Matthew tells us little of the physical horror of crucifixion; the emphasis in this section falls again on rejection and mockery, this time by Jesus’ own people. But even in this unlikely context some of the greatest Messianic titles come into play, even if in jest. Thus through the superficial jibes we are able to glimpse something of the real meaning of Jesus’ death. And frequent echoes of the words of Ps. 22 and 69 remind us that in the suffering and death of Jesus Scripture was being fulfilled (Ps. 22:18, 7, 8 are echoed in vs 35, 39, 43, and v 46 quotes Ps. 22:1; Ps. 69:21 is echoed in vs 34, 48).
Golgotha was a regular place of execution, prominently located just outside the city (probably where the Church of the Holy Sepulchre now stands). The soldiers are an important part of the scene, since their watch results in a crucial confession in v 54. They are portrayed not as sadistic (the wine mixed with gall was probably a narcotic, designed to ease the suffering) but as neutral observers. The written charge recorded the official reason for Jesus’ death and was a warning to other would-be nationalist leaders.
The mockery came from Jews, of various classes. The two robbers (38, 44) were probably political insurgents (part of Barabbas’ gang?), so that Jesus died, ironically, in the very Zealot company he had been so careful to avoid. Those who passed by were ordinary Jews, who knew about Jesus’ alleged claims concerning the temple and had heard of his claim to be Son of God. The invitation to exploit his supposed status as ‘Son of God’ echoes the temptations in 4:3, 6; but the temptation had already been faced in Gethsemane, and it was precisely because he was God’s Son that he could not come down. Finally, the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders repeated similar taunts, but added also in mockery the precious title King of Israel. The total rejection of Jesus by his people could hardly be made more obvious.