A Meditation on the Cross (Matthew 27): How Penal Substitution, Christus Victor, and Christ’s Moral Example Lead Us to Preach the Cross, Resist the Devil, and Imitate the Lord

crossWhen the Spirit led Jesus into the Wilderness, Satan tempted him three times. He questioned the authenticity of Jesus’ Sonship, tempting him to prove his power and his place as God’s Son. In perfect obedience to God and his Word, Jesus did not assert himself, but trusted that his earthly mission was one of absolute humiliation leading to honor, not a powerplay to gain honor for himself.

On the cross, the fury of Satan’s accusations returned, only it came not in the voice of the Serpent but in a salvo of accusations launched at Jesus while nailed to a tree. Physically speaking, no form of punishment has ever been more de-humanizing. Still, for all the physical a pain delivered in crucifixion, it was the Spiritual abandonment that was the greatest punishment. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” was the cry of a man who had never known sin or the judgment of God’s abandonment. Moreover, in identifying himself with his sinful people, Jesus assumed in his flesh the fullness of their sin, which in turn invited the fullness of God’s wrath. He drank the cup, until the fury of God was extinguished.

And this is not all, the crucifixion, as Matthew describes it, is neither a testimony to the pain of crucifixion, as Mel Gibson sought to frame it in his movie The Passion of the Christ. Nor does Matthew ponder the horrible realities of God’s spiritual judgment. Rather, he records a bevy of Satanic accusations offered by Roman soldiers, Jewish leaders, nameless spectators, and the convicted criminals bleeding next to Jesus. After describing the mockery of Herod’s soliders (27:27–31), Matthew recounts the acts (vv. 32–37) and speeches (vv. 37–44) which Satan hurled at Jesus as died on the tree.

For us who find life in Jesus’ death, seeing Jesus’ humiliation teaches us what our sin deserves and what great lengths Jesus went to save us. At the same time, because Christ’s cross is exemplary for those who trust in his penal substitution, there is profit in seeing Satan’s accusations, that we might recognize the tempters accusations and continue to carry with faith the cross God gives to us. With this in mind, let’s consider Christ’s example of humiliation, that we might follow in his steps, by trusting in his substitutionary death, and his victory over Satan.

The Acts of Humiliation

After it was decided that Jesus would be crucified, Matthew lists six steps between governor’s quarters (v. 27) and Golgotha. Verses 32 – 36 unpack the simple words of verse 31, “they . . . led him away to crucify him.”

1.    Jesus is unable to carry his cross (v. 32).

While other Gospels speak of Jesus carrying his cross, Matthew cuts to Simon of Cyrene who is coerced into bearing the weight of the cross-beam for Jesus. In this, Matthew shows the physical weakness of Jesus. After an agonizing battery of trials and floggings, Jesus’ physical body is utterly exhausted.

2.    Jesus is taken outside the city (v. 33)

Golgotha, the “Place of the Skull,” was outside the walls of the city (v. 33). Hence, just as the unclean were put outside Israel’s camp, so Jesus was brought outside. The location speaks of the exile he is about to experience on the cross for his people. Hebrews 13 explains the theological significance of this movement, calling Jesus’ death a burnt offering (vv. 11–13). Here, Matthew chooses to highlight the name of the place, “Golgotha,” the place of the skull. The location and name associate Jesus with the unclean; the pure taking on impurity to un-defile the world.

3. Jesus received wine, mixed with gall (v. 34).

Refusing to dull the pain of his consecration, he does not accept the drink. Perhaps it is over-subtle, but the refusal to drink is one more way Jesus humiliation comes into focus. The sons of this age give and receive wine as a part of the goodness of this earth; Jesus refusal shows that he is driven by a different spirit. He is not of this earth, and thus he cannot sit enjoy the earth’s fruit. If not directly demonstrating his humiliation; this act shows his commitment to heaven and another reason why the people sought to remove this trouble-maker.

4.    Jesus is crucified (v. 35).

All that could be said about Jesus’ crucifixion is condensed into one, lifeless sentence: “And when they had crucified him.” Matthew’s language is underwhelming. Grammatically, the crucifixion is not even the main clause of the sentence. Matthew seems intent on underplaying the physical suffering of Jesus. Instead, he surrounds the crucifixion with acts of humiliation and shortly, a barrage of fiery darts aimed at the bleeding messiah.

