Three years’ worth of anxiety, fears, fatigue, hopes, and joys were packed into about a fifteen minute window. It was November 23, 2010, and Lili and I were standing in a Russian courtroom. After spending thousands of dollars, sleeping very little, answering dozens of questions, and having no idea what was going to happen along the way, a judge left the bench for a short recess before making her ruling. So we waited. Minutes passed as slowly as they ever had. Anxiety was tempered by sheer exhaustion. And then finally, the judge walked back in, took her seat, and said, “His name will be Nicholas Daniel Tankersley.” And we wept tears of joy. It was just fifteen minutes in a Russian courtroom, but nearly every element that filled the previous three years could be found in those fifteen minutes.
Matthew 27:27-66 tells a story that only lasts about a day. In these verses Matthew relays to us a very brief telling of mockery Jesus received, his crucifixion and death, and his burial. But just as you could see in that fifteen minutes in a Russian courtroom the elements and emotions of a story that had stretched over years, so we see so much of what has been told to us throughout Matthew’s entire gospel coming together in these brief forty verses.
About a year and a half ago, as we began our study through Matthew’s gospel, I wrote in my sermon on Matthew 1:1-17, “Matthew begins, ‘The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the son of Abraham.’ It doesn’t take a biblical scholar to see what Matthew is saying. He’s telling us that Jesus of Nazareth, is the one God had been talking about. He’s the promised Messiah. He’s the king God declared would come and the one through whom all the nations would be blessed. Matthew says all those promises of God are now fulfilled in one person . . . Jesus . . . This is what (or better, who) Matthew’s gospel is about. . . . If in our slow trek through this gospel we lose sight of him, we will have lost sight of the one Matthew wants us to see.”
This gospel has been about who Jesus is and what he came to do, showing throughout that everything was happening in accord with God’s plan. So, it shouldn’t be a surprise to us, as we look at these final verses that tell us about his death and burial, to find that Matthew points us (his readers) one more time to consider who Jesus is, what he is doing, and that these events take place within the sovereign, redemptive plan of God. These forty verses are a window into what this gospel of Matthew has been about. So it is these simple points of Jesus identity, mission, and the continuing work and plan of God that I want to highlight this morning. First, in verses 27-44 we see:
The identity of Jesus
In verses 27-44 Matthew reminds us of the identity of Jesus in a way that we wouldn’t anticipate. Matthew has told us who Jesus is through a genealogy, events that fulfill scriptural prophecies, Jesus’ actions and words, and the testimony of his followers. But now we are reminded once more who Jesus is through the mockery of his enemies.
Verses 27-44 show us that the abuse that Jesus took wasn’t merely at the hands of the Jews but from Gentiles as well. It is true that Jesus came to his own people, and they did not receive him. But his treatment at the hands of Gentile Roman soldiers wasn’t gracious and kind. Rather, these verses show us Jesus stripped naked, a crown of thorns put on his head, beaten with a reed, given wine that had intentionally been made so bitter as to be undrinkable, and nailed to a cross. But the one thread that goes throughout this narrative of his suffering and crucifixion is mockery.
Jesus receives mockery from the Roman soldiers, from those who merely passed by, from the chief priests, scribes, and elders, and even from those who were also being crucified at his right and left. You’d think that at least those suffering and dying on crosses at your side would leave Jesus alone, but you’d be wrong.
But I think as Matthew wrote these words, he knew what every believer would be thinking. In fact, I’m tempted to bet it’s what most of you thought as you read this text this week, namely, that though they are mocking him, they speak more insightfully than they understand. That is, just in case we lost sight of just who Jesus is and what he is doing, those who arrogantly mock him remind us. They remind us that:
Jesus is God’s promised Son and King …
There are two titles that those mocking Jesus continually hurl at him: king and son of God. First, after the Roman soldiers dress him up as a king in order to mock him, they say in verse 29, “Hail, King of the Jews.”
Then, as Jesus is crucified, they put a sign on a cross that spells out his charge. After all, crucifixion was an intentionally public act done by the Romans in a violent manner with the intent to deterring anyone who might think of committing any of these crimes. In the case of Jesus, he was being charged with treason, with elevating himself as a king in defiance of the Roman emperor. Therefore, his charge was posted on the cross itself as a sign, which read, as we see in verse 37, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.”
And finally, as the chief priests, scribes, and elders mocked him at the end of verse 42, they sarcastically noted, “He is the King of Israel.”
But right alongside of that, there was another title, namely, Son of God. We also see it throughout these verses. At the end of verse 40, those passing by say, “If you’re the Son of God, come down from the cross,” and in verse 43, the religious authorities mock him as it appears that God isn’t coming to his rescue, reminding everyone that Jesus said, “I am the Son of God.”
Interestingly, to be the King of the Jews and to be the Son of God aren’t altogether different titles. You’ll remember in our study of the early chapters of Matthew that he picks up on the title “son of God.” And we were reminded that there are two ways we might see this title. On the one hand, “Son of God” refers uniquely to the second person of the Trinity, God the Son. To say Jesus is the Son of God in this sense is a reminder that he is divine. He is the divine Son; he is God the Son.
