Jesus Brought Before Pilate

27:1 When it was early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people plotted against Jesus to execute him. 27:2 They tied him up, led him away, and handed him over to Pilate the governor.

Judas’ Suicide

27:3 Now when Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus had been condemned, he regretted what he had done and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders, 27:4 saying, “I have sinned by betraying innocent blood!” But they said, “What is that to us? You take care of it yourself!” 27:5 So Judas threw the silver coins into the temple and left. Then he went out and hanged himself. 27:6 The chief priests took the silver and said, “It is not lawful to put this into the temple treasury, since it is blood money.” 27:7 After consulting together they bought the Potter’s Field with it, as a burial place for foreigners. 27:8 For this reason that field has been called the “Field of Blood” to this day. 27:9 Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price of the one whose price had been set by the people of Israel, 27:10 and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”

Harper’s Bible Commentary regards vv3-10 as ‘a legendary explanation of the name of Akeldama’ (‘Field of Blood’).

When Judas…saw that Jesus had been condemned – ‘Presumably Judas went back with the arresting party to the high priest’s residence and actually “saw” (ἰδών) from a distance what transpired in the trial.’ (Osborne)

‘They, of course, were religious leaders as well as politicians, and it may be that in his spiritual anguish Judas was looking for guidance and help. If so, he was to be bitterly disappointed, for these men were not particularly interested in helping people like Judas. Their minds were set on getting Jesus executed, and that was not yet accomplished.’ (Morris)

Jesus’ innocence attested
  1. By Judas, Mt 27:3f.
  2. By Pilate’s wife, Mt 27:19.
  3. By Pilate, Mt 27:24.
  4. By Herod, Lk 23:15.
  5. By Pilate, Jn 18:38.
  6. By the thief, Lk 23:41.
  7. By the centurian, Lk 23:47.

(Source unknown)

“I have sinned” – lit. “I sinned” – drawing attention to the enormity of that one act of betrayal.

“What is that to us?” – ‘To their eternal discredit these spiritual leaders of the people thought of Judas as a tool that had served its purpose and could be discarded, not as a man in desperate spiritual need.’ (Carson)

‘Matthew again points out the propensity of the Jewish leaders for ceremonial probity even in the face of gross injustice (cf. 12:9–14; 15:1–9; 23:23; 28:12–13).’ (Carson)

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

‘Field of Blood’ – Comparing Matthew’s account with that found in Acts 1, Green remarks: ‘It is not very difficult to reconcile those two accounts. Judas went and hanged himself: then either his corpse rotted and fell, or the rope broke and he fell and his insides were ruptured and gushed out. Either Judas had already acquired this field previously, or the priests bought the field in Judas’ name with the money that was still legally his and which they could not receive back into the treasury because it was blood money (6). The field fittingly became a cemetery (the meaning of the Aramaic ‘Akeldama’ in Acts 1:19).’

‘What may well have happened is that the rope broke and his body fell into the field (or perhaps that his body was thrown into the field afterward). This is possible, for Luke in Acts 1 is explaining the name of the field and chose those details that fit his explanation.’ (Osborne)

Jeremiah – Calvin says: ‘How the name of Jeremiah crept in, I confess that I do not know, nor do I give myself much trouble to inquire. The passage itself plainly shows that the name of Jeremiah has been put down by mistake, instead of Zechariah 11:13 for in Jeremiah we find nothing of this sort, nor anything that even approaches it.’  Calvin clearly thinks that the name of ‘Jeremiah’ has ‘crept in’ as an error of a scribal copyist (see Packer, Selected Short Writings IV, p155).

Carson says: ‘The quotation appears to refer to Jer 19:1–13, along with phraseology drawn mostly from Zec 11:12–13. Such fusing of sources under one “quotation” is not unknown elsewhere in Scripture (e.g., Mk 1:2–3). Jeremiah alone is mentioned, perhaps because he is the more important of the two prophets, and perhaps also because Jer 19 is more important as to prophecy and fulfillment.’ (EBC)

According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, ‘Matthew ascribes the citation to Jeremiah. Most of it, however, comes from Zech. 11:12–13, though there are slight reminiscences of Jer 32:6–15 and Jer 18:2–3. It was difficult to verify references when there were no chapter and verse numbers and when books were in scroll form.’

According to the Commentary on the New Testament Use of the Old Testament, it was common practice in Jewish writing of the day to allude to two texts, but only to cite one of them (frequently the more obscure one).  Indeed, this is what we see in Mark 1:2 (a combination of Isa 40:3 and Mal 3:1, with only the first of these references being mentioned).  The more obvious reference in the present verse is to Zech 11:12f.  But the less obvious allusion is to Jer 32:6-9, although Jer 19 is an alternative, or additional, contender.  (A similar line is followed in the IVP Bible Background Commentary)

Jesus and Pilate

27:11 Then Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus said, “You say so.” 27:12 But when he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he did not respond. 27:13 Then Pilate said to him, “Don’t you hear how many charges they are bringing against you?” 27:14 But he did not answer even one accusation, so that the governor was quite amazed.

France remarks that although this is the official trial of Jesus, it sounds ‘less like a formal judicial hearing than a macabre example of oriental bargaining.’

Green comments that Matthew’s account of the trials and execution of Jesus constitute his witness to the Gentiles.  He adds that his suffering and death provide an outstanding example of the endurance under persecution that he taught his followers (see Mt 10:17f; 24:9-13).

Mt 27:11–26 = Mk 15:2–15; Lk 23:2,3,18–25; Jn 18:29–19:16

The governor – Pontius Pilate was prefect of Judea from AD26 to 36.  He had a reputation of being cruel and corrupt, and altogether out of sympathy with the Jewish people.

Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say” – This is the nearest Jesus comes, in the Gospels, to giving ‘a straight answer to a straight question’.  And yet, in context, it is far from straightforward.  The question itself, ‘coming from the man who in fact held political authority over the Jews…carries a clearly ironical, even contemptuous, tone’.  In the sense in which Pilate intended it, Jesus could readily have disavowed it.  In fact, his answer is one of ‘qualified assent’ – “Yes, if you say so; yes, but in a completely different sense than you think.”  For ‘it expressed a theme of Old Testament prophecy which Jesus had come to fulfil, and had indeed deliberately enacted in Mt 21:1-9’ (France).  Cf. Jn 18:33-37.

He gave no answer – cf. Isa 53:7.  This would have been something of an embarrassment to Pilate, as ‘Roman judges disliked sentencing an undefended man’ (Holtzmann).

Not even to a single charge – lit. ‘not even with a word’.

27:15 During the feast the governor was accustomed to release one prisoner to the crowd, whomever they wanted. 27:16 At that time they had in custody a notorious prisoner named Jesus Barabbas. 27:17 So after they had assembled, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you want me to release for you, Jesus Barabbas or Jesus who is called the Christ?” 27:18 (For he knew that they had handed him over because of envy.) 27:19 As he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent a message to him: “Have nothing to do with that innocent man; I have suffered greatly as a result of a dream about him today.”

This custom is not attested outside the NT.

They had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas – It seems as if the crowd had already selected the prisoner they wanted to be released.

Barabbas was ‘a bandit, (Jn 18:40) arrested for homicidal political terrorism. (Mk 15:7 Lk 23:18f) Mark’s language could indicate a well-known incident, and the epithet ‘notable’ (Mt 27:16, AV) some reputation as a species of hero. The priests, possibly taking up an initial demand from his supporters, (cf. Mk 15:8) engineered a movement for his release to counter Pilate’s intended offer of that of Jesus (Mt 27:20 Mk 15:11) and Barabbas became an exemplification of the effects of substitutionary atonement.’ (NBD)

Nothing further is known of the insurrection of which he was a part.

‘“Barabbas” means son of a father in a simple, human sense. Jesus, on the other hand, was the Heavenly Son of his Heavenly Father, though not yet generally so recognized.’ (Blomberg)

Some ancient manuscripts record his name (in verses 16 and 17) as ‘Jesus Barabbas’.  Modern textual critics think it likely that this was his real name, and ‘Jesus’ was suppressed (even though ‘Jesus’ was a common name in those days).  As for the reasons for the suppression of his name, Green comments, ‘You couldn’t have a criminal with the same name as Jesus!  But you could!  That is the point of Jesus’ coming and identifying with sinners…On that Good Friday, the one ended up on the cross intended for the other, and the guilty man walked away free.  An amazing picture of what the cross of Christ really means!  Jesus took Barabbas’ place.  He took ours, too.’

‘It may be that the two who were crucified with Jesus were co-rebels with Barabbas, for Mt 27:38 uses the same word for their offense as for Barabbas. The fact that three crosses had been prepared strongly suggests that Pilate had already ordered that preparations be made for the execution of the three rebels. If so, Jesus the Messiah actually took the place of the rebel Barabbas because the people preferred the political rebel and nationalist hero to the Son of God.’ (Carson, EBC)

Given the likelihood that both accused were named ‘Jesus’, Pilate’s words in this verse become even more dramatic: ‘Which Jesus do you want me to release – Jesus the son of Abbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?’

The crowd would hardly be likely to agree with Pilate’s nominee for release, against their own.

His wife – Claudia Procula, illegitimate daughter of Claudia, the Emperor Tiberius’ third wife, and grand-daughter of Augustus.  ‘She was,’ says Green, ‘therefore much better connected than her husband, and it may be that it was due to her that in AC26 he gained the appointment as “prefect of Judea” (the correct title was discovered in 1961 on an inscription in Caesarea.’

“Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man” – Even a Gentile woman can see that Jesus is innocent!  The guilt of the Jews shows in even sharper relief.

‘Note, God has many ways of giving checks to sinners in their sinful pursuits, and it is a great mercy to have such checks from Providence, from faithful friends, and from our own consciences; it is also our great duty to hearken to them.’ (MHC)

“A dream” – ‘Quite possibly this dream came from the true and living God even as he spoke to the Gentile magi at the time of Jesus’ birth (Mt 2:12).’ (Blomberg)

God can speak in many ways

‘The Father of spirits has many ways of access to the spirits of men, and can seal their instruction in a dream, or vision of the night, Job 33:15, 16. Yet to those who have the written word, God more ordinarily speaks by conscience on a waking bed, than by dreams, when deep sleep falls upon men.’ (MHC)

27:20 But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus killed. 27:21 The governor asked them, “Which of the two do you want me to release for you?” And they said, “Barabbas!” 27:22 Pilate said to them, “Then what should I do with Jesus who is called the Christ?” They all said, “Crucify him!” 27:23 He asked, “Why? What wrong has he done?” But they shouted more insistently, “Crucify him!”

‘If the crowd must choose between Pilate’s choice and the Sanhedrin’s, especially if the Sanhedrin members are circulating stories of Jesus’ “blasphemy,” then there can be little doubt whom they will choose. Jews often confronted the Roman authorities with a large and noisy delegation, and now mob mentality begins to take over.’ (Carson, EBC)

How many of those in this crowd had so enthusiastically greeted Jesus just a few days earlier is impossible to say.  But there is clearly a sea change in attitude towards him.  Such is the fickle nature of public opinion.

‘It is often asked how these masses could so quickly and dramatically turn against someone they acclaimed as Messiah only five days earlier (Mt 21:9–11). But on Palm Sunday primarily Galilean crowds accompanied Jesus. Here native Jerusalemites are more evident. And, to the extent that the crowds did overlap, one must recall their quite different messianic expectations, now almost certainly destroyed by seeing Jesus imprisoned.’ (Blomberg)

‘Multitudes who choose the world, rather than God, for their ruler and portion, thus choose their own delusions.’ (MHC)

‘Though they that cried thus, perhaps, were not the same persons that the other day cried Hosanna, yet see what a change was made upon the mind of the populace in a little time: when he rode in triumph into Jerusalem, so general were the acclamations of praise, that one would have thought he had no enemies; but now when he was led in triumph to Pilate’s judgment-seat, so general were the outcries of enmity, that one would think he had no friends.’ (MHC)

What crime has he committed?

