In celebrating Palm Sunday this past Sunday, we saw how the crowds of thousands who celebrated Jesus as King and prophet understood who he was—but only in part. For though they wanted him to be their King and so waved their palm branches as an expression of this desire—much like we might wave the flag as an expression of our patriotism—the very fact that they saw in Jesus someone who might overthrow Roman rule indicates that though they understood that Jesus was King, yes, they misunderstood who he was as well for they saw him merely as an earthly King, not as the King over all the world that he actually was.
Knowing that Jesus was viewed politically as a King rather than religiously as God who had come in human flesh helps us understand how his enormous popularity—again, thousands had come out to shout their praises to him and acknowledge him as King—could have shifted so quickly. For in a matter of days, less than a week, this very Jesus whom thousands had hailed as King was put on trial by both religious and secular leaders. To put it in terms of our political situation, approval ratings went from over 90% to almost zero for this King whom the crowds thought would save them—not from their sins as was his mission, but from Roman rule. So the people’s short-sighted desire for Jesus to be their earthly and political King helps us understand not only why he was so popular initially, but also why he was viewed as dangerous by both religious and political leaders who then, as now, were often closely aligned with one another.
Since our time this evening doesn’t allow us to delve in depth into the shift from the crowds’ adulation of Jesus on Palm Sunday to its willing consent to his crucifixion that first Good Friday, I’m going to touch briefly upon some of the key events of Jesus’ final days on earth that led up to his crucifixion as reported by Matthew in chapters 26 and 27 in his Gospel. And as I do, it’s important to keep in mind—as we also highlighted Sunday—that nothing in Jesus’ life occurred accidentally. Because the entire reason for God in Christ taking on human flesh was that he might die in our place. Even at the time of his wondrous and miraculous birth, the shadow of the cross was ever upon him:
- At the beginning of chapter 26 Matthew notes that after telling his disciples a number of parables that pointed to the arrival of God’s Kingdom by virtue of his kingship, Jesus tells his disciples: “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified” (2). Jesus’ betrayal, arrest, and eventual crucifixion were not a surprise to him. Though fully man, he was also fully God. He knew that the crucifixion was the necessary means to the end for which he, as God, had come to earth. And this Wednesday before the Passover Good Friday on which he was crucified, is when his enormous popularity just days before began to change for Matthew notes that after Jesus said these words, “3 Then the chief priests and the elders of the people assembled in the palace of the high priest, whose name was Caiaphas, 4 and they schemed to arrest Jesus secretly and kill him.” Yet what the chief priests and elders of the people didn’t know is that because Jesus was the Messiah—not a political one, but God in the flesh—there was no way they could ever scheme “secretly” for even their scheming actions would help bring to fulfillment why God in Christ had come to earth in the first place.
- Matthew tells as well of a woman who pours expensive perfume on Jesus and when she is criticized by his disciples, he rebukes them by praising her and stating, “When she poured this perfume on my body, she did it to prepare me for burial” (12). Again, his impending death was no surprise to him—and we can only imagine how confused those who were gathered must have been at Jesus’ stating that this woman had anointed him for his burial.
- Matthew lets us in as well on Judas Iscariot’s plot to betray Jesus for thirty pieces of silver. But, again, this betrayal is no surprise for at his Last Supper on earth at the Passover meal that Thursday evening, Jesus announced to the Twelve, “Truly I tell you, one of you will betray me” (21) and he correctly identified Judas as his betrayer. But he didn’t simply identify Judas as his betrayer but he also predicted how all of his disciples would fall away on his account and that all of this would take place in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy in the Old Testament over 400 years earlier. And the disciples who betrayed Jesus included even those of his inner circle for though Peter denied (as did they all) that he would ever fall away from Jesus, Jesus correctly predicted “this very night, before the rooster crows, you will disown me three times.” (34).
- Additionally we see that even though Christ knew that his coming to earth and taking on human form in the person of Jesus was in fulfillment of God’s plan for humanity—of his plan, in agreement with the Father and Holy Spirit—at the Garden of Gethsemane Matthew shows us the very human side of Jesus as three times he prayed, “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will” (39). Neither as God nor man had Jesus Christ ever experienced separation from the Father or Holy Spirit. Yet as God and man he was about to experience both. And at his darkest hour, he prayed that this cup—this burden—this sacrifice of his life in exchange for the lives of all who believed in him—might be removed while also praying that the more important end of God’s will being done would be accomplished, no matter the cost to himself.
