Coffman Commentaries on the Old and New TestamentMatthew 27
JESUS DELIVERED UP TO PILATE; THE END OF JUDAS; JESUS BEFORE PILATE; THE MOCKERY; THE CRUCIFIXION; THE DEATH OF JESUS; JESUS WAS LAID IN THE TOMB; POSTING A GUARD AND SEALING THE TOMB
Verses 1, 2
Now when morning was come, all the chief priests and elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death: and they bound him, and led him away and delivered him up to Pilate the governor.
This occurred on the morning of the day of preparation for the Passover, which had technically begun the night before at sunset. That was the day on which the paschal lambs would be ceremonially slain in the temple; but on THAT day of preparation, God himself would slay the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world and would lay upon him "the iniquity of us all."
The "counsel" mentioned in Matt. 27:1 is probably Matthew's summary of the official trial before the Sanhedrin, held and concluded very early that same morning; but it could also refer to a caucus held shortly before confrontation with the governor in order for the priests to determine the best way to present their case to Pilate. The devious and hypocritical procedure they decided upon was unfolded in the ensuing events and only worsened the evil reputation which ever since has properly belonged to those wicked men.
Pontius Pilate, the fifth procurator of Judaea, or governor as he was called, was appointed by Tiberius, 26 A.D.; and his administration was often in conflict with the Hebrews whom he doubtless despised. He insulted their traditions by bringing the Roman standards into the Holy City (the standards had images); but under threat of widespread disorder, he yielded and withdrew them. No one knew better than Pilate the hypocrisy of the Sanhedrin in professing to take Caesar's part against Christ. A number of conflicting traditions exist relative to Pilate's death. A 52-foot pyramid stands at Vienna on the Rhone which purports to mark the place of his suicide. He was also supposed to have drowned himself in Lake Lucerne, where an adjacent mountain is called Pilatus. It is known that he was summoned to Rome to face charges; but when he arrived, Tiberius had been succeeded by Caligula, and Pilate was deposed. Eusebius affirmed that soon afterward Pilate, "wearied with misfortunes, killed himself." As for his character, he was probably no better or worse than the rank and file of imperial deputies who held the sprawling empire in check; but it was his fate to be memorialized forever in the creeds of Christendom. "Suffered under Pontius Pilate" has echoed down nearly two millennia, embalming his name in perpetual infamy. There were many others who deserved the fate as much as he, and yet there can be no doubt that he deserved the odium which fell upon his name. After all, he put to death an innocent man, in full knowledge of his innocence, and did so for purely personal and expedient considerations. That he did not truly know the full identity of Christ does not mitigate his guilt.
Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders.
The exact time Judas made that decision is not given; it has already been noted that the Sanhedrin made no use of Judas' testimony, and if they attempted to suborn him, which it may be assumed that they did, he certainly refused; and such a speculation, if allowed, would account for their hostility when he attempted later to return the money.
Even in "repentance," Judas did the wrong thing. If he had gone to his Saviour instead of to the priests, it is possible he might have been forgiven.
Saying, I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood. But they said, What is that to us? see thou to it.
How callous and bitter do the religious leaders appear in this cold and heartless exhibition of total indifference to moral and spiritual values. They could not have cared less about right or wrong, truth or falsehood, justice or injustice. The testimony of the traitor at that tragic moment is of surpassing value to the Christian gospel. Even the man who betrayed Christ confessed his innocence, not under duress but voluntarily, and not before his disciples but before his enemies.
Verses 5, 6
And he cast down the pieces of silver into the sanctuary, and departed; and he went away and hanged himself. And the chief priests took the pieces of silver, and said, It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood.
The casting of the silver into the sanctuary fulfilled Zechariah's prophecy (Zechariah 11:12). See under Matt. 27:10, below. Other things forbidden to the treasury were the hire of a harlot and the price of a dog (Deuteronomy 23:18). The capacity of those men to "strain out the gnat and swallow" (see under 23:23ff) is almost unbelievable. They were not above hiring perjured witnesses, bribery, plotting to murder the Son of God, or doing any other evil thing that might have seemed expedient; but to take back their own money from repentant Judas, THAT was unlawful! Furthermore, the restriction against blood-money being placed in the treasury does not appear to be one of God's restrictions, but one of their own! Deuteronomy 23:18, usually cited in this context, says nothing of the "price of blood." That was probably just another instance of their having made their own traditions of more importance than God's word.
And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter's field, to bury strangers in. Wherefore, that field was called, The field of blood, unto this day. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him that was priced, whom certain of the children of Israel did price; and they gave them for the potter's field, as the Lord hath appointed me.
Still ignorant of what they were doing, the enemies of Jesus continued to fulfill Zechariah's prophecy (Zechariah 11:12,13); Judas cast the money "in the house of the Lord," and they made it "unto the potter."
Acts 1:19 gives the Aramaic name for the field, popularly known as Akeldama.
"Jeremiah" was the name of a larger grouping of the Hebrew Scriptures which contained both Jeremiah and Zechariah, along with other books including all the minor prophets. Thus, Matthew is guilty of no error in the use of the term "Jeremiah." An equivalent case today would be a quotation credited to "Romans" or to the "New Testament." Some commentators believe that Matthew quoted from some of the traditional sayings of Jeremiah, since it is not said that Jeremiah wrote the saying but that he spoke it. The quotation, exhibiting several variations from the words in Zechariah, may then be understood either as an exact quotation from Jeremiah, now lost, or a paraphrase of Zechariah. In any case, the objection is not important.
The exact fulfillment of Zechariah's prophecy by the betrayal events is fully discussed under Matthew 26:15. As for the alleged contradiction between the Acts and Matthew accounts of the manner of Judas' death and the persons purchasing the field, note the following:
He departed and went
away and hanged himself ...
The chief priests took the
silver ... and bought with
them the potter's field to
bury strangers in.
Now this man obtained a
field with the reward of his
iniquity; and falling headlong,
he burst asunder in the midst,
and all his bowels gushed out.
Neither of these statements excludes
the other. Matthew does not deny that
Judas, after hanging himself, fell and
burst asunder; Luke does not assert
that Judas did not hang himself prior
to his fall. Probably the
circumstances are much as follows:
Judas suspended himself from a tree on
the brink of the precipice overhanging
the valley of Himmon, and the limb or
the rope gave way; and he fell and was
mangled as described in Acts. F1
If Judas hanged himself, as plainly said, the only way he could have come down was by falling, or by tender and loving removal at the hands of others. To say that he did not fall, as plainly said, one would have to be able to affirm that some person or persons prevented it. Furthermore, if the body remained suspended until it fell of natural causes, which was likely, the bursting of the body as it fell would have been a certainty.
Now, note the so-called contradiction in Acts which ascribes the obtaining of the field to JUDAS as contrasted with Matthew's recording that the "PRIESTS bought the potter's field." This too is one of those artificial "contradictions" So delightful to skeptics. Since Judas provided the money to buy the field, it is highly proper to say that he "obtained" it. That the actual purchase and arranging of the legal transfer of the property was done by the priests makes it true also that they actually "bought" it. Today, on the campuses of a thousands colleges, are buildings "bought" by various donors whose names are inscribed on the buildings; yet in every case, it was the college or university which literally "bought" the building, signing all the contracts, making the legal transfers, etc. Furthermore, if a donor dies before all the legal details are completed, he is still said to have "given" or "obtained" for the school the new student center, or dormitory, or science building. That the same purchase is under consideration in both Matthew and Acts is implicit in the name "field of blood," which is the same in both.
Verses 11, 12
Now Jesus stood before the governor: and the governor asked him, saying, Art thou the King of the Jews? And Jesus said unto him, Thou sayest. And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing.
THE FOURTH TRIAL OF JESUS
Those infamous hypocrites were still up to their old game of trying to get Jesus crucified for sedition and had obviously represented Christ to Pilate as a political aspirant to the non-existent throne of the Hebrews. Christ answered Pilate's fair question just as fairly; but it was plain as daylight to Pilate that Christ's "kingdom" was not such as to be of any concern to Caesar! The Sanhedrin was most unwilling to give Pilate their true reason for demanding the death penalty, namely that Christ had claimed to be the divine Messiah; so the first part of this fourth trial was used by them to allege all kinds of crimes against the Christ in the hope of getting him crucified on any charge except the true one. Christ's serene composure and restraint throughout the trial infuriated them more and more, as it became increasingly evident that they would not be able to deceive Pilate. Jesus used the same strategy here as in the long trials before the Sanhedrin, maintaining silence in the face of fraudulent and unprovable charges.
Verses 13, 14
Then saith Pilate unto him, Hearest thou not how many things they witness against thee? And he gave him no answer, not even to one word: insomuch that the governor marveled greatly.
Of course, they were talking a bold case against Christ, but they had no proof; and Pilate perfectly understood the unreliability of all the wild charges they alleged against him. Moreover, Pilate's wonder and admiration were kindled by the sublime and commanding presence of the Master, who, even in the depths of his humiliation, must have exhibited the manner and attitude of Truth incarnate. Christ's silence in the face of all the vicious allegations of the chief priests and elders doubtless struck Pilate as a very daring and courageous evidence of confidence. Certainly the record is clear that at that point Pilate was determined to release Christ and subsequently made a number of clever and determined maneuvers to acquit him.
THE FIFTH TRIAL OF CHRIST
Pilate's First Effort to Release Christ
The fifth trial of Christ came about from Pilate's seizure upon the priests' mention of "Galilee" as an excuse to send Christ to Herod. Matthew did not record any of the "many things" they witnessed against Christ, but Luke recorded their charge of having "stirred up the people, BEGINNING FROM GALILEE" (Luke 23:5). Herod, like all Roman deputies, was in Jerusalem for the Passover, and Pilate did a politically clever thing by sending Christ to Herod, the tetrarch of Galilee. Herod's curiosity was frustrated; Jesus performed no miracle; in fact, he said nothing. The Lord was mocked; and Herod, after allowing his guard to make sport of Christ, sent him back to Pilate. The Jewish leaders attended the trial before Herod and prosecuted Jesus with their usual vehemence (Luke 23:10); but in spite of their accusations, Herod found no cause of death in Christ and refused to condemn him.
THE SIXTH TRIAL OF CHRIST
Pilate's Second Effort to Release Christ
This second effort of the procurator to release Christ was not recorded by Matthew but is outlined in Luke 23:13-15. It came in the form of a confrontation in which Pilate summoned them and bluntly announced that both he and Herod had found "no fault" in Christ. "Behold, nothing worthy of death hath been done by him (Luke 23:15ff). That was precisely the point at which Pilate should have broken off the trial and released Christ, ordered the legions to disperse the crowds, and announced the decision of the court in harmony with the verdict of innocence; but as Christ himself so often said, "The scriptures must be fulfilled!"
Pilate's hesitation at that critical moment allowed the initiative to pass once more to the Pharisees, and thus the second maneuver failed.
The Third Effort of Pilate to Release Jesus
This was an offer to impose the milder punishment of chastisement instead of the death penalty. "I will, therefore, chastise him, and release him" (Luke 23:16). Of course, there was nothing mild about the horrible Roman flagellation. In this brutal suggestion, the moral crevasses in the character of Pilate were plainly visible. This proposal to subject a man he had just declared to be innocent to the shocking and bloody chastisement practiced in those days showed plainly enough that Pilate actually had no moral scruples against crucifixion, and that proposal was probably the first indication to the Jewish leaders that they would be able to have their way with Pilate in regard to Christ. True, Pilate would not yield without further struggles to extricate himself from a distasteful involvement in the terrible business; but the end had already begun with this third effort to spare Christ's life.
