by Walter A. Boyd, N. Ireland
THE SYNOPTIC GOSPELS
In the Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark and Luke present an account of the death of the Lord Jesus, a death that involved suffering and pain on an unprecedented scale. Other men had died by crucifixion, but none had ever died and borne the judgment of God against the sin of the world, as Christ did. That makes His death unique.
To rightly understand the details and authority of the Synoptic Gospels, we must first lay a foundation of background including:
- A Definition of ‘Synoptic Gospels’
- The So-called Synoptic Problem
- The Solution to the Synoptic Problem
- The Synoptic Gospel Authors and their Aims.
Then we will be ready to look specifically at how the death of Christ is portrayed in each of the Synoptic Gospels.
To understand the Synoptic Gospels, we need to understand the synoptic concept. The three Gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke are noticeably similar, while John is quite different. The first three Gospels are similar in the:
- Language they use
- Material they include
- General order in which events and sayings are recorded
- Standpoint from which the authors view the details of the Person of Christ
Because of this similarity, these three books are called the Synoptic Gospels (syn means ‘together with’; optic means ‘seeing’; therefore these three Gospels are called synoptic, ‘seeing together’).
A casual reader might think these three Gospels say the same thing in slightly different words, but reading carefully reveals these Gospels should be viewed together as an elegant tapestry: the breathtaking beauty of the picture, the tremendous complexity of the fabric, and the individual threads that create the overall picture. In other words, we will examine the complex and individual strands of each Gospel to help us understand the beautiful, bigger picture and how the shades of difference impact upon Gospel readers.
Because the Synoptic Gospels present the Person of the Lord from various viewpoints, some people question the Gospels’ historical accuracy. Some regard these variations as differences and say that one or all of the records are flawed. It is impossible in this chapter to answer all possible allegations, but this author and the editor of this book, hold without equivocation to the doctrine of Verbal Inspiration: the Synoptic Gospels, like all Scripture, are the inspired Word of God. (See the relevant chapter in Assembly Testimony ‘Glory Series’: The Spirit of Glory, page 55, The Holy Spirit in Revelation and Inspiration). We also affirm the historical accuracy of the Gospel writers.
In some cases there are very obvious solutions to the alleged inaccuracies. The easiest way to get a clear and accurate picture is to clarify how we look at the Gospels. Rather than see the differences as contradictions, we can see them as complementary. That is, none of the writers recorded every detail in any one incident; the three records need to be taken together to get the complete picture.
For instance, in the Parable of the Mustard Tree, Matthew records the Lord Jesus saying that the birds of the air “lodge in the branches” 13.32; whereas Mark records that He said they “lodge under the shadow of it” 4.32. Which expression did He use? There is no reason to deny that He used both expressions.
Another issue that has given rise to conflict is that in the Synoptic Gospels, events are not always recorded in exactly the same order. One significant reason for this is that the Gospel writers did not compile their records like we would; we follow strict chronological order in biographical and historical records. The Gospels are not merely biographies or histories, yet each provides biographical and historical information on the Lord Jesus, which gives their unique presentation of Him. From real experience, each writer selected the actions and sayings that would bring out a certain aspect of the Lord’s ministry and life, and that aspect forms the main theme of his Gospel. Even though the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are referred to as Synoptic, they present three separate views of the Lord Jesus, like showing three different sides of a complex object; one object but three views.
Matthew is at pains to show that the Lord Jesus was a King, Who had come to establish a kingdom. Mark shows Him as the Servant of Jehovah, and Luke shows Him as the perfect Man. However, they are not presenting three different Saviours, and we must bring together all three records to get the complete picture intended by the Holy Spirit. Suggested further reading on this aspect of the Synoptic Gospels will be found in the writings of J. N. Darby1, Robert L. Thomas2, and others.
- 1. Darby, J.N., “Synopsis of the Books of the Bible”, p.7 ff.
- 2. Thomas, Robert L., and Gundry Stanley N, “The NIV Harmony of the Gospels”, p.268 ff.
THE SYNOPTIC ‘PROBLEM’
As well as the Synoptic concept, for years Biblical scholars have debated about what they term the “Synoptic Problem”. They say that the Synoptic Gospels, though independently written, must have drawn much of their material from a source or sources available to all three Gospel authors, thus explaining the similarity in their contents. That being the case, the ‘problem’ is: what was the common source? Was it an extant, but not inspired, historical document from which Matthew, Mark and Luke drew their material? Or did they draw material from a story circulated among the early Christians? For those who want to read about this in more detail, the volume “Is there a Synoptic Problem?” will be useful.3
- 3. Linnemann, Eta, (Translated by Robert W. Yarbrough), “Is there a Synoptic Problem?”, Baker Book House, 1992
THE SYNOPTIC SOLUTION
To understand where each writer got his material, and without over-simplifying the issue, we are perfectly safe in wholeheartedly accepting the doctrine of the Verbal (individual words) and Plenary (all the words) Inspiration of Scripture.
Matthew, Mark and Luke were more than mere collators and editors of what already existed in written records or oral tradition. They each had a definite purpose in writing: an intended portrait of the Son of God. They selected their materials under the guidance of the Holy Spirit and wrote exactly and entirely the words intended by the Holy Spirit: He was the source of the words they wrote (see Jn.14.26; 16.13). They had no need to consult among themselves or with others; each wrote under the complete control of the Holy Spirit, 2Pet.1.21.
It is clear the Gospel writers took note of the data already in circulation and assessed its accuracy. Notice how John corrects the saying that “went abroad among the brethren, that that disciple [John] should not die” Jn.21.23.
If there are similarities in what they wrote, it is because the Holy Spirit was their common source, and He intended such similarities. The similarities and differences in the three records are God-ordained. The Holy Spirit had reasons for the occasions when the writers included the same information in the same words, and for the occasions when they differ. If there is material in one Gospel that is not in another, it is because the Holy Spirit intended that. It means that each record is unique. In addition to their uniqueness, the three records blend into one harmonious whole as they present the glorious subject of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus Christ.
Certainly there was oral testimony and possibly written records among the early Christians before the New Testament books were written, as Lk1.1-4 makes clear. Oral accounts of events in the life of the Lord Jesus provided by eye witnesses, while true and accurate, do not necessarily constitute source material for Matthew, Mark and Luke. Matthew, as one of the twelve disciples, would have a personal recollection of the events, and inspiration by the Holy Spirit did not change this. Inspiration demands that the Holy Spirit supplied the actual words written in the Gospel records. Matthew’s knowledge of what he wrote about did not constitute him a ‘source’ of what was written. Jn.14.26 and 1Cor.2.13 make it clear that the apostles’ teaching was not dependent upon their own ability to remember or their knowledge.
THE SYNOPTIC AUTHORS AND THEIR AIMS
Who were these men, and why did they write the first three Gospels in our New Testament?
Matthew was a Jew and one of the twelve disciples of the Lord. The aim of his Gospel was to present the Lord Jesus as the Messiah and King of Israel. His emphasis was on the King and the kingdom. A few examples will suffice:
- Matt.1.1 – “Son of David”
- Matt.2.2 – “Where is He that is born King of the Jews?”
- Matt.3.2 – John the Baptist preached “the kingdom of heaven is at hand”.
