by Joshua V. Schneider
Gospel: Matthew 27:38-44
Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. And those who passed by derided him, wagging their headsand saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross. "So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; 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 trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way. (Matthew 27:38-44, ESV)
THE MAN FOR OTHERS
A discordant song fills the air. A chant, really, a litany of mockery and accusation—scorn. Shouts and cries of hatred ring out in a painful cacophony, as the dying Christ hangs naked on a cross. Humiliated, fighting for every breath. No sympathy. Words that sting like venom poured into gaping wounds. The venom of the Evil One: Satan.
These mockers are giddy with rage as they see their victim groan. "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself!" (Matthew 27:40a). Never mind that they were watching that temple being destroyed as they spoke—not knowing that the temple he spoke of was his body. "Surely you must want to save yourself? Don't you care to save your own skin?"
A second taunt rings with familiarity, but to none but Jesus' ears. "If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross" (27:40b). Jesus had heard those venomous words before: "If you are the Son of God." Satan spoke them while tempting Jesus in the wilderness. "Have a care for yourself!" he would say. "Don't starve for lack of bread when you're the Son of God. Perform a miracle! Turn these stones into bread!" Satan's old challenge came back, this time from the mouths of those standing before Jesus' cross. Trying to turn Jesus away from his task.
They're having too much fun. Christ lies silent—bones and joints stretched out of place—every breath a painful effort. The litany continues: "He saved others, he cannot save himself" (27:42a). Can they really mock his power? Have they no fear? They had seen his miracles, what he had done for others. But now they jeer at his apparent powerlessness. "Why won't he do for himself what he did for others? He must be too weak." He is weak indeed—weakened by whips and scourges and nails. But powerless—he is not.
"He is the King of Israel," they cry, "let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe him" (27:42b). What arrogance. A blatant pretense. Their promise that they will believe if Christ comes down from the cross is a sham. They were always one step away from believing him: "Just give us this sign!" An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah. But even if someone rises from the dead, they will not believe.
The litany ends with this taunt, "He trusts in God, let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God'" (27:43). See how reckless unbelief is? There is no fear of God. How could they dare take the risk to crucify Jesus if he might really be who he says he is? But they did not mean it. They really didn't want to see if God would deliver him. But despite all these taunts, his silence is remarkable. Never does he lash back with sharp words. He was able to silence his detractors with a single reproach before—but now he does not answer their cries. "He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and a like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth" (Isaiah 53:7).
When will it end??? Our blood boils to think of it all. We are filled with indignation. Until we realize that our sins and evil thoughts rose against him in accusation, too. Not a pleasant thought. We don't want to admit it either. Sure, it's true we might not have been the ones to hang him, had we been there. Not everyone was turned against him. But every sinful thought or word or accusation against God was known to him, across all time—and he bore it all in the flesh. He heard it all.
You've heard it before—perhaps your own heart has said it: "My sin is too great for God to forgive…How can God forgive me?" This is to doubt God's power to save. It is to make our sin greater than Jesus' cross. Or we may cry to God, "I can't help it that I sin! You made me this way!" People blame God for their fallenness, accusing him for their sin. Or what about those scoffers today who would say, "If only God would work some miracle in my life—then I'd believe"? Or whatever other pretense people give for not believing—Christ sees the sham; it is not hidden from him today anymore than it was then.
But even more so, our accusations fell on Jesus when he was declared guilty of every sin. He was made sin for us. As he died on the cross, the accusations for every sin fell upon him. He was the murderer, the adulterer, the thief. Our greatest and smallest sins were all laid upon him. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor whose 100 th year we commemorate this year, knew this truth well. He said,
The truthfulness Jesus demands of his disciples is self-denial that does not conceal sin…Precisely because truthfulness is concerned first and last with uncovering human beings in the entirety of their being, in their iniquity before God, it provokes the opposition of sinners, and is thus persecuted and crucified. The only basis of the disciples' truthfulness is that Jesus, while we follow him, reveals our sinfulness to us on the cross. The cross as God's truth over us is the only thing that makes us truthful. Whoever knows the cross no longer shies away from any other truth. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Meditations on the Cross, 24)
Bonhoeffer recognized that the cross is the full exposure of our sin, in Christ's flesh. It's too easy to conceal our sin by hiding under indignation at the mockers who stood at the cross. The truth that our sin weighed on him every bit as heavily as did the sin of the mockers provokes our opposition and anger. But the cross uncovers our entire sinful being, and for us who believe in what Christ did on the cross, we do not shy away from the truth. We gain nothing by hiding our sin, for it is paid in full by his bloody death on the cross. Our indignation toward others' sins can become like a shield to deflect accusation. But if we understand the cross, we don't need to hide from the Law's accusation—because that accusation does not bring God's wrath on us, but, rather, in the cross, God's wrath is fully met in Jesus Christ.
You see, here is the great irony of what the mockers said. Every jeer and taunt they made had one thing in common. They were concerned with what he could do for himself or whether he himself could be saved. They tempted Jesus to come off the cross, to save himself. "He saved others, but he can't save himself." The great irony is that if he saved himself, he would not have saved others!!! This would have brought the cross to failure. Unbelief cannot comprehend the cross. The darkness cannot comprehend the light that has come into the world. They could not see that it was by his very death—the destruction of this bodily Temple—that he was saving others. The sinful self is so curved in on itself, that it cannot comprehend this radical altruism.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer saw this point with such clarity when he noted the fact that "Jesus is there only for others" (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, "Outline for a Book" Letters and Papers from Prison. 381). In his entire life, from incarnation to cross, to his resurrection, Jesus is "there for others." It is here at the cross that the Gospel strikes us full force, with the news that this radical payment is for you! There was no self-serving in Christ, no desire to come off the cross or lessen the pain to save his own skin; not a breath was wasted but it was for you. All this suffering, the silence in the face of so much scorn—the weight of your own sin—all this was to bring you to him, to this moment of dying agony when he was forsaken by God, for you.
The mockers thought that if Jesus was who he said, he would come down from the cross and save himself. But the Son of God doesn't come down from the Cross! The King of Israel doesn't come down from the Cross! It takes a true Man to die like this—and he doesn't do it for himself. He was truly "'the man for others' and therefore the Crucified" (Bonhoeffer, "Outline for a Book", 382). They were mistaken about his character. His death showed the depth of Divine Love. After his death, even the pagans knew his character: "Truly this was the Son of God!"
And so it was that,
Jesus Showed Himself Truly to Be "The Man for Others"
When He Saved Mankind Rather than Himself at the Cross.
Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins, and without the forgiveness of sins, we all would be lost. But Jesus gave his life to save mankind when he died on the cross. He truly was "the man for others," having loved his own who were in the world; he loved them to the end. And it is in this Man for others that we put our trust, for Jesus' cross shows us his death was for us. Amen.
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