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Bible Commentaries
Matthew 27

Layman's Bible CommentaryLayman's Bible Commentary

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Verses 1-10

Deliberation of the Chief Priests and the Death of Judas (27:1-10)

The chief priests and the elders hold council. The problem is, how to secure the death of Jesus. The Sanhedrin had jurisdiction over Israelites in everything which concerned the Law (see John 18:31 ) ; it could put a guilty person to death. The customary method was by stoning (see Acts 7:57-58). But in this case the Sanhedrin would have exposed itself to the anger of the crowds. Moreover, the problem involved destroying the prestige of Jesus and the movement which his authority had stirred up. To declare that he had proclaimed himself King of the Jews would justify the intervention of Roman authority (see Luke 23:1-2). The Romans would punish him as an insurgent, and inflict on him the torment reserved for slaves crucifixion. All Jews would then be obliged to acknowledge that the curse of God rested on him: "Cursed be every one who hangs on a tree" (Galatians 3:13; see Deuteronomy 21:22-23).

Without doubt, such was the reasoning which the chief priests used to deliver Jesus to the Roman procurator. But for the evangelist that also is foretold (see Matthew 20:19); that also is included in God’s plan of salvation. All, both Jews and Gentiles, conspire to put to death the Son of God.

The condemnation of Jesus upsets Judas. This seems indeed to indicate that he had believed that there would be either an acquittal or a manifestation of power by the Messiah (see comment on Matthew 26:20-25) . Had Judas desired to force the hand of God? He returns the money to the priests (see Matthew 27:3). He shouts to them the innocence of his Master and draws this atrociously cynical word in reply: "What is that to us? See to it yourself." The remorse of Judas is outside of the presence of God; his end reveals this, for his remorse does not lead him to repentance but to despair. Judas takes his own life. Thus Matthew shows us that he who rejects proffered grace destroys himself.

Verses 11-31

Jesus Before Pilate (27:11-31)

Pontius Pilate was governor ("procurator" is the exact term) of Judea from A.D. 26 to A.D. 36. His name remains forever attached to the confession of the Christian faith; "suffered under Pontius Pilate," the Apostles’ Creed has it, indicating the historic facts the time and the place of Jesus’ death (see Luke 3:1; Acts 3:13).

The indictment which the ecclesiastical authorities pronounced against Jesus conies out again in the question of Pilate: "Are you the King of the Jews?" The reply of Jesus could signify, "It is you who say it"; it seems, however, to be rather an affirmation (Matthew 26:64). Immediately his adversaries overwhelm him with accusations, but he disdains to reply to their calumnies (Matthew 26:63). The Gospels by Mark and Matthew both lay stress on the silence of Jesus. In him is fulfilled to the very end the destiny of the Suffering Servant of Isaiah:

He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,

yet he opened not his mouth;

like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,

and like a sheep that before its shearers is dumb,

so he opened not his mouth (Isaiah 53:7).

But there was such a dignity, such a grandeur, in his silence that Pilate was impressed by it (vs. 14; see also vs. 18).

It happened that the people could obtain by acclamation the pardon of a prisoner. This does not seem to have been a regular custom. Pilate, with the intention of saving Jesus, offered to the assembled crowd the deliverance of a prisoner, and gave them the choice between Jesus and Barabbas. This latter name is not complete, for it means "son of Abbas." According to an ancient manuscript, the name was "Jesus, son of Abbas" (vs. 16, see margin). The choice, then, would be between Jesus son of Abbas and Jesus the Messiah. Barabbas is a man condemned for sedition and murder (see Mark 15:7; Luke 23:19).

Matthew inserts here an episode which he alone reports and which, in his thought, accentuates the responsibility of Pilate the intervention of Pilate’s wife, warned in a dream of the crime which is about to be perpetrated: "Have nothing to do with that righteous man." It is a pagan who proclaims the Messiah of Israel "righteous"!

The chief priests instigate the crowd to demand not Jesus, but Barabbas (vs. 20). We grasp here, in a very lifelike way, the demonism of an insidiously underhanded propaganda the crowd clamors for that for which they have been made to clamor. Are these the same people who, one week earlier, acclaimed Jesus and cried, "Hosanna to the Son of David!" (Matthew 21:9), people to whom Jesus has never done anything but good? Where are his Galilean friends hiding, far from the judgment hall where one of their number is condemned? Among the thousands of pilgrims gathered at Jerusalem during these days it should have been easy to stir up a crowd. Is it not of these poor crowds that Jesus is thinking when he prays, "Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do"? (Luke 23:34).

