How many people are there who can wander in and out of churches for years and never hear about the cross? And maybe that’s why Paul said, in 1 Corinthians 2:2, “I was determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and Him crucified,” and why the early church preachers always preached on the cross.
And as I thought about that and recognized that we would, on this Lord’s Day, be beginning a week in which we will again look at the cross and the resurrection, I thought it would be best for us to go back and look again at the cross, only this time maybe taking a closer look at the cross than we might have taken before.
And with that in mind, my heart was drawn to the twenty-seventh chapter of Matthew, and I’d like to have you turn to it this morning because it is the text to which we will give our attention. Matthew chapter 27. And I want to draw your thoughts toward verses 45 through 53. And I believe in these verses we have God’s own personal, miraculous commentary on the death of Christ. None of these verses deal specifically with the actual crucifixion, nor do they deal with an explanation of the meaning of the crucifixion. But I believe, as clearly as any explanation, or as any graphic gospel description, they tell us the meaning of the cross. And they do so in a fascinating and unique way.
I believe that we should be continually aware of the centrality and importance of the cross. All of our thankfulness to God is attached to the cross. Last Lord’s Day, you remember, the message had to do with a critical spirit. And one of the points was that a critical spirit grows out of ingratitude. And if you really focus your life on the cross of Jesus Christ and what His death means to you, how could you ever be ungrateful for anything? How could you ever be caught up in the trivia of things that make us critical and forget the great reality of the provision of Christ on our behalf in His cross?
Frankly, today we don’t hear much about the cross. It’s not really a popular subject for some reason. Maybe we assume that it’s all been covered so much. It’s not really often preached on, I guess, in Christian circles, or at least as often as it used to be. And maybe that’s – maybe that’s partly reflective of the time in which we live, when our focus is more on ourselves than it is on what Christ has done for us.
And maybe also this is not a time to make heroes out of people who give their lives for others. This is not a time when our society is interested in people who give up their lives for people who hate them. That kind of self-sacrificing act is not what makes today’s heroes. This is not a day for men to give their lives for others at all. This is a day for people to be applauded for taking someone’s life. This is the day when our heroes are those who point their sawed off rifles at someone’s head, daring them to move and saying, “Go ahead, make my day.”
The heroes f our society are the people who take life with vengeance – the Rambo types who come into our world with their blazing arsenal and massacre everybody who is supposedly worthy of their revenging action. And it isn’t just the Dirty Harrys and the Rambos of our fantasy world of film, it’s also reality. In real life, one of the newest American heroes is a man by the name of Bernhard Hugo Goetz, a 40-year-old, thin, frail, bald, timid, bespectacled, quote-unquote wimp-type guy who is unassuming and a very unlikely hero, who blasted four would-be muggers in a New York subway with a pistol. He became an instant hero, a real Rambo, a real Dirty Harry. And Thug Buster T-shirts are out in his honor, and a rock group even wrote a song about him. He’s an American fantasy come to life. He did what men want to do; he fought back. He took the interminably long and depressing and inequitable system of justice and trashed it and pulled out a gun and took it into his own hands. And something in all of us, deep down, feels good about that. He kicked the bully in the face; he blew him away. He embodied, I think, the passion of a nationwide anger and indignance, a desire for revenge.
I believe we have a culture of people who are frustrated, who are fearful to a boiling point. I believe there’s a lot of rage in people, and when it comes out, people die. Gang revenge killings are commonplace in our own city, and we hear about it almost daily about the gangs where people are killing each other. And it’s all revenge. Hired assassins are coming back as more common nowadays as people fight to get back.
We’re tired of being harassed. We’re tired of being intimidated. We’re tired of being threatened; we’re tired of being bullied; we’re tired of dopers, and crack peddlers, and people with AIDS, and serial murders, and rapists, and all the rest. And we’re tired of a justice system that doesn’t do anything about it. And our society is angry, and our heroes are people who fight back.
We’ve produced a generation of angry, frustrated, fear-filled people who have a lot of internal bitterness. And so, we potentiate killers. Our heroes are those who take life in revenge, not those who give their life in self-sacrificial acts of forgiveness.
So, I guess, in a sense, we’d have to say Jesus wouldn’t be much of a hero today. He did the opposite of fighting back; He gave his life for the very people who were taking it, and then He forgave them in the process. That’s an incredible thing. But dying on the cross, He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” and thereby called on God to give forgiveness to the people who were killing Him. That’s a far cry from the kind of heroism that appeals to us today.
But I want us, in spite of the fact that the cross may be minimized, and that the kind of heroism that the cross demonstrates to us – and it demonstrates far more than just that – in spite of all of that, I’d like us to take a closer look at the cross to see the significance of it.
