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The Crucifixion of Jesus - a study of Matthew 27:41-52

Do you daily thank Jesus for dying in your place?

Bible Study Ideas and Commentary for Matthew 27:41-52

Sin separates us from God, and only God can remedy it. Jesus willingly endured the cross so that we might be made right with God. The crucifixion shows us everything that is wrong with humans, as well as how readily available forgiveness is for anyone who repents. Christ’s sacrifice was once-for-all.

In the same way the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked Him and said, “He saved others, but He cannot save Himself! Matthew 27:41

Getting Started: Things to Think About

I know we just had our Easter lesson, but think of it this way. The Easter lesson always emphasizes the Resurrection, and it’s usually a bit hectic. This week, we focus on the sacrifice Jesus made. There are lots of different ways to do this—be sensitive to the needs and situation of your class members. If they can handle the whole story, give it to them! We need to understand what Jesus went through for us.

Appreciating Sacrifice.

Your leader guide recommends this one, and I think it’s great. Any chance we get to appreciate our military and our first responders is a good chance. What sacrifices do our soldiers make? How about our police and firefighters? How dangerous is it to do their job, and why do they do it? I am always floored when I watch a news special that describes the number of threats they face on a daily basis. Jesus understood that good can only come to many if a few (in His case, One) make a sacrifice. He did it willingly, and brave men and women carry on that tradition today. Find a way to say “thank you” this week.

Deterrents and Punishments.

Romans used public executions as a deterrent to future crimes and rebellions. Without getting into a political discussion, point out that America doesn’t do that today. What kinds of deterrents do we use? Well, everybody is motivated by something different, so ask your class what used to keep them in line. Some kids are scared of getting a B, so their grades are their own motivation. Some kids need to be threatened within an inch of their life. Some adults need to be threatened with firing. Sometimes the threat of jail is deterrent enough. We all know people who have been “made an example”. How did you feel for them? What effect did it have on you? Rome killed Jesus to keep the peace in Judea. What effect did that have on His followers? On the bystanders? What do people do today to keep Christians from making trouble? Is it working?

Sacrifice for Family.

In honor of the just-celebrated Mother’s Day, you might take an easier and closer-to-home illustration. Talk about the ways that your mom or dad (or caregiver) sacrificed for you. My heart is always tugged by the stories of moms who worked multiple jobs and dads who wouldn’t eat supper so the kids would have enough. I would guess that our kids aren’t too aware of what mom and dad did, so you may have to help them out. Take your class down memory lane, and maybe inspire them to continue to make sacrifices for their loved ones. That’s the least we can do as followers of Jesus

This Week's Big Idea: Crucifixion, The Worst Way to Die

I’m not sure I can do this subject justice, and you don’t want to upset your class members on a Sunday morning, so pray about how you want to explain this. The long and short is this: Roman crucifixion was the most painful and cruelest form of execution in humanity’s awful history of execution. It was designed to inflict the greatest physical and psychological torture before death as well as indignity after death. This is important. I believe that the timing of Jesus’ ministry on earth is related to the existence of the Roman Empire. For the first time, we had a worldwide language, so when Jerusalem was destroyed (as prophesied), Jews could quickly spread all over the world. Just as importantly, Rome practiced crucifixion—the only form of execution that would match all of the terror prophesied in the Bible. Victims would be suspended on a “cross”; by Bible times, they always included a crossbar (either a T or a t; the presence of the sign over Jesus’ head implies that He was placed on a t). The victim would carry the crossbar from the place of judgment to the place of execution, always outside the city. There, he would be flogged/scourged (Jesus was flogged first to try to elicit sympathy for a release). This caused blood loss and exposure—calculated not to kill but only to increase pain. Then he would be attached to the cross by either nails or ropes. The nails would be driven in between the radius and ulna, scoring or severing the median nerve, causing even more unbearable pain.

