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The Arraignment of Jesus Before Selected Members of the Sanhedrin (26.57-68)..
What follows is not an official meeting of the Sanhedrin which could only meet by day, but a gathering of enemies of Jesus who were members of the Sanhedrin, meeting under the chairmanship of Caiaphas the High Priest, together with any whom they thought might be persuaded to support them, brought together in order to try to find a way of having Him convicted, preferably of treason. That this is so comes out in that both the other Synoptic Gospels make quite clear in their own way that when morning came an official meeting of the Sanhedrin had to be called (Mark 15.1; Luke 22.66) despite the previous examinations. We do not know whether even at that stage men like Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23.50), Nicodemus (John 3.1; 7.50-51) and Gamaliel (Acts 5.34) were called. It is quite possible that they ‘could not be found’ until it was too late, for we learn of no voices speaking up on His behalf, and it appears doubtful if things would have gone quite so smoothly for the conspirators had any of these been present. Gamaliel for one would unquestionably have appealed for reason, as he did in Acts, and would have protested if anything was rushed through.
We are unfortunately hampered also by the fact that we have no information about Sadducean court procedures. All surmises about such procedures are made either from the text, or by considering Pharisaic regulations in the Mishnah, and these last, constructed by men chastened as a result of the fall of Jerusalem when a deep sense of their responsibility for justice had hit home, are from a later period and likely to differ to quite some extent from those under the rule of the Sadducees. Furthermore they are to a certain extent idealistic. The Mishnah cannot therefore simply be quoted as though it were the end of the matter. We are thus to some extent feeling our way in our consideration of such matters. But there is no genuine reason for doubting that (accepting that we only have a summary of the proceedings) things went exactly as described, for there was clearly sufficient regard for justice in what is described to indicate that this was not an account simply invented in order to blacken the reputations of those present, but was based upon genuine procedures, which were a credit to Judaism. Indeed it is quite apparent from what happened that it was these very requirements of justice that put these very people into a position of some difficulty in what they were trying to do, because with all their dislike of Jesus they did to their credit acknowledge the need on the whole to conform to recognised practise however tiresome they might have felt it to be, simply, if for no other reason, because there were those on the Sanhedrin who would demand it. It should be noted that the official Sanhedrin did not usually meet in the High Priest’s house but in a recognised place within the Temple area. Thus this was in the nature of a preliminary meeting.
c And they did not find it, although many false witnesses came. But afterward came two, and said, “This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days”. And the high priest stood up, and said to him, “Do you answer nothing? What is it which these witness against you?” (60-62).
Note that in ‘a’ the leaders of the Jews get together and Peter comes there ‘to see the end’, and in the parallel we find the end attained by the leaders of the Jews as some of them indicate their verdict physically. In ‘b’ the council members seek a means of putting Jesus to death, and in the parallel they think that they have found it and declare Him to be worthy of death. In ‘c’ they seek witnesses against Jesus, and in the parallel they dispense with the need of witnesses. In ‘d’ the High Priest asks Jesus whether He is the Messiah, the son of God, and in the parallel Jesus reveals that in the near future it will be made perfectly evident to them that He is the glorious Son of Man. Centrally in ‘e’ He declares, ‘You have said it’.
26.57 ‘And those who had taken Jesus led him away to the house of Caiaphas the high priest, where the scribes and the elders were gathered together.’
After a private examination under the shrewd Annas (John 18.19-24), probably in his private rooms in Caiaphas’ palace (he was Caiaphas’ father-in-law), a pre-examination which failed to produce what they were hoping for, (a grounds for convicting Jesus), Jesus was led away to Caiaphas where a larger group of Chief Priests, Scribes and Elders had by this time gathered. There were thus representatives present from all three sections of the Sanhedrin, although probably hand-picked. As it was still Passover night they would have been somewhat hastily gathered, and no doubt, as anyone who knows anything about politics will know, selected with some discrimination as to who was invited (politicians never change. Only their names change).
26.58 ‘But Peter followed him at a distance, to the court of the high priest, and entered in, and sat with the officers, to see the end.’
Meanwhile Peter and another disciple (John 18.15) followed the arresting party at a distance, and entering the court of the High Priest’s palace, (the other disciple was known to those present and was actually able to enter the palace), Peter sat among the lower level officials who were gathered there, in order to discover what would happen to Jesus. Peter was clearly no coward, and had acted with typical impulsiveness.
Note the interesting parallel. On the one hand Jesus is being challenged before the Jewish leaders, on the other one of His followers is being challenged before the followers of the Jewish leaders, the One accomplishing His end of giving His last warning to the Jewish leaders and remaining unbowed, the other failing to achieve his end and ending up in flood of tears. It is being made clear that on this night of Satan’s seeming pre-eminence only Jesus came through satisfactorily, both here and in the Garden. The total and abject failure of the Apostles was an indication of what powers were at work against them that night.
26.59 ‘Now the chief priests and the whole council sought false witness against Jesus, that they might put him to death,’
Then the Chief Priests and the whole of the council who were present (only twenty three were required to make it official) sought to amass a case by which they could have Jesus sentenced to death. It is actually irrelevant as to whether the Sanhedrin had the power to put men to death, (it is possible that they could do so for blasphemy), for their aim was not to put Jesus to death themselves, even if they had had the power to do so, which is doubtful (John 18.31). They knew that that would totally discredit them in the eyes of the people. Their aim was rather to get Pilate to do it, but their problem then was that they had to find a charge which would carry weight with Pilate. The suggestion that they sought ‘false witness’ does not signify that they were trying to persuade people to invent charges, it simply means that they were looking for anyone who could say something against Jesus which might be helpful to their case. Such people had to be ‘false witnesses’ in the eyes of the writer for anything they said that was derogatory against Jesus would clearly not be fully true, but it does not mean that they were recognised as being such by those who called them. What the judges were looking for was true witnesses who could really demonstrate a case against Jesus, even though all they got in the end was false witnesses, none of whom agreed with each other on anything essential. So this does not brand the Chief Priests as necessarily exceptionally dishonest, it simply indicates that in their desperation to obtain a conviction they were willing to take advantage of anything that they could get their hands on. It should be noted that this band of witnesses must either already have been sought out in readiness for any trial that there might be, and thus have been all ready to be called on at a moment’s notice, or alternatively must have been hastily gathered as a result of enquiries among their own bands of servants and slaves, many of whom would no doubt previously have shown a discreet interest in what Jesus had to say.
26.60-61 ‘And they did not find it, although many false witnesses came. But afterward came two, and said, “This man said, I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.” ’
Seemingly a good number of witnesses came to present their case against Jesus, no doubt expecting suitable reward for their helpfulness, but it appears that they continually contradicted each other (Mark 14.56, 59). However, this very fact demonstrates that the system was not being openly abused, and that they were not just being ‘set up’ to give the same testimony. The aim had apparently been to spread the net wide among disillusioned people, hoping in that way that they would come up with something. For they felt that surely there must be something that He had done or said that could put Him in a bad light. But as the time went by, all too quickly, nothing promising seemed to be appearing.
However, hope began to grow when two witnesses were found who both stated that Jesus had said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God, and to build it in three days.’ That was at least a start, for it meant that they had the required twofold witness (Deuteronomy 17.6) and that the subject matter was serious, for in those days men of all nations considered that the desecration of Temples was a serious matter. But the twofold problem was that when examined in more detail the evidence was clearly not considered sufficient to bring a charge, probably because under questioning it was not sufficiently definite, while their attempt at using it in order to get the accused to convict Himself failed because Jesus simply disdained to answer. It thus did not seem to be much to build a case on, especially as there appeared to be some doubt about what the exact details were (Mark 14.59).
We know that in fact their testimony was partially true, for Jesus had said something about someone destroying a temple which He would rebuild in three days (John 2.19). But what they had failed to observe was that Jesus had not actually said that He Himself would destroy the Temple (He had said that ‘if they did it’), and that He had said ‘this Temple’, meaning the Temple of His body (John 2.19). No wonder then that the witnesses disagreed on what was actually said.
26.62 ‘And the high priest stood up, and said to him, “Do you answer nothing? What is it which these witness against you?” ’
It would appear that the tribunal then set about trying to question Jesus on the matter, only to be met with what they saw as an obstinate silence. And this went on until in exasperation the High Priest railed at Jesus for not defending Himself. He had heard what these men had said against Him. Why did He not say something? For the truth was that they knew that it would be difficult to convict the man when He remained silent and was not obviously guilty of anything. But Jesus was not going to waste His time giving explanations which He knew that no one wanted to hear. He knew perfectly well that they did not want the truth. They simply wanted Him to admit something that would enable them to convict Him. And He had nothing like that to admit. He was quite happy for the witnesses to continue contradicting each other. But what He wanted most was for His accusers to face up to themselves, and to the truth.
It is quite possible that Messianic expectation included the idea that the Temple would be restored by the Messiah (see e.g. Zechariah 6.12-13 and consider the implications of Daniel 9.26-27), and if that be so the move that now took place from considering the idea of restoring the Temple to looking at the question of Messiahship was natural. So He had spoken of restoring the Temple. Did that then mean that He was claiming to be the Messiah? Let Him now make clear what it was that He had intended by whatever He had said when He spoke of restoring the Temple!
‘He (the High Priest) stood up.’ This was unusual in a hearing and indicated how exasperated the High Priest had become. They were just not getting anywhere, and time was racing by.
26.63 ‘But Jesus held his peace. And the high priest said to him, “I adjure you by the living God, that you tell us whether you are the Messiah, the Son of God.” ’
But Jesus continued to say nothing until eventually the High Priest in desperation, and probably totally exasperated, overstepped the mark and used his power of adjuration. This was the power given to the High Priest as God’s earthly representative to adjure a stubborn witness to tell the truth in the Name of God. In response to such a solemn adjuration a reply then had to be given, otherwise there would be an offence against God. However, it was never intended to be used to get a conviction from an accused man’s own mouth. But the High Priest in his desperation and exasperation ignored that small distinction and called on Jesus in the Name of the living God to say whether or not He did claim to be ‘the Messiah, the Son of God’. We need not doubt that some such an impression had been given by some of the witnesses. The crucial element in this charge was the claim to be the Son of God. It was not considered blasphemy to claim to be the Messiah, even if it was disapproved of, thus some such charge as a claim to be the Son of God must certainly have been made by someone. Possibly it was partly based on 22.42-45, perhaps connected with the parable of the wicked Tenants (21.37). Perhaps it even arose from what the evil spirits had cried out (8.29).
26.64 ‘Jesus said to him, “You have said. Nevertheless I say to you, From now on you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.” ’
Jesus then seemingly played right into their hands. He could not remain silent when He was being questioned about His very purpose for being here. So He first of all replied (as He was required to), with the words ‘You have said.’ This was an indirect acknowledgement of the truth of the claim based on the accuser’s own statement. He was basically saying, ‘you have said so, so surely it must be true, although not necessarily in the way that you mean’.
Jesus, however, then went further. For it was in order to testify to this that He had come. And He certainly did not want to deny the very truth on which He stood. So He then informed them that, ‘From now on you will see the Son of man sitting at the right hand of Power, and coming on the clouds of heaven.’ As far as Jesus was concerned this was a declaration that in the very near future they would be made aware in no uncertain fashion that the Kingly Rule of Heaven had come and was active on earth, and that that would be as a result of the fact that the Son of Man would have taken His throne as described in Daniel 7.13-14, modified by Psalm 110.1 (compare 22.41-45).
‘Sitting at the right hand of power (i.e. God)’ was a specific claim that He would be enthroned and would share God’s Rule, ‘coming on the clouds of Heaven’ was a specific claim that like God He would act invisibly on earth (Psalm 104.3, compare 97.2).
‘Coming on the clouds of Heaven’. This was descriptive in the verses mentioned first of how He would approach God, there indicating the heavenly nature of His approach (Daniel 7.13). He was seen as no longer tied to earth. It confirmed Him as associated with the God of the clouds, and with the clouds of God, and therefore as a heavenly being, for it was God Who surrounded Himself with the clouds (Exodus 13.21 and often; 19.9, 16; 24.15-16; 34.5; 40.35-38; and often; 2 Samuel 22.12; 1 Kings 8.10-11; Psalm 68.34; 97.2; 104.3). But here it is also intended to be illustrative of the fact that He would then, acting invisibly (He would do it in the clouds in the same way as God had previously acted in a veiled way among Israel), cause activity on earth out of Heaven. He would ‘come on the clouds’. This would conform with the Scriptural idea found in the Psalms, for there, when God determines to act on earth, ‘He makes the clouds His chariot, He walks on the wings of the wind’ (Psalm 104.3). Consider also ‘His strength is in the skies’ (Psalm 68.34); ‘clouds and darkness are round about Him. Righteousness and justice are the foundation of His throne (Psalm 97.2); see also Jeremiah 4.13 All these references apart from the last were intended to indicate, not that God was remote and unconcerned, but that He worked mysteriously from the Heavens, acting from and on the clouds, bringing about His purposes. Consider also how the cloud hid yet revealed God’s presence and activities at Sinai (Exodus 19.9 and often) and was to be expected when matters came to fruition at the consummation (Isaiah 4.5). Jesus knew that these men had not heard His teaching about His second coming, so it is unlikely that when He spoke of the clouds He was referring to that. They would not have known what He meant. Rather to them ‘coming on clouds’ was intended to demonstrate the divine and heavenly nature of His activities, in the same way as YHWH had come on the clouds. We should note how ‘sitting on the right hand of God and coming on the clouds of Heaven’ clearly indicates, in the above terms, both His remaining in Heaven and sharing God’s authority, while at the same time acting on earth invisibly in a Heavenly way. This is very different from His second coming when He is depicted as bringing His throne with Him and appearing openly (25.31).
‘The right hand of Power’ signified ‘the right hand of God’, the place of supreme authority, and Matthew later makes clear that the future activities of the disciples on earth will in fact be a manifestation of His active presence (‘I am with you always’) precisely because He has been given all authority in Heaven and earth (28.18-20). The words ‘right hand of Power’ have in mind Psalm 110.1 which Jesus had earlier quoted about Himself (22.41-45).
It should be noted again that this was not a reference to the second coming, although some see it in that way. This was a claim that the Son of Man would shortly be enthroned in Heaven (see 28.18; Acts 2.36; 7.56 and compare 16.28), and that those on earth would then be made to observe the consequences of His enthronement. It can be seen as having been fulfilled in Acts where Heaven broke through on earth as God acted through the Apostles. Jesus’ words were not, of course, in themselves blasphemous for this was exactly as Daniel had described the activity of the Son of Man. The blasphemy in their eyes arose from the fact that they were fully aware that when He spoke of ‘the Son of Man’ Jesus was referring to Himself. (No doubt the witnesses had fairly regularly mentioned His reference to Himself as ‘the son of man’). They were thus seemingly quite ready to identify the Son of Man in Daniel with the Messiah, and recognised that Jesus was identifying Himself with both. The Son of Man certainly had Messianic connections, for both were to be crowned by God with a view to the everlasting Kingdom (Isaiah 9.6-7; Daniel 7.13-14). And those assembled would certainly have considered that for an ordinary man to talk like this was blasphemy of a kind.
26.65-66 ‘Then the high priest tore his clothing, saying, “He has spoken blasphemy, what further need have we of witnesses? Behold, now you have heard the blasphemy. What do you think?” They answered and said, “He is worthy of death.” ’
What Jesus had said was sufficient for the High Priest and the assembled company. In a dramatic gesture the High Priest tore his clothes, a common way of indicating great agitation, and repudiation of what has been said. And he may well indeed have been genuinely appalled. If Jesus had been a deceiver he would have had a right to be so. Where they all failed was in their inability to recognise the truth of the matter and the fact that by His life and teaching and acts of power He had justified the claim. Like many moderns they refused even to give Him a chance.
Then he declared that witnesses were no longer required as the accused had convicted Himself out of His own mouth. He was clearly guilty of blasphemy. And that made Him worthy of death. The charge of blasphemy, however, was overplayed. Jesus had not used the Name of God lightly, indeed He had been careful not to use it at all. And thus He could not genuinely be charged with blasphemy. But they felt that what He had said was sufficient for them. They were not too concerned with the niceties of the situation. It enabled them to declare Him as worthy of death, and that was what mattered. And all present seemingly agreed.
They would undoubtedly have been shocked by what He had said. In their eyes deeply religious men did not speak in this way (they did not themselves). And as it happened it gave them the verdict that they wanted, so that they no doubt felt that Jesus had played into their hands. In the end it was the verdict of politicians who had been determined to get their way, and were gleeful now that they had got it. However, it was still not enough. A charge of blasphemy might impress the Sanhedrin, but it would not be sufficient to force Pilate to act. He would only be interested in a civil charge. He cared little about blasphemy against the God of the Jews. Indeed he no doubt indulged in it himself in private. Where it strengthened their hand was in justifying themselves afterwards before the people and also in enabling them to convince a later gathering of the full Sanhedrin (27.1) that He must be got rid of.
‘They answered and said, “He is worthy of death”.’ It is noteworthy that no vote was taken. This was only the preliminary enquiry in order to establish the case, which might therefore help to explain why official procedures were not absolutely required or followed. It was conviction by acclamation by people who were against Him from the beginning.
26.67-68 ‘Then they spat in his face and hit him, and some smote him with the palms of their hands, saying, “Prophesy to us, you Messiah. Who is he who struck you?” ’
Having obtained the verdict that they needed Jesus was first openly repudiated by symbolic actions (spitting was an acknowledged way of showing legally based contempt - compare Deuteronomy 25.9) and then handed over to the guards for horseplay. It is quite likely that members of the Sanhedrin initially took part. It was an official and open way of indicating legally based contempt for the accused. They would indeed feel it necessary to indicate their view of this man openly, and no doubt considered that by spitting on Him, slapping Him and mocking His ability to prophesy, they were doing precisely that (compare Deuteronomy 25.9 which emphasises how important physical acts of repudiation were seen to be). In those days even high level people expressed their contempt more openly and physically than they do now, and that was what they were doing here. Being able to identify those who slapped him was, according to some traditions, in line with what the Messiah was expected to be able to do. So such an idea probably made them feel justified in behaviour that disgusts us (including many modern Jews). Then He would be left in the hands of the guards who would simply imitate their betters.
The guards then also proceeded to spit in His face, and knock Him around, aping their betters, while others continued the idea of slapping Him and crying out, ‘Come on, you Messiah, prophesy who it was who hit you.’ To have a supposed Messiah and prophet at their mercy was too good an opportunity to miss, and they were after all only following the example of their superiors, even if a little more brutally. Convicted prisoners were looked on as fair game. Their treatment of Him would probably be good for a few drinks among their fellow-guards as they recounted the experience afterwards. Little were they aware that they were fulfilling prophecy (Isaiah 50.6) and that they would go down in history for it.
Peter Denies Jesus Three Times As He Goes In A Continual Downward Spiral (26.69-75).
It is probably not accidental that the mockery of Jesus concerning His being unable to prophesy is now followed by an example of the fulfilment of one of His prophecies (26.34). Even as they mocked Him one of His prophecies was in process of fulfilment. As ever Jesus will not give ‘signs’. He will not prophesy for the amusement of the guards. But He will use His powers in order to help His own.
