“He was crucified,” the Apostle’s Creed declares. As the Church has confessed these three words pointing back to a day that seemed anything but “good” two millennia ago, we recall the most unjust, horrid execution of all time.
The idea of Jesus severely weakened, passively accepting the necessity of this act makes us uncomfortable. We don’t want to linger, so we reach out and grab onto the robber’s confession of faith in Luke or Jesus’s powerful declaration of having accomplished his goal – “it is finished!” – in John. Matthew doesn’t offer us this escape, but leaves us to look on at the nightmarish scene with no escape, just as it was for Mary, John and others that day.
Matthew records in his Gospel, “When they had crucified him, they” – the guards – “divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there” (Mt. 27.35-36 NIV).
Notice that Matthew gets the word “crucifixion” out as quickly as possible. Like when we must tell someone bad news and we end up blurting it couched between other statements as rapidly as possible, Matthew can hardly stand even to write the word. Many people of the time would only indirectly refer to crucifixion – it was too horrifying even to say, much less witness. To Jews it was especially disturbing, for as it says in Deuteronomy 23, “anyone who is hung on a tree is under God’s curse.” Not only was Jesus suffering a most painful death, the people would have viewed him as also cursed. Commentator D.A. Carson suggests the people would have felt “revulsion” to him. This was a punishment only for the worst of criminals, “enemies of the state.”
Cursed and labeled an enemy of the state, this was truly an indescribably dark situation – but one those who opposed Jesus did not yet consider dark enough. In verse 39, Matthew writes, “Those who passed by hurled insults at him, shaking their heads.” The chief priests and teachers of the law are also there; in v.42, they joined in. “’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.’”
Despite years of ministry, including many miracles, people still demand more from Jesus even as he is agonizing on the cross. Surely Jesus would have loved to give them this sign – he was suffering indescribable pain, after all. They were tempting him with escape – but if he escaped, he would not bear our sins and save us. This was a sign they could not receive. They would receive what Jesus had earlier called “the sign of Jonah” – that is, his resurrection after three days – but even if any of the disciples had understood the promise of resurrection, it would have been hard to hold onto hope at this devastating moment.
We can only imagine how slowly time seemed to move. Minute after minute, Jesus hung from the cross facing pain far beyond anything you or I have experienced, but by and large no one offered anything other than sour wine and even more sour comments. If Jesus ever needed sympathy, a sense of something other than utter abandonment, this was the time – but the derision just continued to come and time crawled forward slowly, cruelly.
Standing before the cross a few hours into the crucifixion, there was no glory one could see. There was no victory. There was only trauma. Horrifying trama caused by a corrupt conviction on trumped up charges. We have the perspective of hindsight that can soften the moment as we understand its full significance, but we ought not let it, at least not too hastily. Do we truly appreciate the cost of God’s grace? Matthew places us in the midst of savagery without escape for a reason: to understand the victory of Sunday, we must first be subject to the horror of the cross. When we confess “He was crucified,” we should pause and acknowledge the indescribably awful event to which we refer.
Timothy R. Butler is editor-in-chief of Open for Business. Adapted for print from a message first preached at St. Paul’s Evangelical Church on Good Friday, April 10, 2009.