5.    The soldiers divide his clothes (v. 35).

Possessing nothing of his own (Luke 9:58), Jesus would watch his executioners divided his only remaining possession. This also indicates that Jesus was stripped naked on the cross. In short, the cross not only inflicted pain on the body of Jesus, it also exposed the body of Christ. Laying down his life for his beloved, Jesus withheld nothing. How great is his love, in which he endured the greatest shame known to man—public nakedness—for his bride.

6.    The soldiers sat down to rest while Jesus did his work (v. 36).

The soldiers work was to nail Jesus to the cross and keep watch over him. When they did this, they rested. To see them resting and Jesus dying is startling contrast. The soldiers clothed, strong, and restful; Jesus naked, weak, and working—working to breath and working to bear the sins of the world.

In truth, his death might not have looked like work. To any uninformed witness, it would have been but one more gruesome execution of traitor to Rome. But from the testimony of Scripture we know Jesus took the most menial position to bring the world salvation. In his crucifixion, he was the active party; he laid down his life; it was not taken away. And thus like his work in the Upper Room, he unrobed himself to clothe others with righteousness. Indeed, the soldiers enjoyed a moment of rest, but true rest was being secured through Christ’s humiliating work on the cross.

The Speeches of Accusation

After the acts of humiliation come the devilish words which rain down accusation on Jesus. As we observed before, the words spoke against Jesus have a Satanic origin. While men and women mocked Jesus, Satan was not far away. We can find the devil’s accusations in at least four “speeches.”

1.    The sign (v. 37).

With the soldiers resting below Jesus’ feet, Matthew records the declaration atop Jesus’ head: “And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, ‘This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.’” Already, Pilate questioned Jesus claim to royalty (v. 11), and the soldiers had dressed him up in purple to mock his kingship (v. 29). Now, Matthew simply lets the sign hang.

In other Gospels, we learn that some of the Jews wanted the sign changed (“The chief priests of the Jews said to Pilate, ‘Do not write, “The King of the Jews,” but rather “This man said, I am King of the Jews,”’” John 19:21), but in Matthew’s Gospel the irony of the crucified king is left suspended in air. Jesus, the heir of David (Matthew 1), who was worshiped by the nations (Matthew 2), and spent three years announcing the arrival of the kingdom, now hangs suspended between heaven and earth. To paraphrase Adolph Schweitzer’s infamous words, Jesus laid hold of the wheel of the world and when it finally turned, it crushed him and his dream of a new kingdom. Schweitzer’s modern mockery only echoes Satan’s written jab: “Here bleeds the king of the Jews.”

2.    The robbers (vv. 38, 44).

In one sense, Jesus crucifixion between two thieves is humiliating enough. While Jesus never once broke the law, in his arrest and in his death he was treated as robber (26:55) and associated with thieves (27:38, 44), respectively. Yet, the humiliation grows deeper when these criminals began to reproach him. While Matthew doesn’t include their words, as Luke does (“Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us,” 23:39), he does say, “the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way” (Matthew 27:44).

Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account” (5:12), but here in this instance Jesus looks far from blessed. From Romans 15:3 we can reconcile Jesus’ earlier beatitude with his own cursing. As Paul records, Christ did not please himself in death, but fulfilled the words of Psalm 69:9: “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” In his resurrection, Jesus emptied the weight of Satan’s reviling. But for now on the cross, Satan’s words pierced his ears, just like the nails pierced his flesh. Never has such a good man—the only good man—received such abuse.

3.    The passersby (vv. 39–40).

Next, those passing by derided Jesus. Matthew says they wagged their heads, an expression that picks up Old Testament body language for scorn (Job 16:4; Isa. 37:22; Jer. 18:16; Lam. 2:15) and likely refers to Psalm 22:7, “All who see me mock me; they make mouths at me; they wag their heads.” Like Satan in the Wilderness, these passing by questioned Jesus’ person and mock his work: “You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross” (v. 40). What the passersby then and skeptics of Jesus today fail to grasp is that on the cross Jesus was proving his Sonship and establishing the foundation of his eschatological temple. Jesus, as the rejected stone, will become the cornerstone (Matthew 21:42), but only as he endures the Satanic jeers of the crowds that pass by his crucifix.

