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Go to Bible: Matthew 27
“Now early in the morning.” This counsel is the trial of the Sanhedrin that occurred around dawn on Tuesday morning. Jesus was condemned and sent from this trial to Pilate. This trial is covered in Matthew, Mark, and Luke, but left out of John (Matt. 27:1; Mark 15:1; Luke 22:66-23:1).(top)
“Pilate.” This is the first mention of Pontus Pilate in the Bible. Pilate was Prefect from 26-36 AD, the second longest rulership of any Prefect of Judea. It helps to know that because there is a lot of misinformation among Christians that Pilate was a horrible governor, but not according to Roman standards.
In order to really understand Pilate’s actions at the trial of Jesus Christ, it is helpful to understand another incident that occurred less than a year earlier. About half a year before the trial of Jesus, Pilate had set up some golden shields in his Jerusalem headquarters that had a dedication to Tiberias on them. The Jews protested the presence of these shields, but Pilate refused to remove them. The Jews took their case straight to Tiberias, the emperor of Rome at the time. The letter got to Tiberias as quickly as it did because it was sent through Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee, who forwarded it from the Jews to Rome. No wonder Scripture says Pilate and Herod were hostile towards each other before the trial of Jesus (Luke 23:12).
Tiberias wrote a terse letter to Pilate, ordered him to move the shields to Caesarea, and warned him to uphold all the religious and political customs of the Jews. This letter was no doubt on his mind at the trial of Jesus, and when Pilate was about to let Jesus go, the Jews played their trump card and said, “If you release this man, you are not Caesar’s friend. Everyone who makes himself a king speaks against Caesar” (John 19:12).
What is not known by the average reader is that “Caesar’s Friend” is more than just a phrase; it is a name, a designation, a “badge of belonging” to a very exclusive group of people who were especially close to Caesar. If a person who was designated to be “Caesar’s Friend” officially displeased Caesar to the point of being kicked out of the club, so to speak, the consequence was compulsory suicide or exile from Rome.
When we closely follow the events in the trial of Jesus, we can see that the Jews knew about the letter from Tiberias to Pilate and Pilate’s position as “Caesar’s Friend,” and used them to their advantage to pressure Pilate. When Jesus first came before Pilate, the Jews accused him of being an evildoer (John 18:30), and tried to say things that would convince Pilate to crucify him because of Roman law and sensibilities, such as that he had been corrupting the nation and forbidding paying taxes to Caesar (Luke 23:2). Had Pilate complied, that would have ended the matter as far as the Jews were concerned. But when Pilate refused to crucify Jesus, saying he had not committed a capital crime, the Jews moved their reason to their religious customs and the charge of blasphemy, saying that Jesus needed to die because he made himself the Son of God (John 19:7). Of course, when Pilate heard that Jesus had called himself the Son of God, he tried even harder to let Jesus go, but that was when the Jews, in a less than subtle way, made it clear it was going to be Pilate or Jesus. Besides, as Pilate continued to resist the Jews pressure to crucify Jesus, it got to the point a riot started to break out (Matt. 27:24). Preventing a riot was the reason the Roman governor came from Caesarea to Jerusalem during the feasts in the first place, and if there had been a riot, and if news of that got back to Tiberias, it would not go well for Pilate. Pilate realized that, in the face of the hatred and determination of the Jews, he was not accomplishing anything but stirring up a riot, something that would likely cost lives—including his own.
Pilate also realized that if he did not crucify Jesus, the Jews would write to Tiberias and say that Pilate had not obeyed Tiberias’ command that had come in the letter, because he had not been respectful of Jewish laws and customs about things such as blasphemy, and worse, he allowed a man to live who called himself a king and threatened the unity of the Jewish people and even the Roman Empire. At that point, most people would have done what Pilate did: save his own life. Pilate had Jesus crucified. [For the order of the events of Jesus’ last days, see commentary on John 18:13].
We know quite a bit about Pilate from Roman records. However, there was no physical evidence found in Israel for his governorship until 1961. An Italian team of archaeologists under the direction of Antonio Frova discovered a stone about two feet by three feet while excavating an ancient theater in Caesarea, the Roman capital of Israel. The stone tablet read in Latin: “Pontius Pilatus, Prefect of Judea, has presented the Tiberieum to the Caesareans.” The record that Pilate was a “Prefect” is correct; he was not a “Procurator” (despite the many reference works that say he was). Calling Pilate a “Procurator” is a historic anachronism, because it was not until later, under the Emperor Claudius (ruled 41-54) that the Roman governors of Judea were referred to as Procurators. The Prefects had more military responsibilities than the Procurators. We can correctly call Pilate a Prefect or a governor.
Pilate’s name tells us much about him. The family name, Pontius, was the name of a prominent clan among the Samnites, a group of people who lived along the Apennine Mountains southeast of Rome, and early on in Rome’s history the Samnites had fought a series of wars with Rome and almost conquered them. A fighter that was often seen in the gladiator arena was a person dressed as, and trained to fight as, a Samnite warrior. The Samnites were conquered and absorbed by Rome, their leading class becoming Roman equestrian class (the Roman middle class). Pilates’ first name is typically Samnite, and means, “armed with a pilum.” The pilum was a javelin about 6 feet long that was half wooden spear handle and half pointed iron shaft. It was a very effective weapon, and quickly copied by the Romans and used in the legions.(top)
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“he hanged himself.” The natural reading of Matthew 27:5 leads us to believe that Judas killed himself very soon after Jesus was arrested, and the rest of Scripture supports that conclusion. We learn from Luke 24:9 that Judas killed himself before Jesus was raised from the dead, because when the women found the tomb empty on Sunday morning, they went to “the Eleven,” which is the title that the remaining apostles were given after Judas killed himself (see commentary on Luke 24:9). Although there seems to be a contradiction between Matthew 27:5 and Acts 1:18, that can be resolved (see commentary on Acts 1:18).(top)
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“spoken.” Not “written,” either by Jeremiah or Zechariah, but “spoken” by Jeremiah. See Bullinger’s note in The Companion Bible. These words are found in Zechariah 11:12-13 with allusions to Jeremiah 18:1-4; 19:1-3. They are ascribed to Jeremiah since, in Jesus’ day, the books of the prophets were headed by Jeremiah, not Isaiah as now, and the quotation is identified by the name of the first book of the group, rather than by the name of the specific book within the group. Similarly in Luke 24:44, “Psalms” includes all the books known as the writings because it is the first book of the group. See commentary in The Ryrie Study Bible.
