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Judas hangs himself
Matthew chapter 27, verses 1-10
Early in the morning, all the chief priests and the elders of the people came to the decision to put Jesus to death. They bound him, led him away and handed him over to Pilate, the governor. When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. The chief priests picked up the coins and said, “It is against the law to put this into the treasury, since it is blood money.” So they decided to use the money to buy the potter’s field as a burial place for foreigners. That is why it has been called the Field of Blood to this day. Then what was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet was fulfilled: “They took the thirty silver coins, the price set on him by the people of Israel, and they used them to buy the potter’s field, as the Lord commanded me.”
According to their own law, it was illegal for the Sanhedrin to conduct a trial at night. So at the first hint of dawn, they met in formal session to confirm the verdict they had reached the previous night. It was most likely at this time that they decided to accuse Jesus of treason rather than blasphemy when they led him away to Pontius Pilate (see Luke chapter 23, verses 1 and 2).
A Roman official’s workday began at daybreak, so Pilate was already awake when the Jewish leaders brought Jesus to him for trial. The Roman government did allow the Sanhedrin considerable freedom and authority in the oversight of Jewish affairs, but the only time the Jews had the right to impose the death penalty was if a Gentile invaded the sacred precincts of the temple. So they had to get Pilate’s permission before Jesus could be put to death.
Pontius Pilate served as the Roman governor of Judea from A.D. 26 to 36. His official residence was in Caesarea, on the Mediterranean coast, which was a more pleasant place for a Roman to live than Jerusalem would have been. (In 1961 archaeologists dug up a stone in Caesarea that dates back to the time of Christ and was inscribed with Pilate’s name.) When Pilate had to come to Jerusalem to perform some of his official duties, he would stay in the magnificent palace that had been built by King Herod. It was located mostly west and a little south of the temple area. This was the place, known as the Praetorium (see chapter 27, verse 27), where Jesus’ Roman trial took place.
When the Sanhedrin’s verdict was finalized and formalized, it started to dawn on Judas what he had done. Evidently he had not really expected that it would come to this. “He was seized with remorse.” The guilt was so overwhelming that it overcame his greed. The same man who had eagerly inquired, “What are you willing to give me if I hand him over to you?” (chapter 26, verse 15) now brought the 30 silver coins back to the chief priests and the elders. Apparently he had not yet spent a single one of them. But he no longer cared about the things he could buy. His conscience was tormented by his sin.
When Judas agreed to betray Jesus, he was saying, among other things, that he no longer regarded Jesus as his pastor. Thus the chief priests had become his pastors by default. In his time of need, Judas went to them and confessed his sin. “I have sinned, for I have betrayed innocent blood.” If they had been faithful pastors, they would have recognized what was going on here. When one of the souls entrusted to their care wanted to confess his sins, it was their duty to absolve him. But Judas’ tears made no impression on their stony hearts. Instead of proclaiming the gospel to a man who had obviously absorbed the full impact of the hammer blows of the law, they callously turned him away. “What is that to us? That’s your responsibility.” And their hardhearted response to Judas’ plea for help may very well have been what pushed Judas over the edge of despair.
Is it not possible that Jesus’ repeated invitations to Judas to repent were finally bearing some fruit? Jesus certainly loved Judas as much as he loved Peter. When we simply contrast Judas’ despair with Peter’s repentance, we miss something. Both of them were warned ahead of time that Jesus knew what they were going to do (chapter 26, verses 25 and 34). In both cases Jesus’ prediction came true. But the difference is that Peter got to see Jesus immediately after he fell (see Luke chapter 22, verse 61), while Judas never saw Jesus again. Instead of seeing Jesus, he saw the chief priests.
It is a sobering thought that the chief priests committed a greater sin against Judas than they did against Jesus. At least their sin against Jesus did not push Jesus into hell. But Jesus tells us that it would have been better for Judas if he had never been born—better to have never been born than to die in unbelief, with no forgiveness of sins, having to face the eternal judgment of God. In his despair Judas was driven to take his own life.