For meanwhile Peter, who is in the courtyard in the High Priest’s palace, is undergoing his own kind of trial, and the whole of the account is intended to be read in the light of 10.32-33. ‘Everyone therefore who confesses Me before men, him will I also confess before My Father Who is in Heaven. And whoever will deny Me before men, him will I also deny before My Father Who is in Heaven.’ The point is being made that by this standard Peter totally fails. And yet even as we note this we should recognise that he must at the time have been under great, almost unbearable, tension, and he was so as the kind of man who did not find it easy to survive under this kind of pressure, for he was more a man who responded to impulse. Thus he had put himself in a vulnerable position. Furthermore the slow passage of time, and the constant uncertainty as the night dwindled away, with him sitting in the semi-darkness among those whom he in his own mind saw as potential enemies and betrayers, must have been adding its own pressure. So when he was approached by a servant girl who identified him, his mind must have frozen, with the result that he automatically blurted out a denial. His courage had failed him. And yet we should call to mind that he still had the courage to remain where he was. When we remember what in his view his fate could well have been if he was exposed that was a courageous thing to do. And the lie was to some extent justifiable in the light of the circumstances, (in his view he was in danger of his life), although Matthew certainly calls it a denial.
He was in fact probably in no actual danger. There were no charges that could be laid against him unless Jesus was convicted of a criminal offence which included His disciples, and all knew that the One Whom all had really wanted to restrain was safely in custody, and had yet to be officially tried. Nor have we any grounds for thinking that they were interested in arresting His disciples, who were probably just looked on as merely deluded. (It would be different once they became the main preachers). And none of the disciples had seemingly been involved in the incident in the Temple. So no one was wanting to arrest the disciples. But that was certainly not how a Peter, shaken by his experiences of the night, saw it. He remembered what had happened in the Garden and he probably feared for his life.
Then a second maid servant identified him. But by this time he had had time to think and there was less excuse, and when he denied it on oath it made the situation even worse. Note how his denial is depicted as having grown deeper. It was even more so the third time when he was partly identified by his accent, and this time by men. Then he took a further step downwards, for then he vociferously and forcefully denied knowing Jesus with cursing and swearing. Fears for his own safety had thus caused him to deny his Master three times in ever growing intensity. And then he heard a cock crow, and what Jesus had said flooded back to him, and racing from the courtyard he found a deserted place and broke down in tears. He could not believe what he had done. So while Jesus was going on triumphantly on His way to the cross without flinching, Peter retired aware that he was a total failure, repenting in bitter tears. He had failed his test. The night belonged to only One person. It is, however, indicative of the mercy of God that shortly afterwards he would become God’s chief spokesman.
Note that in ‘a’ Peter was sitting outside in the court and in the parallel he leaves the court. In ‘b’ he denies Jesus and in the parallel he does likewise, and Peter remembers Jesus’ words. In ‘c’ he is accused of having been with Jesus and in the parallel he is again accused. Centrally he denied Jesus with an oath.
We may also see it as a sequence within an envelope. Thus we have the envelope consisting of ‘a’ and its parallel, which contains a threefold sequence, first ‘b’, then ‘c and d’, and then ‘c’ and ‘b’, in each of which we have the accusation followed by the denial, each of the denials being introduced by ‘I do not know’. Thus:
26.69 ‘Now Peter was sitting outside in the court, and a maid came to him, saying, “You also were with Jesus the Galilaean.” ’
As Peter was sat in the courtyard in the semi-darkness, surrounded by men who, if they discovered who he was, would, in his view, unquestionably have had him apprehended, he must undoubtedly have been in a state of constant high tension. He was an impulsive and brave man, which was how he came to be there, but he was not good at facing this kind of steady continual pressure. And when a servant girl approached him and said to him, “You also were with Jesus the Galilaean” (this was an expression of contempt, for Galilaeans were despised in Jerusalem. But in contrast we are also expected to recognise that it was in Galilee that the light had shone - 4.16), it all proved too much, and he tried to dismiss the suggestion by indicating that the idea was ludicrous. Most of us would have done something similar in the same situation. He was just evading recognition in the face of danger.
‘A maid came forward to him.’ The verb is the same one as that used of he witnesses who ‘came forward’ against Jesus (verse 60). Peter too was being witnessed against. The ‘also’ used in her accusation may indicate that she knew of the other disciple who had entered the palace. Indeed that would explain how she knew who Peter was. She had after all let him in along with the other disciple who was known to her (John 18.15-17).
26.70 ‘But he denied before them all, saying, “I do not know what you are saying.” ’
Peter told her that he did not know what she was talking about. Luke goes further and indicates that he also said, ‘I know Him not’. He must in fact have said something like that otherwise it would not really have been a denial of Jesus. Here we thus have a typical Matthaean abbreviation. (Possibly his full words were, ‘I don’t know what you are saying, I don’t know Him’). Matthew commences with an indirect denial because he is in fact trying to demonstrate how Peter’s denials actually gradually became worse and worse as his desperation grew.
26.71 ‘And when he was gone out into the porch, another maid saw him, and says to those who were there, “This man also was with Jesus of Nazareth.” ’
Deciding to move away from what had become the danger spot Peter went to the porch area, where again he was spotted by a servant girl. It is interesting, and typical of life, that it was the young women who noticed Peter. They were probably thrilled at the idea of seeing someone connected with the Prisoner, and may well have been whispering among themselves. The men were meanwhile taking little notice. As far as they were concerned the night’s duties were over. They did not really care who Peter was.
Her charge was similar to the previous one, but this time she drew him to the attention of the men, and therein, in his eyes, lay greater danger. Thus he had to deny her words before them all. The ways in which both women describe Jesus are precisely what we would expect, ‘Jesus the Galilaean’, ‘Jesus the Nazarene’. Both were probably common descriptions of Jesus, the former especially in Jerusalem among His detractors, for it indicated the contempt of a Jerusalemite for a Galilaean. But Matthew probably here intends us to remember 2.22-23 where Jesus ‘withdrew into the part of Galilee’ and would fulfil Scripture by being called ‘a Nazarene’. Their very contempt was emphasising Who Jesus really was.
26.72 ‘And again he denied with an oath, “I do not know the man.” ’
This time Peter was more disturbed. It was bad enough being spotted by servant girls, but it was dangerous to be drawn to the attention of the men. So this time He denied that he knew Jesus with an oath. Here was a more vociferous denial than the previous one. And yet the truth is that if he was not willing to defend Jesus, and to confess Him, he should not have been there. The use of an oath reveals that because of his failure he is going deeper into disobedience. We are intended to see that if he had he been speaking the truth and had been confessing Jesus he would not have needed an oath. An oath indicated something which ‘came from evil’ (5.37).
26.73 ‘And after a little while those who stood by came and said to Peter, “Of a truth you also are one of them, for your speech exposes you.” ’
Unfortunately for him by this time interest had been aroused and he was now under observation Thus one of the men approached him and pointed to his accent as demonstrating that he was a Galilaean, and therefore surely ‘one of them’. Peter had become an object of curiosity and he was basically saying, ‘The girl is right. You are one of them.’ Peter was by this time terrified. All thoughts of loyalty had gone. (It will, however, be noted that there is no indication of any real threat. It was probably mainly all in Peter’s mind).
26.74 ‘Then he began to curse and to swear, “I do not know the man.” And immediately the cock crowed.’
So he began to deny Jesus vehemently, reinforcing his words with oaths and curses. His denial had reached its ultimate depth. And at that point the cock crowed. In fact cocks would have crowed at various times through the night, so the point here is that this was the cock that heralded morning, and which he noticed. It was the one that had awoken his conscience.
There are no grounds here for suggesting that it was Jesus Whom he cursed. Had he done that it would surely have been brought out as being more than a denial. He rather cursed either himself, or some of those who were, in his view, glaring at him.
26.75 ‘And Peter remembered the word which Jesus had said, “Before the cock crow, you will deny me three times.” And he went out, and wept bitterly.’
The sound of the cock crow drew to Peter’s mind the words that Jesus had spoken to him, ‘before the cock crow you will deny me three times’. And smitten in his conscience he left the courtyard and then broke down in tears. He had meant so well and he had failed his Master. ‘And he wept bitterly.’ He had reached the end of himself. (Note how in abbreviating the material, and in order to keep the attention on Peter, he has reduced the cock crows to one).
We should note how all Matthew’s attention here is on Peter’s downward progress. For more of the other detail we have to go to the other Gospels. But we still have to ask how the writers knew all this. And the answer probably lies with Peter. He had learned to be honest, and had openly admitted his failure to the people of God. And being honest they had recorded what he had told them. No one would have invented such a story against one who was by then universally admired and looked up to. His open admission was evidence of his deep regret, and of his recognition of his own unworthiness.
The Chief Priest and Elders Bring about the Crucifixion of Jesus By Manipulation: The Remorse of Judas and The Trial of Jesus Before Pilate (27.1-26).
In this new subsection Matthew lays great stress on the part played by the Chief Priests and Elders in bringing about a verdict against Jesus, and emphasises their evil motive, their blood guilt and the blood guilt of the people of Jerusalem, in contrast with the total innocence of Jesus, using the account of Judas’ blood guilt and remorse, and Pilate’s washing of his hands to remove blood guilt, in order to bring both messages home. The result is that Jesus is delivered up to be crucified in spite of the acknowledgement by Pilate and his wife of His innocence. The emphases of the passage are on the behaviour and blood guilt of the Chief Priests and Elders in obtaining their political ends, something constantly emphasised throughout, and the continuing fact of the declaration of Jesus’ innocence. Note in the analysis the alternation of the guilt of the Chief Priests and Elders and the innocence of Jesus.
A further thing to note is the typical Matthaean ‘sandwich’. Judas’ declaration of Jesus’ innocence, and Pilate’s declaration of Jesus’ innocence, encompass the description of the trial of Jesus by Pilate (inasmuch as it can be said to be described, for the emphasis is mainly on the charge and Jesus’ reply to it), and his vain attempt to have Him released.
Analysis of 27.1-26.
Note that in ‘a’ the Chief Priests and Elders consult in order to have Jesus put to death, and in the parallel they succeed. In ‘b’ Judas has shed innocent blood and the Chief Priests tell him to ‘see to it’, trying thereby to disclaim responsibility, while in the parallel Pilate claims to be free from innocent blood and tells the people to ‘see to it’, and the people take it on themselves, (and on the Chief Priests and Elders). In ‘c’ the Chief Priests and Elders seek to persuade Pilate to condemn Jesus, and in the parallel they seek to persuade the people to have Jesus condemned. In ‘d’ Pilate seeks to have Jesus released and in the parallel his wife seeks to have Jesus released. Centrally in ‘e’ Pilate knows that the Chief Priests and Elders have delivered Him up for envy. Note the emphasis all the way through, firstly on the influence of the Chief Priests and Elders in bringing about Jesus’ death, and secondly on Jesus’ innocence.
The Chief Priests and Elders Seek To Have Jesus Sentenced To Death And Judas Returns The Blood Money and Hangs Himself (27.1-10).
The chapter commences with the Chief Priests and Elders seeking how they can have Jesus sentenced to death, followed by Judas coming to them and returning the blood money. They then try to repudiate their guilt, and finally act in such a way that they actually ‘fill to the full’ a prophecy which points to God’s coming vengeance on them for what they have done.
The account of Judas’ remorse and change of heart is probably placed here in order to emphasise that in spite of Jesus’ condemnation by the Sanhedrin He is totally innocent, in contrast with the blood guilt of the Chief Priests and Elders. In the same way Matthew will emphasise his total innocence before Pilate (verses 19, 24). Thus while the Chief Priests and Elders, and the Jerusalemites, pursue Him to His death, all others make clear that He is innocent. A further purpose is to bring out the prophecy concerning the ‘potter’s field’ which indicates a ray of hope ahead for a people whose Temple and capital city are soon to be destroyed (Jeremiah 32.14-15, 25, 29, 38-40).
Analysis of 27.1-10.
Note that in ‘a’ the Chief Priests and Elders seek to deliver to Jesus to death, something which will result in God’s deliverance, but also in the destruction of Jerusalem, and in the parallel the potter’s field is bought, which in Jeremiah 32.6-29 indicates both God’s deliverance (verse 15) and the coming destruction of Jerusalem (verse 29). In ‘b’ Judas brings back the thirty pieces of silver which would be used to buy a field, and in the parallel Matthew includes the prophecy of the thirty pieces of silver which will be cast to the potter (Zechariah 13.11). In ‘c’ Judas declares that he has betrayed innocent blood, and in the parallel the money is used to buy a field which is called the Field of Blood. In ‘d’ Judas casts down the silver into the sanctuary, and in the parallel the Chief Priests take up the pieces of silver which he has delivered to them. Centrally in ‘e’ Judas departs and hangs himself.
27.1 ‘Now when morning was come, all the chief priests and the elders of the people took counsel against Jesus to put him to death.’
‘Now when morning was come.’ Compare ‘when evening was come’ in 26.20. The evening had brought the depiction of His death in the Lord’s Supper, followed by His anguish and arrest, the morning will now bring His sentence and execution.
‘All the Chief Priests and Elders of the people.’ Compare 26.3 where they had previously taken counsel how to kill Him. Now they were on the point of achieving their aim. Mark includes ‘the Scribes’, but Matthew recognises that all Jews will know that there are Scribes among the priests and the elders of the people and therefore omits them. He is basically using this expression to indicate the whole Jewish leadership, the Sanhedrin. All will be involved in seeking Jesus’ crucifixion.
‘Took counsel against Jesus’, or more strictly ‘came to a decision about Jesus’. This was the official meeting of the Sanhedrin meeting by daylight (compare Mark 15.1; Luke 22.66), which followed the unofficial hearing during the night. Now the remainder of the counsel had to be convinced of Jesus’ guilt. But it would not be too difficult to convince most of them, given what Jesus had said. It must be seen as very possible that some members were not present (for example Joseph of Arimathea), probably because they had been ‘accidentally’ overlooked, or ‘could not be found’. Alternatively the vote which would presumably have taken place may not have been unanimous, but it is questionable if that would have accorded with their wishes.
27.2 ‘And they bound him, and led him away, and delivered him up to Pilate the governor.’
Jesus is again put in bonds (compare John 18.12). This may well have been in order to impress Pilate with how dangerous He was. A bound man, who had also been roughed up, looked so much more sinister. And then He was led away and delivered up to Pilate the governor for judgment (compare 20.19).
Matthew then introduces an incident concerning Judas, (not necessarily in chronological order), which will bring out the guilt of the Chief Priests and Elders, and what the consequence of their decision is going to be, and will highlight the innocence of Jesus (‘I have betrayed innocent blood’). As we have seen above Judas’ guilt will then be compared with Pilate’s relative innocence. But in both cases the emphasis is being placed on the major guilt of the Chief Priests and Elders and their cronies. They were unquestionably the instigators of the whole.
This must not be seen as taking anything away from Judas’ own guilt and its consequences, and from the fact that this is the first stage in emphasising Jesus’ innocence. But Matthew wants us to know that the Chief Priests and Elders bear the main guilt (verses 1, 2, 10, 12, 20, 22), following it with the indication that Jesus was totally innocent (verses 4, 12, 14, 23, 24).
‘Pilate the Governor.’ When Herod the Great died he was succeeded by his son Archelaus as ruler over Judaea, Samaria and Idumaea. But in 6 AD Archelaus was replaced because he was considered to have been a poor ruler, a causer of dissension among the people, and he was followed by a series of Roman Governors. These followed in fairly quick succession until Pilate was appointed in 26 AD. He would be of equestrian rank and in fact lasted for ten years. Ruling over a volatile province like Judaea and Samaria that demonstrated a reasonable level of rough efficiency. While sometimes precipitate in his actions, (he never quite really understood the Jewish mentality), and sometimes brutal (like most Roman Governors over volatile provinces) he also knew how to back down when it was necessary for the peace of the province. Furthermore he had probably also recently been called to task by Caesar. What happened here therefore fitted in with the pattern. He was after all not too particularly bothered about Jewish squabbles concerning a man claiming to be a prophet, and he soon recognised that Jesus was certainly not a revolutionary. But given his roughness he was a reasonably fair man, and he does seem genuinely to have been concerned about providing justice, only, however, until expediency became necessary. As we have said, he knew something of the Jews and he had learned when to back down, and he did not consider the matter of much importance. Six months and it would be forgotten. So when he found that they were adamant and that the decision appeared to be popular he backed down.
27.3 ‘Then Judas, who betrayed him, when he saw that he was condemned, repented himself, and brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the chief priests and elders,’
All that Matthew feels about Judas comes out here. ‘Judas who betrayed Him.’ It says all that needs to be said. Then he describes Judas’ actions following the betrayal. When he saw that Jesus was condemned he had a complete change of heart, and filled with regret and remorse he brought back the thirty pieces of silver to the Chief Priests and Elders. He wanted to transfer some of his guilt on to them, and possibly also in his naivete hoped to cancel the agreement. For when someone wanted to cancel a contract under which he had received payment, and had no specific person to whom to repay it, the custom was to repay it to the Temple, thus cancelling the contract. Thus by this act Judas was repudiating the contract, although it was, of course, too late. What he had offered had already been made use of.
There may be a suggestion here that things had not turned out as Judas had expected. Possibly he had hoped that his actions would spur Jesus into Messianic action. On the other hand it may simply be that seeing Jesus condemned made him realise just what he had done.
‘Then -- when he saw.’ Compare 2.17. It may be no coincidence that the same phrase introduces a connection with Jeremiah’s prophecies in both instances, especially as both prophecies are also introduced with a unique parallel phrase, ‘then was fulfilled what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet’. As we have seen there is good reason for seeing Matthew as using these prophecies as a framework in order to drawing attention to gloom and suffering, and attempts on Jesus’ life, at both the beginning and the end of his Gospel. Judas is seen as having ‘achieved’ what Herod had failed to ‘achieve’, shedding the blood of Jesus, but only to his deep regret.
27.4 ‘Saying, “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood.” But they said, “What is that to us? You see to it.”
Meeting with the Chief Priest’s representatives he declared to them that he had sinned in betraying innocent blood. Compare Deuteronomy 27.25 where a curse is pronounced on the one who betrays innocent blood. Thus Judas no doubt belatedly recognised that he had come under that curse. We can, however, also compare 1 Samuel 19.5 where to kill David is to sin against innocent blood, how much more then to kill the Son of David. Furthermore innocent blood was also connected in Jeremiah 19.4 with the casting of the potter’s clay vessel into the Valley of Hinnom, which connects with the prophecy in verse 10, and which to some extent parallels Judas’ action in verse 5. Thus we are reminded by the phrase ‘innocent blood’, that Judas has put himself under a curse, has betrayed the son of David, and has brought judgment on Jerusalem.
Perhaps Judas hoped that even now he could change their attitude towards Jesus by declaring His innocence. He quite probably actually believed that they were men of principle and conscience, who could be convinced of their error. He soon discovered his mistake. Their reply indicated his error. They could not have cared less. ‘That’s your affair’, was their callous reply. ‘What’s it got to do with us? You see to it.’ In fact it should, of course, have had a great deal to do with them, for here was a soul in torment for whom they were supposed to show concern. But they wanted to wash their hands of the whole affair. They had got what they wanted. Judas no longer mattered.
But for Matthew there is also a deliberate contrast here with Pilate’s declaration of his own innocence. Compare “I have sinned in that I betrayed innocent blood” with “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man” (27.24). ‘Righteous man’ indicated that Pilate agreed with Judas about Jesus’ innocence. In contrast with Judas, however, he does not feel blood guilty, but he undoubtedly was. For a man given judicial responsibility cannot wash his hands in innocency when he fails to fulfil it. Note that both end with ‘see you to it’ (one singular ‘you’, one plural ‘you’). The Chief Priests and Elders were trying to deny responsibility, as, in a similar way, was Pilate. But both failed to achieve their purpose. Interestingly only Judas appears as honest in this sequence, even if his honesty is an admission of guilt.
27.5 ‘And he cast down the pieces of silver into the sanctuary, and departed, and he went away and hanged himself.’.
