In Matthew’s account, written with a Jewish audience in mind, we must consider not only what was written, but why it was written. The Tanakh (Old Testament) and especially Psalm 22 is vital in comprehending that. We must remember that Yeshua (Jesus) was crucified at Passover.
The journey to Golgotha
Simon of Cyrene was mentioned by name to carry the cross that Yeshua would die on. Why? Firstly Jesus had been up all night when He was put on trial and He had been scourged and abused by the soldiers, so He would have been exhausted.[i] That is supported by a later important detail. The soldiers did not need to break His legs to speed up His death as they did with the two convicted robbers, since He was already dead. Secondly Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus mentioned in Mark 15:21 and Rufus is noted as chosen in the Lord in Romans 16:13. Consider that Simon was in Jerusalem to sacrifice his Passover lamb and he met the Lamb of God who was sacrificed for him.[ii]
The wine and gall
Yeshua was offered wine mixed with gall though when He tasted it, He would not drink it. The Roman means of execution was so horrific that the gall was added to reduce the intensity of the suffering. According to the Talmud, “When a person is led out to be executed he is given a glass of wine containing a grain of frankincense, in order to numb his senses, as it is written, ‘Give strong drink unto him who is perishing, wine to those bitter of soul’ (Proverbs 31:6).” (Sanhedrin 43a)[iii]
Why did Jesus refuse the wine and gall? Though it would mean that the intensity of the suffering would be worse, it would enable Him to retain full control of his faculties in which He imparted vital closing words before His death, prayed for His transgressors as foretold by Isaiah (Isaiah 53:12) and even to counsel one of the robbers on the cross who recognised His sin and came to trust in Him.
The lots cast
When Jesus was crucified, the soldiers’ cast lots for His garments. Though it was customary for the soldiers to share the ‘spoils’ this is a particular and specific prophecy. Why did they gamble for His clothes? That it might be fulfilled, “They divided My garments among them, and for My clothing they cast lots” (Matthew 27:35; cf. Psalm 22:18). Notice that that was foretold by David describing the scene of the crucifixion in Psalm 22 one thousand years previously; before crucifixion was invented.
The charge sheet
What was Yeshua accused of? Normally a convicted criminal would have a charge sheet nailed to the cross above them displaying their crime for all to witness. The reality is that you and I have transgressed the Law of Moses and broken God’s commandments and we all need forgiveness. What would be listed on your charge sheet? Jesus was accused of blasphemy and the charge sheet above Him read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” This they designed for His reproach, but the Lord so overruled it, that even His accusation was to His honour.”[iv]
The confusion of the onlookers
Jesus was derided by passers-by, the chief priests, elders, scribes and even the robbers. He foretold His resurrection of His body in three days, yet they thought He was talking of the Temple (Matthew 27:40; cf. John 2:19; Matthew 26:61). Others mocked him saying that He could save others yet could not save Himself (Matthew 27:42). Ironically, His name Yeshua (Jesus) means ‘Saviour’. Only a week previously on Palm Sunday, many had shouted to Him, “Hosanna” meaning save us. Crucially however, the only means for them to be saved was through His death and the shedding of His blood of atonement for them.
Jesus was crucified at the third hour of the day (nine o’ clock) and there was darkness over the land until the ninth hour. Wiersbe observes that it was if creation were sympathising with the Creator and that there were three days of darkness before Passover (Exodus 10:21-33) and there were also three hours of darkness before the Lamb of God died for the sins of the world.[v]
The Crucifixion and Psalm 22
These three hours of darkness that Jesus endured were far more horrific than the sufferings He had suffered up to that point. He would now bare the wrath of God, become a sin offering and for the first time in eternity be separated from His Father with whom He had enjoyed perfect fellowship from eternity past.
Around the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46). Yeshua was quoting Psalm 22:1 but first we must respond to an objection. Some say that at this point Jesus was confused or doubting God, though there was nothing of the sort. Remember Yeshua had predicted His death and resurrection and frequently we read in the gospel of Matthew that these things happened that it might be fulfilled.
