The Death of Jesus: Matthew 27:26-66

Every part of the life of Jesus has come under attack at some point.  Some have rashly claimed that it is doubtful that Jesus even existed, even though there is far more historical evidence that Jesus existed than Julius Caesar.  Others have claimed that Jesus never died; Muslim theologians especially are committed to a refusal to believe this because of what their scriptures say (scriptures which, by the way, date hundreds of years later than the canonical gospels).  Others claim, because of prior philosophical commitments, that Jesus didn’t rise from the dead.  I doubt whether any other historical figure has ever been subjected to the kind of intense scrutiny to which the historical Jesus has been subjected over the last two thousand years.

And the reason is obvious: the Christian religion is based on historical claims.  Christianity is not just a nice collection of nice sayings on how to be nice.  It is the radical claim that God has inserted himself into human history in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.  If the historical claims of our faith are unfounded, then Christianity is a farce, as the apostle Paul himself affirmed in 1 Cor. 15.  And the historical claims of Christianity all come down to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  If these events are not true, then there is no real content to our faith.  This is why Satan has expended so much energy through the centuries to sow doubt in people’s minds when it comes to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.  Because if people really believe this, they can’t help but become followers of Jesus and be saved.

Of course, the New Testament proclamation emphasizes the resurrection of Christ.  But we must remember that resurrection is resurrection from the dead.  If there is no death, there is no resurrection.  Thus, the apostle Paul writes that “if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved” (Rom. 10:9, ESV).  Or, as he put it to Timothy, “Remember Jesus Christ, risen from the dead, the offspring of David, as preached in my gospel” (2 Tim. 2:8, ESV).  

And so we come in the narrative to the crucifixion and death of Jesus Christ.  For us, everything hangs upon what happened in these verses.  Jesus was born so that he could die.  As we read the verses recounting this event, it seems to me that the coolness and brevity with which Matthew and the other gospel narrators record the death of Jesus is remarkable.  And I think the reason for this is that they are not so much interested in the details of the death of Jesus as the fact that it happened and the theological implications of this fact.  

Incidentally, this contrasts with much recent emphasis on the details of the death of Jesus, as in the movie The Passion of the Christ.  In Mel Gibson’s movie the scourging of Jesus is a major part of the story as he tells it.  In Matthew’s gospel is takes up one verse (26).  Again, the reason is that Matthew and the other gospel writers are not telling the story of a martyr.  They are telling the story of redemption.

So I don’t want this to be a sermonic version of the Gibson movie.  Rather, I want to review with you the details of the death of Jesus as Matthew tells it so that we can see the implications of the death of Jesus, and to see how those implications are inherent in the story as Matthew is giving it to us.  In particular, four things ought to stand out to us.  They are: (1) the meaning of Jesus’ death, (2) the depth of the love of Jesus for us, (3) the reality of the ugliness of sin, and (4) the completeness of the redemption that Jesus accomplished on the cross for us.

But first let us review the events recorded in verses 26-66.  

The first thing that happens is the scourging of Jesus (26).  As you probably know, the scourge was a leather strap that contained bits and pieces of bone and metal.  It could reduce a man to a bloody pulp.  It was often lethal.  We can see just how it affected Jesus in that Simon had to be recruited to help him bare the cross (32).  Jesus was not a wimp – he had been a carpenter – and so we must explain the necessity of Simon’s help from the brutality of the scourging and its affects upon Jesus’s ability to carry his cross.  And he is not even crucified yet.

Beyond the physical brutality, however, there was the psychological viciousness, the mockery and the derision of the Roman soldiers (27-31).  The charge against Jesus, which they later placed upon the head of his cross in Greek, Hebrew, and Latin is that he claimed to be the King of the Jews.  And so the soldiers derisively put a scarlet robe upon him (probably a trooper’s cloak) as a mock king, and mat thorns together and press them into his head in imitation of the circlet on the coins of Caesar.  They then insultingly bowed before him in mock obeisance, and hit him upon the head over and over again, pressing the thorns deeper into his brow.  The pain, both physical and psychological, must have been intense.  When this was over, they put Jesus’ clothes back on him and led him to be crucified, dragging with him the instrument of his death.