Compared to the other Gospel writers Matthew records the words of the King and the teachings associated with the kingdom at length and in greater detail. His Gospel began with the genealogy of the Lord, going back to David, then to Abraham, and it concluded with the risen Lord sending His disciples to “all nations”. This was appropriate for his portrait of the King and His kingdom, from Whom blessing from God will flow out to other nations through Israel.
Mark was also a Jew, and while not one of the twelve disciples, he was an associate of the apostles Peter, 1Pet.5.13 and Paul, 2Tim.4.11. The aim of his Gospel was to present the Lord Jesus as the Messiah and Servant of the Lord. Mark, unlike Matthew, did not include many of the Lord’s sermons, but he did emphasise the actions of the Lord.
In his short Gospel he detailed eighteen of the Lord’s miracles, about the same number as Matthew and Luke in their longer Gospels. Mark began his Gospel with the preaching of John the Baptist, then moved straight into the preaching of the Lord. He concluded with the Lord seated “at the right hand of God”, His disciples preaching “everywhere, and the Lord working with them” Mk.16.20. This was appropriate for his portrait of the diligent Servant and His service.
Luke was a Gentile, not a disciple or close associate of the twelve disciples, but he was a close friend of the apostle Paul, and a physician, Acts 16.10-17; Col.4.14. The aim of his Gospel was to present the Lord Jesus in His moral beauty as the dependent Man. As a physician he carefully noted matters that others might pass over: the miraculous conceptions of John the Baptist and Jesus. Only Luke records the incident in the temple when the Lord Jesus was a boy of 12 years, 2.41-52. In that record he noted what a doctor would see: the development of a young boy, 2.52. Luke recorded more details concerning the birth of the Lord Jesus than the other Gospel writers; indeed his Gospel starts with events prior to the birth of the Saviour with the promise of the forerunner. Luke’s genealogical record of the Lord’s birth traced His ancestry right back to Adam; after all, the Lord Jesus is the perfect Man. Luke concluded with more details of the ascension than the other Gospel writers. Matthew and John ended their Gospels with the risen Lord; Mark ended his with a brief mention of the ascension, but Luke gives detailed information about the ascension – where and how it took place, what the Lord Jesus was doing and who was there. Luke emphasised that in resurrection the Lord was still the perfect Man:
Lk.24.50 – “He lifted up His hands and blessed them.” Only a man could lift up his hands.
Lk.24.51 – “He was carried up into heaven.” Only a perfect man could be carried into heaven. Had He been less, heaven would not have received Him. This is appropriate for his portrait of the perfect Man.
SYNOPTIC AUTHORS AND THEIR ACCOUNTS
Having understood how the three Synoptic Gospels complement each other, we are ready to view the death of Christ as presented in the Synoptic Gospels. We will examine the record of the Lord’s death in three ways:
- His death predicted by Himself
- His death planned by the Jewish leaders
- His death perpetrated by the Roman soldiers.
His Death Predicted by Himself
The Saviour made a number of predictions of His death and the circumstances surrounding it. Space will allow us to mention only a few of those statements, as He spoke of His forthcoming death and resurrection.
The Removal of the Bridegroom – Matt.9.15; Mk.2.20; Lk.5.35
When John’s disciples asked the Lord Jesus why His twelve disciples did not fast, He told them that it would be inappropriate to fast in the presence of the Bridegroom. Therefore, He identified Himself as the Bridegroom, the Messiah of Old Testament passages such as Isa.62.5 and Psalm 45. He explained that the “Bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then they shall fast” Matt.9.15. The word the Saviour used for ‘taken away’ denotes much more than His absence; it speaks of His removal by others, indeed, His violent removal. It is in the aorist tense, which suggests a definite event. The Messiah had arrived as Bridegroom; the nation would reject Him, and would do so with force.
The Remonstration of Peter – Matt.16.21-23; Mk.8.31-33
The first intimation by the Saviour of His death was direct and plain; but He did not specify who would be involved or how it would happen. However, in His second prediction the Lord Jesus specified both. All three Synoptic writers wrote that the “elders, and the chief priests, and the scribes” are those who would be responsible. Matthew alone reported that the Lord said His death would take place in Jerusalem. This is suitable to Matthew’s emphasis on the King and kingdom – the Saviour would be killed in the “city of the great King” Matt.5.35; Ps.48.2. Mark alone reported that “He spake the saying openly” Mk.8.32. As the diligent Servant of Jehovah, the Lord Jesus was transparent and open in His teaching. There was nothing secret or underhanded.
It is clear that the information about His death given by the Saviour grew or developed in scope as time passed. Matthew and Mark both wrote that this was the beginning of His predictions. They say, in Mk.8.31 that “He began to teach,” and in Matt.16.21 “to shew”.
Later, the Lord repeated this prediction, Mk.9.12. Here in Matthew chapter 16 and Mark chapter 8, the Lord gives greater detail than in the previous prediction concerning the Bridegroom: He “must suffer many things … and be killed”.
Suffering and death were what lay ahead for Him. Rebellion against the rightful King! Rejection of the diligent Servant! Refusal to acknowledge the Divine beauty of the perfect Man! He knew and spoke of it all in advance. When the Lord exposed the shameful intentions of the Jewish leaders, they ought to have been embarrassed, but it served only to harden their hearts against Him. The disciples ought to have known that these words of the Lord Jesus corroborated the Old Testament Scriptures. But poor Peter! He immediately took the Lord aside and began to “rebuke Him” Matt.16.22; Mk.8.32. Why did Peter do such a thing? You will remember that just previously the Lord had said to Peter, “I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom: and whatsoever thou shalt bind on earth shall be bound in heaven: and whatsoever thou shalt loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven” Matt.16.19. Perhaps Peter misunderstood that saying and therefore had a false sense of his importance in the coming kingdom? Just as the anger of the Jewish leaders blinded them to the Saviour’s life and ministry and drove them to desire His death, so too, the ambition of Peter blinded him to the Saviour’s teaching and caused him to deny the reality of the Lord’s coming death and resurrection.
It is interesting that, from then on, when the Saviour spoke in plain terms about His death as “suffering” and being “killed”, He always added the prediction of His resurrection, e.g. Matt.16.21; Mk.8.31. He was not going to cause undue despair in His followers. He wanted them to understand that, just as His death was a fulfilment of a Divine prediction, so too was His resurrection. He had to die, and He had to rise again. Had they grasped this emphasis on the resurrection, no doubt given deliberately by the Saviour, it would have relieved them of their later anxiety and fear in the days between His crucifixion and resurrection.
There is a lesson here for us. It is so important to listen to all the words of Holy Scripture; it will save us from becoming unnecessarily discouraged. We may face despair if we fail to read the Scriptures carefully. We need to pay attention to the details of what God says in His Word.
One of the many serious areas of error in Reformed Theology is in relation to the doctrine of the atonement: both in its nature and extent. Its adherents attribute the atonement to the life and death of the Lord Jesus. The emphasis of this chapter is to show that the atonement was by the death of Christ and nothing else. While He did suffer humiliation and scorn in His life, nowhere in Scripture are those sufferings defined as atoning. A proponent of this error says: “Christ’s obedience was vicarious in the bearing of the full judgment of God upon sin … His obedience becomes the ground of the remission of sin and of actual justification.”4 Scripture repeatedly teaches that atonement was by the death of Christ: Isa.53.6,7; Rom.3.24,25; 5.7-9; 2Cor.5.14-21; 1Pet.2.24.
