Four Ironies of the Cross
Four Ironies of the Cross
We all know what irony is. Some of it is bitter. Some of it is vicious. Some of it is funny. But at its best, irony has the capacity to clarify an incident and express what is important about it. It always works at two or three levels, and it makes a story pregnant with meaning that you might otherwise miss.
In the New Testament the writers most given to irony are Matthew and John. In Matthew 27:27-50, Matthew placards the cross before our eyes, but in terms rich with irony so we may see truly what the cross was about.
At this point Jesus has been in public ministry for two or three years. For much of that time he was a popular figure, but now he has fallen afoul of the religious and political authorities in Jerusalem. They resent his popularity, they fear his power, and they are also afraid that by his rabble rousing he will stir up the people to a rebellion against Rome, and there could be only one end to that. Rome was the superpower, and little Israel wasn't going to win. So Jesus had to be crushed. They arranged a kangaroo court and secured the sanction of the Roman governor to have Jesus executed by crucifixion.
So now we pick up the account. The sentence has been passed, and in those days there was no long delay between sentence and execution. So we follow the storyline and reflect on four profound ironies.
The first irony of the Crucifixion is the one who is mocked as king is King.
It was customary in those days to beat people as part of interrogation. It was thought they were more likely to tell the truth if they were bleeding, raw, and terrified. So Jesus had faced that kind of beating. Then it was customary to beat a person again before execution was actually worked out.
But this vignette in verses 27 and following is barrack-room humor. This is not part of the normal protocol.
Then the governor's soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him [as if he were some sort of king], and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand.
Elsewhere we're told they took the staff and bashed him against the head again and again, mocking him. Then they covered his eyes and hit him and said, "Go ahead—prophesy. Who hit you this time? Ha-ha-ha-ha. Hail, your majesty." It's barrack-room humor.
But Matthew knows and his readers know Jesus is the King. The Israelites are part of a tradition that goes back to David. The prophecies had accumulated across the Old Testament promising a Davidic king who would be in David's line but would be called Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Seven centuries before Christ, Isaiah was speaking in those terms.
Matthew begins his book with the origins of Jesus Christ, the son of Abraham, the son of David. The point is that Jesus stands in the royal line of the Davidic king. When Jesus begins to preach he announces, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near." As he tells parables about kings, it's obvious he is referring to himself.
At the trial, this business of who the king is was central. Verse 11: "Are you the king of the Jews?" Of course from the perspective of Pilate the question is: Are you posing any political or military threat to Caesar? Jesus says, "Yes, it is as you say." But it transpires that he's not a military threat. Pilate himself begins to see Jesus should be set free. But Jesus is King in some sense.
Matthew knows he's King. Matthew's readers know he's King. But this is an age and time when there is not constitutional monarchy. Kings fight. Kings are autocrats. Surely the King, God's own Messiah wins. How could this King not win, with all his miraculous power approved by God? "This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him," God himself testified.
Indeed, for those of us who know the New Testament years after the event, we know Jesus is not only the king of the Jews, but he's the King of kings. He stands with the Almighty himself in creation. According to Colossians 1, "All things were made by him and for him," including this quaternion of soldiers that's nailing him to a cross. He's the King, all right. But what sort of a kingdom is this? What sort of a King is this? No wonder in the early church Christians spoke of Jesus reigning from the cross. In a culture that knew only of autocratic kings, the very confession was steeped in irony.
The second irony of the Crucifixion is the one who is utterly powerless is transcendently powerful.
So we come to the second irony in verses 32-40. In those days it was customary for the place of crucifixion to be public. It was right by a main square or a main thoroughfare. Once a person was condemned to die by crucifixion and was properly beaten up, he would be stripped of his clothes and taken to the place of execution. He was supposed to carry his own crossbeam. Then they would lie him down, either tie or nail his hands to the cross member, hoist the whole thing up on the vertical upright, and then fasten his legs. Then he would die.