He was then crucified (32-44).  As D. A. Carson has put it, “Two thousand years of pious Christian tradition have largely domesticated the cross, making it hard for us to realize how it was viewed in Jesus’ time.”   Carson tells us that in the ancient world, crucifixion “was universally viewed with horror.  In Roman law it was reserved only for the worst criminals and lowest classes.”   Crucifixion killed people in the worst possible way.  Essentially, the way a person was stretched out on a cross made it necessary for them to pull up (against nails, in Jesus’ case) in order to keep the chest cavity open in order to breathe.  But you couldn’t do this forever and eventually a person gave out and died “at last by suffocation, cardiac arrest, or loss of blood.”   Sometimes this could go on for days, and occasionally a convict’s legs would be broken to prevent him from pushing up in order to get a breath of air and thus to hasten his death.

Added to this was the shame heaped upon Jesus even as he died.  To add insult to injury, the soldiers tempt him with a glass of wine, only to find out it was vinegar wine tinged with myrrh (Mk. 15:23), making it too bitter to drink (34).  The soldiers probably laughed as Jesus spit it out in disgust.  And as Jesus hung there, his enemies paraded by the cross to heap insults upon him (39-43).  Even the robbers who were being crucified on his left and right joined in the taunts (44).

But the worst thing of all is recorded for us in verses 45 and 46.  We are told that “from the sixth hour [noon] there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour [3 PM].”  Was God hiding what was happening to his Son?  Perhaps.  But more likely God the Father is telling us by the darkness that his Son was undergoing the punishment of sin and enduring the righteous judgment of God on our behalf.  Darkness is a sign of God’s judgment, as the plague in Egypt demonstrated, as well as the prophet Amos’ words: “And it shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord GOD, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day: and I will turn your feasts into mourning, and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring sackcloth upon all loins, and baldness upon every head; and I will make it as the mourning of an only son, and the end thereof as a bitter day” (Amos 8:9-10).  Thus Jesus’ crucifixion was not just the result of human judgment – it was the effect of Divine judgment, although not for his sins but for the sins of others.  That is what the darkness signified.

This is underscored in Jesus’ agonizing cry in verse 46.  Here we get about as close to the actual voice of Jesus in all of Scripture.  For the words spoken by Jesus here are in Aramaic, which is almost certainly the language that he spoke during his earthly ministry.  These words are a quote from Psalm 22:1: “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” – “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”  Interestingly, his enemies had also quoted Psalm 22, though doubtlessly they had done so unconsciously: “He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, I am the Son of God” (43).  Note how close this is to Psalm 22:8, which King David put in the mouths of his tormentors: “He trusted on the LORD that he would deliver him: let him deliver him, seeing he delighted in him.”  Whether or not this is what made our Lord think of Psalm 22, I don’t know.  What I do know is that Psalm 22:1 expressed what was happening to Jesus far more accurately than when David penned these words.  David felt abandoned by God.  Jesus was abandoned by his Father for a time as he bore our sin.

No movie can adequately display what really happened on the cross because no movie can make us see what was truly transpiring at this moment.  I don’t want to downplay the physical sufferings of Jesus.  They were real, and they were unspeakably horrible.  But if we stop there, we have not really considered where the sufferings of Jesus truly lie.  They lie here, in the estrangement of the Son of God from his Father, as “he drank damnation dry.”

Those who stood around him didn’t see it either.  Some thought that he was calling for Elijah (47-49).  They didn’t see and in any case couldn’t comprehend the suffering that was taking place in front of them or its meaning.

And then Jesus died (50).  To the end, our Lord was in control.  He is the one who “yielded up” his spirit and life.  No man took it from him; he gave it.  The apostle John records what it was at this moment that Jesus “cried . . . with a loud voice:” it was the words, “It is finished” (Jn. 19:30).  Praise God.

The fact that it was finished is highlighted by Matthew, not in words, but in events that took place after the death of Jesus.  First of all, “the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake and the rocks rent” (51).  The veil separated the Holiest of Holies from everything else in the temple and was a visual display of the separation that exists between God and man.  However, its being torn is likewise a visual display that such a separation no longer exists through Christ.  We now have access through him by one Spirit unto the Father (Eph. 2:18).  

