The Ironies of the Cross (part 1 of 4)

D.A. Carson

Nothing is more central to the Bible than Jesus' death and resurrection. The entire Bible pivots on one weekend in Jerusalem about two thousand years ago. Attempts to make sense of the Bible that do not give prolonged thought to integrating the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus are doomed to failure. At best, they are exercises in irrelevance.


Jesus' own followers did not expect him to be crucified; they certainly did not expect him to rise again. Yet after these events their thinking and attitudes were so transformed that they could see the sheer inevitability that Jesus would die on a cross and leave an empty tomb behind, and absolutely everything in their lives was changed.


However much the Bible insists on the historicity of these events, it never treats them as mere pieces of raw data—admittedly, rather surprising raw data—the meaning of which we are free to make up for ourselves. It is as important to know what these events mean as to know that they happened.


The book, scandalous: the cross and resurrection of jesus, is a modest attempt to summarize not only what happened but also what they mean—in short, to provide an introductory explanation of the cross and resurrection. I do this by unpacking what some of the earliest witnesses of Jesus' death and resurrection wrote. The words of those witnesses are preserved in the Bible.


The Ironies of the Cross (Matthew 27:27 

He was, on the whole, a very good king. He united the disparate tribes, built a nation, and established a dynasty. Personally courageous, he also built a formidable defense system and secured his country's borders. He proved to be an able administrator, and on the whole he ruled with justice. As if that were not enough, he was an accomplished poet and musician.

But in his middle years, he seduced a young woman next door. To understand a little more how perverse this evil was, we must recall that this young woman's husband was at that time away from home, at the military front, fighting the king's battles. Out of this one-night stand, the woman became pregnant and sent word to the king. He was a "fixer," and he thought he could fix this. He sent a messenger to the front, asking the military command to send the young man back to the capital with an ostensible message for the king. The young man came, of course, but as it turned out, he didn't return home to sleep with his wife: somehow he felt that would be letting down the side with his mates back at the front. The young man merely slept in the royal courtyard, ready to head back to the front—and King David knew he would be found out. So he sent back a secret message to the commanding officers at the front, a message carried by the hand of this young man, a message that was his death warrant. The officers were to arrange a skirmish, with everyone in the unit except the young man given a secret signal when to withdraw. The inevitable happened: the unit withdrew, and the young man was left alone in the skirmish and killed. Shortly after, the king married the pregnant widow. David thought he had gotten away with his sin.


God sent the prophet Nathan to confront him. Faithful prophet though he was, Nathan decided he'd better approach the monarch with suitable caution, so he began with a story. He said, in effect, "Your majesty, I've come across a difficult case up country. There are two farmers, neighbors. One is filthy rich; the number of animals in his herds and flocks is past counting. The other chap is a subsistence farmer. He has one little lamb, that's all. In fact, he doesn't even have that lamb any more. Some visitors dropped by the home of the rich man, who, instead of showing appropriate hospitality by killing one of the animals from his own flocks and preparing a feast, went and stole the one little lamb owned by the dirt farmer. What do you think should be done about this?"


David was outraged. He said, "As surely as the Lord lives, the man who did this must die! He must pay for that lamb four times over, because he did such a thing and had no pity" (2 Samuel 12:5). David had no idea how painfully ironic his utterance was. Nathan knew, of course, and the writer knew, and God knew, and the readers know—but David could not detect the desperate irony of his own words until Nathan said, "You are the man!" (v. 7).


We all know what irony is. Irony expresses meaning by using words that normally mean the opposite of what is actually being said. Sometimes the irony is intentional, of course: the speaker knows he is using irony; at other times, as here, David hasn't a clue that his words are ironic until his hypocrisy is exposed. He thinks his words establish him as a principled judge who makes right and fair judicial decisions, but in the light of his secret life he merely exposes himself as a wretched hypocrite. The real meaning of the words, in this broader context, is a blistering condemnation of the very man who thinks that by using these words he is showing himself to be a just man and a good king.


Some irony is vicious, of course; some is hilariously funny. But we all know that irony has the potential, especially in narrative, for bringing a situation into sharp focus. Very often it is the irony in the narrative that enables hearers and readers to see what is really going on. Irony provides a dimension of depth and color that would otherwise be missing.


