Harry Whittaker
Studies in the Gospels

228. "The Reproaches of Them that Reproached Thee" (Matt. 27:39-43; Mark 25:29-32; Luke 23:35-37)*

It was "the third hour" — the hour of prayer, the time of the daily burnt-offering —when the actual job of crucifying was finished. The soldiers settled down to the monotony of guard duty: "then they sat down, and kept watch over him there" (RSV). But there was to be little monotony. It proved to be a day which those men talked about for the rest of their lives.

Because Golgotha was hard by the Great North Road and close to both city and temple, the crowd which stopped to stare was considerable (Lk.23:35,48), the more so because the crucified had been so much in the public eye —Barabbas's men, and Jesus the prophet of Nazareth. Recognition of a big number of great men from their Sanhedrin standing there would also add to the grisly fascination of the scene. It is a measure of both the hatred and the anxiety of these leaders in Jewry that only a few hours before the Passover began they took the trouble to go out to Golgotha to see Jesus crucified: "They look and stare upon me" (Ps.22 :17). Would they have done that for any other man in Israel?

Their relief at seeing him now safely impaled on the cross, and enduring its agony and shame, was so great that they could not restrain their feelings. These men of consequence and power threw aside all their dignity and set the example to the rest in a sustained taunting and derision (Ps. 109:25) which would have been unbecoming even in school-boys. Matthew's word: "reviled" also means "blasphemed". "He saved others (and here they used a word which implied that Jesus was no better than anybody else); let him save himself (Lk. 23 :35,37,39), if he be Christ, the Chosen of God."

Taunts provide comfort

There can be little doubt that the point of this jibe was in their allusion to the great Messianic Psalm-Psalm 89-which Jesus must fulfil if indeed he were the King of the Jews, as the inscription of his cross stated: "I have exalted one chosen out of the people. I have found David my servant; with my holy oil have I anointed (christed) him" (Ps. 89 :19,20). Yet did not these men stop to think what they were saying? For the very word which this Scripture used in their common version for "exalted" was the word familiarly employed also for crucifixion: "and I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me." And did they not give a thought to the context of the passage?: "The enemy shall not exact upon him; nor the son of wickedness afflict him. And I will beat down his foes before his face (within an hour or two this became almost literally true), and plague them that hate him ... He shall cry unto me, Thou art my Father, my God, and the rock of my salvation . . . Remember, O Lord, the reproach of thy servants . . . wherewith thine enemies have reproached the heels of thy Christ" (v.22,23,26,51).

Whether the priests and scribes thought of these words or not, the Crucified surely did, and found courage and strength in them; and thus the very things intended by these vengeful men to twist the dagger in the wound would have the opposite effect in the mind of their dying victim.

In yet another way their taunt would bring succour to Jesus, for the challenge: "Save thyself", must have been deliberately based on another Scripture which only a week ago Jesus had explicitly appropriated to himself: "behold, thy King cometh unto thee: he is just, and saving himself (or, having been saved): lowly and riding upon an ass, and upon a colt the foal of an ass" (Zech. 9 :9). That triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem must have been a great worry to the enemies of the Lord. But now they thought they had the perfect answer to his claim. Any man could pose as Messiah by staging a formal entry into the city on an ass. But let this Jesus now do the infinitely more difficult thing and "save himself."

How little they appreciated the dramatic irony of the situation! By dying as he did Jesus was not only bringing salvation to thousands but was also saving himself: "By his own blood he entered in once for all into the holy place, having obtained for himself (Gk. M.V.) eternal redemption." And indeed, had he come down from the cross, as was doubtless within his power, he would not have saved himself.

"Let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him," they taunted. Yet, responding to their challenge, he would have been providing the plainest possible proof that he was not the Son of God. It was the second temptation over again. Had Jesus listened to the Tempter and cast himself from the pinnacle of the temple, the outcome of such a sensational feat would no doubt have been an immediate acceptance by the people of Israel, but for wrong reasons which gave little place to the glory of God. And so also here at Golgotha.

In any case it was a false promise which they made, for on the third day Jesus provided a yet greater sign than his coming down from the cross could be, and still the truth concerning him was stubbornly shut out.