The Hebrew Gospel of Matthew has the abbreviation for Yahweh in this verse, but it is very different from the Greek text and is not included in the REV (see commentary on Matt. 3:3).(top)
“Lord.” The Greek is kurios, Lord, and the Hebrew text of Matthew reads adōnai, Lord. The Hebrew of Zechariah 11:13 reads “Yahweh” (see commentary on Matthew 3:3).(top)
“It is as you say.” Jesus answers Pilate’s question in the affirmative, that he is a king. It is important to translate this verse in the affirmative. Jesus was not playing word games with Pilate, giving him an ambiguous answer. Pilate’s everlasting life was at stake, and Pilate, like everyone else, had to have a chance to believe and accept Jesus as Messiah. This should not be considered unusual. Jesus had told many others he was the Messiah (Matt. 16:16-20; Mark 14:62; John 4:26; 10:24-25); besides that, the conversation between Pilate and Jesus was not as short as Matthew 27:11-14, Mark 15:2-5, or Luke 23:3 record. The Gospel of John records the longer conversation (John 18:33-38; 19:9-11). In this longer conversation, Jesus tells Pilate that although he is a king, “My kingdom is not of this world” and “my kingdom is from another place” (John 18:36), and “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37). Of course Pilate, being a Roman and believing in the Roman gods, if he believed anything at all, did not have a clear and accurate picture of God, the afterlife, the Messianic Age, or anything that would have given true meaning to what Jesus said. To Pilate, Jesus’ words were likely nonsense, and he responded with “What is truth?” (John 18:38). One thing Pilate did get from his conversation with Jesus was that he was not a threat to Rome in the sense that he was trying to foment rebellion and overthrow Roman rule. That is what the religious leaders were accusing Jesus of, so that Pilate would crucify him, but Pilate, after questioning Jesus, was satisfied that was not the case, and came to the religious leaders and said, “I find no basis for a charge against him” (John 19:6).
Many excellent Greek scholars attest to the fact that Jesus’ answer to Pilate, “It is as you say,” was not an ambiguous statement. A. T. Robertson correctly states, “By his answer (‘thou sayest’) Jesus confesses that he is” (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament). The Expositor’s Greek Testament by W. R. Nicoll simply says that Jesus’ answer “= yes.” R. C. H. Lenski says this about Jesus’ answer: “It is the regular way of affirming the contents of the question.” Albert Barnes, in Barnes’ Notes, says, “Thou sayest.” [KJV] That is, thou sayest right, or thou sayest the truth. …Though he acknowledged that he was the king yet he stated fully that his kingdom was not of this world, and that therefore it could not be alleged against him as treason against the Roman emperor.” Further evidence that this was an affirmative statement comes from Matthew 26:64 and Mark 14:62 (Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament). In these are two parallel records the high priest asks Jesus if he was the Messiah. Matthew records that the Lord answered, “You have said it” (su eipas); but Mark reports the answer with the clear affirmative, “I am” (ego eimi). This interchangeability of the two statements demonstrates that the idiom was confirmatory. (Cp. Matt 26:64; 27:11; Mark 15:2; Luke 22:70; 23:3; John 18:37).(top)
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“wife.” According to tradition, Pilate’s wife is named Procla, or Claudia Procla, but there is little actual support for the name.
“sent to him.” The dream so disturbed Pilate’s wife she actually interrupted Pilate’s work as governor to tell him not to have anything to do with “that righteous man.” We do not know any details as to how Pilate’s wife came to that conclusion about Jesus. She was almost surely well aware of the greedy, power-hungry religious leaders, even as Pilate was (Matt. 27:18), and may have heard of Jesus’ miracles and done some investigation on her own. It is also possible that the dream was so vivid, and Jesus’ innocence proclaimed so vividly in it, that she came to the conclusion that Jesus was a righteous man based on the dream alone. Given what we know about where Pilate was when he tried Jesus, most likely at the ancestral Hasmonean Palace near the Temple, it is clear why she “sent to him.” She would have been staying at Herod’s Western Palace.
“today.” The Greek is sēmeron (#4594 σήμερον), which means “today.” This is a very accurate chronological statement, although some English versions completely misinterpret and mistranslate it, and read “last night.” This was “today.” It was Jesus’ second trial before Pilate, which was around noon (John 19:14). The Jews had taken Jesus to Pilate early in the morning (John 18:28). But when Pilate learned that Jesus was from Galilee, he sent him to Herod Antipas, the Tetrarch of Galilee. But Herod Antipas could not get any satisfaction from Jesus and sent him back to Pilate who had to call the Jews back together (Luke 23:13), and put Jesus on trial again. The three Roman trials of Jesus are recorded in Luke 23. Pilate’s wife sent to him during this second trial before Pilate, a fact we know because Pilate was already trying to get the Jews to choose between Jesus and Barabbas, something that occurred during this second trial before Pilate. Typically, the Romans got up very early in the morning, and it is very likely Pilate’s wife did too. She did not have the dream during the night, or she would have interrupted Pilate’s first trial of Jesus. She would have had no way of knowing Pilate would send Jesus to Herod; Pilate did not even foresee that himself. During her morning snooze, which would have been in the day, thus, “today,” she had the dream that so disturbed her, and sent to Pilate to have nothing to do with Jesus. [For more information on the chronology of the events from Jesus’ arrest to his death, see commentaries on John 18:13 and 19:14. For information on the events and chronology of Jesus’ death and resurrection and his being in the tomb from Wednesday night to Saturday night, see commentaries on Matthew 12:40 and Luke 23:50. For more information on Nicodemus and that he came after Joseph of Arimathea left the tomb, see commentary on John 19:40].