Innocent

‘It is much for the honour of the Lord Jesus, that, though he suffered as an evil-doer, yet neither his judge nor his prosecutors could find that he had done any evil. Had he done any evil against God? No, he always did those things that pleased him. Had he done any evil against the civil government? No, as he did himself, so he taught others, to render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s. Had he done any evil against the public peace? No, he did not strive or cry, nor did his kingdom come with observation. Had he done any evil to particular persons? Whose ox had he taken, or whom had he defrauded? No, so far from that, that he went about doing good. This repeated assertion of his unspotted innocency, plainly intimates that he died to satisfy for the sins of others; for if it had not been for our transgressions that he was thus wounded, and for our offences that he was delivered up, and that upon his own voluntary undertaking to atone for them, I see not how these extraordinary sufferings of a person that had never thought, said, or done, any thing amiss, could be reconciled with the justice and equity of that providence that governs the world, and at least permitted this to be done in it.’ (MHC)

They shouted all the louder – ‘They do not go about to show any evil he had done, but, right or wrong, he must be crucified. Quitting all pretensions to the proof of the premises, they resolve to hold the conclusion, and what was wanting in evidence to make up in clamour; this unjust judge was wearied by importunity into an unjust sentence, as he in the parable into a just one (Lk 18:4, 5), and the cause carried purely by noise.’ (MHC)

Jesus is Condemned and Mocked

27:24 When Pilate saw that he could do nothing, but that instead a riot was starting, he took some water, washed his hands before the crowd and said, “I am innocent of this man’s blood. You take care of it yourselves!” 27:25 In reply all the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” 27:26 Then he released Barabbas for them. But after he had Jesus flogged, he handed him over to be crucified.

‘There is one thing of which a man can never rid himself–and that is responsibility. It is never possible for Pilate or anyone else to say, “I wash my hands of all responsibility,” for that is something that no one and nothing can take away.’ (DSB)

The narrative has had more to say about Pilate than about Jesus.  Indeed, it is the character of Pilate that is on trial here.  ‘Though Pilate knows the unjust motivation of the charges (v. 18) and receives a divine warning (v. 19), political expediency takes precedence over justice. We are guilty of the same crime whenever we side with views because they are popular in our society or political party even though we know that someone is suffering unjustly (whether the poor, the unborn, racial minorities, abused wives or children, crime victims, prisoners of war, refugees or others).’ (IVP NT Commentary)

‘For Pilate, there was never a doubt about Jesus’ innocence. Three separate times he declared Jesus not guilty. He couldn’t understand what made these people want to kill Jesus, but his fear of the pressure the Jews would place on him made him decide to allow the crucifixion. Because of the threat to tell the emperor that Pilate hadn’t eliminated a rebel against Rome, he went against what he knew was right. In desperation, he chose to do wrong. We share a common humanity with Pilate. At times we know the right and choose the wrong. He had his moment in history, and now we have ours. What have you done with your opportunities and responsibilities?’ (Life Application)

‘Note, Sin is a brat that nobody is willing to own; and many deceive themselves with this, that they shall bear no blame if they can but find any to lay the blame upon; but it is not so easy a thing to transfer the guilt of sin as many think it is. The condition of him that is infected with the plague is not the less dangerous, either for his catching the infection from others, or his communicating the infection to others; we may be tempted to sin, but cannot be forced.’ (MHC)

All the people said, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” – They are saying, in effect, “If you will not take responsibility for his death, then we will gladly do so.”

Antisemitic?
Matthew leaves us in no doubt that it was the Jews who were responsible for Jesus’ death.

Nevertheless, to see this verse as bringing a ‘curse’ on the entire Jewish nation for all time is absurd.  For one thing, only a small proportion of the Jewish population was present, and, in any case, Matthew and the rest of the disciples (and Jesus himself!) were Jews themselves. On the other hand, Matthew makes it clear that ‘the loss of Israel’s special status which is so evident in his Gospel is to be interpreted in the light of their rejection of Jesus.’ (France)

‘It is true that the enemies of Christ among the Jews invited this kind of curse upon their own people, but God’s ways are not our ways. If “the blood of Jesus comes upon the children of Israel, it comes upon them as a savior’s blood,” for his blood is salvine, not avenging. By means of the shedding of Christ’s blood, remission of sins is brought to both Jews and Gentiles.’ (Bloesch, citing Franz Mussner)

‘Matthew certainly knows that all the first disciples were Jews. Thus the gospel’s denunciations of the Jews are not more severe than those of many OT prophets, and in both instances it is understood that a faithful remnant remains. So what Matthew actually says cannot be judged as a general anti-Semitic comment, certainly not any more than Jeremiah’s prediction of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile can.’ (Carson, EBC)

He had Jesus flogged– This mentioned earlier in the account in Jn 19.  It may well be that Jesus was flogged twice: the first an attempt to avert the death sentence, the second (and more brutal) the customary prequel to crucifixion.

27:27 Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the governor’s residence and gathered the whole cohort around him. 27:28 They stripped him and put a scarlet robe around him, 27:29 and after braiding a crown of thorns, they put it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand, and kneeling down before him, they mocked him: “Hail, king of the Jews!” 27:30 They spat on him and took the staff and struck him repeatedly on the head. 27:31 When they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Mt 27:27–31 = Mk 15:16–20

The governor’s soldiers – These would not have been Romans, but Gentiles (Phoenicians, Syrians, and possibly Samaritans) recruited from the surrounding area.  They would have harboured little affection for the Jews or their new ‘king’.

The whole company – About 600 men, if meant in its technical sense.

Not for a moment did these soldiers consider that Jesus might actually be a king.  How many today are so confirmed in their unbelief that they do not even consider that they might be wrong?

Put his own clothes on him – Criminals were usually led out to crucifixion naked.  This is probably a concession to Jewish sensibility.

The Crucifixion

27:32 As they were going out, they found a man from Cyrene named Simon, whom they forced to carry his cross. 27:33 They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “Place of the Skull”) 27:34 and offered Jesus wine mixed with gall to drink. But after tasting it, he would not drink it. 27:35 When they had crucified him, they divided his clothes by throwing dice. 27:36 Then they sat down and kept guard over him there. 27:37 Above his head they put the charge against him, which read: “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews.”

Matthew describes very little of Jesus’ own experience on the cross, and then not until the last few minutes before his death (vv. 45–66). Instead, Matthew emphasizes how other people experienced the crucifixion: Simon, the soldiers, the passers-by, the Jewish leaders, and the two criminals on the crosses on either side of Christ. In so doing, Matthew stresses the nearly universal rejection of our Lord.’ (Blomberg)

As they were going out – Executions normally took place outside the city walls, adding further to the sense of rejection (cf Heb 13:13).

Forced him to carry the cross – that is, the cross-beam.  The vertical stake would already be fastened in the ground at the place of execution.

A man from Cyrene, named Simon – He was a passer-by.  Cyrene was a settlement on the cost of North Africa.  The recollection of this man’s name suggests that he became a believer as a result of this experience.  His sons, Alexander and Rufus, are named in Mk 15:21.  Bauckham thinks that they were named in order to hint that they passed on eyewitness testimony of this event from their father.  By the time that Matthew and Luke composed their Gospels, they were no longer well known by the community and therefore did not need to be named.

‘Whether Simon was from an ethnically African family converted to Judaism or one of the many Jewish families settled in Cyrene is unclear.’ (IVP Commentary)

A stranger performs a role that the disciples should have performed.

Mt 27:33–44 = Mk 15:22–32; Lk 23:33–43; Jn 19:17–24

Wine…mixed with gall – Having a narcotic effect, and presumably refused by Jesus because he wished to remain fully conscious during his ordeal.  Mentioned by Matthew in recollection of Psa 69:21, and thus presenting Jesus as the righteous sufferer of that psalm (and of Psa 22).

Carson thinks that the drink would have been too bitter to be drinkable, and was offered to Jesus in malicious jest.

Crucified – Like the other Evangelists (but unlike some streams of Christian piety), Matthew does not dwell on the physical horrors of the crucifixion.

‘Crucifixion was unspeakably painful and degrading. Whether tied or nailed to the cross, the victim endured countless paroxysms as he pulled with his arms and pushed with his legs to keep his chest cavity open for breathing and then collapsed in exhaustion until the demand for oxygen demanded renewed paroxysms. The scourging, the loss of blood, and the shock from the pain all produced agony that could go on for days, ending at last by suffocation, cardiac arrest, or loss of blood. When there was reason to hasten death, the execution squad would smash the victim’s legs. Death followed almost immediately, either from shock or from collapse that cut off breath. Beyond the pain was the shame. In ancient sources crucifixion was universally viewed with horror. In Roman law it was reserved only for the worst criminals and lowest classes. No Roman citizen could be crucified without a direct edict from Caesar.

‘Among Jews the horror of the cross was greater still because of Dt 21:23: “Anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” In Israelite law this meant the corpse of a judicially executed criminal was hung up for public exposure that branded him as cursed by God. These words were also applied in Jesus’ day to anyone crucified, and therefore the Jews’ demand that Jesus be crucified rather than banished was aimed at arousing maximum public revulsion toward him. But in Christian perspective the curse on Jesus at the cross fulfills all OT sacrifices: it is a curse that removes the curse from believers—the fusion of divine, royal prerogative and Suffering Servant, the heart of the Gospel, the inauguration of a new humanity, the supreme model for Christian ethics, the ratification of the new covenant, and the power of God (1 Cor 1:23–24; Gal 3:13; Col 2:14; 1 Pet 2:18–25). The dominant note of this section is the continuing mockery, but mockery that by an awful irony reveals more than the mocker thinks—for Jesus is indeed King of the Jews (v.37), the new meeting place with God (v.40), the Savior of humanity (v.42), the King of Israel (v.42), and the Son of God (v.43).’ (Carson, EBC)

They divided up his clothes – Cf. Psa 22:18.  ‘Jesus’ cry from the cross in Mt 27:46 no doubt first drew attention to this psalm, and several echoes of it occur in the story.’ (France)

‘Every Jew wore five articles of clothing–his shoes, his turban, his girdle, his inner garment, and his outer cloak. There were thus five articles of clothing and four soldiers. The first four articles were all of equal value; but the outer cloak was more valuable than all the others. It was for Jesus’ outer cloak that the soldiers drew lots, as John tells us (Jn 19:23-24).’ (DSB)

Commentators seem divided over whether the victim would be crucified completely naked, or wearing just a loin-cloth.  If the former, then this would have added to the shame and indignity, especially for Jews.

This prepares us for their exclamation in Mt 27:54.

Above his head – suggesting that the cross was of the shape traditionally pictured, rather than a T – shape.

France remarks that, remarkably, some of the most exalted Christological titles come to the fore at this point: King of the Jews, temple-builder, Son of God, King of Israel, Son of God.  ‘The shocking paradox of the crucified Messiah could hardly be more sharply underlined’.

‘The wording of the charge drips with irony, making it appear as if the Romans believed that Jesus was the King of the Jews. The irony increases when we recognize that, rightly interpreted, the sign proclaimed the truth. John 19:20–22 elaborates on this irony even further.’ (Blomberg)

27:38 Then two outlaws were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. 27:39 Those who passed by defamed him, shaking their heads 27:40 and saying, “You who can destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are God’s Son, come down from the cross!” 27:41 In the same way even the chief priests—together with the experts in the law and elders—were mocking him: 27:42 “He saved others, but he cannot save himself! He is the king of Israel! If he comes down now from the cross, we will believe in him! 27:43 He trusts in God—let God, if he wants to, deliver him now because he said, ‘I am God’s Son’!” 27:44 The robbers who were crucified with him also spoke abusively to him.

Two robbers were crucified with him – Blomberg says that a better translation would be ‘rebels’ or ‘insurrectionists’.

‘Suffering is the heritage of the bad, of the penitent, and of the Son of God. Each one ends in the cross. The bad thief is crucified, the penitent thief is crucified, and the Son of God is crucified. By these signs we know the widespread heritage of suffering.’ – Oswald Chambers

Isa 53:12 is recalled here.

