Saturday 12th February 2022

MATTHEW 27

“The Crucifixion”:  The plot by the Jewish authorities to have Jesus killed was very difficult to organize and almost impossible to plan much in advance.  Jesus was enormously popular with the masses and the religious people were not.  Also, the Jews had no jurisdiction over the death penalty in an occupied Roman territory.  Somehow they had to locate Jesus in a non-public situation, separate and capture him from his disciples, persuade Pontius Pilate that the Romans should authorize the death penalty for something that only the Jews regarded as a crime, and persuade the crowds to ask for Jesus’ crucifixion rather than the criminal Barabbas’s.

Judas provided part of the solution: he was the ultimate freedom-fighter who was desperate for his master to rise to his deserved position of authority and lead the rebellion against those hated Roman occupiers.  He seemed impatient with Jesus’ seeming reluctance to take the lead politically – when he was at the height of popularity with the crowds – and instead to teach about non-violent alternative actions and ‘loving your enemy’.  So he decided to force the issue by telling the chief priests where Jesus was on a particular night, and offering to identify him in the darkness of Gethsemane.  Surely then, Jesus would have to show his true colours and rally Israel against the Romans?

But, to his horror, Jesus submitted willingly to capture, put up no resistance of any kind, and then offered no defence at his several trials – it was almost as though he WANTED to die!  Realising with horror how much he had misjudged the situation and his master, and so full of guilt for betraying the one person who had loved him unconditionally, he returned the blood money and committed suicide.

Pilate was tough political ‘animal’, chosen to keep these rebellious Jews in line with Rome’s ways, and was certainly no pushover.  Yet this Jesus both intrigued him and frightened him.  Pilate had sat in judgment over more guilty men than you could shake a stick at – and he recognized an innocent one when he saw one.  And Pilate’s wife had been having these weird dreams that were totally out of character for her – telling him to give this case a wide berth.  Ever the politician, Pilate did what most political animals do when posed a difficult question: he avoided it!  Luke’s gospel is the only one to mention that he sends him off to King Herod to give a more ‘Jewish’ opinion (although Herod was not entirely Jewish himself).  But eventually, the ‘hot potato’ returned back into Pilate’s hands, and he had no choice this time.  “Set him free and we’ll tell Caesar that you are on the side of rebels”, the Jewish leaders threatened.  Pilate’s final throw of the dice was to offer a Festival prisoner release – Jesus or Barabbas – and the chief priests persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas to receive leniency and Jesus to be crucified.  “His blood be on us, and on our children” they shouted. 

Scourging was nearly as painful as crucifixion – a leather whip with sharp pieces of bone, stone or metal tied near the ends ensured that after a couple of lashes there was no skin to be seen on the victim’s back.  And, of course, it was far more than a couple of lashes!  Then came the thorns on the scalp, well-beaten down by a reed pole.  Then came the crucifixion itself, sited at the ‘Place of the Skull’ and with nails through the ankles and wrists (hands and feet would not have born the body weight).  Most people took a couple of days to die completely.  Jesus was half-dead already from the flogging though.  From 9am to noon the sun shone, and the spectators mocked; then from noon to 3pm pitch blackness fell and the real heavenly punishment began.  He who knew no sin BECAME sin, so that WE might become the righteousness of God.  At this point you can peel away the darkness by reading Isaiah 52:13 – 53:12 if you want to find out what was really going on.

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” – a direct quote from Psalm 22:1, quoted by the true subject of that ancient prophecy.  For the purposes of punishing sin, Jesus HAD to be completely separated from the Father’s life and love for a period of time; it doesn’t SEEM like that much of a punishment when written down on paper, but don’t try it yourselves!  The Eternal one was punished for a finite time, in order to avoid us ‘finite ones’ being punished for all eternity!

And when it was all over, and Jesus had died physically too, the great temple curtain was divided from the top to the bottom, signifying that God had opened up an access route between heaven and earth again.  An earthquake came and the bodies of some ancient dead saints came alive, waiting until Jesus’ Resurrection to make themselves known to the local population!  No-one says what happened to them afterwards!!!

The normal progress for crucifixions would have been slower, but the key Jewish Passover Sabbath was only a couple of hours away and it was unthinkable to let these crucifixions continue on such a holy day.  In times of haste the method of choice was to break the legs of the victims, ensuring that they could no longer bear their body weights and so would die a quick death by asphyxiation.  Jesus, of course, seemed already dead and so they didn’t do this, but checked by piercing his heart with a spear.  Out of the wound came separate plasma and congealed blood – a sure sign of death (as John’s gospel notes).

Burial would have been in a hasty pit in the ground, but Joseph of Arimathea – a member of the Jewish Ruling Council, but also a secret disciple – finally pinned his colours to the mast and asked to have Jesus taken down and buried in his tomb in a nearby garden estate.  To keep grave robbers at bay, a giant disc-shaped stone was rolled down a stone slot at the entrance to the tomb.  And everyone waited!

Just to be absolutely sure, the Jewish authorities requested Pilate’s approval for them to post their Temple Guard (not Roman soldiers) in front of the tomb.  They required the Governor’s permission since this was not on the Temple site but on Roman-occupied soil.  You can’t be too careful!

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