The gory details of Judas’ suicide are reserved for the book of Acts. After Christ’s ascension, Peter presided over an assembly of the church in Jerusalem at which Matthias was designated to take Judas’ place. It is in this context that Luke informs us, “With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. Everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood” (Acts chapter 1, verses 18 and 19). We know from Matthew’s gospel that Judas did not purchase the field himself; the chief priests bought it with the 30 silver coins he had hurled into the temple.
It is not entirely clear whether the Field of Blood got its name from Judas ending up there or from the foreigners who were buried there later. Matthew directs our attention to the Field of Blood because it was the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy. Although he attributes the prophecy to Jeremiah, it seems to be a combination of Jeremiah chapter 19, verses 1-13 and Zechariah chapter 11, verses 12 and 13. Since Jeremiah is a “major prophet” and Zechariah is one of the “minor prophets,” Matthew simply attributes the combined prophecy to Jeremiah.
Jesus is condemned by Pilate
Matthew chapter 27, verses 11-26
Meanwhile Jesus stood before the governor, and the governor asked him, “Are you the king of the Jews?” “Yes, it is as you say,” Jesus replied. When he was accused by the chief priests and the elders, he gave no answer. Then Pilate asked him, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?” But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor. Now it was the governor’s custom at the Feast to release a prisoner chosen by the crowd. At that time they had a notorious prisoner, called Barabbas. So when the crowd had gathered, Pilate asked them, “Which one do you want me to release to you: Barabbas, or Jesus who is called Christ?” For he knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him. While Pilate was sitting on the judge’s seat, his wife sent him this message: “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” But the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas and to have Jesus executed. “Which of the two do you want me to release to you?” asked the governor. “Barabbas,” they answered. “What shall I do, then, with Jesus who is called Christ?” Pilate asked. They all answered, “Crucify him!” “Why? What crime has he committed?” asked Pilate. But they shouted all the louder, “Crucify him!” When Pilate saw that he was getting nowhere, but that instead an uproar was starting, he took water and washed his hands in front of the crowd. “I am innocent of this man’s blood,” he said. “It is your responsibility!” All the people answered, “Let his blood be on us and on our children!” Then he released Barabbas to them. But he had Jesus flogged, and handed him over to be crucified.
Luke chapter 23, verses 1 and 2 tells us that the accusation they brought against Jesus when they handed him over to Pontius Pilate was treason rather than blasphemy. This explains why the first question Pilate asked Jesus was, “Are you the king of the Jews?” It amounted to asking him, “Do you plead guilty or not guilty?”
After politely entering his plea, Jesus does not say another word to Pilate during Matthew’s account of his Roman trial. John provides much that Matthew omits here (see John chapter 18, verse 28 through chapter 19, verse 16).
Jesus resumes the dignified silence that had served him so well during his trial before the Sanhedrin. Although Matthew does not specify what the chief priests and the elders said when they testified against Jesus, it is clear that their charges and accusations were not worthy of a rebuttal. So as Jesus maintained a majestic silence, Pilate took note of the fact that Jesus did not reply to a single one of the charges against him. Caiaphas had been exasperated by Jesus’ silence. Pilate was amazed. The difference was that Pilate had no agenda.
Pilate was amazed because this did not resemble anything from his previous experience. No doubt most men who were on trial for their lives protested vehemently, and it would seem reasonable to expect the defendant to object strenuously, particularly if the charges were unfounded. And Pilate “knew it was out of envy that they had handed Jesus over to him.” So it was more curiosity than consternation that moved him to ask, “Don’t you hear the testimony they are bringing against you?”
It was because Jesus could hear perfectly well, and because he had just heard it all the night before, that he had nothing to say in reply.