Verses 15, 16, 17
Now at the feast the governor was wont to release, unto the multitude one prisoner, whom they would. And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas. When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said unto them, Whom will ye that I release unto you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?
The Fourth Effort of Pilate to Release Jesus
No doubt Pilate thought they would choose Christ; but he had reckoned without consideration of the fanatical hatred of the leaders against Christ. Barabbas was a notorious seditionist and robber (Mark 15:7), the leader of a group who had made an insurrection against Rome (presumably). His crimes were murder, robbery, and sedition; and Pilate's strategy at that point was directed to forcing a choice between such a man and Christ. Under the circumstances, the choice of Barabbas would have strong overtones of disloyalty to Caesar which the Pharisees had so lately professed; but if Pilate counted on such a deterrent to the choice of Barabbas, he was mistaken.
Did Barabbas know of that proposal? If so, he must have felt that he had practically no chance of being chosen over one whose reputation as a prophet, healer, and holy person was so widespread. Since the condemnation of other robbers resulted in their crucifixion, it is safe to assume that the same fate awaited Barabbas, except for Pilate's proposal to pair him with Christ for the honor of being released for Passover.
Verses 18, 19
For he knew that for envy they had delivered him up. And while he was sitting on the judgment-seat, his wife sent unto him, saying, Have thou nothing to do with that righteous man; for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.
Matthew recorded very little of the extensive conversation recorded in John 18:28-38, in which Pilate concluded by asking, "What is truth?" But the record of that conversation is in Matt. 27:18. He knew that "for envy" they had delivered him. Pilate thus knew the innocence of Christ, the hypocrisy as well as the true motives of his accusers; and he could see through the tissue of lies in their charges.
There is an extensive traditional literature with reference to Claudia, Pilate's wife, who had the courage to witness to the righteousness of Christ at the very moment of his condemnation. Fan Records, Inc., Anaheim, California, with Marjorie Lord as narrator, have produced a remarkable 27-minute recording as a "reading of Claudia's letter." It is not alleged here that the letter is either inspired or authentic; but it does impress the sincere student of the Bible as a possible detail of what happened and strikes the hearts of those who listen to it with an overwhelming emotional impact. The so-called "letter" reveals Claudia as a convert to Christianity, alleges that Christ had healed her son of congenital lameness, makes her a friend of the wife of Jairus and a witness of the raising of Jairus' daughter from the dead. Records of this letter have long existed. Catherine Van Dyke of the New York Times discovered an ancient copy of it at Bruges, in a monastery, in 1929. Claudia is honored as a saint by the Greek Orthodox Church and also by the Copts. A Christian does not need to place any reliance whatever upon such traditions as this; but the one relative to Claudia contains a remarkable degree of plausibility, and none of the "facts" it alleges are in any way incompatible with the Scriptures. They would even seem to enjoy some inferential support from the strange incident recorded in Matt. 27:19.
It is significant that Pilate, a pagan, should have received just such a warning as a pagan would have been most likely to heed. Thus, just as Judas was warned by the Lord, God gave Pilate his warning also.
Verses 20, 21
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the multitudes that they should ask for Barabbas, and destroy Jesus. But the governor answered and said unto them, Which of the two will ye that I release unto you? And they said, Barabbas.
This shows that Pilate's judgment relative to the popularity of Christ vs. Barabbas was correct. If left to themselves, the multitude would surely have chosen Christ; but the priests left nothing to chance, and did a "hard sell" on the multitude. That they were able to succeed in such a task was due to the general reverence and respect in which they were held. They had enough influence to accomplish their purpose.
Thus, the fourth effort of Pilate to release Christ was drowned in the roar of the mob, "Give us Barabbas!" "Crucify Jesus!"
How irresponsible and unruly is a mob! Let those who hold the view, "Vox populi, vox Dei" behold this case in which the "voice of the people" was the voice of Satan. It was the voice of the people that said to Aaron, "Make us gods to go before us." It was the voice of the people that turned out the garlands and oxen to do sacrifice to Paul and Barnabas (Acts 14:11). It was the voice of the people that shouted "Hosanna to the Son of David" on Sunday, and, before the week ended, shouted, "Crucify him! crucify him!"
Who o'er the herd would wish to reign?
Fantastic, fickle, fierce, and vain,
Vain as the leaf upon the stream,
And fickle as a changeful dream,
Fantastic as a woman's mood,
And fierce as frenzy's fevered blood;
Thou many headed monster thing,
O, who would wish to be thy king? F2
What a triumph of evil in that horrible choice of Barabbas instead of Christ! It was not enough that the Prince of Life be rejected; such was the cunning of the evil one that the Lord's chosen people shouted their preference for a brutal criminal instead. There is a pattern in that perverted choice that extends endlessly through man's spiritual history. Rejection of the truth always results in the acceptance of something else. As Paul said, "They shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables" (2 Timothy 4:4). When men turn away from Christ, they accept Karl Marx, Mrs. Eddy, Joseph Smith, etc.
Pilate saith unto them, What then shalt I do into Jesus who is called Christ? They all say, Let him be crucified.
Sooner or later, every soul is confronted with the same question, "What then shall I do unto Jesus who is called Christ?" The problem will not go away. The decision cannot be avoided or transferred to another, or endlessly deferred. "What think ye of Christ? Whose son is he?" That question is the moral watershed down which the several streams of eternal life and eternal death move inexorably to the wide seas. Pilate sought to drown his conscience, the plea of his distressed wife, and the proclaimed verdict of innocence, in the cacophony of a hysterical mob; but the decision was his. Even if his mind did not fully grasp it, his lips surely admitted it. "What then shall I do ..."
And he said, Why, what evil hath he done? But they cried out exceedingly, saying, Let him be crucified!
This was the climax of the trial. None of the hundreds of thousands who ever witnessed the Passion Play at Oberammergau can ever forget the mob scene in which over nine hundred people portray the unreasoning fury of that Jerusalem rabble, shouting for the crucifixion of Christ. It is one thing to read it in the Bible, and a glorious thing; but the real-life drama re-enacted before men's astonished eyes is choking in intensity. It is not difficult to understand how the weakling governor wilted and quailed before such a sadistic onslaught of hatred and cruelty. "In his humiliation, his judgment is taken away" (Acts 8:33). That means that the verdict of his innocence was violently thwarted.
Pilate's reference, even at that late stage, to the innocence of Christ was the prod which finally extorted from the Pharisees the REAL REASON for their demanding Christ's execution. It is no credit to the religious hierarchy that they concealed it until the very last moment, for they were loathe to have even the Saviour's death appear in the records upon its true foundation. Thus, at last they spat it out, reluctantly, not because of any sense of honor due the facts, but from a sudden fear that even then Pilate, insisting on Christ's innocence, might not sign the death warrant. John recorded their final compliance with Pilate's demand to know "Why?" "The Jews answered him, We have a law, and by that law he ought to die, because he made himself the Son of God" (John 19:7).
The Fifth Effort of Pilate to Release Jesus
This answer of the Jews (John 19:7) frightened Pilate, and, moved with fear, Pilate "sought the more to release him" (John 19:11,12). It was no regard to the moral issue of saving an innocent man's life, but out of fear, that the procurator acted; and in the end that same fear would cause him to yield. We are not told exactly what Pilate's efforts were at this point, but his return to Christ with the question, "Whence art thou?" (John 19:10) shows that he was searching and casting about in all directions for a possible way out of his dilemma.
The Sixth Effort of Pilate to Release Jesus
Somewhere during the proceedings of that dark day, Pilate tried another approach. It was possibly a little earlier (John 19:6) that Pilate suggested, in view of their determination to kill Jesus, that they take him without legal process and crucify him. This would appear as an implied offer to look the other way if the priests decided to take the law into their own hands. The Jews, however, would not settle for half a loaf. Pilate had consented to the deed in principle, and they were determined to force his hand to the signature. The detestable manner in which they did it is recorded by John, "The Jews cried out, saying, If thou release this man, thou art not Caesar's friend: every one that maketh himself a king speaketh against Caesar!" (John 19:12,13). That was the shaft that did it, as far as Pilate was concerned. He would as readily have crucified a hundred innocent men if, in so doing, he had thought to strengthen his position with Caesar.
Summarizing the efforts of Pilate to release Jesus, it is observed that:
- Pilate sent him to Herod Antipas.
- He gave a verdict of innocence.
- He offered to substitute a lighter punishment.
- He proposed a choice between Christ and Barabbas.
- He insisted on Jesus' innocence: "Why, what evil hath he done?"
- He suggested that they take him and mob him.
- He still sought to release him.
Yet after all that, when the cunning enemies of Jesus injected the question of Pilate's loyalty to Caesar, he capitulated.
So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands before the multitude, saying, I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man, see ye to it.
Dramatic as that gesture was, it was meaningless. It was still Pilate's hand that must sign the death warrant, washing or no washing. Robertson said:
Pilate, of course, could not escape
the full legal and moral
responsibility for his cowardly
surrender to the Sanhedrin. The guilt
of the Sanhedrin (both Pharisees and
Sadducees unite in the demand for the
blood of Jesus) is beyond dispute. It
is impossible to make a mere political
issue out of it and lay the blame on
the Sadducees, who feared a
revolution. The Pharisees began the
attacks on Jesus on theological and
ecclesiastical grounds. The Sadducees
later joined the conspiracy against
Christ. Judas was a mere tool of the
Sanhedrin, who had his resentments and
grievances to avenge. There is guilt
enough for all the plotters in the
greatest wrong of the ages. F3
Futile as Pilate's gesture was, it served the Christian gospel by reaffirming the righteousness and innocence of Christ. Thus, God caused the wrath of man to praise him (Psalms 76:10).
And all the people answered and said, His blood be on us and our children.
This evil prayer was answered; thus people receive what they ask. All the subsequent sorrows that came upon Israel were then and there invoked by a multitude that included the highest official representatives of the nation. Of all rash things, the rashest is a rash prayer; nor was this the first time that Israel had prayed and received the answer of so rash a petition. Their ancestors had cried in the wilderness, "Would God we had died in the wilderness" (Numbers 14:2). Of course, that is exactly what that generation did; they died in the wilderness. A similar thing happened when Rachel prayed, "Give me children, or I die? (Genesis 30:1). She died in childbirth when Benjamin was born. The petition recorded here, "His blood be on us and our children," was also answered in the most dramatic and overwhelming manner when, according to Josephus, 30,000 young Hebrew men were crucified upon the walls of Jerusalem by the soldiers of Titus when the city fell during the summer of A.D. 70; but the full tragedy of that tragic prayer and its tragic aftermath shall never be known until eternity. Through the long centuries, the persecutions, blood-purges, and pogroms directed against Israel must surely be classed among the most astonishing social phenomena ever known; and it is not too much to say that all of them head up to a single fountain in this awful prayer.
Then released he unto them Barabbas; but Jesus he scourged and delivered to be crucified.
