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Jesus Mocked (by Gentiles, Jews and Thieves)

Series: Matthew

Sermon by J. Ligon Duncan on Jan 16, 2000

Matthew 27:33-44

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If you have your Bibles I’d invite you to turn with me to Matthew 27. We’re going to look at verses 33 through 44. We’ve come today to the very brink of the abyss. In the last couple of weeks we have seen Matthew describe the sufferings of the trial and of the treatment from the Roman soldiers on His way to the cross. And today we come to the crucifixion itself.

Matthew has been telling us this for a variety of reasons. For one thing, he’s been telling us this because it happened. I want to pause and just say right there, somehow, somewhere, young people are going to go off to college and you are going to find some professor in a religion class that says this doesn’t happen. Let me say two things to that. Somebody says that this didn’t happen. The first thing I want to say is if these accounts are not true, if these accounts are not reliable, then there is nothing in all of ancient history that you can believe. There’s nothing better attested than the historical event surrounding the life of Jesus Christ in all of ancient history. So if you don’t like this, you’re not going to be able to believe anything else.

The second thing I would say is this. Why in the world would anybody make this up about the founder of religion. That He died as a condemned criminal on a tree. We’re going to find out today that crucifixion was universally abhorrent to the minds of everyone in the ancient world. To say that you were crucified was to immediately invite the anathema of everyone. Who would have made that up? No one. No one. It is a proof of the truthfulness and the reliability of these gospel accounts. In fact it’s an evidence of their inspiration that they speak so specifically and so faithfully to things which would have been universally distasteful to everyone who heard them spoken and read.

And so Matthew is telling us these things because they happened. But he’s also telling us these things because he’s been telling us even in his own account of the life of Christ that Christ had been telling the disciples that these things were going to happen. And so Matthew in part is explaining to us that these things did not take Christ by surprise. Christ told His own disciples exactly that these things were going to occur as He went to Jerusalem. He was going to be handed over to the Gentiles. He was going to suffer many things. Then He was going to be crucified, and He was going to die. All these things Jesus had already told His disciples, and so Matthew is very faithful to recount them. As hard as they are for Matthew to recount – remember Matthew is speaking to an audience of Jewish Christians for discipleship and to an audience primarily of Jews whom he wants to evangelize.

And these things are hard for both of those audiences to take in. No one wanted to hear about a crucified Savior. I mean people in the Roman world thought about a crucified Savior about the same way that people in the modern world think. The Romans thought about a crucified Savior about the same way that Ted Turner thinks about Christianity. He thinks that Christianity is for losers. Who wanted to go into the Roman world with a proclamation of a crucified Lord? And yet Matthew faithfully recounts it because it happens that way. Who wanted to go with the Jewish people with a proclamation that the one who was the Messiah died a death on a tree, a death which was accredited by the Old Testament in Deuteronomy, chapter 21, verses 22 and 23 as a cursed death, a sure sign of God’s curse against someone.

Matthew recorded it because Jesus said it, because it happened and furthermore because it was God’s plan. Matthew over and over in these passages has made it clear to us that this is not an accident, this didn’t take Jesus by surprise, this isn’t some laughable, existential cosmic mistake. This is the plan of God.

And furthermore, he shows that its the plan of God by showing that God prophesied in the Old Testament through the psalmist and through the prophets that this indeed would happen to the Messiah at Israel. And so Matthew was recording this for us for all those reasons. And as we come to it, we can’t help but contemplate the physical abuse and certainly Matthew has been faithful to recount that. He’s recounted the abuse of the soldiers leading up to the crucifixion of Christ.

Today, he is specifically going to recount the kind of abuse that was hurled at Christ although you will see as we study it in a few moments that he is amazingly restrained in his description of the physical suffering of Christ in this passage. The next time we are together in this passage, we will see the height, the greatest suffering that Jesus Christ faced, however, in the midst of the darkness. And we’ll talk about that as we look at His cry of abandonment. But today, we come to Matthew 27, 33 through 44 and Matthew’s description of the first part of the crucifixion itself. So let’s reverently and attentively hear God’s holy and inspired word:

Matthew 27:33-34

Lord, this is Your word. And we ask now that in the quietness of this hour You would speak to us of things eternal, showing us the Savior and drawing us by the Spirit to Him, building us up in Him. We ask it in Jesus’ name, Amen.