Matthew is the only one who tells us about the message Pilate’s wife sent to him, “Don’t have anything to do with that innocent man, for I have suffered a great deal today in a dream because of him.” At the beginning of his gospel, Matthew tells us that God spoke to the Magi in dreams, and now toward the end of his gospel, Matthew tells us that God spoke to another Gentile in a dream. When Herod wanted to kill Jesus, the Magi wanted to worship him. When the Sanhedrin wanted to kill Jesus, Pilate’s wife wanted to save him. (She is also the fourth gentile woman to be presented in a favorable light in Matthew’s gospel; Rahab and Ruth [chapter 1, verse 5] and the Syro-Phoenician woman [chapter 15, verses 22-28] are the others.)
Since the charge against Jesus was that he opposed the payment of taxes to Caesar, it may be significant that this Roman woman declares Jesus to be innocent. There seems to be a connection between the urgent message Pilate’s wife sent to him and the fact that, on three separate occasions, Pilate declared Jesus to be innocent (see John chapter 18, verse 38; chapter 19, verses 4 and 6).
The Greek word that is translated as “innocent” (verse 19) is the same word that is translated as “righteous” in other places (see chapter 1, verse 19; chapter 10, verse 41; chapter 23, verse 35; chapter 25, verses 37 and 46). It seems that while her husband has come to the conclusion that Jesus is innocent before the law, Pilate’s wife has reached the higher conviction that Jesus is righteous before God, a conviction that was soon to be echoed by the centurion at the cross (see Luke chapter 23, verse 47). For this reason, Pilate’s wife is sometimes compared to Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, each of whom was at first a secret believer, but at a critical moment they each made their allegiance known.
Pilate was on the hot seat, and he wanted to get off. Since he was the man in charge, he had a responsibility to acquit an obviously innocent man (see John chapter 19, verse 10). But his authority was largely derived from the consent of those he governed—even if their consent was only grudgingly given. Pilate realized that he could push the Jews only so far, especially during the volatile days of the Feast when there were hundreds of thousands of pilgrims in Jerusalem. The very fact that he was in Jerusalem, rather than staying in Caesarea, was an indication of the explosive potential of the Passover celebration. He knew very well that, as the Jews remembered their deliverance from Egyptian slavery, many of them dreamed of the day when they would be free of Roman authority.
So Pilate tried to pass the buck. When Jesus first showed up at his door, Pilate told the Jews, “Take him yourselves and judge him by your own law” (John chapter 18, verse 31). Then when he discovered that Jesus was a Galilean, he sent him across town to Herod (see Luke chapter 23, verses 6 and 7). But Herod sent him back, so Pilate decided to offer the people a choice between Jesus and Barabbas. And when the chief priests and the elders persuaded the crowd to ask for Barabbas, Pilate washed his hands and insisted that he was “innocent of this man’s blood.” (This sounds almost like an echo of Judas’ last words, “I have betrayed innocent blood.”) “It is your responsibility!” Pilate told the crowd. (This sounds like an echo of the chief priests’ response to Judas, “That’s your responsibility.”)
Do you remember Shakespeare’s Macbeth? After murdering the king, he tried to wash the blood from his hands to relieve his guilty conscience. But he concluded that all the waters of the ocean could not wash the blood from his hands. Instead, his bloody hands would turn the whole ocean red. Pilate wanted to evade his responsibility, but he could not. He declared himself innocent, but only God can really do that—and God does that only for those who confess that they are guilty. The fact remains that without Pilate’s permission, they never could have crucified Jesus. A judge who yields to pressure to condemn an innocent man is no better than those who apply the pressure to do so. And so we remember his weak-kneed performance every time we recite in the Apostles’ Creed, “suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried.”
It is interesting that in a few manuscripts it says that Barabbas’ first name was Jesus. Another intriguing possibility is that Barabbas may be a combination of “bar” as in “bar mitzvah” (son of the command) and “abba” as in “Abba, Father.” Barabbas would then mean “son of the father,” and it becomes a startling choice that Pilate presents to the people. Which Jesus do you want me to release to you? The Son of the Father or the son of the father? The preacher or the patriot? The rabbi or the revolutionary? The One who loves his enemies or the one who hates his enemies?
