This was originally the manuscript of a homily preached by Ryan Lister on this year's Good Friday at Trinity Church of Portland.
In the same way the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders mocked him. “He saved others,” they said, “but he can’t save himself! He’s the king of Israel! Let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God. Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” (Matthew 27:41-43, NIV)
Looming large over these words is a question. This question hovers over every section of Scripture, hangs over our heads every day, and especially on Good Friday.
Jesus first verbalized this very question a few chapters earlier, asking, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15, NIV).
To be sure, this is a question many of us try to avoid, but on Good Friday, we come face-to-face with this persistent, invasive question, and we must answer it.
But in this passage, we are not only faced with a question. We are given answers from the very eyewitnesses of Jesus’ crucifixion. We hear from the Jewish intellectual and spiritual elite, the very ones who helped pave the way to Jesus’ execution. Here they stand, at the foot of the cross, teaching us one last object lesson. This is their final doctrinal statement on who Jesus is, and exhibit A is the torn body of Jesus dangling from a splintered wood.
To be sure, theirs is a lesson of mockery, ridicule, and scorn. Like most seasoned rhetoricians, the Hebrew elite pick up Jesus’ own words only to hurl them at him. They twist his teachings to show that Jesus could never be who he said he was. Because the one he claimed to be—the one many of the onlookers had once hoped in—could never be so accursed as to hang on a Roman cross.
And so their caustic lesson begins.
So this is your savior? The one who is supposed to save you? And how can he save you when he cannot save himself? Your so-called Savior can’t stop his own shameful death—where is your hope again? Oh, and don’t forget. We helped to put him up there. It would seem then that we are the true brokers of hope, not this man of sorrows.
They can’t stop their gloating.
So this is your king too? This is the one who rules and reigns over God’s people? If he is your king then where is his crown, his throne, his kingdom? We know kings. And a true king could surely get down from the cross. In fact, you know what: Lets do this—If he comes down right now, we will believe. But he won’t; because he can’t. This one leads only to death, so you would do well not to follow him. But our leadership doesn’t. Our rule is real, powerful, and prestigious. You might say we are Israel’s true royalty, even if it’s just in half-measures, and by pagan authority.
With one last smirk, they call out Jesus again.
So this is the Son of God? This one that looks like a lamb that’s been led to the slaughter? This is what trust in God looks like? Is the Son of God usually numbered among transgressors and acquainted with grief like this? Well, if this really is the Son of God, then why doesn’t God rescue him? I guess God is like us: He doesn’t want him either.
And there you have it. In three short verses, we have the best, and only, explanation the priests and elders have for Jesus. All they can offer is the naïve conjecture that the crucifixion proves Jesus was a liar.
Messiahs don’t die this way. Jesus cannot be the Christ. In the earthly wisdom of priests and scribes, Jesus isn’t who he said he was because saviors, kings, and sons of God would never be caught near a Roman cross, much less nailed to one.
But behind the chief priests’s cries of mockery, Jesus whispers a better answer.
And that answer is his death.
Contrary to their contempt, the cross does not deny who Jesus says he is; it proves it.
Jesus—as he so often does—quietly flips the script. He untwists the words his enemies have just twisted. In doing so, their crucifixion lesson unwittingly makes a case for Jesus, not against him.
The cross turns earth’s mockery into heaven’s melody. It makes clear that the crucified one is exactly who he said he was. Jesus is Savior, King, and Son of God because of his work on the cross.
The cross, then, does not reveal Jesus’ inability to save; it demonstrates the full cost of our salvation. The cross does not overthrow Jesus’ kingdom; it is the beginning of it. And the cross does not deny Jesus’ being the Son of God; it puts his relationship with the Father on full display.
As Jesus hangs between heaven and earth on blood-stained wooden beams, we see Christ as he truly is: The one, true mediator between God and man.
And to the dismay of his enemies, the crucifixion does not put Jesus’ failures on display; the crucifixion broadcasts the depths of ours and the extent of Christ’s divine love.
To know Christ, then, is to know him crucified. To know him crucified is to know him as savior, king, and Son of God, the savior who suffers, the king who bears our sin, and the Son of God crushed for our iniquities.
So Jesus’ question remains: Who do you say that I am?
What is your answer?
Who do you say that I am?
You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God. You, Jesus, are our savior, the Son of God, our forever king.