TODAY OUR study for the Sunday of the Passion embraces the Gospel According to Saint Matthew. Using the text supplied, we begin reading that the arrest of Jesus had already been accomplished. The lesson begins with our Lord standing subject to legal charges before authorities within Israel and Rome. The reading ends with his death and burial. Noting our Lord’s trial as a miscarriage of true justice, therefore, the text reads…
Now Jesus stood before the governor; and the governor asked him, "Are you the King of the Jews?" Jesus said, "You have said so." But when he was accused by the chief priests and elders, he made no answer. Then Pilate said to him, "Do you not hear how many things they testify against you?" But he gave him no answer, not even to a single charge; so that the governor wondered greatly.
Now at the feast, the governor was accustomed to release for the crowd any one prisoner whom they wanted. And they had then a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when they had gathered, Pilate said to them, "Whom do you want me to release for you, Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?" For he knew that it was out of envy that they had delivered him up. Besides, while he was sitting on the judgment seat, his wife sent word to him, "Have nothing to do with that righteous man, for I have suffered much over him today in a dream."
Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the people to ask for Barabbas and destroy Jesus. The governor again said to them, "Which of the two do you want me to release for you?" And they said, "Barabbas."
Pilate said to them, "Then what shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ?" They all said, "Let him be crucified." And he said, "Why, what evil has he done?" But they shouted all the more, "Let him be crucified." So when Pilate saw that he was gaining nothing, but rather that a riot was beginning, he took water and washed his hands before the crowd, saying, "I am innocent of this man's blood; see to it yourselves." And all the people answered, "His blood be upon us and on our children!" Then he released for them Barabbas, and having scourged Jesus, delivered him to be crucified.
Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the praetorium, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe upon him, and plaiting a crown of thorns they put it on his head, and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him they mocked him, saying, "Hail, King of the Jews!" And they spat upon him, and took the reed and struck him on the head. And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe, and put his own clothes on him, and led him away to crucify him.
As they went out, they came upon a man of Cyrene, Simon by name; this man they compelled to carry his cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means the place of a skull), they offered him wine to drink, mingled with gall; but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots; then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus the King of the Jews."
Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross."
So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him; for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
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, "Eli, Eli, lama sabach-thani?" that is, "My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" And some of the bystanders hearing it said, "This man is calling Elijah." And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave it to him to drink. But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him."
And Jesus cried again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom; and the earth shook, and the rocks were split; the tombs also were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe, and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!"
There were also many women there, looking on from afar, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him; among whom were Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee. When it was evening, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who also was a disciple of Jesus. He went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. Then Pilate ordered it to be given to him. And Joseph took the body, and wrapped it in a clean linen shroud, and laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn in the rock; and he rolled a great stone to the door of the tomb, and departed. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were there, sitting opposite the sepulchre.
Next day, that is, after the day of Preparation, the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered before Pilate and said, "Sir, we remember how that impostor said, while he was still alive, 'After three days I will rise again.' Therefore order the sepulchre to be made secure until the third day, lest his disciples go and steal him away, and tell the people, 'He has risen from the dead,' and the last fraud will be worse than the first." Pilate said to them, "You have a guard of soldiers; go, make it as secure as you can." So they went and made the sepulchre secure by sealing the stone and setting a guard. (Matthew 27:11-66)
Knowing and Willing…
In this witness as told by the church of Matthew, a thread of identity was clearly made manifest. The story of Jesus both as the Christ of God and the knowing Lamb of God began with his genealogy. The story continued in that theme, in that Jesus was the willing sacrifice of God. According to Matthew, the offering that was made by Jesus was not one made by sinful people who would put an actual lamb without blemish on an altar as a helpless pawn. This atonement sacrifice historically made, was made voluntarily… and was made once for all time by Jesus the Christ. This saving act was done by God to redeem those who would believe in the Messiah as sin offering. The theme of sacrifice becomes very clear in Matthew as we note the very first line of today’s lesson. Among those gospels that bear witness to our Lord’s presence before Pilate, we read only here that Jesus was not kneeling at the trial. He was not helplessly bowing. He was not cringing, begging, nor penitent. Jesus was stated as “standing” deliberately, though other gospels do not stress this fact.
