NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
The heckling and disrespect of those in authority, especially those who God anointed to teach and guide His people was something predicted long ago. This was the theme of the Rabbis who commented on the verbal traditions, quoting from the original document:1 “In the footsteps of the Messiah insolence will increase and honor dwindle.”2 Another renown Rabbi commented: “At the end of the King Messiah, audacity will increase; i.e., at the end of the exile, prior to the advent of the Messiah.”3 This is followed by a tempting dare that Jesus had faced before. Several times He was challenged to do miracles in order to prove His claim as the Son of God,4 starting with Satan’s temptations in the wilderness.5
In one polemic writing, Jewish writers say that the mockers were actually saying, “If You are the Son of God, why haven’t you delivered Yourself out of our hands?”6 The answer, of course, is very simple, because it wouldn’t be long before they would hear this suffering Messiah cry out, “Father, I put my life in your hands!”7 Matthew will now give us a glimpse into who was the source of such mocking and taunting.
Verses 41-44: The leading priests, the teachers of the law, and the older Jewish leaders were also there. They made fun of Jesus the same as the other people did. They said, “He saved others, but He can’t save Himself! People say He is the king of Israel. If He is the king, He should come down now from the cross. Then we will believe in Him. He trusted God. So let God save Him now if God really wants Him. He Himself said, ‘I am the Son of God.’ And in the same way, the criminals on the crosses beside Jesus also insulted Him.”
I can’t help but wonder what gave these opponents of Jesus such boldness and sense of invulnerability that they now openly made fun of the man who reportedly healed the sick, cleansed lepers, walked on water, and raised the dead. But I wonder if the words of Job ever crossed their minds: “If God checked you very closely, would He see that you are right? Do you really think you can fool God the same as you fool people?”8
But king David would have a different take on them, “Let my enemies be ashamed and embarrassed—all those who were happy about my troubles. Proud of themselves, they treated me as worthless. So let them be covered with shame and disgrace.”9 One of their pokes at the Messiah on the cross sounds like what king David had to deal with, “God will not rescue him!”10 Then they teased our Lord just as they teased His royal ancestor, “Call to the Lord for help. Maybe He will save you. If He likes you so much, surely He will rescue you!”11 They also used the words of the Korahites, “Where is your God?”12 So they came to the same conclusion as the Psalmist “God has left him, so there is no one to help him.”13
Jerome gives us his understanding of why the Jewish leaders were taunting Jesus this way. He writes: “What a deceitful promise! Which is greater: to come down from the cross while still alive or to rise from the tomb while dead? He rose, and you do not believe. Therefore, even if He came down from the cross, you would not believe. Furthermore, it seems to me that this would usher in the evil spirits. As soon as the Lord was crucified, they sensed the power of the cross and realized their own strength was broken. They were acting in this way to get Him to come down from the cross. But the Lord, knowing the snares of His adversaries, remained on the cross that He may destroy the devil.”14
Even though Luke records that it was one thief that mocked Jesus, and was rebuked him for being so foolish,15 Matthew says that both thieves on either side of Jesus joined in with the crowd. Some Bible scholars suggest that these thieves may not have ridiculed Jesus themselves, but merely watched without objecting to their derisiveness. But in my opinion, since Matthew does not go on to include the confession of the one thief, he is only reporting what happened up to that point based on the information he had been given.
Verses 45-46: At noon the whole country suddenly became dark. The darkness continued for three hours. About three o’clock Jesus cried out loudly, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” This means “My God, my God, why have You left me like this?”16
To understand this scene, we need to look at the Jewish timetable for the Temple and the daily scheduled burnt offerings.17 In the first hour of the day, beginning at dawn until 8 AM the priests prepared the altar for the first sacrifice.18 The first male lamb is brought out and tied to the altar.19 Then during the third hour (9-10 AM), the incense was offered in the Sanctuary and the first lamb was sacrificed. In the sixth hour (Noon to 1 PM), the second lamb is brought out and tied to the altar at high noon.20 Then, in the ninth hour (3 – 4 PM), the second lamb is sacrificed.21
So when we use this timeline to follow what was happening on the cross, at approximately 12 PM, in what was usually the hour when the sun was at high noon, the sky suddenly became pitch black. This was the same moment when in the Temple the second lamb was brought out and tied to the altar. It stayed that way for 3 hours. Then at the same moment when this second lamb was sacrificed, our Lord cried out to His heavenly Father, wanting to know why He was there all alone.
Metaphorically speaking, we could call the first lamb that died earlier as portraying all the lambs that had died over the centuries since the Law was given to Moses. In this case, and on this day, its death represented the truth that this would be the last time God would accept an animal sacrifice for sins. And the second lamb that died is portrayed as the Lamb of God that would die one time for all time to cover the sins of mankind and would never need to die again. This ninth hour was also called the second hour of prayer,22 and was also called the hour of confession. So we can see that the whole drama of our Lord being on the cross at this particular time of day was not happenstance, but orchestrated by God the Father from before the beginning of the world.
Of course, God’s anger was against man’s sin, the sin that made His Son the only one qualified for crucifixion. But what Matthew records is very important for us to understand, not only what Jesus said but why He said it. It is the opening lines of a Messianic Psalm.23 It is interesting that in the Aramaic Version it reads, “My God, my God, why have You spared me?” This can be best understood when we take the word “spare” as a verb meaning, “to part with.” We also must note that “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani,” is a combination of both Hebrew and Aramaic, with the first two words being the Hebrew name for God, and the remaining phrase being Aramaic. As a matter of fact in the Aramaic paraphrase of this verse, we find “azabthani.”24 One Jewish translation renders it: “Eli! Eli! L’mah sh’baktani?” (My God! My God! Why have you deserted me?).25 Although Matthew, no doubt, wrote it this way in his Aramaic notes, in the Greek it was transliterated as “sabachthani.”
1 Mishnah, Third Division: Nahim, Tractate Sotah, Ch. 9:15
2 Babylonian Talmud, Seder Nashim, Masekhet Sotah, folio 49b
3 Complete Jewish Bible with Rashi’s Commentary, op. loc., Psalm 89:52
4 See Luke 23:8
5 See Matthew 4:1-11
6 Sefer Toledot Yeshu, p.17
7 Luke 26:43
8 Job 13:9
9 Psalm 35:26
10 Ibid. 3:2.
11 Cf. Ibid. 22:8.
12 Ibid. 42:10
13 Ibid. 71:11
14 Jerome: Commentary on Matthew, Bk. 4, Ch. 27:42
15 Luke 23:39-41
16 See Psalm 22
17 See Exodus 29:38-42; Numbers 28:3-8
18 See Leviticus 1:7; 6:1-6, 8-13
19 Mishnah: Fifth Division, Kodashim, Tractate Tamid 3:2-3:3
20 Ibid: Tamid 4:1
21 Josephus: Antiquities 14.4.3. Also see Philo: Special Laws I, XXV (169)
22 See Acts 3:1; 10:9
23 Psalm 22:1
24 Paul F. Herring, The New Testament: The Hebrew Behind The Greek, Kindle Edition, Loc. 1170
25 Complete Jewish Bible, loc. cit.