- 4. Murray, John, “Redemption, Accomplished and Applied,” p.110.
The Remembrance Supper – Matt.26.17-30; Mk.14.12-26; Lk.22.7-39
It is the time of the annual passover feast in Jerusalem. The Saviour, in keeping with what His parents had taught him from His earliest days, Lk.2.41-43, is going to keep the passover in the city of Jerusalem. Even though the leaders of the Jews were based there, He will go into the same locality as His enemies. He instructs the disciples to “go into the city” for the preparation of the passover, Matt.26.18; Mk.14.13; Lk.22.10.
The events in the upper room centre around two meals: the annual passover ritual with roast lamb, unleavened bread and bitter herbs, and the institution of the Lord’s Supper with bread and a cup of wine. On the night before the crucifixion, therefore, we have together the last passover of the Old Testament dispensation, and the first remembrance supper of the New Testament dispensation, that will soon be inaugurated on the day of Pentecost. Having completed the passover meal, the Saviour proceeded to show the disciples what He wanted them to do as a remembrance of Him after His death. With quiet deliberation and sublime simplicity He used bread and a cup to move the minds of the disciples from the Paschal lamb to Himself, the Lamb of God. The details of the remembrance supper are most instructive and heart warming for the child of God, but we can provide only the briefest explanation here. An interested reader will find a fuller explanation in another Assembly Testimony publication5. The Saviour states clearly that the bread symbolises His “body which is given for you” Lk.22.19; and the cup symbolises His “blood of the covenant which is shed for many unto the remission of sins” Matt.26.28, R.V. The irreducible minimum in the Lord’s Supper is that the symbols represent His “body given” and His “blood shed”. These terms speak of the Lord’s death as a sacrifice; and indicate the voluntary nature of His impending death, His body given; the vicious nature of His death, His blood shed; and the vicarious nature of His death, “for you … for many”. On that night the bread and the cup foretold the Lord’s death; every Lord’s Day, when the bread and the cup are taken in a local assembly’s remembrance, they proclaim His death, 1Cor.11.26.
- 5. The Glory of the Local Church, see Ch.6 – The Local Church and its Commemoration.
- On that same night, Lord Jesus,
- In which Thou wast betrayed,
- When without cause man’s hatred
- Against Thee was displayed,
- We hear Thy gracious accents–
- This do; remember Me;
- With joyful hearts responding
- We would remember Thee.
- (G. W. Fraser)
The Ruin of Judas
During the passover meal the conversation between the Lord and the disciples turned to His betrayal, and the Lord confirmed to Judas that he was the betrayer, Matt.26.25. Matthew makes it clear that, before the passover, Judas had been in negotiation with the chief priests for payment to betray the Lord, and was seeking opportunity to carry it out, 26.14-16. His betrayal of the Lord was not a spur-of-the-moment act; he had been conspiring with the Lord’s enemies for some time. It was a pre-meditated act of treachery for the basest of all reasons; personal gain. Jn.13.30 makes it clear that as soon as Judas had accepted ‘the sop’ which was part of the passover meal, he left the room and therefore did not partake of the remembrance supper instituted for our dispensation. The act of taking the sop in the passover meal sealed the doom of the betrayer, and the Lord’s act of taking the bread and the cup at the remembrance supper that came afterwards symbolised His death. The betrayer’s judgment was confirmed in the first meal; the Saviour’s death and victory were confirmed in the second, when He not only spoke of His death but also of His resurrection, for He said He would “drink wine new in the kingdom” Matt.26.29; Mk.14.25; Lk.22.18.
His Death Planned by the Jewish Leaders
The Rage of the Jewish Leaders – Matt.12.14; Mk.3.6; Lk.6.11
When the Lord Jesus plucked the ears of corn and healed a man with a withered hand in the synagogue, the Jewish leaders saw these as desecrations of their Sabbath, Matt.12.1-13; Mk.3.1-5; Lk.6.1-10. We then read the first record of their animosity against the Saviour: they “held a council against Him, how they might destroy Him” Matt.12.14. We are indebted to Luke for adding the detail, “they were filled with madness”. Robert D. Culver describes them as “that august body of learned fools”.6
- 6. Culver, Robert D, The Earthly Career of Jesus, the Christ, p.203.
There are two things of interest to be noted here. Firstly, they held a council. Secondly, they were consumed with insane anger. This discussion about what they had just witnessed was not a casual conversation about the Lord; it was an official council gathering of the Jewish leaders to advance their aim of removing the Saviour! Luke, the doctor who took special note of human traits and character, added the detail of their mindless rage. They could not contain their anger at the Lord’s disrespect for their petty, man-made rules of the Sabbath. The plot to murder the Lord Jesus began as a result of His kindness in healing a sick man. Because of their irrational anger they could not see His power over the Sabbath or His pity for the sick.
Jn.11.49-53 gives the details of another conspiracy a few months later, this time even more explicit: “they took counsel together for to put Him to death.” Nothing short of killing Him would satisfy them – that is how they would remove Him.
The Rationale of the Jewish Leaders – Matt.26.4,5; Mk.14.1,2
Scripture provides us with the fundamental reason for the Jewish leaders conspiring to have the Lord Jesus arrested secretly, without any public fuss. They wanted to have the Saviour arrested and tried without the public hearing about it, lest it cause a civil commotion. All three Synoptic writers say that the Jewish leaders were concerned about the reaction of the people, were they to arrest Him on the Passover feast day. However, only Matthew and Mark say “not on the feast day”. Only Luke uses the words, “for they feared the people” Lk.22.2. Luke, the doctor, notes the fact that, as the perfect Man approached His impending suffering and death, He did so with determination and without fear, but the Jewish leaders feared the people. Luke draws attention to those human emotions that others pass over.
The typology of the Old Testament demands that the Saviour, as the Lamb of God, must be slain on the Passover feast day. “Christ our Passover [was] sacrificed for us” 1Cor.5.7 (Newberry margin). It was fulfilled perfectly when the Lord Jesus was slain on that very day. However, these wicked men, who spuriously claimed to base all their rituals and restrictions upon the Old Testament, were blind to the fact that the One they were plotting to kill was the perfect fulfilment of those Scriptures. To achieve their shameful plot to kill the Son of God, they set about to arrest Him “by craft” Mk.14.1.
The Recklessness of the Jewish Leaders
After the arrest of the Saviour had become public knowledge, the Jewish leaders forsook their strategy of secrecy and started to manipulate the crowd. When it seemed to the Jewish leaders that Pilate was not going to accede to their request for the death of the Lord Jesus, they “persuaded the multitude that they should ask Barabbas, and destroy Jesus” Matt.27.20. The leaders of the nation of Israel (whose religious and civic duties demand that they should uphold the law entrusted to them by God), incited the multitude so as to intensify their demand on Pilate to destroy Christ. That was an act of dreadful recklessness. They should have known the teaching of the Law of Moses: “That innocent blood be not shed in thy land, which the LORD thy God giveth thee for an inheritance, and so blood be upon thee” Deut.19.10.
