“Save yourself!” (Matthew 27:40). This taunt was shouted to Jesus four times while he hung on the cross. It was shouted by passersby, by the Jewish rulers, by the Roman soldiers, and by one of the criminals crucified with him. Though it was nothing but diabolical, depraved mockery, their taunts revealed the worldview that dominates a sin-filled, self-centred, self-righteous, and selfish world.
Commenting on this taunt, Albert Schweizer writes,
Jesus has not taken upon himself the mission of self-help and self-fulfilment. He will be a ransom for others (Mark 10:45)…. In this haunting picture of Jesus, fastened to a cross and assailed in mockery, we see the amazing difference between God’s way and everything which men consider their goal or conceive of as being God’s way.
There could not be a clearer revelation of the two worldviews available to us: God-centred and man-centred.
Brother and sister in Christ, this Easter weekend will be etched into our memories. The most recent presidential address, in which President Ramaphosa extended South Africa’s lockdown by a further two weeks, has made this even more so. Life just got even more difficult, more challenging, and more uncertain than it was.
But this situation highlights for us the need to get back to basics—not merely physical, economic basics, but rather the basics of our faith. This situation forces us to consider what I will call basic Christianity.
I chose this text for our Good Friday service two months before Easter. In God’s providence, it proved particularly relevant. Basic Christianity was displayed (and secured) on the cross of Christ. On the cross, Jesus displayed the full reality of the truth that if we choose to save our life, we will lose it, but if we lose our life for Christ’s sake, we will find it. The South African lockdown impresses this upon us in practical ways.
At the foundation of Christianity is dying to self, renouncing self, an exchange of self-preservation for the life-preserving gospel of God. These taunts, and Jesus’ response to them, reveal this basic Christianity to us. If Jesus had saved himself, we would be eternally lost. Praise God he ignored the taunts. He lost his life and saved his people.
In this study, I want to look at and answer three questions with reference to this taunt to Jesus to save himself. May we hear God’s voice and be prepared to live out basic Christianity.
After a brutal night enduring betrayal, intense satanic temptation, mockery, and physical beatings—after being dragged back and forth before corrupt and godless authorities presiding over kangaroo courts—Jesus faced Friday morning with one prospect: crucifixion. He was going to lose his life.
Jesus was born in the shadow of the cross. His hour had finally come (John 12:27, 43; 17:1). Weakened by a sleepless and suffering night, he began the humiliating march of the Via Dolorosa. Physically unable to carry his cross, Simon from Cyrene (modern day Libya) was compelled by the hardened soldiers to carry it for him. Africans have often been compelled by those in power to do humiliating works.
As they journeyed towards Calvary, a great multitude followed them. There was great mourning by a mass of people. Not everyone rejected Jesus. Jesus addressed weeping women (Luke 23:26ff). Touched, no doubt, by their compassion and commitment to him (note the risk they took by publicly identifying with Jesus), he reminded them again of what he proclaimed in his Olivet Discourse. He reiterated that the fruit of the Jewish rebellion against and rejection of him would be recompensed with the destruction of Jerusalem. He appreciated their lament over his sufferings but suggested that they lament over the sufferings that their nation would experience. He was still thinking of others, even in such a dark hour.
When they came to Golgotha, the Roman soldiers crucified Jesus, along with two criminals. He prayed to his Father (remaining focused on the Father, the one who willed this for him) interceding for the guilty: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they do” (Luke 23:34). They responded to his grace by gambling for his garments. How this scene is repeated every day! Jesus stretches out his invitation of saving grace to an unbelieving world, which ignores his pleas and yet selfishly enjoys the material benefits he has given to them.
As a sympathetic crowd observed this depraved and prophesied ugliness, others relished what was taking place. They added further insult to the injuries and insults that had accompanied the flesh-piercing nails.
The religious rulers scoffed at him, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down from the cross, and we will believe in him!” (Matthew 27:42). Mark adds, “Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe” (15:32). Others joined the mockery. Wickedness loves company and a crowd is a great place for cowards to reveal how tough they are! And so the soldiers and the criminals joined the taunting.
Now, let’s ask and answer three important questions.
Could Jesus Have Saved Himself?
First, could Jesus have saved himself? After all, he had been beaten half to death (Isaiah 52:14). He had been pinned to a cross with nails. He had been so physically weakened that he could not carry his own cross. He was suffering in a way that none had ever suffered before. He was carrying the weight of sin upon his shoulders.
There was one present who believed he could save himself. He was the one behind the taunts: the hissing serpent.
If you listen carefully, you will hear the hellish hiss of the serpent. For thirty-plus years, Satan had done his best to trip Jesus on his journey to the cross. He knew that if Jesus committed but one sin he would be no better than the first Adam. And so we read of the devil tempting Jesus in the wilderness and again in a garden (Gethsemane). These recorded instances are but examples of what Jesus faced every day of his life on earth.
In the temptations that took place in the wilderness the devil sought to keep Jesus from the cross. Once Jesus was on the cross, the devil tempted Jesus to get off the cross.
