dream of his troubled wife; but Pilate could not stand against the mob; and Pilate made the futile gesture of washing his hands. Legend has it that to this day there are times when Pilate's shade emerges from its tomb and goes through the action of the hand-washing once again.

There is one thing of which a man can never rid himself--and that is responsibility. It is never possible for Pilate or anyone else to say, "I wash my hands of all responsibility," for that is something that no one and nothing can take away.

This picture of Pilate provokes in our minds pity rather than loathing; for here was a man so enmeshed in his past, and so rendered helpless by it, that he was unable to take the stand he ought to take. Pilate is a figure of tragedy rather than of villainy.

THE TRAITOR'S END (Matthew 27:3-10)

27:3-10 When Judas the traitor saw that Jesus had been condemned, he repented, and he brought the thirty shekels back to the chief priests and the elders. "I have sinned," he said, "for I have betrayed an innocent man." "What has that got to do with us?" they said. "It is you who must see to that." He threw the money into the Temple and went away. And when he had gone away, he hanged himself. The chief priests took the money. "We cannot," they said, "put these into the treasury, for they are the price of blood." They took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to be a burying place for strangers. That is why to this day that field is called The Field of Blood. Then there was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, when he said: "And they took the thirty shekels, the price of him on whom a price had been set by the sons of Israel, and they gave them for the field of the potter, as the Lord instructed me."

Here in all its stark grimness is the last act of the tragedy of Judas. However we interpret his mind, one thing is clear--Judas now saw the horror of the thing that he had done. Matthew tells us that Judas took the money and flung it into the Temple, and the interesting thing is that the word he uses is not the word for the Temple precincts in general (hieron, Greek #2411), it is the word for the actual Temple itself (naos, Greek #3485). It will be remembered that the Temple consisted of a series of courts each opening off the other. Judas in his blind despair came into the Court of the Gentiles; passed through it into the Court of the Women; passed through that into the Court of the Israelites; beyond that he could not go; he had come to the barrier which shut off the Court of the Priests with the Temple itself at the far end of it. He called on them to take the money; but they would not; and he flung it at them and went away and hanged himself. And the priests took the money, so tainted that it could not be put into the Temple treasury, and with it bought a field to bury the unclean bodies of Gentiles who died within the city.

The suicide of Judas is surely the final indication that his plan had gone wrong. He had meant to make Jesus blaze forth as a conqueror; instead he had driven him to the Cross and life for Judas was shattered. There are two great truths about sin here.

(i) The terrible thing about sin is that we cannot put the clock back. We cannot undo what we have done. Once a thing is done nothing can alter it or bring it back.

"The Moving Finger writes; and having writ?

Moves on: nor all thy Piety nor Wit

Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,

Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it."

No one needs to be very old to have that haunting longing for some hour to be lived over again. When we remember that no action can ever be recalled, it should make us doubly careful how we act.

(ii) The strange thing about sin is that a man can come to hate the very thing he gained by it. The very prize he won by sinning can come to disgust and to revolt and to repel him, until his one desire is to fling it from him. Most people sin because they think that if they can only possess the forbidden thing it will make them happy. But the thing which sin desired can become the thing that a man above all would rid himself of--and so often he cannot.

As we have seen, Matthew finds forecasts of the events of the life of Jesus in the most unlikely places. Here there is, in fact, an actual mistake. Matthew is quoting from memory; and the quotation which he makes is, in fact, not from Jeremiah but from Zechariah. It is from a strange passage (Zechariah 11:10-14) in which the prophet tells us how he received an unworthy reward and flung it to the potter. In that old picture Matthew saw a symbolic resemblance to the thing that Judas did.

It might have been that, if Judas had remained true to Jesus, he would have died a martyr's death; but, because he wanted his own way too much, he died by his own hand. He missed the glory of the martyr's crown to find life intolerable because he had sinned.

THE SOLDIERS' MOCKERY (Matthew 27:27-31)

27:27-31 Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus to the military headquarters, and collected to him the whole of the detachment. They stripped him of his clothes and put a soldier's purple cloak upon him; and they wove a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and they put a reed in his right hand; and they knelt in front of him, and mocked him by saying, "Hail! King of the Jews!" And they spat on him, and took the reed and hit him on his head. And when they had mocked him, they took off the cloak, and clothed him in his own clothes, and led him away to crucify him.