In the recklessness of their blind fury they forgot the words of David, their great king, to the Amalekite after the death of Saul. David’s words ought to have rung deeply in their hearts, as they incited the crowd to the point where all the people said, “His blood be on us, and on our children” Matt.27.25. Everything David said on that occasion was pertinent to their actions with the crowd: “How wast thou not afraid to stretch forth thine hand to destroy the LORD’S anointed? … Thy blood be upon thy head; for thy mouth hath testified against thee, saying, I have slain the LORD’S anointed” 2Sam.1.14-16. Were they not afraid to lift their hand against the Lord’s anointed, the Messiah? Did they not consider that they were condemning themselves by their own mouths? Had they no pity for the future generations of the nation who would be consigned to ‘blindness’ and ‘stumbling’, Romans chapter 11, because of their rejection of the Lord’s anointed? How blind they were and how badly they had stumbled!
The Repugnance of their Trials
Through the records of Matthew, Mark and Luke, the Holy Spirit places a significant emphasis on the events in the Saviour’s final twenty-four hours. During that evening and night the Lord Jesus was subjected to a number of cruel and demeaning experiences, commencing with His betrayal and arrest and culminating in a number of trials and interrogations, which included brutal physical assault and the setting aside of every principle of justice and legal probity.
Each of the Synoptic writers gives what we have now as two chapters about the events of the day before He was crucified. It will be impossible, in the scope provided by a section of this chapter, to examine in detail the events of that last, momentous day. However, as we mention some things briefly, it may create an interest to investigate them more thoroughly. A number of useful volumes have been written on the arrest and trials of the Lord Jesus, and time spent in their study will be richly repaid7.
- 7. Lawrence, J.W., “The Six Trials of Jesus”, Kregel Publications, Grand Rapids, MI, 1996; Culver, Robert D., “The Earthly Career of Jesus The Christ”, Christian Focus Publications, Scotland, 2002.
As events picked up pace on the evening and night before His crucifixion, three places stand out in the Gospel records: the upper room, the Kidron valley, and the Garden of Gethsemane. The upper room with its safety had been left behind. The Kidron valley with its song must stir the heart of every believer, as we consider what they sang. The passover meal ended with the singing of three Psalms known as the Hallel: Psalms 116-118. He sang them that night on His way towards His arrest in the garden; think of what these words would have meant to the Lord Jesus:
- “The sorrows of death compassed me,
- And the pains of hell gat hold upon me: I found trouble and sorrow.
- Then I called upon the Name of the LORD:
- O LORD, I beseech Thee, deliver my soul” Ps.116.3,4.
- “For Thou hast delivered my soul from death,
- Mine eyes from tears, and my feet from falling.
- I will walk before the LORD
- In the land of the living” Ps.116.8,9.
- “I will take the cup of salvation,
- And call upon the name of the LORD.
- I will pay my vows unto the LORD
- Now in the presence of all His people.
- Precious in the sight of the LORD is the death of His saints” Ps.116.13-15.
- “Thou hast thrust sore at me that I might fall:
- But the LORD helped me.
- The LORD is my strength and song,
- And is become my salvation” Ps.118.13,14.
- “I shall not die, but live,
- And declare the works of the LORD.
- The LORD hath chastened me sore:
- But He hath not given me over unto death” Ps.118.17,18.
- “The stone which the builders refused
- Is become the head stone of the corner.
- This is the LORD’S doing;
- It is marvellous in our eyes” Ps.118.22,23.
- God is the LORD, which hath shewed us light:
- Bind the sacrifice with cords, even unto the horns of the altar.
- Thou art my God, and I will praise Thee:
- Thou art my God, I will exalt Thee” Ps.118.27,28.
Events leading to His trials centre on three matters: the arrest, the interrogation, and the verdict. The third place for our contemplation is the Garden of Gethsemane where the arrest took place. The interrogations took place in a number of locations and the verdict was given in the Judgment Hall by Pilate, the Roman Procurator.
There is a sombre significance to the garden where He led the disciples from the upper room. With the cross looming large on His horizon, the Saviour made His way to the garden with its sorrow. As we approach Gethsemane, it is not a place for intellectual speculation but a sanctuary for spiritual contemplation. In the garden there was an imploring prayer by the Son of God and a statement of submission to the Father, that take us out of our depth. Along with His utterances, there is the ‘blood-like sweat’ that Luke records, 22.44. We cannot enter into speculation about the physical or physiological meaning of that, but we bow in amazement and quiet worship before the record of Scripture. May our souls never lose the wonder, as we gaze upon the Saviour there:
- Deep were Thy sorrows, Lord, indeed profound – Gethsemane!
- Bloodlike Thy sweat, Lord, falling to the ground, So heavily;
- Dark was the night, but Calvary darker still,
- O Christ, my God! is this the Father’s will?
- (Edward C. Quine)
There are a number of interesting threes associated with Gethsemane. Three times He urged His disciples to pray so that they would not enter into temptation. The Lord knew what lay ahead in the garden, and with deep feeling for His disciples He shielded them from the emotional trauma of the arrest. He was not taken by surprise when Judas and the multitude arrived. Matt.26.46,47 indicate that He was telling the disciples that Judas was already on his way when they arrived to arrest Him.
Gethsemane, ‘the place of the olive press’! It certainly was a crushing experience for the Lord Jesus. He took with Him three disciples (Peter, James and John) and went a “stone’s cast” further and prayed to His Father. In praying three times, Matt.26.44, He experienced the crushing weight of agony in His soul that is described in a three-fold way: “He began to be sore amazed”; “and to be very heavy” Mk.14.33; He was “exceeding sorrowful even unto death” Mk.14.34. No language can explain that sorrow and heaviness.
We have watched the Saviour in personal communion with His God, the perfect Man expressing His willingness to bow to the Father’s will. After such a sacred scene we now turn with deep sadness to contemplate the treachery of Judas and what that meant for the Saviour.
The Futile Staves
Judas arrived with “a great multitude with swords and staves” Matt.26.47. What advantage did they think such puny weapons would give, when meeting the omnipotent Son of God? Had they not seen the many manifestations of Divine power in His miracles of healing? Had they not seen Him restrain demons that controlled victims in such a way that none could hold them, e.g., the man dwelling in tombs whom “no man could bind him, no, not with chains … neither could any man tame him” Mk.5.3,4? Did they suppose they could overcome His power that had subdued the power of demons?
The Filthy Kiss
Judas went forward to the Lord Jesus with the greeting “Hail, Master” (Rabbi – Judas never addressed Him as Lord). He then planted a kiss upon His blessed cheek; literally, ‘kissed him effusively’ Matt.26.49. Typical of an insincere greeting, it was grossly overdone. How the Saviour must have felt about that deceitful kiss on His cheek, knowing the darkness of the heart of Judas into whom Satan had entered. The Lord’s reply to Judas was, “Friend, wherefore art thou come?” Matt.26.50. Friend! A kiss is a friendly gesture, but in this case how empty it was. Judas had accompanied the Lord for more than three years and should have been a friend. Whether the Lord’s statement, “wherefore art thou come”, forms a question or statement it is difficult to decide; undoubtedly both could be the case.