The feet would have been secured in such a way as to force the knees to bend (so the skeletal structure could not help keep the pressure off of the shoulders). As the leg muscles failed, the weight of the body would cause the shoulders to pop out of socket. This would begin a slow asphyxiation because the diaphragm would not be able to expand properly. In order to get a full breath, the victim would have to lift the entire body—oxygen-depleted thigh muscles pushing, body weight pulling against dislocated shoulders, fully lacerated back rubbing up and down unsanded wood. This would go on for hours, then days, and sometimes weeks. The cause of death would be exposure, hunger, shock, exhaustion, blood loss, and asphyxiation. Luke’s observation about the water and blood that came from Jesus’ pierced side indicates that His heart literally exploded from the effort of keeping His body alive. Not that I recommend this (it was brutally graphic), but The Passion of the Christ did a better job than any movie at depicting the extreme barbarism of crucifixion. If your class members have seen it, you might use it as a reference.

One More Topic: The Prophecies of Jesus’ Death

For those of you who like to be overly thorough, let me give you a list of the prophecies that explain what I mention in the left article and right sidebar.

  • Isaiah 50:6 says that Jesus would be struck, His beard plucked out, and He would be spit upon.

  • Isaiah 53:6 says He would be pierced, crushed, beaten, and scourged.

  • Zechariah 12:10 says that He would be pierced.

  • Psalm 22:16 says that He would be surrounded by His enemies, and that they would pierce His hands and feet.

  • Isaiah 53:12 says that He would die among criminals.

  • Psalm 22:8 says that He would die as a public spectacle.

  • Psalm 22:17 says that people would stare at Him (at also mentions that He could count His bones; I think that’s literal—His bones would be dislocated and popping out at all angles).

  • Psalm 22:14 says, “I am poured out like water, And all my bones are out of joint; My heart is like wax; It is melted within me.” I think that points to the blood and water.

  • Psalm 34:20 says that none of His bones would be broken (which is true—dislocated is not broken).

  • Psalm 69:21 says that He would be given vinegar to drink.

  • Psalm 38:11 says that His friends would observe from a distance.


Part 1: Mocked (Matthew 27:41-44)

In the same way the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked Him and said, “He saved others, but 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 has put His trust in God; let God rescue Him now—if He wants Him! For He said, ‘I am God’s Son.’” In the same way even the criminals who were crucified with Him kept taunting Him.

Last week, we covered the trial by which the Jews forced Pilate to sentence Jesus to execution. During the trial, Pilate had Jesus flogged and scourged, which would have started the blood loss early in the morning. Soldiers further beat Him, piercing His head with a crown of thorns, and mocking Him before parading Him to the place of execution, a mount called Golgotha (many Protestants today believe the mount pictured below is the one because it looks like a skull, which is what “Golgotha” means). Jesus was too weak to carry His crossbar up the hill, so a passerby named Simon was conscripted to do so. Jesus would have carried a sign explaining His crime of treason; the sign that Pilate had mounted above Jesus was different. He would have been stripped to a loincloth to increase humiliation. The crucifixion site (see the next page) would have been along a primary roadway so that as many people as possible could have seen and ridiculed Jesus.

Normally, people didn’t linger at a crucifixion site; it was too discomfiting. But in this case, Jesus had a large crowd to watch Him die (disturbing, isn’t it?). I cannot imagine the anguish of hearing nothing but insult and derision and mockery. Yes, indeed words can hurt.

It was not enough for the Jewish leaders to see Jesus put to death; they had to mock Him while He died. They should have known that this fulfilled Scripture. “Scribes” had the job of memorizing Scripture in order to make sure that written copies were correct. (In research, I saw a lot of Christians claiming that Isaiah 53 is a “forbidden chapter” for Jews. That’s not true. They may tend to ignore it, but it is not forbidden.) These Jewish leaders acknowledged that Jesus had performed mighty miracles—even saving people! But they completely misunderstood His purpose of pointing people to their real need—not a healthy body, but a healthy soul. In order to save them from eternal death, He could not save Himself. It was for those very Jewish leaders that Jesus allowed Himself to be killed! The cruelest comment had to do with His relationship with God the Father. They assumed that Jesus’ death proved that He was not the Son of God and that God did not love Him. But the truth was that this was both God the Father’s and God the Son’s plan to show their mutual love for us. How those words must have hurt. But not because Jesus doubted God’s love! But because it proved how little anyone understood of His teachings while on earth. Well, the resurrection would be an excellent correction.

