Some years ago a 14-foot bronze crucifix was stolen from Cemetery in Little Rock, Arkansas. It had stood at the entrance to that cemetery for more than 50 years. The cross was put there in 1930 by a Catholic bishop and had been valued at the time at $10,000. The thieves apparently cut it off at its base and hauled it off in a pick-up. Police speculate that they cut it into small pieces and sold it for scrap.
They figured that the 900-pound cross probably brought about $450. They obviously didn't realize the value of that cross.
That is the problem of course—understanding the value of the cross. As Matthew relates the story of Jesus' crucifixion, the theme that runs through all the details is rejection. Not only didn't people see the value of Jesus, they also didn't understand the value of his death. May we not be so blind! Turn to Matthew 27:27. Let's track this trail of rejection.
Jesus was utterly rejected as the Messiah king.
As we come to this text, Jesus has already felt the heavy blows of rejection—Judas's betrayal, Peter's denial, the disciples' abandonment, the courts that found him guilty of blasphemy, and the cries of the crowd for his crucifixion. Now the descent continues.
The Roman soldiers dramatized mankind's rejection of Jesus as king (vv.27-31). They played a sadistic king game with Jesus, outfitting him like a king, but with a cast-off robe, a crown of thorns, a reed scepter, and a mocking tribute: "Hail, King of the Jews." It would have been horrible for anyone, but this is Jesus, whose rightful throne is encircled by "a rainbow, resembling an emerald," whose rightful attendants are 24 elders also seated on thrones and thousands upon thousands of angels, and beings too extraordinary for human description; whose rightful worship resounds with "Holy, Holy, Holy" and "You are worthy to receive glory and honor and power." This is the One whom those guards parodied and whom this world rejected.
Everything that surrounded the crucifixion shouts rejection (vv.32–38). The next six verses are a tightly packed summary of Jesus' rejection, all according to the Old Testament script.
He was taken outside the holy city—rejected by his people, like the sin offerings in Deuteronomy.
He was offered wine mixed with gall, tasting like bile. Some think this was a merciful narcotic, but more likely it was another mocking rejection, as predicted in Psalms 69:21: "They put gall in my food and gave me vinegar for my thirst."
He was crucified on a man-made tree, the signal of God's curse (Deuteronomy 21:23: "Anyone who is hanged on a tree is under God's curse.")
His clothes were confiscated, leaving him nothing, fulfilling the prediction of Psalms 22:18, a psalm of the Messiah's rejection, "They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing."
They placed over his head the charge, the letters still wet with irony, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews."
And they crucified him between two terrorists (the word "robbers" is too soft), as predicted in Isaiah 53:12: "He was numbered with the transgressors."
Rejection was written on every single act that surrounded Jesus' death, yet apparently no one saw that this was the Suffering Servant of Israel promised by Isaiah.
Added to these deeds of rejection comes the mocking by the crowd in verses 39–44. In essence, these taunts said:
You can't build a new temple; why, you can't even save yourself.
You aren't the King of Israel; why, you can't even come off this Roman cross.
You aren't the Son of God, because God won't save you. God doesn't want you!
To think such things were said to the one who is one with the Father! To the one who is the Son of God.
Then comes the hammer blow: Jesus was forsaken by God the Father (vv.45–49). The darkness from noon till three signaled that God's own court was in session. Dark drapes were pulled around the proceedings. It was both too holy and too horrible for our eyes. The darkness was a familiar portent of God's judgment. Listen to the ominous prediction of Amos 8:9–10: "'In that day,' declares the Sovereign LORD, 'I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight. I will turn your religious feasts into mourning and all your singing into weeping. I will make all of you wear sackcloth and shave your heads. I will make that time like mourning for an only son and the end of it like a bitter day."
William Hendriksen wrote, "The darkness meant judgment, the judgment of God upon our sins, his wrath as it were burning itself out in the very heart of Jesus, so that he, as our Substitute, suffered most intense agony, indescribable woe, terrible isolation or forsakenness. Hell came to Calvary that day, and the Savior descended into it and bore its horrors in our stead."
We call it the cry of desolation—"My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"—and it climaxes the abandonment of Jesus. C. S. Lewis wrote, "To God, God's last words are 'Why hast thou forsaken me?'" God the Father forsook God the Son because the Judge would not look upon the Sin-bearer. Jesus in those moments was no longer spotless; he was thoroughly stained with our sin.
He was no longer faultless; he was guilty through and through with our sin. God could not help him; God could not even face him.
For family devotions, Martin Luther once read the story of Abraham offering Isaac on the altar in Genesis 22. His wife, Katie, exclaimed, "I do not believe it. God
would not have treated his son like that!"
"But Katie," Luther replied, "He did!"
When all this rejection came to that crushing climax of the Father's own rejection—when Jesus had suffered from sin and for sin—when it was all accomplished, verse 50 says, "He gave up his spirit."
D. A. Carson writes, "It was at this moment, when he was experiencing the abyss of his alienation from the Father and was being cruelly mocked by those he came to serve, that he chose to yield up his life a 'ransom for many.'"