One thing the dream does is it shows us God’s love for people and that He genuinely did try to warn Pilate not to have anything to do with Jesus. Furthermore, Pilate himself knew Jesus was innocent (Matt. 27:18). In spite of God’s warning and what Pilate himself knew, he condemned an innocent man to death so he could augment or save his political career. Godly people must learn that the Devil works hard behind the scenes to set people up so that they face potential ruin if they do not give in to evil. But we must not give in to evil. God will deliver us now and/or reward us in the future. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego could have been killed for not bowing to Nebuchadnezzar’s golden image (Dan. 3). Daniel could have been killed just for praying (Dan. 6). Godly people must follow their example.
“dream.” The Romans put a lot of weight into dreams, particularly when there was a lot going on politically. Calpurnia, the wife of Julius Caesar, had a dream that he was going to be killed, and her pleas were so insistent that he almost stayed home, but did not, and was killed by Brutus and his co-conspirators. That event gave dreams a lot of standing to the Romans, and was no doubt one of the reasons Pilate worked so hard to have Jesus released.(top)
“persuaded.” The Greek word is peithō, to persuade, have confidence in. The Word Study Dictionary by Zodhiates does a very good job defining this word. It sometimes gets translated “trust” but we have stayed away from that translation and stayed with “persuaded.” It also gets translated “obey,” but that is not technically correct, and especially in Hebrews 13:17 (“obey your leaders”) it gets misused. We have left it “obey” in James 3:3, because although the horse’s bit does allow us to persuade it, “obey” is more understandable in the context.(top)
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“Let him be crucified.” This is not the same crowd that had said, “Hosanna,” and “Son of David” some days earlier. See commentary on Luke 23:21.(top)
“but rather that a riot was starting.” Pilate did not want to put Jesus to death and tried to dissuade the Jews from pressing the issue. But the Jews used pressure tactics to get Pilate to order the crucifixion. They lied (Luke 23:2), threatened (John 19:12), and started a riot (Matt. 27:24). The riot would have been an important factor in Pilate giving in to the Jews and agreeing to crucify Jesus. As the Roman governor, Pilate was charged with two top responsibilities: keep tax money flowing into Rome, and keep the peace. Keeping the peace was important to the flow of tax money and the well-being of society. In Judea at that time there were the Jesus supporters, including his disciples and many who believed in him, but also many who sided with the religious leaders and thought Jesus was a fraud. As the day drew on and the crowd at the trial swelled, there was a growing danger that any riot would turn into a battle between the two sides with people being hurt and even killed, and Pilate would be held responsible. From his gubernatorial perspective, it was now expedient that Jesus be sentenced to be crucified. Pilate’s instincts were correct: as soon as the trial was over and the issue settled, the religious leaders stopped stirring up the people and the crowd dispersed.(top)
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“mocked.” The Greek word translated “mocked” is empaizō (#1702 ἐμπαίζω), and means “mock,” “make fun of,” “ridicule.” In some contexts it has a second meaning, that of outwitting someone in a way that makes a fool of the person; to trick; to deceive; (Matt. 2:16). The “mocking” can be simply verbal, or it can be physical as well, and thus it can be categorized as physical abuse. It is used that way in the Septuagint (Judg. 16:25; 1 Sam. 31:4; Prov. 23:35). Empaizō is also used euphemistically for rape (Gen. 39:14, 17; Judg. 19:25; 20:5), which has caused some people to speculate that during his torture Jesus was raped by one or more of the Roman soldiers. Although homosexuality and bisexuality were common in the Roman world, the context of “mock” in the NT seems to exclude rape. For one thing, empaizō is used of Jesus being mocked when he was in public settings and even when he was on the cross (Luke 22:63; 23:36). He was also mocked in Herod’s presence but certainly not likely raped right there in the public of Herod’s court (Luke 23:11).
The times Jesus is recorded as being “mocked” when he was alone with the soldiers also seem to exclude him being raped. Both records, Matthew 27:29-31 and Mark 15:17-20, show that the soldiers put royal clothes on Jesus, then mocked him, then removed those clothes. That the clothes were removed after he was “mocked” certainly seems to exclude rape as part of the mocking. Jesus went through terrible and prolonged verbal and physical abuse between the time he was arrested and the time he died on the cross, and that included being mocked in many different settings by many different people. Sadly, Jesus still suffers physical abuse via his Body, the Church, which is persecuted for his name. Nevertheless, there will come a day when that will stop, and every knee will bow before him.(top)
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“insults.” The Greek verb blasphēmeō (#987 βλασφημέω) is transliterated (not translated) from the Greek into English as “blasphemy.” However, in Greek, blasphēmeō and blasphēmia (the noun) did not have to refer to God or a god, although they could, but were common words that were used of someone speaking against another. The primary meanings were showing disrespect to a person or deity, and/or harming his, her, or its reputation. In this case, the people were hurling insults at Jesus. [For more on blasphēmeō, see commentary on Matt. 9:3].(top)
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“sixth hour…ninth hour.” The sixth hour is our noon, and the ninth hour is about our 3 PM. Both the Jews and Romans divided the day into 12 hours, starting at daylight, roughly 6 AM. [For the hours of the day and the watches of the night, see commentary on Mark 6:48].(top)
Quoted from Psalm 22:1.