The Fast Hold
Judas had given instruction that as soon as he identified the Lord with a kiss they should “hold Him fast” Matt.26.48. “Hold Him fast”, Who with a single word could have banished them into eternal darkness. In their blind hatred and dark intent they ignored the mighty power of the One they were going to roughly manhandle. The Saviour had previously bound Himself to doing the Father’s will; there was no need to “hold Him fast”.
The Feeble Sword
As soon as they “laid hands on Jesus and took Him”, “one of them which were with Jesus stretched out his hand, and drew his sword, and struck a servant of the high priest’s, and smote off his ear” Matt.26.50,51. The Synoptic writers do not name this disciple and we are indebted to John for identifying him as Peter, Jn.18.26.
It is easy to understand the sudden upsurge of enthusiasm in Peter, but what did he hope to achieve? This sword was not a military sword for attack, but a small dagger, which had likely been used in the preparation of the passover meal. That desperate act by Peter would later become his final undoing in the high priest’s palace. In the palace, a servant of the high priest, who was a family relation of the man whose ear had been cut off, recognised Peter, Jn.18.26. That was the third time Peter’s real identity was challenged, and upon his final denial of the Lord Jesus, the cock crowed. The Saviour did not need Peter’s sword. He had twelve legions of angels standing by, just waiting for His call, Matt.26.53. It is only Mathew who includes the information about angels with the Saviour’s rebuke of Peter, which is appropriate to his presentation of the Lord Jesus as the King, Who commands a mighty army.
Only John tells us about the incident when the Saviour was asked if He was Jesus of Nazareth. As soon as He answered, “I am” Jn.18.6, the crowd “went backwards and fell to the ground”. They did not fall backwards; they went backwards and then fell to the ground in the presence of the great ‘I AM’. They came as a “great multitude with swords and staves”, but the Lord did not need a sword or stave. His spoken word was quite sufficient to cause them to go backwards and fall to the ground. Nevertheless, they very quickly composed themselves, got up off the ground and laid hands on the Saviour, thus displaying the determination of evil hearts that had set themselves against the Son of God.
The purpose of any interrogation in a legal trial is to establish the true facts of the case, and the verdict will be based upon those facts. After His arrest in the garden, the Saviour is dragged through six trials, two of them during the hours of the dark night. Those who brought Him to trial set the truth aside; their purpose was to bring about a verdict in their favour, even by means of lies. It will be possible to mention only the very briefest of details in these trials.
The First Trial
A preliminary enquiry took place under Annas, Jn.18.13,14. Annas was a former high priest and father-in-law to the present high priest, Caiaphas.
The Second Trial
The night trial before Caiaphas was illegal, Matt.26.57; Mk.14.53. There were a number of procedural illegalities in this trial; the primary one that it was held outside the prescribed hours. It should not have been held during the hours of darkness. In addition, the use of false witnesses, and physical assault upon the prisoner by the arresting authorities, were serious matters of legal misconduct. Matthew and Mark both record that the issue at this trial was, “whether Thou be the Christ, the Son of God” Matt.26.63; Mk.14.61. When the Lord answered in the affirmative, the high priest tore his garments in a show of pious outrage (which he ought never to have done, Lev.21.10). They then pronounced the Lord to be “guilty of death” Matt.26.66, and those present agreed to this, Mk.14.64. The officers of the high priest then blindfolded the Saviour, spat in His face, physically assaulted Him with their hands and mocked Him by asking Him to prophesy who it was that had struck Him.
The Third Trial
The formal trial took place in the morning, Matt.27.1; Mk.15.1; Lk.22.66. This trial seems to have been an attempt at formally establishing the verdict of the illegal trial during the previous night. They wasted no time in assembling for this trial: “straightway in the morning” Mk.15.1; “As soon as it was day” Lk.22.66. Matthew and Mark provide no details of the interrogation at this trial. Only Luke tells us the question to be examined: “Art Thou then the Son of God?” 22.70, and only Luke gives details of the Saviour’s reply: “… Hereafter shall the Son of man sit on the right hand of the power of God” 22.69. It is appropriate that the Gospel of the perfect Man should include those details. A perfect Man, mistreated by men, will sit exalted at God’s right hand.
The Fourth Trial
The first Roman trial was before Pilate, Matt.27.11-14; Mk.15.1-5; Lk.23.1-5. The conquering Roman authorities had removed power from the Jewish state to implement the death penalty, so the Jewish leaders had to take the Lord before Pilate. In the religious trials, the Jewish leaders focussed their false charge on the Lord’s claim to be the Son of God. In their eyes that was blasphemy. In the political trial under Pilate, the focus was on His claim to be the King of the Jews, a charge of insurrection. The chief priest knew that, being a Roman, Pilate would have no interest in a charge based on their religion, so they brought the second charge, that of insurrection against the State.
Pilate’s trial is broken into two parts. The first part is described by Luke in 23.1-5, where Pilate discovers that the charge is based on the Lord’s activities in Galilee, Lk.23.5-6. Seizing the opportunity to shift the trial to someone else’s jurisdiction, Pilate sends the Saviour to Herod.
The Fifth Trial
The Galilean trial took place under Herod, Lk.23.7-11. It is only Luke who records this trial under Herod; he is the same Herod as mentioned in Luke 3.1. At the start of his Gospel Luke lists the names of the ruling Jewish religious and civil authorities in the land at the time of the Lord’s childhood (Annas, Caiaphas and Herod, 3.1,2); and the Roman authorities (Tiberius Caesar and Pilate, 3.1). Those involved in the false trials of the Lord at the end of Luke’s Gospel were part of the polycracy listed in Chapter 3. As a careful historian, Luke ensures it cannot be claimed that the rulers who ‘tried’ and condemned the Lord Jesus did not really know the details of the case before them. They had been in power during the three-and-a-half years of the Lord’s public ministry and would have known that there was never any insurrection against Rome in His preaching.
Herod was no more noble or fair than the others. The Saviour did not answer his questions, Lk.23.9. Herod and his soldiers treated the Saviour with contempt and mocked Him by arraying “Him in a gorgeous robe”. No doubt this was meant to convey Herod’s view of the Lord’s claim to be King. He sent the Lord back to Pilate, still wearing the robe of mockery, 23.11, but without a guilty verdict in favour of the Jewish leaders’ charge.
The Sixth Trial
The second Roman trial took place before Pilate, Matt.27.15-26; Mk.15.6-15; Lk.23.13-25. This is the final trial, in which the main features are:
Declaration of innocence. Three times Pilate informed the Jewish leaders and the crowd that He found the Lord innocent of the charges. “I, having examined Him before you have found no fault in this man touching those things whereof ye accuse Him” Lk.23.14; “Lo, nothing worthy of death is done by Him” Lk.23.15, J.N.D.; “I have found no cause of death in Him” Lk.23.22.
Prisoner exchange-release. All four Gospels record the incident with Barabbas. The Jewish leaders were blinded by their hatred of the Lord, and in their determination to have Him condemned they could not see the irony of Pilate’s proposal. By claiming to be a king, the Lord had been brought before Pilate on a false charge of insurrection against the Roman authorities. Pilate offered them the choice of releasing the Lord (Pilate knew that He had been falsely charged with insurrection) or Barabbas (the Jewish people knew that he has been tried, convicted and sentenced for insurrection, Lk.23.19). They chose Barabbas, a man convicted and sentenced for what they falsely accused the Saviour!
