The Crucified King | Matthew 27
Brian Hedges | April 2, 2021
As we saw last Sunday, when Jesus rode into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday he symbolically proclaimed himself King, yet his subsequent actions confused his followers. They had thought that he was the Messiah; he claimed to be the Messiah, but he wasn’t acting like the Messiah, and by the end of the week they were sure that he wasn’t, because instead of kicking the Romans out of Jerusalem, Jesus was tried, condemned, and executed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate. So, in everyone’s minds, Jesus was not the Messiah, he was simply a failure. That’s the mystery of the crucified King. How could Jesus, who said he was the Messiah, die in this way?
That’s what Matthew 27 is about; it’s about the crucified King. It’s a long chapter, and I’m not going to read it all, but I do want to read two sections, verses 11-31 and then verses 45-50, if you want to follow along in your copy of God’s word. Matthew 27:11:
“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 gave 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 was greatly amazed.
“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 because of him today in a dream.’ Now the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd 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 on 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 governor's headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and twisting together 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 spit on 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.”
Drop down to verse 45.
“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 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?’ 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 sour wine, 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 out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”
This is God’s word.
I want us to think about three things tonight as we think about the cross of the crucified King: the scandal of the cross, the meaning of the cross, and the power of the cross.
1. The Scandal of the Cross
It was some years later when Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 1: “We preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”
The word he used there, the word “stumbling block,” is the Greek word skandalon, the word from which we eventually got our English word “scandal.” Paul was saying what was actually taking place some years before, as recorded in Matthew 27, that the Jews stumbled over Christ’s cross, Christ being crucified. It was a stumbling block to them. It was a scandal!
It was a scandal, because the cross was an instrument of torture and execution. In fact, it was an obscenity; it was a bad word in decent first century culture. The Roman statesman Cicero said, “Let the very mention of the cross be far removed not only from a Roman citizen’s body but from his mind, his eyes, and his ears.”
Commentator Richard Hays says, “The scandal of this message is difficult for Christians of a later era to imagine. To proclaim a crucified Messiah is to talk nonsense. How could the Messiah be crucified? How could a king be crucified? And yet that is exactly the picture that Matthew gives us in this chapter.”
It’s very clear that the kingship of Jesus is front and center in this scene, as it is in the Gospel of Matthew on a theological level, but even the simple reporting of what happened when Jesus was crucified. Every understood the Messianic claims he had made, and now that phrase, that title, “King of the Jews,” is on their lips, but in mockery. In fact, in the passage the phrase “King of the Jews” is used three times: in verse 11 by Pilate, again in verse 29 by the soldiers, and then, we didn’t read it, but in verse 37 the sign that was posted over the cross that said “King of the Jews.” Then in verse 42, those passing by the cross mocking him and scoffing at him called him the king of Israel, but they did so, of course, in mockery.
In fact, verses 27-31, which we did read, gives us something like a mock coronation ceremony. I’m sure many of us have seen coronation ceremonies. If not an actual ceremony, maybe, with an English monarch, if you’ve ever seen a video of that, at least we’ve seen it on television and in movies. We’ve seen someone who is crowned as a king or as a queen, and all of the solemnity and the pomp and the circumstance that belongs to that.
Here you have a mock ceremony. Rather than Jesus being publicly honored, he is publicly shamed. In verse 27, in fact, it says that the soldiers gathered the whole battalion. If that was a full number in a battalion, it could have been up to 600 soldiers. There in front of them all they stripped him naked, they put a scarlet robe on him (it was probably a soldier’s tunic), and then mock regalia: a crown, not made of gold but of thorns, beaten down into this brow; and a reed in his hand; and then they spit on him, they mocked him, they taunted him, they hit him, they beat him with the rod.
The mockery continues in verses 32-44, as he’s mocked not only by the soldiers but by the robbers he is crucified between (verses 38-44), by the people passing by (verses 39-40), and then by the chief priests, the scribes, and the elders. These would have been the three principal groups that made up the Jewish council the Sanhedrin. This was the ruling class of Jewish society, they were the most religious people of the day.
Throughout this description of the shaming and the mockery of Jesus there are many Old Testament allusions, especially to Psalm 69 and Psalm 22. In all of it, Matthew is showing us the scandal of the cross, the scandal of the crucified King.
Even today, brothers and sisters, people stumble and are offended by the message of the cross. How could we worship a man who was executed as a criminal? That’s the mystery. The reason it’s a mystery, the reason it’s a stumbling block, the reason it’s a scandal, the reason people are offended by it is because of a lack of understanding of the nature of his kingship and the meaning of the cross.
2. The Meaning of the Cross
What is the meaning of the cross? That’s the second point. What did the cross do? What was Jesus doing as the King when he was crucified? I think we can answer that question in a couple of different ways.