In order to illuminate the death of Christ and to explain its significance, Matthew is faithful to recount its details. In this passage, after we’ve been waiting for Matthew to describe for us in detail with specificity the actions of the crucifixion itself, its interesting that Matthew almost backs away from revealing those details. We’ve been waiting, for chapters now, for Matthew to describe the crucifixion and what does he do? Look at it when he gets there. In verse 35 he describes the crucifixion in four words, “And they crucified him.” And then quickly he diverts your attention to the Roman soldiers. What in the world is Matthew doing? I wonder if Matthew just has a hard time looking with a steady gaze on his crucified Lord.

I suspect, however, that Matthew has an agenda in mind in passing over so quickly the specific details of our Savior being nailed to that tree and hoisted up in pain by focusing on seven specific events in this passage. By focusing us on seven specific incidents occurring in those first three hours on the cross, first the Roman legionnaires who were there with Christ, then the bystanders, then the Jewish leaders, and then finally the thieves, the robbers, the criminals on the cross themselves, Matthew intends to give us a theology lesson in the meaning and significance of the death of our Savior.

Remember, Matthew is writing to people for whom the idea of a crucified Savior is utterly ridiculous and utterly repugnant. And Matthew knows its going to be received that way. The minute he says, let me tell you about my crucified Savior, immediately the Jewish population listening to Him is going to say, Matthew, have you never read Deuteronomy 21? Cursed is the man who dies on the tree. How can it be that the Savior of God, the Messiah of God could be crucified upon a cross? And Matthew’s response is, wait a minute, let me explain to you what this means. And he does it here in these seven scenes. Let me walk you through those seven scenes.

I. Jesus refuses the offer to have the pain of the cross covered.

First, if you would, look with me at verses 33 and 34. There the Roman soldiers come to Jesus and they offer Him wine with gall, or as Mark says mixed wine. That is some sort of an opiate, some sort of an anodyne, some sort of a pain killer. And Jesus tastes it, and then He refuses to drink of it. And thus He chooses to experience maximal pain on the cross. They give Him the opportunity to taste something, to drink something that will kill a little bit of the pain, and He refuses it, choosing maximal pain.

What’s Matthew telling you by recounting that point? He’s telling you that Jesus’ death is vicarious. Its in our place, its in place of what we should have suffered, and, therefore, Jesus chose to face that death in full consciousness. He wanted nothing numbing His senses as He tasted death for us. Matthew tells us that Jesus was taken to this execution site which was named in the language of the time, the Place of the Skull. Where do we get the name Calvary? Calvary is the Latin translation of this place. That’s where we get the word Calvary about which we sing in so many hymns and songs. Calvary means Place of the Skull. There the crossbeam would have been laid on the ground and affixed to the post, the central post of the cross, and then Jesus would have been laid on his back prostrate to be affixed to that dread instrument. But before being nailed to the cross, the soldiers come and they offer Him this drugged win to numb the pain. And Christ refuses it. Now Matthew tells us this in specific language. The language of wine and gall. And he tells us that because he wants you to immediately think – he knows you know your Bibles very well, and he wants you to immediately think of Psalm 69, verse 21. By the way, today if you wouldn’t mind, if you would keep your finger close to the Psalms and especially the Psalm 22, because Matthew is going to take you there repeatedly, and I’d like for us to look at those passages together. But first here in Psalms 69, verse 21 we read, “They also gave me gall for my food, and for my thirst they gave me vinegar to drink.”

Matthew is immediately at the outset signaling a couple of things to us. He’s saying look when you see Jesus on the cross, you need to understand a couple of things. This is part of the plan of God and to prove that its part of the plan of God you need to see that even in the Psalms, even in the scriptures God predicted these specific events in the death of our Lord. We predicted that Christ would be given this galled wine, this drugged wine. And, of course, he knows that when you turn back to Psalm 66 to look, you’ll notice verse 1 because this Psalm is a cry of distress. This Psalm is, in fact, an implication against the enemies of the Psalmist, and it begins with the words, “Save me, O God.” And you’ll look at the context of Psalm 21, and you’ll see the prayers there, and you’ll see how they predict the death of our Savior. Matthew is telling you this because he wants you to know this is part of God’s plan. Jesus isn’t taken by surprise, this is the fulfillment of Scripture.

