Four Ironies of the Cross

Each week before Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday I select a book to read that will help to direct my thoughts toward Calvary. For some time now I have had D. A. Carson’s Scandalous: The Cross and Resurrection in my to-read pile. Confession: it was a T4G conference gift from 2010!

20160322_135823 (2)The book is based on five messages Dr. Carson had given in 2008. His first was titled “The Ironies of the Cross,” based on Matt 27:27-51a. It’s a magnificent meditation on the candor of the cross.

However, if we read it too quickly we’ll miss the lesson entirely. That’s because there’s an awesome reality behind the abominable ridicule of those who mocked our Lord. Call it a deliberate contradiction, simulated ignorance—an irony. 

Carson writes, “In the passage before us, Matthew unfolds what takes place as Jesus is crucified—but he does so by displaying four huge ironies that show attentive readers what is really going on” (15). 

Below are these four profound ironies from Matthew 27 along with a few excerpts from Carson’s book:

1. The Man Who is Mocked as King is the King

Then the soldiers of the governor took Jesus into the Praetorium and gathered the whole Roman cohort around Him. They stripped Him and put a scarlet robe on Him. And after twisting together a crown of thorns, they put it on His head, and a reed in His right hand; and they knelt down before Him and mocked Him, saying, “Hail, King of the Jews!” They spat on Him, and took the reed and began to beat Him on the head. After they had mocked Him, they took the scarlet robe off Him and put His own garments back on Him, and led Him away to crucify Him. (vv. 27-31)

Carson writes:

Raucous, mocking laughter keeps the room alive until the soldiers tire of their sport. They have finished laughing at Him as the king of the Jews. Now they put His own clothes back on Him and  lead Him away to be crucified. But Matthew knows, and the readers know, and God knows, that Jesus is the king of the Jews. (16)

Doubtless the soldiers think their humor is deliciously ironic. But Matthew sees an even deeper irony; in fact, why the soldiers demean Jesus as a pathetic criminal, the words they use actually tell the truth, the opposite of what they mean: Jesus really is the king. Those who know there Bibles well know that Jesus is more than king of the Jews: He is King over all, He is Lord over all. (18)

He is king over all the soldiers who mock Him. He is king over you and me. And one day, Paul assures us, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. (18)

2. The Man Who is Utterly Powerless is Powerful

As they were coming out, they found a man of Cyrene named Simon, whom they pressed into service to bear His cross. And when they came to a place called Golgotha, which means Place of a Skull, they gave Him wine to drink mixed with gall; and after tasting it, He was unwilling to drink. And when they had crucified Him, they divided up His garments among themselves by casting lots.  And sitting down, they began to keep watch over Him there. And above His head they put up the charge against Him which read, “THIS IS JESUS THE KING OF THE JEWS.” At that time two robbers were crucified with Him, one on the right and one on the left.  And those passing by were hurling abuse at Him, wagging their heads and saying, “You who are going to destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save Yourself! If You are the Son of God, come down from the cross.” In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him…

Carson writes:

The sting of the mockery turns on this bitter contrast between Jesus’ claims to power and His current transparent powerlessness. Once again the mockers think they are indulging in fine irony. Jesus claimed so much power, so very much power; now witness His powerlessness. So in light of His claim, they say “save yourself”—which of course they utter ironically, since they are convinced He is helpless and cannot do a thing to help Himself. Jesus’ claims are somewhere between ridiculous and scandalous—they deserve to be mocked. But the apostles know, and the readers of the Gospels know, and God knows, that Jesus’ demonstration of power is displayed precisely in the weakness of the cross. (22-23)

Here is the glory, the paradox, the irony; here, once again, there are two levels of irony. The mockers think they are witty and funny as they mock Jesus’ pretensions and laugh at His utter weakness after He has claimed He could destroy the temple and raise it in three days. But the apostles know, and the readers know, and God knows, that there is a deeper irony: it is precisely by staying on the cross in abject powerlessness that Jesus establishes Himself as the temple and comes to the resurrection in fullness of power. The only way Jesus will save Himself, and save His people, is by hanging on that wretched cross, in utter powerlessness. The words the mockers use to hurl insults and condescending sneers actually describe what is bring about the salvation of the Lord. The Man who is utterly powerless—is powerful. (23-24)

3. The Man Who Can’t Save Himself Saves Others

In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, “He saved others; He cannot save Himself. He is the King of Israel; let Him now come down from the cross, and we will believe in Him.

Carson writes:

They are saying apparently Jesus “saved” many other people—He healed the sick, He exorcised demons, He fed the hungry; occasionally He even raised the dead—but now He could not “save” Himself from execution. He could not be much of a savior after all. This even their formal affirmation that Jesus “saved” others is uttered with irony in a context that undermines His ability. This would-be savior is a disappointment and a failure, and the mockers enjoy their witting sneering. But once again, the mockers speak better than they know. Matthew knows, and the readers know, and God knows, that in one profound sense if Jesus is to save others; He really cannot save Himself. (26-27)

To believe in Jesus in the Christian sense means not less than trusting Him utterly as the One who has borne our sin in His own body on the tree, as the One whose life and death and resurrection, offered up in our place, has reconciled us to God. (29)

4. The Man Who Cries Out in Despair Trusts God

He trusts in God; let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him; for He said, ‘I am the Son of God.’” The robbers who had been crucified with Him were also insulting Him with the same words. Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” that is, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, “This man is calling for Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. But the rest of them said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom…

Carson writes:

Some contemporary commentators insist that these words demonstrate that at this point Jesus does in reality abandon His trust in God… But this reading of the passage—we’ll call it “the self-pitying Jesus” view—does not make sense of the context. First, it does not make sense of the fact that throughout these scenes, as we have seen, while the mockers think they are laughing at Jesus with witty irony, there is always a deeper irony. So here Matthew knows, and the readers know, and God knows, that Jesus does trust in God. (32-33)

Second,  the cry of desolation is of course a quotation from the Davidic psalm, Psalm 22:1… If David can utter such an anguished cry while demonstrating his own steadfast trust in God, why should it be thought so unthinkable that David’s greater Son should not utter the same cry while exercising the same trust? (33)

My love for Christ has reached a new height as I reflect on Carson’s four ironies from this thought-provoking passage. Its meanings demand each soul to assess the cosmic cost of Christ’s death and resurrection.