We can say, first of all, that as the crucified King he took our place. As the crucified King he took our place. This is really the focus of verses 11-26, with the whole story of Barabbas. It’s interesting, when you go to the epistles, the letters in the New Testament, places like Romans and 2 Corinthians and Galatians, the apostles, when they wrote those letters, they explain the atonement to us. They explain what we might call theologically substitutionary atonement, that Jesus died as a substitute for sinners, he atoned for our sins, he took their place, there was this great exchange of Jesus dying for us so that we could be forgiven.
Now, the Gospel writers don’t so much explain it as they illustrate it. The illustration here is built right into the text; it’s the story of Barabbas. Who was Barabbas? He was this condemned criminal whose freedom was secured through the ransom of Jesus’ life. Barabbas, Matthew tells us, as a notorious prisoner. He was probably both a thief and a murderer, perhaps even a political revolutionary, an insurrectionist. Here was a man who had been condemned. There was already a cross for him, along with two other criminals; there are already three crosses prepared. Pilate was fully expecting to send Barabbas to the cross.
It was Pilate’s custom during the Passover feast to offer what was called a “pascal amnesty,” pascal meaning related to Passover; the pascal lamb. So he would offer this amnesty and let one person go free. And he was fully prepared to let Jesus go free. After all, Jesus was innocent. Pilate himself knew that. “What crime has he done?” Pilate said. Even Pilate’s wife was haunted in a dream about Jesus, this righteous man. Pilate wants to set Jesus free, but the people, disappointed in this so-called king, this so-called Messiah, are ready to send him to the cross, and they say, “No, give us Barabbas and send Jesus to be crucified.”
You have here a very vivid illustration of a great exchange: Jesus for Barabbas, the innocent for the guilty, the just for the unjust. The wicked is set free while the righteous man dies.
That’s exactly what we read, isn’t it, in Isaiah 53? “He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed. All we like sheep have gone astray, we have turned, every one, to our own way; but the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” He is punished while we, like Barabbas, are forgiven.
We sang it:
“What thou, my Lord, hath suffered
Was all for sinners’ gain.
Mine, mine was the transgression,
But thine the deadly pain.”
What’s the meaning of the cross? It means that Jesus is a substitute, it means that the crucified King took our place, he died for sinners.
The second thing it means is that the crucified King bore the judgment of God. He not only died in our place, but in taking our place on the cross he actually took the judgment that we deserved. We see that in verses 45-50, and we see it in three different stages, if you will, three different things.
First of all, darkness in verse 45. “Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour.” What was this darkness? Complete dark, middle of the day, for three hours. What was it?
Well, on a natural level it may have been a solar eclipse or something like that. We don’t know exactly, but it certainly was a supernatural event that God orchestrated, and darkness, as any Jewish person would know, and any person familiar with the Old Testament would know, darkness was a sign of judgment. You remember one of the ten plagues of Egypt was darkness over all of the land.
The background here is especially the book of Amos. Amos 8:9-10 says, “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 feast into mourning and all your songs in lamentation. I will make it like the mourning for an only son, and at the end of it like a bitter day.”
New Testament scholar D.A. Carson therefore 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 is taking place.”
Darkness over the land, and then Jesus cries out. This is the second thing, the cry of desolation in verse 46. “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?’” He’s quoting, of course, Psalm 22:1
The people that heard it misunderstood what was going on; they think maybe he’s calling for Elijah. In the Old Testament, you may remember that the prophet Elijah didn’t die, he was actually taken alive to heaven in a whirlwind; so, according to some Jewish tradition, perhaps even from this time period in the first century, there were some people who believed that Elijah would come and rescue people in their distress. So that’s what people suppose is going on; he’s asking Elijah to help him.
That’s not what Jesus was doing. He was not calling for Elijah, he was crying out to God. It is the one and only time in the Gospel records where Jesus cries out to God and does not call God his Father, because here he is, the Son, and as he hangs there on the cross, bearing the judgment that we deserve, he is estranged from the father. He feels outside. He feels shut out. He is literally in the dark.
You might have just some glimmer of what that is like if you’ve ever felt, in some desperate moment in your life, that you are completely alone, you feel the weight of your sins, you feel guilty, you feel shut out from the presence of God, and that you can’t break through. I think it’s rare that we feel that with any significant weight in our culture today, but if you’ve felt even the smallest degree of that, multiply that a thousandfold, a millionfold, and you’ll get a sense of what Jesus felt when he hung on the cross.
It says he “cried out.” It was a shriek, it was a scream. It was the cy of one who was cursed for our sins. R.C. Sproul said, “This cry represents the most agonizing protest ever uttered on this planet. It bursts forth in a moment of unparalleled pain. It is the scream of the damned.” He was taking our judgment, he was bearing our curse; he was, we might say, damned by God on the cross.