And as I said, there’ll be many ways to approach it, but I’d like to approach it from verses 45 to 53 in perhaps a little bit of an unusual way. Because here you have a sequence of miraculous things that occur in which I believe God the Father makes commentary on the significance of the cross. I believe the meaning of the cross, at its deepest point, is made very, very clear in these wonderful verses.
Now, I want to give you several features as we go along. Let me give you the first one, and we’ll call it supernatural darkness. Supernatural darkness. As we approach verse 45, Matthew is recorded for us that Jesus has been tried and sentenced and is now crucified, suspended between earth and heaven on a wooden cross. His feet are nailed to it; His hands are nailed to it; His head has received the crushing crown of thorns. And He is hanging there naked before the gazing eyes of the soldiers, the religious leaders, and the passersby, and the crowd.
We pick it up in verse 45, “Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land” – or all the Earth, gē in Greek – “until the ninth hour.” Darkness – supernatural darkness is what I want you to focus on for a moment. Obviously, when Christ came into the world, the Bible says that Light had come. Luke chapter 2, verses 9 to 11, talk about Christ being Light to the world, the Gentiles, the nations. He was, by His own claim – John 8:12 – the Light of the world; and whoever followed Him would never walk in darkness. He came to bring light. And he said in John 12, verses 35 and 36, that men needed to come to the Light while the Light was available before the darkness came when there would be no more Light.
Light was associated with Christ, but not with His death. With His death we see darkness. Notice, please, verse 45 says from the sixth hour until the ninth hour. By Jewish calculation, that’s from 12:00 noon to 3:00 P.M. Mark 15:25 says, “He was crucified at the third hour.” Since their day began at 6:00 A.M., that’s 9:00 A.M. So, it was 9:00 A.M. when they got Jesus on the cross, suspended up in the ground for all to see. Three hours passed, and we now find it the sixth hour or noon. He has been hanging on that cross for three hours. The soldiers have placed a sign above His head. He has been hanging there naked before the crowd as they have mocked Him and spit on Him and thrown insults at Him.
During that first three hours, from 9:00 A.M. until noon, He had uttered three things. First He said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” as recorded in Luke 23:34. And He said that, I think, to the soldiers, primarily, who had crucified Him.
Secondly, He said to the thief on the cross, “Truly this day thou shalt be with Me in paradise,” recorded in Luke 23:43. That was said to a repentant robber hanging there in need of salvation.
And the third thing that he said was, “Woman, behold thy son,” and he pointed Mary toward John, who was then to become her son, as it were, to take care of her. And to John He said, “Behold thy mother.” And He gave those two loving people to each other to care for each other, and that recorded in John 19:26 was the way He cared for John and Mary.
So, three hours of silence broken by three statements. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” “Today thou shalt be with Me in paradise.” “Woman, behold thy son.” “Behold thy mother.” In each of those statements, in the first three hours, is revealed the grace of the Son of God as He reaches out to give mercy to someone in need. To the soldiers He gave the mercy of forgiveness, to the thief the mercy of the promise of hope of salvation, to His mother and John the mercy of the entrusting of one to the other. Ever and always is He the gracious Savior, and even in those first three hours, as He hangs on the cross, while you would think He would be bitter and retaliatory and somewhat avenging, He is gracious – gracious enough to forgive the soldiers, gracious enough to save the thief, gracious enough to bring His mother and His dear friend John together.
As the second three hours begin, the sun has reached its zenith in the bright Mideastern sky. In that part of the world the sun can shine ever so brightly as it does here on a windswept, clear, summer day. But in the midst of that most tragic occasion of Christ dying on the cross, an astounding thing takes place. It is high noon when the sun would have reached its zenith by the way noon and 3:00, and it says in verse 45 that darkness fell upon all the land or all the Earth. I take it that this probably refers to all the Earth. Half of the globe would have already been in darkness anyway. And if God wiped out the light of the sun there, it well was true that He wiped it out everywhere.
Origen, writing Against Celsus, in volume 233, alludes to a statement by the Roman historian Phlegon who mentioned the darkness. That is to say it’s in Roman history.
Tertullian also wrote to some pagans, mentioning this darkness and saying, quote, “Which wonder is related in your own annals and is preserved in your own archives to this day.”
An apocryphal writing known as the Gospel of Peter says, “Many went about with lamps, supposing it was night.” In the so-called report of Pilate to Tiberius the Governor, it assumes that the emperor is aware that “in all the world” – quote – “they lighted lamps from 12:00 to 3:00.” So, there is some evidence that perhaps the whole world, at the time, knew of the darkness. God had interfered with the sun in the past, and apparently he interfered with the sun again.
Joshua chapter 10 talks about the sun standing still. First Kings chapter 20 talks about the sun moving backward on a sundial. In Exodus chapter 10, you remember that when God was bringing plagues upon Egypt, He darkened the sun. You remember that the prophet Joel – and he is also quoted in the book of Acts by Peter when he preaches – speaks of the sun being darkened. Yet in the future, Revelation 6 talks about a darkened sun and a bloody moon coming at the time when the Lord takes back the earth. So, whenever God wants to touch the sun for His own intention, He can do that.