The dreadful routine of crucifixion had now begun. The last section ended by telling us that Pilate had Jesus scourged. Roman scourging was a terrible torture. The victim was stripped; his hands were tied behind him, and he was tied to a post with his back bent double and conveniently exposed to the lash. The lash itself was a long leather thong, studded at intervals with sharpened pieces of bone and pellets of lead. Such scourging always preceded crucifixion and "it reduced the naked body to strips of raw flesh, and inflamed and bleeding weals." Men died under it, and men lost their reason under it, and few remained conscious to the end of it.

After that Jesus was handed over to the soldiers, while the last details of crucifixion were arranged, and while the cross itself was prepared. They took him to their barracks in the governor's headquarters; and they called the rest of the detachment. The detachment is called a speira (Greek #4686); in a full speira there were six hundred men. It is not likely that there were as many as that in Jerusalem. These soldiers were Pilate's bodyguard who had accompanied him from Caesarea, where his permanent headquarters were.

We may shudder at what the soldiers did; but of all the parties involved in the crucifixion they were least to be blamed. They were not even stationed in Jerusalem; they had no idea who Jesus was; they certainly were not Jews, for the Jews were the only nation in the Roman Empire who were exempt from military service; they were conscripts who may well have come from the ends of the earth. They indulged in their rough horse-play; but, unlike the Jews and unlike Pilate, they acted in ignorance.

Maybe for Jesus of all things this was the easiest to bear, for, although they made a sham king of him, there was no hatred in their eyes. To them he was nothing more than a deluded Galilaean going to a cross. It is not without significance that Philo tells us that in Alexandria a Jewish mob did exactly the same to an imbecile boy: "They spread a strip of linen and placed it on his head instead of a diadem ... and for a sceptre they handed up to him a small piece of native papyrus bulrush which they found thrown on the roadside. And because he was adorned as a king ... some came up as though to greet him, others as though to plead a cause." So they mocked a half-idiot lad; and that is what the soldiers took Jesus to be.

Then they prepared to lead him away to crucifixion. We are sometimes told that we should not dwell on the physical aspect of the Cross; but we cannot possibly have too vivid a picture of what Jesus did and suffered for us. Klausner, the Jewish writer, says, "Crucifixion is the most terrible and cruel death which man has ever devised for taking vengeance on his fellow-men." Cicero called it "the most cruel and the most horrible torture." Tacitus called it "a torture only fit for slaves."

It originated in Persia; and its origin came from the fact that the earth was considered to be sacred to Ormuzd the god, and the criminal was lifted up from it that he might not defile the earth, which was the god's property. From Persia crucifixion passed to Carthage in North Africa; and it was from Carthage that Rome learned it, although the Romans kept it exclusively for rebels, runaway slaves, and the lowest type of criminal. It was indeed a punishment which it was illegal to inflict on a Roman citizen.

Klausner goes on to describe crucifixion. The criminal was fastened to his cross, already a bleeding mass from the scourging. There he hung to die of hunger and thirst and exposure, unable even to defend himself from the torture of the gnats and flies which settled on his naked body and on his bleeding wounds. It is not a pretty picture but that is what Jesus Christ suffered--willingly--for us.

THE CROSS AND THE SHAME (Matthew 27:32-44)

27:32-44 As they were going out, they found a Cyrenian man, Simon by name, and they impressed him into their service, to bear Jesus' Cross. When they had come to the place which is called Golgotha (which means the Place of a Skull), they offered him wine mingled with gall to drink, and, when he had tasted it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots for them; and as they sat there, they watched him. Above his head they placed a written copy of the charge on which he was being executed: "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then they crucified along with him two brigands, one on the right hand and one on the left. Those who were passing by kept flinging their insults at him. They kept shaking their heads and saying, "Destroyer of the Temple, and builder of it in three days, save yourself If you are really the Son of God, come down from the Cross." In the same way the chief priests also with the Scribes and the elders jeered at him, "He saved others," they kept saying, "He cannot save himself. He is King of Israel. Let him come down from the Cross now, and we will believe on him. He trusted in God. Let God rescue him now, if he wants him; for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" The brigands too who were crucified with him hurled the same reproaches at him.