But more than that Matthew tells you about this because he wants you to know that Jesus refused that drugged wine for you. Jesus deliberately said, I’ll take that man’s pain; I’ll take that woman’s pain; I’ll take that man’s punishment; I’ll take that woman’s punishment. I’ll face it in the fullness of My feelings, in the fullness of My awareness; in the fullness of My consciousness. I’ll take nothing that will take the edge off of what I experience in their place. Christ, when He by the mission that God had assigned to Him, determined to drink to the dregs the cup of the wrath of God, He determined to drink it in full awareness of everything that that entailed. You should never, ever forget that.

II. Christ crucified and His garments divided.

And then you look at verses 35 and 36 and the Roman soldiers are parceling out Jesus’ garments. As we said, you get to verse 35, having arrived at this climatic stage, you’re expecting Matthew maybe to spend five or six verses talking about the enormous, the excruciating physical pain which Jesus Christ went through as He is literally nailed, as He is pinned to the cross by these huge nails which we have recovered now. You’re expecting Him to describe the physical pain, and Matthew just says “and they crucified Him.” And immediately he points you to these soldiers.

What is Matthew doing? Matthew knows that crucifixion is the most shameful and painful form of execution known in antiquity. He knows that men who were crucified were stripped naked, something that would have been especially offensive and shameful to a Jew. He knew that the condemned would be hanged in the sight of the crowds regarded as a criminal, unable to restrain the excretion of bodily wastes. He would be subjected to excruciating torture. Listen to how Don Carson describes crucifixion: “Two thousand years have elapsed since Jesus died on a cross; and pious believers everywhere have unwittingly domesticated what was once universally recognized as a savage and shameful instrument of torture. Today we wear gold crosses around our necks and in our button holes. We have crosses in the fronts of our sanctuaries. We print embossed crosses on our Bibles and hymnals. And no one is shocked! But all the ancient sources testify to how the cross was universally held in revulsion. People who were crucified sometimes took days to die. Stretched out on a wooden frame, they would pull with their arms and push with their legs in order to keep their chest cavities open enough to breathe; and then excruciating muscle spasms would set in. They would sag, and let their bonds or the nails take the weight, until the need for oxygen started that abominable cycle again. Victims died of heart failure, of exhaustion and of shock. And if there was some need to hasten the death, the Roman soldiers only broke the legs, which kept them from being able to pull themselves up to breathe, and they suffocated in moments.” It is the most horrendous sort of torture that you can imagine. And Matthew knows that by the very mention of that his readers are going to be horrified.

But Matthew wants us to understand that the greater thing that Christ is experiencing goes beyond the pain of the physical torture itself. And what does he focus us on? He focuses on the ridicule, which is hurled at Christ by the soldiers, by the bystanders, by the religious leaders, and by the thieves. That’s what I’d like to look at with you just for a few moments.

First, we see this execution squad dividing up Jesus’ garments here in verses 35 and 36. Roman law allowed the execution squad to take whatever possessions belonged to the condemned criminal. He wasn’t going to be using them anymore. When you are put up on a cross, you weren’t coming back down alive. And so the execution squad is dividing up the spoils, as it were. But Matthew records it, and he focuses our attention on them because he wants you to understand something. They are fulfilling Scripture. Turn with me to Psalm 22, verse 18. Matthew is going to pound this Psalm into our heads by the time we’re done. In Psalm 22:18, David, speaking more of Christ than of himself, says, “They divide my garments among them, and for my clothing they cast lots.” What is Matthew saying? He’s saying my friends, you wonder why I can proclaim a Messiah who is crucified on a tree? I can proclaim it because of the Scriptures. The Scriptures tell me that my Messiah was going to have his clothes divided by His enemies. A thousand years before He hung on that tree, David knew by prophecy what He would experience. Matthew is reminding us that Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us, by hanging on that tree, as Paul reminded us in Galatians 3:13. He endured the shame of crucifixion for us. And Matthew wants to focus on that shame which He endures and that shame about which the author of Hebrews said in Hebrews 12:12 that He endured for the joy set before us, and He despised the shame. Matthew is pointing to that shame of the crucifixion for us.

III. The charge against Jesus.

Then in verse 37 he’s going to point us to something else. He points us to the title, the charge, the criminal charge that is placed above Jesus’ head. Jesus is mockingly charged with being a claimant to the Jewish throne. When Pilate first ordered that this be written I have no doubt that part of it was Pilate’s own despising of the Jews. He hated the Jewish people. And he thought what better way to mock the Jewish people than to charge this man as being the King of the Jews. That will offend them. And indeed we are told in one of the other gospels that the people came to Pilate, and they said don’t say He is the King of the Jews, say He says that He is the King of the Jews. And Pilate says look, I’ve written what I’ve written. And so the charge, which hangs above Jesus' head, is that 'This is the King of the Jews.'