Some have suggested that this darkness was the result of a Sirocco, which is an east wind that blew up a lot of dirt and dust and created such tremendous clouds that the sun was unable to be seen as normal. Others have said many heavy clouds came in and sort of blocked the sun. But Luke tells us, commenting on the same occasion, in Luke 23:45, Luke says, “The sun was darkened.” And he uses a verb – ekleipō – which means to utterly fail or to just diminish. The sun just failed. It was not clouds, apparently; it was not dust. It was that the sun failed. It was not an eclipse in a technical sense, since that would have been impossible. Passover was in the middle of the month, and it was Passover at this time. And it always began – each month always began with a new moon, so that by now, the moon was full and at the opposite side of the Earth from the sun. So, you couldn’t have an eclipse.
What is certain is that it was supernatural darkness. Whether it was local or worldwide, it was supernatural darkness. There is no natural explanation. God simply made it night in the middle of the day. And the God who made the sun can do anything He wants with it anytime He wants. And you read Revelation, and you’re going to find out that He has yet to do some astounding things with the sun and with the moon, and with the planets and with the stars as well. They’re all going to fall out of heaven when the time comes.
The Babylonian Talmud says that the rabbis used to teach that the sun would fail at times of great crimes. That’s from the German translation of the Babylonian Talmud. The sun would fail at times of great crimes. Well, here was a time of a great crime, and the rabbis were right. Here it was. But why? Why did it go dark? Was God throwing a veil over the sufferings of Christ to hide Him from the mocking scorn, to veil His nakedness? Was this an act of sympathy to cover the horror of His public display of death? Was this a divine protest by God on what was going on? What was God saying in the darkness?
I think the best understanding is simply to know this. Darkness in Scripture is always a symbol of judgment. It’s always a symbol of judgment. Had we time, we could go back to Isaiah 5, Isaiah 13, Isaiah 60; Joel chapter 2, chapter 3; Amos chapter 5; Zephaniah chapter 1; even Matthew 24, Mark 13, Luke 21, Acts 2. And in all those places, we would find darkness associated with divine judgment. God’s salvation is seen as light, and God’s judgment is seen as darkness.
Sinai was full of darkness. Revelation 6:12 to 17, in the time when the Lord comes to punish the Earth, darkness. Second Peter chapter 2, verses 4 and 17, at the second coming, darkness.
Darkness, then, seems to be the symbol of judgment. And here I believe that God turns out the sun, as it were, to symbolize in very graphic terms for the world to see that this is a time of divine judgment. What is the meaning of the cross? It is a time of divine judgment. And that’s what God is saying in the darkness. This is a time of judgment.
Now, God only judges one thing. What is it? Sin. That’s all there is to judge. You can simplify it all by saying, “God only judges one thing: sin.” So, this is a divine judgment on sin that’s taking place on that cross.
As you look at the cross of Christ, then, it is not just a good man making a noble effort to sacrifice himself for a cause he believed in; it is the judgment of God. God is at work here, and God is judging sin. That’s why Romans 4:25 says, “Christ was delivered to death for our offenses.” That’s why 1 Corinthians 15:3 says, “Christ died for our sins.” That’s why 1 Peter 2:24 says, “Who in His own self bore our sins in His body on the tree.” That’s why 1 Peter 3:18 says, “Christ also has suffered for sins, the just for the unjust.” First John 4:10 says, “He sent His Son to be the atonement for our sin.” Galatians 3:13 says, “He was made a curse for us.”
And Jesus knew this was the reason why He came. He said He came to die. He came to bear sin. And though Hebrew 4:15 says He was without sin of His own, He yet became sin, taking the sins of all mankind upon Himself.
So, Jesus here was being judged by God’s wrath. God’s fury was being poured out on Him as He bore in His body all the sins of all men. “He tasted death,” Hebrews 2:9 says, “for every man.” The darkness, I believe, then, symbolizes the wrath of God unleashed on Christ in your place and mine for your sins and mine. This is the judgment of God on one who is bearing sin. And since Christ was absolutely sinless, the sin must have been ours.
The first miracle, then, is the miracle of supernatural darkness, and it speaks of the fact that Christ was being judged for our sin. That’s the meaning of the cross. It was a judgment on your sin and my sin. He was paying the penalty for our sin. And God was unleashing it on Him.
The second thing I want you to notice let’s call sovereign departure. The first was the darkness; the second the sovereign departure. This is a fascinating miracle, almost a sort of a negative miracle of sorts, an inexplicable phenomenon, one which perhaps we will never be able to understand.
But notice verse 46, “And about the ninth hour” – that’s 3:00 P.M. in the midst of this darkness – “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why hast Thou forsaken Me?’” Now, there is a monumental miracle, a reality of truth beyond human reason. How can God and Christ be one and be forsaken? How can they be one and be separated?
