[March 18, 2012] After offering Himself to the Father as a holocaust for our sins in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus was betrayed, arrested and abandoned, then bullied by the stewards of God’s people (the chief priests and elders), denied by His disciple, and handed over to the Gentiles, that is, the powers of the “world.” The Roman governor, determined to execute Him as “the King of the Jews” as an example to others, attempts to place the blame on others, first the chief priests and elders and then the crowds, and in mock helplessness, hands Him over to be crucified.
Now that Jesus has been “delivered up to be crucified,” He suffers further at the hands of men. The passage has three parts: the mockery by the soldiers (verses 27-31), the crucifixion itself (verses 32-38), and the mockery of others (39-44). His suffering at the hands of God begins at the sixth hour (noon) in verse 45. Then God (the divine Presence) abandons the Son of God in His humanity, causing the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (embodied in Him) to suffer “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven upon all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18). But that is not yet. Today we contemplate the wrath of human beings against the Son of God, and ask what this is about.
Believers in Jesus, those who give Him their allegiance, are in empathetic and sympathetic relationship with Him as He suffers. As the world pours on Him their wrath, we know that we also are its objects insofar as we belong and adhere to this One. We might ask, what is this hatred and mockery all about? Certainly there is that sadistic aspect of human nature in which people dehumanize an innocent victim in order to transfer their anger to them. This, however, is more than that. They are not scapegoating Him. Jesus has provoked their anger by who He is and who He has presented Himself to be. This is not displaced human anger, but human anger directed at Him. Why? Here is true persecution.
The second question has to do with God’s foreordination. None of this takes place by chance. If it was the Father’s will simply that Jesus die, He did not have to die in this manner. The cup that the Father gave Him to drink is the cup of God’s wrath. But this passage is about His suffering at the hands of human wrath. This is the prelude to the other. What purpose does it serve? Why must Jesus be humiliated so much before He suffers the abandonment of God? The wrath of God is about to break out against humanity upon the Son of God. It follows the apocalyptic pattern: that before God’s wrath is poured out, the human race is allowed to fully manifest itself, to bring into the light what it is, thus justifying the divine verdict. In the crucifixion of Jesus, obviously the entire human race is not involved, but the human condition—that which is common to us all (as the perversion of our true nature)—comes forth and reveals itself. Even though we were not there, we nevertheless are exposed by their behavior. The “evidence that demands a verdict” is laid out. The wrath against Jesus manifests the truth of the world, that is, of the human soul, what it has become in its sin, in its forceful exclusion of God, its rebellion against God.
So the Christian has to see beyond the surface, beyond the historical explanation. Of course Pilate had his political reasons for demonstrating before the crowds that gathered in and about Jerusalem the execution of someone who claimed to be “the King of the Jews,” at the beginning of the Feast of Unleavened Bread. Of course the chief priests and elders had their political reasons for cooperating with Pilate, and their own internal (political, religious and personal) reasons for hating Jesus, or at least finding Him a problem (He threatened their precarious position with respect to the people). Of course the people of Jerusalem had their reasons for disliking this outsider, and the soldiers too had a chance to take things out on Him. It can all be explained psychologically, culturally, socially, politically and even economically. Jesus was the victim of His own indiscretions. But we are asked to look deeper.
If Jesus (who to cynical eyes is simply another figure of history), is the incarnation of the Person of God (the Person of the Son of God), then the stage on which this takes place becomes cosmic, and what happens to Him is not just incidental but brings into the open the structure of reality, with cosmic consequences. In a way, all the other players are incidental, but not the central Character. For the Person of God is that on which the very existence of the creation depends. So what takes place with respect to His Presence within the creation is telling of the whole—hypothetically it would not necessarily be so, but in actuality something is brought forth for judgment, with universal (structural) consequences. What is brought forth is not the guilt of the creation itself (for the creation depends on its Creator) but something independent, a lie that purports to be the truth, that is, that purports to have substantial reality when it does not. The lie is real; what it claims to be is not. The lie is the human soul. Not the human soul itself, which is created, but the artificial construct that the soul has become, the false sense of identification. This is more than an unhealthy psychological phenomenon, though it can be identified as such; it is what underlies this, something more primal. The “sin” that is at the base of the human condition, is not the product of our personal suffering, the suffering of our growing up under the conditions of society. It is “inherited” not in the genetic sense but, insofar as we do not become persons apart from entering the social matrix of those who raise us, in the way that we inherit it from the world, mediated by our entire social matrix. We suffer in that, and thus become what we are. But we inherit it willfully, that is, our will is part and parcel with it from its inception, and always remains so (unless liberated). The soul from that initial point is inseparable from the world and shares its guilt, regardless of how “righteous” we may imagine ourselves with respect to the world. We are in our individual instance the manifestation of the world; just as the world is the collective manifestation of our souls. At every moment we make it what it is, and it makes us what we are. Once we join this matrix, however (and we all have), we come under its power, the power of the gestalt. The matrix of the world comes together in such a way that, as a whole, “it” has properties that cannot simply be derived from its parts. These properties are, in this way, external to the individual (though not in another sense, since the individual cannot be separated from the whole), and enslave the individual to their power. Jesus evokes His suffering at the hands of men which brings forth and exposes the nature of the world and thus the guilt of every human soul, His own excepted.