Scourging was a part of execution by the cross. It came in fulfillment of the prophecy in Isaiah (Isaiah 53:5), but it may be supposed that Pilate did not know that every stripe laid upon our Lord by the scourge was a fulfillment of the word of God. The connection between chastisement and crucifixion is not often stressed, but there still exist inhumane examples of chastisement as a prelude to execution in unchristian nations. Dr. George S. Benson, long-time president of Harding College, related how he witnessed an execution in China, where he served as a missionary. A young man was caught stealing and condemned to be beheaded. He pleaded that he did not want to die, but the cruel authority said, "Just wait, you will want to die in a few minutes!" Then they stripped him, lashed him to a tree, and beat the very flesh off his bones, knocking out his eyes and his teeth; and then, to the question, "Do you now want to die?" the unfortunate meekly nodded assent, and a moment later his head rolled in the dust. The Roman chastisement, though not as brutal as that described by Dr. Benson, was nevertheless something terrible, and it was not an unusual thing for men to die under the scourge, hence the limitation to "forty stripes, save one" as frequently mentioned in the New Testament.
Verses 27, 28
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium, and gathered unto him the whole band. And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.
This appears to have been a customary sport allowed the soldiery at the expense of any condemned man. Herod's soldiers took similar liberties (Luke 23:11); and a person referred to them as a pretender to regal honors would have been an especially attractive object of such a sadistic sport as that which then engaged Pilate's soldiers.
The place of the mockery was the Praetorium, so named from the barracks of the emperor's personal guard in Rome, being presumably, therefore, the common hall where the soldiers held their drill and other exercises, adjacent to the governor's residence and perhaps a part of it.
The "scarlet robe" mentioned in this place was called "purple" by Mark (Mark 15:17). Perhaps part of the garments placed upon him in derision were purple, the whole attire being topped off with a scarlet robe; for it is significant that Mark does not actually refer to the robe as purple, but to his clothing. However, there is another possibility which is even more attractive to this writer, and that is that the robe had both colors, and possibly even a third. This presumption derives from the following: Christ's flesh was symbolized by the veil of the temple which hung just in front of the Holy of Holies. Now that veil, as described in Exodus 26:31, had three colors, blue, purple, and scarlet. Those three colors appropriately symbolize the heavenly nature of Christ (in the blue), the earthly nature (in the scarlet), and the perfect blending of the divine and human in Christ (in the purple). How appropriate that during the dark drama of the crucifixion Christ should have worn the very colors of the symbolical veil. It is through the veil that is to say his flesh, that the new and living way is opened up (Hebrews 10:19-22,; 10:19-22, which ). In view of this, one cannot resist the speculation that the robe was probably three colors, blue and scarlet, with a commingling blue and scarlet to form purple in the center, after the manner of the veil of the ancient tabernacle. Certainly two of those colors are mentioned; and, had another one of the gospels mentioned it, the color might have been blue! Far from being a contradiction, the New Testament mention of two different colors opens a wide vista in which men may see Christ, throughout his passion, wearing the very colors (and surely TWO of them) of that veil which is called his flesh (Hebrews 10:20).
And they platted a crown of thorns and put it upon his head, and a reed in his right; and they kneeled down before him, and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!
Who but Satan himself could have sent a soldier scurrying about to prick his own hands on a thorn bush and weave such a crown for Christ? More than mortal hatred is evident in the cunning malignity of that diabolical animus which overflowed against Christ during his passion. The kneeling, and mocking salute, "Hail, King of the Jews? have lost none of their repulsiveness, though nearly two thousand years have intervened. There is more in this than the sport of soldiers accustomed to seeing men suffer. The knee bent not in sincerity, the glib salutes, proper as to form but damnable in their intention - all these things somehow ring a bell in our own hearts. Have we ever bent the knee but not in worship; have we never called him Lord, Lord, yet failed to keep his word? Why the admonition from an apostle that men should "sing with the understanding" and "pray with the understanding"? Is it not a common practice that Christ's disciples repeat the mockery of Pilate's soldiers, not of his physical person, to be sure, but of his spiritual body?
As to the kind of thorns used, we may safely leave that to the people who have "discovered" a hundred kinds of trees on which Christ was crucified, ranging from the dogwood with the nail-scarred petals to the quaking aspen tree, "quaking for the deed that was done"!
Christ will appear in glory, crowned "with many diadems" (Revelation 19:12), crowns of everlasting life, everlasting glory, all authority in heaven and on earth; but for mortals redeemed from sin, there will always be something especially poignant and emotionally quickening in this instance of his wearing that tragic emblem of man's shame, the thorn crown.
And they spat upon him, and took the reed and smote him upon the head.
What an avalanche of shame and brutal treatment descended upon our Lord in those dark hours of his humiliation! Prophecies were being fulfilled every passing minute. "We did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted" (Isaiah 53:4). Yes, it was God who did this, in the sense that he allowed it. God and Christ were the architects of this awful event in which his soul was poured out as an offering for sin. Evil men had a part in it, but the cross must not be viewed as something in which Satan partly blocked and frustrated the will of God. Far from it! The cross was the occasion when Christ did indeed bruise the head of Satan forever; or at least he did there begin to do so, a beginning which will be brought to fruition when Satan is finally overthrown in eternal punishment. If the sorrows and humiliation and agony heaped upon Christ on the cross must be viewed as merely the bruising of "his heel" (Genesis 3:15), how totally beyond human comprehension will be Satan's final overthrow?
And when they had mocked him, they took off from him the robe, and put on him his garments, and led him away to crucify him.
Alfred Plummer noted that in Mark's account of this event, the "they" who mocked him were not the same as the "they" who led him away, a conclusion based on a change of the tense. F4 A special detail of soldiers, commanded by a centurion, took over the bloody and terrible business of crucifying Christ and the two robbers condemned along with him. Perhaps the "purple" or "scarlet" robe, having fulfilled its purpose, was returned to its owner; and Christ, clad in his own garments, went to the cross. Those garments included the "seamless robe," different from the colored one; and it was upon that that the soldiers cast lots.
And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name: him they compelled to go with them, that he might bear his cross.
Executions inside the city were forbidden (Numbers 15:35; 1 Kings 21:13; Acts 7:58; Hebrews 13:12). The necessity for having someone bear Jesus' cross probably derived from his fainting from physical weakness induced by the scourging and long previous night of brutal abuse. Luke's detail that Simon was coming out of Cyrene, "out of the country," indicates that it was still only the preparation for the sabbath and that the first day of the Passover had not begun. Although from Africa, Simon's name indicates that he was a Jew. He became a Christian.
THE VIA DOLOROSA
Matthew's gospel gives little of the details connected with the journey to the cross; the pressing of the cross upon Simon and the proffered wine and gall were not the only events which marked that epic procession. Summarizing the details from all the gospels to form a composite gives the following:
- At first Christ carried the cross himself (John 19:17).
- After Christ could not bear it, Simon did (Mark 15:21).
- "Weep for yourselves" was addressed to the company of sorrowing women who followed (Luke 23:27ff).
- Two robbers were also in the procession (Luke 23:32).
- The wine and gall were given as they neared the cross, or perhaps after their arrival there (Mark 15:23).
The so-called seven stations of the cross are not given in the New Testament, and much of the tradition surrounding them is unhistorical. Veronica's veil, for example, is not mentioned; and to place any credence in such stories is to "go beyond" the word of the Lord (1 Corinthians 4:6). The expression "via dolorosa," however, is a true description of the tragic journey of our Lord to Golgotha. Yet even in that situation, Christ appears to have been thinking of the overwhelming sorrow that should come upon the daughters of Jerusalem as a result of his crucifixion (Luke 23:26-31). His own sufferings were likened to "the green tree," theirs to "the dry."
Verses 33, 34
And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, The place of a skull, they gave him wine to drink mingled with gall: and when he had tasted it, he would not drink.
Dummelow and others view the traditional site of the crucifixion, now marked by the church of the Holy Sepulchre, as possibly the true one, thinking it to have been beyond the ancient walls but now within the walls of the city. The name Golgotha, the place of a skull, however, favors another location: the rocky eminence northwest of the city, an extension of the Temple hill. It is rounded, with large holes, making it resemble a skull when viewed from certain positions. Also, John A. Broadus emphatically disputes the traditional Holy Sepulchre site on the basis that it most certainly does lie within the wall of the ancient city. Of course, it cannot now be determined absolutely WHERE our Lord suffered, except that it was beyond the gates of the ancient Jerusalem, and relatively near the city.
The wine (and gall) was a potion designed to deaden the sensibilities of condemned men and to alleviate some of the suffering. Much questioning has arisen over the Lord's tasting, and then refusing to drink. Did he not know, without tasting, what was in the cup? It appears that in the depths of his humiliation, Christ did not choose to know everything, although he could have done so, especially with regard to those things that could so easily be determined by human investigation. Why did he reject it? Surely not because he wanted to suffer as much as possible, else he would not have tasted it at all. More probably, the tasting revealed that the concoction contained wine, and it has already been noted why he refused wine (see on Matthew 26:29). Though not related, that drink could have been proffered from the hands of a certain group in Jerusalem who customarily showed mercy by such acts on behalf of condemned men.
Another possibility, regarding the wine and gall, is that Christ tasted it in fulfillment of the prophecy: "They gave me also gall for my food; and in my thirst, they gave me vinegar to drink" (Psalms 69:21). Christ's tasting the drink thus constituted a most accurate fulfillment of the prophecy; and one may well believe it was for that reason he tasted it, although he already knew what was in it. Surely he who knew men's very thoughts (Luke 6:8; 11:17) also knew what was in the cup, or at least could have known if he had so desired. This view has the advantage of consistency with the Saviour's unfailing respect for the fulfillment of the Scriptures.
And when they had crucified him, they parted his garments among them, casting lots.
These words point to a remarkable fulfillment of Psa. 22:18 which reads, "They part my garments among them, and upon my vesture do they cast lots." Again, it was the enemies of the Lord who fulfilled the prophecy. See more on the prophecies under Matt. 27:46.
And they sat and watched him there.
Throughout the ages these words, so richly suggestive, have made a profound impression on men's minds.
And sitting down, they watched him
The soldiers did;
There, while they played with dice,
He made his sacrifice,
And died upon the Cross to
Rid God's world of sin.
He was a gambler too, my Christ,
He took his life and threw
It for a world redeemed.
And ere his agony was done,
Before the westering sun went down,
Crowning that day with its crimson
He knew that he had won! F5
The indifference and oblivious insensibility of his executioners to the magnitude of the deed in which they were incidental participants staggers the imagination. This is a fair example of the attitude of all men who live and die as if Christ had not died for their sins.
And they set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.
In the extensive literature regarding the monumental things of this chapter, one often finds references to the inscription over Jesus' head, as recorded variously in the four gospels, to the effect that they are "different," "various," or even "contradictory"! Thus, Plummer said, "No two gospels agree as to the wording of the title on the cross ..." F6
But let any impartial reader read for himself:
THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS
THE KING OF THE JEWS
THIS IS THE KING OF THE JEWS
JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS
THIS IS JESUS OF NAZARETH THE KING OF THE JEWS
Now, let four independent witnesses quote the first line of the Declaration of Independence, and see the result!
Each of the gospels quoted exactly from the inscription, although none of them gave all of it. This remarkable case proves, not discrepancy, but independence of the narrators.
It was the custom of those days that the accusation under which men were condemned should, in every case, be posted above their heads; and under the circumstances, the inscription posted by Pilate amounted to a sadistic jest. The Jews, having been so solicitous for Pilate's loyalty to Caesar, were treated to an exhibition of the governor's LOYALTY that went far beyond what any of the Jews could have appreciated, Crucifying the "King of the Jews"! - that was going much too far. Ever and always it is the same story, over and over, of the wrath of man praising God (Psalms 76:10). Jesus was indeed the true King of Israel, but Pilate's title to that effect posted on the cross outraged them (John 19:19-22).