But there is another use of that title in the Scripture that doesn’t necessitate seeing one as divine. Adam, for example, is called God’s “son” in Luke 3:38, for just as a son was to resemble and reflect his Father, so Adam was put on earth in God’s image to resemble and reflect God in his reign over the earth, as he was given dominion over all things. Adam of course failed in this, and so God raised up a people through Abraham to be his human representatives to resemble and reflect them, calling them his son in Exodus 4:21-23. But they, like Adam, fail to resemble and reflect God, and they too are driven from their land. But then God made a promise to David.
In 2 Samuel 7 God promised David that he would raise up one from David’s own flesh—a human being—telling David, “I will be to him a Father, and he will be to me a Son” (2 Sam 7:14). This is why Psalm 2 was read every time another son of David was installed as king, a reminder of the promise as God said in Psalm 2:7-8, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you [i.e. enthroned you as king]. Ask of me, and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession.”
This promise to David about his coming son is God’s promise of the coming Messiah, the one who would be king, who would be God’s son, who would be the perfect human representative of God, resembling and reflecting God in his reign over the earth. Matthew began his gospel by showing us clearly that Jesus is the fulfillment of this promise. The opening words of his gospel are, “The book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the son of David.” Jesus is God the Son, the unique divine Son of God. And as the God-man, he is also this perfect human representative, the son of God, God’s promised king who had come to reign over the earth. Though his enemies intend to mock him, I think Matthew had a smile on his face as he wrote of their mocking words, knowing that we would be reminded of who Jesus is, the promised king and son of God.
… who was doing everything necessary to save his people …
Those mocking Jesus not only hurled titles at him, intending them sarcastically, but they also challenged him to save his own life. Multiple times they challenge him to end this spectacle of his death, saying in the second half of verse 40, for example, “If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” or in verse 42, “He saved others; he cannot save himself.”
What they didn’t understand was that if indeed Jesus was going to save others, he most definitely couldn’t save himself from death. He couldn’t come down from the cross. That was clear in the Garden of Gethsemane where Jesus had asked his Father if there was any other way, and when it was clear that there wasn’t, he submitted himself to the will of his Father, saying, “Your will be done.” The reason Jesus didn’t save himself is because he came to save us. He was doing everything necessary to save his people
… and who would be raised from the dead.
Interestingly, one of the mocking attacks he received had to do with the very misunderstanding that had taken place at his trial. Those passing by in verse 40 derided him, saying, “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself.” They misunderstood that when Jesus spoke about rebuilding the temple in three days, he was talking about his body.
Similarly, in verse 43 the religious leaders mocked him, saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him.” And in their minds, they felt so clever, for God seemed nowhere to be found.
But I’m certain that Matthew wrote these words so that we might remember that Jesus did indeed rebuild the temple of his body in three days. He laid his life down, and he took it up again on that Easter Sunday morning. And God did deliver him. All those who proudly called him a blasphemer and judged him worthy of death would soon see that God was overturning their verdict as he raised Jesus from the death, showing him to be his righteous Son and Lord.
Matthew reminds us of the identity of Jesus. He is God’s promised Son and King, who was doing everything necessary to save his people, and who would be raised from the dead. And Matthew reminds us as well of
The redeeming work of Christ
This is seen throughout the events of verses 45-56. In these verses there is no more mocking. In fact, the only human voice (besides that of Jesus) that says anything is a Roman soldier who no longer sarcastically says in awe, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (v. 54). But what fills these verses is attestation from God to show us what Christ’s death was accomplishing. We see in these verses that:
Jesus bore the divine judgment we deserved …
Sometimes when we talk about the death of Christ, we focus on the gruesome details of the manner of his death, noting that his hands and feet were nailed to the cross, his mangled flesh being raked over a wood beam as he tried to breath, his agony as he would have to press himself up to breath, and on and on. Matthew describes the crucifixion with these words in verse 35, “And when they had crucified him.”
We can see that the details of Jesus’ gruesome crucifixion weren’t at the top of Matthew’s priorities in telling of Christ’s death. What then did he want us to see? I think what he wants us to note is not the gruesome details of the manner in which Jesus died but what he was doing for his people redemptively. That is, he was bearing the wrath of God that we deserved.
Verse 45 begins by telling us that at noon until 3:00 PM there was darkness over all the land. Now, no doubt this would be frightening to everyone there. After all, imagine you’re mocking and killing one who claimed to be the Son of God, and then, as he’s hanging on the cross at noon, darkness covers the land. I imagine there was a good bit of second-guessing from those who had been mocking Jesus (not just the centurion).
But the darkness wasn’t just some kind of cool effect God was bringing about; it was a sign of divine judgment. When the Lord was declaring the judgment that would fall on his people for their sin in Amos 8:9, he declared, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight.” Now, here it is, as Jesus is being crucified.