In a cosmic irony, then, as petty people judge and execute Him, He becomes the Judge and Executioner of all.
The Soldiers Mock Jesus (Matthew 27:27-31)
The Soldiers mock Jesus as the King of the Jews. The praetorium is the governor’s headquarters. He normally resided in Caesarea on the coast (on the “Roman” sea, the Mediterranean) and resided at his headquarters in Jerusalem only during the special feasts when the number of people in the city would swell dramatically and there was danger of unrest. The soldiers who took Jesus into the praetorium gathered the whole cohort (speira), which was technically the tenth part of a legion or at full strength about six hundred men. They put a scarlet robe on Him, which was the ordinary soldier’s outer tunic. They also made Him a crown of thorns. This was not meant so much to inflict physical pain (though that helped) as to ridicule—along with the reed in His right hand—His pretensions to kingship. The points of a king’s diadem imitate the rays of light that are supposed to emanate from the head of a god. Then they kneel in mocking obeisance in front of Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” The word, “Hail,” was also a common word of greeting (literally meaning “rejoice”), but was notably also used by Judas when he approached Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane. Of course the soldiers are dehumanizing Him so they can carry on with their task of executing Him. He is a pretender to the throne, and we all know that the coercive political structures are what holds authority over us unless they can be overthrown and replaced by another. There was no question of Rome’s authority, just as we do not question the authority of our legal and political systems, however much we howl against them.
Yet their mockery of Jesus as King only brings out the true nature of His kingship. He is King, with title to the throne, riding to victory over His enemies. But His kingship is, for the time being, heavenly (that is hidden), and His victory is by the cross. In the first chapter of the Gospel according to Matthew Jesus is the Son of David, heir to His throne in Zion. But first He must save His people from their sins before He can rule them, and He must defeat the power of their enemies. As soon as He came out of the wilderness, He presented Himself to the people as the nearness of the Kingdom of the Heavens. Where He is, the Kingdom of the Heavens is. But the glory of His kingship is not to be manifested before the judgment is complete. The way of the Kingdom of the Heavens in this time of judgment is the way of the cross, both for Himself and for His disciples. His glory is revealed to His disciples spiritually in His resurrection after He bore the cross, but it will not be manifested openly until the church has borne the cross. In the first case, He bore the judgment of the world on Himself. In the second case, the world itself comes under external judgment; the church bears the cross while the world is under the judgment of God until that judgment is fully manifest (externally, to the extent that it will be). In actuality, the judgment that falls on humanity historically is only a manifestation, as the sign of the real judgment that fell on Christ on the cross. The cross leads to the glory manifested in the transfiguration and made real in the resurrection when the flesh of Christ became divinized (interpenetrated with the properties of divinity). This is the divine glory that was Christ’s before He was born and of which He emptied Himself when it became hidden by His humanity. In His human glory, after His passion, His humanity fully participates in this divine glory and no longer hides it.
In other words, what the soldiers do not realize is that Jesus is the King, not only the King of the Jews, but their King, He to whom Caesar is the pretender. He entered the City of Jerusalem, “meek and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, a foal of a beast of burden” but nevertheless as the King, but come both in judgment and as the Savior. As they mock Him, and then spit on Him and beat Him on the head with the reed, He is their Judge.
The soldiers are an expression of the world towards Jesus. What they do is mindless, for sure. Yet they express the world’s antipathy towards the authority of God, and especially to His personal Presence in the creation itself. His (hypostatic) presence in the creation (by participation) anticipates the transformation and divinization of the entire creation (by its participation in Him), and that underscores the lie to everything that the world pretends to be, pretends to offer, and pretends to become. Humanity places its faith in its knowledge (science) and imagines itself eventually omnipotent through its technology, though the particular form of the delusion of human grandeur is irrelevant. The fact is that what humanity places its hopes in is a lie, which is exposed by the truth of revelation. The kingship of God—exercised through Christ—is unlike any kingship of the world, yet it threatens every pretention to power that exists in the world. It declares that the world is a sham, a delusion, a pretender, and it declares this by its reality—and this, the world cannot tolerate. It becomes infuriated and must destroy this threat. For the world—as such—cannot coexist peacefully with reality. The reality brought forth by revelation is always the judgment of the world, and its condemnation.