CHRIST UPON THE CROSS
Most gospel harmonies place the facts of the inscription in the section of Christ's time on the cross, but it is the view here that the superscription was affixed by Pilate before the crucifixion and at the time the cross was prepared. The gospels, however, mention it only after it became visible to all and the priests tried to get it altered or removed. A truly chronological sequence of all the events connected with the crucifixion is difficult, and certainly Matthew's topical arrangement is not always chronological; but the commonly accepted order of events is followed here, since the exact chronological sequence is of slight consequence in many of the events recorded.
During the hours ending at noon, the following events took place:
- The first three of the seven utterances of Christ were spoken:
- "Father forgive them";
- "Today shalt thou be with me in Paradise"; and
- "Woman, behold thy son, behold thy mother" (John 19:26-27; Luke 23:34,43).
- The chief priests tried to get Pilate to change the inscription.
- The soldiers gambled for the Lord's garments.
- The derision and scoffing by the Sanhedrin, the multitude, the soldiers, and the robbers.
Of these events, Matthew emphasized the derision and scoffing, possibly because his gospel was written from the Jewish viewpoint with strong attention focused upon the fulfillment of prophecy which, in the case of the scoffing, pinpointed the very words used.
Due to the importance of the "seven words" and their widespread use in the homiletics of all religious groups, a more detailed consideration of them is given at the end of this chapter.
The futile efforts of the priests to get Pilate to change the superscription, as detailed by John 19:20-22, means that Pilate had struck home with that device, which had exactly the effect he probably intended. The Jews were certainly embarrassed by it, especially since the crucifixion took place where countless numbers of the Passover throngs could see it, as they were going to or coming from the city. The dignity of those who bore the complaint to Pilate indicates the discomfiture the superscription caused the Jews. Thus, so early in the history of their crime, they wanted to change the script of the dark drama they had so rashly written; but, beginning with Pilate, there would be no fellow-conspirators to help them change it. "What I have written I have written!" was the definite and final ruling of the governor. To be sure, there comes a time when such is true for all. It was true of Israel. What they had done was done and could not be undone. Over against every evil deed there finally appears the finality of "What I have written I have written." The chief priests were suddenly left out in the cold with their deeds. They could no longer bend a weak and vacillating governor to their evil will. The great crime so tragically accomplished before the eyes of all generations was at that point forever beyond their slightest control. That very day, history hardened around the deed of infamy, leaving it petrified and frozen in all its ugly details and to be studied and analyzed by millions of men for thousands of years afterwards.
Then are there crucified with him two robbers, one on the right hand and one on the left.
Broadus supposed that these two
robbers were comrades of Barabbas who
would have been here between them had
not Jesus taken his place. Our Lord
had said the night before, "This that
is written must yet be fulfilled on
me, and he was reckoned among the
transgressors" (Luke 23:37;
Isa. 53:12). This was substantially
fulfilled by punishing him as if for
transgression, but all the more
strikingly by associating him with
actual transgressors. F7
Another remarkable prophecy relative to these events is Isaiah 53:9, "They made his grave with the wicked and with a rich man in his death" (RSV). In the prophecy the term "wicked" is plural, there being two robbers, while the expression "rich man" is singular, there being only one Joseph of Arimathaea to provide the grave.
On the designation of those crucified with Jesus as "thieves" rather than robbers, a distinction noted between the King James and the Revised Version, it is clear that the correct term is "robber." The prevalence of the term "thief" which imputes some smaller measure of guilt, however, has done little harm, especially since Barabbas, as the leader of the group, would have been held more guilty anyway.
Verses 39, 40
And they that passed by railed on him, wagging their heads, and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself: if thou art the Son of God, come down from the cross.
An accurate description of this railing was given in Psa. 22. For a more detailed analysis of that Psalm and its prophecy of the crucifixion see at the end of this chapter under the fourth word, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" Christ would soon do the thing they suggested, "raise up the temple (of his body) in three days. John 2:21 records the words of Christ who referred to his body as the true temple. It was a garbled distortion of those words that featured in the suborned testimony during the trial.
Verses 41, 42
In like manner also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, He saved others; himself he cannot save. He is the King of Israel; let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on him.
History scarcely affords another such astonishing example of brutal and unfeeling inhumanity on the part of the judges toward the condemned. The shameful behavior of the rulers of Israel in this instance has no parallel or precedent. Their blasphemous quotations from the sacred Scriptures, being then and there fulfilled before their very eyes, only emphasize the moral blackout of their nobler natures. The taunting promise that they would believe on him if he then came down from the cross was, of course, a lie. They would have done no such thing. As a matter of fact, Christ did a more marvelous thing three days later by coming forth from the tomb, though they had it sealed and guarded, and yet they did not believe on him even after that. It was the glory of Christ that although he saved others, himself he could not save.
Verses 43, 44
He trusteth on God; let him deliver him now, if he desireth him: for he said, I am the Son of God. And the robbers also that were crucified with him cast upon him the same reproach.
This entire passage in Matthew is oriented to Psa. 22 (see more on this under Matthew 27:46). It was only natural that the robbers should have joined in the railing; but later, one of them rose to immortality by recognizing Jesus as Lord and asking his remembrance.
THE SECOND THREE HOURS
The first three hours on the cross had belonged to Jesus' enemies, but the last three, in a very wonderful sense, belonged to Christ. It was in this period that there began a most astounding series of wonders, called the Six Calvary Miracles. The sun's light failed, darkness descended upon the earth, and the remaining four words of the "Seven Utterances" were spoken by Jesus. The centurion in charge of the execution confessed him; there was an earthquake; the graves of the righteous were opened; the veil of the temple was rent in twain; and Christ died!
Matthew's account of the six miracles is by far the fullest, although he gave very slight notice of the undisturbed grave clothes. These six supporting wonders that clustered around the greater wonder of Christ's resurrection are not usually stressed by commentators, and yet they richly deserve the minutest and most reverential observance. They constitute, in fact, a strong supporting fabric woven around the greater miracle of the resurrection which they were designed to confirm. They are somewhat of a supernatural matrix in which there lies embedded the true jewel of the supernatural Christ. This writer views those secondary wonders as so important that a special section is devoted to them under the heading "Phenomena Attending the Crucifixion and Resurrection" (see under 27:51).
Now from the sixth hour, there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.
From noon until three o'clock in the afternoon; there was darkness everywhere. It was not mere eclipse, lasting far too long for that; it was not a dust storm, mist or fog; Luke added the words that the "sun's light failed." The gospels, therefore, clearly intended this wonder to be viewed as altogether supernatural (see more on this under 27:51).
Verses 46, 47, 48
And about the ninth hour, Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? and some of them that stood there, when they heard it, said, This man calleth Elijah. And straightway 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 inconsistency in supposing that Elijah's Lord would call upon him for aid only indicates the utter failure of the Pharisees to see in Christ the true Son of God. They were aware, of course, of Jesus' claim to be the Son of God (see 27:40,43), but they rejected it out of hand. Incidentally, their quotation of Jesus' claim, as witnessed in Matt. 27:40 and Matt. 27:43, shows conclusively that Christ made that claim in its highest, that is, its supernatural sense. The "Son of God," as Jesus claimed to be, was thought by the Pharisees to be capable of coming down from the cross, and in that they were right. He was capable of it, but it was not his will to do so. Note too that even at that late hour the Pharisees still did not know that John the Baptist was "that Elijah which was to come."
On Christ's receiving the vinegar, see under Matt. 27:34. In this instance it must be viewed as an act of mercy, prompted by his saying, "I thirst."
And the rest said, Let be; let us see whether Elijah cometh to save him.
All this talk of Elijah sprang from Pharisaical prejudice and the propaganda they had waged, alleging that Jesus could not be the Christ "because Elijah had not yet come." Theirs was a misinterpretation of the prophecy that "Elijah must first come." Christ had already identified John the Baptist as that Elijah which was to come - the Elijah foretold by the prophecies. Doubtless the Pharisees were still harping on their old argument to the effect that Christ could not be the Messiah (see under 17:10-13).
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit.
Matthew stressed the fact that Jesus submitted to death by personal surrender, as an act of his own volition, and well ahead of the time it could have been naturally expected. The words, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit," are given by Luke; Matthew gave scant attention to the "seven utterances." The time of the Master's death was three o'clock in the afternoon on the day of preparation for the Passover, making it occur on the afternoon, before sunset, when the actual Passover legally began.
Matt. 27:51-53 relate to the Six Wonders of Calvary which received considerable attention in Matthew's gospel and which are of such surpassing interest that a special study of them is here included.
THE PHENOMENA ATTENDING THE CRUCIFIXION AND RESURRECTION
There are actually seven Calvary miracles, the greatest and most wonderful, of course, being the resurrection of Christ. Attending that prime wonder of all ages were six others, truly wonderful in themselves, and designed to support and confirm the greater miracle they attended. These were:
The Three Hours of Darkness
The Ripping of the Curtain (Veil)
The Opening of the Graves
The Undisturbed Grave Clothes
The Resurrection of the Saints
THE THREE HOURS OF DARKNESS
"And it was now about the sixth hour, and a darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, the sun's light failing" (Luke 23:44,45). Both in Luke's words and in those of Matthew (Matthew 27:45), the Greek word for "earth" is used, indicating a far greater extent of the darkness than could have been the case with any local phenomenon.
This could not have been an eclipse, because: (1) it came at Passover, always held at the time of the full moon when an eclipse is impossible, and (2) it was too long in duration, lasting three hours, as contrasted with the very longest of eclipses which last less than an hour, and usually only a very few minutes. Nicholson observed that "It was not such a darkness as sometimes precedes an earthquake, like that of Naples in 79, when Vesuvius became a volcano." F8
The reason for this darkness was "the sun's light failing" (Luke 23:45). The sun itself is but a vast nuclear fire, a sustained and continuing reaction, in which the sun's mass is being reduced at a rate of "four million tons per second. F9 That, of course, is over fourteen billion tons an hour! God halted the reaction for three hours during the crucifixion. Appropriately, while the Sun of Righteousness was suffering humiliation and death, the literal sun refused to shine. The Christian does not need the corroboration of independent witnesses, but in the case of this darkness it is available. Tertullian said:
In the same hour too, the light of day
was withdrawn, when the sun at the
very time was in his meridian blaze.
Those who were not aware that this had
been predicted about Christ, no doubt
thought it an eclipse. You yourselves
have the account of the worldportent
still in your archives! F10
In that quotation, Tertullian appealed to Proculus, a Roman senator; and it is certain Tertullian would not have made such an appeal to Roman records if it had not been true. Pontius Pilate sent the following report to Tiberius, emperor of Rome:
And when he had been crucified, there
was darkness over the whole earth, the
sun having been completely hidden, and
the heaven appearing dark, so that the
stars appeared, but had at the same
time their brightness darkened, as I
suppose your reverence is not ignorant
of, because in all the world they
lighted lamps from the sixth hour
until evening. And the moon, being
like blood, did not shine the whole
night, and yet she happened to be at
the full. F11
From these two quotations, to which many others might be added, it is plain that one of the strong arguments used by early Christians in urging the truth of the gospel was their appeal, again and again, to persons in highest authority, to whom they invariably imputed the universal knowledge that such a wonder had indeed occurred.
