Like the other three evangelists, Matthew does not describe the process of crucifixion in detail, probably because the practice is well-known to his first-century audience. No Roman punishment is more painful or degrading than to be crucified; therefore, Rome normally reserves the cross for non-citizens, crucifying those with full citizenship only when the caesar himself prescribes it. The Jews under Rome’s rule regard the cross as particularly abhorrent, and the rabbis later forbid its use in self-governing Jewish communities.
In Jesus’ case, however, the religious leaders are elated to see Him disgraced on the cross. He is crucified outside Jerusalem in deference to Jewish sensibilities (Heb. 13:12), on a major thoroughfare so as to warn others not to commit acts that merit crucifixion. People are usually hung on a cross naked, but Jesus might be allowed a loincloth due to the shame His people associate with nakedness. Either way, His clothing now belongs to the soldiers guarding Him, a custom observed with every crucified victim. Yet this time prophecy is also fulfilled as lots are cast for Christ’s clothing (Matt. 27:35; see Ps. 22:18). John Calvin appropriately comments, “God determined that His own Son should be stripped of his raiment, that we, clothed with his righteousness and with abundance of all good things, may appear with boldness in company with the angels.”
As Isaiah 53:9 predicts, our Lord is also crucified alongside the wicked, two robbers who are probably on their crosses for insurrection (Matt. 27:38). Although Luke 23:39–43 tells us one of these criminals later trusts in Jesus, both of them initially join the passersby and the religious authorities to mock and curse our Savior (Matt. 27:39–44). They claim that they will believe if He uses His power to come down from the cross (v. 42), but we know the Jewish leaders would only charge Jesus with sorcery or other devilish deeds (12:24).
Behind these taunts is the false assumption that the Messiah and Son of God must conquer Rome, not be killed by the Gentiles. They do not see that Jesus stays on the cross precisely because He is God’s Son. Love keeps Him there so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God (2 Cor. 5:21).
Many of Jesus’ contemporaries refused to accept the Messiah’s shame and curse on the cross, and many in the history of the church have done the same, denying the substitutionary nature of the atonement and the fact that God cursed our sin in Jesus. To show His great mercy and satisfy His justice, the Father condemned the sins of His people in His Son. Any attempt to make the cross merely a good example or an accident of history destroys the gospel of salvation.
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