A Study of Matthew 27:39-40
“And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, and saying, Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross.” (Matthew 27:39-40)
My words a cause for scorn they make,
The lip they curl, the head they shake,
And, mocking, bid me trust the Lord.
Till He salvation shall afford.
Thus, centuries before the bloody scene on Calvary was enacted, sang Israel’s inspired poet.
Historical circumstances, no doubt, were such that he was able to sing these woeful lines with application to himself. Yet, in principle, he sang because the Root of David was in him. Of that Root he was, in the midst of all his own suffering and reproach, a prefiguration. And the Spirit of that Root whose shadow he was urged him from within to bewail his shame and suffering.
Now, here on Golgotha, the full reality of the implication of the twenty-second psalm is revealed. The Root of David has come. And, what is more, “His hour” has arrived. Not until “the hour” could the forces of darkness have power over Him. Now He is delivered into the hands of sinners and numbered with the transgressors.
The rapidity with which the history of Jesus’ suffering is realized is a sign of the bitterness of the hatred that had so long been restrained in the bosom of the enemies. The powers of darkness, the fury of hell, all the forces of the world are let loose upon Him, and they fall upon Him with a fury that would tear Him asunder. In a few hours it is all finished. Events follow one another in rapid succession. The way from Gethsemane to Calvary is quickly traversed. They take Him and bind Him, though there is no accusation; they try Him and condemn Him, though there is neither indictment nor testimony; they deliver Him to the fury of the mob, of the world, of the soldiers, though there is no guile; they buffet Him, spit on Him, smite Him with reeds, crown Him with thorns, plow His back with cruel scourge-stripes, though He never did evil; they surrender Him to be crucified in the midst of evil-doers, though they found no guilt in Him!
Now He hangs there, a reproach to the church, to the world, to unnumbered foes, that rejoice in His downfall.
A number of people have followed from Jerusalem. And gradually the curious mob increases in number, both from those that received the fast-spreading news of Jesus’ condemnation in Jerusalem and from visitors that arrive from elsewhere on this main road leading from the north to the Holy City. But there is neither pity nor awe in their words as they reveal the thoughts of their hearts in respect to the cross of the Man of Sorrows!
Some stay to behold and mock. Others pass by to cast a casual glance and jeer! All scoff and taunt and spit their venom.
And though they know it not, they are the full realization of this other lamentation of their own inspired singer:
Unnumbered foes would do me wrong,
They press about me, fierce and strong,
Like beasts of prey their rage they vent,
My courage fails, my strength is spent.
Ha! Thou that destroyest the temple!
The biting sarcasm came from the lips of those who passed by!
Who they were and whence they came we know not. Perhaps they were Galileans. Or perhaps they were from the dispersion. More than likely they had come from far to celebrate the Old Testament Passover in the Holy City and knew not that for this they were just a little too late, seeing that the end of the law was here on Calvary and that the real Passover was being killed on this bloody tree.
But passersby they were, and this speaks volumes!
Cold-blooded natures, that could pass by the horrible spectacle of three fellowmen bleeding to death and writhing in agony, without being nailed to the spot in dread amazement! Superficial natures, that could behold without considering, that could judge without investigating, that could accept the judgment of their wicked leaders without inquiring, and pass by the scene of Messiah’s condemnation, of the cross of Jesus, whom they knew (who did not know Him?) to be one who had traversed the country, now for three years, doing good, healing the sick, curing the blind and the deaf, the maimed and the lame, raising the dead, comforting the sorrowing, feeding the hungry, and preaching the kingdom of heaven! Indifferent natures, that could pass by the death-struggle of the Innocent, of whom no man could recall that ever He had done evil, without calling to account those that committed this murder! Blind followers of blind leaders, who passed on into the city of the shadows, while reality was here!
And thousands like them today, always, following the leadership of superficial rationalism, pass Calvary with a casual glance. They consider not and know not and pass on into the shadows, the shadows of hell!
But, though they consider not, they jeer; and though they pass on without investigation, they judge; and with a wagging of the head they express the only pity they know: the poor fool!
And they rail on Him and blaspheme Him and emphatically subscribe to His condemnation as if they knew.
Ha! thou that destroyest the temple!
Save thyself! Come down from the cross!
If thou be the Son of God!
Thou that destroyest the temple!
With this perversion of the truth they seek, with their wicked leaders, to justify the crucifixion of the Innocent!
A lie it was in a double sense.
For, first, the Lord had never said, as they imply, that He would destroy the temple. He said that He would rebuilt it, if they would destroy it. The declaration was first made after He had cleansed the house of His Father and driven out the thieves and robbers, and the leaders, who profited from this thievery in Father’s house, had demanded a sign of His authority to do these things. As a sign of His power and right to cleanse the temple, the Lord had witnessed that He could and would rebuild the temple if they destroyed it. His words had been perverted and, thus perverted, had been brought as a testimony against Him, when He was tried before the High Priest and they found nought wherein to condemn Him. In this perverted form the testimony had been repeated and picked up by the mob, and through them by these passersby, who now jeered: Ha! thou that destroyest the temple!
No, not as a destroyer, but as rebuilder of the temple had He announced Himself!
They are, we are, sinful man is a temple-destroyer. For the temple is the house of God, the dwelling of God with man, God’s covenant of friendship. To know Him and to be known by Him, to love Him and to be loved by Him, to be consecrated to Him in willing service and to be blessed by Him, to enter into His communion and dwell in His tent, to walk with Him and to talk with Him — that is the temple of God, of which, after all, the building made with hands, as it stood in the Holy City of old, was but a figure and shadow. That real temple we destroy. For we are by nature covenant-breakers, enemies of God, who mind the things of sin and death, who depart from the ways of God and follow after the Prince of darkness to do his will, always destroying the temple, violating God’s covenant, unwilling and unable to dwell in His presence.