Scourging. The scourging of the Lord Jesus was much more than an act of wanton cruelty by Pilate. In Roman law, the confession of a prisoner was tested under torture to see if he was telling the truth. Pilate had no need to subject the Son of God, “Who cannot lie” Titus 1.2, to this cruel brutality. The Jewish leaders incited the crowd to cry for the Lord’s crucifixion: “crucify, Him, crucify Him” Lk.23.21. Pilate yielded to their cry, and “gave sentence that it should be as they required” Lk.23.24. It seems that, under pressure from the crowd, Pilate had lost all sense of justice and any consideration for what the law required. He did “as they required”.
Handing over for crucifixion. After the scourging, there was more mockery and abuse by the Roman soldiers under Pilate: the taunts, the spitting, and the scarlet robe; the plucking of His facial hair, the crown of thorns, the mock sceptre, and the striking of the Lord’s head with the sceptre.
Crucifixion. When the soldiers had exhausted their cruelty, they “led Him away to crucify Him” Matt.27.31; Mk.15.20; Lk.23.26.
His Death Perpetrated by the Roman Soldiers
The Penalty of Crucifixion
The over-ruling hand of God is seen in the execution of the sentence. Had the Lord been tried under Jewish law for blasphemy, the sentence would have been death by stoning. However, the Jewish leaders changed the charge from blasphemy to insurrection against the State, so as to secure His trial in a Roman court, thus unwittingly fulfilling Divine purpose. That meant the sentence would be crucifixion under Roman law, which would fulfil the prophecy of Ps.22.16. This Psalm was written hundreds of years before crucifixion as a means of capital punishment was known, “they pierced My hands and My feet”. God allowed the intervention of Roman law at this point, so that Scripture would be fulfilled in the piercing of the Saviour by crucifixion, and in preventing His bones being broken by Jewish stoning. In the same way, God allowed the intervention of Jewish law so that the Lord’s body would not be allowed to remain on the cross during the night, Jn.19.31, and would be removed from the cross before the sabbath, Deut.21.23.
The Place of Crucifixion
The procession from the city made its way to Golgotha, a skull-like rock outside the wall of the Jerusalem. All three Synoptic writers mention this skull feature of the place where He was crucified. Matthew and Mark use an Aramaic word ‘Golgotha’, and Luke uses a Greek word, ‘kranion’, whichin our English Bible is rendered ‘Calvary’, from Latin. Mark says that the Lord was “led out” of the city, 15.20, Matthew and Luke say “led away” 27.31; 23.26, respectively. Mark is clearly indicating the fulfilment of typology in being led outside the city, the significance of which is developed in Heb.13.11,12, Judaism has rejected Him. Matthew and Luke by saying “led away”, are showing that the Lord was led violently, in fulfilment of Isa.53.7, “He is brought as a lamb to the slaughter”.
A skull represents a body from which all life has gone, and which therefore cannot exercise any of the five senses given to it by God in creation. It depicts the world that crucified the Lord of glory: no eyes with which to see His beauty, Isa.33.17; no ears with which to hear His voice, Jn.5.37; no tongue with which to “taste and see that the Lord is good” Ps.34.8; no lips with which to speak His praise, Ps.63.3; no nose with which to appreciate the fragrance of His blessed character, S of S.5.5.
The Path to the Crucifixion
All three Synoptic writers tell us that somewhere along the way from the city of Jerusalem towards Golgotha a man from Cyrene called Simon, who was travelling from the country into the city, was compelled to accompany the crowd and carry the cross for the Saviour. History records that, in Roman executions, the cross beam was carried by the condemned man. So it is likely that Simon carried the vertical stake upon which the cross beam would be fastened, while the Lord carried the cross beam, for John says, “He bearing his cross went forth” 19.17.
Nothing is known about Simon apart from this incident. Matthew and Mark say that he had to be compelled to carry the cross, Matt.27.32; Mk.15.21. Why compelled? We cannot say, but perhaps he was a sensitive man who abhorred the cruelty of the scene; or he may have been wary of being implicated in some way and just wanted to stay clear of such a murderous act. Mark tells us that he was “the father of Alexander and Rufus” 15.21. This has led to some speculation that he might be the father of the Rufus in Rom.16.13, which may be the case but it is impossible to say with certainty. However, there can be no doubt that Simon would later think much about what he was forced to witness on that awful day.
The Pity in Crucifixion
Only Luke tells us in detail of a conversation that the Lord had along the route to Calvary with “a great company of people, and of women, which also bewailed and lamented Him” 23.27. In his record of their mistreatment of the perfect Man, Luke shows us that there were those who had some form of fellow-feeling for the Man being led violently to His death. The crowd would have known what lay ahead for a prisoner being taken outside the city. It meant one thing; crucifixion. However, Christ spoke to them in very sober terms and made it clear their sympathy was misplaced. Dr. David Gooding puts it well: “It was, it seems, a psychological reaction to the sight of ‘such a nice young man’ being so rudely taken out to such a hideously cruel death. It had nothing to do with moral conscience or repentance. In a month’s time they would have forgotten it. Christ wanted no such pity. He told them rather to weep for themselves and their children since before them lay such suffering as would reverse all nature’s normal desires and values: childlessness would come to seem the happiest thing, and death preferable to life.8“
- 8. Gooding, David, “According to Luke”, IVP, 1987, p.314.
The Parting of His Garments
All four Gospel writers record the details of the soldiers dividing the Saviour’s garments among themselves. However, only Matthew, 27.35, and John, 19.23,24, mention that it is a fulfilment of the Old Testament Scriptures. It is appropriate that, of the three Synoptic writers, it is Matthew, whose writing makes so many connections with the Old Testament, who should mention this as fulfilling Ps.22.8.
A Galilean peasant’s clothing comprised five articles. The Saviour in His self-humbling was “found in fashion as a man” Phil.2.8, and would have worn the raiment of the peasant class. Those articles of clothing were an outer robe, an inner robe, a girdle, a pair of sandals, and a turban-type headdress.
Like any organised army, Roman soldiers operated in teams. Acts 12.4 calls a squad a “quaternion”, meaning four. The custom was that the clothing of the executed prisoner became the property of the execution squad, in this case four soldiers. By casting lots (possibly throwing a dice) to determine who should take which garment, Mk.15.24, there was one garment left. John tells us that this was the inner robe, which he calls “the coat”. It was “without seam, woven from the top throughout” 19.23,24. Rather than tear the seamless robe, it was gambled for by casting lots. They were thoughtless, uncaring and indifferent to the suffering of the One Who owned the garments. At His death there were no other earthly possessions to disperse. He was truly a humble Man.