Then, Jesus cries out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani,” meaning, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (v. 46). This is a quotation of Psalm 22 where David finds himself in a situation of great suffering at the hands of his enemies, and the Lord is doing nothing to intervene, nothing to deliver him. So, in this moment Jesus acknowledges that the Father isn’t going to intervene in bringing salvation from this moment. Jesus is being handed over death, as he bears divine judgment, even as those listening wrongly think he’s asking for Elijah to come save him.
And then the earth itself reacts, with and earthquake and rocks splitting. Once more, throughout the OT, when God’s people fell under judgment, the earth itself suffered. We see this as early as Genesis 3, where Adam sins as the earth itself is cursed. But this continues throughout Israel’s history. Now, it’s happening here with Jesus.
What we’re being shown is that the divine judgment for sin is being handed out on Jesus. Those looking at him were declaring that he was facing God’s judgment, and they were right! But what they didn’t understand is that it wasn’t for his own sin, for he had none. He was bearing the penalty for sinners, for all who had sinned and yet would come to repentance and faith in him. He was paying our penalty in our place so that we might be saved from the wrath of God. And he was dying,
… so that we might be reconciled to God and dwell with him forever.
The events of verses 45-56 aren’t all signs of divine judgment. We also have a reminder of what Christ’s death will accomplish. He was reconciling us to God so that we might dwell with him forever. At the moment of Jesus’ death in verse 50, we are told that the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom. That curtain had served to separate the most holy place in the temple from the rest of the temple so that only one person, once a year could enter into the Lord’s presence in his temple. Now, that barrier was gone. Jesus’ death was removing any barrier we have between us and our God so that we can now boldly approach him.
And many bodies were raised from the dead—like Lazarus I think we should assume—only to die again. But it was a foretaste of what’s to come. By Jesus’ death, he was destroying death so that one day we’ll all be raised to dwell with our God to whom we’ve been reconciled forever. Matthew is showing us the redeeming work of Christ as he bears the divine judgment we deserved so that we might be reconciled to God and dwell with him forever.
Finally, we also see
The continuing work of God to fulfill his redemptive plan
When you look at verses 57-66, it can almost feel like we should just skip over them. We know at this point that Jesus has died, and we know that on the third day he’s going to be raised. Sure, that means he was buried in between, but why does that matter?
When we look at these verses, however, I think Matthew is reminding us that God is continuing to work, even in this moment, to fulfill his redemptive plan. First, we noted last week that Isaiah had prophesied that Jesus would be silent before his accusers and die for our sins, even as Isaiah 53 had prophesied. But Isaiah also noted in verse 9 of that chapter that Jesus was “with a rich man in his death,” most likely a reference to his burial.
Then we read in verse 57 that here comes a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who is a disciple of Jesus. And, if our thought is, “Of course,” well maybe we should pause a bit. After all, John tells us that Joseph is no likely candidate here to take care of Jesus’ burial. John writes of Joseph that he “was a disciple of Jesus, but secretly for fear of the Jews” (John 19:38).
Now, let’s consider this moment for a second. Jesus had just been crucified publicly to send the message that no one better challenge Rome or sympathize with one who does. And Joseph has rightly been fearful. Yet now, in this moment he courageously not only identifies with Jesus but makes sure Pilate (who just had Jesus crucified) is aware of it by asking for his body. It seems like a small matter, but the God whose plans cannot be thwarted is working even in this moment after Jesus’ death to make sure his redemptive plan is fulfilled.
And then we have one more section. The chief priests and Pharisees want to make sure that Jesus’ disciples don’t pull a fast one over on the crowds. After all, they note, Jesus did say he’d be raised from the dead on the third day. And they’re afraid the disciples will want to come and steal his body so that it’ll look like he was right. So, they ask to have a guard, which Pilate tells them they can have, by using one of their own, and he tells them, “Go, make it as secure as you can” (v. 65). And I want to argue that this little detail is key in God’s plan.
Do you remember in Genesis how God promised Abraham that he would have a son with Sarah? Abraham wrongly thought it could happen with Hagar, but God didn’t bless that. Then, there was this moment where Abraham was traveling, encountered Abimelech, and told him that Sarah was his sister. Abimelech took Sarah into his quarters, but he didn’t lie with her. And when he pleads his case the Lord confirms, saying, “I kept you from sinning.”
Why was that so important that the Lord kept Abimelech from lying with Sarah? It was important because if that had happened, it might not have been clear when Isaac came along that this was the miraculous provision of God between Abraham and Sarah. There was no doubt that God alone could have done this.
Well, on Sunday morning after the events that we just read in our text this morning, God wanted it to be made absolutely clear that when the tomb is found empty, there could be no explanation that God in his power had raised Jesus from the dead. He wanted there to be no second-guessing that maybe his body had been stolen. So, he used some devious chief priests and Pharisees to set the stage so that we might know on that Easter Sunday morning that the reason his body wasn’t in the tomb is because he is risen. And the call to us is to trust in and obey the one who is God’s Son and King, who bore divine judgment in his death on the cross and rose on the third day that we might be reconciled to God and dwell with him forever. Let’s give thanks now to our gracious God as we come to the table. Amen.