The Crucifixion (27:32-38)
Simon of Cyrene becomes a picture of the Christian bearing the cross. Whether we take up the cross willingly or we are compelled as Simon was, the Christian cannot be faithful to Christ in this world under God’s judgment and not take up the cross. It is the meaning of our baptism, and—like being in the pitched wood of Noah’s ark (i.e., in Christ) and thus separated from the world under judgment by the waters of death—our baptism becomes the pattern of our life, in which we have to continually loss our soul and die to self if we are to maintain our freedom from the world.
The soldiers take Jesus to the “Place of a Skull,” the place of death outside the city walls, and give Him a drink to medicate Him while they nail Him to the wood, but He refuses to take it. He enters His final sufferings without mitigation knowing that this is the cup that the Father has given Him to drink. His refusal of the cup that the soldiers offered to Him is His acceptance of the other cup, the cup His Father has given Him.
“When they had crucified Him”: The soldiers strip Him of His clothes, His last possessions on earth, and take from Him the right to even dispose of them as He chose, casting lots among themselves to determine whose they shall be. Jesus is nailed to the cross stark naked, without any dignity, without any rights, any prerogatives, any help. He is dehumanized, exposed to the birds and dogs and made a spectacle in His degradation to His enemies, to the gawkers and to His sympathizers. The soldiers guard Him so that no one can attempt to save Him. Yet Jesus suffers as One who can save Himself, if He chose. The temptations in the wilderness—as the Son of God He could satisfy His thirst, He could take Himself down from the cross, He could overturn the ruling of Caesar’s deputy—present themselves again (see verse 40), but He remains steadfast, drinking the cup that the Father has given Him.
The charge is placed over His head, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” Jews said “King of Israel”; the expression “King of the Jews” is Gentile. It is printed in mockery, as if to declare what would happen to anyone who pretends to be a king, as a warning to any insurgents or troublemakers.
Two robbers are crucified with Him, with Him in the lead position as if they were His attendants or subjects. Of course these “robbers” were not common thieves; they were probably insurrections or revolutionaries. Their interest was political. Jesus was placed between them as their King, all in mockery as if to say, “Here is His kingdom.” Yet Jesus was already reigning as King when He suffered on the cross. For as He resisted the final temptation, He was obedient to the end; and in His obedience He was achieving victory over all the enemies of God, including us. He was conquering our resistance, our rebellion, our sin. The Puritan divine John Owen quite impressively wrote on this, that our faith in Him is the fruit of His passion. We believe because He has conquered us; His faithfulness in fact (that is, quite causally and literally) becomes our faith. We believe because through the Holy Spirit working within us, Christ in His obedient passion is within us.
The Mockery of Men (27:39-44)
Jesus is mocked first by “those who were passing by,” that is, the people of Jerusalem. They were indignant at His declarations to them, about Himself (such arrogance!) and especially about God’s judgment and the fate of the Temple, their pride. “You who destroy the Temple and build it up in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross!” The words, “if you are the Son of God,” are the same words used by Satan when Jesus was in the wilderness. Through the people, Satan is speaking.
People will also tempt us to leave the way of the cross. When Peter tempted Jesus to leave this way in 16:22, saying, “God be merciful to You, Lord! This shall by no means happen to You!” Jesus treated it for what it was, a temptation from Satan: “Get behind Me, Satan! You are stumbling block to Me, for you are no setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of men.” So whether people mean it in spite or in kindness, it is the voice of Satan that tempts us to leave the way of the cross and join the way of the world.
Second, the chief priests with the scribes and elders mock Him. They value power and scoff at Jesus for having none, being unable to save Himself. A “king” must have power. Here those who have charge of God’s flock, of God’s vineyard, show they are no different than the Gentiles, whom they envy.
Jesus told His disciples in Gethsemane, “Do you think that I cannot beseech My Father, and He will provide Me at once with more than twelve legions of angels?” He could have saved Himself if He so chose. Instead, He resisted this temptation; He restrained Himself. He allowed Himself to suffer at their hands. Again, the temptation from the chief priests echoed Satan’s temptation: “Let [God] rescue Him now if He wants Him, for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”
Third, the “robbers,” the insurrectionists or revolutionaries, mock Him. They represent the third group, not the common people, not the powerful, but the rebels: those who wanted to fix society and bring about the justice of the Kingdom of God by their zeal and use of force. Like the three temptations in the wilderness, these correspond with three voices, tempting Jesus in the last moment to give up this way.
Jesus’ faithfulness to the end is His victory over the false kingdoms of the world and His establishment on immovable ground of the Kingdom of the Heavens. Though this Kingdom will remain hidden in the church within the world, its victory is won, it is established, its ultimate manifestation is certain.