Psa 22:7 is echoed here.

“You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days” – ‘What Jesus had actually said was, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 nkjv). Ironically, Jesus was in the very process of fulfilling his own prophecy. His body was being destroyed, but in three days he would rise again.’ (Barton)

Save yourself! – Here the crowds act ‘as Satan’s final mouthpieces to turn Jesus from his divine mission (Mt 4:3-10; 16:21-23).’ (IVP Commentary)

“Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” – ‘It is precisely because he is the Son of God that he continues to accept the Father’s will, and does not come down from the cross.  It is this paradoxical truth, unrecognised by his Jewish mockers, which the Gentile soldiers will confess in Mt 27:54.’ (France)

‘Here truly is Jesus’ last great temptation, to come down off the cross, and he could have chosen to give in to it. But he would thereby have forfeited his divinely ordained role as the innocent sufferer for the sins of all humanity (cf. 2 Cor 5:21; Rom 3:21–26; Heb 9:26–28). For the sake of our eternal salvation, we praise God that he chose to remain faithful despite this unspeakable and excruciating agony…That God should send his Son to die for us was the scandal of the Christian message in the first century (1 Cor 1:23) and remains so for many today. But all attempts to remove the doctrine of Jesus’ substitutionary atonement from Christianity leave us dead in sin with a religion impotent to save us from eternal damnation.’ (Blomberg)

Although Jesus could have stepped down from the cross, this would have do follow the temptation of Satan, rather than the will of his Father.  Although God can and does grant miracles, faith cannot depend on visible demonstrations of power.

This full listing of Jewish leaders expresses the total rejection of Jesus by official Judaism (France).

“He saved others” – A reference to his healing ministry.  Those who recognise Jesus as the saviour of the world recognise the deep irony here.

“Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe him” – ‘The taunt piously promises faith if Jesus will but step down from the cross; but the reader knows that, in the mystery of providence, if Jesus were to step down, there would be no “blood of the covenant for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt 26:26–29), no ransom (Mt 20:28), no salvation from sin (Mt 1:21), no Gospel of the kingdom to be proclaimed to nations everywhere (Mt 28:18–20), and no fulfillment of Scripture.’ (Carson)

Those who demand that God work a miracle in front of their eyes in order to convince them of his own existence share in the cynical unbelief of these mockers.

‘They recognize that Jesus’ claim to be the “Son of God” was at least a claim to messiahship. So assuming that God must crown every effort of Messiah with success, they conclude that Jesus’ hopeless condition is proof enough of the vanity of his pretensions. Again their malice masks the ironic redemptive purposes of God. On the one hand, as Christian readers know, God will indeed vindicate his Son at the Resurrection. On the other hand, the leaders are right: Jesus is now facing his most severe test, the loss of his Father’s presence, leading to the heart-rending cry of the following verses.’ (Carson)

Jesus is rejected by the Jewish leaders, the Jewish crowd, and even the Jewish criminals.  The rejection is complete. (France)

‘The religious authorities (at the top of the Jewish social order) and the dying robbers (at the bottom) join the crowds in functioning as Satan’s mouthpieces. Neither outward piety nor being oppressed necessarily guarantees a heart obedient to God.’ (IVP Commentary)

Jesus’ Death

27:45 Now from noon until three, darkness came over all the land. 27:46 At about three o’clock Jesus shouted with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 27:47 When some of the bystanders heard it, they said, “This man is calling for Elijah.” 27:48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a stick, and gave it to him to drink. 27:49 But the rest said, “Leave him alone! Let’s see if Elijah will come to save him.”
Mt 27:45–56 = Mk 15:33–41; Lk 23:44–49; Jn 19:29–30

This darkness is ‘a sign of judgment and/or tragedy (cf. Am 8:9–10). The judgment is therefore a judgment on the land and its people. But it is also a judgment on Jesus; for out of this darkness comes his cry of desolation. The cosmic blackness hints at the deep judgment that was taking place (Mt 20:28; 26:26–29; Gal 3:13).’ (Carson)

‘“Darkness” in both the OT (Hb hashak) and NT (Gk skotos) is evocative. Light symbolizes God, and darkness evokes everything anti-God: the wicked (Prov 2:13-14; 1 Thess 5:4-7), judgment (Exod 10:21; Matt 25:30), and death (Ps 88:13). Salvation brings light to those in darkness (Isa 9:1; Matt 4:16). The time of God’s ultimate judgment is portrayed as a day of darkness (Joel 2:2; Amos 5:18, 20; Zeph 1:15; Matt 24:29; Rev 6:12-17). While darkness often accompanies the conception of death in Scripture (cf. Job 10:21-22), darkness at the crucifixion scene displays a limitation on the power of Satan (cf. Luke 22:53), God’s displeasure with humanity for crucifying his Son, and most importantly God’s judgment on evil.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

This darkness could not have been due to a solar eclipse, for the Passover was held at full moon.  A ‘natural’ phenomenon such as a dust cloud, or thick cloud cover, is possible.  But Matthew clearly wants us to think of it as more than natural.  See Ex 10:22; Amos 8:9.

More than one commentator aptly suggests that along with the earthquake, this phenomenon was a natural event with a supernatural timing.

‘The third-century writer Julius Africanus cites a first-century Greek historian, Thallus, who referred to the darkness that occurred at the time of the crucifixion ‘ (Blomberg, in DJG)

‘The darkness may recall the three-day plague immediately preceding the sacrifice of the first paschal lamb (Ex 10:21-23), as well as end-time judgment imagery (4 Ezra 7:38-42; Ps-Philo 3:10). By expiring at 3:00 p.m., Jesus died about the official time of the evening lamb offering in the temple.’ (IVP Commentary)

‘An extraordinary light gave intelligence of the birth of Christ (Mt 2:2), and therefore it was proper that an extraordinary darkness should notify his death, for he is the Light of the world.’ (MHC)

The significance of this darkness

‘That which was principally intended in this darkness, was, (1.) Christ’s present conflict with the powers of darkness. Now the prince of this world, and his forces, the rulers of the darkness of this world, were to be cast out, to be spoiled and vanquished; and to make his victory the more illustrious, he fights them on their own ground; gives them all the advantage they could have against him by this darkness, lets them take the wind and sun, and yet baffles them, and so becomes more than a conqueror. (2.) His present want of heavenly comforts. This darkness signified that dark cloud which the human soul of our Lord Jesus was now under. God makes his sun to shine upon the just and upon the unjust; but even the light of the sun was withheld from our Saviour, when he was made sin for us…During the three hours that this darkness continued, we do not find that he said one word, but passed this time in a silent retirement into his own soul, which was now in agony, wrestling with the powers of darkness, and taking in the impressions of his Father’s displeasure, not against himself, but the sin of man, which he was now making his soul an offering for. Never were there three such hours since the day that God created man upon the earth, never such a dark and awful scene; the crisis of that great affair of man’s redemption and salvation.’ (MHC)

“Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – This cry is in Aramaic, and is a quotation from Psalm 22:1.

‘The only recorded prayer of Jesus which does not address God as “Father” is Mk 15:34 (par. Mt 27:46) -“My God, my God, why have you for forsaken me?” But here the words are those of Ps 22:1, and the very sense of forsakenness which they express may well be sufficient explanation of why the more familiar Abba did not come so naturally to Jesus’ lips on that occasion.’ (DJG)

‘Did he merely feel abandoned? No, it was a reality attested by the companion darkness that settled on the scene. The great teacher on prayer now finds prayer unavailing. God cannot look upon sin, and now his Son is bearing the sin of the world in his own person, taking the sinner’s judgment. What a terrifying lofliness! Yet his cry appeals to relationship – not “God” but “my God.”‘ (ISBE)

“My God, my God” – This is the only time in the Synoptics where Jesus is recorded as having addressed God without calling him ‘Father’.

‘What does this psalm quotation signify? It is best to take the words at face value: Jesus is conscious of being abandoned by his Father. For one who knew the intimacy of 11:27, such abandonment must have been agony. If we ask in what ontological sense the Father and the Son are here divided, the answer must be that we do not know because we are not told.’ (Carson)

‘The fact that Jesus can still appeal to “my God” places his sense of abandonment poles apart from a nihilistic despair; this is the “cup” which he has willingly accepted from his Father’s hand (Mt 26:36-46).’ (France)

‘Here Jesus quotes Ps 22:1, which may have been part of the Scripture recitation at this time of day. His opponents do not pause to consider that the psalm ends with the sufferer’s vindication and triumph. (Ps 22:25-31)’ (NT Background Cmt’y)

‘That Jesus utters the complaint of the righteous sufferer (Ps 22:1) suggests that he participated in our ultimate alienation from God in experiencing the pain of death. Yet he would also know that the psalm goes on to declare the psalmist’s triumph, (Ps 22:22-24) and the phrase my God indicates continuing trust.’ (IVP Commentary)

‘Certainly this was his chief conflict, and harder than all the other tortures, that in his anguish he was so far from being soothed by the assistance or favor of his Father, that he felt himself to be in some measure estranged from him. For not only did he offer his body as the price of our reconciliation with God, but. in his soul also he endured the punishments due to us; and thus he became, as Isaiah speaks, a man of sorrows, (Isa 53:3.)’ (Calvin)

We may see, in this cry from the cross

  1. the aloneness of Saviour; he alone can be our sacrifice and sin-bearer
  2. his alienation from his God; the one who was ‘made sin’ is separated from the one who is holy
  3. his abandonment in his hour of suffering; rejected by his own people, deserted by his disciples, forsaken by his God.
  4. the agony he endured while his friends and his God were silent

(Naismith, 1200 Scripture Outlines, adapted)

‘He himself said that this was “the power of darkness,” Lk 22:53. The time when his enemies, including the Jews and Satan, were suffered to do their utmost. It was said of the serpent, that he should bruise the heel of the seed of the woman, Gen 3:15. By that has been commonly understood to be meant, that though the Messiah should finally crush and destroy the power of Satan, yet he should himself suffer through the power of the devil. When he was tempted, Lk 4:1 it was said that the tempter “departed from him for a season.” There is no improbability in supposing that he might be permitted to return at the time of his death, and exercise his power in increasing the sufferings of the Lord Jesus. In what way this might be done, can be only conjectured. It might be by horrid thoughts; by temptation to despair, or to distrust God, who thus permitted his innocent Son to suffer; or by an increased horror of the pains of dying.’ (Barnes)

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

According to 2 Kings 2:1-12, Elijah did not die, but was taken up to heaven in a whirlwind.  Jewish tradition said that he come and help the righteous in their distress. (Carson)

‘They that stood by the Cross, misinterpreting the meaning, and mistaking the opening words for the name Elias, imagined that the Sufferer had called for Elias. We can scarcely doubt, that these were the soldiers who stood by the Cross. They were not necessarily Romans; on the contrary, as we have seen, these Legions were generally recruited from Provincials On the other hand, no Jew would have mistaken for the name of Elijah, not yet misinterpreted a quotation of Ps 22:1 as a call for that prophet. And it must be remembered, that the words were not whispered, but cried with a loud voice. But all entirely accords with the misunderstanding of non-Jewish soldiers, who, as the whole history shows, had learned from His accusers and the infuriated mob snatches of a distorted story of the Christ.’ (Edersheim)

‘Jesus’ prayer on the cross with the opening words of Psalm 22:1, “Eli, Eli” (My God, My God) was either misunderstood or willfully misinterpreted as a petition for help to Elijah (Matt 27:46-49; Mark 15:34-36). Jewish lore identified Elijah as a helper in time of need, and since Elijah did not come, Jesus’ petition was considered a failure.’ (EDBT)

Jesus’ cry of dereliction

At the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?” – which means, “My God, my god, why have you forsaken me? (Mark 15:34; see also Matthew 27:46)

Six hours after he was nailed to his cross, the dying Jesus shouted out these awesome words.  They are quoted from Psalm 22, showing that what Jesus suffered is not without some kind of parallel in the lives of others.