The second thing that Matthew records in order to underscore the significance of the death of Jesus is given in verses 52-53: “And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.”  Matthew is referring to the fact that several notable Old Testament saints rose from the dead after Jesus’ resurrection and appeared to many in Jerusalem.  We are not told, but it is probable that shortly after this they then were translated into heaven.  However, although there are tons of interesting questions which are left unanswered by Matthew here, his main point is clear.  He is telling us that the death of Jesus secured redemption from death for saints under the law as it does for those of us living under the gospel.  Resurrection from the dead is a fruit of the redemptive death of Jesus and his resurrection from the dead for all the people of God for all time.  

The darkness and the earthquake all highlighted the significance of the suffering Servant.  It was so obvious that even the pagan centurion and the soldiers with him had to admit, “Truly this was the Son of God” (54).  What the religious leaders failed to believe, a pagan soldier now confesses, and we begin to see the movement of the gospel from Israel to Gentile.

In the closing verses of the chapter (57-66), we have the burial of Jesus and the posting of the guard at his tomb.  The burial of Jesus is significant because it underscores the reality of his death.  Pilate would not have allowed a crucified man to be let down from the cross while he was still alive.  This is the reason why we are told in verse 36 that the soldiers sat down and watched over Jesus – they did this to prevent any would-be rescuer from taking Jesus down.  And this is why Joseph had to first go to Pilate to request permission to have the body of Jesus.  According to Mark, Pilate first checked to see if he was dead before he gave his permission (Mk. 15:44-45).  Joseph, along with Nicodemus (Jn. 19:39), buried Jesus in Joseph’s new tomb.  

This tomb had a large stone that rolled down an incline to seal the entrance (60).  It would have been very difficult to open because you would have had to role it up the incline to do so.  Nevertheless, the chief priests and other leaders were afraid of this possibility, and so they approached Pilate to request permission to post a guard (62-66).  Even though some scholars have surmised that these were actually Jewish temple guards, not Roman soldiers, it seems to me that they had to be Roman soldiers; otherwise, Pilate would have had little interest in whether or not they did their jobs (cf. 28:14).  Thus, as we end the chapter, Jesus is dead and buried in a tomb which was guarded by Roman soldiers.  There was seemingly no possibility that the tomb could be robbed and the body stolen.  But, as the hymn puts it, “death cannot keep its prey.”

Now that we have reviewed the circumstances of the death and burial of Jesus, let us now return to the question of the implications of his death.  I think Matthew and the other gospel writers are letting us in on the meaning of his death when they record Jesus’ cry, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?”  Let us now return to this and think about what it says about the significance of the death of Jesus.

See the meaning of Jesus’ death

First, let us see in the death of Jesus the meaning of his death.  All throughout the gospel of Matthew up to this point, the apostle has been laying the groundwork for us to understand what this is all about, what the death of Jesus means.  Matthew is very clear that Jesus came to do something in particular, something special, and this something was definitely accomplished in his death.  At the announcement of his birth, we are told, “And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins” (Mt. 1:21).  Of course, the question is, how would he do this?  His own disciples had their own ideas of how this would take place, but Matthew records how Jesus repeatedly warned his disciples that he was going to have to die, indeed, that he must die (cf.16:21; 17:22-23; 20:18-19).  This was shocking to them and very upsetting.  And yet he keeps on repeating it.  This is the reason he was born: so that he would die.  As he put it in John 12, “Now is my soul troubled; and what shall I say? Father, save me from this hour: but for this cause came I unto this hour” (27).  

And then he says this: “And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant: even as the Son of man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:27-28).  That is very significant.  There our Lord was giving an interpretation of the death he was about to die.  It was to be a ransom for many.  He was to pay the price for the redemption of sinners.  And then at the eve of his death, as he was celebrating the Passover with the disciples and instituting the Lord’s Supper, he said, “And as they were eating, Jesus took bread, and blessed it, and brake it, and gave it to the disciples, and said, Take, eat; this is my body.  And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; for this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins” (26:26-28).