The Story of the Crucifixion does not need commentary; its power resides simply in the telling. All we can do is to paint in the background in order that the picture may be as clear as possible.

When a criminal had been condemned, he was led away to crucifixion. He was placed in the centre of a hollow square of four Roman soldiers. It was the custom that he should carry the cross beam of his own cross; the upright was already waiting at the scene of execution. The charge on which he was being executed was written on a board; it was then either hung round his own neck, or carried by an officer in front of the procession; and it was later affixed to the cross itself. The criminal was led to the scene of crucifixion by as long a route as possible, so that as many as possible might see him and take warning from the grim sight.

Jesus had undergone the terrible scourging; after that he had undergone the mockery of the soldiers; before all that he had been under examination for most of the night; and he was, therefore, physically exhausted, and staggering under his Cross. The Roman soldiers well knew what to do under such circumstances. Palestine was an occupied country; all that a Roman officer had to do was to tap a Jew on the shoulder with the flat of his spear, and the man had to carry out any task, however menial and distasteful, that was laid upon him. Into the city, from one of the surrounding villages, there had come a man from far off Cyrene in North Africa, called Simon. It may be that for years he had scraped and saved to attend this one Passover--and now this terrible indignity and shame fell upon him; for he was compelled to carry the Cross of Jesus. When Mark tells the story, he identifies Simon as "the father of Alexander and Rufus" (Mark 15:21). Such an identification can only mean that Alexander and Rufus were well known in the Church. And it must be that on that terrible day Jesus laid hold on Simon's heart. That which to Simon had seemed his day of shame became his day of glory.

The place of crucifixion was a hill called Golgotha, so caned because it was shaped like a skull. When the place was reached the criminal had to be impaled upon his cross. The nails had to be driven through his hands, but commonly the feet were only loosely bound to the cross. At that moment, in order to deaden the pain, the criminal was given a drink of drugged wine, prepared by a group of wealthy women of Jerusalem as an act of mercy. A Jewish writing says, "When a man is going out to be killed, they allow him to drink a grain of frankincense in a cup of wine to deaden his senses.... Wealthy women of Jerusalem used to contribute these things and bring them." The drugged cup was offered to Jesus, but he would not drink it, for he was determined to accept death at its bitterest and at its grimmest, and to avoid no particle of pain.

We have already seen that the criminal was led to execution in the middle of a square of four Roman soldiers; criminals were crucified naked, except for a loin cloth; and the criminal's clothes became the property of the soldiers as their perquisite. Every Jew wore five articles of clothing--his shoes, his turban, his girdle, his inner garment, and his outer cloak. There were thus five articles of clothing and four soldiers. The first four articles were all of equal value; but the outer cloak was more valuable than all the others. It was for Jesus' outer cloak that the soldiers drew lots, as John tells us (John 19:23-24). When the soldiers had divided the clothes, they sat down, on guard until the end should come. So there was on Golgotha a group of three crosses, in the middle the Son of God, and on either side a brigand. Truly, he was with sinners in his death.

The final verses describe the taunts flung at Jesus by the passers-by, by the Jewish authorities, and by the brigands who were crucified with him. They all centred round one thing--the claims that Jesus had made and his apparent helplessness on the Cross. It was precisely there that the Jews were so wrong. They were using the glory of Christ as a means of mocking him. "Come down," they said, "and we will believe on you." But as General Booth once said, "It is precisely because he would not come down that we believe in him." The Jews could see God only in power; but Jesus showed that God is sacrificial love.

THE TRIUMPH OF THE END (Matthew 27:45-50)

27:45-50 From twelve o'clock midday darkness came over the earth until three o'clock in the afternoon. About three o'clock in the afternoon Jesus cried with a loud voice, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?" (that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") Some of those who were standing there heard this, and said, "This man is calling for Elias." And immediately one of them ran and took a sponge and filled it with vinegar and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. The rest said, "Let be! Let us see if Elias will come to save him." When Jesus had again shouted with a great voice, he gave up his spirit.

As we have been reading the story of the Crucifixion, everything seems to have been happening very quickly; but in reality the hours were slipping past. It is Mark who is most precise in his note of time. He tells us that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, that is at nine o'clock in the morning (Mark 15:25), and that he died at the ninth hour, that is at three o'clock in the afternoon (Mark 15:34). That is to say, Jesus hung on the Cross for six hours. For him the agony was mercifully brief, for it often happened that criminals hung upon their crosses for days before death came to them.

