Introduction – Roman crucifixion
In October 2006, Nadia Eweida, a Christian employee of British Airways, was asked to cover up a necklace which depicted a Christian cross, and was placed on unpaid leave when she refused either to do so or to accept a position where she didn’t have to cover it up. The BBC quoted her as saying,
"It’s important to wear it to express my faith so that other people will know that Jesus loves them."
Nadia knew why she was wearing the cross and what it means.
Many others wear a cross on a bracelet or necklace without really knowing what it means or represents. And we can be so used to seeing this that we’re not shocked by it. We might be if we saw someone wearing an electric chair on a chain. But the cross was just as much a form of execution.
In fact crucifixion was a very grisly form of execution. The Roman writer Cicero said that ‘this most cruel and terrible punishment’ was so degrading that it should not even be discussed by Roman citizens. It was reserved for the lowest of the low. It was abolished in AD 315 because by then even the Romans considered it too inhumane.
It was the form of execution which the Romans used in Judea for capital offences. There were various ways of carrying it out but usually there was a cross beam fixed either at the top of the upright or a third of the way down. V37 suggests Jesus was crucified on the latter.
Before being put on the cross the condemned man was flogged. Men were known to die from that punishment alone, so severe were the wounds inflicted by the cruel cat-o’-nine tails with added metal edges. If the man survived the scourging he had to carry the cross beam of his cross, and was led out under an armed guard of Roman soldiers to die.
Often the cross was then put together on the ground and the condemned man bound or nailed to it with long thick iron nails, before the whole thing was lifted up and dropped into a prepared slot.
The degradation was made complete by the removal of all clothes from the criminal. He was crucified stark naked.
Sometimes some wine mixed with gall was offered to the man to help dull some of the pain. This drugged wine was prepared by rich Jerusalem women as a work of mercy. As we’ll see from v34 Jesus refused to drink it. Jesus was in full possession of all his faculties as he faced the full rigour of the most agonising death known to mankind.
The physical effects of crucifixion were appalling. Of all execution methods it is the most lingering. The suspension of the whole body on jagged nails driven through the most sensitive nerve centres of the wrists and ankles, ensured constant torture. When it was deemed to have gone on long enough, the soldiers would perform what was called the crurifragium, or breaking of the legs. This would ensure that the man, if still alive, could no longer hoist himself up to breathe and would soon expire.
That is the death which Jesus undertook for you and me, for humankind.
As JC Ryle points out, ‘Seldom has such suffering been inflicted on one body in the last few hours of a life.’ And remember Jesus was fully God and fully man so he had a real human body, a body exactly like our own, just as sensitive, just as vulnerable, just as capable of feeling intense pain.
And as Matthew 26&27 remind us Jesus had already gone a night without sleep, been taken from the Garden of Gethsemane to the Jewish council, and from the council to Pilate. He’d been twice placed on trial and twice unjustly condemned. He’d been scourged with that cat-o’-nine tails. Then (v26&27) he was delivered to Roman soldiers to be crucified. These soldiers who were experts in cruelty and crucifixion (v28&29)
‘stripped him, put on him a scarlet robe and a crown of thorns’,
gave him a staff and bowed before him and mocked him, saying, ‘Hail King of the Jews’. Then (v30-31) they spat on him, took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. After they’d mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes back on him. Then they led him away to crucify him.
Jesus, though he’d done nothing wrong, suffered, was crucified and died on the cross. We and our sins were the cause of his suffering, crucifixion and death. He died for our sins (1 Corinthians 15:3). Jesus willingly suffered and died in our place. He took the punishment our sins deserve so that we can be forgiven and know God personally if we trust in him, for he is no longer dead but alive. 1 Peter 3:18:
Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.
And it must be noted that Matthew, unlike Mel Gibson, does not concentrate on the physical agonies of Jesus on the cross, but on the significance of his crucifixion and death. Look at v35. Matthew simply says “When they had crucified him” So let’s now look at what Matthew says about Jesus’ crucifixion more closely.
1. JESUS’ CRUCIFIXION
Look first at v32:
32As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross.