4.    The leaders of Israel (vv. 41–42).

The chief priests, scribes, and elders of Jerusalem add their voices to condemning chorus. And like the passersby, they question Jesus’ person and work. Matthew reports their mockery: “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’”

What a horrible tragedy! Jewish experts in the law failed to see the identity of the man foretold by Moses (cf. John 5:46). As 2 Corinthians 4:4 will explain later, in their unbelief the god of this age had blinded their eyes. Accordingly, their unbelieving hearts and boasting tongues fulfilled God’s plan for his Son to die at the hands of wicked men (see Acts 2:23; 4:27–28). Matthew records their words to complete the stereo recording of Satan’s mockery. As king of Israel, Jesus deserved all praise, and yet to procure his kingdom and to save (some of) the ones who mocked his crown of thorns, he did not revile back or call their bluff (by coming off the cross). Rather, as the perfect son of God, he obeyed his Father’s command and bore the cross with trust that this act of sacrifice would result in the salvation of the world and the establishment of his kingdom.

A Proper View of the Cross Includes Penal Substitution (at the center), Christus Victor, and Moral Example

In all that Matthew records, the tax collector turned Evangelist puts on full display the humility which marked Jesus crucifixion. From one angle, Matthew gives the historical report of the events leading up to the cross and the ignominies that occurred as Jesus hung on the tree. Yet, from another angle, one that considers more fully the spiritual warfare of Jesus’ earthly mission, we can see the powers and principalities at work behind the human rebellion. Just as Satan tempted Jesus in the desert, now on the cross he unleashed his most heinous attack.

Still, Jesus death does not reveal the victory of Satan. Just the opposite. On the tree Christ crushed the head of the serpent, even as the serpent’s seed bruised his heel. What was foretold in the Garden (Genesis 3:15) and ordained in eternity past (1 Peter 1:20), has now come to fruition. And all that Matthew records shows the way in which Christ “disarmed the rulers and authorities and put them to open shame, by triumphing over them in him” (Colossians 2:15). What a glorious reversal! In Satan’s mockery and shame, the king of glory cancelled the debts of his people and earned the right rule heaven and earth.

Today, Satan still roars, but not like he did. Like a serpent with its head cut off, he continues to flail but only on his way to death. No longer does Satan have authority to enter God’s realm (Job 1–2); he has been thrown down from the heavens (Luke 10:18) and cast out from his position of power (John 12:31). Accordingly, all nations now stand ready to receive the gospel, as Jesus the king who conquered by his death brings his gospel to the nations (see Ephesians 2:17).

While too many still stand in darkness, Satan no longer has the spiritual authority to stop the spread of the gospel. To be sure, he persists in opposing the Lord’s work, but because he was defeated at the cross, it is only a matter of time before the full number of Jews and Gentiles is gathered into Christ’s kingdom. For those who have come to faith in Christ’s atoning work on the cross, we find an example in Jesus who did not contest Satan with accusations and anger. Rather, he entrusted himself to his heavenly father and watched as his own death resulted in his victory.

Today, we are called to do the same, to trust our heavenly father as we proclaim the gospel of Jesus Christ. Like our risen Lord, we take up our cross to follow him, enduring the onslaught of Satan’s attack, but remembering that his powers are bound by the Lord. He is a foe to all of God’s people, but he is a defeated foe. And the way that we fight the devil, therefore, is not through our own vociferous words, but prayer that draws near to God (James 4:7 – 8) and proclamation of the gospel which liberates the captives and reminds the accuser of his defeated position.

Brothers and sisters, may we affix our eyes on Christ, that we might stand when temptations come. And may we tell others the glorious news of Christ’s substitutionary death, even as we imitate his example.

Soli Deo Gloria, ds


N.B. For more on the relationship of penal substitution and Christus Victor, see my “The Cross in Colossians: Cosmic Reconciliation through Penal Substitution and Christus Victor.” In The Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 17.3 (2013): 34-49.

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