In Matthew 27:46 we have what must be the most staggering sentence in the gospel record, the cry of Jesus: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" That is a saying before which we must bow in reverence, and yet at the same time we must try to understand. There have been many attempts to penetrate behind its mystery; we can look only at three.

(i) It is strange how Psalms 22:1-31 runs through the whole Crucifixion narrative; and this saying is actually the first verse of that Psalm. Later on it says, "All who seek me mock at me, they make mouths at me, they wag their heads;' He committed his cause to the Lord; let him deliver him, let him rescue him, for he delights in him!'" (Psalms 22:7-8). Still further on we read: "They divide my garments among them, and for my raiment they cast lots" (Psalms 22:18). Psalms 22:1-31 is interwoven with the whole Crucifixion story.

It has been suggested that Jesus was, in fact, repeating that Psalm to himself; and, though it begins in complete dejection, it ends in soaring triumph--"From thee comes my praise in the great congregation.... For dominion belongs to the Lord, and he rules over the nations" (Psalms 22:25-31). So it is suggested that Jesus was repeating Psalms 22:1-31 on the Cross, as a picture of his own situation, and as a song of his trust and confidence, well knowing that it began in the depths, but that it finished on the heights.

It is an attractive suggestion; but on a cross a man does not repeat poetry to himself, even the poetry of a psalm; and besides that, the whole atmosphere is one of unrelieved tragedy.

(ii) It is suggested that in that moment the weight of the world's sin fell upon the heart and the being of Jesus; that that was the moment when he who knew no sin was made sin for us (2 Corinthians 5:21); and that the penalty which he bore for us was the inevitable separation from God which sin brings. No man may say that that is not true; but, if it is, it is a mystery which we can only state and at which we can only wonder.

(iii) It may be that there is something--if we may put it so--more human here. It seems to me that Jesus would not be Jesus unless he had plumbed the uttermost depths of human experience. In human experience, as life goes on and as bitter tragedy enters into it, there come times when we feel that God has forgotten us; when we are immersed in a situation beyond our understanding and feel bereft even of God. It seems to me that that is what happened to Jesus here. We have seen in the garden that Jesus knew only that he had to go on, because to go on was God's will, and he must accept what even he could not fully understand. Here we see Jesus plumbing the uttermost depths of the human situation, so that there might be no place that we might go where he has not been before.

Those who listened did not understand. Some thought he was calling on Elijah; they must have been Jews. One of the great gods of the pagans was the sun--Hellos. A cry to the sun god would have begun "Helie!" and it has been suggested that the soldiers may have thought that Jesus was crying to the greatest of the pagan gods. In any event, his cry was to the watchers a mystery.

But here is the point. It would have been a terrible thing if Jesus had died with a cry like that upon his lips--but he did not. The narrative goes on to tell us that, when he shouted with a great shout, he gave up his spirit. That great shout left its mark upon men's minds. It is in every one of the gospels (Matthew 27:50; Mark 15:37; Luke 23:46). But there is one gospel which goes further. John tells us that Jesus died with a shout: "It is finished" (John 19:30). It is finished is in English three words; but in Greek it is one--Tetelestai (Greek #5055)--as it would also be in Aramaic. And tetelestai (Greek #5055) is the victor's shout; it is the cry of the man who has completed his task; it is the cry of the man who has won through the struggle; it is the cry of the man who has come out of the dark into the glory of the light, and who has grasped the crown. So, then, Jesus died a victor with a shout of triumph on his lips.

Here is the precious thing. Jesus passed through the uttermost abyss, and then the light broke. If we too cling to God, even when there seems to be no God, desperately and invincibly clutching the remnants of our faith, quite certainly the dawn will break and we will win through. The victor is the man who refuses to believe that God has forgotten him, even when every fibre of his being feels that he is forsaken. The victor is the man who will never let go his faith, even when he feels that its last grounds are gone. The victor is the man who has been beaten to the depths and still holds on to God, for that is what Jesus did.