Notice verse 46 says it was the ninth hour, 3:00 P.M. The darkness reigned from noon to 3:00. So, the darkness has come to an end. And just at the ending of the darkness is also the ending of the life of Christ. The fury of God is spent. The judgment ends in death. His life is about to come to a close. And it says in verse 46, just at that time “Jesus screamed” is the term – “He screamed with a loud voice.”
For six long hours He had been enduring immeasurable agony. Not only in the physical dimension – and it’s hard to conceive the pain of having nails hammered through your wrists and hammered through your feet, and then to be in that position for six hours while you are slumped in a position that suffocates your internal organs, and your muscles are taut and cramped, and you’re unable to move. And thorns are crushed into your brow, and blood runs down your face. There’s a cloak of flies, and you can’t scratch or move in any direction at all except to perhaps slightly reposition your anatomy. Because every one of your extremities is suspended by a nail. Hour upon hour of excruciating physical agony, to say nothing of the nakedness, the approach of mockery, sarcasm, hatred, venom being poured out upon Him.
But far more than that physical and emotional trauma was the spiritual pain of feeling God’s furious anger over sin poured out totally on Him. It was as if God accumulated all of His anger against all of the sins of all of the ages and poured it all out on Christ. But as that sin-bearing judgment comes to a climax, He gathers His strength enough to cry out from His heart. And He cries out about a profound sense of alienation from God, of separation from God too deep for us to understand. “Eli, Eli,” the Hebrew for “My God, My God.” Mark says, “Eloi, Eloi,” uses the Aramaic. Matthew preserves it as Jesus said it and then gives a translation so that we will understand it, “My God, My God,” and there’s intimacy in that, and there’s tenderness in that, and there’s pathos in that, “My God, My God.” And He is saying, in effect, by the personal possessive pronoun, “You’re Mine; where did You go?” And then says it in “lama sabachthani,” “Why have You left Me? Why have You departed from Me?”
That statement, by the way, is an exact duplicate of Psalm 22, verse 1, where the psalmist predicted that the Messiah in death would say that, and that’s exactly what He said. The cry demonstrates that He was separated from God. That’s a miracle in reverse. That’s a supernatural negative kind of miracle.
You say, “Well, how was it? What happened? What is the mystery of the separation?”
I, for one, do not know. And theologians have discussed and debated this through the centuries and we’ll never be able to explain this because we cannot explain what the essence of the union in the Trinity is, so how could we explain what the separation was?
You say, “Did Jesus cease to become God?”
“Did Jesus get cut off from the nature of God?”
No. But did Jesus cease to have fellowship with God? Yes. Did He get cut off from the communion with God? Yes. Did He die physically? Yes. Did He die spiritually? Yes. He was separated from the fellowship of the Father, though not the nature of the Father. He was still God; He did not cease to be God, or He would have ceased to be anything or anyone. There’s no way you explain it. Maybe we’re helped a little bit to understand a little bit that even in His incarnation there was a separation. Did you know that? Because in John 17:5, He says, “Father, return Me to the glory I had with you before the world began.” So, there was some kind of relationship that He had before His incarnation that He wanted back. So, in the incarnation, there was some degree of separation, and now in His sin-bearing death, there is another degree of separation.
He is separated from God, and when He cries out to God about the separation, that’s cause for the crowd to mock Him. They laugh at that. They knew perfectly well what He said. They know the difference between Eli and Elijah. But notice what their response was in verse 47, “Some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’” Now, I don’t believe for a moment that they really thought He was doing that. This was mockery. He screamed it says. His voice was loud, no doubt clear. They knew what He meant. They knew what He meant. But this was their malicious sarcasm. Because Elijah was believed to be the deliverer and the forerunner of Messiah, and the one who would announce Messiah’s work and assist Him in establishing the kingdom – Malachi 4, verses 5 and 6. He would come along as the associate of Messiah.
And so, they say, “Oh, He must be calling Elijah to now proclaim Him Messiah, to deliver Him, to set up His kingdom, ha-ha-ha.” Mockery. And oh how fearfully did men treat the lovely Son of God, dying for the very sins they were doing at the foot of the cross. He died for their mockery. He died for their sarcasm.
Matthew doesn’t point us to Psalm 22; he knew the Jews all knew Psalm 22; he didn’t need to bring up the fact that this was a direct quote of Psalm 22. He focuses on the response of the mocking crowd. So, there was Jesus, separated from God, and the crowd were mocking Him, and they were sinning sins which He Himself was paying the penalty for right at that moment.
