“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!'”
– Matthew 27:54
When we come to the death narrative of Jesus’ life, it is easy to skim over it since we are so familiar with it. We know that Jesus died and we know what that means for us, but do we ever try to read it with a fresh pair of eyes or from a different perspective? Try reading the chapter from the perspective of the different characters: Judas, the religious leaders, Pilate, the crowd, the soldiers, the women watching nearby, and of course Jesus.
The religious leaders were not allowed to execute anyone without the Roman government’s approval. So the leaders had to take Jesus to the governor.
Judas shows remorse for what he had done. He realized that he had just sent his rabbi to his death. Trying to make amends, he tries to return the silver to the religious leaders. Judas stands in contrast to the repentance of Peter in where Peter wept for denying Jesus. Instead of turning in heart-felt repentance, Judas tries to clear his own name and wash his hands of any wrongdoing. The religious leaders also try to clean their hands of any wrongdoing. They would not take back the silver because it was considered blood money. They could not put it back in the temple treasury. Instead, they purchased a field for the burial of foreigners. Ultimately, Judas lost everything for his betrayal of Jesus – he lost his very life.
Jesus only speaks once in the next section of Matthew 27. Even with all the accusations, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth” ().
Pilate was surprised at the quietness of Jesus. After all, there were many accusations coming against him. Why would he not defend himself? Pilate was obviously convinced that Jesus was innocent of these accusations. Even his wife wanted nothing to do with Jesus’ crucifixion because of the dreams she had received. Pilate decided to turn it over to the decision of the people. He customarily released a prisoner at the time of Passover. As he normally did, he would let the people choose who they wanted released. This way he could fulfill his customary promise and also let the people choose what they wanted done with Jesus.
Pilate shows weakness in a few ways. First, Pilate allowed for the crucifixion of Jesus at the expense of justice. He bowed to the wishes of the people. Pilate had all authority to proclaim Jesus as innocent, but he instead catered to the will of the crowd. Second, Pilate did not want anything to do with the decision he ultimately made. He washes his hands as a symbol of innocence, but we know this means nothing. Pilate is still responsible for sending Jesus to the cross. We see this evidenced in many of the ancient creeds which state that Jesus “suffered under Pontius Pilate”, not that he suffered at the hands of the crowd.
Throughout the crucifixion scene painted in Matthew’s gospel, we hear the voices of various insults. We see the Roman soldiers mock Jesus as they tortured him. Crucifixion was an embarrassing death, and with it came an embarrassing torture. The soldiers mock Jesus’ kingship by placing a robe on him, a crown made of thorns, and a reed in his hand to represent a scepter. Why would a true king find himself in this position? The soldiers mocked that he was no king at all – he had been defeated.
When they had arrived at Golgotha, says that he was offered a drink of wine mixed with gall. This was a sort of painkiller to help lessen the pain of the crucifixion. It is significant that Jesus refused this drink. Instead of numbing the pain of his death, he experienced the worst of it. The sign placed above his head was also a mockery of Jesus. It stated that he was the King of the Jews, but this was not a sign put up for the sake of truth, it was to mock his claims.
At the crucifixion, the religious leaders hurled insults at Jesus and mocked him. The leaders mocked how he could save others but not himself. They said that they would believe if Jesus just came down from the cross. The problem is that they have rejected every other evidence of who he was, why would they believe now? Plus, the only sign Jesus would give them was the sign of Jonah, which would be fulfilled just three days after his death.
The darkness in represents the wrath of God coming upon Jesus. Jesus took God’s wrath upon himself so that those who believe would not experience God’s wrath. He took our judgment upon himself. Jesus cries out to God and asks why God had forsaken him. Christ, the one who obeyed his Father’s will perfectly, now experienced the full wrath of his Father poured out upon him. In , the people obviously did not understand what Jesus was saying. He was not crying out to Elijah but to his Father. The people wanted to see if Elijah was going to appear. They were still waiting for some sign that Jesus was the Christ.
At the time that Christ died, the curtain which separated the holy of holies was torn in two from top to bottom. This is significant of the new relationship available between God and man. No longer were priests needed to intercede on our behalf – we now have a high priest who intercedes for all. The curtain tore from top to bottom, indicating that it was not a person who tore it, but God himself. The earthquake and the rocks splitting often represents the judgment of God. Jesus had taken on God’s judgment for believers at his death. The judgment was completed, the wrath had been poured out, and the new covenant had been established.
One of the greatest proclamations in this chapter comes from the mouth of a Roman centurion. After all the events that had taken place that day, he realizes that Jesus was the Son of God. Compared to the mocking of the religious leaders, this centurion shows more wisdom of who Christ is than all the religious leaders combined.
In this passage, we see three examples of different characteristics.
First, we see the loyalty of the women disciples. These women stayed with Jesus the entire time while his other disciples had fled. These women had no fear of what others may say about them. They also showed their loyalty at the tomb. Knowing they could do nothing, they sat opposite the tomb and watched as Jesus’ body was placed in it.
Second, we see the bravery of Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph showed bravery for asking for the body of Jesus. Normally, Jesus’ body would have been thrown in a dump or in a fire. Joseph, being a follower of Jesus, asked Pilate for the body to give it a proper burial. This was a sign of respect for Jesus. Joseph could have experienced persecution for identifying with Jesus, but he did not fear this.
Third, we see the futility of the religious leaders. The disciples were too afraid to even come and bury Jesus. Why on earth would they try to come and steal his body? They wanted to post guards to protect the tomb, but ultimately, any measures taken to secure the tomb were futile. Jesus would not be held back by a stone and some guards.
The Saturday following Jesus’ death was probably one of the most difficult days for his followers. The doubts and grief began to settle in. Maybe they felt a lack of hope.
Sometimes for us, it can feel like Saturday. We feel like we have lost all hope and begin to doubt. The good news is that Sunday is just around the corner!