Connections 04.05.2020: The Cross and COVID-19

Matthew 27:37-54

When the devil tested Jesus in the wilderness, he introduced two of his three challenges with, “If you are the Son of God” (Mt 4:3, 6). In refusing the devil’s challenges, Jesus declined to prove his identity on the devil’s terms. To do so would have been to abandon the mission he had as the Son of God. To do so would have been to deny his identity as the Son of God. To do so would have been to claim the victory without going through the battle.

That was at the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Now he is at its end.

Now Jesus hangs on the cross. He is dying. Now it isn’t the devil challenging him, but people. Passersby use the same words the devil used as they challenge Jesus to prove his identity: “If you are the Son of God…”. He can prove it, they say, if he will “come down from the cross” (v. 40). Some of the religious leaders say a similar thing: “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he wants to; for he said, ‘I am God’s Son’” (v. 43).

But Jesus doesn’t come down from the cross. He doesn’t because to do so would be to abandon the mission he has as the Son of God. To do so would be to deny his identity as the Son of God. Ironically, he proves he is the Son of God by staying on the cross. He proves he is the Son of God by dying.

Jesus was (and is) the Son of God. Would Jesus have still been the Son of God had he come down from the cross? Yes, but he would not have been the Son of God he was supposed to be. He would not have done what the Son of God was supposed to do. To be who he was as the Son of God, Jesus had to stay on the cross.

I think a lot these days—all days, really—about what it means to follow Jesus. When we trust in Jesus as our Savior, we commit to following him. We become Jesus’ sisters and brothers. We become children of God.

Whether we realize it or not, we are also challenged with the words “If you are a child of God…” We are constantly tempted to prove we are God’s children by thinking and acting in ways that run counter to what it means to be God’s children.

Jesus was (and is) the Son of God. He proved his identity by entering into our suffering and thereby overcoming it. We benefit from his death on the cross. As his sisters and brothers, as his followers, as his fellow children of God, we also participate in his death on the cross.

During these days of the COVID-19 pandemic, we are called to live as children of God. We are called to enter into the world’s suffering so as to contribute to its redemption. Some pastors and Christians hear the world’s (and maybe the devil’s) taunts: “If you are the children of God, keep having public gatherings to prove that God will protect you from the virus.” Here’s one of many problems with that kind of thinking and living: it isn’t redemptive. It doesn’t help deal with the problem of the virus.

Jesus couldn’t come down from the cross because to do so wouldn’t have been redemptive. It wouldn’t have contributed to the defeat of sin and death. It would have ignored, avoided, and perpetuated the problem. Jesus defeated death by entering into it and thereby destroying it from the inside out.

If we could contribute to stopping the virus by gathering to worship, that would be the appropriate thing to do. But we can’t. If we insist on gathering, we contribute to COVID-19’s spread, not to its curtailment.

We can’t help stop the virus by getting sick ourselves and thereby joining our lives to those who are suffering with the disease.

We can only contribute to stopping the virus by joining in what the world is going through by staying at home.

Jesus defeated death by dying on the cross. We’ll help defeat COVID-19 by dying to arrogance, to ignorance, and to presumption. We’ll help defeat it by living in humility, knowledge, and trust.

Jesus saved us from sin, judgment, and death by staying on the cross. That’s how he showed that he was (and is) God’s Son.

We can help save people from sickness and death by staying home. That’s how we can show that we are God’s children and Jesus’ sisters and brothers.

Discussion

  • Where do you see irony in this passage? How does it help communicate the passage’s message?
  • How does symbolism contribute to the lesson text’s meaning?
  • How do people’s misunderstandings help make the passage’s point?
  • Compare Matthew’s account of Jesus’ crucifixion to those of Mark and Luke. How does Matthew’s account differ? What is unique about Matthew’s account? What can we learn about Matthew’s intended message from these differences and unique elements?

Reference Shelf

Jesus has been led away to Caiaphas (26:57), to Pilate (27:2), and finally to be crucified (27:31). The mockery that usually accompanied crucifixion continues (see Genesis Rabba 65:22). The three taunts revolving around Jesus’ tacit claim to be the son of God (27:40, 43) and the king of Israel (27:42) provide an ironically accurate commentary on what is happening. The scoffers’ notion of a messiah is one who vindicates himself through sensational acts of power. As the son of God, Jesus must fulfill a divine mission; and only God can vindicate him. Jesus will not be delivered from death by his own powers but through death by the power of God. Consequently, he will not come down from the cross (27:40) because he is obedient to God’s will (4:6; 26:39, 42). He cannot save himself (27:42), precisely because his mission is to give his life to save others (1:21; 20:28; 26:18). He is the righteous sufferer (see Wis 2:12–3:9) who trusts only in God to deliver him (27:43). The last taunt from Psalm 22:8 prepares the reader for Jesus’ poignant cry to God from Psalm 22:2 (27:46; see Sus 42–44). Jeered as one who trusts in God, he promptly displays that trust in a lament. God’s answer to this prayer and to the taunt comes in the chain reaction of events that occurs immediately after his death (27:51-53; see Ps 22:24). These events reveal that Jesus’ suffering is not an expression of God’s displeasure with him (see 5:10-12).

Ancient readers would readily understand the darkness that covered the whole land during the crucifixion (27:45) to be a cosmic sign that typically attended the death of kings and other greats (see Philo, On Providence 2:50; Virgil, Georgics 1.461-468; Plutarch, Alexander and Caesar 69; Dio Cassius, Roman History 56.29.3; see also Josephus, Antiquities 17:167; and Babylonian Talmud Moed Qatan 25b). The phenomenal events that take place after Jesus’ death, however, convey that what has happened is of far greater significance. They are introduced by the solemn “and behold,” which appears elsewhere in Matthew to announce divine intervention (2:9; 3:17; 4:11; 8:24; 17:5; 28:2-3, 9). The temple veil splits in two from top to bottom, the earth shakes, the rocks split, the tombs are opened, and many saints are raised who proceed into Jerusalem after Jesus’ resurrection (27:51- 53). There is nothing subtle here. Matthew spells out for the reader that Jesus’ death shakes the very foundations of the world. The confession of the centurion “and those with him” (contrast the single centurion in Mark 15:39) that Jesus was truly the son of God (27:54; see 14:33) is the only reasonable response to such spectacular events of power.

David E. Garland, Reading Matthew: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2001), 263-64.

Michael Ruffin is husband to Debra, father to Joshua (Michelle) and Sara (Benjamin), grandfather to Sullivan and Isabella. A graduate of Mercer University and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, he has previously served as a pastor and as a university professor. He lives on the Ruffin Family Farm in Yatesville, Georgia. He is the Connections Series Curriculum Editor.

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