Does that sound too strong? Well, the apostle Paul says in Galatians 3:13 that “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us. As it is written, ‘Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree.’” For that moment on the cross, Jesus was anathema to God; he was under the curse. He was bearing the judgment of God.
F.W. Krummacher, in his magnificent book The Suffering Savior, puts it like this. This, I think, is very helpful, because it shows us that what Jesus did he was doing for us, as our representative. He said, “What befalls Christ befalls us in him, who is our representative. Our hell is extinguished in Jesus’ wounds, our curse is consumed in Jesus’ soul, our guilt is purged away in Jesus’ blood.”
The crucified King took our place, the crucified King bore our judgment. There’s darkness, there’s desolation; and then he dies. Verse 50: “Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.”
When Jesus died, having taken our place, having borne the wrath, the judgment, the curse that we deserved, Jesus then died and yielded up his spirit to God, he unleashed power that changed the world.
3. The Power of the Cross
That leads us to the last point, the power of the cross. Here I want to read a few more verses that I didn’t read earlier, verses 51-54. It’s interesting that Matthew records a series of events right after Jesus dies. Some of these are only found in Matthew’s Gospel; some of them are in the parallel accounts as well. But just listen to verses 51-54.
Jesus has 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.’”
The power of the cross. What power was unleashed? What happened? What were the effects? What did the cross achieve here? I think there are three things that we can see in these few verses.
The first thing is that the cross gave us access to the presence of God, and you see that in verse 51 with the torn curtain. This curtain was a veil in the temple, and there were actually two veils. One separated the rest of the temple from the Holy of Holies, and then there was another veil a little further out. We’re not sure which one it was, but the letter to the Hebrews presupposes the inner curtain. 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, where Jesus has gone as a forerunner on our behalf.”
The idea here is that when Jesus died on the cross, there was this divine transaction between heaven and earth, between God the Father and God the Son, where Jesus as the representative, as the covenant head for his people, did something so significant that it forever changed the way in which we approach God. Prior to the death of Jesus, people could only come to God through a mediator, through a priest, a human being who was consecrated as a priest, and he could only come into the temple and the Most Holy Place of God, where the glory of God dwelt, he could only do that once a year, and he could only do it with blood and sacrifice and all this ceremony. But when Jesus died, that veil, that curtain was torn in two. It was showing the obsolescence of the whole temple system. Indeed, within just a few decades the temple would be destroyed.
Again, the writer to the Hebrews writes with deep reflection on this reality that Christ has come and he has inaugurated a new covenant. The old covenant has now passed away.
It’s showing us that Jesus has opened the way to God, he’s given us access to the Father’s presence, so that you, Christian, can do something that no old covenant believer could do. They could pray, but they couldn’t pray with the kind of intimacy, the kind of boldness, the kind of access into the very presence of the Most High God that you and I have. Jesus opened the way. He gave us that access.
Not only that, secondly, we see the defeat of death. Access to God and the defeat of death. You see this in verses 52-53. It says, “The tombs 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 to the holy city and appeared to many.”
This is found only in the Gospel of Matthew, and it’s a tantalizing two verses, right, because it raises more questions than it answers. Who were the saints? Who were these people? Was this Abraham, Moses, David? We don’t know who it was. We don’t even know for sure when it was they came out of the tombs. It says that they appeared in the city after Jesus’ resurrection, and so it’s possible that Matthew here is taking several supernatural events that happened over this weekend and is kind of crunching them all together and reporting them all in this one point.
What is at least clear is that some people who had died, Old Testament saints, were raised from the dead, and the power that unleashed that resurrection was the death of Jesus Christ. Of course, it’s pointing forward to his resurrection as well.
I think a wonderful illustration of this is found in one of the Narnian books, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. You remember in that one when Aslan dies, and then when he comes back to life is raised from the dead. You remember what he does? He storms the castle of the White Witch, and he goes through and he’s breathing on the statues, and these animals that had been turned into stone by the evil magic of the White Witch suddenly come to life, because Aslan is alive! The Lion has roared!
In a similar way, when Jesus died, he unleashed power, resurrection power, and he himself, of course, rises from the dead Sunday morning.
The third aspect here of the power of the cross is hope for the world. You see that in verse 54 with the confession of the centurion. It says, “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!’”
This is just remarkable. This is the man who oversaw the execution. When the earthquake happened, this man, who has witnessed everything that has taken place, there’s a dawning realization of the utter uniqueness of Jesus as God’s Son.