Although we do not know what became of Barabbas afterward, he is a fitting representative for each of us. Like him, we are guilty. Like him, we deserve to die. But we are freed because Jesus died instead of us. All of us who are baptized are now “sons of the Father” through faith in Christ Jesus (Galatians chapter 3, verses 26 and 27).
Jesus is mocked by the soldiers
Matthew chapter 27, verses 27-31
Then the governor’s soldiers took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole company of soldiers around him. They stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, and then twisted together a crown of thorns and set it on his head. They put a staff in his right hand and knelt in front of him and mocked him. “Hail, king of the Jews!” they said. They spit on him, and took the staff and struck him on the head again and again. 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.
A tour of duty in Jerusalem was not exactly a Roman soldier’s dream assignment. When it came to entertainment and recreation, there wasn’t much. So when Pilate turned Jesus over to them, they decided to have some fun. One of the soldiers draped his scarlet cloak around Jesus’ shoulders, while another twisted a crown of thorns together, and then they gave him a staff to hold as a mock scepter. They ridiculed Jesus with their boisterous laughter and their sarcastic mockery.
All of this had been preceded by the flogging Pilate ordered when he turned Jesus over to them for crucifixion. Roman floggings were so brutal that sometimes the victim died before they could get him up on the cross. For that reason a flogging was also regarded as a severe form of “mercy,” since a flogging would inevitably reduce the length of time the victim would have to spend on the cross before he died.
Jesus is crucified
Matthew chapter 27, verses 32-44
As they were going out, they met a man from Cyrene, named Simon, and they forced him to carry the cross. They came to a place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). There they offered Jesus wine to drink, mixed with gall; but after tasting it, he refused to drink it. When they had crucified him, they divided up his clothes by casting lots. And sitting down, they kept watch over him there. Above his head they placed the written charge against him: THIS IS JESUS, THE KING OF THE JEWS. Two robbers were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left. Those who passed by hurled insults at him, 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!”
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “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.’” In the same way the robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.
Jesus started out carrying his own cross (see John chapter 19, verse 17), but the “merciful” flogging he had received apparently had weakened him to the point where he was not able to carry it all the way to Calvary. Simon of Cyrene just happened to be in the right place at the right time. We cannot say for sure whether he realized what he had become involved in at the time, but Mark chapter 15, verse 21 tells us that Simon was the father of Alexander and Rufus. Evidently, Mark’s first readers knew Alexander and Rufus. So it may be that Rufus was the same person the apostle Paul sent greetings to in Romans chapter 16, verse 13. Since Rufus’ mother is also mentioned, it may be that the whole family became Christians at some point.
Cyrene was an important North African city with a substantial Jewish population. We do not know whether Simon still lived in Cyrene and had come as a pilgrim to Jerusalem for the Passover. Perhaps he had settled in Jerusalem but had taken the name of his native city as a surname, something like Judas, the man from Kerioth. We do know that among the crowds on Pentecost there were people who had been born in “the parts of Libya near Cyrene” (Acts chapter 2, verse 10).
The gospels never say that Calvary was a mountain; it is never even called a hill. The Latin word calvary and the Aramaic word golgotha both mean “place of the skull.” It may have been a hill that was shaped something like a skull, or it may have been a place that was frequently used for executions.
Matthew does not say that it was the soldiers who offered Jesus the wine “mixed with gall.” Mark’s name for the gall is myrrh (chapter 15, verse 23), which recalls the gift of the Magi (Matthew chapter 2, verse 11). According to tradition, this was something the women of Jerusalem did for people who were crucified. It was intended to dull the pain. When Jesus realized what it was, he refused to drink it because he did not want to be “knocked out.” He still had a few words he wanted to say. He wanted to pray the Psalms. He wanted to be able to recognize his mother when he saw her. He did not want a narcotic to get any credit for helping him endure the agony of the cross.
