Even without taking the time to deal with all the subtle details in Matthew's text, what is transparent is that Matthew provides ample evidence to demonstrate just how weak and powerless Jesus is. In the Roman world, the upright of the cross, the vertical member, was usually left in the ground at the place of crucifixion—usually near a public crossroads or thoroughfare so that as many people as possible could witness the torment and learn to fear Roman power. The horizontal member was carried by the victim out to the place of crucifixion. There the victim was tied or nailed to this cross-member, which was then hoisted up and suspended from the upright. But Jesus is now so weak he cannot even manage to carry this chunk of wood on his shoulder to the place of execution. So the soldiers exercise their legal right to conscript a bystander for the task, and Simon from Cyrene is forced to do the work (v. 32). Victims were crucified completely naked: the cross was meant to be an instrument of shame as well as of pain. So the soldiers gamble to determine who will gain possession of Jesus' clothing (v. 35). It is difficult to imagine a portrait more calculated to depict Jesus' utter powerlessness.
"And sitting down, [the soldiers] kept watch over him there" (v. 36). At a slightly earlier time in the history of the Roman Empire, soldiers had sometimes crucified people and then walked away to let them die. In some known instances, friends of the victim had lifted him down from the cross—and the victim had survived. So by this stage in Roman history, it was imperial policy to post soldiers at a crucifixion site until death had taken place. That is what is depicted in verse 36: the soldiers keep watch over Jesus. Jesus has no hope, none whatsoever, of rescue. Suffering immeasurably, shamed intolerably, broken in body and spirit, without any prospect except the release of death, Jesus hangs in shame on that wretched cross, utterly powerless.
Then comes the mockery that shows the significance of this list of evidences attesting Jesus' weakness and powerlessness. We are told that some who passed by hurled insults at him and said, "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!" (vv. 39-40).
If we are going to understand why Matthew reports these words, we must remember that the theme of Jesus' destruction of the temple has already been introduced. Earlier in Jesus' trial, this time before the high priest, the authorities were still scrambling to find suitable witnesses who could destroy Jesus. In Matthew 26:61 we are told that two witnesses finally came forward who charged, "This fellow said, ‘I am able to destroy the temple of God and rebuild it in three days.'" This charge was potentially very dangerous. The Romans were worried about conflicts between peoples of different religions, so they made it a capital offense to desecrate a temple, any temple. If Jesus' words about destroying the temple of God could be taken as a serious intention to harm a temple, then they had him. But that line of thought peters out in Matthew 26; from parallel accounts, we learn that the witnesses couldn't get their stories straight.
Eventually Jesus was condemned on a treason charge, rather than on a desecration-of-a-temple charge. But what fun Jesus' words afforded to the mockers! He had glibly talked about destroying and rebuilding the temple in three days. What kind of power would that require? With modern technology, we can put together a prefabricated house in a day or two; we can build a skyscraper in a year or two. Historically, however, this kind of speed is a very recent development. None of the great cathedrals of Europe was ever seen in its fully constructed form by its original architect; building a cathedral took longer than one lifetime. The builders of the temple in Jerusalem faced additional constraints: they were not to use a mason's hammer anywhere near temple precincts. Each of the great stones had to be measured and cut elsewhere, and then brought in by animal and human power, without help of hydraulics. Yet here was Jesus, glibly talking about destroying and building a temple in three days. What kind of power would that take? What kind of supernatural power would that take? Yet here Jesus hangs, utterly powerless, on a Roman cross. The sting of the mockery turns on this bitter contrast between Jesus' claims to power and his current transparent powerlessness. Once again, the mockers think they are indulging in fine irony. Jesus claimed so much power, so very much power; now witness his powerlessness. So in the light of his claim, they say "save yourself"—which of course they utter ironically, since they are convinced he is helpless and cannot do a thing to help himself. Jesus' claims are somewhere between ridiculous and scandalous—and they deserve to be mocked.