Jesus began the journey carrying his own cross. But he was weak and exhausted. The weight of the cross was probably 130 kilos or 300lbs. Roman soldiers had the right to force a non Roman to engage in any task they wanted done and they forced Simon from Cyrene to carry Jesus’ cross. Now in Mark’s Gospel we learn that Simon ‘was the father of Alexander and Rufus’ (Mark 15:21). These two brothers must have been known to the church in Rome to whom Mark was writing his Gospel. Paul refers to a Rufus in his letter to the Romans and to his mother ‘who has been a mother to me too’ (Romans 16:13). If this is the same Rufus, then his mother, the wife of Simon of Cyrene had been something of a mother to Paul back in Jerusalem. Perhaps Simon carrying Jesus’ cross was the means of God capturing his heart, resulting in him and his family becoming Christian disciples, taking up their cross. Perhaps someone here this morning will have their heart captured by God as you look on the cross of Christ. Well with Simon carrying the cross (v33)
They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). [It would have been a prominent public place to deter others committing capital offences, outside the city wall, probably where today the Church of the Holy Sepulchre is sited.] There [v34] they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it.
This reminds us again that Jesus faced crucifixion fully conscious. But the main significance for Matthew is that it shows that Jesus is the fulfilment of the righteous sufferer of the OT, of Psalm 69:21 and Psalm 22. He wants his Jewish readers to understand this. Jesus is the one promised in the OT. All that is happening here to Jesus actually proves it as it fulfils the Scriptures from many hundreds of years previously. There are something like 9000 prophecies in the OT which are all fulfilled in Jesus Christ and hundreds which refer to his sufferings. The evidence is there. As it is from Psalm 22:18 regarding what happened next in v35&36
When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there.
Yes any belongings of an executed man usually passed to the execution squad but in this very ordinary circumstance Matthew sees an echo of Psalm 22:18:
They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.
It was also the soldiers’ regular duty to watch over those who were crucified (v36) to ensure they weren’t rescued and revived. Jesus really did die on the cross and rise from the dead. He didn’t swoon on the cross and resuscitate later. Again this ordinary practice is significant for Matthew and it also paves the way for the soldiers’ exclamation in v54 that truly this was the Son of God. They saw how he died. In his crucifixion and death, no less than in his life, he was perfect. But at this point they don’t understand (v37)
Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS.
So full of condemnation and mockery, yet so full of irony. Then (v38)
Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
Again Jesus is fulfilling OT prophecy. Isaiah 53:12:
He was numbered with the transgressors.
The word for robbers can also mean political rebels which was also the charge against Jesus. So ironically Jesus may well have died as one of a trio of Zealot type insurgents, the very option from which he had so
clearly dissociated himself during his ministry. In v39&40 there are still more echoes and fulfilment of the OT – Psalm 22:7 & Lamentations 2:15 - Jesus is the Son of God even though those who passed by could only misunderstand, insult, blaspheme and mock him (v39).
Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads and saying, "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!"
But of course it is precisely because he is the Son of God that he continues to accept the Father’s will and does not come down from the cross. Praise him. He could have saved himself but he chose to save others. There is forgiveness for us if we believe and trust in the one who is the Son of God, in his substitutionary death on the cross. Perhaps someone here this morning is lacking in assurance of faith or feeling that they can’t be forgiven. Well the Son of God loved you and died for you. He took what we deserve so that we can have what we don’t deserve. But the Jewish bystanders and then the Jewish religious leaders and even the criminals just mocked him. The totality of Jesus’ rejection by his people, by the people he’d come to save from their sins (Matthew 1:21) is now complete. But, of course, if people were and are to be saved from their sins, from their turning away from God, this was what Jesus had to endure – rejection, crucifixion and death, as he himself predicted throughout the gospels.Look at v41-44.
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him.