Having failed to persuade the Chief Priests to accept the money back, which would have been tantamount to thereby admitting that they shared his guilt, Judas took the next best step and brought the money to the Sanctuary. It was a recognised method of repudiating a transaction that when the price could not be handed back to the original party to a contract within the deadline contained in the contract, it could instead be paid over to the Temple, who would hold it on the missing recipient’s behalf. Perhaps Judas had this in mind. If they would not receive the money, then he would make them take it. He did not want it staining his hands. So he approached the Sanctuary and hurled the thirty pieces of silver down, possibly through the very doorway of the Sanctuary. It was not quite in accordance with official procedure, but it was the only way that he could at least partly purge his screaming conscience. And then he abruptly left and went and hanged himself.
There is a vivid description of the result of this hanging in Acts 1.18, which suggests that he hung himself by putting the rope round his neck and jumping over a precipice or from a tree, with the awful result that the rope broke and his body crashed to the ground and ‘burst open’. Alternately as his body hung there the hot sun might have brought about a quick decomposition of the body (no one would want to touch a dead body during the Feast until it was absolutely necessary, whatever the other requirements) so that it may have rotted, and thus eventually have fallen with awful results. It was the kind of thing that would be seen as a sign from God, although that is only hinted at, not stated. Note the contrast with the careful anointing and burial of the body of Jesus (26.6-13; 27.57-60). Judas was left accursed, but God was watching over His Son.
‘And he departed (anechowresen) and went (apelthown).’ There may be a reflection here of 2.22-23, ‘he departed (anechowresen) -- and went (elthown)’. For as we have seen 27.3 probably reflects 2.16, and both these passages centre on quotations from Jeremiah.
‘Hanged himself.’ He had accepted Jesus’ verdict that it would have been better if he had not been born (26.24).
27.6 ‘And the chief priests took the pieces of silver, and said, “It is not lawful to put them into the treasury, since it is the price of blood.” ’
The Chief Priests, who had paid the price of blood out of the Temple treasury, now became awfully pious. It was one thing betraying and destroying an innocent man, but they felt that it would be a gross sin to break the Temple rules. Thus they had the pieces of silver gathered up, piously indicated that as blood money it could not go into the Treasury (the place of dedicated money - ‘korbanas’ - from which it had come), and set it apart for the good of Gentiles who were after all already unclean. It would not do for the Temple or the Jewish race to be tainted by blood money (initially paid out by their representatives for this purpose). It is all so typical of the hypocrisy of men and women through the ages, especially those in authority, that the truth of the matter cannot be doubted, and the matter of fact way in which the story is told confirms its accuracy. No lesson is drawn from what happened.
27.7 ‘And they took counsel, and bought with them the potter’s field, to bury strangers in.’
So they then discussed the matter together, and finally came up with the idea of buying ‘the potter’s field’ which had come up for sale, and could be used for burying non-Jews in. The field may simply have been popularly named this, having at some stage been used by potters, or it may in fact have belonged to a well known potter. Alternatively it may have been the site of a one-time clay quarry in the Valley of Hinnom, now exhausted, from which the potters’ clay had once come, but only now useful as a burial ground for the not too particular.
In Acts we learn that Judas ‘bought the field’. But there is no genuine discrepancy. The Chief Priests would have agreed that it was bought courtesy of Judas. It was his money that bought the field.
27.8 ‘For which reason that field was called, the field of blood, to this day.’
‘For which reason’ might look back to the decision of the Chief Priests, or it may look back on the whole story. The name ‘field of blood’ might well have piously been given to it by the now ultra-pious Chief Priests in recognition of where its purchase price had come from. It sounds like a typical piece of false piety. But more popularly, in the public imagination, the name may well have also been seen as pointing to Judas’ gruesome death as a result of which the price had been obtained (Acts 1.19), especially if it was the field where Judas hung himself.
27.9-10 ‘Then was fulfilled what was spoken through Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “And they took the thirty pieces of silver, the price of him who was priced, whom certain of the children of Israel did price, and they gave them for the potter’s field, as the Lord appointed me.”
Surveying what had happened Matthew, or his sources, now recognised in them a deep significance. It brought to their minds a number of prophecies, one in Zechariah, and two in Jeremiah. This practise of stringing prophecies together was quite common in Jesus’ day. Compare Mark 1.2-3, and there also it was the last prophecy referred to which was dignified with the name of the prophet. Note that the emphasis in the passage just prior to the quotation is much more on the potter’s field, than on the price paid. ‘They bought -- the potter’s field -- that field was called, the Field of Blood’ (verses 7-8). And that that is then immediately followed by the reference to the quotation. It is the field which is being emphasised.
The suggestion that here Matthew made a mistake which remained uncorrected is naive. He knew perfectly well who had spoken of thirty pieces of silver which were ‘cast to the potter’ (Zechariah 11.12 MT). But he also knew who had spoken of buying an earthen vessel from a potter in order by it to indicate God’s judgment, something which was then specifically connected with the Elders and Senior Priests of the people (Jeremiah 19.1), and who had then spoken of buying a field whose deeds were put in a potter’s earthenware container, as an indication both of God’s coming deliverance, and His judgment (Jeremiah 32.6-29). And this would have been especially significant to him in that in Jeremiah 19.6 reference is made to a change of name to ‘the Valley of Slaughter’ (compare ‘the field of Blood’). Thus to him it was quite clear that God was ‘filling to the full’ what He had prophesied. Here all was being acted out before them.
This is further backed up by the fact that he uses the phrase here which he only elsewhere uses to introduce a quotation from Jeremiah (2.17). The other previous named prophecies (3.3-15.7, see also 20.28), which have different introductions and are Isaianic, have been put within a Jeremaic sandwich (2.17 and here). (See ‘that it might be fulfilled’ in the introduction). The prophet of Doom and Death thus encloses the promises of the prophet of Deliverance and Life.
Excursus on The Prophecy Concerning the Potter’s Field.
The quotation found here has produced what has been seen by some as a problem, for at first sight it appears to be citing words from Zechariah, when it is said by Matthew to be citing Jeremiah. But such a problem only arises because they fail to recognise the citations from Jeremiah in the last part of the ‘quotation’ (verse 10). Matthew clearly considers these last as important enough to draw attention to them by referring to Jeremiah, whose words are thus seen as underlying the whole.
Certainly it is true that the first part of what is said is a loose citation from parts of Zechariah 11.12-13, but the main point of the citation is not to do with that, (that is simply indicating the value put on a prophet by the Temple authorities), but is on what was done with the price. And that was to purchase a field connected with a potter, the emphasis being on ‘field’ (verses 7-8). And this last idea has in mind a combination of Jeremiah 18.1-6 (where the people are clay in the Potter’s hands); 19.1 (where the potter’s vessel made of such clay is bought and destroyed) and 32.12-14 (where a field is bought whose deeds are placed in a clay jar, indicative of hope). This is what Matthew’s attribution of the prophecy to Jeremiah confirms. He was not in error when he cited Jeremiah. (And indeed in these ‘fulfilment’ contexts he only ever mentions Isaiah and Jeremiah). He was rather drawing attention to:
This very fact tends to confirm that he is not using these quotations with a glib ‘O look, the prophecy has been fulfilled’ idea, but as an indication that what occurs in the Old Testament is filled to the full in the New. Perhaps here, in order to see this better, we should first list what Matthew tells us about the incident with Judas. He tells us that:
With his wide knowledge of the Old Testament Matthew immediately saw here connections with three Old Testament prophecies, one of which was in Zechariah and two in Jeremiah, all of which in the Old Testament pointed to judgment coming on the elders and chief priests and those involved with them, and which, in the case of Jeremiah, were very much connected with a forthcoming destruction of the Temple. Matthew considered that now those prophecies were being ‘filled to the full’. Salvation history, and irrevocable judgment, were seen to be repeating themselves in Jesus.
To us the combinations found here may be a little complicated, but we must remember that Matthew’s initial Jewish and Jewish-Christian readers would be more used to such combinations. We may present them as follows:
The comparisons reveal why Matthew could see how these Old Testament passages, as brought together as one, (although he could have used them individually and protracted the narrative), were finding a ‘filling full’ (eplerowthe) in what happened in Matthew 27. He is demonstrating how what had happened with the prophets at the hands of the Jewish leaders, had also happened in the case of Jesus at the hands of the Jewish leaders, thus paralleling Him with Jeremiah, while at the same time showing that all that had happened between Jeremiah and the Elders and Senior Priests was summed up in Him and His relationships to the Chief Priests and Elders. Jesus’ opponents were ‘filling up’ (plerowsate) the measure of their fathers who had persecuted the prophets (compare Matthew 23.32-36).
The same people were thus seen to be involved in Zechariah/Jeremiah (the elders and leading priests) as in Matthew 27.1; the same amount of money was involved in both cases (thirty pieces of silver); something was purchased from a potter in both examples (Jeremiah 19.1; Matthew 27.10) which indicated judgment on the elders and chief priests; something was cast down indicating judgment on the chief priests and elders in both (Zechariah 11.13/Jeremiah 19.10 and in Matthew 27.5); in the case of Matthew 27.10 a field connected with a potter was bought, and in the case of Zechariah/Jeremiah, as an evidence of the coming judgment and the hope that would follow, a field was bought whose title deeds were put in an earthen container (Jeremiah 32.14) which container was similar to that bought from a potter (Jeremiah 19.1), and thirty pieces of silver were cast to the potter in the house of the Lord (Zechariah 11.13); in both Matthew 27.7 and Zechariah/Jeremiah land was seen as defiled (Jeremiah 19.13); in both cases there was a change of name to something gruesome (Matthew 27.8/Jeremiah 19.6). And through what was signified by the purchases from the potters, and by the purchase of the field, judgments were threatened on Jerusalem which would result in Jerusalem being destroyed (Matthew 27.25 with 23.37; 24.15-20/Jeremiah 19.7-9), although each also pointed forward to a future hope after judgment for God’s true people (Jeremiah 32.15, see also Jeremiah 31.37-40).
Matthew therefore wanted his readers, as a result of this joint citation, and especially as a result of his reference to Jeremiah, to consider the whole background behind them as considered above and connect them with what was happening in these last chapters of his Gospel. Far from being a naive citation it is a deeply thought out application of Scripture, and required similar application from his readers who with their knowledge of the Scriptures would more appreciate what was in Matthew’s mind than some of us might.
Perhaps it will assist in an appreciation of what Matthew is saying if we place the prophecies, and their ‘filling full’, side by side.
We thus see here a combination of ideas in Zechariah 11 and Jeremiah 19 & 32, which is associated with ideas in Matthew 27.1-10, with the initial ‘they’ in all cases referring to the chief priests and the elders.
In Matthew 27.10 we have reference to a purchase made in connection with a potter (for which compare Zechariah 11.13/Jeremiah 19.1), and the purchase of a field (for which compare Jeremiah 32.25) as something which can be described as ‘what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet’, thus drawing attention to the place of Jeremiah 19/32 in the scheme. This concerned something which ‘was purchased’ in connection with a potter, namely in Matthew’s case ‘the field connected with a potter’ and it is done ‘as the Lord appointed me’. The reference to being ‘spoken by Jeremiah the prophet’ would serve to confirm that we must look in Jeremiah for such an event or events, and there we find both a purchase of an earthenware vessel from a potter, and the purchase of a field, connected with an earthenware vessel (made by a potter), both being significantly connected with the Jewish leaders and being at the command of the Lord. All this then connects with the thirty pieces of silver being cast to the potter (Zechariah 11). They are cast to the potter (Zechariah 11), used to buy an earthenware vessel from a potter (Jeremiah 19), while an earthenware vessel then contains the deed from the purchase of a field (the earthenware representing the people of Israel (Jeremiah 18.6).
The simmering Chief Priests and Elders in the days of Jesus were thus filling full the behaviour of their fathers who had had the same attitude towards Zechariah and Jeremiah (compare Matthew 23.32-36), and the implication might well be that they will suffer the same end, although it is not spelled out here. (The complicated connections might be seen as revealing the devious thinking of a tax collector).
The earthen vessel/container, which is bought from the potter in Jeremiah 19.1 and which contains the deeds of the property bought in Jeremiah 32.12-14, is one of the key ideas that connects the two passages in Jeremiah, the others being the connection with the chief priests and elders and the common theme of judgment, although in the case of 32.12-25 partly a judgment reversed, (but see 32.25), while the idea of buying from the potter in Jeremiah 19.1 connects with the thirty pieces of silver cast to the potter in Zechariah 11. (It was common practise in Matthew’s time to connect Old Testament verses by key words and key ideas). Matthew therefore sees the purchase of a field connected with a potter for thirty pieces of silver as too much of a coincidence not to be seen ‘filling to the full’ these combined prophecies, when they are all connected with the behaviour of the leaders of the Jews towards God’s prophets, and in the case of Jeremiah with the destruction of Jerusalem, although with hope lying beyond.
The ‘quotation’ in Matthew 27.9-10 is thus not just a single quotation, and is certainly not one which is seen as having been naively ‘fulfilled’, but is a carefully worked statement on the basis of a combination of Old Testament passages, at least one of which we would expect to find in Jeremiah because of the ascription. This method of combining prophecies together under the name of the one name considered most crucial (or possibly the last quoted) is also found in Mark 1.2-3 where words from Malachi and Isaiah are combined under the name of Isaiah. Compare also Romans 3.10-18 which is a miscellany under ‘as it is written’, although no one is named there.
It is clearly not therefore accidental that in Matthew the account of the consequences of Judas’ betrayal follows immediately on the description of the betrayal of Jesus by the chief priests and elders of the people (verses 1-2, 3, see also vv. 12, 20). It is because he intends to connect them with this theme from the prophets. The prophecies may well therefore be seen as having influenced the order in which Matthew 27.1-10 was written, although not in such a way as to distort the truth. (Had he been inventing all this he could easily have made the parallels much closer).
And we are almost certainly intended to see from this that the dire things that happened to Judas as a consequence of what he did, were a warning also of worse things to come on the chief priests and elders of the people because of what they would do, with the words of Zechariah and Jeremiah, and the connection with a ‘field connected with a potter’ (verses 7 & 10), all of which are connected with the idea of judgment on the leaders of the Jews, being seen as a confirmation of it. The potter’s field, the Field of Blood, stood as a witness against Israel ‘to this day’. Indeed the vivid description in Jeremiah 19.7-9 is so descriptive of the siege of Jerusalem by the Romans that had it not been totally impossible we might have felt it necessary to declare that it was written after that siege, thus dating Jeremiah in 80-90 AD!
So we may sum up by saying that while he cited Zechariah’s words first, Matthew’s ascription of the whole citation to Jeremiah demonstrates that it is Jeremiah's contribution that he sees as finally basic to the lesson being taught, because it was his words that were the specific symbol of Israel's judgment (or alternately because Jeremiah’s contribution comes last, but in this case as we have seen he had a purpose in mentioning Jeremiah). This is why he mentions Jeremiah, indicating that that is the clue as to where we should look for the significance of the event. Furthermore the fact that the potter's field in Matthew was bought for burying Gentiles in, and that burials were a reminder of coming death, might further have suggested to Matthew the many Gentiles as well as Jews who would die in the coming destruction of Jerusalem as forecast by Jesus (Matthew 24; see especially Luke 21.20). It certainly adds to the overall sense of death and judgment.
End of Excursus.
Examination Before Pilate (27.11-14).
The examination before Pilate is described with remarkable conciseness. Matthew feels that he has already made clear the nature of the charges against Jesus (for a summary of them see Luke 23.2). The main difference lies in the fact that instead of the charge being that He is the Messiah, the Son of God, it is that He is declaring Himself to be ‘the King of the Jews’. The religious charge has become a political, one that should concern Pilate. He is said to be claiming to be a self-appointed King over against the ruler appointed by Caesar. But as we have already learned in 2.2 ‘King of the Jews’ is the Gentile name for the Expected One. Thus Jesus will not deny being the King of the Jews. But He will deny having any intention of seeking to oppose Caesar.
Once again, however, in the face of the charges brought by the Chief Priests and Elders He says nothing. His dignified silence brings home their guilt, and He leaves them to condemn themselves, while at the same time impressing Pilate. ‘As a sheep before his shearers is dumb, so He opened not His mouth’ (Isaiah 53.7). We are left recognising that something like John 18.33-38 is required in order to give us the full picture. Jesus would not deign to answer the false charges of ‘the shearers’, a vivid picture of those who sought to tear away His innocence, but He was quite willing to speak with Pilate alone. For the false rulers of the Jews He had no time. They had revealed themselves for what they were.
Note that in ‘a’ He stands before the Governor, who asks Him concerning His status, and in the parallel the Governor marvels. In ‘b’ He gives no reply to the Chief Priests and Elders, and in the parallel He gives no answer to Pilate concerning what they have said. Centrally in ‘c’ we have a description of the charges which have been heaped up on the basis of insufficient evidence, bringing home the perfidy of the Chief Priests and Elders.
27.11 ‘Now Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, saying, “Are you the King of the Jews?” And Jesus said to him, “It is you who say” ’
It is made clear here in what terms the Chief Priests and Elders have brought their charge. It is on the basis that He is claiming to be ‘the King of the Jews’. This was the kind of claim that Pilate would be interested in, a political charge of prospective treason. As we have already seen it parallels the title given by the Magi in 2.2. See also 27.29, 37 which reveal what an impact this title had had on him. The people of Israel did not speak of themselves as ‘Jews’. They were ‘Jews’ to outsiders. But the title carries within it the idea of the Expected One seen from a Gentile point of view. It thus carried within it intrinsically a threat to law and order, and the peace of the realm.
So when Pilate asks Jesus if He is, as His accusers have stated that He has claimed, the King of the Jews, His reply is again, ‘It is you who have said it’ (compare 26.64). Once more it is not a denial but an indication that He is being misrepresented. He is in a sense the King of the Jews, but not in the sense in which His accusers have used the term. In John 18.34 He puts it this way, ‘do you say this of your own accord, or did others say it to you about Me?’ The quiet way in which Jesus replies carries with it its own indication of innocence. Pilate would have expected a vociferous denial, or a belligerent and snarling agreement. What he was not expecting from this bound and disreputable looking figure (made disreputable looking by the treatment that He had received) was a reasoned reply.
‘The Governor.’ Pilate was strictly a Praefectus (testified to by an inscription that has been discovered), a military man put in charge of overseeing the running of a state where trouble might be expected. It was his responsibility to oversee the governing of the state and maintain its peaceful state without necessarily himself being directly involved in running it on a continual basis. As long as peace was maintained and taxes were paid they could run themselves, apart from when he felt it necessary to step in. All major decisions, however, lay in his hands, especially decisions concerning treason, and he could go about dealing with them almost as he would, as long as he maintained the peace. Thus this was a decision which very much depended on him. But first he had to be sure of the nature of the charge. And while outwardly it appeared quite simple (Jesus was setting Himself up as a king) it was clear to him that neither side were quite saying what he would normally have understood by the charge. On the one hand it was clear that the rulers of the Jews had religious motives for their action, and on the other there was nothing about Jesus that suggested the revolutionary. Furthermore he must have had some previous intelligence about Jesus. What had been going on in Jerusalem would not have been totally ignored by his spies and informers, and he had good cause to know that Jesus was not an insurrectionist. Thus he was baffled, and yet very much impressed with Jesus.
But he was a man on a knife edge. While he disliked the Jewish rulers, and despised them, there was on the other hand the sad fact that certain complaints had gone to Tiberius Caesar about him in the not too distant past so that he had fairly recently suffered a rebuke at Caesar’s hands. Thus while he did not necessarily want to do what the Jews were asking of him unless they could demonstrate their case, and would indeed have gained some pleasure from thwarting them, he knew that he could not afford to have another complaint made against him on a doubtful matter. And his problem was increased further by Jesus’ unwillingness to defend himself openly. Roman custom laid much emphasis on the right of a man to defend himself, and His silence thus presented him with another difficulty. For while he could see that the prisoner was not anything like He was portrayed as being, that would not be obvious in any report reaching Caesar. All that that would say was that the prisoner had offered no defence. The conclusion would be obvious. This explains the ambivalent attitude that he displays.