“Eli, Eli.” This is Hebrew, while the Eloi, Eloi, of Mark 15:34 is Aramaic. Matthew wrote in Hebrew, but beyond that it seems most likely that Jesus originally spoke these words in Hebrew (see commentary on Mark 15:34). [For more about Matthew originally writing his Gospel in Hebrew, see commentary on Matthew 3:3].
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It is sometimes taught that God forsook Jesus, and that He did so because Jesus became sin. That is simply not true. First, God did not forsake Jesus, the Scripture clearly states that Jesus was doing God’s will and could have even had 72,000 angels to help him if he wanted (Matt. 26:53). At the time of the crucifixion, “God was reconciling the world to himself through Christ” (2 Cor. 5:19). Furthermore, God does not leave us when we sin. If there is any truth that is central to Christianity, it is that God loves sinners and stays with us even when we do sin. Even if Jesus did “become sin,” God would have stayed with him just like He stays with us when we sin. Also, Jesus did not “become sin,” as if he could somehow embody sin. He became a “sin offering,” and was the completion and fulfillment of all the sin offerings that had gone before him that could not actually take away sin. [For more on Jesus becoming a sin offering, see commentary on 2 Corinthians 5:21].
In one of the greatest examples of love the world has ever seen, Jesus continued to try to demonstrate to people that he was the promised Messiah even from the cross. One notable way he did that was by quoting at least the first and last verse of Psalm 22, a Psalm of David and one that his audience would have known well. Psalm 22 is a Messianic Psalm, and one that clearly portrays the crucifixion and what was going on in those circumstances.
For one thing, it certainly looked like Jesus had been forsaken by God, even though he certainly knew he had not been (cp. Ps. 22:1).
Jesus knew that godly people standing within hearing distance would be able to mentally recite much or all of Psalm 22 and then see how it was being fulfilled right before their very eyes, and then would also be able to describe that to others and spread the news about him. Thus, with his dying words Jesus was trying very hard to reach a lost world and reconcile them to God.
As Jesus was quoting from Psalm 22, there is every reason to believe that his audience recognized what he was quoting, even if he only quoted the first and last verse. (It is noteworthy that Charles Spurgeon thinks that Psalm 22, “may have been actually repeated word by word by our Lord when hanging on the tree” (The Treasury of David, introductory notes on Psalm 22)).
By the time of Jesus, the Jews read from the Old Testament in the synagogue every week (Acts 13:15; Acts 15:21; see also Luke 4 when Jesus read from Isaiah). After Nebuchadnezzar burned the Temple to the ground and thus brought the sacrifices and rituals associated with the Temple to an end, the reading and study of the Old Testament became much more central to Judaism. Even after the Temple was rebuilt in the Persian period, the attention to reading and study of the Old Testament that had become part of the synagogue service never stopped. Since the average Jew did not have a copy of much if any of the Old Testament, it was important to them to go to the synagogue to hear it read and discussed. Furthermore, the Jews encouraged each other to memorize the Scriptures even starting from the time they were children (Deut. 6:1-5). This meant that every devoted Jew had more than a passing familiarity with the Psalms.
Another way we can see that the Jews were very familiar with the Psalms is from how many times Psalms are quoted in the New Testament, and quoted as if the audience was familiar with them (Matt. 4:6 [Luke 4:10, 11]; Matt. 5:5; 13:35; 21:9; 23:39 [Mark 11:9; Luke 13:35; 19:38; John 12:13]; Matt. 21:16, 42 [Mark 12:10-11; Luke 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Pet. 2:7]; Matt. 22:44 [Mark 12:36; Luke 20:42-43; Acts 2:34-35; 1 Cor. 15:27; Heb. 1:13]; Matt. 27:46 [Mark 15:34]; Luke 23:46; John 2:17; 6:31; 10:34; 13:18; 15:25; 19:24; Acts 1:20; 2:25-28; 2:30-31; 4:25-26; 13:22, 35; Rom. 2:6; 3:4, 10-14, 18; 4:7-8; 8:36; 10:18; 11:9-10; 15:3, 11; 1 Cor. 3:20; 10:26; 15:27; 2 Cor. 4:13; 9:9; Eph. 4:8, 26; Heb. 1:5-13; 2:6-8, 12; 3:7-11, 15; 4:3, 5, 7; 5:5-6; 7:17, 21; 10:5-9; 13:6; 1 Pet. 2:7; 3:10-12; and Rev. 2:26-27).
This large number of quotations shows that, as well as comforting and encouraging verses, the Psalms contained verses that gave important information about the Messiah and the Kingdom, something that would not have been lost on the Jewish audience, nor on the converts who came to Judaism.
The words that Jesus spoke from the cross were not the words of a man who had been forsaken by God. They were Jesus’ last possible attempt to reach the world with the Word of Truth.
“ninth hour.” About our 3 PM. Both the Jews and Romans divided the day into 12 hours, starting at daylight, roughly 6 AM. [For the hours of the day and the watches of the night, see commentary on Mark 6:48].
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“yielded up his spirit.” When Jesus “yielded up his spirit,” he died, and the fact that Jesus died shows he was a human. God cannot die. The death of Jesus has been a topic of discussion among theologians for many centuries. Most of the discussion centers around various theories of atonement, but some of the discussion has centered around the belief held by some Trinitarians that Jesus had to be God because the death of a human could not pay for all the sins of mankind. Their assertion is that only the death of God could pay for the sins of all mankind. While at first glance that belief may seem logical to some people, it falls apart under deeper scrutiny. Let’s examine why.
