Passion III: Matthew 27:11-66

Condemnation, Crucifixion and Burial

Matthew's Passion has shifted from the place of Jesus with his followers to the place (or, lack of place) the leadership gave him. To the disciples, he was the Christ. To outsiders, he was an enigma and a challenge; as such, he was reject. The leadership condemned him in a way that would sweep him and his movement off the social landscape. In short order he would be judged and executed, but that would not be the end. No, not the end...

11 JESUS stood in front of the governor. The governor questioned HIM, saying, “Are you the king of the Jews?” JESUS said, “You say (so).” 12 As he was accused by the chief priests and elders, HE gave no answer. 13 Then, Pilate said to him, “Do you not hear what they witness against you?” 14 HE did not give him an answer, not one word, so that the governor was greatly amazed.

27:11 “You say (so)” This response is common to all four gospels. Biblical scholars are uncertain as to the tone of the comment. (Was it an acknowledgment of Jesus to the title? Or, was it a sarcastic rejection of Pilate’s taunt?) See the first part of the Passion study for more information on Jesus' response.

Why did Jesus endure such suffering in silence? To prove he was the Messiah? Contemporaries of Jesus believed suffering could be heroic. Silent endurance demonstrated the true strength character. In other words, the silence of Jesus before Pilate shouted: “Take your best shot. I’ll still be standing.” [27:11-13]

More than a proof for strength of character, the endurance of suffering could lead to a greater good. In silence, Jesus would suffer for others. As Isaiah 53:7-8 stated:

He was painfully abused, but he did not complain. He was silent like a lamb being led to the butcher, as quiet as a sheep having its wool cut off.

He was condemned to death without a fair trial. Who could have imagined what would happen to him? His life was taken away because of the sinful things my people had done. (RSV)

We must remember the Suffering Servant image from Isaiah connected the Passion with the Prophets. The image of the Messiah as one who suffered for the nation was a uniquely Christian concept; this image for God's Chosen did not exist before the emergence of the Jesus movement.

15 Now, at the (Passover) festival, the governor held the custom to release to the crowd one prisoner whom they desired. 16 They had there an infamous prisoner, named Barabbas. 17 After (the crowd) gathered, Pilate said to them, “Whom do you wish (that) I should release to you, Barabbas or JESUS, the (one) called ‘Christ?’” 18 For he (fully) knew that (the Jewish leaders) turned HIM over because of (their) jealousy.

The term Barabbas (Aramaic, meaning “son of the father”) addressed this theme. While the revolutionary may have used the title to hide his identity and to communicate solidarity with the common person, Matthew used the title to show Jesus suffered for all people. [15-18] We, as “sons (and daughters) of fathers,” were released through suffering of the One condemned for being the Messiah.

19 While he sat on the judge’s seat, his wife sent to him (a message), saying, “(Have) nothing between you and that righteous MAN. For I suffered many (things) today in a dream because of HIM.”

20 But the chief priests and the elders convinced the crowd that they should ask for Barabbas and should destroy JESUS. 21 Answering, the governor said to them, “Which of the two do you want (that) I should release to you?” They said “Barabbas!” 22 Pilate said to them, “What, then, should I do (with) JESUS, called ‘Christ?’” they said, “HE should be crucified!” 23 He said, “Why? What evil did HE do?” They cried out louder, saying, “HE should be crucified!” 24 Pilate, seeing that nothing was gained but a riot was (about to) happen, taking water, washed his hands in front of the crowd, saying, “I am innocent (of the spilling) of this MAN”S blood. You see to it!” 25 Answering, all the people said, “(Let the spilling of) HIS blood (be) on us and on our children!” 26 Then, he released Barabbas to them, but he, having JESUS (first) whipped, turn (HIM) over (to the soldiers) so HE could be crucified.

Against Pilate’s better judgment, he entertained the Jewish leaders’ demand for blood. These leaders created a crowd atmosphere to crying out for kangaroo court justice. [11:20-25] The audience of Matthew’s gospel saw both Pilate and the Jewish leaders as symbols for their concerns.