By instituting the Lord’s Supper as part of the Passover meal, our Lord is saying that he is the ultimate Passover Lamb, that his death is a substitutionary sacrifice that obtains the forgiveness of sins for those for whom he is offered.  And in doing this, he obtains, not only the forgiveness of sins and pardon before God, but all the blessings of the New Covenant: “For this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, saith the Lord; I will put my laws into their mind, and write them in their hearts: and I will be to them a God, and they shall be to me a people: And they shall not teach every man his neighbour, and every man his brother, saying, Know the Lord: for all shall know me, from the least to the greatest. For I will be merciful to their unrighteousness, and their sins and their iniquities will I remember no more” (Heb. 8:10-12).

So Jesus did not die just as an example of how to endure suffering.  He did not die only to showcase God’s love to sinners.  In fact, unless we understand our Lord’s death in terms of a substitute who suffered the penalty of the sins of others in order to satisfy God’s perfect and holy justice on their behalf, our Lord’s death as a mirror of God’s love doesn’t make any sense.  It would be like a man rushing into a burning yet empty house just to show people he loved them.  A cross that doesn’t redeem from sins is pointless and stupid.  

Thank God that Jesus died as a ransom to bring about the blessings of the New Covenant for all for whom the Father gave him.

See the Love of God

Second, we should behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed upon his by giving his Son to die for our sins.  To die Jesus had to pass through the tempest of the judgment of God for our sin.  He had to endure abandonment by God.  He had to receive into his very soul the poisoned arrows of our sin and to endure the punishment due to them.  He was not dying because he deserved it.  He was dying because we deserved it.  The insult, “He saved others; himself he cannot save” (42) was truer than the mockers realized – in order to save us he could not allow himself to be saved from death.

And this is love – not that we loved God but that he loved us and gave his Son to be a propitiation for our sin (1 Jn. 4:10).  “But God commendeth his love for us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8).  The fact that Jesus would endure all of this for us, we who can only praise God’s grace for any vestige of holiness and sanctity that we exhibit, is amazing.  There is nothing praiseworthy in us.  There is nothing in us that would make God want to save us.  No, the initiative comes entirely from God.  Apart from Christ, we are spiritual corpses, and that is what he died for so that we might become alive in him.  We have no real idea what unconditional love is like.  But God’s love for us, demonstrated in the death of his Son, is the clearest, truest, highest exhibition of unconditional love.  He died for sinners – traitors who would have preferred to stew in their putrid, stinking, rotting selfishness.  Which of us would have done this?  None of us would.  And yet our salvation depends on this incomparable love of God for sinners.

See the Ugliness of Sin

The third thing the death of Jesus brings home to us is the ugliness of sin.  Sin is truly ugly, and yet we are often so blind to it, especially to our own sin.  There is an episode of The Twilight Zone which centers on a hospital patient whose face is all wrapped up in bandages.  In the story, we are told that the patient is receiving medical treatment for her face because it is so ugly.  In fact, we are told that she is so ugly that if this last treatment doesn’t work, she is going to have to be exiled into a community of similarly ugly people.  Throughout most of the episode, you don’t see anyone’s face; the patient’s is wrapped up in bandages and the camera never lets us you see the faces of the doctors and nurses.  Then comes the moment when the patient’s face is revealed – along with the faces of the doctors and nurses.  It is shocking – shocking because the patient is actually really beautiful and everyone else is ugly, I mean, really ugly.  It is everyone else who is disfigured, not the patient.  And yet, the normalness of ugliness had made true beauty seem foul.

In the same way, we are often hardened to the foulness of sin, the “exceeding sinfulness of sin” as Paul put it (Rom. 7:13), because of its prevalence all around us.  In fact, just like the characters in that episode of The Twilight Zone, we begin to think sin looks beautiful and holiness ugly.

Now the best antidote to this is to see what sin did to Jesus on the cross.  You want to see what sin is really like?  Look at the bleeding pulp that used to be Jesus’ back; that’s what your sin and mine did to it.  Look at his hands and feet nailed to a cross, see him gasping for air – the Son of God!  Sin did that to him, our sin did that to him.  Above all, see him there crying out in dismay because for the first time in his eternal existence he is completely alone and isolated as he carries the burden of our guilt.  Sin is so horrible and so bad that it took the Son of God to expiate it for us.