‘This is the hardest of all the hard sayings. It is the last articulate utterance of the crucified Jesus reported by Mark and Matthew; soon afterward, they say, with a loud cry (the content of which is not specified) he breathed his last.’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)

‘The difficulty of accounting for this saying is the strongest argument for its authenticity. Inadequate explanations are that it reflects the intensity of the Lord’s human feeling, that it reveals the disappointment of his hope that in his extremity the Father would usher in the new age, or that he was merely reciting the Psalm as an act of devotion. It can be understood only in the light of the NT doctrine of the atonement, according to which Christ identified himself with sinful man and endured separation from God. (cf. Php 2:8; 2 Cor 5:21) It is a mystery we cannot fathom.’ (NBD)

‘A strange complaint to come from the mouth of our Lord Jesus, who, we are sure, was God’s elect, in whom his soul delighted, (Isa 42:1) and one in whom he was always well pleased. The Father now loved him, nay, he knew that therefore he loved him, because he laid down his life for the sheep; what, and yet forsaken of him, and in the midst of his sufferings too! Surely never sorrow was like unto that sorrow which extorted such a complaint as this from one who, being perfectly free from sin, could never be a terror to himself; but the heart knows its own bitterness. No wonder that such a complaint as this made the earth to quake, and rent the rocks; for it is enough to make both the ears of every one that hears it to tingle, and ought to be spoken of with great reverence.’ (MHC)

Is this a cry of self-pity (“Why me?  What have I done to deserve this?”)?  Or a cry of protest: the innocent crying out against the unjustness of it all, even though he has lived his entire life knowing that he would thus bear the sin of the world (cf. Mk 10:45)?  Or is it the why of incomprehension, as though for a moment he had forgotten the eternal covenant?  Or is it, perhaps, the cry of amazement, as, knowing all along that he would face a violent death (Mk 2:2), he now confronts a horror that he cannot fully have anticipated.

There are several possible ways of understanding this ‘cry of dereliction’ theologically:-

1. As an expression of a crisis of faith: he thought that God’s plan had failed, and his expectation that his Father would uphold him (see Jn 16:32) had been dashed.  Stott responds: ‘Those who thus explain the cry of dereliction can scarcely realise what they are doing.  They are denying the moral perfection of the character of Jesus.  They are saying that he was guilty of unbelief on the cross, as of cowardice in the garden.  They are accusing him of failure, and failure at the moment of his greatest and supremest self-sacrifice.  Christian faith protests against this explanation.

2. As an urgent enquiry.  In this case, the “Why?” may be taken literally.  Alternatively, Grudem (Systematic Theology) understands this cry to mean: “Why have you abandoned me for so long?”  He believes that this is the sense in Psalm 22.  Grudem reasons that Jesus knew that he must suffer, but he didn’t know how long he would suffer for.  This view appears to assume more than the text itself warrants.

2. As an expression of feeling, not of fact.  He experienced ‘the dark night of the soul’.  He has not lost his faith, but he has lost all comfortable feeling.  He cannot, for the moment address God as ‘Father’, but can still call out, ‘My God’.  ‘I have sometimes thought there never was an utterance that reveals more amazingly the distance between feeling and fact’ (Glover).

In any case, it would be wise not to speculate on our Lord’s psychological state at this time.  Hurtado counsels against using this cry of Jesus as a clue to his innermost feelings: ‘Mark’s purpose in giving this statement is to make the allusion to Ps 22:1, so as to portray Jesus as the righteous sufferer who is beset unjustly by his enemies and appeals to God.’

‘It would be wise not to make the utterance a basis for reconstructing the inner feelings which Jesus experienced on the cross. The question “Why?” was asked, but remained unanswered…If it is a hard saying for the reader of the Gospels, it was hardest of all for our Lord himself. The assurances on which men and women of God in Old Testament times rested in faith were not for him. “Many are the afflictions of the righteous, but the Lord delivers him out of them all,” said a psalmist (Ps 34:19 RSV), but for Jesus no deliverance appeared.’ (Hard Sayings of the Bible)

3. As an expression of robust faith: possibly, he recited the whole psalm from the cross, ending with the words, “It is finished (accomplished)!”  So Garland (on Mark).

Or, even if our Lord did not quote the whole of Psa 22 from the cross, it is reasonable to see Jesus as identifying himself with the message of the psalm as a whole, with ‘the righteous sufferer who endures insult and injury but anticipates divine vindication.’ (DJG)

‘Though commentators often speak of Jesus’ cry of abandonment on the cross, Psalm 22 as a whole moves from apparent despair of God’s presence to a hope of vindication. Since Mark when quoting the OT normally refers to the larger context of a particular verse, readers of the Gospel are to hear Jesus’ words as those of the suffering just one who dies with the hope of vindication.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

‘It is not probable (as some have thought) that he repeated the whole psalm; yet hereby he intimated that the whole was to be applied to him, and that David, in spirit, there spoke of his humiliation and exaltation. This, and that other word, Into thy hands I commit my spirit, he fetched from David’s psalms (though he could have expressed himself in his own words), to teach us of what use the word of God is to us, to direct us in prayer, and to recommend to us the use of scripture-expressions in prayer, which will help our infirmities.’ (MHC)

This view would be supported by the several occasions when Jesus did express utmost confidence in his ultimate vindication – Mk 8:31; 9:31; 10:34; Jn 2:19.  Also in support of this view is the fact that entire psalms were identified simply from their opening sentences; but there is no indication that this ever happens in Matthew’s Gospel or in Jesus’ teaching.  The fact is that we do not know that Jesus uttered any more than the first verse of the psalm at this time.  As Morris points out, ‘the evangelists do not give the impression that they are recording a pious meditation.’  And Stott asks that if Jesus had quoted from the Psalm’s first verse while actually alluding to its last verse, ‘would anybody have understood his purpose?’

4. As an expression of real abandonment: sin separates us from God, and he experiences that separation as he bears our sins in his person.  Vincent Taylor (cited by Morris) declares that ‘it appears to be an inescapable inference that Jesus so closely identified himself with sinners, and experienced the horror of sin to such a degree, that for a time the closeness of his communion with the Father was broken, so that his face was obscured.’  Cranfield: ‘The burden of the world’s sin, his complete self-identification with sinners, involved not merely a felt, but a real, abandonment by his Father.’

‘Did he merely feel abandoned? No, it was a reality attested by the companion darkness that settled on the scene. The great teacher on prayer now finds prayer unavailing. God cannot look upon sin, and now his Son is bearing the sin of the world in his own person, taking the sinner’s judgment. What a terrifying loneliness! Yet his cry appeals to relationship – not “God” but “my God.”‘ (ISBE)

Stott: ‘So then an actual and dreadful separation took place between the Father and the Son; it was voluntarily accepted by both the Father and the Son; it was due to our sins and their just reward; and Jesus expressed this horror of great darkness, this God-forsakenness, by quoting the only verse of Scripture which accurately described it, and which he had perfectly fulfilled, namely, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”’

‘The only recorded prayer of Jesus which does not address God as “Father” is Mk 15:34 (par. Mt 27:46) -“My God, my God, why have you for forsaken me?” But here the words are those of Ps 22:1, and the very sense of forsakenness which they express may well be sufficient explanation of why the more familiar Abba did not come so naturally to Jesus’ lips on that occasion.’ (DJG)

Some have objected that this would introduce a novel element into the accounts of Matthew and Mark: they have Jesus predicting his sufferings at the hands of cruel men, but not any anticipation of abandonment by God.  But this objection is not conclusive.  Neither is the objection that this interpretation is ‘inconsistent with the love of God and the oneness of purpose with the Father manifest in the atoning ministry of Jesus’ (Taylor, cited by Garland).  To be sure, we must give full weight to those scriptures that teach that ‘God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.’  But we must also recognise those that teach that in a very real sense the suffering of Christ (spiritual as well as physical) was caused by his heavenly Father.

We have a number of indications in the Gospels that Jesus’ experience was something that was ‘no ordinary perturbation’ (Morris): his extreme distress in the Garden of Gethsemane (Mk 14:33), his reference to drinking the ‘cup’, Mt 20:22f; 26:39; Mk 10:38f; 14:36 (suggestive of God’s wrath), the supernatural darkness that fell over the land.  Many have pointed out how cheerfully Jesus’ followers so often face martyrdom.  Jesus was no coward, and cannot have been afraid of leaving this life (Morris).  It was not death, but this particular death, that he feared so much.

There was, then, an element of uniqueness to his agony, for no-one else could occupy the place that he occupied as the world’s sin-bearer.  His was an unspeakable torment; he could find no words within himself to express it, and he had to appropriate the words of the psalmist in order to do so.

If we accept Isa 53 as predictive of the cross, then we note the solemn statement that ‘it was the will of the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief’.  And if we take seriously the apostolic witness to Jesus death, then we must accept that God did not simply ‘give’ Jesus, but ‘gave him up for us all’, that Jesus ‘bore our sins’ (1 Pet 2:24), that ‘God made him sin’ (2 Cor 5:21), and he became a ‘curse’ for us (Gal 3:13).  Perhaps this experience forms the essence of his ‘descent into hell’ (so Cranfield, cited by Morris).

MacLeod notes that for once, his address was not to ‘Abba’ (as it was even in Gethsemane, Mk 14:36), but ‘my God’.  He stood in the relation not of a son, but of a sinner.  He was numbered with the transgressors.  He was sin (1 Cor 5:21).  He was condemned to bear sin’s curse.  No-one could deliver him; God would not spare him.  God was forsaken by God.

His sense of divine sonship was restored later, as he prayed, “Father, forgive them.”  But, for a moment, he experiences utter abandonment.  His beloved Father, with whom he has enjoyed unbroken fellowship since before time began, is out of reach.  He is acknowledged as ‘God’, but not known as ‘Abba’.  There is no sense of divine love, and no sense of divine approval.  He cries out, but there is no answer.  He is in trouble, but no help is at hand.  No comforting scriptures are brought to mind, no reassuring voice from heaven is heard (as at other times of crisis – see Mk 1:11; 9:7), no strengthening angel, no promise of ultimate victory, no vision of a future redeemed multitude.

MacLoed: ‘He hears only the derision of the spectators, the curses of the soldiers and the whispers of the Prince of Darkness.  He is on his own.’

And again: ‘Never before had anything come between him and his Father, but now the sin of the whole world has come between them, and he is caught in this dreadful vortex of the curse. It is not that Abba is not there, but that he is there, as the Judge of all the earth who could condone nothing and could not spare even his own Son (Romans 8:32).’

‘The sense of being abandoned by God must have caused unfathomable pain to him whose whole life had been supported by the experience of the presence of God.’ (Goguel, cited by Morris)

Morris connects this with the incarnation.  Although we may not speculate on some kind of intra-Trinitarian disruption, nevertheless ‘the incarnation means something. It means among other things that it became possible for Christ to die.  And if it became possible for him to die it became possible for him to die the most bitter of deaths, the death of God-forsakenness.’

What does this forsakenness mean?  Negatively, it cannot mean that the eternal communion between Father, Son and Holy Spirit was broken.  God did not cease to be triune.  Nor could it mean that the Father ceased to love his Son – especially now that Jesus was demonstrating the ultimate sacrificial obedience.  Nor yet could it mean that the Holy Spirit had ceased to minister to Jesus: it was by that very Spirit that Jesus offered himself to God (Heb 9:14).  Again: it does not mean that Jesus was in despair: from the depths of his loneliness and pain, he still calls out to “My God”; he still retains a sense that God is holding him.