Trinitarian doctrine is that Jesus is 100% man and 100% God. Moreover, when Jesus died on the cross, Trinitarian theologians do not say that “God died,” because everyone knows that God cannot die, He is eternal and immortal. Instead, theologians teach that the human part of Jesus died, while the God part lived on. But that creates a problem, because if the Trinitarian assertion is that “God” had to die to pay for the sins of all mankind, but only the human part of Jesus died, then “God” did not die on the cross, and so then the sins of mankind were not paid for.
So although some Trinitarians say that “God had to die for the sins of mankind,” they have to admit that only the human part of Jesus died, and thus it was the death of a human being, a man, that paid for the sins of mankind. But that means that Jesus did not need to be God to pay for the sins of mankind, he could have just been fully human, and that is what the Bible says about Jesus; that he was fully human. This accords with what Romans teaches, that death came to mankind as a result of a man, Adam, and so everlasting life came by a man also (Rom. 5:15). Thus, as Peter said on the Day of Pentecost, Jesus was a “man approved by God” (Acts 2:22 KJV). [For more on dead people being totally dead and not alive in any way, see Appendix 4, “The Dead are Dead.” For more on why Jesus had to be fully dead, not not just have his body die, see commentary on 1 Cor. 15:20. For more on Jesus being fully human and not “God in the flesh,” see Graeser, Lynn, Schoenheit, One God & One Lord: Reconsidering the Cornerstone of the Christian Faith].
“spirit.” The Greek word is pneuma (#4151 πνεῦμα). Here it refers to the natural life of the body. See commentary on Luke 23:46.(top)
“Look!” The Greek word is idou (#2400 ἰδού), and it is used to get our attention. See commentary on Matthew 1:20 (“Look!).
“veil of the sanctuary.” At the time of Christ, the Temple had two veils, or curtains. The inner veil separated the Holy of Holies where the ark of the covenant was from the Holy Place, where the menorah and table of the Bread of the Presence were, and this inner veil is mentioned in Hebrews 6:19. The second veil, the outer veil, was in front of two huge doors and together the doors and veil separated the Holy Place from the court of the Priests, where the great altar was and sacrifices were made.
The second veil, the one in front of the doors of the Holy Place, was a massive curtain that Josephus describes as being 55 cubits high and 16 cubits wide, which would be over 80 feet high and 24 feet wide (Josephus, Jewish Wars, book 5, chap. 5, para. 4; 210-214). It was a most beautiful curtain that is described as being woven from blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and fine linen, all made with mystic significance and having a panorama of the heavens portrayed on it.
“the earth was shaken.” Earthquakes were viewed symbolically as denoting the presence and intervention of God (cp. Exod. 19:18; 1 Kings 19:11). The sign of an earthquake upon Jesus’ death is indicative of God’s power being displayed through the death of Jesus on the cross. Large earthquakes were known to have occurred in Judea. Josephus mentions one during the reign of Herod the Great, “such as had not happened at any other time, which was very destructive to men and cattle” (Josephus, Antiquities of the Jews; Book 15, chapter 5, section 2).
Neither the Gospel of Mark (Mark 15:38) or the Gospel of Luke (Luke 23:45) record any geological events coinciding with Jesus’ death. All three Synoptics record the tearing of the temple curtain, but only Matthew provides details surrounding the additional signs that accompanied Jesus’ death.
“the rocks were split.” This is not referring to rocks on the ground that would have simply moved around. This is referring to the huge “rocks” that were the rock faces of cliffs and slopes, or huge rocks that were partially buried in the ground and would split rather than move. Zechariah 14:4 mentions an earthquake that will occur when Christ returns to earth and fights the Battle of Armageddon that will split the Mount of Olives itself, and create a valley running from east to west where the mountain used to be. This earthquake at the time of Christ likely caused great fissures in the ground in some places and landslides in other places. It is also possible, even likely, that the huge lentil rock that supported the Temple curtain was split, and as it fell it tore the Temple curtain.(top)
“many bodies of the holy ones who had fallen asleep were raised.” For information on this event, see commentary on Matthew 27:53.
“fallen asleep.” The Greek verb is koimaō (#2837 κοιμάω), to fall asleep, to be asleep. Sleep is used as a euphemism and metaphor for death. See commentary on Acts 7:60.(top)
“they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” Matthew 27:52-53 has caught the attention of readers for centuries because of the notable miracle that those verses describe. These verses occur immediately after the death of Jesus recorded earlier in the chapter.
In this third sign that Matthew records in association with Jesus’ death-resurrection event, it seems that a point is being made about the effectual power of the cross for not just opening up the way to God but also to the conquering of the power of death itself (cf. 1 Cor. 15:54-57). Just as Jesus had died and been raised back to life, the record of people being raised from the dead testifies to the victory over death that Jesus has brought about as Messiah.
It is most likely that the significance of this death-resurrection sign is that it is a prophetic foreshadowing that points to the resurrection of everyone who believes that God raised Jesus from the dead (some see an echo here of Ezek. 37:12-14). As Leon Morris remarks concerning this sign, “Matthew is making the point that the resurrection of Jesus brought about the resurrection of his people” (The Pillar New Testament Commentary: The Gospel According to Matthew). Thus, in a dramatic way, the death and resurrection of Jesus will end the power of death itself.
Despite the testimony that this last sign of Jesus’ death-resurrection seems to provide, it raises a number of questions about details surrounding this sign.