We should make no friendship with sin.  We should give it no place in our hearts.  But we will never do this as we should unless we see the ugliness of sin and the beauty and sufficiency of God’s love for us in Christ.  And the way we see this is by seeing the true significance of the cross of Christ.  Let us so behold our bleeding Savior that we can say with the apostle Paul, “But God forbid that I should glory, save in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by whom the world is crucified unto me, and I unto the world” (Gal. 6:14).

See the fullness of redemption.

Finally, let us see in the death of Jesus the fullness of the redemption that he accomplished for us.  The essence of sin is separation from God.  And yet, the cry of Jesus in verse 46 tells us that he endured separation from God so that we would not have to.  In other words, all that sin entails, all that sin brings with it, all its terrible consequences – spiritual death and bondage to sin and physical death and eternal judgment – these are all summed up in separation from God.  And it is precisely this which is defeated on the cross.  Jesus defeated sin in all its dimensions for us.  The work of redemption was truly finished on the cross.

This is the intent of the words of Hebrews 9:14: “How much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, purge your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?”  How much more.  All the animal sacrifices could do was to secure ceremonial purity for the worshipers in the OT.  But Jesus does so much more.  His blood doesn’t just get us ceremonially pure; he purges our consciences from dead works to serve the living God.  He purges our consciences and so delivers us from the guilt of sin so that it can no longer cry for our condemnation.  And then he delivers us from dead works to serve him; he delivers us from bondage to sin.  It is Christ who does this.  In him alone we have redemption.

Why we need to see the death of Christ 

But why does any of this matter?  It matters because we need to see the death of Christ.  Paul said to the Galatians, “O foolish Galatians, who hath bewitched you, that ye should not obey the truth, before whose eyes Jesus Christ hath been evidently set forth, crucified among you?” (Gal. 3:1).  Paul is arguing that if you really see the death of Jesus as it really is, you won’t end up believing lies like they had.  He is perplexed because they had the cure to their problem – legalism – in front of them in the preaching of the gospel and its central meaning in the death of Christ had been entirely lost on them.

Why do we need to see Christ crucified?  Again, as Paul put it to the Corinthians, this is the heart of the gospel: “I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2).  And it is at the heart of the gospel because it is here that we understand what Christ has done for us and our need of him.  But not only that, God’s word has revealed this to us so that we will avail ourselves of the Divine remedy for our sin in the death of Christ.  He is not set forth to us in the gospel in his death and resurrection as a museum piece to admire or to consider from afar, but as bread to hungry souls to take.

Therefore let all who are outside of Christ find refuge in him.  Come to him, and say with the hymn,

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling,
Naked come to thee for dress,
Helpless look to thee for grace,
Foul, I to the fountain fly,
Wash me, Savior, or I die!

And if you are wondering if you can come, I want to say this: yes, you can come.  The warrant for faith in Christ, the permission to come and to believe the promise that all who believe in him will be saved, is not something in you but in the command and invitation of Christ himself.  You don’t have to look for evidence of election in yourself in order to feel warranted to come.  You don’t have to feel a certain amount of contrition in order to have a right to come.  You don’t have to clean up your life first in order to come.  Not that those things aren’t important: yes, by all means, feel contrition for sins – we must in fact.  Yes, by all mean repent of your sins and clean up your life!  But you need to understand that nothing we do provides merit by which we can approach the cross and lay hold upon Christ.  The only warrant for faith in Christ is his command to believe.  The only warrant for faith is his free promise that all who repent and believe will find life.  So let all who thirst take the fountain of the water of life freely.

And let all of us glory in the cross of Christ and cling to the fullness of the grace that comes through him.  Don’t ever think that you will get to a point in your walk with the Lord where you stop needing the grace of Christ, where you stop needing to live at the foot of the cross.  The gospel is not something you believe and then move on.  We must go on clinging to Christ by faith.  We live, as the apostle put it, by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me (Gal. 2:20).


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