The Proclamation of His Crime
The Roman justice system claimed to be built upon principles of fairness and transparency, and to a certain extent that was the case. As a consequence, when a prisoner was given the death sentence, the charge on which he was convicted was written out, to be attached to the cross and sometimes carried by the prisoner to the place of execution. This was the “so-called titulus, a tablet coated with white gypsum and written on with black letters, in which, according to Roman custom, the basis of the Lord’s condemnation to death was stated”9. All four Gospel writers record the details of this in the Saviour’s crucifixion. Matthew calls it “his accusation” 27.37, Mark calls it “the superscription of His accusation” 15.26 and Luke calls it “a superscription” 23.38. “Superscription” means simply ‘a writing’; “accusation” means ‘the crime of which the person is guilty’. This writing was an official document and regarded very seriously. Being approved by the Roman Procurator it carried the authority of the Roman Empire, indeed the Caesar himself, and could not be tampered with. The Synoptic writers do not record the attempt by the chief priests to get Pilate to change the superscription from what appeared to be a statement of fact: “This is Jesus of Nazareth the King of the Jews”, to a false claim: “not The King of the Jews, but that He said, I am the King of the Jews” Jn.19.20,21. Luke, as a careful historian (along with John in his Gospel), recorded that the three main language groups of the Roman Empire: Greek, Latin, and Hebrew, were made aware by Pilate of the kingship of the Saviour, 23.38. Every realm would know that He is the King.
- 9. Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company in PC Study Bible, Version 5.
The fact that Luke does not use the word “accusation” is very significant and in keeping with his purpose of presenting the Lord Jesus as the perfect Man. Matthew and Mark do not record Pilate’s verdict that he found the Lord not guilty; whereas Luke repeats four times that the Lord is not guilty of any charge. Three times it is Pilate’s personal finding of no guilt, Lk.23.4,14,22; once he repeats that Herod, in corroboration of Pilate’s verdict, found Him not guilty, Lk.23.15. By this, Luke shows the greatness of the perfect Man, the Lord Jesus, and the guilt of the imperfect man, Pilate.
The Pronouncements from the Cross
There were seven statements by the Lord during the six hours on the cross. Of the seven statements, four are recorded by the Synoptic writers: the first, second, fourth and seventh, the remaining three only by John. The fourth and middle statement is the only one recorded by more than one writer – Matthew and Mark.
Note that even in the suffering of His crucifixion the Lord was calm, collected, and in complete control of the situation. These statements were varied in the form of intercession, supplication for Himself, and assurance for others. We have space to make only the briefest mention of the four statements in the Synoptic Gospels:
Statement No.1 – The Lord prays to His Father: “Then said Jesus, ‘Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do’” Lk.23.34.
Statement No.2 – The Lord speaks to the criminal beside Him: “And Jesus said unto him, ‘Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise’” Lk.23.43.
Statement No.4 – The Lord cries out to His God: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘ELI, ELI, LAMA SABACTHANI?’ that is to say, ‘MY God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’” Matt.27.46. “And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, ‘ELOI, ELOI, LAMA SABACTHANI?’ which is, being interpreted, ‘MY God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’” Mk.15.34.
Statement No.7 – The Lord commits His spirit to His Father: “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, He said, ‘Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit’: and having said thus, He gave up the ghost” Lk.23.46.
The fourth statement is different from the others in some respects. It is recorded by two Synoptic writers, Matthew and Mark. Both writers tell us that the cry was made at the ninth hour, Matt.27.46; Mk.15.34; they both give the details of the cry in the original language spoken by the Lord, and add their interpretation in Greek. The fourth statement seems to mark an increase in the intensity of the Lord’s communion with heaven and in the depth of His suffering. The first three statements were not connected with His own suffering and were about others:
- To the Father – “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” Lk.23.34
- To the thief – “Verily I say unto thee, today shalt thou be with Me in Paradise” Lk.23.43
- To His mother and John – “Woman, behold thy son! … Behold thy mother” Jn.19.26,27.
The last three statements related only to Himself and were spoken to His Father: “I thirst” Jn.19.28; “It is finished” Jn.19.30; “Father into Thy hands I commit My spirit” Lk.23.46.
In between these two groups of three statements lies the fourth statement, as translated into English, “My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” Matt.27.46; Mk.15.34. It is a cry directed to God by the Lord Jesus, which related only to Himself and not to others. It is a direct quotation from Psalm 22 that conveys to us the depth of His suffering as He approaches the end of the six hours upon the cross. Mark gives the most detailed time references for the crucifixion, which began at nine o’clock in the morning and ended at three o’clock in the afternoon: at “the third hour they crucified him” 15.25; “When the sixth hour was come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour” 15.33; “At the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying … My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?” 15.34. The first and last statements are addressed to the Father; this one is to His God. It is the only one of the statements that contains a double prefix, emphasising that the relationship here is to His God; in the others He simply says, “Father”.
This greater amount of detail given for the fourth statement and the fact that it alone is recorded by two Gospel writers, seems to express the deepest point in the Saviour’s suffering. It expressed His abandonment by the One of Whom He said: “I was cast upon Thee from the womb: Thou art My God from My mother’s belly. Be not far from Me; for trouble is near; for there is none to help” Ps.22.10,11. In fact, this is the only instance when the Lord Jesus does not address God as Father. In the depth of His suffering for man’s sin He speaks of His relationship to God as a man, not in the relationship of Son to His Father. This was the whole purpose of the incarnation. He became a man so that He could make propitiation for sins, Heb.2.14-18.
It is impossible to grasp what prompted this loud cry. If you break the statement into its constituent parts and meditate upon them it will draw worship and appreciation from your heart. “My God, My God, Why … forsaken?” This calls us to examine the close relationship with His God. “My God, My God, Why … Thou?” We can understand why the disciples in their frailty and fear “forsook him and fled”, but why did God forsake Him? “My God, My God, Why … Me?” It is not hard to understand why God would forsake sinful and rebellious men, but why forsake Christ, Who had only ever pleased His God?
The perplexity of this fourth cry was short lived, for immediately there came the remaining three statements in quick succession. They conclude the whole experience in triumph and accomplishment. The Scripture is fulfilled, “I thirst”; The Sacrifice is finished, “It is finished”; The Saviour has departed, “Father, into Thy hands I commend my spirit”.
- O, hear that startling cry!
- What can its meaning be:
- “My God, My God, O why hast Thou
- In wrath forsaken me?”
- O, ‘twas because our sins
- On Him by God were laid;
- He, Who Himself had never sinned,
- For sinners, sin was made.
- (Thomas Haweis)
The Propitiation of the Cross
We come at last to consider the climax of every circumstance and truth associated with the crucifixion of our Lord Jesus, in the sacrifice that He made to eternally satisfy God. For centuries there had been daily “sacrifices which can never take away sins” Heb.10.11. Every one of those sacrifices on Jewish altars, had, no doubt, been according to the Old Testament letter, but they all fell short in their efficacy. They pointed forward to a greater sacrifice, that once-for-all sacrifice that was offered in the Lord Jesus’ death upon the cross, Heb.10.12.
There are six closing events in the Gospels’ crucifixion records that are highly significant: the rent veil, the pierced side, the yielded spirit, the buried body, the empty tomb, and the ascended Lord. Without any one of these, the mighty accomplishment of the death of Christ would have been incomplete. The Synoptic writers include all of these; except the piercing of the Saviour’s side, which is related by John.
The Rent Veil – Matt.27.51; Mk.15.38; Lk.23.45
Matthew says that “Jesus, when He had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, and came out of the graves after His resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many” Matt.27.50-53.
In astonishingly effective timing, the Lord signalled the end of the old Jewish system. At precisely the time of sacrifice in the temple in nearby Jerusalem (the ninth hour), He cried “it is finished”, and yielded in submission to death. Simultaneously, the huge ornate veil in the temple, which separated the most holy place from the holy place, was ripped asunder from the top downwards, right to the bottom.