To make this claim of deliberate, passionate strength… even more evident, we offer Jesus' reply to Pilate when the governor asked about his being “The King of the Jews". He replied affirmatively, “You have said so". There was no admission, but also there was no denial! That this last is important to the gospel writer was attested by its presence stated in all gospel witnesses. The heart of faith views this statement made by Jesus as equivalent to a declaration that he indeed was exactly what Pilate said. However, he did not have to profess it... his death would declare it!
We also note here that when dealing with the religious authorities that had brought him there, Jesus also fell silent. They had their chance just then. Earlier in the text they had spewed forth their judgment. In zealous ignorance, they had largely ignored the prophetic words that the pure and unblemished Lamb of God would go innocently to be the sacrifice made for the forgiveness of sin.
Subsequently, we see that Pilate's testimony was to the innocence of Jesus. According to Roman law our Lord was condemned unjustly by the raucous people gathered. The gospel of Matthew highlights this. Thus Matthew builds the case that the Roman authorities had little to do directly with the unfolding events.
According to Matthew, Pilate’s reluctance to condemn came by way of his wife. The message had been cast as a warning. She had said that he should not do an abominable thing which the Lord hated, and therefore would punish the innocent. I offer here that I personally wonder whether the “dream” warning came about as planted from a Christian follower of Jesus, possibly an employee in the house of the governor’s wife? Did she herself know, through that same servant… much more about the professed divinity and innocence of our Lord?
Though we cannot know for sure, we note that there was no mention of sending Jesus to appear before Herod. Thus, in Matthew there was no Herodian side-stepping granted in the glare of scriptural spotlight. Yes, Pilate tried political maneuvering to sidestep. He tried to “do the right thing”, therefore risking receiving a future smack on the knuckles from Caesar for not prosecuting a “would be” challenger to Imperial authority.
Pilate looked desperately for an out. He offered a choice in honor of the Jewish Passover Festival. It would be a festival indeed if demons took the bait. But here was a time wherein Pilate would be “amazed” (in the Greek = thaumazein).
We have read that Pontius Pilate offered to pardon and release just one prisoner, as was customary during the Festival days. Being deceptively magnanimous, he suggested that Jesus could be released rather than the rebellious, troublesome Barabbas. Pilate seemed to figure that the Jewish authorities would not want a violent insurrectionist freed and be casting about. They would allow him to free Jesus. But he was wrong. Such was the religious hate worked up.
This points to the theory that the religious established powers obviously felt threatened. To them, Jesus was far more dangerous. The crowd stirred up became emphatic. They yelled repeatedly, “Crucify!” (in the Greek = staurothieto).
Politically, literally and symbolically, Pilate had no choice. He yielded to the outcry and will of the Sanhedrin. He visibly washed his hands of the matter and turned Jesus over to death upon a cross. Being overruled by the priests and the rabble, he publically acknowledged that the people had made the choice. He freed Barabbas.
From times long past, we note that multitudes have frequently chosen to please the world rather than God in like manner. They chase their own delusions. The Jews in power were bent upon the death of Christ to retain their station, and Pilate thought it would be dangerous to refuse. He chose to protect his own station.
Note, however, that Matthew stressed here that all was so ordered historically from the beginning… to make it very evident in this telling that Christ suffered for no fault of his own, but for the sins of his people. And we today quickly note how vain it was for Pilate to expect to free himself so easily from the guilt of a killing an innocent man. Like Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth, he washed his hands but could not get rid of the blood. Thus he is eternally branded as a wishy, washy politician. Jesus was an innocent person who Pilate by office was bound to protect. The trouble is… like abortionists who murder unborn children, we wash… and we sanitize, but our sin goes deep into the depths of the heart and soul.
Consequently, lest we judge Pilate too harshly, we acknowledge that we too are deceived sinners. We too share the plight that some will reject salvation. We sinners try to retain favorite sins… and keep our earned positions. We too would rob God of glory. We share the governor’s guilt. Thanks only be to God that the blood of Christ is upon those who believe.
You see, we are much like Barabbas who was pardoned by Pilate’s cowardly choice. We are also Pilate trying to purify our deeds. Finally, we are too much like the people who voiced the very rejection of Jesus, though the blood poured out by Christ saved us.
Please note here that not only Herod was dissed a bit by Matthew’s scribe. Very little discourse occurred in Matthew’s witness concerning Jesus’ walk to the cross. Other than an almost casual note that someone named Simon helped to carry the cross, it is more importantly stressed that Jesus retained consciousness unto the painful end. Reading Matthew thus reveals to us more than casually that this was not a drug-fogged helpless unfolding.
