Formations 04.13.2014: The Way to Calvary

Matthew 27:32-54

Domenichino, The Way to Calvary, c. 1610

Domenichino, The Way to Calvary, c. 1610

Although we think of the Sunday before Easter as Palm Sunday, it has another name that is equally valid: Passion Sunday. Churches that follow a lectionary traditionally read the story of Jesus’ crucifixion and death on this day as they embark upon Holy Week’s solemn commemoration of the events leading up to Jesus’ death.

This section of Matthew’s Passion Narrative describes Jesus’ crucifixion. Sunday school class members are likely to be quite familiar with the details of this story. Jesus is crucified between two thieves. He suffers the mockery of the crowds and, as he draws his final breath, cries out to God.

Matthew is clear as to what we should make of all this. In the centurion’s climactic confession, “Truly this man was God’s Son!” he proclaims the significance of Jesus to the world.

At the beginning of Holy Week, this painful narrative sets a tone in which believers contemplate the meaning of Christ’s death. Help learners to dwell on the details of this passage and what they reveal about the significance of this terrible event.


• When have you seen Christians dwelling on the brutal aspects of Jesus’ death on the cross?
• When have you seen Christians downplaying the importance of the crucifixion? Is this more or less problematic than over-emphasizing the gory details? Why?
• What does the story of the crucifixion teach us about God?
• What does the story of the crucifixion teach us about ourselves as human beings? As believers?

Reference Shelf

Death on the Cross

Death on the cross was regarded as a particularly tormenting and scornful means of execution. In the OT, stoning was the most frequently used form of capital punishment, and neither hanging nor crucifixion was acceptable. However, where there was a desire to show unusual contempt, the body would be hung in public view. After killing the King of Ai, whose forces had earlier dealt the people of Israel a bitter defeat, Joshua hung his body in open display so that all could witness the final humiliation of the once proud king (Josh 8:29). He did the same to five cowardly Amorite kings (Josh 10:26) who had fled from battle and hidden in a cave. In 2 Sam 4:11-12, David hung the bodies of the sons of Rimmon the Beerothite who had slain Ishbosheth, the son of Saul, in a public place because “they were wicked men who had killed a righteous man in his own house upon his own bed.”

So abhorrent was the practice of public display to Israelite sensibilities that the law required that a body treated in this fashion be removed and disposed of before evening (Deut 21:22-23). Paul referred to this tradition in Gal 3:13 when he said that Christ by hanging on the cross has become a “curse” in our behalf and when he said in Gal 5:11 and 1 Cor 1:23 that the cross was a “scandal” or a “stumbling block” to the Jews. It would be very difficult indeed for a Jew to believe that “the chosen one of God” would ever be treated in this way.

John E. Collins, “Cross,” Mercer Dictionary of the Bible, ed. Watson E. Mills et al. (Macon GA: Mercer University Press, 1990), 184.

All the Right Titles…

Verse 38 refers to two bandits (lestai) being crucified with Jesus, and this probably means they were regarded as revolutionaries as well because the punishment for theft was not crucifixion. Possibly we are meant to see an echo of Isaiah 53:12. Jesus is in the company of a variety of sinners—pagan sinners, religious sinners, and even condemned criminals—all of whom mock him and for all of whom Jesus died. We are even told that passers-by abused Jesus, wagging their heads. This surely alludes to Psalm 22:7, where the adversaries wag their heads at the psalmist’s plight. The taunt was “the one who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself if you are the Son of God, and come down from that cross.” The way this taunt is worded, it is reminiscent of the temptation Jesus faced at the beginning of his ministry, where he also heard “If you are the Son of God….” But paradoxically, it was precisely by staying on the cross, rather than coming down from it, that he was demonstrating he was the Son of God, fulfilling God’s will. He came to save others, not himself. The irony is thick at this point in the story, where Jesus is addressed by all the right titles but in all the wrong ways because those who are using them under- stand them to mean something different than Jesus did.

It has seemed unlikely to some that v. 41 could be true, for it speaks of the religious officials watching Jesus die. Perhaps if they wanted him off the scene that badly, it is not so unlikely, not least because some people survived crucifixion, and some were taken down off their crosses on the same day they were nailed to them. It all depended on who was watching and for how long. So these officials are present to make sure Jesus dies. Notice that their taunt makes clear that Jesus had in fact helped others, though now he seemed helpless. Notice as well that they call him the King of Israel. Seeing, however, is not believing, and even if Jesus had come down from the cross, some would have attributed it to a trick of the devil, like Jesus’ other miracles. The demand for proof reveals a heart not ready to exercise faith.

Ben Witherington III, Matthew, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2006) 516.

Darrell Pursiful is the editor of Formations. He is an adjunct professor at Mercer University and an active member of the First Baptist Church of Christ in Macon, Georgia.


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