And so the Lord had said: Destroy ye this temple!
He would rebuilt it!
Such was the first lie with which they attempted to seal His condemnation.
Secondly, He had not spoken of the palatial edifice on Mount Zion, which was but the shadow-temple, but of His body, of Himself, for He was the real temple of God. The essence of the temple, God dwelling with us, was realized with and in Him. Was He not Immanuel, the Son of God come into the likeness of sinful flesh? Were not God and man united in Him as never before, in unity of divine person? And, as such, would He not rebuild the house of God that was lying in ruins as far as we were concerned and always kept in its state of desolation by our sins and iniquities?
Was He not rebuilding that temple even then and they did not know it? Indeed, God was in Christ reconciling the world unto Himself. Here, on the accursed tree of Calvary, the foundation is laid for the new and everlasting temple of God, even while they are destroying the old temple in His flesh, but they realize neither that they themselves are destroying the old house, nor that He is already laying the groundwork for the new.
Presently He will raise the superstructure of that glorious and eternal house of God!
For, having laid the foundation of righteousness, of the righteousness of God in His own precious blood, having fulfilled all obedience in His awful death, He will have license to perfect the temple. From the dead He will be raised, into heaven He will be exalted, with the Spirit He will be filled, and He will raise the temple till it will stand in all its beauty of perfection in the everlasting tabernacle of God with men!
But the leaders, in whose very ears the words were spoken, were blind because of devilish hatred. Their hearts were hard and their eyes were darkened, so that they could not see.
And the superficial passersby, who accepted the judgment of their wicked rulers, were as blind as they.
They are destroying the temple! And while they destroy it, He is already rebuilding it!
But they know not. And so they jeer, like brute fools signing their own destruction.
Ha! thou that destroyest the temple!
Come down from the cross!
If thou be the Son of God!
How terrible a mistake is their conclusion as they mockingly express it!
Perverted as is the judgment which they cast in His teeth that He would destroy the temple, so erroneous is the conclusion they sarcastically draw with respect to Him that is suspended before their eyes on the accursed tree of Calvary.
Do not mistake their sarcasm! When they repeat the words of the Tempter in the wilderness and on the pinnacle of the temple: “If thou be the Son of God,” they mean that He is not! With the devil it had been an appeal to what the Tempter knew Jesus is: the Son of God. A bold challenge it had been, that He might reveal the power of His Godhead by choosing the way of disobedience to the Father. And who can doubt that behind the jeers of this furious mob of mockers, railing at the Man of Sorrows, there is still the same Tempter who personally attacked the Servant of Jehovah in the wilderness, still taunting Him to forsake the cross, to leave the terrible way of obedience in suffering and come down to show His power? And who does not realize that this jeer was one more dagger-thrust in the heart of the bleeding Savior, aggravating the burden of His passion? But, though this were the purpose of the Tempter, his instruments are not conscious of his designs. They do not intend to make Him reveal His power, but to declare that He has none. Their purpose is not to provoke Him to come from the cross, but to assert that He cannot. They do not appeal to the power of His Sonship that He might save Himself from the accursed tree, but sarcastically they emphasize that He is not the Son of God!
There is argument in their sarcasm!
He does not come down because He cannot come down; and because He cannot come down He is not the Son of God! Thus runs the devilish logic of their bitter jibe!
It is the argument of the blindness of sin!
For being blind to the fact that they are destroying the temple, and still affirming that He is the destroyer; being willingly ignorant of the truth that He is even now rebuilding the temple they destroy, they cannot possibly conceive of another, of a deeper, of a totally different reason for His clinging to the bloody tree than the one they sarcastically suggest: He cannot come down, He is powerless, because He is not the Son of God!
How terrible is the darkness of sin!
For change now the viewpoint and consider the truth and behold the reality of things, and the fatal fallacy of their sarcastic argument is immediately apparent. Confess that we are the destroyers of the temple of God because of our sins and transgressions and the depravity of our wicked nature; that this temple of God could never be rebuilt but on the foundation of the perfect righteousness of God; that this foundation of the perfect righteousness of God could never be laid but by such a sacrifice as could perfectly satisfy the justice of God; that such a perfectly satisfying and, therefore, atoning sacrifice could never be offered by you and by me, by men, by angels, by any creature, because our blood would not be precious enough; because our death would not be deep enough to pay for the sin committed against the most high majesty of God; because our wicked nature would never be willing to bring the perfect sacrifice if it could; and because we would be swallowed up in eternal death if we were willing. Then you will also understand that none but the Son of God could bring that sacrifice, could shed that blood, could taste that death, could fully satisfy the justice of the Most High, could lay the foundation for the everlasting tabernacle of God with men!
You realize that it is another power than the might of men and the wicked forces of darkness that keeps this Man of Sorrows on the bloody tree; that there is another reason than that which is expressed in the sarcasm of these superficial passersby that restrains Him from descending now upon His mockers. The reason is infinite, unfathomable love, the love of God to His own, the love of the Savior to the Father who sent Him and to the people who were given Him.
Then you part with the jeering passersby!
You confess your sin at the foot of Calvary’s cross and pray: Lord, if Thou be the Son of God, do not come down! For only Thy blood can atone for my sin! And only in Thy death can the temple be rebuilt which I destroyed! Save not Thyself, but me!
Nay, rather, you jubilantly repeat the language of faith: He is the Son of God, and because He is He will not come down!
And because, being the Son of God, He did not come down but shed His precious life-blood, He is the rebuilder of the temple, the foundation of which is in His blood!
In that temple He made me a living stone! To the praise of His glory!
Lord, Son of God, thanks that Thou didst not come down!
Herman Hoeksema – 1929