Of the New Testament writers, those most given to irony are Matthew and John. In the passage before us, Matthew unfolds what takes place as Jesus is crucified—but he does so by displaying four huge ironies that show attentive readers what is really going on.


Permit me to remind you of the context. By this point, Jesus has been in the public eye for two or three years, the years of his public ministry. Now, however, he has fallen foul of the religious and political authorities. They resent his popularity, they fear his potential political power, they are suspicious of his motives. They wonder if the rising number of his followers could turn into a rebellion against the reigning superpower of the day, the mighty Roman Empire—for there could be only one outcome in a conflict with Rome. So Jesus has to be crushed. They provide a kangaroo court, find Jesus guilty of treason, and manage to secure the sanction of the Roman governor to have Jesus executed by crucifixion. All of this, they thought, was politically expedient, religiously for the best.


And here in the text (Matt. 27:27), we pick up the account immediately after sentence has been passed. In those days there was no long delay on death row for the prisoner. Once a capital sentence was handed down, the prisoner was taken out and executed within a few hours or at most a few days. In the text before us, we find the soldiers preparing Jesus for immediate crucifixion. As Matthew tells the story, we learn to reflect on four profound ironies of the cross.


The Man Who Is Mocked as King Is the King

(Matt. 27:27-31)

Apparently Jesus had been flogged earlier, as part of his interrogation. Immediately after sentence of crucifixion was passed, Jesus was flogged again (v. 26). This too was standard procedure; it was customary to flog prisoners before taking them out to be crucified. But what takes place in verses 27 to 31 is not standard procedure. It is more like barracks-room humor. The governor's soldiers gather around, strip Jesus of his clothes, and drape some sort of scarlet robe on him, pretending he is a royal figure. Then they wind together some strands of vine thorns, the spikes of which are 15 to 20 cm. long. They crunch this down on his head to make a cruel crown of thorns. They put a staff into his hand and pretend it is a scepter. Alternately bowing before Jesus in mock reverence and hitting him in brutal cruelty, they cry, "Hail, king of the Jews!"—and complete the acclamation by spitting in his face and hitting him again and again with the mock scepter. Raucous, mocking laughter keeps the room alive until the soldiers tire of their sport. They have finished laughing at him as the king of the Jews. Now they put his own clothes back on him and lead him away to be crucified.


But Matthew knows, and the readers know, and God knows, that Jesus is the king of the Jews. In case we've missed the theme, Matthew reminds us of it twice more in the following verses: the titulus, the charge against Jesus, is nailed to the cross above his head: "this is jesus, the king of the jews" (v. 37). The mockers are still dismissing him as the king of Israel in verse 42. More importantly, Matthew has already made the theme clear throughout his Gospel. His very first verse reads, "This is of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham" (1:1).


The ensuing genealogy is broken up somewhat artificially into three fourteens, the central fourteen covering the years in which the Davidic dynasty reigned in Jerusalem. Even the number fourteen is a code for the name "David." All the OT promises that look forward to the coming Davidic king spring from 2 Samuel 7, anchored in David's life about 1000 b.c. Almost three hundred years later, the prophet Isaiah anticipates one who will sit on the throne of his father David, but who would also be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). Matthew's opening chapter picks up on this Old Testament anticipation. In the second chapter, the Magi ask, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews?" (Matthew 2:1). As he begins his public ministry, Jesus talks constantly about the kingdom—its nature, dawning, promise, and consummation. In some of the so-called "parables of the kingdom," the stories Jesus tells sometimes make Jesus himself out to be the king. The same theme is raised in the trial before Pilate. In Matthew 27:11, Pilate the governor asks Jesus, "Are you the king of the Jews?" "Yes, it is as you say," Jesus replies, yet the form of his response, while affirmative, depicts a gentle hesitation, because Jesus knows full well he is not a king in any way that Pilate fears. His reign does not spell out military threat to Caesar. Pilate himself soon discerns that even if Jesus claims to be the king of the Jews, he poses no immediate political threat, and he seeks to have him released. Still, the confession is there, and Jesus stands condemned on the capital charge of treason. And while the soldiers mock Jesus as the king of the Jews, transparently Matthew knows, and his readers know, and God knows, that Jesus is the king of the Jews.