Calvin says: ‘Now some would have it that he was expressing the opinion of others rather than his own feeling. This is not at all probable, for his words clearly were drawn forth from anguish deep within his heart. b(a)Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him. How could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom his heart reposed” [cf. Matt. 3:17]? How could Christ by his intercession appease the Father toward others, if he were himself hateful to God? This is what we are saying: he bore the weight of divine severity, since he was “stricken and afflicted” [cf. Isa. 53:5] by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God.’ (Institutes, 2.16.11)

Matthew Henry notes:-

1. That our Lord Jesus was, in his sufferings, for a time, forsaken by his Father. So he saith himself, who we are sure was under no mistake concerning his own case. Not that the union between the divine and human nature was in the least weakened or shocked; no, he was now by the eternal Spirit offering himself: nor as if there were any abatement of his Father’s love to him, or his to his Father; we are sure that there was upon his mind no horror of God, or despair of his favour, nor any thing of the torments of hell; but his Father forsook him; that is, First, he delivered him up into the hands of his enemies, and did not appear to deliver him out of their hands. He let loose the powers of darkness against him, and suffered them to do their worst, worse than against Job. Now was that scripture fulfilled, (Job 16:11) God hath turned me over into the hands of the wicked; and no angel is sent from heaven to deliver him, no friend on earth raised up to appear for him. Secondly, he withdrew from him the present comfortable sense of his complacency in him. When his soul was first troubled, he had a voice from heaven to comfort him; (Jn 12:27,28) when he was in his agony in the garden, there appeared an angel from heaven strengthening him; but now he had neither the one nor the other. God hid his face from him, and for awhile withdrew his rod and staff in the darksome valley. God forsook him, not as he forsook Saul, leaving him to an endless despair, but as sometimes he forsook David, leaving him to a present despondency. Thirdly, he let out upon his soul an afflicting sense of his wrath against man for sin. Christ was made Sin for us, a Curse for us; and therefore, though God loved him as a Son, he frowned upon him as a Surety. These impressions he was pleased to admit, and to waive that resistance of them which he could have made; because he would accommodate himself to this part of his undertaking, as he had done to all the rest, when it was in his power to have avoided it.

2. That Christ’s being forsaken of his Father was the most grievous of his sufferings, and that which he complained most of. Here he laid the most doleful accents; he did not say, “Why am I scourged? And why spit upon? And why nailed to the cross?” Nor did he say to his disciples, when they turned their back upon him, Why have ye forsaken me? But when his Father stood at a distance, he cried out thus; for this as it that put wormwood and gall into the affliction and misery. This brought the waters into the soul, Ps 69:1-3.

3. That our Lord Jesus, even when he was thus forsaken of his Father, kept hold of him as his God, notwithstanding; my God, my God; though forsaking me, yet mine. Christ was God’s servant in carrying on the work of redemption, to him he was to make satisfaction, and by him to be carried through and crowned, and upon that account he calls him his God; for he was now doing his will. See Isa 49:5-9. This supported him, and bore him up, that even in the depth of his sufferings God was his God, and this he resolves to keep fast hold of.’

‘No further entry of the Supreme God into the tangle and bewilderment of finitude can be conceived.  All that we can suffer of physical or mental anguish is within the divine experience; he has know it all himself.  He does not leave this world to suffer while he remains at ease apart; all the suffering of the world is him’ (Temple, cited by Morris).

‘But then, suddenly, it is over. The sacrifice is complete, the curtain torn, and the way into the Holiest opened once and for all; and now Jesus’s joy finds expression in the words of another psalm, Psalm 31:5. In the original, it had not contained the word Abba, but Jesus inserts it: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (Luke 23:46).  We have no means of knowing what intervened between the two cries. We know only that the Cup is drained and the curse exhausted, and that the Father now proudly holds out his hands to the spirit of his Beloved Son.’ (MacLeod)

Donald MacLeod, Christ Crucified (pp47-49), and also this article.

Leon Morris, The Cross in the New Testament

John Stott, The Cross of Christ

Flavel on Jesus’ cry of dereliction

‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ (Matthew 27:46)

Here, says John Flavel, ‘are words that might rend the hardest heart.’

The manner of the complaint

Note what our Lord complains of. ‘It is not of the cruel tortures he felt in his body, nor of the scoffs and reproaches of his name; he mentions not a word of these, they were all swallowed up in the sufferings within, as the river is swallowed up in the sea, or the lesser flame in the greater.’

What this desertion means

‘Divine desertion generally considered, is God’s withdrawing himself from any, not as to his essence, that fills heaven and earth, and constantly remains the same; but it is the withdrawment of his favour, grace, and love: when these are gone, God is said to be gone. And this is done two ways, either absolutely, and wholly, or respectively, and only as to manifestation. In the first sense, devils are forsaken of God. They once were in his favour and love, but they have utterly and finally lost it. God is so withdrawn from them, as that he will never take them into favour any more. In the other sense he sometimes forsakes his dearest children, i.e. he removes all sweet manifestations of his favour and love for a time.’

Flavel notes how extreme this desertion was. No one else ever has, or ever will, experience anything quite like it. Christ’s other sufferings caused pain to his body, but this brought agony to his soul; they came from the hands of men, this from the hands of his Father. Under all his other sufferings he opened not his mouth, but this caused him to cry out in distress. Moreover, it took place at Christ’s time of greatest need.

The nature of this desertion

It was:-

(a) extreme, such that it was the worst of all his sufferings;

(b) penal, inflicted on him as the punishment that was due to us, for our sins;

(c) real, not imagined;

(d) at the time of his greatest need;

(e) such as left him only the support of his Father’s covenant and promise.

Its purposes

(a) ‘satisfaction for those sins of ours which deserved that we should be totally and everlastingly forsaken of God. This is the desert of every sin, and the damned do feel it, and shall to all eternity: God is gone from them for ever, not essentially; the just God is with them still, the God of power is still with them, the avenging God is ever with them; but the merciful God is gone, and gone for ever;’ and

(b) sanctification, ‘For he having been forsaken before us, and for us, whenever God forsakes us, that very forsaking of his is sanctified, and thereby turned into a mercy to believers. Hence are all the precious fruits and effects of our desertions:such are the earnest excitations of the soul to prayer, Ps 78:2: Ps 88:1-9. Fortifying the tempted soul against sin; reviving ancient experiences, Ps 77:5. Enhancing the value of the divine presence with the soul, and teaching it to hold Christ faster than ever before.’

Inferences

1. ‘Did God forsake Christ upon the cross as a punishment to him for our sins? Then it follows, That as often as we have sinned, so oft have we deserved to be forsaken of God. This is the just recompence and demerit of sin. And, indeed, here lies the principal evil of sin, that it separates betwixt God and the soul. This separation is both the moral evil that is in it, and the penal evil inflicted by the righteous God for it. By sin we depart from God, and, as a due punishment of it, God departs from us. This will be the dismal sentence in the last day, Mt 25:41, “Depart from me, ye cursed.” Thenceforth there will be a gulf fixed betwixt God and them, Lk 19:20. No more friendly intercourses with the blessed God for ever…Beware, sinners, how you say to God now, Depart from us, we desire not the knowledge of thy ways, lest he say, Depart from me, you shall never see my face.’

2. ‘Did Christ never make such a sad complaint and outcry, till God hid his face from him? Then the hiding of God’s face is certainly the greatest misery that can possibly befall a gracious soul in this world. When they scourged, buffeted, and smote Christ, yea, when they nailed him to the tree, he opened not his mouth; but when his father hid his face from him, then he cried out; yea, his voice was the voice of roaring:this was more to him than a thousand crucifyings.’

3. ‘Did God really forsake Jesus Christ upon the cross? Then Christ’s desertion is preventive of your final desertion and a comfortable pattern to you in your present sad desertions. Because he was forsaken for a time, you shall not be forsaken for ever.’

And Christ’s desertion is a pattern for us:-

(a) Though God deserted Christ, yet at the same time he powerfully supported him: his Father’s omnipotent arms were under him, though his smiling face was hid from him. So shall it be with us.

(b) Though God deserted Christ, yet Christ did not desert God. God goes from our soul, yet our soul seeks after God, complaining of his absence as the greatest evil in this world.

(c) Though God deserted Christ, yet he returned to him again. So we may know that this cloud will pass away; this night shall have a bright morning.

(d) Though God forsook Christ, yet at that time he could justify God. Christ did not dispute that his Father was a holy, faithful, and good God. So I may know that there is not one drop of injustice in all the sea of my sorrows. Though he condemn me, I must and will pronounce him just.

(e) Though God took from Christ all visible and sensible comfort, inward as well as outward, yet Christ subsisted by faith, in the absence of them all. He still owns God to be his God.

(f) Christ was deserted a little before the glorious morning of light and joy dawned upon him.

4. ‘Did God forsake his own Son upon the cross; Then the dearest of God’s people may, for a time, be forsaken of their God.’

(a) Then, ‘exercise the faith of adherence, when you have lost the faith of evidence. When God takes away that, he leaves this: that is necessary to the comfort, this to the life of his people. It is sweet to live in views of your interest, but if they be gone, believe and rely on God, for an interest. Stay yourselves on your God when you have no light, Isa 50:10. Drop this anchor in the dark, and do not reckon all gone when evidence is gone:never reckon yourselves undone whilst you can adhere to your God.’

(b) Again, ‘Take the right method to recover the sweet light which you have sinned away from your souls.’  ‘Search diligently after the cause of God’s withdrawment: urge him hard, by prayer, to tell thee wherefore he contends with thee, Job 10:2. Say, Lord, what have I done that so offends thy Spirit? What evil is it which thou so rebukest? I beseech thee shew me the cause of thine anger:have I grieved thy Spirit in this thing, or in that? Was it my neglect of duty, or my formality in duties? Was I not thankful for the sense of thy love, when it was shed abroad in my heart? O Lord, why is it thus with me?’

(c) And again, ‘Humble your souls before the Lord for every evil you shall be convinced of:tell him, it pierces your heart, that you have so displeased him, and that it shall be a caution to you, whilst you live, never to return again to folly:invite him again to your souls, and mourn after the Lord till you have found him:If you seek him, he will be found of you, 2Ch 15:2.’

The Fountain of Life

Why deserted by his Father?

‘He did not complain of his disciples’ forsaking him, but of his Father’s,

1. Because this wounded his spirit; and that is a thing hard to bear; (Pr 18:14) brought the waters into his soul, Ps 69:1-3.

2. Because in this especially he was made sin for us; our iniquities had deserved indignation and wrath upon the soul, (Rom 2:8) and therefore, Christ, being made a sacrifice, underwent as much of it as he was capable of; and it could not but bear hard indeed upon him who had lain in the bosom of the Father from eternity, and was always his light. These symptoms of divine wrath, which Christ was under in his sufferings, were like that fire from heaven which had been sent sometimes, in extraordinary cases, to consume the sacrifices; (as Lev 9:24; 2 Chron 7:1; 1 Kings 18:38) and it was always a token of God’s acceptance. The fire that should have fallen upon the sinner, if God had not been pacified, fell upon the sacrifice, as a token that he was so; therefore it now fell upon Christ, and extorted him from this loud and bitter cry. When Paul was to be offered as a sacrifice for the service of saints, he could joy and rejoice; (Php 2:17) but it is another thing to be offered as a sacrifice for the sin of sinners. Now, at the sixth hour, and so to the ninth, the sun was darkened by an extraordinary eclipse; and if it be true, as some astronomers compute, that in the evening of this day on which Christ died there was an eclipse of the moon, that was natural and expected, in which seven digits of the moon were darkened, and it continued from five o’clock till seven, it is remarkable, and yet further significant of the darkness of the time that then was. When the sun shall be darkened, the moon also shall not give her light.’ (MHC)

‘There are moments in our experience, too, when we wonder whether we can cope. But in the goodness of God’s grace the experiences we dread are seldom as awful in the moment of experience as they are in expectation and contemplation. For Christ the opposite was the case. In the Garden his perception of the agony was limited. No human imagination was really able to grasp what it was going to mean to be the Sin of the world in the presence of God. And Gethsemane, awesome though it was, was only a pale shadow of Calvary. On Calvary, Christ moved into unmitigated physical pain and into total social isolation. He experienced all that Hell could do by way of darkness and onslaught and temptation. Above all, he experienced the agony of being forsaken by God his Father and becoming, as the Bearer of the world’s sin, the Great Outsider. There is a sense in which no being was less prepared and less apt for the dereliction than God’s own Son. The very closeness and perfection of the bond between him and his Father made the desolation more excruciating. He had never known in the remotest degree what the loss of God was. In the story of Abraham and Isaac there is a striking emphasis on the fact that father and son went up to Mount Moriah ‘both of them together’. (Ge 22:6) That was the way it was with God the Son and God the Father. As they went up to Calvary they went ‘both of them together’. This is why Jesus could say, ‘I am not alone, because the Father is with me’. (Jn 16:32) Yet in the moment of the Son’s greatest need and greatest pain, God is not there. The Son cries and is not heard. The familiar resource, the ultimate resource, the only resource, is not there. The God who was always there, the God who was needed now as he had never been needed before, was nowhere to be seen. There was no answer to the Son’s cry. There was no comfort. Jesus was left God-less, with no perception of his own Sonship, unable for the one and only time in his life to say, ‘Abba, Father.’ He was left with no sense of God’s love and no sense of the operation of God’s purpose. There was nothing but that ‘Why?’, trying vainly to bridge the Darkness. fie was sin. He was lawlessness, and as such he was banished to the Black Hole where lawlessness belongs and from which no sound can escape but, ‘Why?’ That was the Son’s only word in his final agony as he reached out to the God whom he needed so desperately but whom as Sin he couldn’t discern and from whose presence he was outcast. There could be no accord. ‘God his Son not sparing’! He had to be dealt with not as Son but as Sin.

