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“If He is the King of Israel”
We have seen that Matthew employs the idea of the kingdom in two basic ways. At the beginning of his Gospel the kingdom is the eschatological Kingdom of OT expectation. In the parables however, the introductory phrase “The kingdom of heaven is like” points to images of the progress of the kingdom program as it wends its way to final fulfillment; only now and then is the age to come in view. Now that He is in the hands of His foes it looks to most onlookers that this cannot be the Messiah. He is powerless against those who wish Him dead, being fully submitted to the non-exercise of divine prerogatives or authority as “Commander of the army of Yahweh” (Josh. 5:14).
Matthew 27:26-50 is one of the most intensely stirring recitals ever penned. From one angle it gives the lie to all the grand expectations of the OT of the great Coming One. Surely we are mistaken about Jesus? He is defeated. He goes to meet Death having barely made a splash in the world, never mind reigning over it in justice and peace! That was the perspective of many at the time, and they thought they had good scriptural reasons for their opinions. They are represented by those who cried “If He is the King of Israel…” then something must happen to realign reality with covenant expectation. Jesus could not be the long-expected King.
This passage in question runs through the mockery of the Roman soldiers to the mockery of the thieves crucified with Him, to the mockery of the chief priests and scribes and the crowd before the cross. The soldiers cried “Hail, king of the Jews!” (Matt. 27:29) after they had placed a crown of hard thorns on His head, which they proceeded to mercilessly beat down into His skull. Jesus, beaten and bloody, is their temporary sport. A “king” without the authority of a steward; a criminal brought under the heel of one small part of the massive machinery of Rome. Then Jesus is jeered by those who were crucified along with Him (Matt. 27:44). This lasted for some time before one thief saw the truth about who He was, and it was no small triumph and vindication in the midst of His rejection that this soul called Him “Lord” (Lk. 23:42). But the disdain continues with the baying crowds:
If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross. (Matthew 27:40)
If He is the King of Israel, let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe Him. He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now if He will have Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God. (Matthew 27:42-43)
There is no doubt about what is happening here; the King is utterly rejected; so much so that the Jews around the cross call down an imprecation upon themselves (Matt. 27:25). These rejectors of the proffered Messiah understood Who Christ would be; the Son of God. But as far as their eyes could see, this Jesus was not He. He was not their King because He was not the Messiah, the son of God. Their reason worked part way, but it could not alight upon the right object – Jesus of Nazareth! Reason was not guided by faith, and so it was offended (Matt. 21:42).
Jesus is still thought of as a deceiver, a false messiah by the majority of Jews. Yet the same OT that furnished Judaism with fervent expectations of the coming of the Great King is clear also about the truth that He must meet with Death due to being rejected by His people. Throughout his passion narrative Matthew contents himself with only one small citation from the First Testament:1
They divide My garments among them,
And for My clothing they cast lots. (Psalm 22:18)
If the people did not see the soldiers cast lots for Jesus’ clothing, there was plenty that they did see which ought to have called Psalm 22 to mind. And not Psalm 22 only, but several other OT messianic texts should have had them looking for a suffering Servant. I want to remind the reader of these texts, but must first take note of what I might properly call an Abrahamic covenant text, picking up on the third promise of that covenant (Gen. 12:3), though it’s close proximity to the suffering One in the psalm implies a New covenant context at the end of the psalm:
All the ends of the world
Shall remember and turn to the LORD,
And all the families of the nations
Shall worship before You.
For the kingdom is the LORD’s,
And He rules over the nations. (Psalm 22:27-28)
The sufferer in this psalm exclaims that one day every nation will worship Yahweh, because He will exercise rule over them (cf. Psa. 2). Hence, the psalm mixes the twin roles of the Servant of Yahweh as we meet Him in Isaiah.
The prophet Isaiah wrote thus about the Suffering Servant:
Who has believed our report? (Isaiah 53:1a)
After reading the passion narratives of the Gospels one can see how apropos that question is. The reference to this Servant (Isa. 52:13) growing up “as a tender plant, and as a root out of dry ground” (Isa. 53:2) warns the Jews of this man’s lowly beginnings, but this same will be “exalted and extolled and be very high” (Isa. 52:13), but only once He has “sprinkled many nations” (Isa. 52:15 cf. 53:11).
Daniel predicted that Messiah would be “cut off and [would] have nothing” (Dan. 9:26 NASB), and Zechariah foretold how “they,” Israel, would one day “look on Me whom they pierced” (Zech. 12:10 cf. Psa. 22:16). There was plenty of witness to the rejection of Messiah in the Hebrew Scriptures. Still, they could not see their King on the cross.
I locate the source of the unbelief in what I have called man’s default setting, the lurch to independence that motivates our sin nature. It is this default in man that sets them to shrug off authority of God’s word, even when it is acknowledged as an authority.
But then there are a multitude who have come after who see things another way. They too ask themselves “If He is the King of Israel…” but they answer in a different way. They know Jesus is the King of Israel, but contrary to Matthew they redefine “Israel.” For these believers the cross and the resurrection are the focal point of everything; and God’s Word must be interpreted on the basis of it and the subsequent events. Jesus is the King, but He rules from heaven.
Although one of these positions fully recognizes the divinity of Jesus and accepts Him as the Messiah, I want to be a little bit controversial here in claiming that this second group, good men as they are, have not entirely allowed Jesus to be the Messiah He undoubtedly is! Jesus “Christ” has been redefined along with “Israel.” They have done so because they have chosen the wrong direction to look at His messianic role, and they have constructed an ingenious story where the terms “Christ/Messiah” and “Israel” have been adapted to fit well.
1 He had earlier cited a prophecy from Jeremiah that is not found in his Book, but which closely resembles Zechariah 11:12-13. We must not be so naïve as to believe that Matthew was so unintelligent as to get his source wrong. It is far more reasonable to assume that Jeremiah did indeed speak this prophecy, but that it was given to the later prophet to write it down.
Paul Martin Henebury is a native of Manchester, England and a graduate of London Theological Seminary and Tyndale Theological Seminary (MDiv, PhD). He has been a Church-planter, pastor and a professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics. He was also editor of the Conservative Theological Journal (suggesting its new name, Journal of Dispensational Theology, prior to leaving that post). He is now the President of Telos School of Theology.