Indeed, look closely and you will see two layers of irony. The mockery of the soldiers was meant to be ironic. When they exclaim, "Hail, king of the Jews!" what they mean is the exact opposite: Jesus is not the king but a rather pathetic criminal. Doubtless the soldiers think their humor is deliciously ironic. But Matthew sees an even deeper irony; in fact, while the soldiers demean Jesus as a pathetic criminal, the words they use actually tell the truth, the opposite of what they mean: Jesus really is the king. That is the point of this paragraph: the man who is mocked as king—is the king (vv. 27-31).


Those who know their Bibles well know that Jesus is more than king of the Jews: he is king over all, he is Lord over all. Matthew himself makes this clear in his closing verses. This side of the resurrection, Jesus declares that all authority in heaven and on earth is his (Matthew 28:18); his authority is none less than the authority of God. He is king of the universe. He is king over the soldiers who mock him. He is king over you and me. And one day, Paul assures us, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. The man who is mocked as king—is the king.


But we must probe a little further. With what conception of kingship is Jesus operating? In the first century, no one entertained the notion of a constitutional monarchy, like that of Great Britain, where the monarch has almost no real authority apart from moral suasion. In the ancient world, kings reigned. That's what kings did; that's how they operated. Indeed, that is the notion of kingship until fairly recent times. Louis XIV was not a constitutional monarch in the current British sense. What kind of king, then, is Jesus, in Matthew's mind, if Jesus is going to death on a cross? Is he a failed king?


Once again, Matthew has already given us some insight into the reality of Jesus' kingship. We must scan the interesting exchange in Matthew 20:20. The mother of the apostles James and John approaches Jesus, along with her two sons, requesting a favor.


"What is it you want?" he asks.


She replies, "Grant that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom" (v. 21).


Clearly they anticipated that Jesus would sit as king in a quite normal, historical, physical sense, and make his apostles the members of his cabinet, and they were hoping that James and John would get the two top jobs—secretary of state and secretary of defense, perhaps. Jesus tells them, in effect, that they have no idea what they are asking for: "Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?" he asks, referring, of course, to his impending suffering. With supreme overconfidence and massive ignorance, they reply, "We can" (v. 22). You can almost imagine Jesus smiling inwardly: well, yes, in one sense, they will participate in his cup, his cup of suffering: one of the two brothers, James, would become the first apostolic martyr, and the other would die as an exile on Patmos. Still, it is not Jesus' role to dispense the right to sit on his left or his right: that role the Father has reserved for himself.


When the ten other apostles hear of the request of James and John and their mother, they are incensed—not, of course, because of the arrogance and impertinence of their request, but because the ten did not get their requests in first. So Jesus calls the Twelve together, and gives us one of the most important insights into the nature of the kingdom. He says: "You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many" (vv. 25-28). This profound utterance must not be misunderstood. Jesus does not mean that there is no sense in which he exercises authority. Transparently, that is not the case—and in the closing verses Matthew reminds us, as we have seen, that Jesus claims all authority in heaven and on earth. What he means, rather, is something like this. The kings and rulers and presidents of this fallen world order exercise their authority out of a deep sense of self-promotion, out of a deep sense of wanting to be number one, out of a deep sense of self-preservation, even out of a deep sense of entitlement. By contrast, Jesus exercises his authority in such a way as to seek the good of his subjects, and that takes him, finally, to the cross. He did not come to be served, as if that were an end in itself; even in his sovereign mission he comes to serve—to give his life a ransom for many. Those who exercise any authority at any level in the kingdom in which Jesus is king must serve the same way—not with implicit demands of self-promotion, confidence in their right to rule, or a desire to sit at Jesus' right hand or his left hand, but with a passion to serve.


Small wonder, then, that Pilate could not figure Jesus out. Jesus claimed to be king, but he had none of the pretensions of the monarchs of this world. Small wonder that for the next three hundred years, Christians would speak, with profound irony, of Jesus reigning from the cross.


So here is the first irony in Matthew's presentation of Jesus' crucifixion: the man who is mocked as king—is the king.




Taken from scandalous: the cross and resurrection of jesus

Copyright © 2010 by D.A. Carson
Published by Crossway Books, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers
1300 Crescent Street Wheaton, Illinois 60187

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopy, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, except as provided for by USA copyright law.


Originally published March 31, 2010.

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