The devil desired to detour Jesus from fulfilling the Father’s will. He sought to keep Jesus from redeeming the world. Being aware of the teaching of Scripture, no doubt, Satan had some idea of what the death of Jesus on the cross would mean for him: destruction (1 John 3:8). And so, when the capital sanction of crucifixion was pronounced, perhaps he realised that he had overplayed his hand. Therefore, on the way to Calvary, the devil was working overtime to stop this from happening. He knew, after all, that even if he bruised Jesus’ heel, Jesus would crush his head in return. Therefore he tried again: “If you are the Christ of God, save yourself.”
The devil wanted him to come down from the cross. He persistently tempted Jesus to save himself (see Matthew 16:13–23; Luke 23:39–46). The taunts were temptations to appeal to Jesus self-defence and preservation, for they attacked him in his identity as prophet (Matthew 27:40), priest (Matthew 27:42a), and king (Matthew 27:42b). But, as Grogan has said, “What is physically possible is sometimes morally or spiritually impossible.”
Could Jesus have saved himself? Yes. But if he had done so, he would have been guilty of denying what he preached: “For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (Matthew 16:25). “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected … and be killed” (Mark 8:31). The fact that he could but didn’t tells us a whole lot about him. He was committed to God’s will: the salvation, not of himself, but of others. That is basic Christianity.
The fact that Jesus could but didn’t tells us as Christians a lot about how we are to live. It reveals the basic Christianity we are to practice. Consider Peter’s words in this regard:
Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust. For this is a gracious thing, when, mindful of God, one endures sorrows while suffering unjustly. For what credit is it if, when you sin and are beaten for it, you endure? But if when you do good and suffer for it you endure, this is a gracious thing in the sight of God. For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed. For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.
(1 Peter 2:18–25)
Self-preservation is not to be our priority. Beware our propensity to being self-defensive rather than forgiving those who wrong us, as Jesus did. By not saving ourselves, we might save others (1 Corinthians 9:19–23). By not saving ourselves we might sanctify others (Colossians 1:24–29). By not saving ourselves, we might save our marriage, our relationships with older children, relationships within the church, and relationships among churches. By not saving ourselves we can sustain others (Acts 11:26–30).
This is basic Christianity: doing the will of God, not our own. In doing so, we find ourselves. We also find where we belong (see Matthew 12:46–50).
Should Jesus Have Saved Himself?
Should Jesus have saved himself. This is a different question from the first. The first was about power; the second is about justice.
The trial and treatment of Jesus was the most unjust episode in all of history. Not only were the rules of jurisprudence violated, but it was all done to the sinless Son of God! When injustice abounded in Israel, God justly intervened. He brought judgement. But not here. Thankfully, Jesus was willing to undergo temporary injustice to serve and to satisfy a greater justice.
But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus.
We learn a lot from this passage. For one thing, seeking justice for people is good but seeking and securing their justification before God is eternally better.
Again, we should not demand justice for ourselves but rather commit ourselves to God (1 Peter 2:22–25; cf. 1 Corinthians 6:7). We are not Jesus Christ but we are called to follow him and his example. This may require, for example, bearing with the bad behaviour of your neighbour who breaks the rules and seeking their welfare. It may mean bearing with injuries from your unsaved and unkind employer, co-worker, or fellow student. It may mean submitting to unjust rulers, as Joseph did in Egypt and Daniel did in Babylon. Thankfully Jesus chose to suffer injustice to satisfy justice so we would not be subjected to the just condemnation of God.
Would Jesus Save Himself?
But perhaps the most pertinent question is, would Jesus save himself. The very fact that we are able to gather as churches today answers this question. Though Jesus could have saved himself and though, in a sense, he should have saved himself, he would not save himself.
The taunting of Jesus displays why Jesus would not save himself. That is, the depraved sinfulness of man requires a Saviour. You may like to think that you would not have joined in the mocking and taunting if you had been at the cross, but I think that the songwriter captures the truth:
Behold the man upon a cross,
my sin upon his shoulders;
ashamed I hear my mocking voice
call out among the scoffers.
It was for depraved sinners—rebellious people like you me—that Jesus would not come down from the cross. Jesus chose to be carried dead off the cross rather than to come down alive from it. Notes Donald English: “What they taunt him for not doing, saving himself, is precisely so because he is doing what they ridicule, saving others. He could not do both.” If Jesus was to fulfil his mission on behalf of men, he could not save himself from the suffering appointed by God.
Jesus would not save himself because he taught us to save ourselves. He taught repeatedly that those who will follow him cannot save themselves. But if they lose themselves, they will save themselves. He exemplified this.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Unbeliever, quit listening to the taunts of family, friends, celebrities and the like. Rather, repent and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, regardless of what you might lose. For what you will save is your soul.
Christian, like Jesus, give yourself in total abandon to God. Jesus obeying the Father to die was the greatest act of faith in history. And he was rewarded. Give yourself in complete trust to our God.
We’ve asked and answered three important questions. But there is one more: Will you save your life, or will you lose your life? This is the ultimate question of eternal import. How will you answer today?