Isaiah writes in chapter 53 about the Suffering Servant, “He was despised and rejected by mankind, a man of suffering, and familiar with pain. Like one from whom people hide their faces he was despised, and we held him in low esteem. Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all… By oppression and judgment he was taken away. Yet who of his generation protested? For he was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of my people he was punished.”
Matthew carries on with what happens after Jesus’ trials in front of the religious leaders and Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus has been charged with blasphemy by claiming to be God and going to destroy the temple, while Pilate washed his hands of Jesus, sending him to the cross with the accusation of being a traitor and threat to Rome for claiming to be king of the Jews. The soldiers take Jesus away, mock him as a king, and now are marching him to the place where he’s going to die on the cross-beam Simon is forced to carry because of the beating Jesus has already taken.
There are a lot of spectators there that day; there were people from all over the empire in Jerusalem for the Passover feast; celebrating how God saved them from slavery. God is doing something similar this Passover, fulfilling his great promise of a Messiah right in front of them all. Around the cross are a variety of spectators watching Jesus hang on the cross that day. There are the soldiers at the cross to make sure the prisoners die and no one tries to save them off the cross. They offer Jesus wine mixed with gall, making it taste awful and bitter, perhaps a way to mock him as a failed king.
They cast lots for Jesus’ clothes, unknowingly fulfilling Psalm 22, “They divide my clothes among them and they cast lots for my garment.” Matthew echoes Psalms 22 and 69 multiple times as he tells us about Jesus’ crucifixion, showing how Jesus fulfills the Old Testament prophecies in his suffering and death. The soldiers place a sign over Jesus’ head at Pilate’s direction, “This is Jesus, the king of the Jews,” so everyone can see who Jesus claims to be, another way to mock Jesus and the Jews, and yet an echo back to the wise men who travelled from the east after reading about Jesus’ birth in the stars, to worship the child born king of the Jews.
Two rebels are crucified on either side of Jesus, showing that the soldiers consider Jesus the most important criminal of the group. The rebels also mock Jesus, increasing the shame on Jesus. They’re joined in their mocking by the religious leaders who show up to make sure that Pilate carries through on Jesus’ crucifixion. They revel in their victory, even though they know Jesus is innocent. John records the high priest saying, “You do not realize that it is better for you that one man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.” These leaders mockingly sneer, “He saved others, but he can’t save himself!” They mock him about being the king of Israel and the Son of God. The irony is that if Jesus saves himself, he condemns them. Jesus stays true to who he is, the king of Israel and Son of God, remaining on the cross so that they might be saved.
Then there are all those who just pass by. It’s like driving past an accident or following a fire truck to see what’s going on; everyone has a bit of a morbid curiosity about disasters. From how Matthew describes them, they would have been Jewish because they mocked Jesus about destroying the temple and rebuilding it again in three days. What is it in some people that they seem to take delight in hurting suffering people even more, stomping them into the ground.
Moses writes in Deuteronomy 21:23: “Anyone who is hanged on a tree is under God’s curse.” In Israelite law, the corpse of a criminal condemned by the courts who was hung on a tree showed the people that he was cursed by God. The chief priests wanted to make such that everyone felt disgust and revulsion who saw Jesus hang on the cross. This is why so walking by treated Jesus so harshly, so cruelly. The irony is that they’re right, Jesus took God’s curse on himself. Cursing is a serious business for God. When God curses, he’s condemning sin and judging it. His first curses come in Genesis 3 and still impact us today, “So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this, “Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals! You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life. And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel.” God goes on to curse Eve, the ground, and Adam because Adam and Eve listened to the serpent’s voice over God’s voice.
On the cross, God’s curse against sin falls on Jesus, who becomes a curse for us. What’s happening here on the cross is so much more than a simple Jewish rabbi being unjustly crucified. In Jesus’ day, the Jews believed that the curse applied to anyone who was crucified; this is why the chief priests demanded that Jesus be crucified. On a cross, a person hung between heaven and earth, not belonging to either, but instead under the power of beings under the power of the kingdom of darkness and include fallen angels that were kicked out of heaven with Satan. The goal of these spirits is to twist God’s very good of creation out of its intended shape. This helps us understand what Paul’s talking about in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
God doesn’t hide what he’s doing, Jesus wandered through Israel and Samaria for 3 years, teaching publicly about who God is and who he is. Now, in front of many spectators, Jesus begins the crushing of the serpent’s head, making atonement for our sin, an act of love and justice by God, to reconcile God with us. Paul writes to the church in Corinth, “God made Christ, who never sinned, to be the offering for our sin, so that we could be made right with God through Christ.”
Jesus’ crucifixion is part of a cosmic battle against these powers, the battle referred to in the serpent’s curse, the woman’s offspring going up against the serpent. On the cross, it looks like the serpent has won. We need to look deeper. D.A. Carson writes that “The curse on Jesus at the cross fulfills all OT sacrifices: it is a curse that removes the curse from believers—the fusion of divine, royal prerogative and Suffering Servant, the heart of the gospel, the inauguration of a new humanity, the supreme model for Christian ethics, the ratification of the new covenant, and the power of God.”
There are a lot of spectators in the church today, walking by the cross and looking up at this man most people are mocking, a man who seems to be carrying the weight of the world on him, a man who does something so unexpected it takes your breath away, but then just continuing doing their thing rather than worshipping Jesus. Astonishingly, Jesus prays, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” Is your faith a spectator faith, something you do as an add on to your regular life, a Sunday morning, prayer at supper kind of faith in Jesus, but not really impacting what you do or who you really are? When you stop to take a close look at Jesus on the cross, what’s your reaction; do you recognize he’s there for you? Paul calls us to imitate Jesus, are you willing to move from being a spectator to being an imitator of Jesus, to live a life shaped by sacrificial humility, obedience to our crucified and risen Lord, confessing Jesus as your Lord?
Where are you at in your relationship with Jesus. Consider what he’s done for you on the cross: being the offering for your sin so you can be right with God. Confess your need for Jesus as your sin offering and respond by repenting, by saying “yes” every day to Jesus as he calls you to walk his path. Gratefully allow the Holy Spirit to shape who you are and how you live life. This is what Carson means about the cross being the heart of our ethics, the beginning of a new humanity, as we allow the gospel, through the Holy Spirit to transform us, shaping us more into the image of Jesus. Recognize that following Jesus, who becomes a curse in order to take the curse off you, is going to come at a cost, the cost of giving your entire life over to Jesus. Jesus becomes the curse so you can live in the blessings of the Father, are you ready to become more than a spectator?