- Once he finished praying we see Jesus submitting to his mission upon leaving the Garden as he told his disciples—without any hint of surprise—“Rise! Let us go! Here comes my betrayer!” (45). And so he was arrested after Judas, who had come with “a large crowd armed with swords and clubs, sent from the chief priests and the elders of the people” (47), betrayed him with a kiss. The turning of the tide of his popularity was now in full swing. Yet at this moment when he was faced with a hostile crowd—rather than an adoring crowd—Jesus noted that he could at even that moment call upon his heavenly Father to send “twelve legions of angels”—or between 36 and 72 thousand angels. But he wouldn’t because, he asked, “how then would the Scriptures be fulfilled that say it must happen in this way?” (54). And so he rebuked the crowd, addressing their misunderstanding of him as a political rebel and king, and said “56 ‘Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me. 56 But this has all taken place that the writings of the prophets might be fulfilled.’ Then all the disciples—[in fulfillment of what he had said to them just a little earlier]— deserted him and fled.” So not only were there no crowds left to praise him, but even those who knew and loved him most intimately fled, fearing for their lives; fearing that they, too, might be arrested and punished as criminals.
- Then at Jesus’ trial, when asked if he was “the Messiah, the Son of God” (63) he acknowledged that he was while making clear that he wasn’t a political leader but God (64) and so he was charged with blasphemy (65) and deemed worthy of death (66). Matthew notes how they then “spit in his face and struck him with their fists.” And “Others slapped him and said, ‘Prophesy to us, Messiah. Who hit you?’” (67–68). Shouts of “Hosanna”—“Save us now, Jesus”—had changed to spit and violence and mockery.
- Having been brought to trial before the religious leaders—who, again, found him to be blaspheming for equating himself with God and thereby deemed him worthy of death—Jesus was next brought before the governor, Pontius Pilate, who offered to grant Jesus amnesty as one of the prisoners he would release per his custom. “But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed” (20). And when Pilate asked them, “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called the Messiah?” They all answered, “Crucify him!” (22)—and this despite not providing an answer as to what crime Jesus had committed (23). But Pilate did their bidding. He “released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified” (26).
And this brings us up to Jesus’ crucifixion on Good Friday at which time.
- Pilate’s soldiers “took Jesus into the Praetorium—the Roman governor’s residence—and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him” (27).
- “They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him” (28).
- They “twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head.”
- “They put a staff in his right hand.”
- “Then they knelt in front of him and mocked Hail, king of the Jews!’” (29).
- “They spit on him”
- They “took the staff and struck him on the head again and again” (30).
- “After they had mocked him, they took off the robe and put his own clothes on him”
- “Then they led him away to crucify him” (31).
- “As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross” (32).
- “They came to a place called Golgotha (which means “the place of the skull”) (33).
- “There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it” (34).
And after all of these horrific events, they took Jesus—his head bearing a crown made of thorns—which head was bruised from being struck again—and again—by the staff they had mockingly given and removed from him; his body marked with spit from the company of soldiers that had arrested him and led him away to be crucified; his clothes taken from him and divided up. After all of these horrific events, they took Jesus, his beaten and bloodied body weakened by the beatings and abuse, and they crucified him. Now to crucify doesn’t mean that they killed immediately him. No, crucifixion is a means to an end. And it’s a terrible, cruel, painful means of inflicting death for they would have hoisted him up and added to his already considerable suffering by pounding a spike first into one wrist—then into the other. “And sitting down, they kept watch over him there” (36). And per the custom of the day of indicating the crime of the one being crucified as a deterrence to future criminals, “they placed the written charge against him: this is jesus, the king of the jews” (37).
But Jesus wasn’t the only one being crucified that day. As we know two real criminals “were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left” (38). And Matthew tells us how “Those who passed by hurled insults at [Jesus], shaking their heads and saying, ‘You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!’” (39–40).
But Jesus was mocked not only by those who passed by, But “In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. ‘He saved others…but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’’” (40–43).
And as if all of this wasn’t bad enough, Matthew tells us that even the criminals who were justly crucified next to Jesus “also heaped insults on him” (44).
All of this misery. All of this injustice. All of this suffering had now come upon Jesus who earlier in his life had taught and declared “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life….” And as though bearing witness to and grieving over all of the evil and darkness now being heaped upon Jesus, Matthew tells us that “From noon until three in the afternoon”—in other words, in the middle of the day—“darkness came over all the land” (45).