27.12 ‘And when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he answered nothing.’
The prosecutors, and the witnesses for the prosecution then brought their case before Pilate. The responsibility is again laid directly on the Chief Priests and Elders. But to Pilate’s amazement Jesus made absolutely no reply. The more they screamed the louder was Jesus’ silence. It was as though this battered and bound prisoner was looking at His accusers with disdain because He was fully aware that all their accusations were false. He certainly did not give the appearance of being either a fervent insurrectionist, or a truculent wrongdoer. And Pilate who was experienced in such matters, also recognised the weakness of their case. He was fully aware of the kind of people that they were, having almost certainly noted which members of the Sanhedrin were actively present, something which probably told him a great deal. And he was aware that they had not gone to all this trouble against other insurrectionists. But he still could not understand why Jesus said nothing. Before him people were not in the habit of standing there in dignified silence. They usually cringed and pleaded.
27.13 ‘Then says Pilate to him, “Do you not hear how many things they witness against you?” ’
So He tried to chivvy Jesus into making a defence. “Do you not hear how many things they witness against you?” Surely Jesus could at least dispose of some of the charges, and at the same time explain His true position. Note how we have an indication here of the wide ranging charges that they had brought against Him, simply hoping that one would impress Pilate. These included perverting the nation, calling on people not to pay their taxes to Caesar, and claiming to be a king (Luke 23.2).
Pilate was not used to silent prisoners apart from those whose guilt was obvious. And it would in fact be difficult to understand what follows if we did not have the explanation given in John 18.33-38, for it is impossible to believe that, in view of His silence, Pilate made no attempt to interrogate Him and reason with Him privately. The defence given by the accused was an important part of Roman justice. Matthew is, however, not interested in the detail. He simply wants it recognised that Pilate was not really wanting to be involved in the case.
27.14 ‘And he gave him no answer, not even to one word, insomuch that the governor marvelled greatly.’
Jesus continued to maintain His silence in the face of His accusers. He stood there as regally as His situation would permit, (sufficiently to impress Pilate), and not one word left His mouth. This constant silence in the face of the accusations is a constant feature of the narratives in all the Gospels, which are in their own way consistent in this regard throughout (26.62; 27.12, 14; Mark 14.60-61; 15.4; Luke 23.9; John 19.9-10). He disdains to argue about what should not have needed to be argued, before those who did not want to know the truth, because He knew that they had not a jot of evidence against Him and yet would proceed anyway. But when alone with Pilate He is willing to speak with him (John 18.33-38), not so much in order to rebut the arguments as to make plain His true position to him. He does not, however, at any time, make any attempt to obtain His freedom. He lets the world pass judgment on itself, if it is unwilling to face the obvious truth. In this lies the evidence of His complete certainty about His future.
Pilate Tries The Way Of Compromise And Ends Up Having To Give Way By Washing His Hands Of The Whole Situation In Declaration Of Jesus’ Innocence (27.15-26).
Matthew now confirms that the Chief Priests and Elders are the main causes of Jesus’ death, in that, having delivered Jesus to Pilate with the aim of having Him executed, it is they who press the charges, and they who arouse the Jerusalemites to call for His crucifixion and release ‘Jesus Barabbas’ (a reading found in Theta and f1 and a few versions and confirmed as early by Origen). At the same time he reveals that both Pilate and his wife see Jesus as innocent, the latter in a way that suggests supernatural intervention. Central to the passage is the question, ‘what then shall I do with Jesus Who is called Messiah?’, a question which produces the response, ‘Let Him be crucified’. Jerusalem has given its verdict.
Note that in ‘a’ Pilate was in the habit of releasing a prisoner in accordance with popular request, and in the parallel He releases Barabbas and not Jesus. In ‘b’ Pilate gives the choice to the crowd of either Barabbas or Jesus, and in the parallel the crowd take Jesus’ blood on their own heads. In ‘c’ his wife declares Jesus innocent before a ‘heavenly’ court, and in the parallel Pilate declares Jesus innocent before the representatives of the whole Jewish people. In ‘d’ the Chief Priests and Elders persuade the crowd, and in the parallel Pilate prevails nothing. In ‘e’ the crowds cry for the release of Barabbas in response to Pilate’s question, and in the parallel in response to Pilate’s question they cry for the crucifixion of Jesus. Centrally in ‘f they are faced up with what should be done with Jesus the Messiah, and they demand His crucifixion. Note also the repetition of ‘let Him be crucified’ in the second half of the chiasmus, a repetitive feature often found in the second part of Biblical chiasmi.
27.15 ‘Now at the feast the governor was in the habit of releasing (was wont to release) to the crowd one prisoner, whom they would.’
Unsure what to do next Pilate then took advantage of a local custom in order to obtain Jesus’ release. We have no external evidence of this custom in connection with Palestine, although there is a hint of it in Rabbinic tradition, but the granting of amnesties in order to please the people was a fairly common practise among ancient rulers, and there are therefore no good grounds for denying this rather unique one. It was the kind of practise that could easily grow up as a means which was used in order to keep the people content. It is arguable that it could only apply to prisoners who had not yet been condemned.
However, the fact of this custom would mean that the crowd attracted to the Praetorium on this morning of the first day of the week would be likely to contain more than its fair share of Jewish belligerents who were wanting to obtain the release of a favoured figure. They had therefore in the main probably come specifically in order to obtain the release of Barabbas. Furthermore they were probably those who would show little favour towards Jesus Whom they probably saw as ‘soft on the Romans’.
27.16 ‘And they had then a notable prisoner, called Barabbas.’
The word ‘notable’ here simply indicates well known. He was someone well known to the crowds as a patriot, and featured strongly in the minds of his captors as a notorious insurrectionist.
‘Called Barabbas (son of Abbas).’ An unusual Greek phrase as it stands, for we might expect another name prior to it. We can compare John 9.11, ‘a man who is called Jesus’; and Luke 22.47, ‘called Judas’. On the other hand in Mark 10.46 there is a man who is the son of Timaeus who is still simply called Bartimaeus. Thus on that basis it would appear that such a name can stand by itself. Some authorities here have the name ‘Jesus’ added to Barabbas, and Origen (who rejected it on theological grounds) refers to very early manuscripts which contained it (see also above). Indeed he says ‘many early manuscripts do not contain it’ which might suggest, although not necessarily, that many did. (It could simply indicate that some did) The unlikelihood of this reading finding its way into a text, and the good likelihood that if it were there it would be excised by devout Christian copyists, is often seen as favouring its inclusion, and it may well be that originally this read ‘Jesus who is called Barabbas’. On the other hand the manuscript evidence is not at all strong among the manuscripts that we do have, and it could equally be said that it is the kind of thing that might well have appealed to a certain kind of mind as an interesting addition and contrast to introduce, for Barabbas could also loosely mean ‘son of the father (abba)’, and ‘Joshua/Jesus’ was a popular name. Thus in view of the manuscript evidence we must probably reject it.
Barabbas and his fellow-insurrectionists were murderers, although probably seen as patriots by certain of the Jews because they would be seen as acting against the Romans in the name of God. It was in fact from such as these that many expected the Messiah to come. Such men would thus have had a certain amount of popular support among the more belligerent Jews, and the presence of such Jews at this time would be expected because of the well know custom. That custom would also mean that at least two men would have been brought there by arrangement in order to be offered to the crowds, which would explain why two other insurrectionists were already there, who would be executed along with Jesus, and why there was a crowd gathered here at all at this time. Apart from those deliberately brought together by the Chief Priests and Elders with a view to obtaining support for their case, and a few sightseers, this crowd would therefore have been very much one which favoured the insurrectionists. We must not therefore parallel them with the crowds who had welcomed Jesus (21.9), except by way of contrast. These before Pilate may well in fact mainly have been Jerusalemites. It is thus going far beyond the evidence to suggest that it was the whole Jewish race that condemned Jesus. Indeed had a consensus been taken among the Jews of Palestine at that time Jesus would probably have been revealed as highly favoured. That is why, far from it being true that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, we will rather discover that many would shortly respond to Him fully, both in Jerusalem and throughout the world.
‘Notable.’ The word can be seen as either positive or negative in its significance. He was probably seen as notorious by Pilate, and as a hero by the Jews. He was the kind of man who appealed to their patriotism, the kind who carried into practise what they often thought in their hearts.
27.17 ‘When therefore they were gathered together, Pilate said to them, “Whom will you that I release to you? Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” ’
So Pilate, having recognised that for the sake of peace, and in order to prevent a further complaint to Caesar, he would possibly have to yield to the demands of the rulers in Jerusalem, sought a way out of his dilemma by appealing to the crowds. Surely given the opportunity, once given a choice between Jesus and the notorious Barabbas, they would choose Jesus, the prophet with Messianic connections Who, as he knew from his spies, was so popular? So, aware of the general popularity of Jesus, and not yet aware of the exact composition of the crowd, (he did not understand the vagaries of the Jewish mind), he probably thought that the way the decision would go would be obvious. He therefore put to them the choice, ‘Barabbas, or Jesus Who is called Messiah’. If they made the expected response then he would have sufficient answer to Caesar for any charge that he had set free a man guilty of treason. But, of course, the problem with this approach was that once the crowd sided with the Chief Priests, and with Barabbas whose freedom many of them were actually there to obtain, it made his position untenable. Any charge to Caesar would now look as black as could be.
‘Jesus Who is called Messiah.’ He had a vague idea about Messianic claimants being popular among the Jews, and knew that such claims had been attached by some to Jesus. On the other hand Jesus had been carefully watched, and he knew that He presented no danger to Rome. Thus he was quite ready to use the idea in order to gain what he was looking for.
‘Gathered together.’ In view of the use of the verb in 26.3, 57; 27.27 this is ominous. These too are ‘gathered together’ to condemn Jesus, even though Pilate was not yet aware of it. The same choice still faces the world. Sinful Barabbas and his like or the sinless Messiah? And the world regularly ‘gathers together’ and opts for Barabbas. These people were not unique. The majority of the world still agree to opt for Barabbas under various guises, for Jesus’ demands are too great.
27.18 ‘For he knew that for envy they had delivered him up.’
And the reason that Pilate was so desirous of getting Jesus released was because he was aware of the motives of the Jewish rulers. He recognised that they were acting out of spite and jealousy against Someone of Whom they were afraid because He had continually exposed them, and against Someone Who was more popular than they were. (Constant information would have come back to Pilate about Jesus’ activities. With the excitement He aroused among the crowds He was the kind of person Who would have been kept under strict observation). And he knew that if he could but get the crowds on Jesus’ side and arrange the release accordingly, using the custom previously referred to, he would be off the hook. However the problem that he had was that he still did not understand the mentality of certain Jews. Nor did he consider the fact that someone being championed by him was unlikely to be chosen. The last thing any of them wanted to do was to please Pilate.
27.19 ‘And while he was sitting on the judgment-seat, his wife sent to him, saying, “Do not have anything to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered many things this day in a dream because of him.” ’
Meanwhile a further event took place which added to his confusion. He received a note from his wife. She may well have been informed about the case briefly when Pilate was called on to examine it, and servant’s gossip would soon let her know that it was Jesus Who was being arraigned. And it is very likely that she had herself heard Jesus preaching and had been impressed by Him. Bored Roman matrons often took an interest in such things. Thus the thought that this ‘righteous man’ was being brought in for trial would certainly help to explain from a human point of view why she had nightmares about it as she lay there and wondered what was going on. Especially as she knew that He was a Jewish prophet and had amazing powers. These nightmares might well then have been seen by her as sent by the gods, and have thus resulted in this warning sent to her husband before he had passed his judgment. It was a very superstitious age, and it is quite likely that she would not want her husband involved in condemning someone who was so clearly a favourite of the gods. Nor need we doubt that God was in it in order to emphasise Jesus’ innocence.
‘Judgment seat (bema).’ This is the first mention of his official ‘seat of judgment’ which was probably placed, when it was required, outside his official residence while he was in Jerusalem (the Praetorium). This last may have been the fortress Antonia, or more likely it was Herod the Great’s official main palace on the western hill of the city overlooking the remainder of Jerusalem. The Bema had probably already been set up in order for him to offer the freeing of a prisoner to the Passover crowd in accordance with the custom.
“Do not have anything to do with that righteous man.” Literally ‘nothing to you and that righteous man’, in other words having responsibility for what happens to Him is best avoided, for He is not really a candidate for being judged. It is not so much Jesus that she is concerned about, as what the repercussion might be on herself and her husband. ‘Righteous man’ was a phrase regularly used of men of exceptional goodness and piety in the pagan world.
In Scripture dreams are regularly the means by which the less favoured are seen as receiving a word from God, or from the gods. Compare Joseph and the Magi (1.20; 2.12, 13, 19, 22). Here we have another connection with chapter 2 (compare also ‘King of the Jews’ (verse 11, compare 2.2), reference to Jeremiah the prophet (verse 9, compare 2.17), reference to Jesus the Galilaean (26.69, compare 2.22); reference to Jesus the Nazarene (26.71 compare 2.23); and comments on 27.3, 5 relating to chapter 2). Thus Jesus is to be seen as fulfilling His destiny as laid down in chapters 1-2. But we should note that Pilate’s wife did not receive a message as such, she simply suffered great spiritual torment. In that sense her dream is not strictly parallel with those in chapter 2.
27.20 ‘Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowds that they should ask for Barabbas, and destroy Jesus.’
Matthew again brings out the part played by the Chief Priests and the Elders in the destruction of Jesus. In his eyes they are the chief culprits. He is very much aware of what their future holds for them as made clear in chapters 23-24. Note in the use of ‘destroy’ a further connection to chapter 2 (2.13), as well as to 12.14. The lack of mention of the Scribes and Pharisees is a reminder that this was not a polemic against the Scribes and Pharisees of later Judaism. It was dealing with the situation as it was.
‘Persuaded.’ The Chief Priests and Elders are the evil force behind what is happening and they are using all their influence in order to get Jesus condemned. The description ‘the crowds’ in Matthew is usually a neutral indication of those who are not main players. They are the ‘also rans’. Here the crowds are almost certainly made up of a mixture of supporters of the Chief Priests and Elders, friends and supporters of the insurrectionists, who have come to see Barabbas set free in accordance with custom, and possibly a few local sightseers, who have gathered at that early hour of the morning, all mainly representing Jerusalem (there is no dissenting voice). To Matthew it is Jerusalem that condemns Jesus as verse 25 makes clear. (Compare ‘all Jerusalem with him’ in 2.3. Jerusalem was no safe place for Jesus).
27.21 ‘But the governor answered and said to them, “Which of the two will you that I release to you?” And they said, “Barabbas.” ’
Having painted the picture found in verses 18-20 Matthew now comes back to Pilate’s question to the crowds. Pilate wants them to make a choice between the two. Their reply confirmed his fears. They asked for Barabbas whom they probably saw as something of a hero. He had done what they would have liked to do, but had never dared to, cock a snook at the Romans.
27.22 ‘Pilate says to them, “What then shall I do to Jesus who is called Messiah?” They all say, “Let him be crucified.” ’
Pilate then made a further attempt to avoid the inevitable. Perhaps he could get the crowds to suggest leniency for Jesus. So he asks them what he should do to Jesus. But by doing so he has handed the initiative over to the crowds, and the Chief Priests and Elders had done their work too well. They had no doubt incited the crowds by talk of blasphemy and contrasted Jesus with the heroic insurrectionists. Thus it was now the crowds who yelled out, “Let him be crucified.” They were well aware of what had been intended for Barabbas. Thus in their view it would be a suitable end for One Whom Pilate was trying to protect, a ‘favourite’ of the Romans.
27.23 ‘And he said, “Why, what evil has he done?” But they cried out exceedingly, saying, “Let him be crucified.” ’
Pilate protested Jesus’ innocence, but that was enough to guarantee that they would have no mercy. They liked to think that they had Pilate on the ropes, and as Jerusalemites or zealot sympathisers they had little sympathy for Jesus. Thus they repeated their demand even more strongly, “Let him be crucified.”
This cry makes clear that we are not talking about an average crowd. This was not just calling for the death sentence on a blasphemer, but for a curse on someone so that He would be totally despised. No ordinary Jewish crowd would have asked for this kind of punishment for Jesus. This was a crowd which saw Him as a traitor, which fits in with the idea that they were either close supporters of the Chief Priests or supporters of the insurrectionists, and thus saw Jesus with His peace loving ways as an enemy of the people.
27.24 ‘So when Pilate saw that he prevailed nothing, but rather that a tumult was arising, he took water, and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, “I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man. You see to it.” ’
By this time Pilate was angry and frustrated, both because his scheme had failed and because of his disgust at their willingness to have an innocent man crucified. (We are often disgusted when we see in others something that is despicable, even if we have often excused the same thing in ourselves. It is one of the quirks of human nature). And he remembered the note from his wife. So he cudgelled his brain as to how he could get back at the crowds, and from the knowledge of their ways that he had built up over the last few years he thought of something that would demonstrate what he thought of them. He would use their own custom and wash his hands of guilt for the prisoner’s sentence. Possibly he also hoped that it might make them change their minds as it brought home to them what they were doing. It was one thing for them to heap on him the responsibility of crucifying someone, but let them consider that in this case it would be they who were actually causing the crucifixion of one of their own. They could not in this case blame it on their cruel conquerors. They and they alone were demanding it. He may thus by washing his hands publicly have been seeking to face them up to what was involved, in the hope of then being able to inflict a lighter sentence.
The method by which he did this was by using a Jewish custom mentioned in Deuteronomy 21.6 and expanded in thought in Psalm 26.6; 73.13. It was something that had clearly made quite an impression on him. The idea behind it was that those involved in washing their hands were demonstrating that they were not involved in some sin. And that was precisely what an angry Pilate wished to convey to them. He wanted them to know that while they as a bloodthirsty crowd could seemingly behave in this way it simply disgusted all ‘good men’ like himself. Using their own symbolism was a clever way of indicating his contempt. It rammed home his point even more effectively. If he was aware at all of its context he would know that by it they would recognise that they were being accused of the murder of this victim. But alternately it may simply have become a recognised Jewish method of setting aside guilt as in Psalm 73.13. Either way, however, it was a pointed indication of what he thought of them. Let them face up to what they were doing and recognise that if they did this thing they could not then throw the blame onto him. Could they really crucify one of their own after all that they had said time and again about crucifixion?
“I am innocent of the blood of this righteous man.” The reference to ‘this righteous man’ indicates how much his wife’s note was on his mind. And it would seem also to be clear that something about Jesus had come home to Pilate, tough-minded soldier though he was, so that he really felt that he must distance himself from this treatment of Him. Anyone who knows human nature will recognise how typical this is of what has happened throughout history. Again and again when danger has faced men who in it reveal true fearlessness and goodness, it has moved leading men to seek to exonerate them or lessen their sentence, even though they have often failed to achieve their aim. Such courage can be very moving to those who judge men. It was not otherwise with Pilate. However, as far as Matthew is concerned his words simply confirms the verdict already given by Judas about Jesus (verse 4). It was the innocent Who was about to die, as even the vilest of men recognised. And he wants the point to come over to his readers emphatically.
‘See you to it.’ Compare verse 4. The Chief Priests had tried to divert the blame from themselves in a similar way. But neither they, nor Pilate here, succeeded. We cannot so easily divest ourselves of guilt over things in which we have had a part, try as we will.