This manifestation of God's power should cause the soul to tremble. Only the true God and Creator of the universe could step forth and lay his hand upon the established routine of the natural creation and bring to pass such a darkness as that which enveloped the world during three full hours of the crucifixion. Why did God do it? It was a singular witness to the power and godhead of him who was crucified. It was a signal that even the most brutal and depraved could understand. The sneers and jibes of the mockers froze on their evil faces at the onset of that supernatural gloom; and as the somber hours dragged on, the awful fact must have occurred to many that, for all any of them knew, the sun would never shine again! That awe-inspiring darkness was God's seal upon the truth of the Lord Jesus Christ's identity and mission upon earth.
It was a sign of God's personal presence in the crucifixion. "Thick darkness was under his feet" (Psalms 18:9). Light is also used as a symbol of God's presence (James 1:17); but THIS darkness was also such a symbol, because God was the only possible source of it. The darkness symbolized the magnitude and effect of Jesus' sufferings. It clothed the Saviour's humiliation with decent privacy. No man could have gone home that night and said, "I saw the whole thing." That darkness also marked the summary end of the sabbath day. Amos 8:9; Isaiah 13:10; Jeremiah 15:9 and Micah 3:6 are Old Testament Scriptures bearing on this significant truth. That was the day the sun "went down at noon, and the earth was darkened in a clear sky," as Amos prophesied. That termination also extended to the dispensation of the prophets and the entire religious economy of the Jews. It was likewise a fitting symbol of God's wrath upon all who reject the world's only Redeemer.
And behold the veil of the temple was rent in two, from the top to the bottom.
The Ripping of the Curtain of the Temple
The miracle in this instance, other than its timing which is a feature of all these wonders, was that a veil untouched by human hands should have fallen into two equal pieces, in a progressive rending from top to bottom, the force which parted it coming, not from beneath as if violent hands had been laid upon it, but from above as though some unseen hand had passed down the center of it. This event occurred at three o'clock in the afternoon, at a time when the priests would have been busy with the evening sacrifice, going about their tasks with lighted lamps, with a very large number of them present; and it is from this group of eyewitnesses to that remarkable wonder that we may suppose is the explanation of why such a large "company of the priests believed" (Acts 6:7), being later converted to Christ. One may only imagine the fear and awe which attended the rending of that veil, witnessed by so many priests, busy with their lanterns, apprehensive of the enveloping darkness, and eventually associating the event with the final cry of Christ as he perished on the cross.
The rending of the veil, occurring simultaneously with the death of Christ, must be associated with that death; and, looking more closely, it is plain that the veil, in practically all of its functions and even in its colors, was a most instructive type of Christ. Again from Bishop Nicholson:
How strong a proof of the gospel
narratives is the statement of the
rending of the veil. The evangelists
were bold to publish their accounts in
the midst of the Jews, and under the
very eyes of the priests. Were they
ever contradicted? How it would have
been caught at and used by those acute
and watchful infidels, Celsus,
Porphyry, and Julian! But no! The
enemies of Jesus were silenced. They
could not say that never before had
they heard of it. The simple
statement of the evangelists proves
itself. It is the true story of the
veil's destruction. F12
The meaning of the veil and its tearing is extensive: (1) Its three colors, blue, purple, and scarlet (Exodus 26:81) symbolize the nature of Christ, blue standing for his heavenly nature, the scarlet for his earthly nature, and the co-mingled blue and scarlet (purple) standing for the perfect two natures in one, Immanuel. (2) The ancient worshiper (in the person of the high priest) went through the veil to the Holy of Holies; the present-day worship has access through Christ into heaven (Hebrews 10:19). (3) It symbolizes his death on Calvary. As the veil was rent, Christ's body was torn for the sins of the whole world. (4) The tearing also means the removal of obstructions between the worshiper and his God. No longer is there a veil. When some ecclesiastic would seek to put it upon again and hide himself behind it to hear confession or grant absolution, tear it down and trample upon it. God himself removed it. Christ's followers have boldness, freedom, and "access" (Ephesians 2:18; 3:12). (5) The torn veil means that the Old Testament can now be understood in the light of the New. Out of Christ, the Old Testament is a mystery; in him it is gloriously understood (2 Corinthians 3:14-16). Christ is thus the true "key to the Scriptures." Accept no other. (6) The rending meant that Christ has conquered death, the fear of it now, the fact of it ultimately (Isaiah 25:7,8). This figure also makes the veil a symbol of death, which of course it is: The "place" it occupied makes that certain. Squarely between the sanctuary and the Holy of Holies, it corresponds to death which lies between the church and heaven; and all who enter heaven shall pass through the veil of death, or be "changed" which is equivalent to it. Christ rent the veil of death in two ways, (a) by passing through it unharmed, and (b) by destroying it for his children.
Where is death's sting? Where, grave,
Where all the pain?
Now that thy King the veil that hung
Hath rent in twain?
Light of the World, we hear thee bid
To light and love in thine eternal
(7) The torn veil abolished the office of the earthly high priest. The line of demarcation between lesser priests and the high priest was removed by God's hand. The office of the high priest on earth was no longer needed, nor is it now. All functions held and performed by earthly high priests, for a season, have now been taken over by the true high priest, Christ (Hebrews 9:11). He is the ONLY mediator (1 Timothy 2:5,6). There can be no use, then, for daily sacrifice, whether of the mass or of anything else. The true sacrifice has already been offered once and for all in heaven. Christ offered himself ONCE (the Greek term [hapax] means "once" without repetition) (Hebrews 9:23-28; 7:27). All Christians are "priests" (1 Peter 2:9; Revelation 5:10). Since the only true high priest is in heaven, and all God's children are now priests, every human being who moves into a position between one of the Lord's children (priests) and tries to be something of a higher priest to grant absolution or perform other mediatorial functions is merely trying to patch up that old veil. But God has torn it down. Let no man, therefore, hide behind a veil to hear another's confession, to pass sentence, demand penance, make intercession, grant absolution, or to perform any service whatsoever. The veil has been torn in two. Do not let it come back. Take it away forever. Let it come no more between the face of the redeemed and that of the Redeemer. The access assured to the sons of God is not subject to human permission and does not derive from human authority, but is from God. Men are no longer children, hiding in the folds of an old veil. Let them walk in the light!
And the earth did quake; and the rocks were rent.
Why was this earthquake a miracle, seeing that earthquakes are ordinary events? First, even the most ordinary of earthquakes would in this case, due to its timing, have been strongly suggestive of the supernatural; but this was far more and utterly different from any ordinary earthquake. The peculiar violence of the quake was sufficient in the vicinity of Calvary to rend the rocks, yet the great buildings of Jerusalem, not more than a mile away, were left undisturbed. Insinuations of skeptics and even some commentators that no earthquake occurred are dissolved in the plain light of the New Testament words that "the earth did quake" (Matthew 27:52) and that the people who witnessed it "feared exceedingly" (Matthew 27:54).
There is a historical occurrence of just this type of earthquake within very recent times, Three-quarters of a mile northeast of the village of Novice, Texas, during the 1950's, a violent earthquake took place in the center of a cornfield at three o'clock in the morning, while the village was asleep. My brother, David E. Coffman, was living there at the time, and I have seen the devastation wrought by that earthquake in which several hundred thousand tons of rocks, some of them ten feet in thickness, were rent and cast up from the earth in a very grotesque geological disturbance covering many acres in the heart of that field. Seismometry teams from a number of universities and colleges examined it and diagnosed it as an earthquake, having a very high epicenter, with the focus only a couple of hundred feet beneath. The strange story of that little earthquake received widespread newspaper coverage throughout the United States, especially in scientific journals; and there are many pictures of it, some of which were made by this writer, and which show the corn rows leading directly into it. Now this is related, not that it is thought to add anything to the Holy Scriptures, but because it dramatically refutes the allegations of some that an earthquake at Calvary would invariably and necessarily have wrecked the temple. As a matter of comparison, none of the houses in Novice was damaged by that violent little earthquake so near to it, although the shock was sufficient to rouse people from their slumbers for many miles in all directions. In the light of this, how unpardonable is the question of Plummer, "We seem to have here a tradition with a legendary element in it." F14 Any traveler to Golgotha needs only to consult his eyes to see that it happened. Alford took note of this, saying, "To this day, Golgotha is a proof of it, where the rocks were rent on account of Christ." F15
If this extraordinary earthquake was of the type described above, its miraculous element would consist of its extreme rarity and timing; but there is the strongest evidence that it was far more than that. Again from Nicholson:
Now we say that this earthquake was
not only supernatural, but non-natural
as well that is, miraculous. It was
supernatural in that it was an
interference of God, and non-natural,
in that it was not the result of any
of the natural causes of earthquakes,
or any combination of them. F16
Note that the earthquake did not disturb the cross, that it discriminated among the graves of Calvary, opening those of the righteous but not the others; and, from these considerations, one would be hard pressed indeed to explain it as an ordinary earthquake, however timed!
The meaning of the earthquake does not lie solely in the opening of the grave but bears an independent testimony of its own. It was Calvary answering to Sinai. There was a great earthquake at Sinai (Exodus 19:18) when the Law was given; and that Law, so long associated with sin and death (Romans 8:2), was being removed and replaced by the law of the Spirit of Life in Christ Jesus. Appropriately, the earth itself should have borne witness to the event that mercy had triumphed over justice, and grace had superseded law. Also, there was prefigured and symbolized the earth-shaking consequences of Christ's redemptive death and the gospel which would be preached and which was destined to shatter ancient empires and destroy the power of the devil himself (Hebrews 2:14).
And the tombs were opened; and many bodies of the saints that had fallen asleep were raised.
THE OPENING OF THE GRAVES OF THE RIGHTEOUS
The implication that only the graves of the righteous were opened comes from the immediate connection with what followed, the resurrection of the saints. At first it seems those two events occurred simultaneously; but the next verse notes that it was "after his resurrection" that they actually came out of their graves and appeared in the city, thus the mention of the saints in Matt. 27:52 is for the purpose of revealing which graves were opened.
This, of course, is a great miracle of discrimination. Incredulous scholars have sought in vain for evidence of an interpolation here, but none exists. Plummer said, "There is no textual evidence that the passage is an interpolation." F17 Accepting the amazing fact recorded here by Matthew, one naturally turns to a consideration of its meaning:
(1) It means that God knows the location of every grave where his redeemed ones are at rest. Matthew's use of "sleep" for "death" suggests that death is a sleep only for the righteous: Death, like sleep, is only temporary and shall be followed by an awakening. Jesus used the same figure when speaking of the death of Lazarus (John 11:11). (2) It means that all the dead shall eventually rise from the tomb; and, although this resurrection was but a few compared to the numberless millions of the dead, it is a pledge of much more wonderful things to come when "all that are in their tombs" shall come forth (John 5:28). (3) The resurrection of the "bodies of the saints" indicates a bodily resurrection for all.
The opened graves had to be left open over Passover, since it would have been unlawful for anyone to have filled a grave during that holy week; it would have been unlawful even to touch one. While the graves were exposed for three days and nights, a period was provided during which the identity of the graves as belonging to "the righteous" could have been made and verified. No record is left of the awe and wonder that doubtless accompanied the events connected with so strange and supernatural a phenomenon.