But perhaps the greatest tragedy of all, as suggested by Jesus’ last words on the cross as recorded by Matthew, was the silence of God himself for “About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)” (46). And soon thereafter he died as he “cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit” (50).
Even allowing that so many misunderstood Jesus’ true identity;
Even allowing that so many viewed him as a political king who could save them from the Roman government;
Even allowing that his popularity caused alarm among both religious and secular leaders concerned about the possibility of their power and position being overthrown, We are still inclined to ask,
How can this be?
How is it possible that someone who healed so many—and cared for so many—and spent time with societal outcasts—and grieved for so many—and loved so many—and was indeed the light of a world so covered with darkness,
How can it be that someone who was so good—who was goodness itself—who was love itself—who was God in the flesh, God in human form—how can it be that Jesus Christ had to die on Good Friday?
How can it be that that Jesus Christ so quickly went from being adulated to being condemned?
And the answer is because this was God’s solution to the problem of human darkness;
This was God’s solution to the problem of human blindness;
This was God’s solution to the problem of human indifference;
This was God’s solution to the problem of human refusal to acknowledge its need for him;
This was God’s solution to the problem of human suffering;
This was God’s solution to the problem of human death;
In short, Jesus Christ’s death was God’s solution to the problem of evil that first entered the world of humanity when our first parents succumbed to evil’s temptation and turned from God to embrace a lie that they, mere mortals, could become like God. And so they changed humanity’s fate forever as their nature and ours changed from loving God to loving themselves, from seeking to do God’s will to desiring to do only our own. This transgression—this defiance—this refusal to acknowledge the God who loved and made us—and this turn to loving ourselves instead of loving God and our neighbors is why God in Christ had to die.
It is because we are so lost and so blind that we can no longer see or even desire to see or know God; it is for this reason that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ—Jesus the Christ—Jesus the Messiah—to die in humanity’s place that we might never have to undergo the agony and separation from God—and nature—and others that he did.
For as sin entered the world by a man, God became fully human in the person of Jesus that he might make right what Adam and Eve had made wrong; that he might resist temptation and destroy all evil instead of succumbing to it. For as sin came through a man, one who was similarly a man would need to pay its penalty. But God didn’t randomly choose a man as a scapegoat for humanity’s sin, he actually became a man that he might take on the sin of humanity once and for all.
And yet because only God can forgive sins, the eternal Son of God, the eternal Christ took on human form. For because God is an eternal God, sin is an eternal crime. And only one who was God could forgive such sin.
And so we see Jesus Christ—who is not only a human Messiah but at one and the same time a divine one—hanging on the cross. Taking upon himself the rejection of secular leaders. And the rejection of religious leaders. And the rejection of family. And the rejection of his disciples and friends. And the rejection of criminals. And the seeming rejection of God. All because of his great love for his creation—for the people whom he had made in his image and now desired to redeem by his blood, by his death on the cross.
But again nothing in Christ Jesus’ life was a coincidence. Not his birth. Not his earthly life. Not his crucifixion. Not his death. For even in loudly crying out these words recorded by Matthew—“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”—Jesus was acknowledging his life as a fulfillment of God’s plan for these words are in fulfillment of God’s Words in Psalm 22. And so Jesus who was Christ, Jesus who was Messiah, embraced the reason for which he came to earth. He loves us so much that he willingly underwent separation from our heavenly Father that he might take on our penalty by dying on the cross for us.
What wondrous love, indeed, is this that caused the Lord of bliss to bear the painful curse for my soul…?
Let us pray.
 Matthew 26:14–16: 14 Then one of the Twelve—the one called Judas Iscariot—went to the chief priests 15 and asked, “What are you willing to give me if I deliver him over to you?” So they counted out for him thirty pieces of silver. 16 From then on Judas watched for an opportunity to hand him over.
 Thursday was the preparation for the Passover and that evening (the beginning of Friday) the Passover meal was eaten by Jesus and his disciples.
 Matthew 26:25–26:25 Then Judas, the one who would betray him, said, “Surely you don’t mean me, Rabbi?” Jesus answered, “You have said so.”
 Matthew 26:31: 31 Then Jesus told them, “This very night you will all fall away on account of me, for it is written: “‘I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.’[Zech. 13:7]
 This is followed by Peter disowning Jesus (69ff) and Judas hanging himself in chapter 27 (27:1ff).
 John 8:12.