27.25 ‘And all the people answered and said, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” ’
For the idea here compare 2 Samuel 1.16; 3.28. The people recognised quite clearly what Pilate was trying to do, and had been worked up into such a fever that they replied vociferously, “His blood be on us, and on our children.” They had recognised the symbol and were quite ready to take the blood guilt on themselves if it would frustrate Pilate. They treated the death of Jesus as lightly as the Chief Priests had treated Judas. But little were they aware of how literally God would take it, for within forty years their city would become a blood bath the like of which has rarely been seen since. Then they would bear their blood guilt indeed. We should note here how in Daniel 9.26 the ‘cutting off’ of the Anointed One (Messiah) is also connected with the destruction of Jerusalem.
‘All the people.’ Strictly this means ‘all who were present there’, that is, all the crowd as they bayed as one. They knew the pressure that unanimity could apply. Compare ‘all Jerusalem’ in 2.3. Once again the whole city was, as it were, aroused against Jesus. We should recognise that the idea is not that the whole Jewish nation will bear the guilt, and indeed many of that nation would come to Christ in the years that followed. It is rather that Jerusalem will bear the guilt, as indeed it did in a terrible way.
(As we have constantly stressed the guilt cannot be laid at the door of the Jewish nation as a whole, except in so far as it can be laid at the doors of all men. It is strange how people who would never take on themselves the guilt of a particular crime in which they were not directly involved, will nevertheless happily apply such guilt to others. I remember well how as a teacher in a school made up mainly of West Indians there were some who vociferously informed me that I wholly shared the guilt of the practise of slavery, while even the more well disposed still thought that there was some truth in it. And when I pointed out that I accepted no guilt at all for what others had done, and that I abhorred slavery, they yelled me down. Furthermore they would never admit that black tribes and Arabs were equally involved in the infamous trade, and therefore equally bore the blame. That would never do, for it might suggest that it was not white men who were totally to blame. And yet how quickly they would speak of it being unfair if a class was made to bear the guilt of a few (when it was often far more justified). It was a matter of ‘rules for some, and rules for others’. It is in a similar way that the Jews throughout history have often quite unfairly been made to bear the guilt of what happened here. But while certainly every Jew will have to give account for his failure to respond to Christ, as indeed will all who have so failed, it was only the minority, even in Jesus’ day, who were really responsible for it, and who can really be described as having been guilty of crucifying the Son of God).
27.26 ‘Then he released Barabbas to them, but he scourged Jesus and delivered him to be crucified.’
But Pilate could not escape the blame as easily as that, and Matthew clearly indicates his guilt in these words. In the end it is Pilate who frees Barabbas, and then has Jesus scourged, and finally handed over to his executioners so that He might be crucified (compare Jesus’ prophecy that this would be so in 20.19). His hands were therefore guilty, and washing his hands could never remove that stain.
Scourging was carried out with a many-thonged whip into which metal pieces and sharp bones had been intertwined. It would regularly bare a man’s back down to the bone. Few could survive it for long. But it was standard for any who were to be crucified. In a strange way it was merciful because it hastened death, but even so someone who was being crucified often survived for days unless their legs were broken, this latter preventing them from gaining the brief support that could enable them to survive a little longer. It was the cruellest of deaths, causing dreadful cramps and unbelievable strains on the muscles and tendons, as the body was twisted unnaturally, with the weight mainly on the arms, and the strains never truly eased. But a kind of saddle of wood under the buttocks enabled the crucified man to take part of the weight off his arms for a while, only to transfer much of it elsewhere until the pain in the legs or the resulting cramps also became too much. The man moved from one agony to another until he finally expired, often after suffering for days. Archaeologists have come across the body of a young man who was crucified in the first century AD. He had been nailed to the cross or stake (different forms were used) by his forearms, and his legs had been nailed with one nail. His legs were bent and had been broken and his whole body clearly revealed that he had suffered severely. Yet the remarkable thing is the way in which this physical agony is not mentioned in any of the Gospels (although to the early readers it may not have been necessary, as to them it was a fairly common sight). Concentration is on the significance of His death, and on His travail of soul.
The Final Farewell (27.27-54).
In sober words Matthew now portrays what Jesus had to endure from the moment when He was handed over to His executioners to be mocked as ‘the King of the Jews’ to the time when He breathes His last and His executioners testify that He is ‘the Son of God’.
Note how in ‘a’ the soldiers mock Him, and in the parallel they worship Him. In ‘b’ there are three witnesses to His downfall, and in the parallel there are three witnesses to His vindication. Centrally in ‘c’ we have His final hours.
But this passage divides into two parts. In the first part we again have a typical Matthaean ‘sandwich’. The crucifixion of Jesus as the King of the Jews is sandwiched between the mockery of the Gentile soldiers and the mockery of the Jewish Chief Priests and people. Thus it may be analysed as follows:
The Mock Adulation of the Soldiers (27.27-31).
Having been sentenced and committed to crucifixion Jesus now became fair game. It was not often that the soldiers had a royal claimant that they could do what they liked with. So they gathered their comrades-at-arms together, tore off his clothes, put on Him a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns, put a reed in His right hand and then mocked Him as ‘a king’. Then when they had had enough of their folly, they took back the robe, dressed Him in His own clothing, (which they would shortly be taking off Him when He needed it no longer), and took the reed which had been His ‘sceptre’ and beat Him over the head with it. These were the world’s last actions towards the King of Kings, before they sent Him back to God. But it is possibly to be seen as significant that they allowed Him to retain His crown. In God’s providence it was left there as God’s last reminder to those who would believe.
Analysis of verses 27-31.
Note that in ‘a’ they take Jesus into the Praetorium (to make ready for His crucifixion), and in the parallel they lead Him out to be crucified. In ‘b’ they strip Him and put on Him a scarlet robe, and in the parallel they take off the scarlet robe and redress Him (note the small chiasmus). In ‘c’ they plait a crown of thorns and put it on His head and put a reed in His right hand, and in the parallel they spit on Him, take the reed out of His hand and smite Him on the head (note again the small chiasmus). Centrally in ‘d’ they pay Him false honour, and not knowing how right they are, and how their words will ring out through the ages, mock Him with the cry, ‘Hail, king of the Jews’.
27.27 ‘Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium, and gathered together to him the whole band.’
Note Matthew’s emphasis on ‘the soldiers of the governor’. He is determined that Pilate should not to be exonerated. He alone was finally responsible for what happened, for the final authority was in his hands. From the outside, where the judgment seat had been set up, Jesus was taken into the courtyard of the Praetorium, the governor’s residence. And there the soldiers rallied their comrades in order that they might have a good time at Jesus’ expense. Note ‘the whole band’ and compare it with ‘all the people’ (verse 25), although it is not to be applied too literally. It really signifies as many as were available and wanted to take part. The point is that there was a good number who would do so. This mockery of prisoners was a regular practise in the ancient world, and would be inevitably indulged in by anyone who had charge of Him once He was seen to be beyond the pale. He was after all only a peasant in their eyes. No repercussions could therefore be expected, and it relieved the monotony. It was one of the ‘perks’ of the job. Thus we should not be surprised by its constant repetition, (as though normally guards treated their prisoners well). Such mockery of prisoners is well attested to in external sources.
‘And gathered to Him.’ So the world has ‘gathered together’ against Jesus. In 26.3 it was the Chief Priests and Elders who had ‘gathered together’ in order to plot His death, in 26.57 they had again ‘gathered together’ in order to ensure that He was sentenced, in 27.17 the crowds had ‘gathered together’ in order to condemn Jesus, and now the soldiers of Rome ‘gathered together’ in order to mock Him. We can compare Acts 4.26 citing Psalm 2.2 where the rulers ‘gathered together’ against the Lord’s Anointed. They will shortly ‘gather together’ to try to counter the dreadful news of His resurrection (27.62; 28.12).
27.28-29a ‘And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe, and plaited a crown of thorns and put it on his head, and a reed in his right hand.’
Then began the mockery and they wanted Him dressed for the part. So they took off His own bloodstained robe, and put on Him a scarlet robe which was intended to signify royalty. This may have been a soldier’s red robe, or it may have been an officer’s robe seen as more suitable for the part, or even one that they kept by for such occasions. Then they plaited a crown of thorns. The long thorns may well have been intended to indicate the rays of the sun, another depiction of royalty, or even of divinity. Such depictions were often seen on the coins of rulers and looked very similar to crowns of thorns. The soldiers would have a mixed-up understanding of what He had actually been accused of, and sentenced for. The reed in His right hand was intended to indicate a sceptre, and was equally intended to be puny. It was all mockery and make-believe.
The crown made from thornbushes would not have been put on gently. No doubt there was a general laugh when someone pressed it down hard, and we can be sure that every now and again someone sought none too gently to ensure that it stayed put. For these were men out for a good time at Jesus’ expense, and they had a cruel sense of humour.
We must not assume that this was all done in an orderly fashion. The soldiers were having a good time and there were no doubt many raucous suggestions, and different kinds of mocking behaviour at different times, as all tried to have their day. It would be quite chaotic, and they were experienced in vulgarity. Each summary in each Gospel merely summarises what would have been a raucous and uncontrolled scene. Man was letting himself go against Jesus.
To Christians, however, the thorns would be a reminder of God’s reward to man for his sin against Him (Genesis 3.18), and would thus be seen as an indication that Jesus was bearing on Himself the sins of the world. And they would see behind the mockery His genuine and glorious Kingship. And they would wonder, as the angels wondered, how it had been possible for their Saviour and Redeemer to suffer in this way, and how men could be so cruel.
27 29b ‘And they knelt down before him, and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” ’
But central to it all was the desire to mock His ‘claim’ to Kingship, and the horseplay no doubt began early and continued right through to the end as different ones thrust themselves forward trying to outdo what the previous ones had done. It is summarised here in the terms ‘they knelt down before him, and mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” ’ They knew after all that that was what lay behind His sentence. It was the accusation that the Chief Priests and Elders had felt was most suitable to present before Pilate, and that Pilate had brought before Jesus. It will also be paraded on His cross in order deliberately to anger the Jewish leaders. For this was how Gentiles saw the Jewish Messiah.
Note the contrast with the treatment by the Jewish guards (26.68). They had mocked Him as a prophet and Messianic pretender, these mocked Him as a failed claimant to Kingship. It all rings true.
27.30 ‘And they spat on him, and took the reed and smote him continually on the head.’
Spitting was, as it still is, a sign of contempt, and they held nothing back, and then one of them, no doubt to the delight of his comrades seized the reed from His hand and smote Him on the head with it. After which they all felt that they wanted to have a go. The spitting is again a reminder of Isaiah 50.6, although the connection is not brought out. Matthew’s Gospel is, however, full of such Scriptural nuances. The smiting with the reed was more in mockery than with the intention of hurting Him, but it would hit One Who was bruised and bleeding from His earlier scourging and could hardly have failed to cause pain.
27.31 ‘And when they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put on him his own clothes, and led him away to crucify him.’
Then at last they had had their fill of mocking Him, and duty called. So they took the robe off Him, and clothed Him in His own robe, and led Him away to crucify Him. The devilish mockery was over. The crown may well have been left in place. The soldiers were aware, from Pilate’s orders about the placard on the cross, that he was bent on angering the Jews.
Normally prisoners would be led to crucifixion naked, but the clothing was probably a concession to the Jewish hatred of nakedness. It would avoid offending the crowd. It will be noted in all this that no mention is made of how Jesus behaved under this treatment. What Matthew is concerned to bring out here is how the ‘world’ treated Him, intending by it a complete contrast with His later genuine coronation (28.18; compare also 25.31)
Jesus Is Put To Death As The King of The Jews (27.32-37).
That Matthew saw the thought of the crucifixion of his Master as hard to bear comes out especially in these few short verses. There is no emphasis on the actual crucifixion. Indeed he passes quickly over the actual act of crucifying Jesus with the words ‘having crucified Him, they --’, and this becomes rather a step towards why He is there. It is because He is ‘the King of the Jews’. This last is both the accusation and His glory. This is what the whole of the Gospel has been leading up to, the suffering and humiliation of the King of the Jews, which was already in a sense foreshadowed in chapter 2. Unlike the remainder of the Gospel to this point his words are here quite noticeably in the form of a sequence, rather than a chiasmus. This would have been very noticeable to his first readers. By this means he prevents the actual act of crucifixion from being central, and ensures that the focus is rather on the stages of the humiliation through which He must go, and it then results in an emphasis on why He suffers. He is suffering because He is the Expected King. The sequence proceeds as follows (note the tenses of the verbs which are expressed literally):
The sequence is quite vivid. Two past participles are sandwiched between two present participles (a kind of chiasmus) in order to bring out that the coming out of Jerusalem is a process, followed by the arrival and crucifying which are specific acts, followed by the sitting and watching Him which is a process. And all of this occurs because He is Jesus, The King of the Jews, the coming Suffering Messiah. We must also see that Matthew expects us to recognise that in the mention of ‘Jesus’ He is being seen as the One Who will save His people from their sins (1.21).
But while Matthew glides over the actual crucifixion we must not think that he is ignoring what was involved in it for the passage is filled with indications of suffering and death. The phrase ‘carry His cross’ contains within it the idea of deliberately walking into suffering and death (16.24), the stress on ‘the place of the Skull’ brings home the idea of death and physical corruption (only bare bones will be left), the refusal to drink of the wine is an indication that He will bear His suffering to the full without amelioration, the dividing of His clothes is an indication of the supreme humiliation of His being displayed naked on the cross open to the gaze of all, and also draws attention to the fact that all His worldly possessions are given to others (‘shall be cut off and shall have nothing’ - Daniel 9.26), while the watching of Him by the guards both indicates that they gaze on Him in His nakedness (‘they look and stare at me’ - Psalm 22.17) and that they watch Him in order to prevent His being delivered from the hands of his executioners. Their aim is to ensure that He dies where He is.
27.32 ‘And as they came out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name, him they compelled to go with them, that he might bear his cross.’
‘As they came out.’ ‘Out’ is being emphasised. Clearly this is intended to mean ‘out of Jerusalem.’ Jesus, surrounded by His four guards, would already have been trailed through the streets of Jerusalem in a kind of circular tour as a reminder to the people of what happened to rebels, and now He has come out through the gates, and presumably collapses in weakness. Thus a passing civilian is impressed for service in order to carry His crosspiece for Him. The probability is that Simon looked burly enough for the task not to be seen as too difficult for him.
However, the indication behind the words is that those who would bear Jesus’ cross must do so ‘outside Jerusalem’. Later it will be emphasised that Jesus died outside Jerusalem as a ‘bearer of reproach’ because Israel thought that they were thereby expelling Him (Hebrews 13.12-13), while the type of execution was seen as putting Him under a curse in the eyes of all Jews (Deuteronomy 21.23; Galatians 3.13). But the point being made here is that the new Israel must be fashioned ‘outside Jerusalem’ with Him. The fact that Simon is named makes clear that he was (or became) a believer, and is therefore here representative of all believers. Matthew is not big on names unless he has some purpose for them. Mark in fact makes it even clearer that his family was a believing one by naming his sons. As the one who bore Jesus’ cross Simon’s name would resound wherever the Gospel went. So here the indication is that those who would join with Simon in bearing the cross of Jesus will also be required to come outside all that Jerusalem stands for. For Jerusalem itself, and all that it means, is rejected and devoted to destruction.
Cyrene was a capital city in Northern Africa and contained a Jewish community, so that Simon may have been visiting from there. But there was a Cyrenian synagogue in Jerusalem (Acts 6.9), which could thus easily have been his ‘home’. Furthermore Christian Jews from Cyrene are mentioned in Acts 11.20; 13.1. Simon was therefore almost certainly an African Jew, possibly dwelling in Jerusalem, who had become, or would become, a believer.
‘Him they compelled (impressed) to go with them.’ The Roman soldiers took advantage of their right to impress anyone who was not a Roman citizen in order that they might make them carry their burdens for one ‘milion’ (compare Matthew 5.41). All they had to do was tap the person on the shoulder with a spear. As it was usual for the one who was to be crucified to carry his own cross-piece, the suggestion must be that Jesus was collapsing with exhaustion and suffering, while the soldiers would certainly not deign to carry it themselves. Thus the impressment. All this would be recognised by Matthew’s readers.
‘That he might bear His cross.’ Never was man more privileged. But he was almost certainly taking on himself a lifetime commitment. As a believer he would carry Jesus’ cross from then on. And, as we have seen, it is being made clear here that it was something that could only be done outside the sphere of the Jerusalem hierarchy. There can be little doubt that Matthew intends us to connect these words with 16.24 which they parallel almost word for word. There, of course, it was the disciples’ own cross that was to be borne as he took up the way of suffering and self-denial for Jesus’ sake, but it would soon become recognised that that also involved bearing Jesus’ cross (Romans 6.3-7; Galatians 2.20), and that is what Matthew has in mind here. All who ‘bore His cross’ in the future would be declaring their intention to live and die for Christ, whatever the cost. There is here an indication of the oneness of Jesus with His true people. While He alone could bear the sins of the world, His own must join with Him in bearing its tribulations (20.26-28; Colossians 1.24). And it began here. God is hereby reminding us that we must share with Him in the fellowship of His suffering (Philippians 3.10).
Implicit, however, in all this is that Jesus’ was so overburdened by the suffering that He had endured that another had to help in the carrying of His cross because His body had become so weak. Think of it. The Son of God unable to carry a piece of wood. So had God lowered Himself in becoming man (Philippians 2.5-12), but by it He was indicating that He would constantly call on men to share with Him, not in His sacrifice of Himself, but as partners in His sufferings (Colossians 1.24).
27.33 ‘And they were come to a place called Golgotha, that is to say, it was called, The place of a skull,’
Humanly speaking it was a coincidence that the place where Jesus died was called ‘the place of a Skull’ (Kraniou topos). It may have been a name given because a skull had once been discovered there. The repetition of ‘was called’ suggests that this is not just an interpretation but that it was called (or came to be called) this in both Aramaic as ‘Gulgolta’ (where it simply means ‘Skull’) and in Greek as ‘Kraniou topos’ (‘place of a skull’). It certainly would be called this ever afterwards, even if not before this time. We cannot really doubt that there is the implication here that, in Christian eyes at least it was a place of death. A skull represented death and corruption. Thus here we have a further emphasis on the fact that Jesus has been brought to the place of death. Interestingly enough the skull and crossbones (indicating the whole self) would later come to indicate resurrection, but that was only because of what Jesus accomplished here.
The present site of Golgotha (Gulgolta) is unknown. The traditional site was determined over three hundred years later, and by then much had taken place since this had happened, including the destruction and rebuilding of Jerusalem, and the emptying of it of its inhabitants. It is unlikely therefore that the true site would have been remembered, especially as interest in such sites was not a phenomenon of the time, but would arise much later. The focus of the Apostles’ generation was on the risen Christ. But the site would certainly have been on a rise near the road so that the public could observe quite clearly what happened to the opponents of Rome.
27.34 ‘They gave him wine to drink mingled with gall, and when he had tasted it, he would not drink.’
The soldiers then gave him ‘wine mingled with gall’. If meant literally this might mean wine which had been mixed with wormwood, a flavouring testified to in the ancient world, thus indicating a dry wine. But this would contrast with the myrrh-mingled, and therefore strengthened, wine mentioned by Mark 15.23. It may, however, be that Matthew knew that the wine mingled with frankincense, which was often provided by wealthy women of Jerusalem to soothe the sufferings of men who were being crucified, had been taken over by the soldiers and then mingled with gall (a bitter secretion from the liver), or something equally bitter which could be described as gall, as a kind of crude joke. This would tie in with Psalm 69.21, ‘they gave me also gall for my food, and in my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink’, which is the idea that Matthew intends us to see here. It may, however, be that Matthew’s description is based on this Psalm and is simply indicating that this strengthened wine was really like offering gall to Jesus as it reminded Him of the suffering that He must face. Whichever way it was it further emphasises the sufferings that Jesus was undergoing in accordance with Scripture.