Here’s what I would do with this section: ask if your class members have seen or experienced the “kick ‘em while they’re down” phenomenon. Did they do anything to stop it? Human behavior can be very ugly. But also point out that one of these mocking criminals soon repented—and immediately received forgiveness!


Part 2: Forsaken (Matthew 27:45-49)

From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over the whole land. About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Elí, Elí, lemá sabachtháni?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling for Elijah!” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge, filled it with sour wine, fixed it on a reed, and offered Him a drink. But the rest said, “Let’s see if Elijah comes to save Him!”

Jesus was nailed to the cross at about 9 AM; this darkness came over the land at noon. I have always assumed this just meant really dark clouds, but there are many theories behind it. A supernatural eclipse (Passover happened at full moon, so this would be a true miracle.) An Egypt-plague-like darkness. What this the earth mourning its Creator’s death? Was this God hiding the suffering of His Son? The Bible doesn’t say. But at 3 PM Jesus cries out of abandonment. Scholars have noted that 3 PM was the time of the evening sacrifice at the Temple, further proving that Jesus was the true Lamb of God. But His quoting of Psalm 22:1 has perplexed many. Why would Jesus be asking “why”? And how could God “abandon” any part of Himself? (This gets into deep thoughts about the Trinity.) Look, we will never understand what Jesus experienced. I believe Jesus quoted this verse in fulfillment of prophecy. And I believe that Jesus was truly separated from God the Father in order to endure His wrath. I don’t know how, but I believe that moment (perhaps when Jesus said this phrase) is when our salvation occurred. Jesus did not have to rise from the dead for us to be saved. But Jesus’ resurrection would be the proof that we also would not be left in the grave (it would mean that we would spend eternity with God and not just floating around in limbo). Don’t worry about the confusion with the name “Elijah”. Jesus was quickly dying; His speech would certainly have been slurred. And refer to the early sidebar for thoughts on this sponge.


Aside: The Last Words of Jesus

This would be a great exercise for your class is you have time. Have them look up the seven last sayings of Jesus and ask them to piece together what they mean.

Luke 23:34, Luke 23:43, John 19:26-27, Matthew 27:46, John 19:28, John 19:30, Luke 23:46.

Write them down on a board, then try to come up with one word that summarizes the phrase. Finally, ask what those words teach us about Jesus, our Savior.


Part 3: Sacrificed (Matthew 27:50-52)

Jesus shouted again with a loud voice and gave up His spirit. Suddenly, the curtain of the sanctuary was split in two from top to bottom; the earth quaked and the rocks were split. The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.

You can see that I haven’t given myself enough space to finish this lesson well! Don’t make my mistake! Some quick thoughts. This “shout” may have been the “It is finished”. He knew what was going on. And most importantly, He was in control. He “gave up” His spirit. And then we have the second supernatural element of Jesus’ death: the curtain. This would have been the large curtain separating the “holy place” from the “most holy place” in the Temple—60 feet high and 30 feet wide. It was a symbol of the separation of God and man; only one man could go back once a year to make a sacrifice for the sins of the people. Well, being torn from the top down obviously means that God did it. There was no more separation. One sacrifice has been made for all sin, and God accepted it. The third event was the earthquake (fairly common in Judea)—something noticeable enough to convince the centurion who Jesus was! The fourth event was the dead coming to life. This is a strange one. Were they raised like Lazarus, only to die again? Or in a “temporary” body like Jesus’, to ascend to heaven? We don’t know. The purpose seems to be to prove to the disciples that Jesus’ death would have this kind of impact on their eternity. In other words, Jesus wouldn’t be the only one resurrected.

