IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 2, Number 20, May 15 to May 21, 2000

COMMENTARY ON MATTHEW 27:27-50

by Dr. Knox Chamblin

THE DARKEST DAY IN HISTORY. 27:27-66.

I. THE MOCKERY OF JESUS. 27:27-31.

A. The Scene. 27:27.

Jesus is now taken into the Praetorium (on its location, see Carson, 567, 572). That he is taken here by the governor's soldiers, confirms that Matthew does not wish to portray Pilate in an altogether favorable light. A whole cohort usually consisted of 600 men; but fewer may have been present on this occasion.

B. The Homage. 27:28-30.

The Jews mocked Jesus' claim to be Messiah (26:63, 67-68, including the words "Prophesy to us, Christ"); the Gentiles mock his claim to be King (27:11, 28-29, including the words "Hail, King of the Jews!"). The "scarlet robe" was a Roman soldier's cloak; its color suggested the imperial purple (cf. Mk 15:17). It may be that "the spikes of the thorns turned outward in a mocking imitation of the radiate crowns of the period, rather than inward for the infliction of pain" (Gundry, 567, citing H. St. J. Hart; cf. Bruce, Matthew, 90). Completing the picture is the "staff," placed in Jesus' right hand as a royal sceptre (a detail that Matthew alone mentions).

C. The Message.

This passage offers a grotesque parody of the truth about Jesus; it also shows how sinners respond to the disclosure of true Kingship. It is precisely because this is Jesus the King, the Holy One of Israel, the very embodiment of love and selflessness, that he is treated this way. The soldiers "spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again" (v. 30), because to their mind he was not a king (imagine a soldier's doing this to Caesar or even Pilate). Jesus receives such treatment because he is a king. Jesus' followers may expect the same treatment. Indeed, the more truly they represent Jesus, the more predictable does persecution become (10:24-25; 2 Tim 3:12). Gundry stresses the pastoral purpose of the Passion Narrative for Matthew's readers: "Throughout the remainder of the passion, Matthew will stress the persecution of Jesus to encourage those who are suffering persecution at the time of writing" (p. 566).


II. THE CRUCIFIXION OF JESUS. 27:32-44.

A. The Via Dolorosa. 27:32.

The "cross" which the victim was required to carry (Jn 19:17) was the crossbeam, which at the scene of execution would be attached to an upright post (already in place), forming a capital T. Given the flogging and the beating that Jesus has already received, it is not surprising that he requires assistance. Dragooned into carrying Jesus' cross is "a man from Cyrene, named Simon." Mk 15:21 identifies him more fully as "the father of Alexander and Rufus," which strongly suggests that some or all of them became Christians, perhaps partly or chiefly under the impact of this very series of events. For a fuller account of the Via Dolorosa, see Lk 23:26-32.

B. Golgotha. 27:33.

This Aramaic word means "skull"; the Latin counterpart is calva, whence "Calvary." "There is no certain explanation of the giving of this name to the place, which lay just outside the north wall of the city" (Bruce, Matthew, 90). The use of the place (for executions) offers a better explanation than its alleged shape.

C. The Drink. 27:34.

"There they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it." Cf. the parallel in Mk 15:23, "Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh...."

1. The dominant view. The drink was "a narcotic which compassionate Jewish women [in keeping with Prov 31:6-7] used to offer the condemned to diminish their suffering" (Jerusalem Bible, note on Mt 26:34) - an offer Jesus refused in order to keep his head clear to the last.

2. A preferable view. Myrrh (smyrna) might strengthen wine but it offered no relief from pain (Gundry, 569; Carson, 575). Moreover, despite its sweet aroma, like most perfumes it had a bitter taste. In sufficient dosage, it would make wine undrinkable. That Jesus first tasted and then refused the drink (v. 34b), suggests that he wanted the drink (for the purpose of keeping his head clear), and only refused it because of its extreme bitterness. Mark's "myrrh" describes the content of the substance added to the wine; Matthew's "gall" (chole) accentuates the bitterness of the taste and provides a link with Ps 69:21 (cf. Carson, 575; and Gundry, 569, on the Semitic kinship of the two terms). (Wilhelm Michaelis acknowledges that myrrh itself had a bitter taste, but thinks that "wine mixed with myrrh" was desirable; cf. TDNT 7: 458. But in this case it is hard to understand why Jesus first tasted and then refused the drink.) Also taking into account that the drink is offered not by Jewish women but by Roman soldiers, we conclude that the drink is offered not as a gesture of compassion for a suffering man but as a way for the soldiers to amuse themselves at the victim's expense. Jesus thus has reason to echo the words of David: "Scorn has broken my heart and has left me helpless; I looked for sympathy, but there was none, for comforters, but I found none. They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst" (Ps 69:20-21).

D. The Division of the Clothes. 27:35.

Executioners customarily took victims' personal possessions. In Jesus' case the action fulfills Ps 22:18, as made explicit in some later manuscripts (cf. NIV mg.).

E. The Mockery.

The mockery of 26:67-68 and 27:28-31, here reaches its climax. Jesus is taunted and insulted from every side - by the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders (vv. 41-43), by the robbers crucified with him (vv. 38, 44), and by onlookers in general (vv. 39-40) - whom Satan makes his instruments in a final attempt to turn Jesus from the Father's appointed path (cf. 4:1-11; and Carson, 576, following Ernst Lohmeyer). Amid the mockery, the superscription declares the truth about Jesus, v. 37. Indeed the mockery itself speaks truth: "He saved others, but he can't save himself" (v. 42), for in Gethsemane he renewed his obedience to the Father's will. Nor can God the Father now rescue him (v. 43), for this is the very hour for which he sent his Son into the world.


