27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him. 32 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36 Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and 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.” 41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “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. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
N.T. Wright has shared an intriguing story about a spelunking friend of his.
A friend of mine was leading a party of explorers through underground caverns and tunnels. They had trained for this expedition and knew the way. Not all the caves had been explored before, and my friend was convinced that there was a way right through, bringing them out by a different route after some miles underground. It would involve them at one point going down under water inside the cave, in order to come up the other side in a continuing tunnel. Nobody had even attempted to go this way before.
But when they got to the crucial point in the cave, some of the party lost their nerve. It was a stupid idea, they said. There were no maps, no charts to indicate that there was a way through. They might go down into the water and simply drown while trying to find the way forward. Some got angry with the leader. What right had he got, they said, to push them into doing something crazy just because he had the dream of finding a new way? Eventually he realized there was only one thing to do. He would have to go through himself and find the way, and then come back to take them with him.
As he went down into the water, some of the group stood there nervously silent, but the ones who had objected laughed at him. So much for your great dreams, they said. Either you’ll come back soaked and defeated or you won’t come back at all. That’s what happens to people who think they know too much and discover too late that they don’t.
Of course – I wouldn’t be telling the story otherwise! – he did find the way through, and eventually they all followed, including the grumblers. But the point of the story…is to show what it was like as Jesus pioneered the way through death and out the other side into the new life that he knew was there but which nobody else understood.
That is a great illustration of what Christ has done for us on the cross: He has swum into the murky deep of death and returned to tell us there is a way…and the way is the way of the cross and empty tomb in which death was defeated by Christ. And, like Wright’s friend, Jesus was mocked and laughed at during His journey through death and out the other side. The men who put Jesus on the cross mocked Him as He died. In so doing they revealed their ignorance concerning what was actually happening on Calvary. Some years back there was a CBS miniseries on Jesus. There is a scene in it in which the devil confronts Jesus in Gethsemane. The devil says this to Jesus: “They do not understand your cross, Jesus. They will never understand your cross.” That is true. That has always been true.
The mocking crowd revealed their own spiritual blindness and ignorance. Before we consider Jesus’ seven last words from the cross, let us consider the three ignorant words directed towards the cross.
A word of mockery that revealed their ignorance concerning Jesus.
The first word of mockery directed toward the cross revealed a fundamental ignorance on the part of those killing Jesus concerning who He was and is. It is a verbal word and also an enacted word of violence, and it is spoken by the Roman soldiers.
27 Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the governor’s headquarters, and they gathered the whole battalion before him. 28 And they stripped him and put a scarlet robe on him, 29 and twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on his head and put a reed in his right hand. And kneeling before him, they mocked him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” 30 And they spit on him and took the reed and struck him on the head. 31 And when they had mocked him, they stripped him of the robe and put his own clothes on him and led him away to crucify him.
The tragic irony of this first word of mockery is nearly staggering in its blind audacity. “Hail, King of the Jews!” they shout, as they dress Him as a mock king, crown Him with thorns, and then strike Him with the reed they offered Him as a mock scepter.
It needs to be noted that this mock coronation was not limited only to Jesus. Michael Wilkins notes that Roman soldiers sometimes played a cruel game with prisoners called “the king’s game” in which “the prisoner was dressed up like a burlesque king and used as a game piece” in which he was “moved around a game board etched in the floor…for the entertainment of the troops as they hurled verbal and physical abuse at the mock king.”
There can be no doubt that the association of kingship with the trial of Jesus brought a certain heightened degree of disdain to this playing of “the king’s game,” but it was nonetheless still the normal process of mocking and breaking the spirit of common criminals condemned to die in that brutal culture.
The spiritual blindness of the guards is highlighted by the fact that Jesus was and is in fact King and Lord of heaven and earth! If ever the ignominy and shame of mankind was captured in a microcosm, this is it! They mock the one who created them. They spit upon the one who made the oceans. They crown with thorns the one who crowned the heavens with glory. They clothe in a mocking robe the one who clothes the earth with the morning dew, the mountaintops with snow, prairies with grass. They kneel disdainfully before the one before whom every knee on heaven and earth will one day kneel.
They see this mocking as a delusional fool’s defeat without realizing that it is actually the King of Kings greatest victory, for it is here on the cross and in the Easter morning tomb that Christ will ultimately defeat sin, death, and hell.