THE UNDISTURBED GRAVE CLOTHES
Matthew made a very slight reference to the PLACE where the Lord lay (Matthew 28:6), but John gave a full account of this miracle, as follows:
John 20:6-8, "Simon Peter therefore also cometh, following him, and entered into the tomb; and he beheld the linen cloths lying, and the napkin, that was upon his head, not lying with the linen cloths; but rolled up in a place by itself. Then entered in therefore the other disciple also, who came first to the tomb, and he saw, and believed. For as yet they knew not the Scripture, that he must rise again from the dead."
Matthew's words attributed to the angel, "Behold the place where he lay" (Matthew 28:6), have meaning only in the light of what was there. Thus it may be said that Matthew recorded all of the Seven Wonders.
Precisely what was the wonder here? It was the FORM of the grave clothes as they remained after our Lord's resurrection. They were not folded but were "lying"! The implication of that word is plainer if the verb is changed to "standing" or "walking." Those clothes were "lying," having exactly the same form they had when Christ was within them. Even the napkin, uncollapsed, appeared appropriately where his head had been. Thus Jesus rose "through his clothes" just as he rose through the tomb. The angel did not roll away the stone to let the Lord out but to let the witnesses in! The tomb remained as it was, and so did his grave garments. These deductions are mandatory in view of the fact that John devoted no less than ten verses to a description of this wonder, and to the fact that it was upon that evidence that John was said to have BELIEVED!
This emphasizes the difference between the resurrection of Christ and that of the "saints." They came out of their graves horizontally; Jesus "rose" from his. Whereas their graves had to be opened, Christ's did not, except to provide access for the witnesses. They were subject to death a second time, as was Lazarus, presumably, whereas Christ rose from the dead never to die again. They revived and came out; Christ arose!
And coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared unto many.
THE RESURRECTION OF THE SAINTS
Emil Von Ludwig's blasphemous biography of Christ, The Son of Man, contains a vigorous denial that any such thing as this could have taken place, based entirely upon the paucity of reference to it in the gospel narratives. Only Matthew recorded it. In the summary below, it will be further emphasized that so little reference to these wonders was a natural consequence of the greater wonder of the resurrection of Christ in which they were swallowed up and overshadowed. The unaided mind of man finds this event a matter of the very greatest curiosity; and it may be certain that if men, unaided by the Holy Spirit, had written the New Testament, we should have had volumes about those risen saints and what they did and the complications they encountered on such an astounding occurrence as their returning from the dead. Again, Nicholson's words are appropriate:
By the suffrages of universal
scholarship - and in some instances
reluctant suffrages - these words are
not an interpolation, but a part of
the genuine words of the Bible. And
if there be in all the world a
document more absolutely historical
than the Bible, it is yet to be
There are eight resurrections recorded in Scripture, besides the resurrection of Christ which is uniquely different. The other seven are: (1) son of the widow of Sarepta (1 Kings 17); (2) son of the Shunamite (2 Kings 4); (3) the man raised by the bones of Elijah (2 Kings 13); (4) daughter of Jairus (Matt. 9); (5) son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7); (6) Lazarus (John 11); and (7) Dorcas (Acts 9:41). One might also include Eutychus (Acts 20:9). The resurrection of the saints (above) would thus make nine in all, besides that of Christ.
The meaning of this amazing event is (1) that Christ is the true Redeemer and Lord of all men; (2) as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive (1 Corinthians 15:22). (3) Christ has the keys of death and of the grave (Revelation 1:18); (4) Christ's work on the cross was the center and climax of his saving mission to man. All our salvation and our only hope of eternal life find their fountainhead in him and in his death upon the cross.
The reticence of the holy writers in giving so little space to this resurrection is a warning against prying into secrets that are not revealed. All questions relative to how those risen saints were recognized, what they did, what they ate, what became of them afterwards, etc., remain unanswered from the sacred page; and no expositor should intrude where the inspired evangelists have purposefully covered with silence those facts which, however they might stimulate or satisfy man's curiosity, could not possibly add to the knowledge which is necessary to the salvation of the soul.
The seven miracles, the six treated here and the greater one, Christ's resurrection, are actually one, knit together in absolute unity: That they comprise the number seven, a sacred or perfect number in the thinking of the Hebrews, is of deep interest.
Seven is a perfect number because it is divisible only by itself and by unity; moreover the derivative, as in the accompanying diagram, reveals the most common pattern in nature. The honeycomb, the snowflake, the carbon and other crystals, all exhibit this "footprint" of the Eternal. Appropriately, therefore, these miracles arrange themselves in this strange universal pattern, two from above, two from beneath, and two from the surface of the earth, to form one perfect support for the greater miracle they surround, identify, support, and confirm. As for the cavil that very little emphasis is placed upon them in the New Testament, it is a positive fact such is in keeping with human nature and common practice to this very day. For example, how many men, even in the most intellectual circles, know anything about Lhotse, Makalu, South Col, Nuptse, Changtse, Baruntse, and Cho Polu? Those are only THE HIGHEST MOUNTAINS ON EARTH, except Mount Everest. F19 Why have so few people ever heard of those great mountains, none of which is less than 21,000 feet high, and some of which are 27,000 feet in altitude? They are overshadowed and minimized by the greater Mount Everest which towers above them and of which they are merely the adjacent and supporting peaks. Similarly, those mighty "Foothills of Calvary" which we have noted here are overshadowed and cast into the background by the far greater wonder of that highest peak of all, the resurrection of Christ. Viewed as separate wonders, each one of them is of surpassing magnitude and interest; yet in the glorious context where they lie embedded in that greater wonder, they are often overlooked.
1. Christ's resurrection
2. The darkness
3. The ripping of the veil
4. Resurrection of saints
5. Undisturbed grave clothes
6. Opening of the grave of the righteous
7. The earthquake
Taken together, these wonderful events are the most remarkable ever to be recorded in history.
Now the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
Practically all beings with anything to do with Christ confessed him in one way or another: (1) The angels confessed him (Luke 2:11). (2) The demons confessed him (Matthew 8:29). (3) Almighty God confessed him three times,, at his baptism, on the mount of transfiguration, and in a voice resembling thunder (John 12:28). (4) Simeon (Luke 2:30). (5) Anna (Luke 2:36). (6) Nicodemus (John 3:2). (7) Nathaniel (John 1:49). (8) John the Baptist (John 1:29). (9) Peter (Matthew 16:16). (10) Pilate (Matthew 27:24). (11) Pilate's wife (Matthew 27:19). (12) Judas Iscariot (Matthew 27:4). (13) The centurion and the people with him (Matthew 27:54). Christ confessed himself under oath and was put to death for it (John 19:7).
Some have made a great deal of the fact that only Matthew recorded the phenomena accompanying the crucifixion, but Mark's account of the confession of the centurion implies just as much as Matthew relates. Certainly the loud cry of a dying man was no such a phenomenon as to have moved a hardened soldier, doubtless accustomed to the bloody business that engaged him, to confess Christ as the Son of God. Here again, it was not one of the friends of Jesus but an unwilling participant in the dark drama and one whose normal indifference can be assumed, who rose to cry the truth, confess the Christ and smite his breast.
Verses 55, 56
And many women were there beholding from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
Mark recorded the name of the mother of Zebedee's sons as Salome (Mark 15:41). The women were the last to wait upon Jesus at the cross and the first to whom he revealed himself after the resurrection. Spiritual leadership naturally belongs to women. The disciples fled, but the women waited to watch and did not forsake the Lord even in the depth of his humiliation. The names of those women were introduced because they aided Joseph of Arimathaea in preparing the Lord's body for burial.
THE ORDER OF PILATE TO BREAK HIS LEGS
Before moving to consider the next event recorded by Matthew, which was the burial, there was another extremely important event, recorded by John. To hasten the death of the condemned and to prevent their remaining upon their crosses over the Passover, the Jews begged Pilate for a detail to break the legs of the condemned. Such an order was given the soldiers by Pilate, and, in obedience, the soldiers broke the legs of the two robbers; but they came to Christ and found him already dead, they disobeyed their orders, thrust a spear into his side without orders, and thus fulfilled two prophecies at one time (John 19:31-37).
Psa. 34:20 prophesied of the Messiah that "He keepeth all his bones; not one of them is broken." Zechariah prophesied, "They shall look upon me whom they have pierced" (Zechariah 12:10). The manner of fulfillment of those prophecies, one that Christ would be pierced, another that none of his bones should be broken, is an amazing demonstration of the providence of God working at Calvary. The order from Pilate required that one of those prophecies should be broken, in the breaking of his legs; but there was not enough power in the Roman army to have broken the little finger of Jesus. The order under which the soldiers moved to break his legs was countermanded from on high; how else could a Roman soldier have violated his orders to fulfill one prophecy, and then, acting without orders, thrust a spear and fulfill another? Surely God was in Christ reconciling the world unto himself (2 Corinthians 5:19).
And when even was come, there came a rich man from Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus' disciple.
Isa. 53:9 was fulfilled by this. In the common version, the word "rich" in Isaiah's prophecy would appear as either singular or plural, but it is in reality singular, as evidenced by the more accurate translation in the English Revised Version (1885) and RSV as "a rich man." From John 19:38 it is evident that he followed Jesus "secretly for fear of the Jews," and that Nicodemus was a member of the burial party. Mark added that he was a "councilor of honorable estate" (Mark 15:43). Luke mentioned that he "was a good man and a righteous man (Luke 23:50,51). Along with Barnabas, Joseph of Arimathaea ranks with a very select few who, in the Scriptures, are called good men. All four gospels record this event, thus emphasizing its importance.
In times of distress and danger; God has frequently raised up a Joseph. When Israel was threatened with famine, when Herod the Great would have slain the infant Christ, and then again when the helpless body of our Lord was upon the cross, there stepped forth upon the stage JOSEPH. The awful storm was at the full, the enemies glorying in their triumph, supposing Christ was out of the way forever; but in that hour came JOSEPH!
There is a well of consolation in the fact that God always raises up a man at the required time. Peter and Thomas might flee, but Joseph will appear. The few remaining women may gaze helplessly from afar, but an honorable councilor will rise up. The darkness may obscure the sun, but stars hitherto unseen will brightly shine.
As for the reason why Joseph was a "secret" disciple, enough facts are available to suggest a number of things which might have caused that to be: (1) One thing is certain: he was afraid of the Jews (John 19:38). The deadliness of cowardice is seen in that it could, for a season, hide so noble a light as that of Joseph. That was the trouble with the parents of the man born blind (John 9:20-23). The Bible warns against the "fear of man" (Proverbs 29:25). (2) Joseph might also have been naturally timid, and that does not necessarily mean lack of loyalty. From Foxe's Book of Martyrs it is told that in the martyr days, some who professed great willingness to die for Christ turned tail and recanted when they came in sight of the stake, while others who in prison shuddered even to think of it and exhibited the most solemn fears, behaved themselves with true manhood when the terrible moment came. F20 The divine antidote for all timidity is faith (Romans 9:33; 10:11). (3) Joseph's wealth might also have been a consideration in making him a secret follower instead of an avowed disciple (Mark 10:23,24). Wealth has always been one of the things capable of choking the word of God out of men's hearts (Matthew 13:22; 1 Timothy 6:9-11,17,19). (4) Public office might also have hindered. Such usually leads men to over-prudent caution and tunes the ear of the public man to the applause of the multitudes rather than to truth. Spurgeon said:
What is there in the applause of a
thoughtless multitude? The
approbation of good men, if it be
gained by persevering virtue, is
better to be desired than great
riches; but even then it may become a
temptation; for the man may begin to
question, What will people say? rather
than, What will God say. And the
moment he falls into that mood, he has
introduced a weakening element into
his life. The "Well done, good and
faithful servant" of the Master's own
lips is worth more than ten thousand
thunders of applause from senators and
Why, then, did Joseph appear at that particular hour of Christ's death to perform such noble and honored service for our Lord? (1) Surely it was the power of the cross. Yes, Christ was right (John 12:32) in that it was not the miracles but the cross that would draw all men unto himself. (2) It was the revelation of the true ugliness of sin. Joseph, as a member of the Sanhedrin, had not concurred in the dark deeds of that body; but, in the beginning of the Pharisees' opposition to Christ, they had been able to hide their envy, spite, jealousy, and the covetousness in their rotten souls, masking their hatred under such respectable disguises as respect for the sabbath day, regard for the law of Moses, reverence for the prophets, or zeal for the God of Abraham; but then it was no longer possible to do so. "Sin when it is finished bringeth forth death" (James 1:15). On the cross, Joseph saw as plain as daylight the ugliness of the sin that nailed him there.