This was not only a moment in the experience of the Son. It was a moment, too, in the experience of God the Father. There was a loss in the Father corresponding to the loss in the Son. We are on the outer parameters of revelation here, but we have to accept the New Testament’s constant emphasis that the cost of our redemption was borne not only by God the Son but by God the Father (see, for example, Jn 3:16 and Rom 8:32); and that carries with it the fact that the divine compassion is never simply the compassion of the Son but equally the compassion of the Father.

The impression is often given that the evangelical understanding of the cross, our doctrine of the atonement, somehow increases the pain of the Saviour. But it is not a theory that constitutes the pain of Christ. The pain was in the facts: that on the cross he suffered in body, suffered in soul, suffered from Heaven and from earth and from Hell. The fact is, Christ died. The fact is, he paid the wages of sin. The fact is, he was dealt with as sin deserved.’ (McLeod, A Faith To Live By)

27:50 Then Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.

Jesus…cried out again in a loud voice – ‘Both Matthew (Matt 27:50) and Luke (Lk 23:46) tell of it. John does not mention the shout but he tells us that Jesus died having said, “It is finished.” (Jn 19:30.) In the original that would be one word; and that one word was the great shout. “Finished!” Jesus died with the cry of triumph on his lips, his task accomplished, his work completed, his victory won. After the terrible dark there came the light again, and he went home to God a victor triumphant.’ (DSB)

He gave up his spirit – Muslims, following the Koran (Sura 4:156-158) do not believe that Jesus died on the cross.  Most believe that another took his place (possibly Joseph of Arimathea).  But the NT witness is absolutely clear that he was crucified, died, and was buried.

27:51 Just then the temple curtain was torn in two, from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks were split apart. 27:52 And tombs were opened, and the bodies of many saints who had died were raised. 27:53 (They came out of the tombs after his resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people.)

The curtain of the temple was torn in two – Symbolic of the new access to God which has been opened up by the death of Jesus.  The temple ritual is now obsolete, Heb 9:1-14.  The tearing of the curtain may also be predictive of the impending destruction of the temple.

The tearing of the curtain of the temple is usually thought to symbolise a new access to God, a way opened into the Holy of Holies.  An alternative interpretation would regard it as symbolising God’s abandoning of the temple (as also prefigured in Jesus’ cleansing of the temple).

From top to bottom – perhaps indicating that God was acting from heaven.

The significance of the tearing of the curtain
‘In this, as in others of Christ’s miracles, there was a mystery.

(1.) It was in correspondence with the temple of Christ’s body, which was now in the dissolving. This was the true temple, in which dwelt the fulness of the Godhead; when Christ cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost, and so dissolved that temple, the literal temple did, as it were, echo to that cry, and answer the stroke, by rending its veil. Note, Death is the rending of the veil of flesh which interposes between us and the holy of holies; the death of Christ was so, the death of true Christians is so.
(2.) It signified the revealing and unfolding of the mysteries of the Old Testament. The veil of the temple was for concealment, as was that on the face of Moses, therefore it was called the veil of the covering; for it was highly penal for any person to see the furniture of the most holy place, except the High-Priest, and he but once a year, with great ceremony and through a cloud of smoke; all which signified the darkness of that dispensation; 2 Co. 3:13. But now, at the death of Christ, all was laid open, the mysteries were unveiled, so that now he that runs may read the meaning of them. Now we see that the mercy-seat signified Christ the great Propitiation; the pot of manna signified Christ the Break of life. Thus we all with open face behold, as in a glass (which helps the sight, as the veil hindered it), the glory of the Lord. Our eyes see the salvation.
(3.) It signified the uniting of Jew and Gentile, by the removing of the partition wall between them, which was the ceremonial law, by which the Jews were distinguished from all other people (as a garden enclosed), were brought near to God, while others were made to keep their distance. Christ, in his death, repealed the ceremonial law, cancelled that hand-writing of ordinances, took it out of the way, nailed it to his cross, and so broke down the middle wall of partition; and by abolishing those institutions abolished the enmity, and made in himself of twain one new man (as two rooms are made one, and that large and lightsome, by taking down the partition), so making peace, Eph. 2:14-16. Christ died, to rend all dividing veils, and to make all his one, Jn. 17:21.
(4.) It signified the consecrating and laying open of a new and living way to God. The veil kept people off from drawing near to the most holy place, where the Shechinah was. But the rending of it signified that Christ by his death opened a way to God,

[1.] For himself. This was the great day of atonement, when our Lord Jesus, as the great High-Priest, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, entered once for all into the holy place; in token of which the veil was rent, Heb. 9:7, etc. Having offered his sacrifice in the outer court, the blood of it was now to be sprinkled upon the mercy-seat within the veil; wherefore lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; for the King of glory, the Priest of glory, shall come in. Now was he caused to draw near, and made to approach, Jer. 30:21. Though he did not personally ascend into the holy place not made with hands till above forty days after, yet he immediately acquired a right to enter, and had a virtual admission.

[2.] For us in him: so the apostle applies it, Heb. 10:19, 20. We have boldness to enter into the holiest, by that new and living way which he has consecrated for us through the veil. He died, to bring us to God, and, in order thereunto, to rend that veil of guilt and wrath which interposed between us and him, to take away the cherubim and flaming sword, and to open the way to the tree of life. We have free access through Christ to the throne of grace, or mercy-seat, now, and to the throne of glory hereafter, Heb. 4:16; 6:20. The rending of the veil signified (as that ancient hymn excellently expresses it), that, when Christ had overcome the sharpness of death, he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Nothing can obstruct or discourage our access to heaven, for the veil is rent; a door is opened in heaven, Rev. 4:1.’ (MHC)

‘Christ’s death was accompanied by at least four miraculous events: early darkness (27:45), the tearing in two of the curtain in the temple, a timely earthquake (the earth shook and the rocks split), and dead people rising from their tombs (27:52). Jesus’ death, therefore, could not have gone unnoticed. Everyone knew that something significant had happened. The curtain splitting in two must have devastated the priests who were undoubtedly working in the temple during this busy Passover week.’ (Life Application)

The earth shook and the rocks split – The cause of both the tearing of the curtain and of the opening of the tombs.

On the Historicity of Mt 27:52f
Did the remarkable events recorded in Mt 27:53 actually happen?  So-called ‘mainstream’ critical scholarship regards it as ‘legendary’.  According to Harper’s Bible Commentary, for example, ‘One wonders what the resurrected saints were doing between Good Friday and Easter. The story flatly contradicts Paul’s teaching that other resurrections will occur only at the Parousia (1 Cor. 15:23)…This legend was evidently designed to stress the fact that the resurrection is essentially a corporate event and that the resurrection of Jesus is the cause of all other resurrections, since his resurrection was the victory over death. It cannot be stressed too strongly that this legend is peculiar to Matthew and that it should be ignored in any attempt to reconstruct what happened on Good Friday.

Some of the difficulties are outlined by in the Holman Apologetics Commentary: ‘If the tombs of many saints opened at the time of Jesus’ death on Friday and the bodies were at that time raised from the dead, why did they wait until after Jesus’ Sunday resurrection to emerge from the tombs? What did they do in the meantime? Did they grow hungry? Did they receive glorified human bodies or simply revived human bodies? If they had been dead a year or more, their bones would likely have been transferred to an ossuary box, leaving them with no grave clothes. If so, what did they do for clothing when they emerged and went into Jerusalem? And why do no historical records mention the social upheaval that would have certainly occurred if many resurrected people arrived in Jerusalem? Jesus would have been just one among many returning from the dead. Surely it would have been one of the most noteworthy events in history. Given these difficult questions, are the elements of this account best understood as legend or a literary device Matthew used to portray the significance of Jesus’ death?’

Even conservative teachers tend to express doubts.  Michael Green, for example, says,

A straightforward historical reading of these verses is hard to contemplate.  Who were these people?  Were they resurrectioned or resuscitated?  Why did they go into the holy city?  What happened to them subsequently.  Indeed, what happens to the priority of Jesus’ resurrection?  And if they appeared to many people (53), why is there no reference to this event elsewhere, either inside or outside the New Testament?  (The Message of Matthew, BST)

Hagner (WBC) raises a similar raft of questions:-

For example, there is the question of the nature of the bodies of the resurrected saints. Do these saints have what may be called new-order resurrection bodies, i.e., permanent bodies not subject to decay, or are they resuscitated bodies (like that of Lazarus) that later died again? (Could they have new-order resurrection bodies before Jesus, “the first-fruits of the dead” [1 Cor 15:20], did?) Related to this is the further question about what happened to these saints after they made their appearance in Jerusalem. (Were they raptured to heaven and, if so, when? Did they remain on the earth and, if so, where?) Furthermore, why is such a spectacular event “seen by many”—surely of great apologetic significance—referred to only here in the NT and not at all outside the NT? A further question concerns the basis on which this number of saints and these particular saints, and no others, were raised from the dead (was it arbitrary or do unknown criteria come into play?).

Licona suggests that Matthew has used a ‘poetic device’ to underscore the meaning and significance of the momentous events surrounding Jesus’ death and resurrection.  He cites, as a partial parallel, the quotation of Joel 2:28-32 in Acts 2:15-21, even though there was not, on the day of Pentecost, any of the sweeping cosmic events spoken of by the prophet.

But none of these considerations count decisively against the historicity of this account.  They simply indicate that we have some unanswered (and probably unanswerable) questions about it.  Nor does it account against the historicity of these events that they have symbolic and theological significance.

Hagner notes that many commentators sidestep the historical question altogether.  Those who do raise it

can be found to use terms such as “puzzling,” “strange,” “mysterious.” Stalwart commentators known for their conservatism are given to hesitance here: A. B. Bruce: “We seem here to be in the region of Christian legend” (The Expositor’s Greek Testament, ed. W. R. Nicoll [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1897] 332); A. Plummer: “a tradition with a legendary element in it” (402); W.Grundmann: “mythic-legendary” (562).

Craig Evans thinks that this account is a late gloss: ‘I do not think the tradition in Matthew 27:51b–53…has any claim to authenticity. This legendary embellishment, which may actually be a late-first- or early-second-century scribal gloss, is an attempt to justify the Easter appearances of Jesus as resurrection, in the sense that Jesus and several other saints were the “first fruits” of the general resurrection. This is, of course, exactly how Paul explains the anomaly (see 1 Cor. 15:23).’