The historian Josephus says that this veil was a handbreadth in thickness and 80 feet in height. At the moment of the Lord’s mighty cry, “finished”, the tearing of the curtain by Divine power manifested the absolute emptiness of the Jewish system of sacrifices, “which can never take away sins” Heb.10.11. Those in the temple at the time would have been shocked to discover that, contrary to their long-held belief, there was no Shekinah behind the veil. It was gone!
At the same time there was a massive earthquake that broke open the tombs of Old Testament believers. These saints were raised from the dead and seen by many after the Lord Jesus rose from the dead. If the torn veil showed that there was nothing in the old system, the open tombs and raised saints showed that there was a new system that had a power, hitherto unknown.
The Yielded Spirit – Matt.27.50; Mk.15.39; Lk.23.46
All four Gospel writers record this solemn moment of the Saviour’s death in words well worth noting: He “yielded up the ghost [spirit]”. Luke informs us that He first spoke to His Father using the words of Ps.31.5: “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit”. It has been well said that to appreciate the crucifixion, we need to stand beneath the cross with the Psalms and the prophecy of Isaiah open before us. The Saviour used the Old Testament Scriptures on a number of occasions throughout the crucifixion. As the ‘blessed Man’ He meditated in them day and night, Psalm 1.
Yielding up the spirit may appear to the casual reader as the coup de grâce. Perish the thought! No other had inflicted this upon the Saviour; He was not finally being overwhelmed by pain and weakness. He has cried with a loud voice, full of vigour. He has “bowed His head,” with dignity, Jn.19.30. What may appear as the point of His greatest weakness was actually the moment of His greatest power. He did what only the perfect Man could do; He dismissed His spirit into the hands of His Father. Every other man that dies is overcome by death, and life is snatched from his body. It was not so with Christ. He yielded Himself to death, “the wages of sin”. Not His own sin, but ours. Had He not yielded, death would not have been able to take Him.
At this point, all three Synoptic writers tell us that the centurion (probably the officer in charge of the execution squad), who was standing nearby, was so impressed with what had taken place that he recognised the Deity of the Lord Jesus.
- Matt.27.54 – “Truly this was the Son of God”;
- Mk.15.39 – “Truly this man was the Son of God”;
- Lk.23.47 – “Certainly this was a righteous Man”.
Matthew adds, “they that were with him, [the centurion] watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly saying …”. The other watchers joined the centurion in fearing God and bearing witness to the Lord Jesus. Mark says that the centurion said this when he “saw that He [the Lord Jesus] so cried out and gave up the ghost.” Luke says it was “when the centurion saw what was done.” The three records taken together give the full picture. The centurion and others, seeing the earthquake and hearing the Lord Jesus commend His spirit to His Father, were so impressed that they feared God, glorified Him, and declared the Saviour to be, without doubt, “a righteous man” and “the Son of God”.
The Buried Body – Matt.27.55-61; Mk.15.40-47; Lk.23.49-56
By piecing together the information of the Synoptic writers we get the following picture of the burial of the Lord Jesus. Joseph of Arimathaea, an honourable counsellor (that is, a member of the Jewish Sanhedrin), who was rich, just, good and a disciple of Jesus, went to Pilate and “begged the body of Jesus”. John adds that Nicodemus, another member of the Sanhedrin, accompanied him to remove and bury the body of the Lord Jesus. Pilate, upon obtaining confirmation from the centurion that the Lord was indeed dead, granted Joseph permission to take the body down from the cross. It is interesting to note the careful selection of words used by each of the Synoptic writers, especially Luke the physician. Joseph asked for “the body of Jesus”, he “took it down and wrapped it in linen, and laid it in a sepulchre” Lk.23.52,53. Life had been dismissed, leaving only the body.
The burial would have been done with care and devotion. They removed the body before sunset, which marked the commencement of the sabbath. The Jewish leaders were concerned to hasten the death of the three victims lest their bodies remain on the cross on the sabbath. They did not need to think like this about the Lord. When the Roman soldiers came along to break the victims’ legs to hasten death, they discovered that He was dead already. For His burial, two devoted disciples wrapped the body in spices and fine linen and laid it in a fresh tomb that had never seen a corpse. Joseph owned the tomb and was prepared to give it for the use of His Master.
The recorded burial of the body is essential to the crucifixion story. The Lord did actually die, and the burial was proof of that. His burial fulfilled Old Testament Scriptures; the authorities would have disposed of the body without any care, along with the criminals crucified with Him, but Isaiah said “He made His grave with the wicked, and with the rich in His death” 53.9. God ensured that a rich man (Joseph) was on hand to carry out a dignified burial in a new tomb instead of with criminals.
The Empty Tomb
All three Synoptic writers and John include details of the resurrection. The Synoptic writers tell us that the sabbath was past, and early on the first day of the week the tomb was discovered to be empty. They all tell of the angelic presence, but Matthew, in keeping with his kingdom-theme and close links with the Old Testament Scriptures, gives greater details of the angel. He tells us what he was like, 28.3, what he did, 28.2, and what he said, 28.5-7. Both the burial and resurrection are essential to the gospel story: “Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures; and … He was buried, and … He rose again the third day, according to the Scriptures: after that He was seen …” 1Cor.15.3-5.
There have been all sorts of theories thought up by the enemies of the gospel to counteract the true story of the resurrection. Every one of these theories, when examined, falls before the truth. We have no space to deal with them in this chapter, but whether it be the deception theory, the swoon theory, the spirit theory, the hallucination theory or the downright mythical theory, they are all false. The nature of the eyewitness testimony and the character of the witnesses have withstood the centuries-long assault of the enemy. We can say with confidence, “Now is Christ risen from the dead” 1Cor.15.20.
The Ascended Lord
Matthew ends his Gospel with the risen Lord commissioning His disciples to spread the news of the kingdom to all nations. Luke ends his Gospel with the Lord being received up into heaven, and the disciples returning to Jerusalem with great joy. Mark ends his Gospel with the Lord received up into heaven and being seated on the right hand of God; then the disciples, as servants commissioned by the perfect Servant, preaching everywhere and the Lord working with them.
The importance of the resurrection and ascension of the Lord Jesus to the gospel story cannot be over-emphasised.10 These form the two elements of the apostles’ sermons throughout The Acts and Paul’s written ministry in the Epistles. The resurrection is not an appendix to the gospel. It lies at the very core of its message, for a living faith cannot survive a dead Saviour. The cross is incomprehensible without the resurrection, for the resurrection explains and validates the cross.
- 10. Jennings, Samuel, The Perfect Servant Presented by Mark, John Ritchie Ltd., 2003, p.218 ff; (Mr. Jennings gives a very useful summary of the crucifixion and resurrection details that would be profitable to read.)
It is not an accident that the Gospel records, which give us the details of the Lord’s death and resurrection, are at the start of the New Testament, since they are the solid foundation upon which the doctrine contained in the Epistles is built.
- He hell in hell laid low;
- Made sin, He sin o’erthrew;
- Bowed to the grave, destroyed it so,
- And death, by dying, slew.
- Bless, bless the conq’ror slain!
- Slain in His victory!
- Who lived, Who died, Who lives again,
- For thee, His Church, for thee!
- (Samuel W. Gandy)