(3) The action of Christ's followers who forsook him and fled might also have had a part in urging Joseph to step forward. The conduct of such men as Peter made it a time of the direst necessity. It has often been noted that when the church is confronted with some unusual or extraordinary crisis, there is always one who, seemingly indifferent to that hour, steps forth to shoulder the burden and make himself known. Every minister of the word of God has observed such events. (4) Again, Joseph and Nicodemus were at last compromised by the Sanhedrin, of which they were members, and the shameful and grossly wicked conduct of that body forced upon its nobler sons the utmost necessity to separate from it and take an opposite stand. Many disciples since that ancient day have discovered that their place outside the ranks of the openly confessed and redeemed finally becomes absolutely untenable. OUTSIDE are the infidels, blasphemers, dogs, whoremongers, scoffers, profane murderers, and robbers. As long as a believer is OUTSIDE the church, he is a member of the world's Sanhedrin. Joseph and Nicodemus learned, as may all of us, that "secret" discipleship must at last break with the forces of evil. Since it must be eventually, why not now?
It is not wise to leave this consideration without inquiring, "What are the costs of secret discipleship?" In the case of Joseph, it probably cost him a place among the Twelve; it surely cost him the privilege of long association with Christ; and it could have cost him his soul. His example as a "secret follower" affords no worthy example for any man to follow. His conduct on the occasion before us was surely noble, however, and is in that instance most worthy of emulation. (1) He placed himself under personal risk for Christ. It was a dangerous act to beg the body of Jesus. (2) He accepted ceremonial defilement for himself by touching the body of Jesus and was in consequence forbidden to eat the Passover. Many today become "untouchables" in the eyes of the world when they truly become disciples of Jesus. (3) He spent a large sum upon the burial. He might have excused himself by saying, "Well, since he is dead, I cannot do him any good now."
This man went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded it to be given up.
Assisting Joseph were the women mentioned in Matt. 27:55-56, and also Nicodemus. However, it was "this man" who took the official and leading part. He provided the tomb, laid out the expense money, obtained permission, and took the body down from the cross.
Verses 59, 60
And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed.
Thomas Jefferson composed an abbreviated New Testament and closed it with this verse. A deist, Jefferson did not believe in the resurrection of Christ. In 1959, this writer visited Monticello, historic residence of Jefferson, an engraving of which appears on the reverse side of the nickel. It was about 3:00 p.m. and some thirty or forty tourists filed into the north dining room, as the afternoon sun was shining on the western windows and producing a perfect luminous cross in the large center panel of glass. That phenomenon was due to the long action of sunlight on that ancient glass, refraction having been produced by structural changes in the glass itself. One spoke up and said, "Well, it seems as if Mr. Jefferson did not really get rid of Christ, after all!" That remark made a profound impression upon those present. Silence fell upon the little company; and the guide, after some hesitation, remarked that she had not noticed it before.
From John it is learned that Christ was buried in a new tomb, that of Joseph, wherein never before had man lain, and that it was situated in a garden near the site of the cross. In giving his tomb to Christ, Joseph had every reason to believe that his gift was final and that his own burial in it was thus precluded. However, as is invariably true, nothing was ever lost by its being given to Christ. Joseph received his grave again! See under Matthew 14:20.
And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.
The "other Mary" is the mother of James and Joses (Matthew 27:56). That those women were described as "there" shows that they had taken up a watch by the tomb, and were thus the last lingerers to remain mourning the death of the Son of God. This could well have been one of the reasons why Christ first appeared to Mary Magdalene after he came forth from the grave (John 20:11-18).
Now on the morrow, which is the day after the preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees were gathered together unto Pilate.
The old enemies of Jesus were badgered by second thoughts. The request for a guard of the tomb shows that they were fully aware of the prophecy that Christ would rise again. Instigated by Satan, their request could serve no purpose except that of the evil one.
The day after the preparation
indicates that this request was made on the Passover itself. For more on the difficult question regarding the day of the week on which these events took place, see under Matthew 26:17.
Saying, Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, After three days I rise again.
For a summary of Pharisaical criticism of Christ, see under Matthew 11:19. The statement of the Pharisees quoting Jesus as promising to rise again "after three days" is viewed by some as evidence for a 72-hour period in the grave. On this complicated question, the near-unanimous opinion of scholars holds the traditional Friday crucifixion and Sunday resurrection to be correct and views the traditional days of those events as harmonizing with the word of God. A. T. Robertson is very firm in that position, as indeed are most of the others; and yet it is absolutely certain that a strong case can be made out for the longer period. This expositor finds no fault with either view, inasmuch as the whole question is irrelevant anyway, provided only that whatever view is held, it should be grounded upon a faithful acceptance of all that the sacred Scriptures have revealed (see under Matthew 12:40).
Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest haply his disciples come and steal him away, and say unto the people, He is risen from the dead: and the last error will be worse than the first.
In all history, where is there another case of a posted guard and sealed tomb to prevent reports of a resurrection? True, graves have been sealed and guarded many times, but never before or since for such an ostensible purpose as this. The profound implications of this request of the Pharisees are astonishing. It shows that they anticipated the preaching of the apostles that "He is risen from the dead!" Their supposition, however, that the apostles would do so, even if it was a lie, can be explained only on the basis that the Pharisees imputed to the apostles of Christ the same hypocrisy and falsity they had in themselves. Yet it must appear that no group of men ever born could have preached a falsehood of such dimensions (if it had been a falsehood), sealing it with their blood, and going to prison and to death shouting "His is risen from the dead," and demonstrating the most passionate and emotional dedication to such a gospel. The behavior of those faithful men who preached the truth removes every suspicion that it was anything other than the truth and gives a solid ground on which two thousand years of believing disciples of Christ have founded their conviction that those wonderful things, including the resurrection of the Christ, did actually occur.
We gazed not in the open tomb,
Where once thy mangled body lay;
Nor saw Thee in that upper room,
Nor met Thee on the open way;
But we believe that angels said,
"Why seek the living with the dead?"
But we believe that angels said,
"Why seek the living with the dead?"
- Ann Richter's words for Knowles
Shaw's great hymn, "We Saw Thee Not!"
(Great Songs of the Church, No. 404)
There is also an admission of the Pharisees in this verse that the crucifixion was an "error," although they probably did not intend such an admission. The fact that even so mild an admission of "error" fell from their lips can be understood only in the light of the marvels that attended the death of our Lord. The earthquake, the darkness, the rending of the veil, etc., along with the confession of the centurion, had produced the most overwhelming demonstration that "the Holy One" indeed had been upon the cross; and as a result, those pious hypocrites were at last willing to admit, quite piously and indirectly of course, that perhaps it was an "error"!
Satanic instigation of the request for the sealing of the grave and posting of a guard is evidenced by the following: The Lord's disciples were scattered, discouraged, and, for the most part, disbelieving that any resurrection would occur. There was not the slightest possibility that any of them would have stolen the body, nor could any of them, not even Judas, have been capable of such futile and unrewarding fraud as that suggested by the Pharisees. Why then was the watch set? It is the view here that Satan anticipated the resurrection, knowing that it would occur perfectly on schedule; and the devil desired such a watch in order to provide suborned liars to deny it after the fact. That such was actually his purpose is manifest in the use that was quickly made of it. Not even the devil thought that the resurrection could be prevented by so naive and futile a device.
Pilate said unto them, Ye have a guard: go, make it as sure as ye can.
Whether intended or not is unknown, but Pilate's words bear the interpretation that he was doubtful if the resurrection could be prevented! It seems that Pilate half expected the Lord to rise from the dead, an attitude of mind which is fully in harmony with all the tremendous events of that great day in human history.
So they went, and made the sepulchres sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them.
Thus Christ was sealed in the grave, the guard posted, and the Pharisees settled down to enjoy their imagined triumph. The sabbath, whether the high sabbath of the Passover or the ordinary weekly sabbath, would find the Lord sleeping in his grave. The victory of evil was apparently complete and irrevocable. The sadness and discouragement that descended upon the disciples can only be imagined. The entire sabbath, by whatever reckoning, would be wholly spent by Jesus in "the heart of the earth"! And this makes it positively impossible that the sabbath should ever be reckoned as "the Lord's day." By what perversion of terminology could that awful day of his residence in the tomb be called "his day"? The presumption that would make it so is offensive to the emotions and contrary to reason.
THE SEVEN WORDS FROM THE CROSS
- "Father forgive them, for they know not what they do" (Luke 23:34).
- "Verily, I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise" (Luke 23:43).
- "Woman, behold thy son ... Behold thy mother" (John 19:26,27).
- "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46).
- "I thirst!" (John 19:28).
- "It is finished" (John 19:30).
- "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit" (Luke 23:46).
- "Father forgive them ..."
The chief business of the cross was forgiveness, and Christ moved quickly to get on with it. Were those men, then and there, forgiven? No! Forgiveness has two centers, human and divine; and on the human level, Christ forgave those men without either request or repentance on their part. Their forgiveness in heaven took place when they repented and obeyed the gospel (Acts 2:36-38). That forgiveness of Christ on the personal level, even while they were crucifying him, was in line with his command that men must forgive if they are to be forgiven (Matthew 6:14,15). Luke 17:3 is not a permit to withhold forgiveness pending others' repentance, but is an admonition against the withholding of it even after they repent. Thus, Stephen forgave Saul of Tarsus on the human level, even while Saul stood by consenting to his death (Acts 7:60); but Paul was forgiven in heaven when he had "obeyed from the heart that form of doctrine" (Romans 6:17). Therefore, it appears that even with Christ himself praying for a person, as in the case here, that person will be truly forgiven in heaven only when he obeys the gospel. To view this otherwise would be to make a special case of the soldiers who crucified Jesus. Some of those, at least, who were guilty of his crucifixion (Acts 2:36) were forgiven when they repented and were baptized; to suppose that those soldiers did not need to do so, merely because Christ prayed for them, is to set aside the plain word of Scripture that all must believe, repent, and be baptized unto the remission of sins. Thus, we view the prayer of Christ in this first solemn word from the cross as an example for his disciples in their behavior toward those who sin against them, and not as an abatement of the Scriptural terms of redemption.
- "Today shalt thou be with me in paradise."