On the one hand, the Roman Empire (represented by Pilate) initially faced Christianity with an open mind. Most converts came from a non-Jewish general population. On the other hand, Jewish leadership within the area of Palestine (where Matthew probably penned his Gospel) and in the Diaspora had already excommunicated Jewish Christians. They rejected Jesus as the Messiah. In doing so, Matthew held, they who rejected Jesus refused his life-giving death. They would take the consequences of their actions upon themselves. [11:25]

Mob justice won the day. [11:26] In the time of Jesus, the one who controlled the mob ruled. To this end, the religious leaders sent their henchmen to manipulate and bully, so they could catch Pilate off guard. The Romans, too, played the mob game. Even Pilate once ordered his troops to don civilian clothes, run into the streets, physically harass the populace; this led to the death of hundreds in Jerusalem. In the psychology of terror tactics, both sides played the mob card to their advantage.

27 Then the soldiers of the governor, having taken JESUS into the headquarters (at the governor’s palace), gathered against HIM, all (of them in) the group. 28 Stripping HIM, they placed a purple cloak around HIM, and, 29 having woven a crown of thorns, they placed (it) on HIS head, and a (solid) reed (like a scepter) in HIS right (hand). Kneeling before HIM, (they) threw insults at him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And spitting at HIM, they took the reed (from HIM) and struck HIS head. 31 When they (finished) throwing insults at HIM, they took the cloak off HIM, put HIS clothes on HIM, and led HIM away to be crucified. 32 Going out (into the city), they found a man, a Cyrenian, Simon by name. They took custody of this man, so that he might carry HIS cross. 33 Coming to a place called Golgotha, which is called “Skull Place,” 34 they gave HIM wine to drink, having been mixed with gall. Tasting (it), HE would not drink. 35 Having crucified HIM, they separated HIS clothes, casting lots. 36 Sitting, they guarded HIM there. 37 They placed above HIS head the accusation (against HIM), having been written, “This is JESUS, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then, two robbers were crucified with him, one on (HIS) right and one on (HIS) left.

While Christians viewed the suffering of Jesus as salvific, non-believers could not understand the death of a common Jewish criminal as anything more than a humiliating end to a pointless life. Indeed, one of the earliest known Roman images of the crucifixion was a piece of graffiti. In the image, a slave prostrated himself before a crucified man with the head of an ass. The caption for the image read: “Alexander worships his god.”

The Roman punishment of crucifixion meant to belittle the condemned so much that no one else would dare commit such an atrocity. By the time of death, the prisoner had no honor or good reputation to call his own. Romans calculated every step of the execution drama to clearly communicate utter disdain. Pilate executed Jesus as a revolutionary, a self-declared “King of the Jews.” When they beat and insulted Jesus, the soldiers played their part in the drama. [11:27-31] They so weakened Jesus, they had to press a stranger into service for the execution (which was their right under Roman law). [11:32]

Finally, they executed Jesus in full view of the city. The clothes and possessions of the executed became the property of the soldiers, as payment for the service. To determine the ownership of the property, the soldiers gambled for the clothes before the still-living prisoner to heighten the sense of humiliation. [11:35] (Normally, Romans crucified prisoners without clothes, but the they allowed Jewish prisoners to have loin cloths for sake of the modest Jewish populace.) The comments of the crowd, soldiers, and fellow prisoners only added to the disdain. As the only act of mercy in the scene, someone offered Jesus a drug-laced wine to dull the pain [11:34, 11:48].

The sign posted for the execution added irony to the scene. [11:37] Both Christians and non-Christians would agree the sign was appropriate. Jesus was, indeed, “King of the Jews,” the Messiah. For non-Christians, the sign made Jesus a laughing stock. For Christians, the sign revealed the purpose of Jesus’ mission.