And you see what Matthew is doing there. Matthew is saying that Jesus’ mockers have unwittingly but rightly identified Him. He’s saying look, even as they mock Him, they are identifying Him as who He is. He is the King of the Jews. As that charge is fastened above His head, the irony of ironies hits you. You suddenly realize that He is paying the penalty on the cross for the crime of being who He is. What’s the charge against Him? You’re the King of the Jews. Well, you see what’s implied is that He claims to be the King of the Jews, but He isn’t. But the charge reads this is the King of the Jews, and you suddenly realize, well its true. He’s dying because of who He really is. He is the King of the Jews. He is the Messiah.

What is Matthew doing? Matthew is pointing us to the glory of Christ even in the midst of all this gore. Men see a condemned criminal hanging between two condemned criminals. Matthew and the angels and God see the King of Israel. The King of the people of God. The Messiah of God, the Lord of glory. Matthew is saying look, even those soldiers unwittingly identified Him. And then in verse 38 we see that Jesus is humiliated by being crucified with these criminals. And again Matthew is showing the identification between Jesus and sinners, between Jesus and sin. Jesus is hung between two sinners. They were either robbers or revolutionaries. I don’t know. I’ll ask when I get to heaven. But the enduring shame of dying in the company of criminals that's what Matthew is focusing us on. Jesus, our Lord, the perfect One, dies in the company of criminals so that people think of Him as a criminal. You’d never make this up if you were making a religion up, friends. This is the last thing that you would make up if you were inventing a religion. Only the revelation of God would force you to write something like this about the Savior of the world. And so Matthew again sees this as a fulfillment of Scripture. This time not in Psalm 22, but in Isaiah 53, verse 12. Isaiah had said more than six hundred years before that He would be numbered with the transgressors. Matthew is telling you because he’s saying, look friends, this is not an accident, this is the plan of God. I can prove it because its written in Scripture.

He’s showing us what? The meaning of the cross. Its done on our behalf. Its the plan of God. Its according to Scripture. Its in our place. He’s giving us a theology of the cross. He’s saying, this is how you understand the fact that the Messiah of God was crucified. Christ’s fulfillment of scripture included his identification with sinners and sin. He bore their curse and their shame. And so He is numbered with the transgressors in His death. But that’s not all.

IV. The people mock Jesus.

He goes on to say in verses 39 through 40. And by the way, from 39 all the way down to 44 he’s showing you three classes of people who hurled abuse at Christ. First the bystanders, or those who were passing by; then the Jewish leaders; and then the criminals themselves. In verses 39 and 40 passersby taunt Jesus, and furthermore they tempt Him with the very words that Satan had tempted Him with in Matthew, chapter 4, verses 3 and 6. If you are the Son of God, come down. If you are the Son of God, come down. Its the same thing that Satan had said to Him. And now the great shame that Christ faces in the midst of His physical pain is that He has bystanders, people just passing by. Jewish people on their way in or outside of the city, hurling insults at Him. If You are who You say You are, come down. So Jesus begins to endure their derision. And Matthew describes the method of abuse of these passersby in verse 39 in terms directly taken from Psalm 22. Turn back to Psalm 22, verse 7 and you see it. In Psalm 22, verse 7, we read: “All who see me sneer at me; they separate with the lip, they wag the head.” Jesus is saying, these people are fulfilling what was predicted through the scriptures of the Old Testament about the suffering Savior.

Again, Matthew is saying that Jesus’ experience is a direct fulfillment of Scripture even and especially His rejection. These Jewish people walking in and out of the city fulfill the words of prophesy. Of course, John spoke about it in John 1, verse 11. You remember he said He came to His own and His own received Him not. That’s just fulfilling what Isaiah had told us. He was despised, and rejected of men. He was esteemed as a transgressor. Matthew is saying, all these words of Scripture are being fulfilled in the death of Christ.

V. The leaders mock Jesus.

And then in verses 41 through 43 the spiritual leaders of the people of God begin to mock Jesus. Note Matthew notes with extreme irony that the spiritual leaders take on their lips the taunts of David’s accusers in Psalm 22, verse 8. Look at that verse. In Psalm 22, verse 8 the one who is mocking David says this, “Commit yourself to the Lord, let Him deliver You, let Him rescue You because He delights in You.” My friends, this is one of the deepest, most painful aspects of Jesus’ treatment by the hands of men. In fact, I would suggest to you that this is the greatest mental and spiritual suffering that Jesus Christ endured while He was on the cross.