Only slaves, the vilest criminals, and convicts who were not Roman citizens were crucified. First century authors give us vivid descriptions of the agony and disgrace of crucifixion. Because the cross has become such a widely used and respected symbol, it is difficult for us to appreciate the negative connotations that originally went along with calling Jesus “the Crucified.” In the Roman Empire it was scandalous to suggest that all people should worship a crucified Jew as the Son of God. And yet it is highly significant that, even after Jesus rose from the dead, his disciples usually referred to him as “Christ crucified.” We might expect that they would prefer to call him their “risen Lord,” but it was much more common to hear them say, “Jesus, who was crucified.” Even in the glorious visions of the book of Revelation, he is the Lamb that was slain. As the apostles repeatedly insisted, the atonement stands at the center of Christianity. All of human history focuses on the cross.
It was taken for granted that the soldiers who actually crucified the condemned man would claim whatever personal property the dead man had with him. Once the soldiers had fastened Jesus to the cross, they did not wait for him to die before dividing up his clothing. Without realizing it, they were fulfilling the prophecy of Psalm 22, verse 18, “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing.” Jesus probably had only an outer garment (cloak), an undergarment (tunic), a belt, a pair of sandals, and maybe some kind of a head covering. All of them were probably stained with his blood by this time.
It was customary to write the crime for which the man was being punished on a piece of wood, which was carried before him as he walked to the place of execution. Then it was posted over his head to maximize the deterrent effect on all passersby. No doubt it was the notice over Jesus’ head that prompted some of the mockery he had to endure.
Some of the people who were passing by tried to provoke Jesus by saying, “Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!” I dare you! I double dare you! This was just another variation on Satan’s temptation, daring him to jump off the highest point of the temple (chapter 4, verse 6).
The chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders of the people were the three groups that were represented on the Sanhedrin. They taunted Jesus, saying, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” This was merely a repetition of the demand for a miraculous sign, which Jesus had refused to give them earlier (see chapter 12, verses 38-45). One reason Jesus never gave them the miracle they asked for was that they did not deserve it. Another reason was that it would not have done any good anyway, as Abraham explained to the rich man in hell (see Luke chapter 16, verse 31). But the most important reason Jesus did not come down from the cross was that it would have been impossible for him to finish his redeeming work any other way. His Father’s answer to his prayer in Gethsemane was, You must drink the cup of suffering all the way down to the bitter dregs.
If Jesus had come down from the cross, that really would have proved that he was not the Savior after all. If he had made a dramatic descent from the cross, that would not have been as extraordinary as the miraculous signs that surrounded his death: three hours of supernatural darkness, an earthquake, the rending of the curtain in the temple, and the opening of the graves of many of the saints. And, of course, the greatest sign of all came early on Sunday morning when he rose from the dead. If Jesus had come down from the cross, there would have been no resurrection. Rather than giving his enemies the sign they asked for, Jesus provided all people with a sign so convincing that any who still reject him are without excuse.
Matthew says, “The robbers who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.” Notice the plural. Both of the robbers joined in the mockery to begin with. But Luke tells us that one of them later repented and asked Jesus, “Remember me when you come into your kingdom.” He was the first one there that day to see that Jesus really was the King of the Jews. And Jesus promised him, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke chapter 23, verses 42 and 43).
All of the verbal abuse that was heaped upon Jesus while he hung on the cross was really only a continuation of the false accusations that had been brought against him during his trials before the Sanhedrin and before Pilate. And Jesus responded to it all in the same way: with a dignified and majestic silence. None of the seven words from the cross was a response to any of the ridicule he had to endure. This was very different from the way most other crucifixions went. Ancient historians tell us that those on the cross would often scream in pain and hurl down curses at their executioners. But all Jesus did was pray for them, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.”