THE BLAZING REVELATION (Matthew 27:51-56)

27:51-56 And, look you, the veil of the Temple was rent in two from top to bottom, and the earth was shaken, and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened, and the bodies of many of God's dedicated ones were raised, and they came out of the tombs after his resurrection and came into the holy city and appeared to many. The centurion and those who were watching Jesus with him saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, and they were exceedingly afraid. "Truly," they said, "this man was the Son of God."

Many women were there watching from a distance. They were the women who had followed Jesus from Galilee, giving their service to him. Among them were Mary from Magdala, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

This passage falls into three sections.

(i) There is the story of the amazing things which happened as Jesus died. Whether or not we are meant to take these things literally, they teach us two great truths.

(a) The Temple veil was rent from top to bottom. That was the veil which covered the Holy of Holies; that was the veil beyond which no man could penetrate, save only the High Priest on the Day of Atonement; that was the veil behind which the Spirit of God dwelt. There is symbolism here. Up to this time God had been hidden and remote, and no man knew what he was like. But in the death of Jesus we see the hidden love of God, and the way to the presence of God once barred to all men is now opened to all men. The life and the death of Jesus show us what God is like and remove for ever the veil which hid him from men.

(b) The tombs were opened. The symbolism of this is that Jesus conquered death. In dying and in rising again he destroyed the power of the grave. Because of his life, his death and his resurrection, the tomb has lost its power, and the grave has lost its terror, and death has lost its tragedy. For we are certain that because he lives we shall live also.

(ii) There is the story of the adoration of the centurion. There is only one thing to be said about this. Jesus had said, "I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself" (John 12:32). He foretold the magnetic power of the Cross; and the centurion was its first fruit. The Cross had moved him to see the majesty of Jesus as nothing else had been able to do.

(iii) There is the simple statement concerning the women who saw the end. All the disciples forsook him and fled, but the women remained. It has been said that, unlike the men, the women had nothing to fear, for so low was the public position of women that no one would take any notice of women disciples. There is more to it than that. They were there because they loved Jesus, and for them, as for so many, perfect love had cast out all fear.

THE GIFT OF A TOMB (Matthew 27:57-61)

27:57-61 Late in the day there came a rich man from Arimathaea, Joseph by name, who was himself a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and requested the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. So Joseph took the body and wrapped it in clean linen, and laid it in a new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock. And he rolled a great stone across the door of the tomb and went away. And Mary from Magdala was there, and the other Mary, sitting opposite the tomb.

According to Jewish law, even a criminal's body might not be left hanging all night, but had to be buried that day. "His body shall not remain all night upon the tree, but you shall bury him the same day" (Deuteronomy 21:22-23). This was doubly binding when, as in the case of Jesus, the next day was the Sabbath. According to Roman law, the relatives of a criminal might claim his body for burial, but if it was not claimed it was simply left to rot until the scavenger dogs dealt with it.

Now none of Jesus' relatives were in a position to claim his body, for they were all Galilaeans and none of them possessed a tomb in Jerusalem. So the wealthy Joseph from Arimathaea stepped in. He went to Pilate and asked that the body of Jesus should be given to him; and he cared for it, and put it into the rock tomb where no man had ever been laid. Joseph must be forever famous as the man who gave Jesus a tomb.

Legends have gathered around the name of Joseph and legends which are of particular interest to those who live in England. The best known is that in A.D. 61 Philip sent Joseph from Gaul to preach the gospel in England. He came bearing with him the chalice which was used at the Last Supper, and which now held the blood of Jesus shed upon the Cross. That chalice was to become the Holy Grad which is so famous in the stories of the Knights of King Arthur. When Joseph and his band of missionaries had climbed Weary-all Hill and come to the other side, they came to Glastonbury; there Joseph struck his staff into the earth and from it grew the Glastonbury Thorn. It is certainly true that for years Glastonbury was the holiest place in England; and it is still a place of pilgrimage. The story is that the original thorn was hacked down by a Puritan, but that the thorn which grows there to this day came from a shoot of it; and to this day slips of it are sent all over the world. So, then, legend connects Joseph of Arimathaea with Glastonbury and England.