One question that is hotly debated is whether or not these “many saints” were raised in glorified bodies or their natural bodies. The traditional answer to that question is that when the saints got up from the dead they were in their glorified bodies and then, at some point, perhaps very shortly after going into Jerusalem, they ascended into heaven. However, the biblical evidence is against the saints being raised in glorified bodies. Jesus Christ had not yet been raised from the dead, and Jesus was the “firstborn out from among the dead” (Col. 1:18; cp. Rev. 1:5), and the “firstfruits” from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20, 23). Some Bible teachers try to get around this objection by asserting that the phrase, “after his resurrection,” in verse 53 refers to the entire event, and that the dead were not raised until after Jesus’ resurrection. However, that is not the reading of the Greek text. According to the text of Matthew, the saints were raised from the dead when Jesus died. R. C. H. Lenski gets around the firstfruits argument by saying that Jesus is still the firstfruits from the dead even though these many saints were raised before him, because the saints stayed around their graves for the three days before appearing to people and thus gave time for Jesus to get up (The Interpretation of St. Matthew’s Gospel). But that is an unjustified sidestep of the problem: if many people were resurrected in glorified bodies before Jesus was, then Jesus was not the firstfruits from the dead.
Another reason the saints could not have been raised from the dead in glorified bodies and shortly after that ascended into heaven is that when the Gospel of John was written (perhaps 80-90 AD), no one was in heaven but Jesus. The textual evidence is that the way John 3:13 appears in the KJV represents the original reading of the Greek text, and it says, “And no man hath ascended up to heaven, but he that came down from heaven, even the Son of man which is in heaven.” Thus, when John wrote, no human was in heaven but Jesus. That would mean that the many saints were still on earth in glorified bodies at least until the Gospel of John was written, perhaps 50 years later, which stretches the limits of credulity. [For more on the correct translation of John 3:13, see commentary on John 3:13 and 3:16].
There is another piece of supporting evidence that the “many saints” had not been raised in glorified bodies and quickly ascended to heaven. On the day of Pentecost, only 50 days after Jesus died, Peter taught the crowds that part of the proof that Jesus was indeed “Lord” and “Christ” was that Jesus’ had been raised from the dead and had ascended to the right hand of God, and that this was in contrast to great men like David who were still buried in the ground (Acts 2:24-33). But if “many saints” had also been raised from the dead in glorified bodies, and also ascended into heaven, then a large group of saints, including Jesus, had been raised and ascended to heaven, and that would have considerably weakened Peter’s argument because then Jesus would have not been special, he would have been part of a group. Opponents could have simply said that lots of people were raised and ascended, so why was Jesus different from the others (even though we know he was).
The evidence from Acts and the early Church leads us to conclude, but the Bible never specifically says, that the many saints got up in their natural bodies and died again quite quickly. But even if that was the case, there are still many unanswered questions about the event. For example, who were these many saints, and how would people know they had been raised from the dead? Also, what was the reason they stayed near (or perhaps even “in”) the tombs for three days before going in to Jerusalem? Also, why is there no other mention of them in the Bible? The chief priests apparently knew nothing about them, and were concerned only that Jesus’ tomb be sealed (Matt. 27:62-66), and why did none of those “many saints” get word of their resurrection to the apostles who were living in fear during those same three days (John 20:19)?
Also, after the three days were over and they went into Jerusalem, why does the biblical evidence lead us to believe they never appeared to the Apostles? After all, evidence of Jesus’ resurrection was coming to those confused believers from many sources; Mary Magdalene, the other women, Peter himself, and the men who were on the road to Emmaus, so why not from a few of those “many saints” as well? Another concern is how these many saints would rejoin society. Theories differ, and perhaps a possible one is that these people had not been long dead, as many assume, but had just recently died and simply returned to their families (cp. The Pulpit Commentary).
Most conservative commentators recognize there are difficulties with the record in Matthew but just take what Matthew says at face value without commenting too much about it or offering potential solutions to those problems. Many other scholars recognize problems with Matthew 27:52-53 and offer different solutions to them. A common one is that Matthew is speaking in an apocalyptic fashion and using a word-picture that draws on Old Testament motifs and connects Jesus’ death and resurrection to the future resurrection of believers. Another explanation is that by the time Matthew wrote, there was a tradition that the event had happened, and Matthew pulled that tradition into the text (Alfred Plummer, An Exegetical Commentary on the Gospel of S. Matthew). A. B. Bruce writes: “We seem here to be in the region of Christian legend” (The Expositor’s Greek Testament). However, it seems very unlikely that Matthew would put apocalyptic typology, legend, or tradition into the Gospel of Matthew as if it were literal history. A few Bible teachers have suggested that the record was added to the early texts of Matthew, but there is no textual evidence for that. So as obscure as it is, it seems that to show that the death of Jesus conquered death for everyone, when Jesus died some dead believers got up from the dead for a few days then rather quickly died again, awaiting the first resurrection.
As a side note, Matthew 27:53 uses the Greek word egersis (#1454 ἔγερσις), “resurrection,” and this is the only time it is used in the New Testament. In fact, it is used only once in the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, and that usage was not about getting up from the dead, but arising from sleep. “You know when I sit and when I rise” (Ps. 139:2). The word means “a waking up as from sleep, a rousing or rising up.” As far as all other extant Greek literature is concerned, egersis was not used of rising from the dead until the Church Father, Irenaeus. (Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Gerhard Kittel, vol. 2, p. 337). Several scenarios are possible: by the time Matthew wrote, Christians were using “egersis” to refer to the resurrection because it can mean a waking from sleep, and Matthew used it that way. Or Matthew may have been the first to use it that way and the concept spread in Christianity.(top)
|Mat 27:54||- (top)|
|Mat 27:55||- (top)|
“Mary Magdalene.” Mary is called “Magdalene” because her hometown was Magdala, on the west shore of the Sea of Galilee. [For more information on Mary Magdalene see commentary on Luke 8:2].(top)
“when it was evening.” In the biblical culture, “evening” was used two different ways. It was “either from our three to six o’clock p. m., …or from our six o’clock p. m. to the beginning of night” (Thayer’s Greek-English lexicon). That the people in the biblical culture thought of evening in terms of an early evening and a later evening explains verses such as Exodus 12:6; 16:12, and 29:39 where the Hebrew text reads, “between the evenings” (cp. Young’s Literal Translation; Rotherham’s Emphasized Bible). The cultural use of “evening” beginning at 3 PM also explains why the daily afternoon sacrifice, which was killed around 3 PM, was called “the evening sacrifice.” Jesus had died at 3 PM, so according to biblical culture, “evening” had come.