Note that His tasting of it indicates that He did not see Himself as bound by a promise not to drink wine, otherwise He would not have tasted it. The fact that He did not drink further indicates that He had reason for not doing so, either because the soldiers had doctored it with something bitter (even an over-abundance of myrrh), or because He did not want to take a soporific. For He knew that He had to drink the cup that His Father had given Him to the full. Possibly had it been ordinary wine for the quenching of thirst He would have drunk further.
27.35-36 ‘And when they had crucified him, they parted his clothes among them, casting lots, and they sat and watched him there.
‘And having crucified Him.’ How quickly the actual crucifixion is passed over, how deep was its significance. In many cases it indicated the beginning of hours and days of suffering, as the stretched but distorted body of the victim fought to survive the paroxysms that constantly seized it, first as the victim relaxed his pain torn arms, and then as he relaxed his pain torn legs. But in this case it involved more. It indicated the bearing of a curse for the sins of mankind. ‘He was made sin for us, He Who knew no sin --’ (2 Corinthians 5.21). ‘He bore our sins in His own body on the tree’ (1 Peter 2.24). His person was being offered as a guilt offering for sin (Isaiah 53.10). That was why He was here.
‘They parted His clothes among them, casting lots, and they sat and watched Him there.’ The idea here is to bring out the callousness of the soldiers, and of the world, as they gazed on what they had done to Him, and the resultant increase in His suffering because of the shame of it all. Here, having stripped Him, they would share out His robe, His inner garment, His belt, His shoes and His turban. By this they would render Him naked, and then, regardless of His shame, they would in front of Him divide up his clothing, that is, all that He possessed, casting lots for who received what, and gambling for the robe which could not be divided. (The sharing out of the clothing of the executed man was a perquisite of the soldiers). After this they then sat there and continually but casually gazed at Him in His nakedness and shame. To a sensitive Jew public nakedness was a disgrace, and Jesus would never have been gazed on by others in a such a state. It must have added to the horror which was possessing His soul.
This would also bring to mind the words of Psalm 22.18, ‘they look and stare on me, they part my clothing among them, and for my vesture they cast lots’. This includes the ‘watching Him’ in His shame, the ‘parting of His clothes’ among them, and the ‘casting of lots’. Matthew is constantly indicating by inferences that all that is happening to Jesus is making full all that the Scriptures have spoken of, and that Jesus is therefore suffering as a righteous man like the men in the Psalms, and more. And there is the further thought in the Psalms as to, ‘why is God allowing this?’ That must also have been the question on many lips that day.
‘And they sat and watched him there.’ Note how it is personalised and therefore goes beyond just guard duty (they were guarding all three. but only Jesus is mentioned). All the attention as far as Matthew is concerned is on Him. They are gazing at His shame, they are shrugging their shoulders at His suffering, and all the while they are intending to ensure that no one tries to rescue Him. (They had not, of course, reckoned with God). They and the world were determined that Jesus would suffer to the end.
27.37 ‘And they set up over his head his accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.’
Then we come to the climax of the passage, ‘they set up over His head His accusation written, THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS’. This would have taken place as soon as He was crucified, but is described here for emphasis. It sums up the whole. To Pilate this was an act of mockery at the Jews, and had become a way of getting back at the Jewish rulers, a piece of revengeful irony; to the Chief Priests it was the charge that they had brought against Him which they now had thrown back in their unhappy faces; to the world it was a joke and a warning as they looked on that bloodied and naked figure hanging twisted on the cross; but to Matthew’s readers it was a reminder of Who He is. Here is the One Who has come to save His people from their sins (1.21). Here is the Messiah Who was expected and Who has come on behalf of the whole world (2.2). Here is the One of Whom God had said, ‘This is My beloved Son’ (3.17). Here is the One Who as King has brought hope to mankind (21.5; 22.42-45). Here is the One Who has commissioned His Apostles to oversee His people as they sit on their ‘sub-thrones’ (19.28). Here is the One Who will one day judge the world from His glorious throne (25.31). Here is the One to Whom all authority in Heaven and on earth is to be given (28.18). And it is because He is all these things that He has to suffer in these ways. He Who could not even bear His own cross will bear the whole weight of the sins of His people (1.21), He Who would not drink drugged wine will drink to the full the cup that the Father has given Him (26.42), He Who was stripped of His clothing and was rendered naked will provide men with righteousness for their clothing and cover their nakedness (22.11), He Who was watched by others will stand guard over His own (28.20).
The fact that the superscription was put over His head probably indicates that Jesus died on a traditional cross, rather than a T shaped one. The fact that He had been carrying a crosspiece indicates that it was not just a stake on which He hung. (The main stakes would have been implanted there long before the prisoners got there). The placing of an inscription indicating the victim’s crime was a recognised element in Roman justice. It acted as a warning to others. It may well have been carried before Him as He was paraded through the city, or even have been hung around His neck. (The full inscription was probably ‘this is Jesus the Nazorean, the King of the Jews’).
The Open Mockery of the Son of God (27.38-44).
Having been mocked by the soldiers prior to His crucifixion Jesus must now face the mockery of His own nation. It begins with ‘those who pass by’, it continues with the Chief Priests and Scribes and Elders, and it ends with the two insurrectionists between whom He hangs. All are involved, apart from the faithful few who in their agony gaze on their beloved Master in His shame. We return again to the chiasmus formula for the remainder of the Gospel. The moments that have changed the shape of the world have passed.
Note that in ‘a’ the insurrectionists (people’s heroes) are crucified with Him, and in the parallel they mock Him. In ‘b’ the passers-by mock His claim to have been the Son of God, and in the parallel the leaders of the Jews do the same. Centrally the leaders of the Jews mock the idea that He is the King of Israel (the King of the Jews).
27.38 ‘Then are there crucified with him two insurrectionists, one on the right hand and one on the left.’
The whole picture has been centralised on Jesus, but now we learn of the two men who were crucified with Him, one on the right and the other on the left. He is truly ‘numbered among the transgressors’ (Isaiah 53.12; Mark 15.28; Luke 22.37). Earth could not distinguish between them, only Heaven could tell the difference. The figure in the centre appeared to be equally a helpless target for their scorn. It is noteworthy and ironic that these two men have received the place that the sons of Zebedee had sought, the place of suffering on the right hand and the left of the King of the Jews (20.21). God’s ways are not our ways. (It is a reminder that those who would enjoy such a privilege must share His cross as well).
27.39-40 ‘And those who passed by railed on him (literally ‘were blaspheming Him’), wagging their heads, and saying, “You who will destroy the temple, and build it in three days, save yourself. If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” ’
The first who mocked at Him and railed at Him were the passers-by. But the words they spoke reveal that these passers-by were well aware of what had taken place at His trial. These were not general pilgrims to the Feast, for they mocked Him with one of the charges that had been laid against Him there (26.61). Here was a show being put on for the people by the supporters of the Sanhedrin. This was the true blasphemy. Alternately it may simply be that they picked up these ideas from listening to the words of the Jewish leaders around the cross (see verses 41-42 which simply summarise them). But they have the look and sound of hypocrites.
So He will destroy the Temple and then rebuild it in three days, will He? Then let Him now rebuild His own destroyed life. If He truly is the Son of God let Him come down from the cross. Let boasting prove itself by actions. Even here Satan was tempting Him to accomplish His Messianic task in a forbidden way, by extraordinary signs and wonders. But these men did not believe that it would happen, and they wagged their head in the greatness of their wisdom. Little did they think that they were ‘filling to the full’ the Psalm where it was written, ‘All those who see me laugh me to scorn. They shoot out the lip, they wag their heads saying, “Commit yourself to the Lord, let Him deliver Him” ’ (Psalm 22.7-8).
‘If you are the Son of God.’ We are taken right back to the language of 4.3, 6. Matthew probably intends us to see Satan’s influence again at work here.
There is nothing unexpected about this language given that they knew what had gone on at His trial. These ideas are precisely what we would have expected them to draw attention to, for they were still ringing in their ears. They were not, of course, aware that He had also taught, ‘He who would save his life will lose it’ (16.25). According to their view God prospered those who were His favourites.
27.41-42 ‘In the same way also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, “He saved others; himself he cannot save. He is the King of Israel. Let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe on him.” ’
Furthermore the Chief Priests and the Elders were back again, and this time with them were the Pharisaic Scribes. Here was the whole Sanhedrin with its supporters. And they too mocked Him to one another and cried, “He saved others, Himself He cannot save.” His boasts about what He could do had been great. This may refer to His ‘saving’ of others from their diseases and afflictions (9.12), and from evil spirits (12.28), by His healing power. Or it may refer to the fact that He had claimed to be able to forgive sins (9.2). Or indeed both, for it may refer to His whole Messianic ministry. But with all His boasts and claims, and especially the one that He had made at His trial (26.64), in their view He could now do nothing for Himself.
Why, He had had the temerity to claim to be the King of Israel (the Jewish equivalent of the ‘King of the Jews’), the Messiah, and the title was even placarded above His head (they were taking out on Him their spite for what Pilate had written). Well, if He was, the solution was easy. Let Him demonstrate His Messianic powers, let Him descend from the cross, and then they would believe on Him. (All kinds of wonderful things had been said about the Messiah in popular literature and tradition. And while crucifixion had not been in mind, deliverance from death certainly had).
There is. of course, an irony at work here. Every Christian reading these words longs to shout out, ‘No, you are wrong. He could have come down from the cross. He can only deliver us because He did not deliver Himself’. That was where the Jewish leaders had gone wrong in not understanding the Scriptures which had spoken of this (e.g. Isaiah 53). For without Jesus’ death there could be no healing from their afflictions and diseases (8.17), no new covenant in His blood for the forgiveness of sins (26.28), no redemption in the place of many (20.28), no salvation of His people from their sins (1.21), and the Scriptures would not then be fulfilled.
27.43 “He trusts on God. Let him deliver him now, if he desires him, for he said, I am the Son of God.”
Then they also raised the question of His claim to be the Son of God (26.63; compare 21.37-38; 22.2). As such surely He trusted in God? Well, if He did, let God reveal it by delivering Him now. If He is really His Son, and if God truly has any desire for Him, let Him demonstrate the fact by delivering Him. There is again an echo here of Psalm 22.8, ‘Commit yourself to the Lord, let Him deliver Him, let Him deliver Him seeing He delights in Him’ (LXX has, ‘let Him deliver Him if He wants Him’, which Matthew’s use here suggests is based on an underlying Hebrew text).
It will be clear from this that the ideas in Psalm 22 permeate this whole narrative. See on verse 34, verse 35, verse 39 and here. It will shortly be made patent in verse 46.
It should be noted that we would expect members of the Sanhedrin to be present at the cross, not only because they would want to gloat, but also because they could hardly allow such a prominent figure, whom they had caused to be crucified, to hang in public without being themselves there to defend their position. And we would also expect the kinds of comments made here, for they were still sore at what Jesus had said to them in the High Priests’ palace, and at the inscription that had been placed above Jesus’ head. These comments are therefore exactly what we would expect.
27.44 ‘And the insurrectionists also who were crucified with him cast on him the same reproach.’
The third of the trio which mocked Jesus were the insurrectionists who had been crucified along with Him. These were men who had rebelled against the Roman rule, and had probably committed murder in doing so. But in the eyes of many they were true patriots. Whatever evils they might have done they had given their lives in the fight against the Romans. But in Jesus’ eyes they had done it in the wrong way, in the same way as He in their eyes had gone about it in the wrong way. No wonder then that when they listened to what the onlookers were saying about Jesus, and about His Messiahood, and about Him being the Son of God, they felt bitter. They had probably had such hopes when they had first heard of Him, as had many of the people, especially in the face of His wonders, but in their view He had turned out to be merely a damp squib. Thus they too cast in His face all that others were saying. They were dying because of their hopes of a Messiah. If He was the Messiah, let Him save Himself, and them at the same time.
However, as we know from Luke’s Gospel, one of them would continue to watch Jesus, and what he saw would make him finally come to Him in repentance. But that is not the message that Matthew is seeking to get across. He is seeking to portray the fact that every element of Jewish life was against Jesus while He hung on His cross, for they all thought that they had won and had proved once and for all that He was a deceiver.
Divine Vindication. Jesus Is The Son of God (27.45-54).
By now Jesus had been on the cross about three hours, and around noon an extraordinary event took place. For over the whole land there came gross darkness (compare 4.15-16). As it was the time of the full moon it could not have been an eclipse. A sirocco would probably have lasted longer. It would appear therefore that some phenomenon had resulted in extraordinary cloud cover, which was the precursor to a powerful earthquake. Possibly it was due to volcanic action of which we know nothing, or perhaps the natural phenomena underlying the earthquake caused temporary high winds which stirred up the dust like a sirocco.
It is difficult to think here that Matthew (and God) would not have in mind Amos 8.9, ‘and it will come about in that day, says the Lord YHWH, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in clear day’. That was to be a day when judgment came on Israel. Their feasts would become feasts of mourning (Amos 8.10), and there would be a famine of hearing the word of the Lord (Amos 8.11), while it would also be a time of ‘mourning like that for an only son’ (Amos 8.10). In other words Israel as such would be rejected. This very much ties in with Jesus’ vision of a new Israel arising from the ashes of the old through His death as the only son of the preceding parable (21.43).
The darkening of the sun also regularly indicates eschatological and supernatural activity (24.29; compare Acts 2.20 based on Joel 2.31. See also Isaiah 13.10; Joel 3.15; and often (see below), for the darkness as indications of God’s activity). But in some ways more importantly great darkness came on Abraham prior to God revealing Himself to his soul, and manifesting Himself in the making of a covenant (Genesis 15.12, 17). Furthermore the period of thick darkness in Exodus 10.21-29 issued in the slaughter of the firstborn, the sacrifice of the Passover and the deliverance of Israel, a very similar result to here, while the cloud descended on the mountain when God made His covenant with Israel, and He manifested Himself there in thick darkness (Deuteronomy 4.11). Thus in Exodus 20.21 God was in the thick darkness (compare Deuteronomy 5.22-23). Darkness is therefore very much connected with the making of covenants between God and man.
Previously in Matthew its spiritual significance is also made clear. It is symbolic of God’s withdrawing His face from Israel (4.16), and therefore from Jesus Who is bearing the sin of Israel (verse 46). It would appear therefore that the cry of Jesus that rent the Heavens was primarily signalling the end of a period of such darkness of soul that it was indescribable as Jesus experienced separation from His Father, and God paradoxically brought in the new covenant. This was the time when the Power of Darkness was allowed to do its worst (Luke 22.53; Colossians 1.13). But God passed a veil over its significance for Jesus and so should we, for we can never comprehend its depths. Suffice to say that in His human nature even Jesus Himself did not fully comprehend what He was going through. The cup that He had to drink was fuller and deeper than He had ever realised. ‘None of the ransomed ever knew, how deep were the waters crossed, or how dark was the night which the Lord passed through, ere He found the sheep that were lost’.
Darkness had also constantly been in Scripture the picture of devastation and despair and the wrath of God (Deuteronomy 28.29; 1 Samuel 2.9; Isaiah 8.22; 9.19; 13.10; 24.11; 45.7; 60.2; Ezekiel 32.7-8; Joel 2.2, 10, 31; Amos 5.18, 20; 8.9; Zephaniah 1.15). In Job it is constantly paralleled with the shadow of death (Job 10.21-22; 12.22; 34.22; Psalm 23.4; 107.10, 14; compare 15.22; 17.13). But paradoxically it is also the place where God is found in the mystery of His Being (2 Samuel 22.10, 12; 1 Kings 8.12; Psalm 18.9, 11; 97.2). And now here was the darkness which summed up all darkness, a darkness in which the powers of Hell were defeated (Colossians 1.13; 2.15), and the judgmental power of the Law was broken (Colossians 2.14). God was there (Psalm 139.12), even though in the darkness of His own soul Jesus did not, for at least a brief few moments, know it. So the darkness may be seen as revealing the mysterious activity of God at work in a way beyond man’s understanding, the covenant making activity of God, the visitation on earth of the wrath of God, and the desolation of a soul in the face of death and darkness and the powers of death and darkness.
For three hours there was total darkness and outwardly all was still as Jesus, alone, battled in His soul. The land was covered with a huge silence. Within that darkness the battle for the soul of the world was taking place. It is significant that we are told nothing of what happened in those three hours. And then there was a cry, as, in the travail of His soul, light broke through see especially Isaiah 53.11 in Isaiah scrolls a and b at Qumran, and LXX, ‘from the travail of His soul He will see light and will be satisfied’), and Jesus, as a result of that darkness being overcome, then questions why He had been forsaken, and finally yields up His spirit in triumph. Then all Heaven breaks loose and the powers of Heaven are revealed. The veil in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth quaked and great rocks were shattered, and the tombs were opened, and once Jesus had risen from the dead men who had long been dead arose from their tombs and appeared to many in Jerusalem. God was signalling Jesus’ victory. Truly He was the Son of God.
The passage can be split into three sub-passages, first the period of darkness and the cry of His soul to God; secondly the actions of God as a result of His death as the veil is rent in two, the rocks are torn asunder and the graves are opened; and thirdly the final effect on His executioners as they realise that they have executed the Son of God.
Note that in ‘a’ there was the darkness, and the cry of Jesus that spoke of His being forsaken by God, and in the parallel there was the earthquake and the cry of the centurion which revealed that Jesus was truly the Son of God. In ‘b’ there is the question of whether God will send Elijah to save Him, and in the parallel God sends a number of men from the dead to testify to Him. In ‘c’ Jesus cries with a loud voice and His body yields up His spirit, and in the parallel the earth cries out with a loud voice, and the rocks are torn apart. Centrally in ‘d’ the veil of the Temple is torn in two and the way into the Holiest is opened up.
27.45-46 ‘Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour, and about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is, “My God, my God, why did you forsake me?” ’
As we have seen above, in Scripture darkness represents a number of things. It is regularly the picture of judgment, the wrath of God and the withdrawal of God’s face. It is a symbol of the shadow of death. And yet it is also paradoxically the place where God is found, and it is out of darkness that He regularly establishes His covenant, including the covenant with Abraham (Genesis 15), the covenant of the Passover (Exodus 10-12), and the covenant of Sinai (Deuteronomy 4.11). But above all darkness at noonday is a symbol of God’s rejection of Israel (Amos 8.9). It would, however, issue in a new dawn (Amos 9.11-15).
As suggested above the darkness may have been caused by volcanic action, or powerful wind stirring up dust and sand, or even an unusual storm, but above all it signified divine activity and judgment on sin.