Was the thief on the cross saved? Assuredly, yes! Granted the premise that there is a separation of the righteous and the wicked in death, there can be no doubt of it. Efforts to prove he was not saved rise from a mistaken zeal to defend a religious position, some fearing that the salvation of the thief on the cross negates such commands as baptism, but such is not the case.
The thief died BEFORE any of the distinctive obligations of the Christian life were published. He was dead and buried nearly two months before the Great Commission was given; he was never commanded to be baptized; and no person on earth today may claim any such status as that which pertained to the thief. Baptism, for example, is mandatory upon all men, "even to as many as the Lord our God shall call unto him" (Acts 2:39).
Furthermore, all efforts to disassociate oneself from the commandments and obligations of the Christian gospel, on the basis of the robber's salvation, arise from a total disregard of the truly remarkable exhibition of faith on his part. Any thought that the robber was saved in some easy and perfunctory fashion disappears in the contemplation of what he actually did: (1) He believed on the Lord at a time when even his staunchest disciples had forsaken him and fled. Of all the men on earth, that greater thief alone stands in glorious isolation as the unique witness of our Lord's passion who appreciated it and moved to appropriate the blessing. (2) He believed on him and confessed him as "Lord" while others were reviling him. (3) He made that amazing confession when he himself was in an agony of nakedness, suffering, death, and humiliation. Can anyone fail to see the difference in his confession, under those circumstances, and the ordinary profession of faith today, when one is all dressed up in his Sunday best and encouraged by a whole church singing and praying to urge him forward? (4) The robber confessed Christ in the presence of Christ's bitterest foes in the exact moment of their triumph, those foes being none other than the leaders and most influential men in all Israel. (5) He confessed Christ in the moment of Christ's deepest humiliation, but those who confess today do so with the concurrent testimony of nineteen centuries affirming his glorification! (6) The robber gave evidence that he indeed had seen "God," by his humble acceptance of the horrible death by crucifixion as a "just" reward of his deeds. In the light of these and many other considerations, it must be clear that those who would either claim for themselves or extend to others the promise of salvation without obeying the gospel, using the salvation of that ancient robber as a basis for it, are not worthy to be named in the same breath with that robber. Where in the history of the world was there ever a more daring exhibition of faith, or nobler confession made under more difficult circumstances than was his?
The thief died before the Lord's will for all mankind was put in force (Hebrews 9:16) and was saved even before Christ died on the cross. Therefore, his salvation cannot possibly contain any precedent for redemption under the New Covenant; and as for the insistence that, after all, he was not baptized, we have already noted that no such command had yet gone out to all mankind; but even if it had, that thief had nails in his hands and feet and was in a position making it absolutely impossible for him to have been baptized. The nails were holding him, but what is holding men today? Pride, prejudice, the opinions of divines, and an obstinate unwillingness to obey the Lord - these are the impediments now.
As for the meaning of this marvelous incident, it shows that at the very moment of our Lord's deepest humiliation, his power to inspire men unto eternal life was undiminished. The confession of that thief, and the Lord's reply, constitute a divine prophecy that the Son of God will have his worshipers and men their salvation under every possible circumstance forever!
- "Woman, behold thy son ... Behold thy mother!"
The words addressed to Mary the mother of Jesus and to John the beloved disciple were for the purpose of providing for the earthly care of Mary. Why did Christ wait until the agony was upon him before taking care of that detail? In the light of all that has intervened, we may conclude that it was deliberately done in order to bring into sharp focus, in the light that should forever beat down upon the cross, the true status of that blessed person who was privileged to be our Lord's earthly mother.
Note that Christ called her "Woman," certainly not "Mother of God"! If such a title had been her due, Christ would have honored it and would not have withheld it on that occasion. Mary was not the mother of God, nor a perpetual virgin, but bore four sons and an unnamed number of daughters after the birth of Jesus (see under 1:25; 1:25 and 13:55). In view of all the superstitions that have arisen around the blessed name of Mary, how charged with divine wisdom was the action of our Lord upon the cross in bringing her into view on that occasion, not as a female deity to whom men might have recourse for spiritual aid, but as a broken-hearted sufferer, herself in need of the tender care of John!
- "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?"
The awful depths of those words are unfathomable. What sorrow flows from that pleading cry! What can it truly mean? Should men believe that God forsook Christ on the cross? If so, why? Was it that he could not physically die until that occurred? None may dare to give a dogmatic answer. Some believe Christ was quoting Psa. 22 which has these exact words in its first verse. If that was the case, it would have been in perfect keeping with the constant example of his whole life in meeting every crisis with a quotation from the Holy Scriptures. "It is written; it is written; and again it is written" (Matthew 4:4-7). In support of this view is the remarkable number of specific prophecies relative to the crucifixion which are contained in Psa. 22, and which were at that very moment being fulfilled so graphically before all.
My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me? Psa. 22:1
A reproach of men, and despised of the people. Psa. 22:6
They ... laugh me to scorn. Psa. 22:7
They shake the head. Psa. 22:7
Let him rescue him. Psa. 22:8
Seeing he delighteth in him. Psa. 22:8
For there is none to help. Psa. 22:11
Many bulls have compassed me. Psa. 22:12
I am poured out like water. Psa. 22:14
My bones are out of joint. Psa. 22:14
My strength is dried up. Psa. 22:14
My tongue cleaveth to my jaws. Psa. 22:15
Into the dust of death. Psa. 22:15
Dogs have encompassed me. Psa. 22:16
A company of evil doers have enclosed me. Psa. 22:16
They pierced my hands. Psa. 22:16
And they pierced my feet. Psa. 22:16
I may count all my bones. Psa. 22:17
They look and stare upon me. Psa. 22:17
They part my garments among them. Psa. 22:18
And upon my vesture do they cast lots. Psa. 22:18
This remarkable word picture of the crucifixion contains at least twenty specific details, some of which are not even found in the gospels. For example, only in Psa. 22:16 above do the Scriptures reveal that Jesus' feet were pierced. As divine prophecy, written centuries before the fact, Psa. 22 portrays a more vivid picture of the Lord's death on Calvary than a man can write today, with the literature of nineteen centuries at his fingertips. No infidel can scoff this away. The crucifixion of our Lord fulfilled to the very letter the marvelous prophecies which foretold it. In view of the remarkable detail of this great prophecy, it is not unthinkable that Christ was calling attention to it by quoting its opening lines.
Still, the "why" of this passage haunts men. It echoes down the centuries. There was no immediate reply. Angels did not descend and take him down from the cross, or smite the Pharisees blind, or compel Caiaphas to kneel before him! Christ simply died with that awful question seemingly unanswered. Of course, there WAS an answer! It came in the form of an empty tomb and an angel of God announcing, "He is not here; he is risen!" Yes, there was an answer, but not of the kind men would probably have expected, nor did it come at once, but afterward. From this, it is learned that answers to life's most perplexing questions do not appear immediately, but afterwards. The iron entered into the soul of Joseph, and there were long years when the answer did not come; but it did come when Pharaoh lifted him up to the throne to preserve Israel. John the Baptist heard the grating of the prison door as the executioner came to behead him, but Herod heard only the music and dancing. Why? The answer came not to John, but God will surely speak his golden answer when the herald is summoned on high.
- "I thirst."
The last three utterances are shorter, possibly due to the Saviour's ebbing life (see under 26:29). What a paradox is this scene! He who upholds all things by the word of his power (Hebrews 1:3) is here himself upheld upon the rude and torturing beams of the cross. He who changed eighty gallons of water into wine is here athirst! He who is the Prince of Life must taste death for every man! The thirst was prophesied in Psa. 22:15.
- "It is finished."
What was finished? The law of Moses (Colossians 2:14-16), the sabbath institution (Amos 8:5-9), the works of his personal ministry, the power of Satan (Hebrews 2:14), the atonement for the sins of the whole world (Hebrews 9:26), the purchase price for the church (Acts 20:28), and the remission of sins prior to Calvary, as well as the remission of whatever sins will be remitted for all eternity - these are among the things finished that day on the cross of Christ. George Fredrick Handel finished the "Messiah" after working for many hours in feverish exertion, then bowed his head and said, "It is finished." But only the score was finished. All the joy of that great oratorio would have perished forever unless other hands had taken it up and other voices had sung its glorious harmonies. In like manner, the finished work of Jesus leaves ample place for others to take up the cross daily and follow him. Other hands must do his work; other lips must preach his word; and other hearts must warm to his great love. Indeed, "it is finished"; but man's work is before him. "Save yourselves from this crooked generation!" Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling!"
- "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit."
What an argument for immortality is this! In a moment the body of Christ would fail, but that would not be the end. He made an appointment for the Father to take his spirit, and did so with the calm assurance of one who might make an appointment to meet a friend after lunch. Man has a body, but he is a soul. No wonder an apostle said that Jesus "brought life and immortality to light through the gospel" (2 Timothy 1:10). Happy are the followers of Jesus, who, as the end nears, may feel the Father's nearness as did Jesus, and commend their souls to his eternal safekeeping. This last utterance is synchronized with the major thesis of Christianity involving the immortality of the soul and man's spiritual nature and accountability to God for all his deeds.
Footnotes for Matthew 27
1: John W. Haley, Alleged Discrepancies of the Bible (Nashville: B. C. Goodpasture, 1951), p. 349.
2: Foxe's Book of Martyrs, traditional.
3: A. T. Robertson, A Harmony of the Gospels (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1922), p. 225.
4: Alfred Plummer, Commentary on Matthew (London: Elliot Stock, 1909), p. 393.
5: G. A. Studdart-Kennedy, The Questing Spirit, poem (New York: Coward-McCann, Inc., 1947), p. 374.
6: Alfred Plummer, op. cit., p. 396.
7: John A. Broadus, Commentary on the New Testament (Philadelphia: The American Baptist Publishing Society, 1886), Vol. I, p. 571.
8: William R. Nicholson, The Calvary Miracles (Chicago: Moody Press, 1928), p. 6.
9: Herbert Friedman, "Our Life-Giving Star, the Sun" (Washington, D.C., The National Geographic Magazine, Vol. 128, No. 5, November, 1965), p. 720.
10: Tertullian, Apology in the Ante-Nicene Fathers (Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1957), Vol. III, p. 35.
11: Pontius Pilate, To Tiberius in Ibid., Vol. III, p. 463.
12: William R. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 24.
13: Mrs. Chant, Hymn No. 137, The Great Songs of the Church (Chicago: Great Songs Press, 1960).
14: Alfred Plummer, op. cit., p. 402.
15: Alford, as quoted by J. R. Dummelow, One Volume Commentary (New York: Macmillan Company, 1937), p. 718.
16: William R. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 32.
17: Alfred Plummer, op. cit., p. 403.
18: William R. Nicholson, op. cit., p. 63.
19: James Ramsey Ullman, Americans on Everest (New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1964), frontispiece.
20: J. W. McGarvey, Commentary on Matthew and Mark (Nashville, Tennessee: The Gospel Advocate Company), p. 16.
21: Charles Haddon Spurgeon, Sermons (New York: Funk and Wagnalls Company, 1884), Vol. 15, p. 124.
22: B. C. Cafflin, op cit., Vol. 15, Matthew II, p. 546.
23: F. N. Peloubet, Bible Dictionary (Philadelphia: John C. Winston Company, 1925), under "Annas."
24: C. E. W. Dorris, Commentary on Gospel of John (Nashville: The Gospel Advocate Company, 1939), p. 354.
25: Sir Walter Scott, Martaion, Canto VI, Stanza 17 (Bartlett's Quotations).