Pilate does not have this excuse. He knows that he is going to condemn an innocent man. But state policy outweighs the law. Tumult increases. The peace of Jerusalem is worth more than the life of one man! Pilate "washed his hands" of this murder. He seems to have borrowed for the occasion a Jewish custom in order to clear himself before the people of the crime in which he acquiesced (see Deuteronomy 21:6-9; Psalms 26:6; Psalms 73:13). He does not even have the courage to assume the responsibility for his acts. Thus the abdication of secular authority leaves the way free for the passions of men.

The people are ready with a terrible remark: "His blood be on us and on our children!" Matthew alone has dared to preserve this saying. Addressing himself to people of Jewish origin, he lays bare the responsibility of Israel. This responsibility will be emphasized by the Apostles, not to exonerate the Roman authority but to remind the Elect People that it is they themselves who have rejected their Messiah and to incite them to repentance and faith (see Acts 2:36; Acts 3:12-18). Throughout the history of the Church, men have often played on this culpability in order to persecute the Jewish people. Anti-Semitism is an accursed fruit of Christian self-righteousness which at this point overtakes the Pharisaism condemned by Jesus. Men forget that "salvation is from the Jews" (John 4:22), and that Jesus and his Apostles were Jews. They forget above all that these Jews who condemned Jesus, this Pilate who delivered him to them, these soldiers who insulted him, represent rebellious humanity, arrayed against God that humanity which is also ours. "For God has consigned all men to disobedience, that he may have mercy upon all" (Romans 11:32).

Those condemned to crucifixion were first beaten with rods (vs. 26). The soldiers added derision to the suffering (vss. 27-31). The scarlet robe was likely that of a Roman officer. The reed symbolized a royal scepter. This masquerade, aimed beyond Jesus, strikes at the Jewish people, ridiculing their faith in a King-Messiah. To the cruelty was added mockery and spitting. Human sadism, once unleashed, gives itself free course.

Verses 32-56

The Crucifixion (27:32-56)

Custom demanded that the condemned should carry his own cross to the place of execution. If he were too weak, the soldiers commandeered a passer-by. No disciple is there to relieve his Master staggering under the load. The Gospels have preserved the name of the man who rendered this last service to Jesus Simon of Cyrene. Doubtless he witnessed the Crucifixion. Mark describes him as the father of Alexander and Rufus, showing that these two last were well known in the Church (Mark 15:21; see Romans 16:13).

The story of the Crucifixion is one of remarkable restraint. It refrains from trying to describe the agony of Jesus. But it indicates in some brief touches the indifference, the cynicism, and the irony of those who watched him die.

The soldiers give him wine "mingled with gall" (vs. 34). There is perhaps in this a reminiscence of Psalms 69 (see vs. 21). Dying criminals were given a bitter drink for the purpose of assuaging their pain. Jesus refuses it He will retain a clear consciousness to the very end. They strip the clothes from the condemned, nail him to the cross, and then raise the cross upright The soldiers are indifferent to the torture they inflict They draw lots for his clothing and seat themselves to keep guard over him..

The ground of the condemnation is written over the cross: "This is Jesus the King of the Jews." The purpose of this inscription is to ridicule Jewish messianism. But in the eyes of Christians, Rome, without intending it, proclaimed the truth. This executed criminal is the King who will come again in power and glory. The prophecy of Isaiah 53 is fulfilled. Both in his life and in his death Jesus is the foretold Servant.

They crucified along with Jesus two "robbers, " who may have been rebels (or Zealots) who wished to make the Messianic cause triumph at the point of the sword. Passers-by derided him. They cited the words of Jesus about the Temple (vs. 40; see John 2:19) and mocked his weakness. Truly, what a strange "Son of God"! "Save yourself!"

In the story of the Temptation (Matthew 4:1-11) and at several other places in the course of the Gospel, Matthew has indicated that it is precisely in not seeking to "save himself" that Jesus shows himself to be the authentic Son of God. Once more the contrast is manifest between the thoughts of men and the thoughts of God (Matthew 16:23). Once more Satan tempts Jesus: "Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him." It is the ecclesiastical authorities who thus mock, and in so doing they deny the most profound revelation given to Israel the necessity for the agony of the Righteous One. One single voice in the course of the trial styled Jesus "righteous," the voice of a pagan (vs. 19) .

These contrasts are deliberate. The Gospel by Matthew joins in the task in which Paul is engrossed (see Rom. chs. 9-11), to summon their Jewish brothers to repentance by cutting off all retreat, convincing them of their guilt, and showing them from the Scriptures that everything was foreseen and foretold (hence the reference to Psalms 69, 22, and Isaiah 53). They must be incited to jealousy by being shown that the pagans have discerned, through a direct revelation of God, what they themselves in their blindness have rejected and scorned (vss. 19, 54).

