A Study of Matthew 27:36
“And sitting down they watched him there.” (Matthew 27:36)
Jesus, the Son of the Living God, was in the final dire hours of His earthly ministry. However appalling His violent death may seem to some, nevertheless it perfectly fulfilled the will of His Father. He was hanging on the vile Roman cross between two convicted thieves. His final night on this earth before dying had been spent in trial under three separate tribunals, the first being carried out by Caiaphas the high priest, the second by Herod, and the third and final by Pilate. Not one proper charge was brought against Him, nor were any but false witnesses able to offer any type of accusation. Yet, despite His obvious innocence, Jesus was crucified, and none of those involved with His extended ordeal were aware that they were fulfilling the eternal will of God when putting Him to death. Seemingly, though, the climatic end of this wicked business was just about at hand. After nailing Jesus to the cross, His captors sat down and watched Him (die) there.
The substance of the text at the heading of this article lends itself to a standard format of inquiry, Who, What, Why, When, Where, How? The Lord willing, we shall generally follow that format, adding only such brief introductory remarks and fitting conclusion as the Lord may bless. We shall omit a separate section for How, as that material will be generally covered in the other sections.
Were we to diagram this text, our subject (noun) and predicate (verb) would be they watched. However, the text begins, And sitting down they watched him there. Thus, we feel it is imperative, or at least useful, that we examine this phrase, And sitting down, for certainly there is no unimportant language in the Scriptures.
Sitting down, like most other positions, can indicate either temporary or permanent character attitudes. Sitting normally reflects a much more calm deliberation, or satisfied attitude than does standing. Sitting also often indicates a rest from the previous business at hand. An example of what we mean is found in the same chapter of our text. “When he was set down on the judgment seat…” (Matthew 27:19) In this example, Pilate was governor, and as such, presided over the final interrogation of Jesus. When, finally, the time came for Pilate to pass his judgment, he took a seat upon his judgment throne. Thus, his character shifted from simply being governor, to that of the final judge in the matter, and his attitude was reflected in his action of taking the seat, or sitting down. Pilate was as satisfied as his temperament allowed that the work was accomplished, so he takes his seat, and after some further deliberations with his wife, the chief priests, and the Jewish people, he renders his verdict. Jesus would be put to death. His sitting down indicated, at least outwardly, his current attitude.
One other example of this can be found in the following Old Testament account: “I beheld till the thrones were cast down, and the Ancient of days did sit, whose garment was white as snow, and the hair of his head like the pure wool: his throne was like the fiery flame, and his wheels as burning fire.” (Daniel 7:9) God, the Ancient of Days, takes His rightful position of sitting on the throne as soon as it is placed, meaning, we believe, as soon as He had concluded all His work (Genesis 2:2). His was an attitude, if we may humbly call it that, of perfect accomplishment. The work was finished, thus toiling or standing was not required. He sits, satisfied with the work He had done or accomplished.
We have used these examples in order to compare the attitude of those individuals that were sitting down near the foot of the cross. Their attitude was that of accomplishment; they had gained, in their opinion, the desired end of the evening’s events, so they sit down to watch the expected outcome. Their work was completely finished. Nothing they were aware of could possibly hinder the awaited climax.
It must be noted before passing on from the subject of sitting that also there near the cross were several others that had a keen interest in the outcome. “Now there stood by the cross of Jesus his mother, and his mother’s sister, Mary the wife of Cleophas, and Mary Magdalene.” (John 19:25) It is a striking contrast to see these disciples of Jesus standing there, not sitting. Why? Clearly, their attitude about the whole affair was entirely different from those seated there. Those sitting down were satisfied, and even anxious to see the death of Jesus hasten on. Those standing had no such calm or interest. They stand, for the matter is to them yet unsettled, even if it is in doubt. Standing near the cross indicated a solemn reserve on the part of the disciples of Jesus. Sitting down then, indicated the temporary attitude of satisfaction on the part of those so positioned. Smug, self assured, and casually observant, they take their place. “And sitting down they watched him there.” They watched. Just who these watchers were brings us to our first heading.
“And sitting down they watched him there.”