The pain of execution by crucifixion physically speaking was first and foremost muscle spasm. You hung there and pulled with your arms and pushed with your legs to open up your chest so you could breathe. Then the spasms started, and you couldn't stand that, so you collapsed. Then you couldn't breathe, so you'd do it again. Then you collapsed. Then you'd do it again. Then you'd collapse. This could go on for days. In fact, in earlier times sometimes the crucified person was left there, and friends came and took him down and the person survived. So at this point in
Roman history, it was imperial policy that a quaternion of soldiers had to be left there to keep watch. The soldiers had the right to gamble for the few remaining things the victim had. They became the property of the soldiers, and the soldiers guaranteed that no one came and took the body down.
The whole thing was steeped in absolute futility, absolute shame, absolute horror, unending pain. You pick up your cross member and you're dead. It's only the pain that's left.
Jesus now is so weak the soldiers have to impress someone else, a bystander, to carry the cross member. Then he's mocked and just hangs there suffering. This was why, when the soldiers wanted somebody to die faster, they smashed the shins. Then you could no longer push with your legs, and you'd collapse and suffocate in a few minutes.
But it's worse than that. The Romans had three primary means of execution, but crucifixion was the worst. It was reserved for slaves and rebels. No Roman citizen could be crucified apart from the explicit sanction of the emperor himself. Crucifixion was so associated with shame and treason and all that is despicable that children were told they shouldn't talk about these things, and parents were exhorted never to mention these things in front of their children. It would be as culturally barbaric as having a humorous conversation today about Auschwitz. Everything here bespeaks utter powerlessness. There's no hope. There's no help. There's only shame and death.
Verse 39 says, "Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, 'You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!'"
This refers to something that transpired in the trial itself. Chapter 26:59: "The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for false evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death." The point is that under the Roman Empire, desecration of a temple was a capital charge. The reason the Romans had this law on the books was that there were many religions in the empire and the only way they could blot out sectarian feuding was to guarantee that any desecration of any temple was always a capital offense. So if they could get Jesus on a charge of threatening the destruction of a temple, then they had him. It was as good as treason.
So we're told, "Two came forward and declared, 'This fellow said, "I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days."'" Now, as it transpired, that charge was put aside. The witnesses couldn't get their acts together. Eventually Jesus was executed on the charge of treason, not desecration of a temple, but it was a good effort.
According to John, Jesus said something along these lines early in his ministry. John 2: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days." His opponents didn't have a clue what he was talking about. John says the disciples didn't have a clue what he was talking about. In fact, John writes, "After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the Scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken." Only then did it dawn on them that Jesus was not talking about the hunk of masonry, the temple in Jerusalem; he was talking about himself. Jesus saw himself as the temple. The temple was the great meeting place between God and human beings. It was the great sacrificial point. It was where sin was atoned for. Jesus was saying: I am the temple. But Jesus's opponents didn't understand this at the time. Jesus's disciples didn't understand it at the time either.
The irony is this: while he hung on the cross in ignominy, odium, and shame, while he was unimaginably weak, he was powerfully bringing about the destruction of the temple and raising it again. It was precisely by this means that his power was being exercised. He was on the way to death and resurrection. All four of the Gospels, not just Matthew, drive toward the passion narrative and then to the resurrection. While they were mocking him for his weakness, he was doing what he said he would. The man who was utterly powerless was transcendentally powerful.
Matthew has prepared the way already with an ethical implication for us. Back in Matthew 16 Jesus grilled his followers: Who do men say I am? Some say this, some say that. What do you say?
Eventually Peter says, speaking for all of them, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God." "Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven."
From this point on, Jesus began to explain how the Christ had to go to the cross and suffer. When Peter said, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God," he did not mean what you and I mean by that. This was not a full-orbed Christian confession, because his notion of the Christ, the Anointed One, the promised King, was still triumphalistic. He did not have in his horizon the Christ of the cross. We cannot speak of Jesus Christ without thinking of Jesus Christ crucified, dead, buried, raised, ascended to the right hand of God, and returning at the end. But Peter didn't have all of that vision at stake.