They jeeringly asked to see, that they might believe (cp. Mt.16 :4; 1 Cor.1 :22) —and by and by a sign was given (see Study 231). But in contrast, Jesus promised a special blessing on those who have not seen and yet have believed. And this acceptance of him was to be through his not coming down from the cross: "And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me."

The mockery of the priests also took a different turn. They knew something of the unflagging emphasis which in his teaching Jesus had put on their Holy Scriptures, and they had more than once tasted his powerful handling of prophecies which he claimed to fulfil in his own person. Now was the opportunity to turn the tables on him. So with evident relish and vicious satisfaction they derisively threw at him familiar Bible phrases which came to their minds.

Especially they found Psalm 22 well suited to their purpose: "He trusted in God; (the Hebrew go/was perhaps their crude pun on Golgotha); let him deliver him now, if he will have him" —"if He wants him," this battered crucified body.

Had they stopped to think, they would surely have hesitated before making such ribald use of divine words, for in the psalm this passage is introduced with the words: "All they that see me laugh me to scorn; they shoot out the lip, they shake the head saying . . ." All unaware, these priests were providing their own superbly accurate fulfilment of this prophecy of suffering; and were thereby supplying indisputable verification of the claims of Jesus.

But what would be their reaction when, an hour or two later, Jesus himself began reciting that very psalm as his own prayer of need. Without realising it these spiteful men had turned the mind of Jesus into the best channel possible—they had set him meditating in his misery and loneliness not only on the Bible's detailed anticipation of his own wretched plight but also on its equally vigorous picture of the wondrous outcome of the sufferings of this Son of God. Thus even the malevolence of the Lord's implacable adversaries was turned to the Glory of God.

A temple destroyed and re-built

Yet another taunt thrown at Jesus was this: "Thou that destroyest the temple and buildest if in three days, save thyself." It was a cruel jibe, based on his own name (Mt. 27 :40,42,49).

Matthew and Mark are explicit that this came from "those that passed by," wagging their heads (Lam. 2 :15; Ps. 22 :7). But this was the accusation which had been raked up against Jesus by the Sanhedrin (Mt. 26 :61). And now the same cynical misrepresentation came from the common people. It is probable, then, that the priests had deliberately put the story into circulation in Jerusalem that Jesus had been condemned on these very grounds. The three ideas in Mt. 27 :40,42 - destroy the temple, Son of God, King of Israel-were precisely the main lines of attack on Jesus when before the Sanhedrin (26:61,63).

Yet what had Jesus really meant? Obsessed by the magnificence of their temple these people of Jerusalem missed altogether his allusion to the tabernacle in the wilderness. When Israel journeyed in the wilderness the tabernacle was taken down, and "the ark of the covenant of the Lord went before them three day's journey, to search out a resting place for them" (Num.10 :33,34), and there the tabernacle was re-erected. The foreshadowing of the experience of Jesus is clearly discernible here. Appropriately, this passage in Numbers describes Israel's departure from the Mount of the Law—a typical indication that the better "resting place" for the people was only to be reached by making a break with the Law given at Sinai and by following the Ark of God's Covenant which the visible glory of the Lord constantly overshadowed. Appropriately, too, Jesus did not use the normal word for "destroy". What he said was "Unloose, dismantle this Sanctuary..."

At the time, however, those who in vulgar scorn repeated these things were blind to what they might mean, even though the dismantling of God's Tabernacle of Witness was going on before their eyes. Yet it may be taken as fairly certain that in later days earnest disciples, guided by the spirit of the Emmaus Bible Class, pondered this deeper significance of their risen Lord's words and work.

This decision and despite done to the Son of God was taken up by almost all about him. The Roman soldiers saw their chance for a bit of crude fun. Taking their cue from the inscription over his head, they jeered at him as King of the Jews-yet in doing so they were jeering at the Jews just as much. And they teased the suffering thirsty man with tantalising offers of a drink from the cheap wine which was part of their ration.

Even the malefactors were goaded by their agony to vent their savage resentment against someone, so they chose him as the butt of their bitterness: "If thou be the Christ, save thyself—and us." Indeed at this moment they cared little whether he saved himself so long as he somehow brought them the relief they were desperate for. But by and by a change came over one of them so that he became the greatest human solace Jesus knew that day.

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