The Cross

March 30, 2018 ()

Bible Text: Matthew 27:32-54 |


(Unfortunately, we did not get an audio recording of this message, but Pastor Brian's edited sermon notes are provided below.)

The Cross | Matthew 27:32-54
Brian Hedges | March 30, 2018

For the past several weeks, we've been looking at the story of Christ's passion from the gospel according to Matthew. We began by looking at the supper Jesus ate with his disciples on the night of his betrayal. Then we considered his sorrow and prayer in the garden of Gethsemane. Last Sunday, we learned about the trials in the house of Caiaphas and the court of Pontus Pilate.

Tonight we come to holy ground in Scripture, as we look at the narrative of the crucifixion itself. Let's read the text, Matthew 27:32-54:

As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36 Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 "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. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.' " 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. 45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, "Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?" that is, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, "This man is calling Elijah." 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, "Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him." 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit. 51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 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!"

Let's consider three things from this passage:

1. The Shame of the Cross
2. The Darkness of the Cross
3. The Power of the Cross

1. The Shame of the Cross

Many of us are familiar with that verse from Hebrews 12:2: "Looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God." But this passage describes the shame of the cross in vivid, excruciating detail.

First of all, the cross itself was shameful. The Roman statesman Cicero called crucifixion, "a most cruel and disgusting punishment.....It is a crime to put a Roman citizen in chains, it is an enormity to flog one, sheer murder to slay one; what then shall I say of crucifixion? It is impossible to find a word for such an abomination.......Let the very mention of the cross be far removed, not only from a Roman citizen's body, but from his mind, his eyes, his ears."

Crucifixion was a form of capital punishment reserved for slaves and the worst criminals.

And the whole experience of crucifixion and all that led up to it was particularly shameful for Jesus. We see it in the mockery. He is mocked for his claims of kingship in verse 37: And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." The text says that he is derided (v. 38), mocked (v. 41), and reviled (v. 44). He is mocked by those who pass by (v. 38), by the chief priests, scribes, and elders (v. 41), and by the robbers he was crucified with (or least one of them, v. 44).

Charles Haddon Spurgeon, the great Baptist pastor from the 19th century, once preached a sermon called "The Shameful Sufferer." Spurgeon spoke of how Jesus endured shameful accusation, shameful mocking, and a shameful death. About his "shameful mocking," Spurgeon observes how they mocked his person, they mocked his offices (of prophet, priest, and king), they mocked his sufferings, and even mocked his prayers.

And remember, Jesus endured all this while stripped naked. Verse 35: "they divided his garments among them by casting lots."

About this, Spurgeon said: "One of those things about which we may say but little, but of which we ought often to think, is the fact that our Savior was stripped in the midst of a ribald soldiery, of all the garments that he had. It is a shame even for us to speak of this which was done by our own flesh and blood toward him who was our Redeemer. Those holy limbs which were the casket of the precious jewel of his soul were exposed to the shame and open contempt of men-coarse-minded men who were utterly destitute of every particle of delicacy. The person of Christ was stripped twice; and although our painters, for obvious reasons, cover Christ upon the cross, there he hung-the naked Savior of a naked race. He who clothed the lilies had not wherewith to clothe himself; he who had clothed the earth with jewels and made for it robes of emeralds, had not so much as a rag to conceal his nakedness from a staring, gazing, mocking, hard-hearted crowd. ("The Shameful Sufferer," The New Park Street Pulpit, 5:91-92)

Everyone experiences shame. Jesus endured the cross, despising the shame. But no one experienced shame like Jesus. You should ask yourself, are you ashamed of your sin - your sin that nailed him to the cross? Or are you ashamed of Jesus himself?

In the 18th century, the hymnist Joseph Grigg wrote these words:

Ashamed of Jesus? Sooner far
Let evening blush to own a star.
He sheds the beams of light divine
O'er this benighted soul of mine.

Ashamed of Jesus? Just as soon
Let midnight be ashamed of noon.
'Tis midnight with my soul till He,
Bright Morning Star, bids darkness flee.