It was at this very point, when He said this, and the crowd was mocking Him, that according to John 19:28 and 29, Jesus said, “I thirst.” Matthew doesn’t tell us He said that, but Matthew tells us what happened in response. Go to the next verse, verse 48, “And Immediately” – immediately after His saying, “I thirst” is recorded in John 19 – “one of them” - probably referring to a soldier who had the sour wine called oxous, it was used for the soldiers to drink and also to quench the thirst of their tortured victims – “one of them ran, and taking a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a reed” – probably no more than 18 inches long, which tells us the cross was not too high above the ground, but the 18 inches was needed to extend it all the way to His mouth, “and gave Him a drink.”
Obviously, in a hot place, there was a need to drink. The kind of wine that they drank was very cheap wine, highly diluted with water or else it would make them drunk and be costly. And so, it was this diluted wine used to quench the thirst of soldiers, a cheap wine, and also for the victims that Jesus was given.
On the one hand, this would quench a momentary thirst. But over the long haul could extend the torture by bringing the kind of refreshment that allowed a person to live a little bit longer. And so, on the one hand, while it met a momentary need, it could have extended the pain even more. This one soldier proceeded to be giving Him something to drink.
And while this was being done, verse 49 says, “The rest of them kept up the mockery, ‘Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.’” Here the Jews keep up their joke about Elijah, playing off of his crying out, “God, Eli, Eli.”
Lenski says, “Every time these Jews speak of Jesus being saved, they gloat over the fact that they now have Him beyond all saving, at a point where He must certainly die. And with such mocking ringing in His ears, Jesus goes to His end.” End quote.
He died with a mockery ringing in His ears. Mockery about, “Elijah’s going to come now and deliver You and set up his kingdom, ha-ha-ha.” But what is the great truth that we see in this picture, this miracle of separation from God? What is the great truth? What do we learn here?
I believe it’s found in the psalm, Psalm 22:1. Psalm 22:1 – just listen, you don’t need to turn to it – says, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me? Far from my deliverance are the words of my groaning. O my God, I cry by day, but Thou dost not answer; and by night, but I have no rest.” Verse 3, “Yet Thou art holy.” And the psalmist is saying, “I know why You’re not around; You’re holy.”
And Habakkuk said it in chapter 1, verses 12 and 13, “You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on iniquity. You’re too holy to be here.” And the holiness of God is the issue in the separation. On the one hand, God pours out His wrath in judgment on sin, while on the other hand, He turns His back on sinners because He has to protect His perfect holiness. He had to turn away from Christ because Christ, it says in 2 Corinthians 5:21, became sin. And so, God turned His back because “God is Light, and in Him is no darkness at all,” 1 John 1:5. He cannot behold evil.
Beloved, the lesson is that those who are guilty sinners are cut off and separated from Holy God. And God had to forsake Jesus because God was holy and Jesus was sin personified at that moment. Fellowship was broken and a gulf existed between the Father and the Son when the Son bore sin.
The point that I want you to grasp is so powerful. The point that I want you to understand is the fact that God separated Himself from Christ indicates that Jesus did indeed become sin. That’s the second great truth about the cross. The first great truth is that God was punishing sin. The second great truth, Jesus became sin and was our substitute as proven by the Father’s departure.
One can see the divine perfection in Jesus, who even though He was engulfed in sin so that He literally became sin itself, still cries out for His God. Even now He is a Lamb without blemish and without spot. There’s no sin of His own. And from His own heart He cries, “My God, My God, why?”
So, on the one hand He is fully sin; on the other hand He is still without sin in His own person, the mystery of His substitutionary death. He bore sin. He bore sin, but not for a second did He desire it. And not for a second was it really His own. His desire was God – always God. And even while He’s bearing the curse, and even while He is engulfed in all the sin, He thirsts for God; He thirsts for communion with God because that’s the truest part of Him.
So, the first miracle, the miracle of supernatural darkness, shows God’s judgment on sin. The second miracle of sovereign departure shows that Christ was personally bearing sin and fully bearing sin, and that’s why He was cut off and separated from God. So, we learn here that God punished Christ for sin, and that Christ fully bore our sin.
There’s a third feature I want you to see in verse 50. Let’s call it self-giving death. Self-giving death. As we look at the cross and Christ hanging there it says, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up the spirit” – or His spirit. Immediately following the last cry and the subsequent mockery, and as the darkness faded back into the 3:00 P.M. sunlight - all this is happening in just moments of time – Jesus cried out again and then died. That’s what verse 50 says.
But this very way in which He died is another miracle in which God makes commentary on the cross. Please notice, “Jesus, when He had cried again with a loud voice,” is that important? Yes. What did He say? Two things. The two things that He said are recorded in John’s gospel and Luke’s. First he said in John 19:30, “It is” – what? – “finished” – tetelestai in the Greek. And then He said, “Father, into Thy hands I commend My spirit,” as Luke 23:46 records it.
So, He cried out with a loud voice, “It is finished,” the sin-bearing atoning substitutionary sacrifice – and then commended His Spirit to God, whom He knew would receive Him for His perfect work. “He cried with a loud voice.” He said those things not with a whisper. He didn’t mumble those things. He literally screamed them at the top of His voice.
