So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, “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.’” And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
All the gospels tell about Jesus’ crucifixion. It is the chief point of their narratives. But each has its own emphasis, and the mocking of Jesus seems to be the dominant note in Matthew. There are thirteen verses in the paragraphs we are studying, but five of them are about the taunts the passersby and the leaders had for Jesus. The last verse even adds that the robbers “also heaped insults on him” (v. 44).
The interesting thing about these insults is that they are all highly ironic. The first was about Jesus’ claim to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days. This was the accusation that had been raised at his trial but which the leaders had been unable to prove by the strict standards of Jewish legal procedure. Yet Jesus had said it, and the accusation seemed to have been floating around among the people. “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” (v. 40). They ridiculed him for his words, but it was by his death that he was destroying the temple of his body, and it was by his resurrection that he would raise it again.
The leaders did not address Jesus directly. They spoke to one another, probably to show their scorn for 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’” (vv. 41-43). Ironically, they were using the words that had been used by Satan in two of his temptations of the Lord, recorded in Matthew : “If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread” (v. 3) and “If you are the Son of God, throw yourself down”(v. 6). They were saying the same thing now: “If you are the Son of God, ask God to save you!”
“They thought they were so clever,” writes D. A. Carson, “but the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom. Precisely by voluntarily going to the cross, Jesus was destroying ‘this temple’—the temple of his body—and in three days it would be ‘rebuilt.’ And precisely because he was the Son of God, he would not come down from the cross! Similar double irony extended to all the mockery he endured. ‘He saved others… but he can’t save himself’ (27:42) they taunted. At one level, they were questioning the legitimacy and reality of his claims, Surely the real Messiah would not be forced to bear such shame and suffering. But at a deeper level, the taunt was largely right. If the Lord Jesus was to save others, he had to sacrifice himself, and he could not save himself.”1
Surely God’s wisdom is beyond our understanding. We would never have thought up a gospel like this, but this is true Christianity. Jesus died for us, because without that death we could not be saved. To God be the glory!
1 D. A. Carson, God With Us: Themes from Matthew (Ventura, Ca.Regal Books, 1985), p. 161.