So when Jesus begins to speak of his impending death, Peter, thinking he scored once theologically, tries a second time, earning Jesus's rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan. You do not understand the things of God." Even up to the cross itself the disciples did not understand. In Matthew's Gospel alone, five times Jesus explicitly tells his disciples the Christ must go to the cross, be delivered up in shame, and the third day rise again. But they still don't have it. Even when Jesus is hanging on the cross, the disciples are in the upper room scared witless rather than saying, "Yes, I can hardly wait till Sunday."
Once again in this context of explaining what Christ means and does, Jesus ties it to ethics. Jesus said to his disciples in 16:24, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Today we speak of picking up our cross. "We all have our crosses to bear." We mean relatively incidental things. We have a bad toothache, or an obnoxious in-law. Or maybe we're getting old and have more than our share of arthritis. Or we've been stricken with cancer. But in the first century nobody spoke of a cross to bear in those terms, because if you were bearing your cross you were going out in shame to die.
Elsewhere Jesus has the colossal cheek to say we are to bear our cross daily. For at the heart of the Christian way is this death to self, which in some small way, however miniscule compared to what Jesus went through, is to reflect Jesus' death to self. Jesus says: If you don't take up your cross, you can't be my disciple.
That is also the secret of our power. Paul understands that in 2 Corinthians 12: For when I am weak, then I am strong. I will therefore glory in insults and persecution and tribulation, so Christ's strength may be manifest in me.
Is that the way the church today thinks? We have succumbed to pagan triumphalism and do not rejoice in the shame of the cross.
The third irony of the Crucifixion is the one who can't save himself saves others.
So we come to the third irony.
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. "He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him."
Illustration: When my son was in high school he wore T-shirts with various slogans, some of which were right on the edge. We let him get away with most things along that line, but there was one where we meddled and said, "I don't think you ought to go for that one." It had a picture of a soccer goal. The ball has come in and the goalie has made a diving save. But the goalie is dressed like Jesus, and underneath are the words "Jesus saves."
But it raises an interesting question: What does the verb to save mean in our culture? If you're a sports fan, it means just that. If you're in finances, it's what you do at the bank. If you're into the digital world, it's that which, if you forget to do it, means you lose a lot of data. But once again, Matthew has prepared us for this passage. He has already told us what he means back in the first chapter.
Joseph is told, "You are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." Jesus saves. That's placarded in the first chapter. Everything Jesus does he does in function of this purpose. He comes to save his people from their sins. In chapter 8, when he's healing people, he is saving people from their sins, including the consequences of sin. When he heals the paralytic, he says, "Son, your sins are forgiven." He's saving his people from their sins.
The whole book of Matthew takes Jesus to the cross, where he dies on our behalf and rises again for our justification. He comes to save his people from their sins. There is the mission chapter in chapter 10 and the Great Commission in chapter 28. To what end? Because he came to save his people from their sins. According to the eschatological discourse, this gospel of the kingdom is to be preached around the whole world, and then the end will come. Why? Because he came to save his people from their sins.
They laugh at him on this point. From their point of view this verb to save was generic. He had saved all kinds of people from disease and suffering and shame and adultery. But he can't save himself.
"Save yourself!.. .Come down now from the cross, and we will believe." But would they believe? In one sense, of course they would. They would be tripping all over themselves to fall down before him and confess that this is pretty spectacular. But they wouldn't be believing in any biblical sense, because the whole purpose of his coming was to go to the cross and rise again; so our belief in him is not just in him as a king with power but as the one who introduces the New Covenant. He spoke of this at the Last Supper: "This is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins." The whole basis and purpose of his coming would be overthrown.
So while they're busy laughing at him, saying he can't save himself, he was saving others. In one sense they got it right. He couldn't save himself and others. But the irony is this. They thought he couldn't save himself, because they thought him to be powerless. "We've got you now. No one comes down from the cross after that kind of battering. With a quaternion of soldiers looking up at you, no one comes down. You are now powerless. You can't save yourself." But this was the Jesus who has already said he was capable of calling legions of angels to pull him down from the cross. It wasn't that he was lacking in power. He came to do his Father's will. The reason he could not save himself was not because of physical limitations but moral constraint. If he came to do his Father's will, he could not save himself and others.