When Yeshua called out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me,”, He was drawing attention to Psalm 22 which was unfolding before their very eyes. I have mentioned the prophecy that they would gamble for His clothes in Psalm 22:18. The answer to the question in Psalm 22:1 is found in Psalm 22:3, “But you are holy enthroned in the praises of Israel”.[vi] God is of purer eyes than to behold evil (Habakkuk 1:13). Jesus who knew no sin became a sin offering for us that we might become the righteousness of God in Messiah (2 Corinthians 5:21). Hence, the Father temporarily as it were turned His face away and their perfect uninterrupted fellowship was broken for the first time in eternity. Interestingly Psalm 22:2 indicates a period of both light and darkness and Psalm 22:3 accentuates the holiness of God.[vii]
Some who were present thought Jesus was calling for Elijah and one offered Him wine to drink whilst others waited to see if Elijah would save him. Why did they think He was calling for Elijah? Well firstly, “Eli, Eli,” sounds like a shortened form of Elijah in Matthew 27:46 and Psalm 22:1. Secondly there was an expectation for Elijah to return before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord (Malachi 4:5-6). The general response was to wait and see if Elijah would fulfil the role assigned by Jewish tradition coming to the aid of the righteous.[viii] Thirdly, we must consider that this event happened on the Passover and still today at the Seder a seat is left for Elijah to return.
One greater than Elijah was with them and He cried out with a loud voice and yielded His spirit. Remember He refused the concoction of wine and gall and He was able to direct the onlookers to Psalm 22 which had been lived out before their eyes. He was also able to pray for His transgressors (cf. Isaiah 53:12) and forgive and counsel the robber that turned to Him.
The Accompanying Signs
Notice that the curtain of the temple was torn from top to bottom after He died. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown state that the curtain was thick, hung between the “holy place” and “holiest of all” and prevented access to the presence of God as manifested “from above the mercy seat and from between the cherubim”.[ix] Because Jesus died and made atonement for sin, access to the Father is now possible through Him.
There was an earthquake and the rocks were split. None of these events happened by coincidence and pointed to One far greater. In a similar way to how an earthquake introduced the Mosaic Covenant (Exodus 19:18), another occurred at the resurrection (Matthew 27:51; 28:2). This new covenant was foretold in Jeremiah 31:31-37.
Many of the saints who had died were raised and also appeared to many. The resurrection of Yeshua is the guarantee of the resurrection of the believer. The appearances of those who appeared helped to further authenticate what they had witnessed.
The Centurion Glorifies God
Finally the centurion was profoundly affected by what he had seen and feared greatly. He spoke on behalf of those with him saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54). In Luke’s account he announced, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!” (Luke 23:47). From what you have read and considered, do you agree with the centurion’s conclusion and testimony?
Centurions were the backbone of the Roman army and are almost unanimously mentioned in a positive light in Scripture. In Luke 7, there was a centurion who loved Israel and built them a synagogue (Luke 7:5) and he did not even trouble Jesus to enter his home to heal his servant but stated that he was man both in and under authority and if Jesus said the word, his servant would be healed. Cornelius was a devout man and a centurion of the Italian Regiment (Acts 10:1) and who had a good reputation among all the nation of the Jews (Acts 10:22). When Paul was shipwrecked, contrary to the soldier’s plan, another centurion kept them from their purpose and commanded that those who could swim, jump overboard and swim to land (Acts 27:43-44).
Before Jesus was buried, Pilate checked with the centurion who confirmed that that He had been dead for some time before the body was granted to Joseph. Centurions encountered death regularly and they knew when someone was dead. Can you imagine the wretched scene of convicted criminals agonizing in their death throes on public display and the curses uttered and the ugly, harrowing scene?
There was something the centurion would never forget. The centurion saw how Jesus died. Contrast how Jesus died with how others died! Yeshua who prayed for His transgressors, counselled the robber on the cross and though He was innocent, died of His own will, that we might live. The centurion glorified God. The Bible is about God being gloried and is why we as humans were created (Isaiah 43:7). Israel too is His glory, “Listen to Me, you stubborn-hearted, who are far from righteous; I bring my righteousness near, it shall be not far off; My salvation shall not linger. And I will place salvation in Zion, for Israel My glory.” (Isaiah 46:13). We must also glorify God in our lives, by turning to Him, trusting in Him and living for Him.
[i] Warren W. Wiersbe The Wiersbe Bible Commentary the complete New Testament in one volume (David C. Cook, 2007; Colorado Springs), p82
[ii] Ibid, p83
[iii] Sanhedrin 43a The Babylonian Talmud cited in David H. Stern Jewish New Testament Commentary (Jewish New Testament Publications Inc., 1992; Clarksville), p83
[iv] Matthew Henry Matthew Henry Concise Commentary (Moody Press, Chicago), p719
[v] Wiersbe, p83
[vi] William MacDonald The Believer’s Bible Commentary (Thomas Nelson, 1995; Nashville), p1309
[vii] Wiersbe, p83
[viii] MacDonald, p1309
[ix] Jamieson, Fausset and Brown Jamieson, Fauset and Brown’s Commentary on the Whole Bible (Zondervan, 1961; Grand Rapids), p946