"He saved others," they said, "but he can't save himself! He's the King of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, 'I am the Son of God.' "In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
But if Jesus saved himself he couldn’t save others. The Jewish religious leaders were witnesses of the greatest saving act in the history of the world and had played a part in bringing it about but they were quite unaware of its significance. And many are still unaware and unbelieving today as are so many other religious leaders. Matthew here seems to be mocking the mockers. In their mockery they express important truths without realising it. He was and is the King of Israel. But they don’t see how a King could be on a cross. They say they’ll believe in him if he comes down from the cross. But if he’d come down from the cross there would be no reason to believe in him. We believe he was the Son of God because he stayed up on the cross until he died. This was God’s plan and will to save us and Jesus willingly went through with it. You see it was necessary for Jesus to die. He couldn’t pay the price for our sin by just suffering pain. A journalist once wrote – why did Jesus have to die for my sin, why couldn’t he just hurt his little finger for my sin? He had to die for our sin because that is the penalty for sin. He took the punishment we deserved for our sin. The sword of judgement fell on him so that it doesn’t have to fall on us – if we put our faith in him, if we give him our sin, if we repent and believe. If we don’t give him our sin we have to pay for it ourselves and the Bible says that the wages of sin is death – eternal death in hell (Romans 6:23).
Perhaps you have passed by Jesus and the cross and mocked him and insulted him and used his name in vain. As Lamentations 1:12 asks:
“Is it nothing to you, all you who pass by?”
Who this morning needs to come to the foot of the cross not to mock or insult but rather to repent and believe, to humble yourself before the Son of God who humbled himself even to death on a cross. One of the robbers or political rebels crucified with him did just that before Jesus breathed his last and received eternal life. After initially mocking Jesus he recognised Jesus as the sinless Saviour and put his faith in him. We know that from Luke 23:41-43, where the rebel says:
"We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." Jesus answered him, "I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise."
Whoever we are and whatever we’ve done we too can be forgiven and have eternal life through faith in Jesus Christ, in his work on the cross. It’s clear from this criminal that we don’t receive this by good works but only by grace (by God’s riches at Christ’s expense) through faith in Jesus. None of us are good enough. In fact Jesus said (Mk 10:18):
“No-one is good – except God alone.”
And this is why Jesus willingly goes to the cross to be crucified and killed – to deal with our sin which separates us from God. He took our place, which brings us to my second and final point.
2. JESUS WAS OUR SUBSTITUTE IN ALL HIS PASSION
Jesus Christ, who was without sin, suffered and died, therefore, not for his sins but for ours. He was our substitute in all his passion. This is a truth of the deepest importance. Without it Jesus’ sufferings, in all their detail, seem mysterious and inexplicable. The Bible tells us that Christ “himself bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). That
“God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)
That “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: "Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree." (Galatians 3:13) That “Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people…” (Hebrews 9:28)
“He was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Isaiah 53:5&6)
These truths are the foundation stones of the Gospel. Christ’s sufferings and death on the cross were in our place. And we’re intended to see this truth in every part of his passion. We can follow him from before Pilate to the minute of his death and see him at every step as our mighty substitute, our representative, our head, our surety, our proxy, who undertook to stand in our stead and by the priceless merit of his sufferings to purchase our redemption.
Was he scourged? It was “by his stripes we might be healed”. Was he condemned, though innocent? It was that we might be acquitted, though guilty. Did he wear a crown of thorns? It was that we might wear the crown of glory. Was he stripped of his clothing? It was that we might be clothed in everlasting righteousness. Was he mocked and reviled? It was that we might be honoured and blessed. Was he reckoned guilty and numbered among transgressors? It was that we might be reckoned innocent and justified or declared not guilty from all sin. Was he declared unable to save himself? It was that he might be able to save others to the uttermost. Did he die at last, and that the most painful and disgraceful of deaths? It was that we might live for evermore and be exalted to the highest glory.
Surely that leads us to give praise and thanks to God. To trust Christ. Our sins are many and great but a great atonement has been made for them.
And surely it also leads us to learn to hate sin more and more. Sin was the cause of all Jesus’ sufferings. Our sins plaited the crown of thorns. Our sins drove the nails into his hands and feet. On account of our sins his blood was shed. Surely the thought of Christ crucified should make us loathe all sin. The Church of England’s homily or sermon on the Passion of Christ says this:
“Let this image of Christ crucified be always printed in our hearts. Let it stir us up to the hatred of sin and provoke our minds to the earnest love of God.”