Here’s what I suggest for application to this lesson. Ask your class—Why did Jesus have to die? Make sure they make it personal. Jesus died for us and because of us. How do we respond to that? (1) Do we live our life thankful to Jesus? Or do we find things to complain about? I get it that some people have truly drawn a bad lot in life, but even then Jesus went through worse. And our rough days are only temporary! (2) Do we focus on what’s truly important in life? Jesus didn’t go through hell and back so we could fuss about our phone service and how bad someone smells and why we don’t like so-and-so. Does your “big picture” begin and end with how important everyone else is? What quarrels are you involved in that—in light of Jesus dying for you—you need to stop? What words of life do you need to share with others?


Aside: Human Contempt

The latest issue of Biblical Illustrator includes an article of all of the forms of contempt that Jesus endured. One of the suggestions may run against your ideas, so I’m happy to cite it! We all need a good challenge. Mocking has always been the easiest way to show contempt for someone. Jesus endured that as well as profanity from the Roman soldiers (think X-rated). People spat on Him and slapped Him; those are in any culture a show of abject derision. They demonstrate just how little one thinks of another. They also ripped out His hair. In many cultures, hair and beard is a symbol of masculinity, so removing it is a great insult (and by ripping it out it is also a source of extreme pain). Don’t forget that Jesus was also betrayed by a kiss. For this symbol of love and friendship to be turned into rejection unto death is unthinkable.

The article author also says that the soldier who gave Jesus a sponge to drink was also showing Him contempt, contrary to what many Bible readers think. The author says that the sponge was generally only used by Romans to clean public toilets. It was tied to a short stick and left soaking in a vinegar solution until the next person used the toilet. The author can think of no other reason the soldier would have a vinegar sponge on a stick. If he’s right, then this act is the final/ultimate act of contempt because it would mean that Jesus would die with human waste in His mouth and that taste in His tongue. His very last breath would be of human waste. I think it’s a compelling argument. What do you think?


Bonus Aside: The Garden Tomb

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre covers the traditional location (dating to ~400 AD) both of Calvary and the Garden Tomb. If you’ve watched the PBS specials, they go with this site. But there is another site discovered about 200 years ago (“Gordon’s Calvary”) that seems to match the details even better.

These tombs were carved out of the sides of hills (hence only wealthy people had them; in fact, some of them like for King Absalom pictured above were spectacular). An entrance only about 3’ high would lead to a sunken inner chamber (about 6’ high) with a number of body-sized niches carved into the walls (think morgue). Some tombs would have multiple such chambers. The body would be sealed into a niche for a year where it would decay (remember how dry Judea is). Afterwards, the bones would be removed and placed into a repository called an ossuary, a practice that was popular in Jesus’ day. That “second burial” would mark the end of the mourning period. Sometime near Jesus’ day we also start to find tombs with benches carved into them. Large, rolling stones would be locked into place to prevent grave robbery and wild animal desecration. Tombs could take years to prepare, so this was a kingly gift to Jesus.


Closing Thoughts: Why Three Crosses?

My last church had a hill on which they put three crosses. Before I left, we had a new pastor come in and try to convince them to take down two of them. “We only need one cross!” For those churches that have one cross up, that’s fine! Don’t worry about changing anything based on what I’m about to say. We don’t worship the cross; it’s not an idol. It’s just a symbol or an image designed to remind us of the sacrifice that Jesus made for us. That’s why I think the symbol of three crosses is equally fine. Why? What do the other two crosses represent? They represent criminals, of course. In our passage today, we see that both of the men ridiculed Jesus. But Luke tells us that after some point in time, one of the two had a change of heart. We don’t know why, but I assume he suddenly realized from Jesus’ behavior that He was not like anyone else, that He was being executed unjustly, and that maybe He was everything He claimed to be. Then he defended Jesus, and that’s when we hear the amazing line, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.”

Think about that. How perfect an illustration of humanity are those two crosses! Everyone deserves the punishment they received. And everyone is, at least in the beginning, an enemy of God and a blasphemer. But at some point, we realize that all of our blasphemy is a lie, and we turn to God in repentance, and we then receive the promise of eternal life. That’s all of us! So when I look at the three crosses, I see not only the sacrifice of Jesus, but I also see every person who is dying apart from Jesus, and I see those who have chosen to turn to Him for forgiveness—even at the last possible moment of life.

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