According to this gospel account, the walk to the cross was a deliberate act. Matthew told of no conversation with women on the way. Jesus went deliberately… straight to his death. The “Lamb of God” was foretold by the prophets to be the atonement… payment unto death… for human sin. God’s redemptive plan unfolded according to divine desire. Jesus accomplished this deed knowing fully what was happening. He refused to sip the pain-numbing narcotic drink.
We know that crucifixion was a very public death used by the Romans. The doing of it was very terrible and miserable. The weight of the crucified body hung on nails until the sufferer died in agony. Christ thus answered the call in the type of the prophetic bronze serpent fastened and raised on a pole, set up so that others would not perish. (see Numbers 21:1-9).
Jesus, by prophetic declaration, was therefore sent according to scripture as to his clothing (Psalm 22:18), and in a state which was foretold (Psalm 22:1)
Indeed, Jesus the Christ underwent all of the misery and shame of crucifixion that he might purchase for us everlasting life and joy. Christ was willingly led by the Father as a Lamb to the slaughter. He was the divine Sacrifice.
Note that while the inscription on the Cross is recorded differently by the various evangelists, this does not imply a contradiction. The inscription was simply stated in three different languages, each involving a different arrangement of the words. Jesus is indeed King. Jesus is indeed Lord. It is consistent with the strictest view of inspiration of the original autographs, that the Holy Spirit may have had a purpose to bring out in relief the charges made against Jesus in various languages. The charges were the strongest testimony to Jesus as being the Messiah! Pilate had asked it, and Jesus affirmed it at the cross. The divine warrior of God, the Christ… the Messiah… was offered up deliberately. He volunteered to do it, to reconcile us with his Father!
The final proof that the unfolding events occurred just as planned from the beginning of time, are noted in that the words "he yielded up his spirit". This should not be overlooked. They mean that he himself "dismissed” or “released” his spirit. This implies that Jesus, as the Christ… saw that he had overcome. Sin, evil, death and the Devil were conquered. He accomplished undergoing his crucifixion as an act of his own will. He was not a victim; such as would be a Satan deceived sinner.
Remember! Christ did not die like other men who could not help themselves. Therefore he willingly accomplished that work for which he had come into the world. Matthew makes testimony to the sacrificial character of Jesus’ death.
Indeed, Jesus Christ had spoken many times about his death, before its occurrence, to show that his life was not going to be taken from him. He would give it freely into his Father's hands. By the power of the eternal Holy Spirit he offered himself up, being both Priest and the sacrificial “Lamb of God”.
As he died, the veil of the temple was torn in two. It had previously separated the Holy Place and the Most Holy. The blood of the atonement lamb, previously offered to God as needed once a year by the High Priest alone… was now forever poured out (Exodus 26:31 and Leviticus 16). Surely a new living, lasting atonement fulfillment had been made for believers.
Upon our Lord’s death on the cross prophetic signs occurred. Rocks split, graves opened, and dead persons were said to revive. Thus Jesus’ sacrifice was a mighty, divine work attested to here by Matthean witness centered in the church at Antioch of Syria. The message went from there on into the Greek and Roman world… and even comes to us today. The crucifixion they testified about concerns the eternal love of Christ and the divinity of his work.
Now, we know that some have asked whether the bodies of the risen saintsin Matthew returned to their graves later. We cannot say for sure. Speculation offers that they may have ascended to heaven with Jesus when he had "led captivity captive" (Eph. 4:8-10).
Irregardless, please know that they are saints, I rest that they are secure. I personally believe here and now that we need to kneel before the cross on Good Friday and consider our own meek standing before the eternal judgment of God. Ask yourselves, “Can we accept the gift that the Lamb of God sacrificed himself for those in Matthew’s church? Can we also consider whether he offered himself for those also of the church of today? If your answer is "Yes" … from that place we personally may ask, “Did he not then offer himself for me?
Ultimately, his offering before God means that he sacrificed himself unto death so that any poor, waffling, and stubbornly miserable sinner like me may be reconciled with God. I say, "Surely it is so; surely it includes me."
If your answer echoes my thoughts in the witness here, I say to you… “Rejoice then!” Join with others who by the power of the Holy Spirit, believe his holy gift was made by his Crucifixion. Hear about the blessed Resurrection. Hear it said once more… “Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29b)