A.T. Robertson, speaking of the crown of thorns, wrote that the crown “was more like a victor’s garland (stephanon) than a royal diadem (diadema), but it served the purpose.” That is most fitting, for Christ is indeed the victor.
A word of mockery that revealed their ignorance of the Father.
The crowd next offers a mocking word that reveals their ignorance of the Father.
32 As they went out, they found a man of Cyrene, Simon by name. They compelled this man to carry his cross. 33 And when they came to a place called Golgotha (which means Place of a Skull), 34 they offered him wine to drink, mixed with gall, but when he tasted it, he would not drink it. 35 And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. 36 Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. 37 And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews.” 38 Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left. 39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and 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.”
Michael Card has offered a rather fascinating proposal concerning the wine mixed with gall.
In verse 34, Jesus is offered a drink of wine mixed with what is usually referred to as myrrh. Besides being a perfume, myrrh is also a narcotic. The majority view on this passage is that it represents a custom whereby the righteous women of Jerusalem, in an act of compassion, provided the mixture to ease the pain of condemned criminals. But the Aramaic words for “myrrh” and “gall” are virtually identical. In Psalm 69:21, which prophetically portrays the scene, the word gall is used. Matthew uses gall as well.
It is important to realize that gall is not the same thing as myrrh. Gall, in fact, is poison. There is at least a chance that this offer of a drink was Satan’s last attempt to kill Jesus before the cross. After all, he had tried to kill Jesus as an infant (Mt 2:16). He had tried to convince Jesus to jump off the roof of the temple (Mt 4:6). He had tried to drown Jesus in the storm (Mt 8:24). He had tried to have Jesus stoned by the crowd (Jn 11:8). Is it too much to believe that a drink, perhaps with poison gall, was Satan’s last attempt to kill Jesus before he made it to the cross? The fact that Jesus spits the drink out after he tastes it might be an indication that he realized it was poisonous.
That is a provocative idea, and while it cannot be said with certainty that this is what is happening here, there is nothing objectionable in the idea. After all, Satan had indeed attempted to kill the Lord Jesus before, and he indeed would have liked for Jesus not to have died upon a cross. Regardless, Jesus refuses to drink the gall.
The most telling words are found in verses 39 and 40.
39 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads 40 and 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.”
A.T. Robertson points out that the wording of verse 40, “If you are the Son of God,” is a mimic of Satan’s temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4:3. To be sure, there is a diabolical hand behind the taunt. Perhaps more than anything, however, there is an ignorance of the true nature of God in these words.
We must remember that the common religious idea advocated by at least some of the religious teachers was an idea saturated in works righteousness and a concept of something like what we would call “karma.” Basically it went like this: if you are good then God will be happy with you and bad things will not happen to you. If you are bad then God will be unhappy with you and bad things will not happen to you. Conversely, if bad things happen to you, it is most likely the case that you sinned somehow and did something to deserve it.
There is an entire book of the Bible that seeks to show the folly of this kind of overly simplistic theology. That book is called Job. This mentality can be seen lurking behind many of the words of Job’s friends. And it was present likewise in the staggering legalism of the Pharisees. We can see it today in certain strands of Christianity. It is a very dangerous idea, this idea that if you are suffering it is because you have somehow offended God and that if you are a good boy or girl nothing bad will happen to you.
Let me suggest that if that theological premise was true, then the logic undergirding their taunt was correct, for if, they would say, God actually had a son, then certainly He would not have allowed such a shameful occurrence as the cross to happen to him. Conversely, the fact that Jesus was on the cross was seen as irrefutable proof that He could not have been the Son of God.
“If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
Do you see the assumption? The assumption is that if He was indeed the Son of God (a) God would not want Him on the cross and (b) the cross would never have happened. Why? Because God would of course be pleased with any son He might have and would never allow such a thing to happen.
The logic is right if the premise is true, but the problem is the premise itself. The premise that God will not allow suffering if He is happy with you was precisely their theological problem, for there has never been one with whom the Lord God was more pleased than Jesus yet He sent Him precisely for the cross! What if it is exactly because God loves the Son and loves lost humanity that He calls upon the Son to do what only the Son can do? What if God’s glory and love is most evident in Christ’s fulfillment of the great and daunting work of the cross?
“If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross.”
