I want to look at one of the ways Matthew makes sense of the cross. Fortunately, Matthew tells gives us his answer up front. His messiah is named Jesus “for he will save his people from their sins”(1:21).
I am going to suggest that Matthew believes Jesus accomplishes this salvation in a three-step process. First, Jesus becomes a surrogate for idolatrous Israel. He is the new Israel, the Israel that rejects the idols of violence and power.
Second, as the faithful Israel, Jesus takes upon himself the natural consequences of her infidelity. With great mercy, God, acting through Jesus, saves His people from the consequences of their sins, utter destruction at the hands of the Romans. The violence and evil of Israel will be the very means through which He accomplishes this.
Third, Jesus sends out his disciples to the ends of the earth to call a new people of God, one which displays devotion through love and mercy. In this new community, cross-shaped love, not the sword, will be the means by which the kingdom is brought to earth.
In regards to the first point, Matthew relates the story of Israel to the story of Jesus in a number of ways. Matthew tells us that Jesus is called out of Egypt as a child(2:21). He is lifted out of the waters of the Jordan, just as Israel was lifted out of the Red Sea(3:16). He is tempted in the wilderness for 40 days without food(4:2). He goes up the mountain to receive and then reveal the Law of God(5:1). Jesus reenacts the story of Israel. In a very important way though, Jesus is different from Israel. He does not go after idols but remains faithful to God.
Jesus’ final temptation is exemplary of this. When offered all the kingdoms, the very things Israel has desired for so long, he refuses. In this act, Matthew tells us, Jesus worships God alone. He does not succumb to the idols of power and authority. Unlike Israel, he desires only to do the will of God. In her constant pursuit of power, Israel reveals she is not concerned with God. The very expectation of a warrior messiah who will defeat the Romans is a product of this idolatry. Revolt after revolt, she tries to restore her kingdom. “From the days of John the Baptist until now the kingdom of Heaven has suffered violence and the violent take it by force”(11:12). The logical end to this rebellion will be her destruction; the destruction of the people of God. The means through which God will restore the whole world will be no more. God will fail.
From here we are in a position to make sense of Jesus’ insistence on the cross and his teachings on retaliation. Nonviolence is not just the will of God it is to be the sign of Israel’s devotion to God. The people of Israel are to be peacemakers, love their enemies, and greet those who hate them. They are to be persecuted for righteousness sake. These acts will be the proof of Israel’s rejection of idols. Jesus himself will embody this ethic in the most radical way. He will love his enemies to the point of allowing them to destroy him. Jesus will forgo the wide path of the sword and instead, take the narrow path of the cross. This is his obedience to God. This is the obedience Israel could not accomplish.
This leads us into the second point. Though he does not take up the sword, he will be punished as if he did. Upon a cross, the scourge of rebels, Jesus will relinquish his life.
At a moment of extreme political tension, Jesus takes the punishment Israel deserved. This was to be the moment of the destruction of Israel. She would receive the wages of her sins. During this Passover, Israel would attempt to restore her kingdom and be forever crushed under the weight of Rome. Barabbas and the two rebels at Jesus’ right and left would be the instigators of this catastrophe.
God though, does not give up on His unfaithful people. Jesus steps into the mess, offering up his body and blood for Israel. At the perfect moment, Israel’s fervor is diverted away from Barabbas and onto Jesus. An entire nation that desires the violent defeat of the Romans calls for the blood of Jesus(27:25), the very blood to be poured out for the forgiveness of sins(26:28). In Jesus’ death peace is secured; unfaithful Israel receives life and forgiveness in exchange for her disobedience.
In addition to saving Israel from her sins, Jesus offers her a new way to be God’s people. A way that leads to life instead of death. She is to seek the Kingdom of Heaven by giving up the desire for power. The pagans will know her as God’s people by her love of mercy, service and humility. This is true devotion to God. This is how the people of God will escape the wrath of the pagans.
For Matthew this is the most important way in which the cross is a moment of great salvation. God’s plan to restore the whole world is not thwarted by the sin of His people. Israel is saved and called to embody Jesus in the world. The cross, and not the sword, is how the kingdom will come.