After Jesus died, Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and got permission to take the body of Jesus (Matt. 27:58; Mark 15:43; Luke 23:52; John 19:38). He then went and bought the linen to wrap Jesus in. He did not do that earlier, perhaps in expectation that Jesus would somehow not die at the hands of the Romans (Mark 15:46). He wrapped the body in a clean linen cloth and put it in the tomb without using any spices, which was not the traditional Jewish burial custom (Matt. 27:59; Mark 15:46; Luke 22:53). Why would Joseph do that? The most likely reason is that Nicodemus, who brought the spices, was supposed to meet Joseph at the tomb but was delayed. Then Joseph, not knowing what had happened to Nicodemus, closed the tomb and left (Matt. 27:60; Mark 15:46). At that point the women from Galilee who were watching Joseph, and had seen that he had laid Jesus’ body in the tomb without preparing it with spices according to the common custom, left also (Matt. 27:61; Mark 15:47; Luke 23:55). The Sabbath would have been about to start or just starting by that time.
It has sometimes been taught that the reason that Joseph only wrapped Jesus in a linen cloth without spices was that he believed Jesus would be raised from the dead, and thus he did not bother to bury Jesus with all the spices and formal wrappings. However, that explanation is not likely. It leaves us with some unanswered questions, such as how did Nicodemus know Joseph was going to get Jesus’ body and how did he know where Joseph buried him? Also, if Joseph did not properly bury Jesus because he believed Jesus would be raised from the dead in three days, it would have been inappropriate and presumptuous for Nicodemus to go to Joseph’s personal tomb, open it, and wrap Jesus’ body without Joseph’s permission.
The women from Galilee had watched Joseph put Jesus’ body in the tomb without preparing with spices as was not only the common custom but certainly would have been the respectful thing to do to Jesus. That is why they went and bought and prepared spices, and went to properly bury Jesus on Sunday morning—they weren’t expecting Jesus to get up either. It was Wednesday just before sunset that the women saw Joseph bury Jesus without spices, but they could not buy the spices at that time. Luke 23:54 says the Sabbath was beginning, however, this “Sabbath” is not the weekly Sabbath, but the Sabbath that was the 15th day of Nisan, the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, which was always a Sabbath (Exod. 12:16-17; Lev. 23:6-8). The year Jesus was crucified, the 15th of Nisan was a Thursday. So the woman bought and prepared the spices on Friday, and rested Saturday (the weekly Sabbath), and then brought the spices to the tomb early Sunday morning (see commentary on John 20:1).
That the women had to wait until after the Special Sabbath on Thursday to buy spices explains why Mark 16:1 says they bought the spices after the Sabbath, but Luke 23:56 says they bought and prepared them before the Sabbath. They bought and prepared the spices on Friday, which was after the Special Sabbath on Thursday, which was the first day of Unleavened Bread, and before Saturday, which was the regular weekly Sabbath.
Although the women would have had time to bring the spices to the tomb on Friday, they did not do that. The most logical explanation for that is that they knew there was a guard at the tomb. The guard had been set for three days (Matt. 27:62-66). However, they would have thought that by Sunday, the fourth day, the guard would be gone and they could successfully anoint Jesus’ body, which is why they came on Sunday morning.
After Joseph of Arimathea and the women left the tomb, Nicodemus came with his servants and gave Jesus a burial that was according to Jewish custom. He brought spices with him, and re-wrapped Jesus’ body with the spices. However, the women had already left and did not see what Nicodemus had done. It would have been natural for a rich man like Nicodemus to have servants with him, who are the “they” of John 19:40. After all, Nicodemus was a wealthy man and member of the Sanhedrin (John 3:1), and he was bringing 75 pounds of spices, which would have required help and were very valuable. Also, as an older man, 75 pounds of spices would have been a lot to carry. Furthermore, because Joseph and his servants had already sealed the tomb with the huge rolling stone, Nicodemus would have needed his servants to open it back up (Matt. 27:60; Mark 15:46). It is possible that Nicodemus’ work was completed after dark, and thus on the Sabbath, or he may have gotten Jesus buried just before the Sabbath started. In either case, he would not have been able to eat the Passover meal because he had touched Jesus’ dead body.
[For more on the three days and nights between Jesus’ death and resurrection, see commentary on Matthew 12:40. For more on the chronology of the last week of Jesus’ life beginning with his arrest, see commentary on John 18:13, “first.” For more on Joseph of Aramathea and Nicodemus burying Jesus, see commentary on John 19:40].(top)
“Then Pilate commanded it to be given to him.” From a Roman perspective, Jesus was a criminal, and after his death his dead body would have been simply thrown into a pit with the other criminals who were crucified that day and all of them would have been buried together and forgotten. Of course, if a family member or friend wanted a body, he could have it. Thus, when Joseph asked Pilate for the body of Jesus, it was given to him. The whole arrest, trial, and crucifixion of Jesus seems to have caught Mary and the apostles completely off guard, and they were not prepared for his death, nor were the apostles prepared to publicly step forward and get the body. From a Roman legal perspective, after Pilate gave Joseph the body, it belonged to him and he could do with it as he pleased.(top)
|Mat 27:59||- (top)|
“laid it in his own new tomb.” This was just before sunset Wednesday evening. Joseph was supposed to work in tandem with Nicodemus, but for some reason, Nicodemus was late and showed up after Joseph had closed the tomb and left. The fact that Jesus was buried without a proper kingly burial was part of the fulfillment of Daniel 9:26, that after the Anointed One was “cut off,” dead, he would have nothing.