Ashamed of Jesus, that dear Friend
On whom my hopes of heaven depend?
No; when I blush, be this my shame,
That I no more revere His name.

Are you ashamed of Jesus? You'll either be ashamed of sin, or you'll be ashamed of him.

2. The Darkness of the Cross

We see this in verses 45 and 46. First notice the darkness itself in verse 45: "Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour." This was from noon till 3pm, so the middle of the day. What is the meaning of the darkness? Perhaps it was a veiling of the crucifixion. That seems to be the idea Isaac Watts had in mind:

Well might the sun in darkness hide,
and shut its glories in,
when God, the mighty maker, died
for his own creature's sin.

But there's more to it than this, for these words have an Old Testament background. D. A. Carson observes that the darkness "was a sign of judgment and/or tragedy," and especially notes Amos 8:9-10:

"And on that day," declares the Lord God,
"I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
I will turn your feasts into mourning
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on every waist
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.

Carson says, "The judgment is therefore a judgment on the land on its people . . . but it is also a judgment on Jesus; for out of this darkness comes his cry of desolation. The cosmic blackness hints at the deep judgment that was taking place…"

We see that cry in verse 46: "And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, 'Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?' that is, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?'" Matthew gives us the words of Jesus in Aramaic, with perhaps a bit of Hebrew. It is a quotation from Psalm 22. And it is the only time recorded in Scripture, where Jesus in prayer addresses the Father as "God" rather than as "Father."

It is told (by Spurgeon) that Martin Luther once sat for hours upon hours contemplating these words, trying to understand their significance. He sat almost in a trance, eyes wide open, such that those who peered into his study thought he looked almost like a corpse. When he finally stirred, after many hours of meditation, someone heard him say, "God forsaken of God. Who can understand that?" Who indeed?

How do we even begin to plummet the depths of this cry? George Herbert struggles to find the words, in his poem "The Sacrifice"

O all ye who pass by, behold and see;
Man stole the fruit, but I must climb the tree;
The tree of life to all, but only me:
Was ever grief like mine?

Lo, here I hang, charg'd with a world of sin,
The greater world o' th' two; for that came in
By words, but this by sorrow I must win:
Was ever grief like mine?

But, O my God, my God! why leav'st thou me,
The son, in whom thou dost delight to be?
My God, my God ------
Never was grief like mine.

The best explanation I've heard comes from the 19th century Scottish professor of Hebrew, "Rabbi" John Duncan. One day he said to his students, "'Ay, ay, d'ye know what it was - dying on the cross, forsaken by His Father - d'ye know what it was? What! What! … It was damnation - and He took it lovingly.'"

Jesus bore God's curse on the cross, taking our sins, our judgment, upon himself.

3. The Power of the Cross

We see the power of the cross in the events that follow Jesus' yielding up his spirit in death in verse 50. Look at verses 51-54:

First, The curtain was torn. Verse 51a: "And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom." There were two veils in the temple, and it could have been either. But the letter to the Hebrews presupposes the inner curtain. For example, Hebrews 6:19-20 says, "We have this as a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul, a hope that enters into the inner place behind the curtain, 20 where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf." And this shows that the way is open to God's presence. We have access to God's throne.

Secondly, The earth was shaken. Verse 51b: "And the earth shook, and the rocks were split." This is only recorded by Matthew. The temple area is built over a geological fault line (Carson says there have been mild tremors in recent history that have damaged Muslim shrines built on the site), so it could have been the earthquake that caused the curtain to tear in two.

But regardless of that, Matthew was probably interested in the earthquake for symbolic reasons, for earthquakes are symbolic in the Old Testament of God's presence. For example, earthquakes are connected to theophanies, visible manifestations of God's presence, visitations from God

Isaiah 29:6: "You will be visited by the Lord of hosts with thunder and with earthquake and great noise, with whirlwind and tempest, and the flame of a devouring fire."

They are also connected with divine wrath and judgment. Jeremiah 10:10 says, "But the LORD is the true God; he is the living God and the everlasting King. At his wrath the earth quakes, and the nations cannot endure his indignation."