Evans elsewhere suggests that the story might be an attempt to offer an answer to Jesus’ promise in Matthew 16:18 when he said, “I also say to you that you are Peter, and upon this rock I will build My church; and the gates of Hades will not overpower it.” 2) is cited explicitly or implicitly by any church father till after the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D. 3) is sequentially awkward as how can Jesus be the first fruits if they are already raised; 4) The position that the Akhmim Gospel fragment, which Evans dates in the second century, might allude to Matthew when it says in the  gospel of Peter 41 “have preached to  them that sleep” is a stretch so that information for the gospel of Peter did not come from Matthew but from somewhere else.’

Some express agnosticism on this matter.  Writing in the NBC, France comments: ‘There is no other record of this remarkable occurrence, and Matthew does not give enough detail for us to know exactly what he thought happened. For instance, why the delay between the raising of the bodies and their appearance in Jerusalem; and what happened to them afterwards? The symbolism is fairly clear, but we do not have the resources to determine the status of the story as sober history.’  In his Tyndale commentary on Matthew, France says, ‘its character as ‘sober history’ (i.e. what a cinecamera might have recorded) can only be, in the absence of corroborative evidence, a matter of faith, not of objective demonstration. It was, in any case, a unique occurrence and is not to be judged by the canons of ‘normal’ experience.’

Leon Morris says: ‘Nobody else mentions this, and we are left to conclude that Matthew is making the point that the resurrection of Jesus brought about the resurrection of his people. Just as the rending of the temple curtain makes it clear that the way to God is open for all, so the raising of the saints shows that death has been conquered. Those so raised went into Jerusalem and appeared to many. Since there are no other records of these appearances, it appears to be impossible to say anything about them. But Matthew is surely giving expression to his conviction that Jesus is Lord over both the living and the dead.

Blomberg is similarly non-committal, saying that ‘all kinds of historical questions remain unanswered about both events.’

So also Wright (The Resurrection of the Son of God), who, at the end of his discussion of this passage, concludes: ‘It is better to remain puzzled than to settle for either a difficult argument for probable historicity or a cheap and cheerful rationalistic dismissal of the possibility. Some stories are so odd that they may just have happened. This may be one of them, but in historical terms there is no way of finding out.’

Boice, who accepts the historicity of the account, points out the following as some of the unanswered historical questions: ‘We do not know whether these saints had died long ago or only recently. We do not know how long they remained alive. Was this a permanent resurrection? If it was, what happened to them? Were they transported to heaven, like Elijah? Or did they die again? We do not even know whom they went into Jerusalem to see or why they went or what they said to those they saw.’

Hagner argues that the event makes little ‘historical’ sense, even though it makes good ‘theological’ sense.  He thinks it likely that a historical core of events, such as the darkness and the earthquake, have prompted a degree of ‘elaboration’ as the account has been passed down.  What we end up with is ‘a piece of theology set forth as history’.

By the inclusion of this material Matthew wanted to draw out the theological significance of the death (and resurrection) of Jesus. That significance is found in the establishing of the basis of the future resurrection of the saints. We may thus regard the passage as a piece of realized and historicized apocalyptic depending on OT motifs found in such passages as Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2; and especially Ezek 37:12–14…Ezek 37:12–14 is apposite: “Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord GOD: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people … And you shall know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves, and bring you out of your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live … ”

In his 2010 book, The Resurrection of Jesus: A New Historiographical Approach, Michael Licona has taken a similar view: “It seems best to regard this difficult text in Matthew a poetic device added to communicate that the Son of God had died and that impending judgment awaited Israel.”  (Despite his robust defence of Jesus’ resurrection, reaction to his exposition of this passage forced his resignation from his teaching post at Southern Evangelical Seminary.  I regard the way he was treated as scandalous, and symptomatic of what I have called ‘the heresy of inrrancy’.)

Further study and reflection have caused Licona now to regard a historical approach as at least as plausible as a symbolic approach.  In this article, he suggests that the main arguments in favour of understanding this account as historical are (a) the near-unanimous view of the Church fathers; and (b) this account appears in the context of other details that clearly historical – such as the crucifixion itself.  To my mind, the first of these argument carries little weight.  With regard to the second argument, however, Licona notes that just three chapters earlier Matthew records Jesus as speaking about certain future cosmic events, adding that most scholars view these as apocalyptic symbolism.

Noting such questions as are raised by Green and Hagner, Tidball (The Message of the Cross) comments:-

No matter how much we wish to interrogate the text, it will yield nothing to satisfy our rationalism or our scepticism.  Using the imagery of Ezekiel, who prophesied that the Sovereign Lord would open graves and resurrect people to life in the valley of dry bones, Matthew is content to let the event stand unadorned because its symbolic meaning is clear.  The raising of these holy ones is a foretaste of the resurrection to which all believers can look forward.  Through the death of Jesus a new day has arrived, a day when death has been defeated by death and resurrection to life eternal has been made possible.

This happening points to the future more than any other.  It is the bridge to the good news of the resurrection of Jesus, as well as heralding the new age which will one day climax in the resurrection to life of all believers in Christ.  The cross of Christ was an apocalyptic event.  The future has already arrived.  Or, in R.T. France’s more measured words, “In his coming a new has dawned; nothing will ever be quite the same again.”

One of the gravest objections to this passage is that it seems to teach that Jesus’ resurrection was not the only resurrection, or even the first.  It is to be noted, however, that this objection would still apply even if the event was understood symbolically, rather than historically.  Carson (EBC) thinks that a full stop should be inserted after ‘broke open’, so that what follows is a parentheses in the narrative. The passage would then read something like: ‘The tombs were also opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and they came out of the tombs after His resurrection, entered the holy city, and appeared to many.’  The resurrection of the ‘holy people’ is then to be linked with that of Jesus himself, with the implication that they were raised at the same time as Jesus was.  We are then to believe that the resurrection of the OT saints is as dependent on the resurrection of Christ as the resurrection of NT believers.

The Apologetics Study Bible notes: ‘That they “appeared to many” indicates that Matthew’s intention in this report was historical, for the detail is irrelevant if his intention was merely symbolic.’

It has been suggested that the very oddness of the account should lead Christians to rejoice in it, for it subverts the idea that Christianity is merely a system of good works, and affirms that Jesus’ death and resurrection bring new life.

See David Wenham’s discussion in Tyndale Bulletin 24 (1973), pages 42-46.

v52f – A belief in bodily resurrection had developed from Isa 26:19; Dan 12:2; Eze 37:1-14. According to Jn 5:25-29, Jesus taught that the time was coming, and had already arrived, when this hope would be fulfilled through him. It is not clear, from v53, whether the phrase ‘after Jesus’ resurrection’ described when they ‘came out of the tombs’, or when they ‘went into the holy city’. The former is more likely (France). We have here an indication that our own resurrection is bound up with and guaranteed by, Jesus’ resurrection, cf. 1 Cor 15:20ff.

It may be that Matthew is not following strict chronological order here, and that the raising of the bodies, their going into Jerusalem, and their appearing to many to place in connection with Jesus’ resurrection, rather than his death.

Holy people – presumably the OT saints, who died ‘in faith’ of a resurrection to a better life, Heb 11:13-16, 35, 39-40.

Blomberg notes that this, coming as it does after the sweeping condemnation of Israel in chapters 23 and 24, hints that ‘a remnant in Israel will be preserved.’

Were raised to life – ‘If these saints were genuinely resurrected rather than simply revivified or reanimated like Jairus’s daughter or Lazarus, then presumably, like Jesus himself, they appeared to others only for a short time and were eventually taken to heaven. But the text refuses to satisfy our curiosity about these points.’ (Blomberg, NAC)

Amongst other things, ‘Matthew is telling us that the resurrection of people who lived before Jesus Messiah is as dependent on Jesus’ triumph as the resurrection of those who come after him.’ (Carson)

This miracle was done:-

  1. To show the power of Christ over death, and that not on his own account, but in order to redeem his people from death, and give them life.
  2. To show that Christ is the Saviour of those who believed in him before his Incarnation.
  3. To show that the death of the godly is only a sleep of the body until the resurrection.
  4. To show that the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection accrue only to the saints: for it was the bodies of holy people only which were raised.
  5. To show that the harvest which will finally be gathered in on the day of judgement is already yielding its first-fruits.
  6. To show that the resurrection of the saints depends on the resurrection of Christ, for he is the ‘first born from the dead.’
  7. To show that the miracles of our Lord did not lack witnesses: for the holy people ‘went into the holy city and appeared to many people.’ (David Dickson, adapted)

‘This wonder was designed, both to adorn the resurrection of Christ, and to give a specimen or pledge of our resurrection; which also is to be in the virtue of his. This indeed was the resurrection of saints and none but saints, the resurrection of many saints, yet it was but a special resurrection, intended only to show what God will one day do for all his saints. And for the present, to give testimony of Christ’s resurrection from the dead. They were seen, and known of many in the city, who doubtless never thought to have seen them any more in this world. To enquire curiously, as some do, who they were, what discourse they had with those to whom they appeared, and what became of them afterwards, is a vain thing. God has cast a veil of silence and secrecy upon these things, that we might content ourselves with the written word, and he that “will not believe Moses and the prophets, neither will he believe though one rise from the dead”, as these saints did.’ (Flavel, The Fountain of Life)

Appeared to many – This would strongly imply that the account is historical, and not merely symbolic.  The common sceptical vision of ‘zombies’ is beside the point: we may assume that these people were fully conscious and, moreover, fully clothed.

‘This wonder was done both to adorn the resurrection of Christ, and to give a specimen or pledge of our resurrection. To enquire curiously, as some do, who they were, what discourse they had with those to whom they appeared, and what became of them afterwards, is vain. God hath cast a veil on these things, that we might content ourselves with the written word.’ (Flavel)

They appeared ‘not to converse again, as heretofore, with men, but to accompany Christ, that raised them, into heaven; and to be as so many visible demonstrations of Christ’s quickening power, whereby he shall also raise our vile bodies, and conform them to his glorious body, the standard, Php 3:21.’ (Trapp)

27:54 Now when the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and what took place, they were extremely terrified and said, “Truly this one was God’s Son!”

‘The darkness, the earthquake, and the cry of dereliction convinced the soldiers that this was no ordinary execution. The portents terrified them and probably led them to believe that these things testified to heaven’s wrath at the perpetration of such a crime, in which the soldiers had participated.’ (Carson)

The fact that this believing group is made up of Gentiles points to the worldwide spread of the gospel (cf Mt 28:19) as is in contrast with the unbelief of the Jews (Mt 8:11f; 21:43).  See also the case of the Centurian in Mt 8:5-12.

“Surely he was the Son of God!” – We cannot tell whether how deep-seated this response was, or whether it was permanent.  The soldiers may well have used the term ‘Son of God’ in its Greco-Roman sense of ‘divine man’.  But there can be no doubt that for Matthew this is the true interpretation of the events.  ‘The title Son of God, which had been used in mockery in vv40, 43, is thus restored to its proper place. (France)

‘The man may well view Jesus as a typical Greco-Roman “divine man” (a great human hero deified upon his death). Luke 23:47 (“surely this was a righteous man”) makes the centurion’s original words all the more uncertain. Perhaps the best explanation is that which interprets the confession as meaning, “He was a good man, and quite right in calling God his Father.” But Matthew will see further support here for Jesus as the unique Son of God, in some way on a par with deity.’ (Blomberg)

‘The Gospel has come full circle: again the religious leaders of Israel have missed the significance of Jesus, whereas the pagans one would expect to be most hostile to Christ have understood and embraced his true identity (Mt 2:1-12). Matthew’s message to his Jewish Christian audience is clear: regardless of the response of the Jewish religious leaders, you must evangelize the Gentiles. His message to us today is no less clear: although church people often live in disobedience to the gospel and take Christ for granted, we must take him beyond the walls of our churches to a waiting world.’ (IVP Commentary)

‘Whether they understood what they were saying, we cannot know. They may simply have admired Jesus’ courage and inner strength, perhaps thinking that he was divine, like one of Rome’s many gods. They were terrified because of the other events (darkness and earthquake) that had surrounded this particular crucifixion, which they attributed to the wrath of God (or a god). They certainly recognized Jesus’ innocence. While the Jewish religious leaders were celebrating Jesus’ death, a small group of Gentiles were the first to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God after his death. This points forward to the coming days of the evangelism and missionary effort in the church, when God would draw people from all nations.’ Life Application)

27:55 Many women who had followed Jesus from Galilee and given him support were also there, watching from a distance. 27:56 Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.