39 The (people) passing by (kept) blaspheming HIM, shaking their heads 40 and saying, “ (YOU), the (one) destroying the Temple and rebuilding (it) in three days! Save yourself, if (YOU) are the Son of God, and come down off the cross!” 41 In the same way, the chief priests, mocking with the scribes and the elders, said, 42 “HE saved others, but HE is not able to save himself! HE is the King of Israel? Let HIM come down from the cross now and we will believe in HIM! 43 HE (placed HIS) trust in God. Let (God) rescue (HIM) now, if he wants HIM (to live). For HE said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 (In) the same (way), the robbers crucified with HIM reviled HIM. 45 Now, from the sixth hour until the ninth hour, (there) was darkness all over the land. 46 About the ninth hour, JESUS cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Eli, eli lema sabachtani?” This is: “My God, my God, why did you abandon me?” 47 Some of the (people) standing there, hearing (HIM), said, “This (man) calls Elijah!” 48 One of them running quickly, taking a sponge, filling (it with) vinegar, and putting (it) on a (solid) reed, offered HIM a drink. 49 But the rest said, “Wait! Let us see if Elijah comes, saving HIM.”

27:39-44 The three groups surrounded Jesus in concentric circles. In the outside circle, travelers blasphemed Jesus. In the center circle, the leadership mocked him. In the inner circle, the robbers reviled him. As Matthew moved from the outside in, the reaction to the crucified Jesus became harsher (blasphemy to mocking to revulsion).

27:45-46 “sixth hour...ninth hour” In the Greek tradition, time was counted from dawn. So the sixth hour was noon, and the ninth hour was 3:00 P.M.

Despite the best efforts of the soldiers, Jesus would not give up. For his last words in Matthew’s passion, Jesus shouted out the first line to Psalm 22. [11:46] Like popular recordings of today, Jews knew the psalms by title (not by number which biblical scholars established in the 1600's). Psalm 22 began with a lament but ends with a defiant statement of hope. Compare Psalm 22:1 (“My God, my God, why have you deserted me? Why are you so far away? Won’t you listen to my groans and come to my rescue?”) to Psalm 22:23 (“The Lord doesn’t hate or despise the helpless in all of their troubles. When I cried out, he listened and did not turn away.”). For this reason, people in the crowd wondered if God would help him. Since Jews believed Elijah would come to announce the coming of the Messiah, those in the crowd would have expected the first of the prophets to appear. [11:47-49]

50 JESUS, crying out in a loud voice, gave up (HIS) spirit. 51 Look! The veil in the Temple was torn in two from top to bottom, the earth shook, rocks were split open, 52 the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints having fallen asleep were raised. 53 Coming out of the tomb after HIS resurrection, (the risen) entered the holy city and appeared to many. 54 The centurion and the (soldiers) guarding JESUS, seeing the earthquake and the (things) happening, feared greatly, saying, “This (MAN) was truly the Son of God!”

27:50 “...gave up his spirit.” Jesus died.

27:51-52 The emphatic “Look!” introduced a series of events that, taken together, described what would happen in the end times (violence against the Temple, earthquakes, and the resurrection of the just). Notice the passive voice of the verbs. The person who caused these events was God himself.

For Matthew, the death of Jesus marked the beginning of God’s Kingdom. The curtain in the Temple which separated the sanctuary area (with the altar of sacrifice) from the Holy of Holies (a room that contained the Ark of the Covenant). Jews pointed to the Temple (particularly the Holy of Holies) as a definitive dwelling for the presence of God. Now, with the curtain spilt, God’s presence spilled from the Temple over the city.

Other cosmic signs of the Kingdom appeared. Earthquakes and resurrections marked the shift away from a time of despair to an era of hope. The signs cumulated in the soldiers’ confession of faith. Stuck with holy fear from God’s revelation in the death of Jesus, they proclaimed Jesus God’s true Son.