But the apostles know, and the readers of the Gospels know, and God knows, that Jesus' demonstration of power is displayed precisely in the weakness of the cross. Because we read John's Gospel, especially John 2, we know what Jesus actually said on this subject: "Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days" (2:19). According to John, Jesus' opponents did not have a clue what he meant; indeed, Jesus' own disciples had no idea, at the time, what he meant. But after Jesus was raised from the dead, John says, the disciples remembered his words; they believed the Scripture and the words Jesus had spoken. They knew he was talking about his body (vv. 20-22). The point is that under the terms of the old covenant, the temple was the great meeting place between a holy God and his sinful people. This was the place of sacrifice, the place of atonement for sin. But this side of the cross, where Jesus by his sacrifice pays for our sin, Jesus himself becomes the great meeting place between a holy God and his sinful people; thus he becomes the temple, the meeting place between God and his people. It is not as if Jesus in his incarnation adequately serves as the temple of God. That is a huge mistake. Jesus says, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." It is in Jesus' death, in his destruction, and in his resurrection three days later, that Jesus meets our needs and reconciles us to God, becoming the temple, the supreme meeting place between God and sinners. To use Paul's language, we do not simply preach Christ; rather, we preach Christ crucified.
Here is the glory, the paradox, the irony; here, once again, there are two levels of irony. The mockers think they are witty and funny as they mock Jesus' pretensions and laugh at his utter weakness after he has claimed he could destroy the temple and raise it in three days. But the apostles know, and the readers know, and God knows, that there is a deeper irony: it is precisely by staying on the cross in abject powerlessness that Jesus establishes himself as the temple and comes to the resurrection in fullness of power. The only way Jesus will save himself, and save his people, is by hanging on that wretched cross, in utter powerlessness. The words the mockers use to hurl insults and condescending sneers actually describe what is bringing about the salvation of the Lord.
The man who is utterly powerless—is powerful.
This principle has already been worked over by Matthew. According to Matthew 16, at Caesarea Philippi Jesus asks his disciples who they think he is. Simon Peter answers, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (v. 16). We must not interpret Peter's confession too generously. When we say, "Jesus is the Christ," we inevitably include in the confession the substance of Jesus' person, his crucifixion, his resurrection, for we live this side of those great events. We cannot think of him without thinking of his cross and resurrection. But when Peter confesses to Jesus, "You are the Christ," he includes nothing of the crucifixion and resurrection. By "Christ," he has in mind a conquering, victorious, messianic, Davidic, king. The proof lies in the following verses. When in the wake of Peter's confession, Jesus goes on to talk about his impending suffering, death, and resurrection (v. 21), Peter still has no category by which to understand what Jesus is saying. Messiahs do not die; they win! They are not crucified; they conquer! So Peter takes it on himself to rebuke Jesus smartly: "‘Never, Lord!' he said. ‘This shall never happen to you!'" (v. 22). So flawed is Peter's understanding of Jesus' purposes in coming as the Messiah that he earns the Master's immortal rebuke, "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men" (v. 23).
It is at this juncture that Jesus universalizes the principle that is at stake: "If anyone would come after me," he says, "he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it" (vv. 24-25). This expression "to take up one's cross" is not an idiom by which to refer to some trivial annoyance—an ingrown toenail, perhaps, or a toothache, or an awkward in-law: "We all have our crosses to bear." No, in the first century, that sort of interpretation would have been impossible. In the first century it was as culturally unthinkable to make jokes about crucifixion as it would be today to make jokes about Auschwitz. To take up your cross does not mean to move forward with courage despite the fact you lost your job or your spouse. It means you are under sentence of death; you are taking up the horizontal cross-member on your way to the place of crucifixion. You have abandoned all hope of life in this world. And then, Jesus says, and only then, are we ready to follow him.
Is this not universal Christian teaching? It is in dying that we live; it is in denying ourselves that we find ourselves; it is in giving that we receive. Paul understands the same principle when he says, in 2 Corinthians 2:1, that he has learned to rejoice when he is weak, for when he is weak, he experiences God's strength.
All of this, of course, was first of all supremely exemplified in the Lord Jesus. In shame, ignominy, and powerlessness he died in suffering and agony and rose in power to become the risen temple of God, the living meeting place between God and his people. The mockers laugh at their perception of the irony of the situation: Jesus made such outrageous claims to power, claiming he could destroy the temple and build it again in three days, when in fact he dies in the throes of the most abysmal weakness. But we see a deeper irony: the very weakness the mockers find amusing is Jesus' own way to power, the way to the resurrection, the way to functioning as the mighty temple of the living God. Although our own death to self-interest never functions with the same atoning significance as the death of Jesus, the same principle applies to us: in dying we live, in denying ourselves we find ourselves, as we take up our cross and follow Jesus.
Here, then, is Matthew's second irony of the cross: the man who is utterly powerless—is powerful.
Copyright © 2010 by D.A. Carson
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