“My God, my God, why did you forsake me?” The cry of Jesus is beyond understanding. As it has been well expressed, ‘God forsaken of God, who can understand it?’ But it certainly indicated a forsakenness of soul that we, who are far too used to being separate from God, cannot hope to comprehend. The actual words in the Aramaic/Hebrew appear differently in different manuscripts, mainly because the language was unknown to the copyists. But it is probable that here we are to see them as expressed in Jesus’ and Matthew’s native Aramaic. They are cited from Psalm 22.1. There is no reason to doubt that Jesus had sought solace in that Psalm as He went through His anguish, but He did not use it lightly. He used it because it expressed what He saw to be at the very heart of His experience, and the evangelists cited it because they also saw it as going to the heart of His experience. It is the only cry from the cross recorded by Matthew and Mark. We may see it here in two different ways, either as the final cry of His desolation at its crisis point before coming through to victory, ‘why have you forsaken Me so that I am still forsaken?’, or as the cry of triumph as at last the desolation is over, having in mind what He has been through, ‘why did you forsake Me, even though it is now over?’ The use of the Psalm possibly suggests the first. But if so it would soon be followed, as also in the Psalm, by victory and vindication (‘it is finished’). It is a question that in the end cannot be answered. But either way it indicates the dreadfulness of the experience of soul that He had undergone, an experience of forsakenness that was foreign to all that He was. And the wonder of it is that it was for us. ‘He was forsaken, that we might never be forsaken’. On the other hand the fact that He is citing a Psalm is a reminder that we should not necessarily interpret every word literally as though He had thought each word out. We must neither water it down, nor theologise it. It rather conveniently expressed how He felt as a result of the darkness that had enveloped His soul. (He would know that the Psalmist was not forsaken, he only felt as though he was forsaken). We may, however, reasonably relate it to the fact that ‘He was made sin for us, who previously knew no sin’ (2 Corinthians 5.21). He had thus undergone what to Him was a sense of unbearable anguish and loss, as, burdened by the weight of the wrath of God against sin, sin had separated Him from His Father’s manifested presence, a presence He had known throughout His mortal life.
27.47-49 ‘And some of those who were stood there, when they heard it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” And immediately one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. And the rest said, “Let be, let us see whether Elijah is coming to save him.” ’
The cry that rent the sky was not literally understood by many. His physical condition might well have slurred His words, and many standing there as sightseers were probably suffering from boredom and lethargy. Thus they may well only dimly have caught on to what He had said, and the words ‘Eli, Eli’ thus struck them as being a call to Elijah. This would not have sounded as unusual to them as it does to us. There were firm Jewish beliefs that Elijah’s help could be sought (he had never died), and that one day he would once more interfere in world affairs (compare Malachi 4.5 which had been expanded on in the tradition), and anyway, some of those standing round may not have been too familiar with Aramaic. Thus the error is understandable. This misinterpretation would be of interest to Matthew and the other evangelists, for they knew that Elijah had indeed a great interest in Jesus’ presence in the world (17.3). Thus Matthew no doubt saw it as an accidental expressing of a truth that only the initiated knew. He was also aware that he would shortly be telling his readers of a host of people ‘from the other side’ who would exceptionally be visiting Jerusalem in person as God did make known what Jesus had accomplished (verses 52-53).
The result of the cry is that someone responded speedily to the cry, which was possibly the first indication for some time that Jesus was still conscious and mentally active, and running to collect a sponge he filled it with sour wine, put it on a reed and held it up to Jesus’ mouth. This was in itself a further ‘filling full’ of Scripture, ‘they gave me sour wine to drink’ (Psalm 69.21). It was an act of compassion, and Jesus partook of it. This may well have been an indication to Matthew that the Kingly Rule of Heaven was seen to have triumphed (26.29). But the callous crowd was more interested in seeing whether Elijah would come than in the welfare of the victim, and said, “Let be, let us see whether Elijah is coming to save him.” This is so true to life that it must have happened. Others, however see it as meaning, ‘wait there’, that is ‘carry on giving Him a drink’.
Sponges had been known in the past to be useful for purposes like this. They could well have been standard kit for soldiers so that they could assist wounded comrades, or they may have been in regular use at crucifixions by sympathetic persons. The reed would simply be something conveniently at hand which would fulfil what was required. But there may in it be an echo of the reed which had been given to Jesus as a sceptre when they mocked Him earlier. Then it was used to ‘beat’ Him, now it is used to succour Him. God has turned the tables on His tormentors.
27.50 ‘And Jesus cried again with a loud voice, and yielded up his spirit.’
The loud cry was ‘it is finished’, followed by the quieter, “Father, into your hands I commend my Spirit.” (John 19.30; Luke 23.46). It is clear that the loud cry was remembered by all, contributing to the eeriness of the occasion. It is possible that ‘it is finished’ represented the final words of Psalm 22 ‘He has done it’. Certainly it was a cry of triumph that God’s purposes had been accomplished. Its importance here is that it indicates that Jesus did not die defeated.
‘Yielded up his spirit.’ From beginning to end Jesus was in control, even to the timing of His death. A work had to be done, a sacrifice offered, a battle fought, a price paid, but once it was done He did not linger. He committed His ‘spirit’ into the hands of His Father. Compare Ecclesiastes 12.7, ‘and the dust return to the earth as it was and the spirit return to God Who gave it’. Jesus saw the spirit as the essential surviving part of man. We should note that there may be an indication in His quick death of just how much He had suffered beforehand.
27.51a ‘And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.’
His death was followed by amazing activity, although whether it all followed immediately we do not know. The first activity was in the Temple where the veil of the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom. There is a difference of opinion as to which veil is meant, the veil which separated the Holy Place in the Temple from the Holy of Holies, and prevented access to that Most Holy Place for any apart from the High Priest once a year, or the veil that guarded the way into the Holy Place where the priests operated. Both were only symbolic for they had been replaced by doors, but the veils were hung over the doors so as to preserve the old features of the Tabernacle. The tearing of the veil was almost certainly intended by the evangelists to indicate that the way into the presence of God was being laid open (compare Hebrews 10.19-20). Alternately it might have been intended to signify that God had deserted the Holy of Holies (compare Ezekiel 11.22-23), or have indicated the equivalent of His having ‘rent His garment’, or have been the earnest (sample and guarantee) of the Temple’s later destruction, an indication that its relevance had now ceased because God was no longer there.
In favour of the outer veil being torn is the fact that it would then be a sight visible to all, and if a sirocco was the cause of the sudden darkness, that could also have caused the splitting of the veil. Or it could equally have been caused by the earthquake. In favour of the inner veil is its deeper symbolism, and its greater importance in Judaism, and while it would then not be seen by all, such a happening would certainly not be able to remain hidden. Too many priests would become aware of it, to say nothing of those who had to replace the veil.
The Jewish Talmud (the Gemara - Rabbinic comments on the Mishnah which latter was the written record of the oral Law) states that forty years before the destruction of temple, thus around this time, something happened which made the massive doors of the temple open of their own accord (Babylonian Talmud Yoma 39b), and such an event could certainly have caused the veil to split.
Furthermore, that strange things happened in the temple some time prior to its destruction at the fall of Jerusalem is recorded also by Josephus (Jewish Wars 6.5.2 - although not referring to this particular event). Among other things Josephus describes how the eastern gate of the inner court, which was of brass and very heavy, which took twenty men to shut and rested on a base strengthened with iron, and had bolts fastened very deeply into the firm floor which was made of one solid stone, opened of its own accord. It would thus seem that the temple mount was subject to earth movements which caused strange things to happen from time to time. It may well therefore also have happened forty years before, especially as there was also an accompanying earthquake.
27.51b ‘And the earth quaked, and the rocks were torn asunder,’
Not only was the veil torn in two but ‘the earth quaked and the rocks were torn asunder’. The heavenly veil was torn in half, the earthly rocks were ‘rent asunder’. Creation itself was bearing witness to what had happened to God’s Son. This might indicate that the rendings were intended to indicate strong reaction on the part of God, similar to the rending of garments, or that God was acting to reveal His anger at what had been man’s response to His Son. This would tie in with 2 Samuel 22.7-8 (also Psalm 18.6-7), ‘in my distress I called on YHWH, I called to my God. From His Temple He heard my voice, and my cry came to His ears. Then the earth reeled and rocked, the foundations of the Heaven trembled and quaked because He was angry.’ When we consider that behind these words is also the idea of a kind of resurrection, ‘the cords of Sheol were round about me, the snares of death came on me -- He sent from on high and took me, He raised me from many waters -- He brought me forth also into a large place, He delivered me because He delighted in me’ (2 Samuel 22.6, 17, 20), and that the Psalm ends with, ‘great deliverance gives He to His king, and shows loving kindness to His Anointed One (Messiah), to David and to his seed for evermore’ (verse 51), the application is clear. The fact that the Psalm is repeated twice in Scripture confirms its importance.
It is thus tempting from this Psalm to combine the three incidents. YHWH hears the voice of His Son, tears aside the curtain in the Holy of Holies, (or at the door of His Sanctuary), comes out in His anger and causes the earth to reel and the rocks to be rent asunder (compare Nahum 1.6), and then from the opened tombs brings forth resurrected saints as witnesses to His Son and as the firstfruits of what He has accomplished. As in the days of Ezekiel the Temple is no longer to be seen as His Dwellingplace, nor Jerusalem as a fit place for the bodies of His ‘holy ones’. (Many Jews made great efforts to be buried near Jerusalem).
However, previously the High Priest had torn His garment at what he considered to be the blasphemy of Jesus, so we might see here that God has rent in half the veil in the Temple and torn asunder the rocks on the ground in order to indicate how He felt about the blasphemy committed on His Son. On top of this, the rending of the rocks is probably also to be seen as preparatory to what follows in the opening of the tombs.
27.52-53 ‘And the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming forth out of the tombs after his resurrection they entered into the holy city and appeared to many.’
The third ‘rending’ was in respect of the tearing open of the tombs of God’s chosen ones who had been buried in Jerusalem, preparatory to their resurrection. Nothing could have appalled people more, and no Jew would want to approach these tombs lest they themselves be defiled during the Feast. They might well have seen in it the anger of God, or alternately that it was symbolic of the last day.
The description ‘saints’ (holy ones), a regular Old Testament description of God’s believing people, would indicate those who were pleasing to God. It was the ‘saints of the Most High’ who formed a part of the corporate son of man in Daniel 7. It is right therefore that they should join with the Son of Man in His triumph.
While the rending open of the tombs might have occurred at the same time as the earthquake and the rending of the veil, we are specifically informed that this raising of the holy ones did not, for it occurred ‘after His resurrection’ and was a resurrection of the body. Here then was more than just the coming forth of Elijah (verses 47-49). What Jesus had accomplished caused many to come forth. Many rose to bear testimony to Him, and all connected with their own holy city.
Until Jesus was raised, resurrection for others was not possible, thus it could not have happened prior to His resurrection. These then are the firstfruits of His resurrection. The language may have in mind Ezekiel 37.12-13, ‘behold I will open your graves, and raise you from your graves, O my people --- and you will know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves and raise you from your graves, O my people’, stressing that it is an activity intended to convince men and women that He is YHWH, and it is noteworthy that in Ezekiel this leads on to the establishing of the Kingly Rule of the coming shepherd king David (Ezekiel 37.24). The description reminds us also of John 5.28-29, ‘the hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth ---.’ Thus we are probably intended to see this as a genuine and permanent resurrection rather than simply a display for witness purposes. We know nothing of what happened to these resurrected saints subsequently, unless Paul is referring to them in 1 Corinthians 15.20, 23. The assumption was probably that like Him they rose to the Father.
The unusual use of ‘the holy city’ may suggest that Matthew is citing this description from some source, although if so we have no record of it. But it is noteworthy that his use of it is in fact parallel to a similar use in 4.5 (so it is not so unusual). It may thus rather be a deliberate attempt to contrast what happened here with what the Devil had tempted Jesus to do in 4.5. There Jesus had refused to give the holy city a spectacular sign which had no purpose to it, by diving from the pinnacle of the Temple. Here, however, God has given the holy city an even more spectacular sign, although not just as a display but as a genuine firstfruit of the resurrection. So it was not just a spectacular sign. Here, as always when miracles took place, many actually benefited from His display of power. This was in a sense the part fulfilment of the sign that Jesus had promised to the Pharisees (12.39). It was the sign of the prophet Jonah. Here were the equivalent of a number of ‘Jonahs’ coming out of the mouths of their tombs and appearing to selected households. The holy city has been given its visitation and its sign, for they ‘appeared to many’. ‘Many’ is often a reference to believers (see 20.28), so that the sign may have been limited to believers. No doubt unbelieving Jerusalem, which rejected the testimony of Jesus’ resurrection and had no experience of the appearances, laughed them to scorn. This would explain why no attention was drawn to these facts by others.
For the other evangelists it was the resurrection of Jesus Himself that took central place, and must not be overshadowed. But Matthew may well have been one who was visited, and had never forgotten it. And he would consider that such an event had special significance for Jews. He may well have seen it as indicating what was to happen to Jerusalem, for in Isaiah 26.19-20 the resurrection of bodies from the dust was to be followed by great tribulation for God’s people as God visited the world in wrath. Here then was a firstfruit of that day, a resurrection that was an indication that God would soon visit Jerusalem in wrath.
27.54 ‘Now the centurion, and those who were with him watching Jesus, when they saw the earthquake, and the things that were done, feared exceedingly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God”.’
When the centurion and his colleagues saw the earthquake and the rending of the rocks, following the unnatural period of darkness, they were awe-stricken. They had never experienced anything like this before at a crucifixion, and it was made even more eerie by the fact that the victim had died so quickly as though He were in charge of the situation. Here was proof indeed that this man was something unusual, ‘the Son of God’ just as the onlookers had been half suggesting. They would not think in terms of the Son of God as we do, but they clearly recognised divinity in Him, or at least close connections with divinity. (In their view the gods could have half human sons). Matthew makes clear that their words have got it right. This is the true Son of God.
Having come to this conclusion they were very much afraid. Perhaps they remembered back to how they had mocked Him, and they must certainly have thought that He would surely remember who had actually crucified Him. From their point of view the future was probably beginning to look very black indeed.
In Matthew this has a special significance for he delights in comparisons with the beginning of his Gospel. In chapter two Gentiles came seeking the King of the Jews, and now at the end Gentiles declare that He is the Son of God. It is very much a preparation for the later command to ‘make disciples among all nations’ (28.19).
Jesus Body Is Laid In A Splendid Tomb; The Chief Priests And Pharisees Seal The Tomb And Put A Guard On It So As To Keep Him There; An Angel Opens The Tomb To Reveal That Jesus Has Risen (27.55-28.6).
In this subsection we have centrally a picture of the vain arrangements of men by which they hope to thwart God and prevent Jesus from rising, while on one side of this we have God’s arrangement for His Son to have a splendid new tomb, and on the other God’s arrangement to open that tomb so as to reveal that His Son has risen. This can be portrayed as follows:
This will then followed by a further threesome which will complete the Gospel:
Note how in both threesomes the failed activities of the Chief Priests are sandwiched within the triumphant activities of God and of the risen Lord, JesusChrist.
The Body Of Jesus Is Rescued From Ignominy And Buried In A Rich Man’ Tomb (27.55-61).
Matthew now brings out that God had made His own funeral arrangements for His Son, as He had revealed beforehand. As Isaiah had said, ‘They made His grave with the wicked, and with a rich man in His death’ (Isaiah 53.9). And while the faithful women disciples watched from afar (they would not have been seen as under the same threat as the Apostles), waiting for an opportunity to pay their respects to Jesus’ body, ‘a rich man’ from Arimathea came to Pilate to ask for the body of Jesus. Normally the bodies of crucified criminals would be tossed onto the burning rubbish dump in the Valley of Hinnom outside Jerusalem (compare Isaiah 66.24), for they were seen as accursed, but Pilate had the last say in what happened to the bodies of men subjected to Rome’s jurisdiction, and he gave permission for the body of Jesus to be put at Joseph’s disposal. We learn in Luke 23.50 that Joseph was a respected councillor, a member of the Sanhedrin, one who had not consented to the verdict against Jesus, although whether he was present at the final morning trial we do not know. And Joseph laid Jesus’ body in his new family tomb which had not yet been used. The fact that it had not been used previously would be seen by many Christian Jews as important, for it demonstrated the unique holiness of the body of Jesus. For it was ‘holy things’ that must not be subjected to what was previously used. Compare the ass’s unused colt on which Jesus entered Jerusalem (Luke 19.30), and the ‘new cart’ that bore the Ark of the Covenant of YHWH (2 Samuel 6.3). See also 1 Samuel 6.7.
Note that in ‘a’ the women were watching at the cross and in the parallel they are watching at the tomb. In ‘b’ Joseph comes, and in the parallel he departs. In ‘c’ he requests the body of Jesus, and in the parallel he gives it good burial. Centrally in ‘d’ Pilate yields up the body of Jesus (that the Scripture might be fulfilled).
27.55 ‘And many women were there beholding from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him,’
Among those who had been observers of the crucifixion were ‘many women’ from Galilee, who had been followers of Jesus and had ministered to His needs. We are given more details of these women in Luke 8.2-3. They watched proceedings from afar, thus complying with the thought in Psalm 38.11, ‘those who love me, and my friends, stand aloof from my plague, and my kinsmen stand afar off’ (although there it was for a different reason. Here they are probably compelled to do it because of the Roman restrictions. Probably only female relatives would have been allowed to approach closer). The women would not be seen by the disciples as in the same danger as the men, for no one would be interested in them. They were irrelevant in Jewish eyes. (The men also, however, would soon recognise that their fears were unnecessary). The importance of the presence of the women comes out later in that they are the first witnesses of the resurrection. But they are also a confirmation of the importance of women to God in the new Israel.
From among the Apostles we only hear of John as being present at the crucifixion. He seemingly had connections with the High Priest’s family and knew that he was relatively safe, and the fact that he was there as a support for Jesus’ mother would take attention off him (John 18.15). The remainder were keeping out of the way. They knew that round the cross was very much where they would be looked for by anyone who was seeking to arrest them. And in fact we should recognise that had a party of brawny men who were known to be followers of Jesus appeared there it would unquestionably have raised alarm bells, if not more decisive action. They may well have been seen as a threat. No one, however, would be concerned about the presence of the women.
27.56 ‘Among whom was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.’
Among the women were Mary Magdalene; Mary the mother of James and Joses; and the unnamed mother of the Apostles, James and John. (Compare 27.61; 28.1; Mark 15.40; 16.1; Luke 8.2-3; John 19.25). Mary Magdalene (from Magdala, a town unknown to us) had been delivered from possession by evil spirits (Luke 8.2). There is, however, no genuine reliable evidence that she had ever been a loose woman as tradition would later affirm. She had possibly rather played with the occult, thus becoming devil-possessed. She appears to have been a prominent character, and may well have been younger than some of the others which would explain why she had such an active role in the post-resurrection events. We have no means of identifying James and Joses, unless they are the brothers of Jesus (Mark 6.3), but if the latter were the case we would then possibly also expect the mention of his other brothers which would be a clearer identification. On the other hand the idea may be that the fact that she was the mother of Jesus was dropped now that His coronation in Heaven was approaching. In the end, however, we must leave this Mary as unidentified (to us). The mother ‘of the sons of Zebedee’ (James and John) was mentioned earlier (20.20), and was probably called Salome (Mark 15.40). She may well have been Jesus’ aunt (John 19.25). As Matthew rarely names people or unnecessarily draws attention to individuals the dropping of her name is not surprising.
These three may well have been seen as the female equivalent among the women disciples of the inner three, Peter, James and John. It is possible that the dropping of Salome’s name may suggest either that Matthew was not well acquainted with her, or that she was simply known to the twelve as ‘the mother of the sons of Zebedee’. But the more likely reason for mentioning only the Marys and no others is that along with Joseph of Arimathea their names provide a parallel with Mary and Joseph in chapter 1. Thus in God’s purposes the Gospel opens with Joseph and Mary caring for Jesus, and ends with Joseph and the Marys caring for Jesus. We have already seen that Matthew seems deliberately to connect the closing chapters with the opening chapters, and it is surely significant that of the women he only ever mentions Marys by name in these closing chapters.
27.57 ‘And when even was come, there came a rich man from Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple,’
‘When evening was come.’ This is probably simply indicating that it was becoming dark. In Jewish eyes it was necessary for the bodies of the three to be taken down from their crosses before nightfall and disposed of in order to prevent bringing a curse on the land (Deuteronomy 21.23 was seen as applying to crucifixion). It was also necessary to do it before the Sabbath. This man knew this and sought to preempt the normal course of events.
