NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
by Dr. Robert R. Seyda
GOSPEL OF MATTHEW
In the mean time, Matthew tells us that some soldiers apparently thought the pain was too much for this suffering king, so they went and fetched a sponge and dipped it in a sedative-ladened sour wine to give Him some relief from the agony. The object they used may have resembled the one we find described here: “Regarding the usage of a sponge to wipe off the table; if it has a leather handle so that by handling it he will not necessarily squeeze water out of it, one may wipe the table with it; if not and one would definitely squeeze out the water, one may not wipe the table with it. The Sages maintain that when dry; in either case, whether or not it has a leather handle it may be handled on the Sabbath since it is definitely a vessel and not set aside and even so it is not susceptible to defilement since it is not a vessel of wood, garment, sack or a metal utensil1.”2 However, there is no reason to believe that the soldiers would have taken such care.
Verses 50-51a: Again Jesus cried out loudly and then died. When Jesus died, the curtain in the Temple was torn into two pieces. The tear started at the top and went all the way to the bottom.
Matthew does not give us the words that Jesus spoke with His last breath. However, John records that this is when our Lord cried out: “It is finished!”3 Luke tells us that Jesus was then heard saying: “Father, into Your hands I surrender my spirit.”4 Also, when it comes to certifying that Jesus was dead, the Ethiopic Version adds that one soldier took a spear and pierced His side with it, and blood and water flowed out: but this circumstance is only recorded by the Evangelist John,5 although Beza says the same is read here in two ancient copies of Matthew.
Early church preacher Chrysostom, had this to say: “If giving up the spirit or (according to John) handing over the spirit were simply tantamount to dying, it would be easy to understand the passage which states ‘He gave up His spirit.’ However, since discerning minds define death to be nothing other than the separation of the soul from the body, we can see that yielding up one’s spirit is something more than simply dying physically. It is quite something else to ‘cry out with a loud voice and give up the spirit’ (as in Matthew) or to commit one’s spirit to the hand of God (as in Luke) or to bow one’s head and hand over his spirit (as in John). It is for all people to die, including the evil, because the soul of every person, including the unrighteous, will be separated from the body.”6
Chrysostom then continues: “If therefore we now understand what it means to cry out with a loud voice and thus to give up the spirit, that is, to commit oneself to the hand of God (as we have explained above in accordance with Luke’s Gospel), and if we understand what it means to bow the head and hand over the spirit, let us hasten to guard the conduct of our lives so that, upon our deaths, we also, like Jesus, might be able to cry out with a loud voice and thus to give up our spirit to the Father.”7
Some critics point out that this event is recorded nowhere else in non-Christian sources. Some simple logic may explain why. As far as the Romans are concerned, an earthquake could be responsible for more destruction than just rending a curtain in two in a temple, especially a Jewish one. So they had no need to make note of this. In the case of the Jews, the last thing they needed was for Jesus’ death to be connected to the sudden exposure of the Holy of Holies for people to see other than the High Priest. This would certainly lend authenticity or our Lord’s death as the Lamb of God and the Messiah. So they would make sure that none of this was known to the outside world, just as they would cover up His resurrection. However, with the apostle John, Jesus’ mother, and others standing on Golgotha at the time this happened, that’s why the Holy Spirit made sure it was recorded.
Nonetheless, I’m sure that when the Jewish leaders heard Jesus follower’s talking about it, they were quick to dismiss it as an unfounded rumor. In any case, it must have been known well enough to appear in one of the Apocryphal Gospels.8 I like the way one Jewish writer put it: “The fate of crucifixion, however, did not end the career of Jesus, as it had that of many other claimants to the Messiahship in those turbulent times. His personality had impressed itself so deeply upon His followers that they could not admit that He had gone from them forever…This was but the starting point of that remarkable religious movement which grew first among the lower classes in northern Palestine and Syria, then gradually throughout the entire Roman Empire, shaking the whole of heathendom until all its deities gave way to the God of Israel, the divine Father of the crucified Messiah. The Jewish tidings of salvation for the poor and lowly offered by the Nazarene became the death-knell to the proud might of paganism.”9
Meantime, those standing around the cross heard our Lord’s last cry just before He died. But what they didn’t see was what was happening over at the Temple. Matthew says that the veil that separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place, was ripped down the middle from top to bottom. There is an interesting comparison between the veil and what Jewish verbal teachings say about the high priest’s garments: “Rabbi ‘Inyani ben Sason said: Why are the sections on sacrifices and the priestly garments similar? To teach you: as sacrifices make atonement, so do the priestly garments make atonement.”10 It then goes on to say that the robe atones for slander. In this case, Jesus had been accused and convicted of slander by claiming to be the Son of God, the Messiah. Quite amazingly, when the high priest was permitted to tear his garments upon hearing blasphemy,11 it was also from top to bottom.
The veil in the Temple was a beautiful piece of woven linen. We read where Moses was told: “Use fine linen and make a special curtain for the inside of the Holy Tent. Use blue, purple, and scarlet yarn and sew pictures of Cherub angels into the curtain.”12 When Solomon was building the Temple he was told to use “expensive linen.”13 This is significant because as one revered Rabbi explains: “Whenever the Torah uses the term sheish or ‘spun sheish,’ it is necessary that the strand is sixfold. Where the term bad is used, it is valid, if one strand alone is used. Even in such situations, the most desirable manner of performing the mitzvah14 is that it be sixfold. Whenever the term meshizar15 is used alone, the intent is a thread that is eightfold.”16
The Rabbis tell us, “The veil was three and one-half inches thick, and was woven on a loom of seventy-two cords, and each cord was made up of twenty-four threads. It was forty cubits high, and twenty cubits wide. It was made up of eighty-two times ten thousand threads.”17 A cubit was somewhere between 17 to 21 inches. On a conservative basis, this veil was 60 feet high and 30 feet wide and 4 inches thick. Also, the Rabbis say that this curtain had to be immersed in order to sanctify it for temple use, and that immersion took some 300 priests.18 This made the ripping of the veil even that more impressive. But that was not all. In the words of David: “In my trouble, I called to the Lord. Yes, I cried out to my God for help. There in His temple He heard my voice. He heard my cry for help. The earth shook and shivered. The foundations of the mountains trembled.”19 Not only did the veil rip, but so did the ground. Metaphorically, we could also see the veil as representing the sky opening when Jesus returns to gather the saints, and the ground opening to let them free to meet Him in the air.
1 See Numbers 31:20-22
2 Jewish Mishnah, Second Division: Tractate Shabbat, Ch. 21:3
3 John 19:30
4 Luke 23:46
5 John 19:34
6 Origen: Commentary on Matthew 138
8 Gospel of Nicodemus, or Acts of Pilate, Trans., by M. R. James, Oxford; Clarendon Press, 1924, Ch. 11:1
9 Jewish Theology Systematically and Historically Considered by Kaufmann Kohler, The Macmillan Co., 1918, Ch. 57:7, pp. 433-434
10 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Kodashim, Masekhet Zebachim, folio 88b
11 Hastings’ Dictionary of the New Testament, Rending of Garments
12 Exodus 26:31
13 II Chronicles 3:14
14 Hebrew for “command” and “good deed”
15 Another word for “twisted”
16 Moses Maimonides, Mishnah Torah, Sefer Avodah, Tractate Kli Hamikdash, Ch. 8, Halacha 14
17 Jerusalem Talmud, Second Division: Tractate Sheqalim, Ch. 8:2, [G-J]
18 Mishnah, Tractate Shekalim, Ch. 8:5
19 Psalm 18:6-7