There can be no doubt who they were. They were the ones intrusted with carrying out the directives of Pilate’s judgment to have Jesus crucified. They were a band of nameless Roman soldiers garrisoned in Jerusalem. These soldiers served to carry out the decrees and edicts of Pilate, yet under the wise appointment of God, they had been eternally designated to fulfill specific Scriptures that foretold these foul deeds. To us there can be no question that these particular soldiers were at Jerusalem to keep God’s appointment, just as surely as were Judas, Pilate, the high priest, and all others involved. To say otherwise would be to admit the chance system, an admission as base as devout atheism. For example, had the matters of the evening been left to the wife of Pilate, rather than Pilate himself, Jesus would have been set free, or at least, not crucified. And, had Nicodemus been high priest at that time instead of Caiaphas, the matter would never have gotten as far as it did. The initial trial might have never taken place. Other examples abound that would show the folly of assuming others than those involved could have just as well been the perpetrators of the cruel punishment falsely inflicted on Jesus. We omit them for the sake of brevity.
WHO were they? “Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the common hall, and gathered unto him the whole band of soldiers.” (Matthew 27:27) The band of Pilate’s soldiers were the they of our text. “And they stripped him, and put on him a scarlet robe.” (Matthew 27:28) Looking further: “And when they had platted a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee before him and mocked him, saying, Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29) Again: “And they spit upon him and took the reed, and smote him on the head.” (Matthew 27:30) They, the soldiers, were a foul and motley gang, knowing no mercy or compassion while exacting the fullest possible discomfort and misery on the innocent Lord. They were obviously more than pleased to carry out the will of Pilate, fully absent of any compunction. These wanton soldiers were supurbly suited, both in their nature, and by God in heaven, to carry out their functions. So, without the slightest knowledge of it, they, the soldiers, to the last degree, executed the purpose of God in heaven in this regard. To conclude otherwise, or to plead the possibility of free-will in their actions is to flatly repudiate the whole body of Bible prophesy foretelling this momentous period. “And after that they had mocked him, they took the robe off from him, and put his own raiment on him, and led him away to crucify him.” (Matthew 27:31) They, the soldiers, manifested instincts little better, if not worse, than animals that taunt their captive prey. They were, however, well suited as the WHO of our text.
Looking further at WHO they were, and what they did: “And when they were come unto a place called Golgotha, that is to say, a place of a skull, They gave him vinegar to drink mingled with gall, and when he had tasted thereof, he would not drink.” (Matthew 27:33-34) (See also Mark 15:23 and Luke 23:36) They, then, these Roman soldiers, punctually carried out the prophesy of Psalm 69:21, for it was they that the eternal decree had assigned for this pitiless and callous act.
It should be amply clear to all honest readers that WHO they were embraced the soldiers then present and engaged in that monstrous travesty on decency. It could well be said that they were born for that moment and occupation. The plan of God assured that they would not fall in battle, be assigned elsewhere, or “get cold feet” for they must be at that specific post, at that specific time, for that specific purpose!
Often, when a morsel of gossip is being passed around, someone will ask, “Who told you that? Generally, the answer is, “They told me” or “That’s what they are saying.” Little confidence can be put in such vague depictions for they might, to spreaders of gossip, be just about anyone. Not so when God tells us “They watched.” WHO they were was just as sure as the integrity of God itself. Finally, “And they crucified him, and parted his garments, casting lots: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophet, They parted my garments among them, and upon my vesture did they cast lots.” (Matthew 27:35) The prophet who spoke in this verse was David, and his words were recorded in Psalm 22:18. “How did David know that?” one may ask. Because of the inspiration of God the Spirit is how he knew that. To David, these soldiers were but faceless beings for a future event, but their certain existence and conduct was assured at the moment God moved his hand to pen those solemn verses. Those very soldiers must, at that very time, cast that very lot on the vesture of our Lord, yet still, “…the whole disposing thereof is of the LORD.” (Proverbs 16:33)
Just who They were that did those things which we have chronicled were exactly who were ordained to do them: certain Roman soldiers under the authority of Pilate. This concerted activity, however, is not the WHAT of our text, vital as it was.
“And sitting down they watched him there.”
They watched. Watching may admit of many meanings, but here it mainly involves such activities as giving diligence to, rendering attention, observing, peering with vigilance, tending to, scrutinizing, guarding, viewing, possibly even leering, and many other things. Primarily, however, watching here seems to indicate an attitude of “waiting the matter out.” Previously we considered the attitude of sitting versus that of standing. Our firm conclusion was that the soldiers sat and watched because they believed they had accomplished their desired end, and shortly that fact would to them be manifested. To them, this business was about over, and the death of Jesus would culminate it. So casually, and possibly even curiously, they watched.
Not so with the Lord’s disciples standing by. They watched too, but the crucifixion raised for them more questions than it answered. They had believed, to the extent that God had blessed them, the words and deeds of the Son of God. A kingdom was coming and Jesus was its King. A church was to be built and they had some hope they would be lively stones in its building. But all of this, the trials, the scourging, the nailing Jesus on the cross, left them standing almost baffled. They watched, but with consternation and great uneasiness. Grief and sorrow possessed them all. But the soldiers? Convinced of success, they sat down and watched.