But it is precisely because He alone is the Son of God that He is on the cross, for only the Son could fulfill the Father’s just demands and righteous requirements! Only the Son is a fit mediator for God and man! Only the Son is able to suffer in our stead, to bleed in our place, and, in so doing, to secure the salvation of all who will trust in Him.
A word of mockery that revealed their ignorance of their own hearts.
Not to be outdone, the religious establishment offers the third word of mockery. This word is significant because it demonstrates their ignorance of their own hearts.
41 So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, 42 “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. 43 He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” 44 And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way.
There is something comically absurd about their statement, “Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him.” There is an obviously absurd element, then a more subtle one. The obviously absurd element is that when Jesus was not on the cross they most emphatically did not believe in Him. The more subtle absurdity is the assumption on their part that they are reasonable people who are capable of seeing and discerning and believing the truth of God.
In reality, the truth of God stood in their very midst, and crucifixion was their answer. The cross demonstrates once and for all just what fallen man does with the truth when God reveals it: fallen man hates it and seeks to eradicate it.
The arrogance of thinking that fallen people are predisposed to receive joyfully the truths of a holy God was also demonstrated in the jarring story of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16.
19 “There was a rich man who was clothed in purple and fine linen and who feasted sumptuously every day. 20 And at his gate was laid a poor man named Lazarus, covered with sores, 21 who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table. Moreover, even the dogs came and licked his sores. 22 The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s side. The rich man also died and was buried, 23 and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus at his side. 24 And he called out, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus to dip the end of his finger in water and cool my tongue, for I am in anguish in this flame.’ 25 But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that you in your lifetime received your good things, and Lazarus in like manner bad things; but now he is comforted here, and you are in anguish. 26 And besides all this, between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, in order that those who would pass from here to you may not be able, and none may cross from there to us.’ 27 And he said, ‘Then I beg you, father, to send him to my father’s house— 28 for I have five brothers—so that he may warn them, lest they also come into this place of torment.’ 29 But Abraham said, ‘They have Moses and the Prophets; let them hear them.’ 30 And he said, ‘No, father Abraham, but if someone goes to them from the dead, they will repent.’ 31 He said to him, ‘If they do not hear Moses and the Prophets, neither will they be convinced if someone should rise from the dead.’”
You will perhaps note that the assumption of the taunting religious leaders was the same assumption of the tormented rich man in hell: if the truth is plainly revealed to people, they will accept it. But Abraham’s response is the absolute truth: “neither will they be convinced if someone rises from the dead.”
That was prophetic of course, especially when we remember that is was Jesus who told that parable. Jesus would indeed rise from the dead and most would still refuse to believe.
This third taunt reveals that man is not only ignorant about the true nature of Christ and the true nature of the Father, he is also ignorant of the depravity of his own heart, seeing in it a reasonable place, a place of spiritual harmony and discernment, when in fact it is anything but.
No, the heart of man is a wicked thing and the cross is its fruit. We try to kill the truth when we encounter it. The most precious truths are usually met with the most virulent evil. Usually…but not always. For there always seems to be some whose hearts are broken by the Spirit of God and who are able to see and embrace the truth. Jesus spoke of these as those on the narrow way to eternal life whereas the masses populate the broad way to destruction (Matthew 7:13-14).
Here is the truth of the matter, and it is a truth we need to understand: most reject, but the offer of life has been made to you and is being made to you now. Will you stand with the mocking crowd or will you be part of the few that stand with the crucified and risen Lamb? It is a critically important question. In truth, it is the only question that really matters.
The Roman soldiers, the crowd passing by, the religious authorities: they mocked and in their mocking they revealed not only their own distance from God but the distance of all of humanity from God. And yet, it is Jesus that they mock…and Jesus reveals the closeness of God to man, the reality of God’s loving offer of grace and invitation to new life.
Most will stand with the mocking crowd, but you need not do so. You can come to Jesus. If you do so, He will not turn you away. For the point of the cross is that He loves us that much…and His love is an open door.
 Tom Wright, Matthew for Everyone. Part Two (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2004) p.184-185.
 Shane Clairborne, The Irresistible Revolution (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2006), p.250, fn.3.
 Clinton E. Arnold, gen. ed., Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. Vol. 1 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), p.176-177.
 A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament. Vol. I (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1930), p.230.
 Michael Card, Matthew. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2013), p.242.
 A.T. Robertson, p.232.