Now, what is important to note is that He was still strong enough to do that. Because most people assumed that crucifixion comes about by suffocation. Your final end is suffocation. The organs and the lungs are finally compressed in the slumping form of the body that cannot suspend itself so that suffocation takes place. Suffocation of all those internal organs. Drawing air into the lungs and expelling it out to scream would be very difficult. It is also true that usually people lingered for days when they were crucified. They would not die nearly this fast, not in six hours. And when you stop to think that Jesus Christ was the most perfect human that ever lived, sin had never touched His body until He bore sin there in a spiritual sense. His body was never impacted by sin; therefore, He must have had the strongest, most marvelous human mechanism of any human that ever lived, stronger than any other, that well could have endured not perhaps days but even weeks – who knows? But He died in six hours. And just before He died, He could still scream.
You say, “What’s the significance of that?”
The significance of it is what you read at the end of verse 50. He yielded up His spirit. He yielded up His spirit. The Lord wasn’t going to slowly fade away. He wasn’t going to let His life ebb out. He was still strong enough to kraxas, cry out, to scream loudly. He is not going to die of exhaustion. He makes that clear. He is going to yield up His spirit. That is a unique phrase in the Greek, used here and in John 19:30, and it is unique to the very act of Christ.
There was usually, in looking at a person dying, the idea that they expired or they just breathed out their last. They – when you see someone die, if you’ve had that experience, they breathe out one last time, expelling the air, and they’re dead. Or they die and then that air is expelled almost simultaneously.
But here in John, it’s not the term for just expire; it’s a different term – aphiēmi – it means to send away. To send away. He sent away His spirit, the point being that He was in control of His death. His life was not ebbing out. He had said earlier, “No man takes My life from Me; I lay it down of Myself.” In fact, it was impossible to believe that He was dead according to Mark 15:44 and 45. And Pilate sent word back to try to get the information and be sure that He was actually dead already. But that’s what He said. And that’s what Isaiah said when He said, “He poured out His soul unto death.”
Now, we don’t want to make too much out of Isaiah 53:12, but the idea was that He not only gave His life but He controlled that very giving. And the miracle He performed here was the willful, voluntary dismissal of His spirit. He literally called His spirit outside of His body and let that body die. No one killed Jesus; He yielded up His spirit. He sent His spirit away. He dismissed His own spirit.
So, what you have here is not some victim; what you have here is a self-giving sacrifice. He gave His life. He gave His life. He gave His life. He commended His love toward us in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us; and He died for us not as a victim, but He gave His life.
What does this tell us about the cross? It tells us that He loves us. It tells us about His grace. It tells us about His mercy. So, you look at the cross; you see supernatural darkness. That means God is pouring out judgment. You look at the cross, you see divine separation. That means that He is truly become sin and is bearing sin – our sin, our substitute. And then you see Him voluntarily giving His life, and that speaks of God’s love and mercy and grace. And there’s the true and supernatural heroism of One who does not take lives of those who offend Him, but who gives His own for them.
And then, at the very moment of His death, a fourth phenomena. In verse 51, “And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” We’ll stop at that point. Here is a miracle that took place at the moment of the Savior’s death in which God again makes commentary on the cross. God again speaks to the significance of the cross. The darkness was gone, the light was back. Jesus’ lips are silent in death. He has dismissed His spirit. The body is slumped, without His presence in it, on the cross. And then God makes some commentary on the cross that is absolutely astounding, and He proclaims the significance of the death of Christ, “Behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from the top to the bottom.”
The word “temple” – naos means sanctuary. There was the Holy of Holies into which the high priest could only go once a year and sprinkle blood for the atonement of the people and the nation on the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur, and He had to be sure He was purified before He went in or He could die. That inner Holy of Holies represented the throne of God, the presence of God, and no one ever had access to it. A huge, heavy and very large veil, according to Josephus, or a curtain hung over that, separating it from the Holy Place where priests could minister.
And when Jesus died on the cross, that curtain was ripped from top to bottom. Very importantly, not from bottom to top, as if men did it; top to bottom. God did it from the top down. That inner curtain that hung between the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies in Herod’s Temple was symbolic of the alienation between men and God and them not having access to God’s presence. God had designed it that way. It was a symbol of the fact that God was holy and men were sinners. And there was no way that men could have access to Him. There was nothing that could provide that access; no matter how many millions of sacrifices under the old covenant, the veil was never open for men to come in. God dwelt in the Holy of Holies and men dwelt outside. It shut men out of God’s holy presence.
Full access to God was never possible until Christ died. And when Christ died, God ripped that thing from the top to the bottom and exposed the Holy of Holies to everybody. And you’ve got to understand what this is; this is Passover Day, and this is when all the lambs are being slaughtered and the temple is jammed with tens of thousands of people. And the full-blown priesthood is in operation. And this is the high point of the religious season, and they’re all into their sacrificial system.