Jesus endured all this rejection for sinners. He died from sin and for sin. Gale Webbe wrote, "The only ultimate way to conquer evil is to let it be smothered within a willing, living, human being. When it is absorbed there, like blood in a sponge or a spear thrown into one's heart, it loses its power and goes no further."
The charge of the mockers hangs in the air: "He saved others," they said, "But he cannot
Robert Coleman put it so well: "Of course, he could not save himself. He had not come to save himself. He had come to save the world"
My favorite picture of this comes from Mark Twain's story, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Mark Twain tells the adventures of a very ordinary man from the 19th century transported back to the medieval world of King Arthur. At one point he convinces King Arthur to dress like a peasant and take a journey through his kingdom. The results are generally laughable as the king, completely oblivious to life in the trenches, tries to carry on with all the pomp of the court while all the others around him simply think he is crazy. But there is a wonderful paragraph describing a moment when this king in disguise reveals the true royalty of his heart. He and his companion come upon a beggar's home and find it silent as death because smallpox is claiming the beggar's daughter. The king disappears up a ladder looking for the girl.
"There was a slight noise from the direction of the dim corner where the ladder was. It was the king descending. I could see that he was bearing something in one arm, and assisting himself with the other. He came forward into the light; upon his breast lay a slender girl of fifteen. She was but half conscious; she was dying of smallpox.
"Here was heroism at its last and loftiest possibility, its utmost summit; this was challenging death in the open field unarmed, with al the adds against the challenger, nor reward set upon the contest, and no admiring world in silks and cloth-of-gold to gaze and applaud; and yet the king's bearing was as serenely brave as it had always been in those cheaper contests where knight meets knight in equal fight and clothed in protecting steel. He was great now; sublimely great. The rude statues of his ancestors in his palace should have an addition—I would see to that; and it would not be a mailed king killing a giant or a dragon, like the rest. It would be a king in commoner's garb bearing death in his arms."
There is Jesus on the cross!
When Jesus died, rejected as king, he inaugurated a new kingdom of life.
In verses 51–54 Matthew records some amazing events. Each was a signal of the life that Jesus had secured:
In verse 51 the torn veil in the temple signaled that forever after, forgiven sinners could go boldly to God without fear. The temple would continue to be in use for nearly 40 more years, but in that moment it was essentially obsolete. All it represented had been torn down, just as Jesus had promised. No more sacrifices were needed. The priests all became unnecessary; just going through the motions. The great festivals were fulfilled.
By being rejected as Messiah-King, Jesus opened the way to God and closed the door forever on the old ways. Did you pray this week? You were heard because the veil was torn when Jesus died. Did you find forgiveness for your sins? You were forgiven because the veil is torn. Did you enjoy the Lord's company, his grace and truth? It was so because the veil is torn. Did you think of your heavenly home? It will be yours because the veil is torn!
Verses 51–53 read: "The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people." Isn't that a strange story! The best scholars think our English translation here needs to be repunctuated to indicate that while there was an earthquake when Jesus died, the bodies of the holy people were not resurrected until after Jesus' own resurrection. But the amazing point here is this rash of resurrections! I've become convinced that these holy people were not merely resuscitated, like Lazarus had been, or Jairus's daughter, but rather were raised once and for all in their glorified bodies. They would never again return to those tombs!
Here is the thing: the powerless Savior was mighty enough in his death to break open the dungeons of the dead. Look closely at these strange holy people. Just like us, they had trusted God for this moment, never imagining quite how extraordinary it would be. Do you see how Matthew says they entered "the holy city" rather than simply saying 'Jerusalem'? He is hinting at our own future—saints walking out of death, into the Holy City, testimonies to all we meet in that eternal home of the power of Christ's life.
One of my favorite quotes is by Goethe: "There the cross stands, thickly wreathed in
roses. Who put the roses on the cross?" That cross is the cross of life!
Verse 54 reads, "When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, 'Surely he was the Son of God!" You do remember this centurion and these soldiers, don't you? They are the same "governor's soldiers" who so abused Jesus, who mocked him as king and crucified him as a criminal. It is terribly significant here that this extraordinary statement is not only made at the cross, but that it is made by a murderous Gentile.
The blasphemed Son of God is vindicated by the praise of the very sinners who killed him. This first expression of budding faith is not made at the empty tomb, but at the feet of the dead Savior, as the darkness of judgment fled away and the earth convulsed beneath their feet. There were, I think, two converts on that afternoon—the one crucified terrorist and the crucifying centurion. And they were the first of an innumerable host of unlikely descendants born to Jesus in fulfillment of Isaiah 53:10: "Though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days."
Max Lucado writes, "Had the centurion not said it, the rocks would have—as would have the angels, the stars, even the demons. But he did say it. It fell to a nameless foreigner to state what they all knew. 'Surely this man was the Son of God.'" So let us together echo that great triumphant affirmation from the foot of the cross: Surely he was the Son of God!
Lee Eclov recently retired after 40 years of local pastoral ministry and now focuses on ministry among pastors. He writes a weekly devotional for preachers on Preaching Today.