But there is a lesser-known legend, commemorated in one of the most famous, hymns and poems in the English language. It is a legend which is still current in Somerset. Joseph, so the legend runs, was a tin merchant, and came, long before he was sent by Philip, on quite frequent visits to the tin mines of Cornwall. The town of Marazion in Cornwall has another name. It is sometimes called Market Jew, and is said to have been the centre of a colony of Jews who traded in tin. The legend goes still further. Joseph of Arimathaea, it says, was the uncle of Mary, the mother of Jesus. (Can it possibly be that he did actually exercise a relative's right to claim the body of Jesus under Roman law?) And, it is said, he brought the young boy Jesus with him on one of his voyages to Cornwall.. That is what William Blake was thinking of when he wrote his famous poem:

And did those feet in ancient time

Walk upon England's mountains green?

And was the Holy Lamb of God

In England's pleasant pastures seen?

And did the Countenance Divine

Shine forth upon our clouded hills?

And was Jerusalem builded here,

Among those dark Satanic mills?

The dark Satanic mills were the tin mines of Cornwall. It is a lovely legend which we would like to be true, for there would be a thrill in the thought that the feet of the boy Jesus once touched English earth.

It is often said that Joseph gave to Jesus a tomb after he was dead, but did not support him during his life. Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin (Luke 23:50); and Luke tells us that "he had not consented to the (council's) purpose and deed" (Luke 23:51). It is possible that the meeting of the Sanhedrin called in the house of Caiaphas in the middle of the night was selectively called? It hardly seems likely that the whole Sanhedrin could have been there. It may well be that Caiaphas summoned those whom he wished to be present and packed the meeting with his supporters, and that Joseph never even got a chance to be there.

It is certainly true that in the end Joseph displayed the greatest courage. He came out on the side of a crucified criminal; he braved the possible resentment of Pilate; and he faced the certain hatred of the Jews. It may well be that Joseph of Arimathea did everything that it was possible for him to do.

One obscure point remains. The woman who is called the other Mary is identified as Mary, the mother of Joses by Mark 15:47. We have already seen that these women were present at the Cross; their love made them follow Jesus in life and in death.

AN IMPOSSIBLE ASSIGNMENT (Matthew 27:62-66)

27:62-66 On the next day, which is the day after the Preparation, the chief priests and Pharisees came to Pilate in a body. "Sir," they said, "we remember that, while he was still alive, that deceiver said, 'After three days I will rise again.' Give orders therefore that the tomb should be kept secure until the three days are ended, in case his disciples come and steal him, and say to the people, 'He has been raised from among the dead.' If that happens, the final deception will be worse than the first." Pilate said, "You have a guard. Go, and make it as secure as you can." They went and secured the tomb by setting a seal upon it as well as by placing a guard.

This passage begins in the most curious way. It says that the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate on the next day, which is the day after the Preparation. Now Jesus was crucified on the Friday. Saturday is the Jewish Sabbath. The hours from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Friday were called The Eve, or The Preparation. We have seen that, according to Jewish reckoning, the new day began at 6 p.m. Therefore, the Sabbath began at 6 p.m. on Friday; and the last hours of Friday were The Preparation. If this is accurate, it can only mean one thing--it must mean that the chief priests and Pharisees actually approached Pilate on the Sabbath with their request. If they did that, it is clear to see how radically they broke the Sabbath Law. If this is accurate, no other incident in the gospel story more plainly shows how desperately eager the Jewish authorities were totally to eliminate Jesus. In order to make certain that he was finally out of the way they were willing to break even their own most sacred laws.

There is a grim irony here. These Jews came to Pilate saying that Jesus had said that he would rise after three days. They did not admit that they envisaged the possibility that that might be true, but they thought the disciples might seek to steal away the body and say that a resurrection had happened. They, therefore, wished to take special steps to guard the tomb. Back comes Pilate's answer: "Make it as safe as you can." It is as if Pilate all unconsciously said, "Keep Christ in the tomb--if you can:" They took their steps. The door of these rock tombs was closed by a great round stone like a cartwheel, which ran in a groove. They sealed it and they set a special guard--and they made it as safe as they could.

They had not realized one thing--that there was not a tomb in the world which could imprison the Risen Christ. Not all men's plans could bind the Risen Lord. The man who seeks to put bonds on Jesus Christ is on a hopeless assignment.

-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)

 


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Bibliography Information
Barclay, William. "Commentary on Matthew 27:4". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/dsb/matthew-27.html. 1956-1959.

Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, September 22nd, 2019
the Week of Proper 20 / Ordinary 25
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