The split in the sanctuary curtain, the signs and the act of faith by the Roman guard mirrored the trial of Jesus before Caiaphas. Here, instead of the high priest, God tore his garments and raged at the sight of the blasphemy. Here, instead of denying and mocking the Christ, the soldiers proclaimed their faith in “the Son of God.”

55 There were many women watching from a distance, who followed JESUS from Galilee, serving HIM, 56 among whom was Mary Magdelene, and Mary, mother of James and John, mother of the sons of Zebedee.

27:26: “Mary, mother of James and John, mother of the sons of Zebedee.” Since James and John were the sons of Zebedee, the mention of Mary’s motherhood twice was redundant.

The mention of the women had a two-fold purpose for Matthew. First, it reinforced the abandonment of the disciples to their shame. Only the women were faithful; no male could brag of his fidelity after this point. Second, the women would be the first witnesses to the Resurrection. Their word would be the first to proclaim the Good News; men could only evangelize from this starting point of human weakness and humility. This would be God's work, not man's. The presence of the women linked the death of Jesus to his risen glory.

57 Being late (in the day), a wealthy man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who was also a disciple of JESUS, arrived, 58 who, approaching Pilate, asked for the body of JESUS, then Pilate ordered (the body) to be given over (to Joseph). 59 Taking the body, Joseph wrapped it [in] clean linen, 60 and laid it in his new tomb which had been carved from rock, and rolling a large stone (over) the entrance of the tomb, (he) departed.

27:59 “his new tomb which had been carved from rock.” Excavations in and near Jerusalem indicate that the tombs from the time of Jesus were family burial plots. With this in mind, the burial place for Joseph within the family tomb could had been freshly hued. As an act of charity for Jesus and as a means to keep the Sabbath from being violated, Joseph buried Jesus in his place within the family “crypt.”

As the disciples abandoned Jesus before his death, it would only natural for Matthew that a disciple would enter the scene to care for the remains of Jesus after his death. Some scholars believe Joseph requested the body not only as an act of mercy for the remains of one cherished, they hold Joseph, a faithful Jew, wanted to quickly bury the Lord so the Sabbath could be honored. Leaving the dead in full view of Jerusalem defiled the Sabbath, so Joseph wanted to maintain the ritual purity of the city. (Talk about irony!)

Joseph buried Jesus in his family's crypt. How do we know this? First century burial plots in Jerusalem were caves for the remains of the family; each deceased member had his own “shelf”; a large stone was rolled in front of the tomb after internment. It is interesting to note that surrounding the Tomb of Jesus within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, other burial caves exist in the family plot design described. This is the strongest proof that the Church is the historical place of Jesus's death and burial.

62 On the morrow, which is after the day of preparation, the chief priests and the elders went together to Pilate, 63 saying “Sir, we remember that that liar said, still being alive, ‘After three day, I will rise.’ 64 So, give the command to secure the tomb until the third day, lest, coming, HIS disciples steal HIM and tell the people, ‘HE is risen from the dead,’ and the last lie will be worse than the first. 65 Pilate said to them, “Take a (Roman) sentry’; go secure it as you see (fit.)” 66 Going out, they secured the tomb with the sentry, sealing the stone.

27:62 “On the morrow, which is after the day of preparation” This was a round-about way to say “on the Sabbath.”

27:63 “Sir” is literally “Lord.” It was used to recognize Pilate’s authority.

27:66 “sealing the stone” Scholars are not sure what this means, whether some sort of official document was placed on the stone, or if some sort of clay was pressed against the stone to prove movement.

As a last act of damage control, the Temple leadership asked Pilate for sentry to secure the tomb. They feared the body would be stolen, then the followers could claim Jesus rose from the dead, as a sign the apocalyptic preaching of the Master was vindicated. (Doesn't such an act by “loyal disciples” fly in the face of their cowardice?)

In the end, Pilate acquiesced. But was it the end? Not at all.

Take some time this week to reread the Passion, attend Good Friday services or Stations of the Cross. Relive the events that led up to the death of Jesus. Make your journey with the Lord an act of worship.