No doubt these soldiers had seen and participated in other Roman crucifixions. It brought them no discomfort; no pain in their consciences. So they watched. But what did they see? Natural things only. They had eyes to see, but they saw not, even as it is recorded in Matthew 13:14: “And in them is fulfilled the prophecy of Esaias, which saith, By hearing ye shall hear, and shall not understand; and seeing ye shall see, and shall not perceive.” What could better describe these soldiers than this prophecy? They watched Jesus die, and to them He was no different that the two thieves. They watched as the whole sequence of events unfolded, and never dreamed of the purpose of God to save His children from their sins by the sacrifice of His Son. They watched, but observed nothing of value to their soul.
We heard an incident regarding an old Predestinarian soldier of the cross in this area that attended a Sunday night meeting at an Arminian assembly. Being somewhat hard of hearing, the old brother cupped his hands to his ears, hoping to improve his hearing. The preacher began by submitting his usual hour of hot air drivel, mingled with a few slices of Arminian baloney. After services the weary Predestinarian was leaving when the preacher commented to him: “I see you are a good observer.” “Yes,” the brother replied, “but I sure didn’t observe much tonight!” We suggest the old brother didn’t observe much, for there was not much there for him. Even so, the soldiers at the cross watched, but they observed nothing either, for there was nothing there for them. They watched for natural things, and that was all they could see. They mocked Him with, “Hail, King of the Jews” but despite watching, they saw no king. They had placed a crown of thorns upon His head, yet saw none of His regal glory. They watched from beginning to ending of the crucifixion, still they saw nothing of the promises, prophecies, or purposes of God to redeem sinners through the death of His Son. Nevertheless, they watched Him there. Consider then that these soldiers watched the most epochal event of time, yet remained ignorant of it all. Why did they watch? Because of Him!
“And sitting down they watched him there.”
Crucifixions were very common in that day. So much so that the Romans had just about perfected the dreadful business in order to produce absolute maximum agony therefrom. Ordinary pain would not suffice these cruel afflicters. It must be excruciating; a word which comes from the Latin, excruciatus, meaning, out of the cross. Jesus was, on that day, the focus of attention, and all the excruciating pain of the cross was at that time exacting its toll on Him. Sitting at the foot of the crosses these soldiers could readily see all three of those being put to death, but the text says they watched Him. Obviously they only watched the two thieves indirectly, for the focus of attention was upon Him. It was Him the uproar was about. It was Him multitudes had followed, for a time believing Him to be their Messiah. Now, however, He was in the throes of death, and His captors sat and watched. WHY did the soldiers sit and watch? Because of Him Whom the Scriptures foretold would be the pinnacle of attention that day. “For dogs have compassed me: the assembly of the wicked have inclosed me: they pierced my hands and my feet. I may tell all my bones: they look and stare upon me. They part my garments among them, and cast lots upon my vesture.” (Psalm 22:16-18) Without question, these verses foretold in detail that it was Him they would watch, or look and stare upon, and so they did. It could not be wrong to say that WHY they watched Him was because they had to. The Gentile soldiers were the dogs of those verses in Psalm 22. Thus they compassed Him, and the assembly of the wicked were all the others that inclosed Him. “The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the LORD, and against his anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.” (Psalm 2:2-3) Surely this too was the foretelling of the events of that evening, and embraced all those involved. WHY did this transpire? That the Scriptures regarding Him might be fulfilled!
When Peter and John were threatened and sent away after healing the lame man they went to their own company where they lifted up their voices in prayer. This is in part what they prayed: “Who by the mouth of thy servant David hast said, Why did thee heathen rage, and the people imagine vain things? The kings of the earth stood up, and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord, and against his Christ. For of a truth against thy holy child Jesus, whom thou hast anointed, both Herod, and Pontius Pilate, with the Gentiles, and the people of Israel, were gathered together, For to do whatsoever thy hand and thy counsel determined before to be done.” (Acts 4:25-28) If the answer to WHY? is not clearly delineated in those verses we would be at a loss to know where to look. These praying brethren, guided in their prayers by the Holy Spirit, positively linked together those verses in the Psalms with the events leading up to, and at, the cross. There was no question that WHY the kings, rulers, Gentiles, and people of Israel did what they did. They were gathered together to do it. Notice carefully, the text did not say they gathered themselves, but that they were gathered. Had this been either a spontaneous act or a deliberate deed by the parties involved the wording would have been, “they gathered.” But no, they were gathered, and that by the hand and counsel of God! That, dear reader, is WHY they tried Him, crucified Him, and sat down to watch.