Thirdly, the tombs were opened. Verses 52-53: "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."

This also is found only in the gospel of Matthew. And the text raises more questions than it answers! Who were these saints? When exactly did they rise from the dead? What was the nature of their resurrection bodies? In light of verse 53, it seems clear that they were not seen until after Jesus' resurrection It may be that the saints themselves were therefore raised subsequent to Jesus' resurrection, and that Matthew has simply grouped these supernatural events together in one place.

Whatever the case, the resurrections demonstrate once more the power of the cross. Jesus' cross led not only to his resurrection, but it unleashed the power of the resurrection in the world.

Do you remember how after Aslan rises from the dead in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe? He storms the castle of the White Witch and starts breathing on statues of men and beasts throughout the castle, thus bringing them back to life? That's a beautiful picture of the power of Jesus' cross and resurrection. By dying and rising for us, he broke the power of death and unleashed resurrection life into the world. Death itself has started working backwards! However mysterious, the initial resurrection of these Old Testament saints points us to that the reality.

Fourthly, the centurions were saved. Verse 54: "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!'"

The soldiers responsible for Jesus' execution, saw the earthquake, and recognize Jesus' divinity. In Marks' gospel, only the centurion's confession is mentioned. But Matthew here says that that the confession was made by the centurion "and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus" This links back to Matt 27:35-36 when the soldiers who had crucified Jesus, divide his garments by casting lots and sit down to keep watch over him as he dies. This shows not only Gentile confessions of faith, but also that there were multiple witnesses to Jesus' divine sonship (in accord with Jewish jurisprudence). And it also shows the answer to Jesus' prayer from Luke 23:34: "Father forgive them for they know not what they do."

Here are the ones who stripped him, beat him, scourged him, mocked him, crucified him. They oversee his death. Theirs are the filthy hands that beat the thorny crown into his skull and that pound the spikes through his wrists. They do it laughing at indecency, mocking his pain, scoffing his every silent, suffering, struggling breath And he loves them! More than that he prays for them! More than that he dies for them!

This illustrates what Paul says in Romans 5:6-10: "For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7 For one will scarcely die for a righteous person-though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die- 8 but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life."

Let's conclude by thinking about the power of the cross for two kinds of people: unbelieving sinners and struggling, doubting, believing sinners. That includes all of us!

First, the cross has power to save those who are not yet Christians. He will save any who come to him by faith. You say, "I'd come if I felt more worthy." Then you'll never come. "If you tarry till you're better, you will never come at all."

"I'd come if I didn't have so many doubts." No, come with your doubts. Say, "Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief."

"I'd come if I knew the Spirit was drawing me." Listen, He's drawing you now. You've heard the gospel. You're hearing the call. The Spirit speaks through the word. The Spirit and the Bride say "come!" What more do you need?

Come to Christ. Don't go home tonight without your sins forgiven.

Second, the cross also has power to satisfy the conscience of the struggling, doubting Christian. I'm thinking of you who believe. You think you're a Christian, or at least you hope you are. If someone offered you a million dollars to turn your back on Jesus, you wouldn't take it. But you're filled with doubts. You feel that you don't pray enough, you don't witness enough, you don't read your bible enough. You don't see enough fruit. You're troubled in soul and, frankly, you're troubled that you're not more troubled than you are.

What power does the cross hold for you? Oh, it holds a mighty power: the power to satisfy a troubled conscience, including the conscience troubled by not being more troubled. One time a woman doubted her salvation and kept coming to her pastor looking for help. He finally, wisely discerned her need, and told her: "you won't be satisfied until you're satisfied with what satisfies God." And what satisfies God is the blood of Jesus Christ!

Do you remember where Christian in Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress finally lost his burden? At the cross! Listen struggling, doubting Christian: quit looking at your self, quit looking at your past, quit looking at your feelings, quit looking at your fruit. That's not your business right now. Your business is very simple: looking to Christ. As Robert Murray M'Cheyne said, "For every one look at self, take ten looks at Christ."