The fourth irony of the Crucifixion is the one who cries out in despair trusts God.
In verse 43 the mockers are still having their say: "'He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, "I am the Son of God."About the ninth hour Jesus cried out"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"'"
In most contemporary commentaries on this and parallel passages, you are given a primarily psychological explanation: Even Jesus, with all his intimacy with the Father, comes to a place where he's not sure his mission is going to make it, and he himself is cast down in the most miserable gloom and despair. He wonders if he's made a mistake. He wonders if God has abandoned him, or if he made a false turn somewhere. Thus, if even Jesus can be well-nigh drowned by the sheer agony of despair when he is on the cross, how much less should we mere fallen human beings feel ashamed when we drink deeply from the same dregs of despair, when we go through our own dark hours?
This is, quite frankly, a load of rubbish. There is a small element of truth in it. Jesus does go through deep despair, and there are some lessons for us in our despair too. But the whole account does not picture Jesus saying, "Oops, made a mistake. I should have backed up, turned left instead of right on that one." All along he shows his self-conscious awareness that he is going to the cross. The crowds are speaking with irony again and don't know it. They mock, "He trusts in God," as he's crying out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This cry reflects his deepest awareness of his abandonment, his judicial bearing of sin that he himself had already predicted and that the other New Testament writers pick up on again and again: "He who knew no sin was made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him." "He was wounded for our transgressions," Isaiah had said of the suffering Servant.
Despair? Yes. Pain? Unbelievable. Rejection from a unity that stretched back to eternity past. Not a change of plan, not a "woops, I made a mistake." The whole point is not that Jesus suffers like this so he becomes a model of how we suffer. The whole point is that Jesus suffers like this so we don't have to.
Illustration: Perhaps the person who has captured this scene most powerfully in poetry is Elizabeth Barrett Browning. She wrote a poem called "Cowper's Grave," about William Cowper. Cowper wrote many hymns, some of which we still sing. Not everyone knows, however, that he spent four periods of time in his life in an insane asylum. He suffered fantastic depressions and tried to commit suicide more than once. He had a difficult, painful life. He was a brilliant scholar, much admired in the literary journals of Cambridge and Oxford, a critic of the first order, and his Christian mind was given to writing hymns for corporate worship. Elizabeth Barrett Browning describes the man and his great gifts but also his despair, gloom, and insanity. Then she writes:
Yea, once Immanuel's orphan'd cry this universe hath shaken, it went up single, echoless. "My God, I am forsaken!" It went up from the holy lips amidst his lost creation that of the lost no son should use this cry of desolation.
Do you hear what she's saying? Jesus cried this so William Cowper wouldn't have to. For all eternity he won't have to, because Jesus cried it. The man who cries out in despair trusts God and effects our redemption.
Long have I pondered the pain of the cross: wood soaked in blood, washed with tears, drenched in sweat; whips, cruel nails, crown of thorns, countless cost. Somehow this death is both promise and threat. Cascades of suffering and love shrink my pride. Silent I'm hushed by his spear-ridden side.
Long have I pondered the shame of the cross, jeered by the troops, by authorities scorned, mocked by a brigand, society's dross. Christ is abandoned, rejected, ignored. How can I focus on triumphs and things? Here writhes my Maker, Redeemer, and King.
Long have I pondered the curse of the cross, sinless the Christ bears my guilt and my pain. Thundering silence, a measureless cost, God in his heaven lets Christ cry in vain. Now I can glimpse sin's bleak horror and worse. Christ dies and bears the unbearable curse.
Long have I pondered the Christ of the cross. Gone is the boasting when I'm next to him, loving the rebel, redeeming the lost. Jesus' pure goodness exposes my sin. Sin is cut down by this triumph of grace. Christ's bloody cross is the hope of our race.
Donald A. Carson has been research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School since 1978. He has written or edited over 40 books, including God and Culture.
Preaching Today Tape # 236
A resource of Christianity Today International
D. A. Carson is research professor of New Testament at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois, and author of numerous books, including Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection of Jesus (Crossway).