The place is flowing with blood and sacrifices; it’s all happening. And in one split second, the whole system is destroyed as, to the horror and shock and fear of the people, the Holy of Holies is instantaneously exposed to everyone. The place where no one would go for fear of their life.
And even today, if you visit Jerusalem, you will see on the temple mount where the temple once stood, walled off now, and signs to the Orthodox Jews, forbidding them to ever go in that area. They don’t know where the Holy of Holies was when the temple was there, and they don’t want any Jews up there who might step inadvertently on what was the Holy of Holies. They’re afraid of that. They’re in fear of ever coming into the presence of God by entering the Holy of Holies. And here the whole thing was exposed to everybody - 3:00 in the afternoon on Passover, the temple would have been jammed with people. And in one moment, no more priesthood, no more temple, no more sacrifices, no more barrier between God and man. Salvation completed, symbols done, reality is present. The old covenant is over; the temple has no place and soon was trampled by the Gentiles.
The devastation of that den of thieves which Jesus Himself had begun when He cleansed it was about to be completed. And so, from top to bottom, miraculously, God ripped open the way to Himself. And what do we learn by what God did here? That the cross opens the way to God. That’s the simple truth. Sin is finally judged; atonement is finally and fully made. No more sacrifices, no more priesthood, no more veil, no more Holy of Holies. The way unto God is open.
Read Hebrews 9, Hebrews 10, how that the perfect sacrifice made by the perfect priest has provided perfect access to a perfect God. Redemption is accomplished. You see the cross; you see there supernatural darkness which means God is judging sin. You see there the sovereign separation between Father and Son, which means that the Son has literally become sin, and the Father must turn His back. He therefore is our substitute. He’s dying our death in our place.
And then you see that self-giving death where He gives up His own life, and you see the mercy and the grace and the love in that sacrifice. And now, in the ripping of the temple curtain, he way to go is made open. The sanctuary is devastated; the system is ended.
And then comes a fifth point, soil disturbance we’ll call it. It says in verse 51, “The earth shook and the rocks were split.” Now, earthquakes aren’t anything special for us; we’re kind of used to little rumblings here and there, and they have been a part of God’s economy, too. God, in the past, has moved through earthquakes. You can read Exodus 19, 1 Kings 19, 2 Samuel 28, Psalm 18, Psalm 77, several allusions in the Old Testament and direct statements, Isaiah 29, Jeremiah 10:10. Nahum writes about God moving in the earthquake, chapter 1, verse 2 and 5.
God has moved through earthquakes. You can also read, if you look ahead to the future, that God is going to move again in the future. Isaiah chapter 13 and Isaiah chapter 24, verse 18 and following, very graphic scriptures which speak about the end time when God begins to shake the Earth.
I might just read those two in Isaiah so that you’ll identify with them. Isaiah 13:13 says, “Therefore I shall make the heavens tremble, and the Earth will be shaken from its place, at the fury of the Lord of Hosts in the day of His burning anger.” There’s coming a day of God’s judgment when He will shake the Earth.
Then in the twenty-fourth chapter, starting at verse 18, he says, “The foundations of the Earth will shake” – at the end of verse 18. “The Earth is broken asunder, the Earth is split through, the Earth is shaken violently. The Earth reels to and fro like a drunkard; it totters like a shack, for its transgression is heavy upon it; it will fall, never to rise again. So it will happen in that day that the Lord will punish the host of heaven on high, and the kings of the Earth on Earth. And they will be gathered together like prisoners in the dungeon and will be confined in prison; and after many days they will be punished. Then the moon will be abashed and the sun ashamed, for the Lord of hosts will reign on Mount Zion and in Jerusalem, and His glory will be before His elders.”
Now, that seems to indicate the millennial time period. When the Lord comes to set up His kingdom, He’s going to shake the Earth. I believe there will be a renewed Earth going into the millennium, and then a new heaven and a new Earth in the eternal state at the end of that thousand-year period. Read Revelation 6, read Revelation 8:5, Revelation 11 – I think around verse 10, 12, 13 – you’re going to see there more of the future earthquakes in God’s judgment.
What does this miracle mean? I believe this is a preview of judgment on the Earth. When that Earth shook that day, I believe that God was saying, “This is My Son who is King, who will somebody shake the Earth.” There will come a day when the whole Earth will be destroyed in a judgment and an earthquake, and I believe that that time the Lord Jesus will take back from the usurper the title deed to the Earth, as indicated in Revelation 6, and reign as the ruler of this world.
And the earthquake on that day was a taste of the fact that Christ had just bruised the serpent’s head – Satan – and would be taking back the Earth in a devastating, cataclysmic judgment yet to come in the future, described in detail in Revelation 6 through 19.