I think it shows us a number of things. It shows us a Gentile confession of faith. Here is a non-Jew who confesses Jesus as the Son. It gives us multiple witnesses to Jesus’ divine Sonship—it’s not just the centurion, but those who were with him—and it is an answered prayer, a prayer that Matthew doesn’t record, but Luke does in his Gospel. This is one of the seven sayings of the cross; Jesus uttered seven different things on the cross. One of them, recorded in Luke 23, was, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
More than that, it shows us the power of the cross of Christ to save the greatest of sinners. Here are the very people who had stripped him and beaten him and scourged him, mocked and crucified him. They had overseen his death. These are the same filthy hands that had beaten this crown of thorns into his skull, the same hands that had pounded the spikes through his hands, the same ones who had laughed at his nakedness, who had mocked at his pain, who had scoffed at his silent suffering, at his every struggling breath as he died, and yet Jesus had loved them. He had prayed for them. He had died for them, and here they are, changed men. “This is the Son of God,” the soldier says. It’s the power of the cross.
Brothers and sisters, that means that there is hope. There is hope for sinners such as them; there is hope for sinners such as us, who have also had a hand in the crucifixion of Christ, as if we had pounded those very nails into his hands by our sins.
The cross tests everything. It shows us a King who despises not the shame, the mockery, the suffering, but rather establishes the reign of God, the kingdom of God through his death. He is the crucified King, and his kingdom comes not through power but through weakness. It comes through his death.
How then should we respond? You know, the great temptation here is to give you a list of things to do. Sometimes preachers feel that pressure. “You have to get practical.” And we do need to be practical, but in a sermon like there’s one application. There is one application, and it is not a list of things to do. In fact, the right application in response to the cross of Christ in a way is to quit doing and to trust what has already been done. It’s to quit trying to earn salvation, to look not at yourself, not at your works, but with faith place your trust in Jesus Christ.
“Nothing in my hands I bring,
Simply to thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to thee for dress;
Helpless, look to thee for grace.
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Savior, or I die.”
Maybe a simple little story will help. I have four children, and when my oldest, Stephen, was just six years old, we went to get pizza one day. On the way home he was asking questions about God and salvation and heaven and hell; those kinds of things. I shared with him that God saves us, not because we’re good enough, because we’re not, we’re all sinners; he doesn’t even save us because we love him, he saves us out of his love for us, and it’s because of what Jesus has done for us, and that we have to trust what he’s done.
Stephen said, “I don’t know how to do that.”
I tried to use a word picture for him. I said, “Can you drive?” He was six years old at the time.
He said, “No, I can’t drive.”
I said, “Well, how do you get to church every Sunday?”
He said, “Well, I’d have to get a map…” He wasn’t tracking with me at that point. “I’d have to get a map.”
I said, “No, every Sunday when you go to church, how do you get to church?”
He said, “Well, I get in the van and Mom drives me.”
I said, “That’s right. She does it. You just get in and go for the ride. In the same way, Jesus is the one who saves you. He’s the one who gets you to God. You go with him; you trust in him and what he’s done.”
This is what Stephen said, “So you just let Jesus do what he does?”
I said, “Yes, that’s right. You let Jesus do what he does.” It’s as simple as that. That’s trust.
As one great old hymn-writer put it,
“Nothing, either great or small,
Nothing, sinner, no;
Jesus did it, did it all,
Long, long ago.
“Weary, working, burdened one,
Wherefore toil you so?
Cease your doing; all was done
Long, long ago.
“Cast your deadly doing down,
Down at Jesus’ feet;
Stand in him, in him alone,
What’s the right response to the cross? It’s not to do, it’s to trust in what has been done, the complete accomplishment, the finished work of Jesus Christ. Have you trusted in him? Have you believed in him? Have you placed your soul in his hands? If not, let me urge you to do that today. You can do that in response as we pray, and perhaps even better, go home, get on your knees, and in the quiet and solitude of your room pour out your heart to God, confess your sins to him, ask him to forgive you for Jesus’ sake, and he will. Let’s pray.
Lord Jesus, again, we thank you for your suffering on our behalf, we thank you for the finished work. Thank you that you did everything that is necessary to atone for our sins. You carried our griefs and our sorrows, our iniquity was laid on you, you were pierced for our transgressions. Ours was the sinning, yours was the suffering, and now ours can be the salvation. So we thank you for it, and Lord, right now we confess that we are sinners, we have no hope apart from Christ, apart from the cross, apart from what you’ve done for us, and we place all of our trust in you. We rest ourselves in you. May you be glorified in our lives.
As we come to the table, Lord, we come to visually see what you’ve done through the emblems of bread and juice, the representation of your body and blood. May we take these elements physically even as we respond spiritually to the gospel with faith. So be glorified in our worship, we pray in Jesus’ name, amen.