‘A rich man.’ The most obvious reason for describing Joseph specifically as ‘a rich man’ would be in order to connect him with the prophecy in Isaiah 53.9, ‘with the rich in His death’, although it may also have been as a contrast to the ‘rich young man’ who refused discipleship. Alternatively it may simply have been in order to bring out that some rich men also followed Jesus, but if that be the case why not also bring out that he was a member of the Sanhedrin? In view of Matthew’s continual inferences as regards Scripture we must probably see this as another such reference. His Gospel is full of such inferences.
Matthew also tells us that he came from Arimathea, (another town unknown to us), that his name was Joseph, and that he was a disciple of Jesus, that is, he had listened to, and had positively responded to, Jesus’ teaching, and was a recognised ‘follower’, even though not actually accompanying Jesus around. John 19.38 calls him ‘a secret disciple, for fear of the Jews’ (of whom there are still many). Luke tells us that ‘he was looking for the Kingly Rule of God’ (Luke 23.51).
Matthew’s naming of all these people, in contrast with his usual reticence about names, may well suggest that they were well known to him. But it appears more likely that his main purpose may have been as a comparison with Mary and Joseph in chapter 1.
‘There came.’ This may well suggest that he had gone to the site of the crucifixion in order to determine what was happening about the bodies, with ‘there came’ signifying ‘there came to where the women were’. But it may simply indicate ‘there now came into the picture’.
27.58 ‘This man went to Pilate, and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded it to be given up.’
The bodies of criminals, apart from those guilty of high treason, were the property of the state, but would usually be made available to any relatives who requested them. Otherwise the bodies would normally be left to hang on the cross as a warning, or would be ‘thrown to the vultures’. In Palestine, however, things would be different because the peculiarities of the Jews were catered for. In Jewish eyes it was necessary for the bodies of the three to be taken down from their crosses before nightfall and disposed of in order to prevent bringing a curse on the land (Deuteronomy 21.23 was seen as applying to crucifixion). We are not told what happened to the bodies of the insurrectionists, but they may have been given to relatives, buried in a public plot or tossed onto the burning rubbish heaps outside Jerusalem. Jewish Law forbade convicted criminals being buried in a family tomb. Here, however, it is rather a prestigious councillor who asks for the body. He would be known to Pilate, and probably respected by him. He would explain his purpose to him, and possibly points out that as a Galilean Jesus was far from home. Pilate was seemingly content with the idea and gave orders that the body be put at Joseph’s disposal. Thus the One Who was born to a Joseph (1.25), was finally handed over to a Joseph after His death. The idea is that God was still watching over Him from the cradle to the grave.
27.59-60 ‘And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock, and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed.’
Joseph (no doubt along with his servants) treated the body with all reverence. He wrapped it in a clean linen cloth and laid it in his own new tomb. Note again the stress on ‘clean’ and ‘new’. His body was being treated as ‘holy’ and as set apart to God. Then once this was done to his satisfaction Joseph had a great stone rolled across the entrance of the tomb, and returned home. He had paid his final respects to the One he had seen as a Prophet. So having died as One Who was ‘numbered with the transgressors’ Jesus’ holiness is now being brought out in his burial. All this would be done fairly rapidly so as not unnecessarily to infringe on the Sabbath. It was a generous gesture on Joseph’s part, for the burial of a criminal in the tomb rendered it unusable by the family.
‘Which he had hewn out in a rock.’ This is an unexpected detail in Matthew who tends rather to abbreviate, and may be intended to look back to ‘the rocks were rent’ (verse 51). The idea might be that this tomb which was hewn out by man would also soon be ‘torn asunder’ by God. It would not be able to hold Him.
The great stone may have been a boulder, but it was more likely a shaped stone in circular form like a wheel, which could be rolled across the entrance, for it would seem that the entrance to the tomb was relatively large (Peter only had to stoop to look in, not go down on his knees - John 20.5). Such stones were common in the case of expensive tombs.
It should possibly be noted that official mourning was not allowed for an executed criminal which helps to explain why there is no indication of it.
27.61 ‘And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary, sitting over against the sepulchre.’
Meanwhile two of the women, probably delegated by the others, had followed the burial party, and were now sat down opposite the tomb. ‘The other Mary’ is probably the mother of James and Joses. Thus the care and love of the women is watching over their dead Master from the cross to the tomb (verse 56, 61). Mary had brought Him into the world. Marys would care for His body as well as they could as they saw Him out of the world. It was all that they could do.
A Guard Is Set On Jesus’ Tomb In Order To Ensure That The Body Is Not Stolen (27.62-66).
There is nothing that reveals the truth about people more than their interpretation of the anticipated action of others. That is why you ‘set a thief to catch a thief’. It is because they both think in the same way. And sadly that is why these particular Pharisees who came to the Chief Priests, and then to Pilate, thought as they did. It was because they themselves would have felt able to be free with the truth when they were seeking to maintain their position, that they assumed that others would do the same. It is the kind of behaviour that you find in well established fanaticisms. The first two or three generations of any new movement which has a firm moral basis, and which is being successful, are strong for the truth as they see it, and are convinced that others will see it too. They do not therefore see the need to resort to the tactics of deception, and would scorn doing so. They are confident in the truth that they uphold. It is the generations that follow, who are seeking to bolster up something that is slowly dying and for whom the moral dimension is dying, or who feel that they have to give their ideas a new impetus at whatever cost because they are not succeeding as they had hoped, who feel that they have to resort to such dishonesty.
The disciples were in fact locked away for fear of the Jews (no one would have invented such an idea), because they thought that those who had taken and crucified their Master would undoubtedly follow up their action by seeking to do the same to them. That is how they thought. It was what they would have done themselves in the circumstances because they were not astute politicians. They thus saw themselves as being seen as a danger by the Jewish leaders.
But they had misinterpreted the aims and attitudes of their opponents. They simply judged by what they themselves would have done in the same situation because they had a higher opinion of themselves than they should have had, and did not see things from a position of long experience of such things. They had not realised that in fact to their opponents everything had hinged on the presence of Jesus. The disciples had thought that they too would be seen as a danger. But no one else saw them like that (the leaders in Jerusalem may well not have known much about their ministry in Galilee). For their opponents were confident that with Jesus out of the way the bubble would burst. They had seen it all before, and they were not worried about the disciples.
Thus the Apostles were in hiding when they need not have been, because no one was looking for them, and that was why everything was being left to the women. We can be sure therefore that they would not have had the remotest thought of stealing Jesus’ body in order to practise a deception. People who do that kind of thing seek to present a brave face to the world. They reveal a confidence that they hope will cover up their deceit. They do not hide away like disillusioned men. But the disciples were disillusioned men (just as their opponents had expected), and their concern was therefore for survival. To them there was no expectancy of a resurrection, and they were totally devastated by what had happened. All their hopes had gone. They were not men with great influence who could extend that influence by deception. They were men who had lost their way, and whose influence had collapsed with the death of Jesus. They would have seen no point in stealing the body.
Furthermore can anyone really suggest that men who had stolen a body as a deception, or had perpetrated a deception, would then have been willing to face persecution, imprisonment and even torture in order to maintain their deception. What would have been the point? At that stage becoming a Christian was not the ladder to wealth and success, it was the road to the cross, it was the way of ignominy and shame. It was the way to being despised and rejected by their fellows. Would men then choose that way on the basis of a lie?
And by the time that Matthew wrote his Gospel Christianity was spreading rapidly and being successful. There was no need to resort to lies, especially as part of their success actually depended on the fact that they had brought a new level of morality into the world. It is quite incredible to think that Matthew and the early church could have brought us the Sermon on the Mount with its huge emphasis on truth and then have bolstered it with what they knew to be a lie.
But how do we know that the story about the guards being there was not an invention with the aim of demonstrating that the body was not tampered with? The answer lies in the details of the story. For it in fact proved nothing of the kind, because the guards are said to have been asleep (28.13). Now what kind of person practises a great deception in order to prove something and then immediately appends an explanation that could be seen as invalidating the deception? When you practise a deception you keep quiet about anything which might throw doubt on the deception. You do not immediately suggest possible holes in it. The only reason for mentioning this incident in this way is that everyone knew that the tomb had been guarded, and that therefore the Jews had given this as an explanation for their failure to prevent the body disappearing. It is actually further evidence that the body had unexpectedly disappeared.
These particular Pharisees on the other hand were convinced that deceit was precisely what the disciples would practise as a short term expedient. (But even they would have acknowledged that a movement based on such a lie would not have lasted long). They genuinely saw Jesus as a deceiver, for how could He not be when He disagreed with them? And they therefore assumed that His disciples would be deceivers too. Having learned to paper over the truth with regard to their own ideas, they assumed that others would do the same. For they were the later exponents of a position which had initially started out with such enthusiastic promise, but which had become bogged down by ritual and artifice, (even the later Rabbis drew attention to the fact that this was so), and they now feared that it was not gaining in popularity as it should. People were beginning to discover that there were holes in it. That was one reason why they had hated Jesus so much. He had kept on pointing out those holes. Thus they thought in terms of cover up and deception, and then assumed it of others.
Those who suggest that the early church invented this story in order to convince people that the body could not have been stolen, are either totally unthinking, or are revealing the fact that they have the same tendency towards deceitfulness of mind as these Pharisees had. It suggests that they have within their own hearts a certain level of dishonesty which they see as acceptable, because they read it into others. They judge others by themselves, and thereby judge themselves. For there is not a single thing about the disciples that suggests that they would have been like this.
Such deceit was certainly something that the later church would have practised centuries later when the church had become corrupt, had lost its first vision, and had much to gain materially by distorting the truth, but it was not the kind of action likely in a church where honesty and truth were seen as central (Ephesians 4.15, 25, 29; Colossians 3.9), where the teaching of Jesus was still very much hot in the memory (5.33-37), and where they themselves were undergoing suffering and poverty precisely because they believed in ‘the truth’ and were determined to proclaim it at all costs. Such people do not set out deliberately to deceive, or build their teaching on deliberate deception. It would take away any reason for their efforts. Rather they preach in the face of ridicule because they earnestly believe in what they say and are not interested in deception.
Furthermore this was being circulated at a time when there were still people alive who knew the facts because they were in Jerusalem at the time. Had it been untrue the opponents of Christianity would have stood up and said so very firmly, (and so indeed would its friends), for these opponents were not men who were hidden in a corner, but men who had their own positive agenda and were rebuilding what they themselves believed in. And yet no one ever suggested that the tomb was not empty.
Note that it was certain ‘Pharisees’ who came to the Chief Priests with the suggestion of what the disciples would do. This was because they thought of the disciples in their own terms. They assumed that the disciples would try to fake a resurrection (they did not realise that they were in hiding), and that they would do it because they were deceivers like their Master. With their own strongly held belief in the resurrection these Pharisees (not all the Pharisees) were thus demonstrating that they would themselves not have been averse to considering doing the same thing, if they had thought that they could get away with it. They were no longer hot for a truth which had burned its way into their soul, but hot in support of a long held tradition, a second hand faith, which they supported by any means possible. They could not understand men of genuine moral fibre who were enthusiastic for truth. Nor could they believe in any resurrection that did not occur in the way that they anticipated. Thus they considered that any talk about Jesus rising had to be a deception. They were clearly not very reliable people.
The Chief Priests listened to what they had to say, and being sceptical about the possibility of resurrection could see that someone who was trying to prove the idea might well resort to such trickery. It was what they would have done themselves. And they probably also saw in these Pharisees before them fellow-tricksters who might well have used the same tactics. But this again revealed the trickiness and deceptiveness of their own minds. They saw the Pharisees, and everyone else, as being like themselves. Thus together they went to Pilate in order to guard against what was never going to happen. And some today follow the same tactics, because that is the kind of people that they themselves are. They are not above resorting to trickery themselves, and so assume it in others, even though the teaching of those others demonstrates their high moral standing. Such tricksters cannot understand moral standing. So to dismiss the disciples as deceivers is either to be guilty of shallow thinking, or to condemn our own attitude towards life.
The situation has a certain humour to it. The Apostles were in hiding from a danger that was never going to materialise, and with no thought of trickery, and the Chief Priests and Pharisees were setting a guard against a possibility which was never going to happen, and did it because they themselves were essentially tricksters. Such is what happens when men judge others by themselves.
Note that in ‘a’ they were fearful of a deception about a rising again, and in the parallel they take all precautions against it. In ‘b’ they were fearful that the disciples would steal the body, and in the parallel are told to set a guard in order to prevent it. Centrally in ‘c’ is what they were finally afraid of.
27.62-63 ‘Now on the next day, which is the day after the Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees were gathered together to Pilate, saying, “Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, ‘After three days I rise again’.” ’
‘On the next day, which is the day after the Preparation.’ An unusual phrase but necessary because during the Feast there would be a number of Sabbaths (the regular Sabbath and the festal sabbaths), and thus ‘on the sabbath’ might have been misleading. Such a phrase can be used later (28.1) because the position has already been made clear here. This may mean the day after the preparation for the Passover, and thus the very night that Jesus was crucified. Or it may rather refer to the day after the Friday (Friday was always called, and still is in Greece, ‘the preparation’ (paraskeue)) which fell in Passover week. It was thus the Sabbath. This would not, however, be breaching the Sabbath. Pilate was within a Sabbath day’s journey and the issue was religiously important as it was theoretically dealing with a false prophet. They would, however, have avoided entering Pilate’s residence.
‘Were gathered together.’ We have already seen that in Matthew this often has a sinister significance suggesting a gathering together in antagonism against Jesus. So even after His death they are still seen as ‘gathering together’ against Him.
The unusual (for Matthew) conjunction of the Chief Priests and the Pharisees suggests that the prime movers here were certain of the Pharisees. They had possibly gathered in their synagogue full of satisfaction at what they had ‘accomplished’ and had suddenly been faced up with a disturbing possibility, that those wretched disciples of Jesus would steal the body of Jesus and then pretend that He had risen. It revealed something about the state of their own minds that they took it seriously. Had they thought about it they must have known that such an action would not, of course, deceive most people but they were men with a guilty conscience (Jesus had that effect on people), and were clearly worried that something unusual might happen (compare Herod’s fear about the rising of John the Baptist). It is doubtful if they were worried that it might deceive a few fanatics among those unreliable Galilaeans. So they took themselves off to the Chief Priests who had been responsible for all the negotiations with Pilate, and put the matter to them, and managed to convince them of the danger. And then together they went to Pilate. It was such an absurd idea that we can only assume that they believed it because of the state of their consciences and because of their fear of the power of Jesus and of what He had said during His trial. It is quite likely that they had an uneasy feeling that something unusual might happen that they could not explain. And as they knew that Jesus could not possibly rise before the Last Day all that they could think was that it might involve the disciples.
“Sir, we remember that that deceiver said while he was yet alive, ‘After three days I rise again’.” Arriving at Pilate’s palace they spoke these memorable words. Pilate must have been amazed. He would hardly have taken the idea seriously. To him people just did not rise again, especially when they had been crucified. He could probably hardly believe what he was hearing. This is, however, testimony to the fact that Jesus had in fact said these words, or something similar (all their actions had been based on distorted words of Jesus). Note their description of Jesus as ‘that deceiver’. This may have been a reaction to precisely what He had accused them of when He had accused them of being deceivers like the Devil (John 8.41-47). But it was also sowing in Pilate’s mind the idea of deceit, and of some grand deception. They wanted him to think that Jesus’ followers (cowering away behind locked doors) had no scruples and could get up to anything.
Some have suggested that as such words had only been spoken privately to His disciples they could not have been known to the Chief Priests and Pharisees. But we must remember that a thorough (negative) investigation had been made into what Jesus had said at various times, and that they would have had as sources a number of lapsed disciples, and indeed even Judas himself. That would explain why the statement was still fresh in their minds. Their fear was probably not that large numbers of people would be deceived, but that enough might be to make things decidedly inconvenient, and especially that it might encourage Jesus’ supporters in their errors of whom they knew that there were a great many (as with John the Baptist).
27.64 “Command therefore that the sepulchre be made sure until the third day, lest haply his disciples come and steal him away. And say to the people, ‘He is risen from the dead,’ and the last error will be worse than the first.”
So they requested that Pilate, who had overall responsibility for the body, should secure the tomb in which Jesus’ body was lying, guarding it for three days in case His disciples came to steal it away and then tried to pretend that He had risen. Once the three days was over they could then if necessary prove that such a thing had not happened by producing the body. Let him consider what the disciples would be able to do if they were able to steal the body. They would be able to claim, ‘He is risen from the dead’. And that would simply compound the ‘deceptive error’ that Jesus had been declaring, that He was the Messiah Who would arise from the dead.
The Chief Priests would have known that they had no right themselves to set their own guard over what was Roman property (the body of Jesus), at least, not without permission. It would have made Pilate look as though he was being incompetent. And the tomb itself was a privately owned one, belonging to a respectable councillor. They would not themselves therefore have wished to cause offence by putting on an unofficial guard.
27.65 ‘Pilate said to them, “You have a guard (or ‘Have a guard’), go, make it as sure as you can.” ’
It is difficult to believe that Pilate would have taken them too seriously, even if he was still disturbed by his encounter with Jesus. He would certainly have been cynical about the idea of a crucified man rising from the dead. Such a thing had never happened before to his knowledge. And besides, once a man had been crucified even if he survived, he would be a hopeless cripple. Pilate would also indeed certainly be cynical about the idea of anyone rising from the dead. Thus he would probably have seen the idea that someone would steal the body and make such a claim as so fantastic that it could not really be taken seriously. And if he did think about his encounter with Jesus at all, and considered that it might just be possible that He might rise from the dead, he would probably have rather wanted to see what did happen, not have tried to prevent it. So it is difficult to see how he could have taken the whole idea too seriously, or have considered that anyone else would take it seriously. Thus we should almost certainly see Pilate’s words as being in the indicative as indicating that they should set their own guard. He would not want Rome to become a laughingstock. This would also explain why the guard which was set later reported back to the Chief Priests (28.11).
However the verb could be seen as an imperative and as therefore telling them to take a Roman guard for the purpose, and some have argued for this position. This latter position might be seen as being supported by the fact that the guards are later called ‘soldiers’. But it must be seen as quite probable that the Chief Priests loosely considered that some of their own guards could be seen as ‘soldiers’. They would see it as prestigious to have their own ‘soldiers’. And certainly the common people would have seen armed men in these terms. Thus the word cannot necessarily be pressed too specifically. It is not, however, overly important which they were. What is more important is that the guard was set. But even without it no one could seriously suggest that the disciples had stolen the body and then gone out into the wider world and convinced everyone of the resurrection, and even less established a movement that changed the world. Anyone who could believe that could believe anything.
27.66 ‘So they went, and made the sepulchre sure, sealing the stone, the guard being with them.’
The consequence was that the guard was set. And in order to make sure that there was no funny business a seal was placed on the stone in such a way that if it was moved it would be apparent to all. Thus the tomb was made as sure as it could possibly be.
Note. Are There Any Grounds For Suggesting That No Guard Was Set?
The main grounds for such an argument is the fact that it is not mentioned by anyone but Matthew. But while that certainly indicates that the evidence is not as strong as it would have been if it had been mentioned in all four Gospels, it is not really a good reason for rejecting the idea. The reason for its non-mention is rather that it was not seen as of much importance by the other evangelists. We can see why it was important to Matthew, writing in a Jewish environment with Jewish Christians and Jews in mind, for there all kinds of rumours had probably been spreading. But in a Gentile environment, where such rumours did not arise, it would not have been seen as being something of first priority. Are there then any positive grounds for seeing it as probable that a guard was set?
Given these arguments we really need to have very good grounds before we doubt Matthew’s truth and accuracy, and there are in fact none at all.
End of note.
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