The hand of God was the power, and the counsel was His will in the executing of the entire series of events. WHY they gathered and WHY they acted was totally outside of themselves, if plain language has any meaning. Surely God had declared the end from the beginning, as with all other events involving men, angels, and devils. “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” (Romans 13:1) Jesus freely submitted to those gathered powers, and each of those powers, though unaware, were subject to God Who gathered them. God had ordained them all with His counsel, and by His hand gathered them there at that time. All were unfailingly present.
“And sitting down they watched him there.”
Often we pass over many of the small words in the Bible, little realizing they carry weight as well as larger and more profound expressions. Our text begins with the small, three-letter word and, but this little word pinpoints exactly WHEN these events took place. And is a connecting word; a conjunction. Our dictionary gives an interesting observation on this simple word as follows: “The original meaning was thereupon, then, next.” Webster’s New World Dictionary. Second College Edition. We believe all can readily see what then is intended. “Thereupon” or following in a series of events; “then” or at the subsequent event; “next” or progressing on the heels of what preceded. And. All that was to transpire had, if fact, come to pass with all the precision of God’s unerring Judgment. The Scriptures had, to that moment, been fulfilled. All parties, determined from the foundation of the world to be involved, were in place. The central moment of time had been reached, just on time. Nothing, or no person, was either early or late. Jesus had been nailed to His cross by the soldiers, and sitting down they watched Him there.
WHEN, or at what time did these events described in our text occur? At the only time in history they could occur! Which means that for the event to unfold when it did everything leading up to it had to also take place exactly when it did also, clear back to the beginning of time. For instance, let us suppose that, for some reason, Peter and John had become suspicious of Judas and confronted him about their feelings and warned him sufficiently so that he was afraid to identify Jesus that night in the garden with the kiss. Judas might then have considered his rotten hide was too precious to lose over thirty pieces of silver. Or suppose, when Jesus was before Herod, the old fox decided to keep Him incarcerated for a few days to further study the matter. A day or two, here or there, to Herod would have mattered little. Or suppose again, that the mob before Pilate had a change of mind and not asked for Jesus to be executed. They might just as well have thought that at a better moment they could take Jesus and maul Him to death with stones, which they no doubt would have preferred.
Speculation, you say? Pure conjecture? Yes, indeed; and that is just the point. Speculation and conjecture prove nothing; only facts do. The facts are that the Prophecies were all in place. The facts are that the events took place exactly WHEN, and as the Scriptures said they would. Had anything at all been other than it was (a pure impossibility), the death of Jesus could not have taken place at the time WHEN it did. Arminians, and assorted other religious idiots, may revel in free-will and chance, but they cannot interject their wicked theories here. The facts are that if they could, by free-will or chance, remove a single cog in the wheel of events regarding the death of Christ, the whole train would turn amiss. The wheel of events must rotate as designed, or fail of its exact mission. The same confusion would occur too if they could add even a single cog. What we are saying is that all must be just as God designed it, that all might do just as God designed. Otherwise nothing could occur WHEN it was designed to transpire. Simply put, this is the absolute predestination of all things, and embraces the WHEN of the text at our heading.
“And sitting down they watched him there.”
We often hear those of “Soft-shell” sentiments extolling how they could do other than they did, or be where they weren’t. One minister of that lunatic variety once informed us at a Sunday meeting that he could have just as well gone somewhere else that day. We informed him that should be hard to prove, since he was where he was at that time. Where was the poor fellow? Just where he had to be! “O Lord, I know that the way of man is not in himself: it is not in man that walketh to direct his steps.” (Jeremiah 10:23) Even so, the soldiers that watched our Saviour die must, that day, as with all other days, be WHERE they were, for it was there they must watch. When God the creator formed the earth, that very spot was fashioned for that very deed. Could Abram have seen the ram caught in the thicket anywhere but at Moriah (Genesis 22:13)? Could Moses have witnessed the burning bush at another location other than Horeb (Exodus 3:1-3)? Could the Israelites have crossed the parted waters of the sea had they been back in Goshen (Exodus 14:13-31)? The positive answer is no; these climatic events all occurred precisely WHERE the God of heaven and earth purposed them. Thus, without attempting to multiply proofs, we conclude the soldiers were sitting down there, for so had God appointed them.
J. F. Poole – 1994