Bauckham notes that it is precisely at the point where Peter, having denied Jesus, drops out of the narrative, that these women appear rather prominently.  There is considerable emphasis on their ‘watching’ the events as they unfold.  It seems that the author of this Gospel, having relied upon Peter as a source for much of his earlier material, is now drawing on the recollections of these women for key information about what happened before, during, and after the crucifixion.

Mary Magdalene – Mary Magdalene (from the Galilean town of Magdala) was a prominent disciple of Jesus who followed him in Galilee and to Jerusalem. She is always listed first in groups of named female disciples and was the first person to whom the resurrected Jesus made an appearance (Mt 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mk 15:40, 47; 16:1 16:9; Lk 8:2; 24:10; Jn 19:25; 20:1, 11, 16, 18). The Lord had cast seven demons out of her, Mk 16:9; Lk 8:2.

The meaning of Jesus' death

We tend to think of the Gospels as recording the fact, and the Epistles as explaining the meaning, of Christ’s death.  But there is plenty of meaning within the Gospels, including Matthew’s:-

  1. Jesus, the innocent one, takes the place of Barabbas, the guilty one.
  2. The various actors in the drama speak more than they know (‘The King of the Jews’);
  3. The 3-hour darkness speaks powerfully of divine judgement.
  4. The events surrounding the earthquake symbolise access to God and new life in him.

Tidball identifies the following themes in Matthew’s passion narrative:-

  1. The anticipated Messiah: he fulfils prophetic Scripture
  2. The sacrificial victim: he sheds sacrificial blood
  3. The innocent servant: he accepts unjust suffering
  4. The sovereign king: he demonstrates supreme control
  5. The epoch-maker: he inaugurates a new era

Jesus’ Burial

27:57 Now when it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of Jesus. 27:58 He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered that it be given to him. 27:59 Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, 27:60 and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut in the rock. Then he rolled a great stone across the entrance of the tomb and went away
Mt 27:57–61 = Mk 15:42–47; Lk 23:50–56; Jn 19:38–42

Wright observes that, as a skillful chess player would anticipate an opponent’s moves by making certain moves of their own, so Matthew is carefully laying out the groundwork for his account of the resurrection: Jesus was really dead and buried; he was placed in am easily-recognisable tomb; his was the only body in the tomb; the tomb was sealed with a heavy stone; a guard was placed outside the tomb; the two Marys saw which tomb he was buried in, and so on.

As evening approached – The body could not be allowed to remain on the cross overnight – see Deut 21:22f.

A rich man – There was little by way of a middle class in those days.  A man was either very poor, or very rich.  Joseph was the latter.

Arimathea – Thought to be located some 20 miles NE of Jerusalem.

Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin (Mark 15:43; Luke 23:50).

According to John 19:38-42, Joseph had been a secret disciple ‘because he feared the Jews.  But his boldness in asking for Jesus’ body suggests that his discipleship is secret no longer!  The same passage tells us that Joseph was accompanied by Nicodemus, ‘who earlier had visited Jesus by night’ (and therefore presumably had been afraid of being associated with Jesus.  So, these two unlikely men step forward, while the none of the Twelve is anywhere to be seen.

We may wonder what Joseph’s involvement was when Jesus appeared before the Sanhedrin.  He may not have been present: the court was hastily convened, and efforts may have been made to secure the presence of those hostile to Jesus, and to exclude those known to be sympathetic to him.  Or, he may have attempted to speak up in Jesus’ defence, but been shouted down.  Or, again, he may at the time have shared in the fear and timidity of Peter and others (see Jn 19:38).  Luke 23:51 makes it clear that he did not consent to the actions of the council.

A bold move, marking him out as one who was willing to associate with Jesus, even after his criminal’s death.

‘Joseph’s high standing within the Jewish community may have made him a known person to Pilate. Personal familiarity, or even awareness of Joseph’s clout, could have been a decisive factor in Pilate’s consideration.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

His own new tomb – Eventually, a tomb might contain more than one dead body.  But this tomb, being new, would contain only Jesus’ body.  It would have been placed on a ledge.  Then, one to three years later, after the flesh had decomposed, the bones would be carefully collected up and placed in an ossuary.

‘Joseph’s intervention may have been crucial, for the Romans often refused burial for the crucified, leaving their bodies on the cross to decay and be eaten by birds, or simply piled up on the ground where dogs could feed on them.’ (Holman Apologetics Commentary)

Green: ‘Joseph did a courageous thing. He braved the governor, who would have been in a foul mood at the end of that traumatic day. He was prepared to face the hostility of his colleagues in the synagogue, and he sided with a crucified criminal. What’s more, he gave him his own grave.’

Thus is fulfilled in a very wonderful way Isa 53:9:-

He was assigned a grave with the wicked‘ – normal procedure would have been for the body of a condemned criminal to be left to rot, or thrown into a trench in a field.

‘And with a rich man in his death’ – and yet Joseph intervenes to give him not only a decent burial, but a rich man’s burial.

27:61 (Now Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there, opposite the tomb.)

They saw for themselves which tomb Jesus’ body was laid in.  ‘This verse explains how they know where to go on Sunday morning and should refute all allegations that they went to the wrong tomb!’ (Blomberg)

Carson remarks that mourning was not permitted for those executed under Roman law.

‘It was very necessary that they should witness where Jesus had been buried, lest they be later accused of mistakenly coming to the wrong tomb on the morning of the resurrection, a charge made in ancient as in modern days by opponents. The witness of women might not be accepted in Jewish law, but it was essential to the plan of God: the disciples themselves could not act as witnesses, for they had all fled.’ (Cole)

These details about Jesus’ burial ‘confirm that Jesus really died (in opposition to any docetic misunderstanding) and prepare for the resurrection. After the noise and tumult of the previous hours, the day wanes with the quiet presence of the faithful women who keep watch at the tomb of Jesus.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

On the factuality of Jesus’ death (as opposed to a ‘swoon’ theory that is propounded from time to time) Edwards notes that ‘the Romans crucified hundreds of thousands of individuals during their centuries in power, not one of whom is recorded as surviving the cross.’

The factuality of Jesus’ burial (along with the implied insistence that he really died) is asserted in 1 Cor 15:4.

The Guard at the Tomb

27:62 The next day (which is after the day of preparation) the chief priests and the Pharisees assembled before Pilate 27:63 and said, “Sir, we remember that while that deceiver was still alive he said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ 27:64 So give orders to secure the tomb until the third day. Otherwise his disciples may come and steal his body and say to the people, ‘He has been raised from the dead,’ and the last deception will be worse than the first.” 27:65 Pilate said to them, “Take a guard of soldiers. Go and make it as secure as you can.” 27:66 So they went with the soldiers of the guard and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone.

France suggests that Matthew’s reason for mentioning the guarding of the tomb was that a rumour had circulated about Jesus’ body being stolen.

The next day – Saturday, the day after the Preparation Day (for the Passover).

‘They recall Jesus’ teaching, either indirectly through his disciples or more likely inferred from his teaching about Jonah and the Son of Man (12:38-40), that a claim was made that he would be resurrected on the third day. Even though the Jewish leadership view Jesus as a deceiver, and give no credence to such a prediction, they nevertheless seek Pilate’s assistance in securing the tomb in order to prevent the disciples from stealing the body and telling people he has been raised from the dead. Ironically, they seem to take more seriously Jesus’ predictions about his resurrection than his disciples did. In fact, the disciples exhibit little ability to grasp the importance of Jesus’ resurrection predictions, even after they encounter the risen Lord. For the reader, this fact makes absurd the Jewish claim that the disciples, who fled when Jesus was arrested, somehow summoned the courage to embark upon a scheme designed to recover the body of Jesus.’ (College Press)

“We remember…” – The chief priests and Pharisees were aware of Jesus’ miraculous powers (although they were inclined to attribute these to Satanic influence, Mt 12:24), and would have been struck by the supernatural events that accompanied the crucifixion (see a Gentile reaction to these in Mt 27:54, and the response of the crowd in Lk 23:48).  Their immediate concern, however, is set out in the following verse.  The irony, however, is that Jesus’ enemies remembered his prediction (Mt 12:38ff), when his friends did not.

“His disciple may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead” – Highly ironic, since the disciples have all fled, and they seem to have ignored Jesus’ repeated predictions of his resurrection.

‘Against the likelihood that the disciples were in any kind of mood for such bravado, cf. John 20:19.’ (Blomberg)

“Raised from the dead” – Incidental testimony (as Blomberg remarks) to the Jewish belief in resurrection.

‘During the intertestamental period there was an awareness of resurrection. When the seven famous martyr brothers were executed, the second brother said as he approached death, “You dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc 7:9, NRSV). The fourth brother, while being tortured said, “One cannot but choose to die in the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life” (2 Macc 7:14, NRSV).’ (College Press, on Heb 11:35)

They were determined that Jesus should remain in his tomb.  Yet, as Blomberg comments, ‘it is significant that no early writer—Jew, Greek, or Roman—ever identifies a tomb in which Jesus’ body remained.

“Take a guard” – Or, “You have a guard”. If we accept the NIV translation, Pilate is giving them permission to take Roman guards; if we accept the latter, more probable translation, he is telling them to take their own temple guards.

“Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how” – Carson regards Pilate’s answer as cynical: “You were afraid of this man when he was alive; now he is dead, and you are still afraid! By all means secure the tomb as tightly as possible, if you think that will help; but use your own police.”

If for Pilate his answer was cynical, then for Matthew, it was deeply ironic.  Psa 2:4.  There is a heavy stone, a seal, and a guard.  But if death itself cannot keep him in the grave, then none of those obstacles can.  In fact, they all become unwitting witnesses to the resurrection.

Seal – They sealed the tomb with some kind of wax so that any attempt to break in would be evident.

‘While the religious leaders and Pilate have gone to extreme lengths to prevent a hoax about Jesus’ resurrection, they provide another witness to the factuality of the empty tomb and the resurrection of Jesus.’ (Wilkins)

Green, similarly: ‘The irony of it is delightful. Try as they could, no guard could keep Jesus in the tomb. They might go away and make the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard, but neither they nor anyone else could imprison the Lord of life.’

‘Matthew’s unique inclusion of vv. 62–66 underlines his concern to refute the Jewish polemic against Christian claims, which persisted up to his day and which apparently troubled his community (28:15). Such an account of the origins of Christian belief continued for several centuries in Jewish circles.’ (Blomberg)

Jesus is dead and buried.  The authorities make every effort to secure his tomb.

BUT IT’S NOT OVER YET.

Preaching from Mt 27:57-66

There are several features of this passage that are worth noting by the preacher, including (a) the involvement of Joseph of Arimathea (a member of the Sanhedrin; and (b) the fulfilment of Isa 53:7 as one who has suffered a criminal’s death is placed in the tomb of a rich man.

But it seems clear that Matthew’s main point is apologetic.  He is carefully preparing the case for the resurrection.  It is highly likely that various arguments were raised against the resurrection (“he wasn’t really dead”; “he wasn’t buried”; “they went to the wrong tomb”; “the disciples stole the body”, and so on.  Matthew anticipates all these by carefully explaining what really happened, leaving the honest reader with no other conclusion but that Jesus really did rise from the grave.

This is what apologetics is all about: offering a reasoned and evidence-based defence of the Christian message.  Many today look down their noses at the apologetic enterprise, but the writers of the Gospels were more interested in it than is often recognised.

A preacher might well do well to follow Matthew in this regard, and, in this case, make ‘the main point of the passage the main point of the sermon’.