As it turned out, Jesus was dead on the cross and taken down from the cross before sunset and buried, just as the Mosaic Law required (see commentary on Deut. 21:23).
[For more on Joseph and Nicodemus planning to work together but Nicodemus being late, see commentary on John 19:40. For more information on a Wednesday crucifixion and burial, see commentary on Matthew 12:40].(top)
“And Mary Magdalene was there, and the other Mary…” The Bible does not specifically say how the women knew about Jesus’ burial and knew where to go so they could watch Joseph put the body of Jesus in the tomb. The most likely explanation is that they did not want to leave Jesus just hanging on the cross, and so they stayed in the area. It is even possible that Mary, Jesus’ mother, thought that she would claim Jesus’ body if the Romans came and took him down. In any case, this record indicates that the women were still there when Joseph took Jesus down from the cross and carried his body away. They would have followed Joseph, and sat down where they could see what he was doing. That is why Matthew 27:61 says they were “sitting opposite the tomb,” i.e., they were sitting in a way they could see the tomb. Nicodemus may have noticed them, or he may have been trying so hard to get finished burying Jesus before the darkness set in that he did not pay attention to them. After all, it was Passover and Jerusalem was packed with people. The women noticed that Joseph did not properly prepare Jesus’ body for burial, but simply wrapped him in a cloth, closed the tomb, and left, which is why they went to prepare spices themselves. (see commentary on Matt. 27:60 and John 19:40). [For more information on Mary Magdalene, see commentary on Luke 8:2].(top)
“now on the next day.” This is the morning on the 15th of Nisan (Nisan 15 had started at sunset the night before). The Passover sacrifice is killed in the late afternoon on the 14th of Nisan but eaten after sunset. Since sunset starts the next day, the Passover meal actually ends up being eaten on the next day, the 15th day of Nisan, which is the first day of the seven-day Feast of Unleavened Bread (Exod. 12:6-19). In spite of the fact it was a Sabbath day, the Pharisees and chief priests were so filled with trepidation about Jesus that they went to Pilate and requested a guard to keep the tomb secure.
Pilate’s answer, “You have a watch,” or as it is in some versions, “You have a guard,” has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that the Priests already had the Temple police, so they should use them. That is not correct. Pilate gave permission to the priests to requisition a detachment of Roman guards, which is why the guards would have been in trouble if the governor heard that the body of Jesus had been stolen while they were guarding it (cp. Matt. 28:12-15).
“gathered together.” This gathering would not have involved every member of the Sanhedrin, but only a select group. Also, they would not have met together somewhere and then marched as a group to Pilate because that would have attracted too much attention, and it was a Sabbath day. Instead they would have communicated their purpose quietly, and then gone as individuals to Pilate, gathering together as a group once they were in his presence.(top)
“will be raised.” Passive voice. The religious leaders remembered, but did not believe, what the disciples never grasped—that Jesus taught he would be raised after three days.(top)
|Mat 27:64||- (top)|
“You can have.” The Greek word is echō (#2192 ἔχω), which is usually “you have,” but in this case it can be “you can have” (see BDAG, ἔχω, definition 9).
“a guard of soldiers.” The Greek word is koustōdia (#2892 κουστωδία), a guard of Roman soldiers. The Pharisees and chief priests were so filled with trepidation about Jesus that they went to Pilate and requested a guard to keep the tomb secure (Matt. 27:62-66). Pilate’s answer as it appears in many English versions, “You have a watch,” or “You have a guard,” has sometimes been misunderstood to mean that Pilate told the priests that since they already had the Temple police, they should use them. That is not correct. Pilate gave permission to the priests to requisition a detachment of Roman guards, which is why those soldiers would have been in trouble if the governor heard that the guard and fallen asleep and the body of Jesus had been stolen (Matt. 28:12-15). Pilate would not care if the Temple police had fallen asleep and Jesus’ body had been stolen.(top)
“sealing the stone.” They did not “seal” the stone in the sense of somehow gluing it closed. That is not the meaning of “seal” in this case. If they could have glued the stone closed, they would not have needed the guard. They put a seal on the stone, which would have been wax or clay that connected the stone to the wall and which would have had a “seal” (an insignia of some kind), pressed into the wax. If the stone were moved, the wax or clay would have been broken and the insignia destroyed. This seal let everyone know the grave had not been tampered with. It is even possible that, in this case, the seal was clay attached to the wall of the tomb and wax on the rolling-stone, with a cord between them.
“setting the guard.” The Greek text simply has the phrase “with the guard” at the end of the sentence, which has led to various interpretations and translations. For example, the NASB says that the Jews sealed the tomb “along with the guards.” Some interpreters have even suggested that the Jews “sealed” the tomb “with the guards,” meaning that the guards were the effective seal, but this interpretation seems very unlikely. It seems most likely that the phrase is not meant to communicate that the guards helped seal the tomb, but rather that the tomb was left “with the guard,” as the Jews requested, so the body would not be stolen. It is likely that the “guard” is not referring to an individual soldier but is a collective reference to those soldiers who were left to guard the tomb. Therefore, perhaps a more conflated translation would be: “So they went and made the tomb secure by sealing the stone and leaving it with soldiers of the guard.”(top)