From the sixth hour (noon) until the ninth, darkness covered the land (vs. 45). This is the hour of judgment, the darkness of the silence of God, the darkness of his absence! It is expressed in that terrible cry which only Mark and Matthew have been bold enough to reproduce: "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" These words open Psalms 22, which concludes in a hymn of victory. But this victory will be seen only at the Resurrection. For the evangelists, this hour is indeed the hour of darkness, and there is no reason to attenuate its significance. It is the hour when the One who consents to be the Servant, the humiliated Servant, drinks to the dregs the cup of human sin (see Isaiah 53:3-9 and Philippians 2:5-9).

One of the onlookers, in a gesture of pity, holds up to the crucified a sponge filled with vinegar. The others mock. Misunderstanding the words spoken by Jesus, they conclude that he is calling Elijah to his aid. They see in this cry the supreme admission of weakness on the part of this messianic pretender.

After a last great cry (see Hebrews 5:7), Jesus "yielded up his spirit." Luke likely makes explicit what is implied in this saying of Matthew when he reports Jesus’ words, "Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit!" (Luke 23:46; see Psalms 31:5). This death is not a defeat but a final victory. This stands out clearly from what follows (vss. 51-54).

The veil of the Temple is torn (vs. 51; see Mark 15:38). This veil shut in the Holy of Holies from profane eyes. Only the high priest could enter it. The rending marks the end of the old worship, an end which Jesus had foretold (Matthew 24:2; see also Matthew 21:12-13). The Gospel does not explain the meaning of this symbolic event Every Jew, however, would understand it as a judgment of God. All Christians should see in it what the Letter to the Hebrews indicates access into the sanctuary is henceforth opened by Jesus Christ to all believers; and, perhaps it should be added, the ancient notion which opposes the "sacred" to the "profane" is abolished (see Hebrews 9:1-14; Hebrews 10:19-22). The hour has come to worship "in spirit and truth" (John 4:23-24).

Verses 51-54 express the cosmic significance of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. The "signs" given in this passage are signs that usher in the end of the world in the final resurrection. What Matthew desires to signify by these miracles is the import of the event which has just taken place. The earth trembles on its foundations, for this is the hour of God’s judgment. One world is disappearing, another is being born.

The Roman centurion and those who with him have watched the execution are the first to confess Jesus as Son of God. According to Matthew, it is the phenomena which accompany Jesus’ death which impress these soldiers. According to Mark, it is rather the extraordinary character of Jesus’ agony which provokes the centurion’s confession of faith (Mark 15:39; see also margin). Whatever it was, this confession constitutes the first fruits of a future harvest; it foretells the conversion of the "nations" (Matthew 28:19).

The Crucifixion has still other witnesses. Some women, Matthew tells us, have witnessed the agony of their Lord "from afar." They had accompanied him from Galilee to Jerusalem to "provide" for him out of their means (see Luke 8:2-3). Nothing is told us of them and their grief, save that they are there. All the Gospels testify of the attitude of Jesus toward women, of the kindness with which he treated them. He gave them their human dignity. He revealed to them the grace of pardon. He provoked in them a gratitude and a love which were unflagging. Prior to Jesus, women were regarded as inferior beings, religiously speaking. The Apostolic Church came to know thereafter that all, both men and women, are the objects of the same grace and the same salvation (see Galatians 3:27-29).

Verses 57-66

The Burial (27:57-66)

Joseph of Arimathea is mentioned for the first time. Matthew specifies that he was "a rich man," Perhaps he has in mind the prophecy of Isaiah, "And they made his grave . . . with a rich man in his death" (Isaiah 53:9). Has he not in detail shown Jesus fulfilling in his Person the destiny of the Suffering Servant? It is a strange thing that it is neither the Apostles nor near relatives who render this last service of love to Jesus. Doubtless they were unable to do it. Only two women, of whom one was Mary Magdalene, witnessed the burial.

We have already seen the mariner in which our Gospel contrasts light and shadow. Between the gesture of love by Joseph of Arimathea and the news of the Resurrection the author inserts the proceedings of the high priests and Pharisees. Their hatred is not appeased. They suspect the disciples of plotting a deception. Pilate grants them the guard which they request, but he leaves the responsibility of it to them.

Bibliographical Information
"Commentary on Matthew 27". "Layman's Bible Commentary". https://www.studylight.org/commentaries/eng/lbc/matthew-27.html.
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