And so, what God was saying is, “This is just a preview, folks. The Earth is going to shake. My Son has died, but My Son is King, and here’s a taste of the shaking that’s going to come when He takes over His kingdom.”
So, you see, in the act of God here, the hope, the promise of the future reign of Jesus Christ. But there’s more to it. Look at verse 52; here’s another point: subduing death. Subduing death, the last of these several features. It says, “And the tombs were opened” – and let me read it to you the way it makes most sense from the original – “And the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints that slept were raised and came out of the graves.” So, you – to read the sentence right, the flow goes into verse 53 and stops after the word graves or tombs.
The graves were opened. An earthquake could have done that. An earthquake can split caves, split rocks, roll stones away. But an earthquake can’t raise the dead. And so, God acts. Many bodies – sōmata – physical bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep – that word koimaō is used mainly of death, though occasionally of sleep. Many of the dead are resurrected – literal, bodily, physical resurrection. Did you get that? Did you know that happened? Did you know that at the very moment in time when Jesus died, the earthquake hit and graves split open, and dead Old Testament, old covenant saints came out in bodies. This is a real resurrection.
It’s my personal belief that they came out in their glorified bodies. They came out in resurrection bodies. They sure didn’t come out in the original one. It’s a real resurrection. And what is this saying? This is saying, “You may have thought you killed the Son of God, but all you’ve done is crack open the graves, because He will rise just like these. You may have thought that this is a victory for death, but this is a victory for life.” God makes another commentary on the cross. The immediate effect of Jesus is a mini resurrection. Actual bodily resurrection of certain selected saints who receive their internal, immortal glorified form right on the spot. Their spirits came from heaven, were joined to their bodies, and they were alive. This is a pre-enactment of the final resurrection. And the reality of it is unanswerable, unmistakable. Look what it says, “After His resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” People saw them. They went and talked to people. They went in and said, “Look, I a so-and-so’s great-great-great-great grandfather. I just came out of the grave.” That is incredible. That must have been some interesting discussions going on. Actual, visible, physical resurrection.
They didn’t appear until the Lord was resurrection, He being the first one risen from the dead, the chief one – 1 Corinthians 15:20 says, “They stayed out of the city until Jesus arose, and then He sort of led the parade out of the grave.” And here was God’s testimony to the fact that killing Jesus Christ opens the graves. Why? Because the sin penalty is paid. And that gives life to all who are dead. No one would ever rise from the dead if Christ hadn’t paid for sin. Resurrection began, then, at the moment Jesus died. What an incredible scene. Jesus dies. In that split second the veil of the temple rips from top to bottom. In that same split second, the earth begins to shake, the rocks are split, and the tombs opened, and out of the tombs come resurrected people. And God is saying, “This is a victory for life, not death.”
Is the meaning of the cross clear now? Do you see it? The wrath of God against sin is depicted in the supernatural darkness. The holiness of God in turning away from sin is depicted in the sovereign departure as He separated Himself from the sin-bearing substitute, Christ.
The loving grace and mercy and tenderness of the Lord is seen in the self-giving death of God incarnate as He gives up His own spirit, dismisses it – not that it’s taken from Him. The open arms of God who calls the saved sinner to Himself is seen by the sanctuary being devastated, and the curtain being ripped, and the Holy of Holies open to all.
The coming promised, new, glorious kingdom with blessing and joy is promised as God shakes the Earth. And the hope of resurrection is guaranteed as death is subdued in the case of some saints who are raised to glorious life. That’s the cross.
The meaning of the cross? God has to punish sin. Christ becomes the substitutionary sin-bearer who takes that punishment. And because He loves you and wants to be merciful and gracious to you, He gives up His life. He is no victim; He gave His life for you and me. And as a result of that, access to the presence of God is wide open to all who will come through Christ. And entering the presence of God means that we receive with Christ the kingdom yet to come, the glorious blessing and joy that is promised as Christ rules and reigns over His own redeemed community, and we shall enter into the hope of resurrection. That’s all right there.
These things that happened around the very moments of the death of Christ speak to the significance of the cross. Do you see it? What does it mean to you? What does it mean to you? Do you understand it? Have you received the Lord Jesus Christ? Have you followed in obedience, embracing Him as Savior? Can you look at the cross and walk away? Is it nothing to you, all you that pass by? Do you wag your head at it? Do you mock at it? Does it draw you irresistibly to it?
The cross. The cross. God forbid that you should exist in any church, for any length of time, and not understand the cross. Let’s pray together.
Father, we do thank You for the cross, the death of Your dear Son. We thank You for making so clear the commentary on its meaning that we might understand it. Lord God, make us grateful. Turn the hearts of any here who have not yet come to the foot of the cross to receive Christ toward Him. Save sinners, Lord, today. Save sinners. Apply the work of Christ to every life here.
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