And notice that Matthew focuses you on this even more than the physical suffering. What is it that these people are doing? They’re not even talking to Jesus directly, by the way. They’re talking to one another, and they’re saying, well, if God delights in Him, let Him come save Him. What’s the suggestion? They are saying that Jesus’ Father does not delight in Him. Now our Lord Jesus had suffered many things. A disciple had betrayed him. His best friends had deserted him. Roman soldiers had scourged him. He had been unjustly treated by a Roman court and by a Jewish court. He had been led to the cross with hurling of abuse. He had faced the mocking of the multitude. But I want to suggest to you that hearing from the leaders, the spiritual leaders of His own people, the people who were vested with the responsibility to teach the people of God, the way of God, and to teach them the law of God, to hear from their lips the charge that His Father doesn’t delight in Him, you and I have no idea how that impacted the Lord Jesus Christ. We were told by the Lord Jesus Himself that His delight was to do the will of God. That it was His meat to do the will of God. And now He is on a cross dying in excruciating pain, and He hears the religious leaders of His people say, “God does not delight in Him. The Father does not delight in Him.” You and I will never know, even in glory, we’ll never know what that did to our Lord.

Matthew is saying, but look even as these men insult Him and question who He is, they’re actually proving who He is. Because as they question whether He is the Messiah, they are actually proving that He is the Messiah by fulfilling Scripture. Because in Psalm 22, verse 8, God said that the enemies of His Messiah would mock Him and would question whether He delighted in Him. And so by their very taunting, they are proving that He is who they say He is not. And so Matthew is saying, oh yes, He is the Messiah and the Savior. And even though these religious men don’t think they need grace, He is the King of grace and the Savior.

VII. Jesus is mocked by criminals.

And then finally in verse 44, even the guilty criminals deride Jesus. We see here Jesus is a Savior of sinners, ugly sinners, gross sinners. You know, its astonishing isn’t it, to see these men who are themselves crucified joining in taunting a man who’s dying on a cross. You would think that an experience like that might soften you up and give you a little sympathy. But it doesn’t apparently. And Matthew tells us that at the beginning of the day, and Luke tells us at the beginning of the day both of these men are deriding Christ. And furthermore, if you’ll look very closely at Matthew 27, verse 44 we are told that they were insulting Him, and I tried to emphasize this as I read, they were insulting Him with the same words. Do you hear that, friends? The thieves were saying the same thing that the chief priests and the scribes and the elders, the same things that the passersby were saying. In other words, they were questioning whether God delighted in our Savior.

And yet Luke tells us that by the end of the day – look at Luke 23, 39 to 43 – that by the end of the day one of those thieves was saved. They both began by hurling insults at Him. Somewhere in the day something laid hold of that man’s heart. I don’t know whether it was seeing Jesus reviled and not answering back in reviling. I don’t know whether it was the calm and majestic manner in which our Lord suffered the pain of the cross. I don’t know whether it was perhaps the prayer that Jesus prayed: Father, forgive them. They have no idea what they’re doing. Or I don’t know whether it was maybe a word that our Lord Jesus spoke to that thief. Or maybe it was a culmination of all those things. But I know this. That man was drawn into a saving fellowship with Jesus Christ, and finally at the end of the day he turned to his fellow mocker, and he said how can you say this to that Man. He turned to Christ and he said, “Remember me, remember me when You enter into Your kingdom.” Christ turned to Him and said, “I tell you today, you will be with Me in Paradise.” Even as He’s dying, He’s drawing men into eternal fellowship with God.

What’s Matthew telling you there? He’s saying that everybody needs a Savior. Religious men need a Savior. Passersby need a Savior. Condemned criminals, of course they need a Savior. We all need a Savior. We all need grace. But you know the sad thing is that people who don’t have grace don’t think they need it. And so they sit there, and they revile the Lord Jesus Christ. And its only when God in His mercy shows you that you need grace, that you suddenly realize that everything you need is already there in Christ. May God show you your need of grace, because the minute you see your need of grace, He will show you who provides it. Let’s pray.

Our Lord and our God, there is no one like our Savior, and we bow before Him and we worship Him. And we offer up our feeble prayers in His name, Amen.

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