III. THE DEATH OF JESUS. 27:45-50.

A. The Darkness. 27:45.

"From the sixth hour [12 noon] until the ninth hour [3 p.m.] darkness came over all the land."

1. The miracle. The darkness covers not the whole earth, but all the land of Israel (thus BAGD, s.v. ge). What means God used to bring the darkness about, we are not told (for various suggestions, see Gundry 572, Carson 578). As with the other miracles recorded in this Gospel - starting with the virginal conception - Matthew (like the other Evangelists) focuses not on scientific explanation but on theological significance.

2. The meaning. The darkness signals judgment and tragedy. Matthew's language recalls Ex 10:21-22 ("total darkness covered all Egypt for three days"). A closer counterpart is found in Amos 8:9-10, where the judgment falls on Israel herself: "'In that day,' declares the Sovereign LORD, 'I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping...." Here at the Cross, the darkness signals God's judgment upon Israel for her rejection (expressed most recently in the mockery of 27:39-44) and execution of his beloved Son. Moreover, because sinful man stands under judgment, the darkness also signals God's judgment upon Jesus himself. It is out of this darkness that he utters the cry of v. 46. Moreover, the darkness is apocalyptic in character, anticipating those signs of the Final Judgment (cf. 24:29; Acts 2:20, which harks back to the cross).

B. The Cry of Dereliction. 27:46.

"About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, 'Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?' - which means, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" Matt alters Mk's Aramaic eloi to Hebrew eli (see NIV text and mg.) for closer conformity to the original of Ps 22:1, and for a closer approach to the name of Elijah, Elias (v. 47).

1. The Cross and Gethsemane. This utterance is not merely the sequel to the agony in Gethsemane; it is the explanation for that agony. We can now understand why Jesus shrank from the Cross. Cf. earlier discussion on the causes of Jesus' agony - including horror over abandonment by the Father which was to be the inevitable consequence of the Son's "becoming sin." We must reject the view that Jesus thought he was forsaken by the Father, but in reality was not. He is really abandoned, and he knows that he is abandoned. And having been deserted by the Father, there is no hope of rescue by Elijah (49) or anyone else.

2. The mystery. There is no recorded answer to Jesus' question, "Why have you abandoned me?" The subject is so profound and so holy that for God to have provided an answer for us would have been (as it were) to cast pearls before swine, or (at best) to say something that we could not comprehend nor fathom.

3. The knowledge. Because Jesus clearly perceived the nature of his mission, in one sense he knew why God had abandoned him. He early submitted to a baptism for sinners (3:15). His ministry is typically one of the most intimate socializing with "tax collectors and 'sinners'" (9:10-13). Here at the Cross he identifies in the closest way with human sin. Identified at his baptism as the appointed Servant of Yahweh (3:15-17), he is the one in whom the prophecy of Isa 53:4-10 comes to realization. As the direct consequence of having borne "the iniquity of all" his people (1:21), he suffers the wrath of God, and abandonment by God (cf. Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament, 42-49).

4. The anguish. We must do more than speak of Jesus' knowledge of what is happening. Indeed, it is just that knowledge that gives rise to the anguish. To quote John White: "If I were coldly logical I could point out that Jesus knew the answer to his own agonized cry. He knew why. He had known during his earthly ministry. He had known with awful clarity in the Mount of Olives. His question is not a plea for intellectual understanding but an expression of agony that overwhelmed understanding" (Daring to Draw Near, 153). For the One with whom he had enjoyed the closest communion (even in Gethsemane, where he calls God "Abba"), has now abandoned him utterly.

5. The faith. We should not overlook the language of faith within the cry of dereliction itself. Not only does Jesus speak of "my God." He also cries, "Why have you forsaken me?" (not "Why has God forsaken me?"). In face of abandonment by God (or imagined such abandonment), "where could I go but to the Lord?" Cf. Job's fierce determination to maintain contact with the God who, he thinks, has abandoned him. "It is far better to cry 'Why?' than not to cry at all. It is better to protest in dismay than to curse God and die.... Our very agitation is a product of faith.... Once we lose all hope that there is an ear to hear or a heart that is concerned, despair becomes absolute" (White, Daring, 154).

6. The meditation. I believe Jesus' quoting of Ps 22:1 indicates that he meditated on the whole psalm, and that he thus moved from despair to victory: "For [the LORD] has not despised or disdained the suffering of his afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help" (22:24). This helps explain the confidence and peace reflected in his remaining Words from the cross. This is the one Word Mt records. But note also 26:50, "And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit." A comparison with Jn strongly suggests that 26:50 refers to the cry, "It is finished" (Jn 19:30). Note also the final word, Lk 23:46, "Jesus called out with a loud voice, 'Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.'" As in Gethsemane, Jesus' striving with God brings peace with God.

C. The Wine. 27:48.

This offer is probably sympathetic (apud Gundry, 574, pace Carson, 579); contrast the ingredients of the drink offered in v. 34. John tells us that Jesus both requested and received this drink, the reason apparently being to relieve the dryness of his mouth so he could utter the Words of Triumph (see Jn 19:28-30).

D. The Death Itself. 27:50.

"And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit." The closing words, apheken to pneuma, are Matthew's substitute for exepneusen, "he expired" (Mk 15:37; Lk 23:46). "This revision has the purpose and result of making Jesus, who is a majestic and authoritative figure throughout the first gospel, die of his own accord. He does not die with a last gasp, but by an act of the will" (Gundry, 575); cf. comments on 26:51-56, and Jn 10:17-18.

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