At the very heart of the Christian gospel is the cross of Jesus Christ, the crucifixion of our Lord. And Matthew reaches the climactic events of the life of Christ as he focuses on the death of Christ and then the glory of His resurrection.
About 30,000 people were crucified around the era of the Lord Jesus Christ. I daresay no one really knows the name of the 29,999. The only one who of the 30,000 left His mark is Jesus Christ. Highways around the Roman Empire, and certainly around the land of Palestine, were really littered with crosses of executed criminals. But only one of those executions was redemptive and that was the death of Jesus Christ.
Why was it so important? What was its significance? Why should the crucifixion of Jesus be singled out for worldwide recognition? We have to understand the meaning of the cross. As you read the narrative that Matthew writes in chapter 27, he describes the details of the crucifixion of Christ. He describes the trial, the false accusations, the conspiracy, the animosity of the Jewish people, the blackmail of Pilate, the political intrigues of the high priests and Herod. He describes how it was that Jesus was tried, how it was that He was put through mockery and shame and ultimately paraded through the streets as a criminal and finally crucified. But all of that is the account, the story. The question is, what is the meaning of it all? What is the significance of it all?
And we could go to the Old Testament, and we would find that in the Old Testament there are prophets who speak about the death of Messiah. We would find that in the sacrificial system of the Old Testament, where animals were offered as substitutes, as it were, for the punishment that sinners deserved, there was definitely some teaching about the meaning of the death of Christ. There was a scapegoat as well who symbolically bore away the sins of the people. There was the Day of Atonement in which blood was sprinkled on the mercy seat on behalf of the sins of the people. We could go to the epistles of the New Testament where the apostle Paul and the apostle John and Peter and others give us the meaning of the death of Jesus Christ in no uncertain terms. And I suppose there are people who assume that if you want the meaning of the death of Christ, you have to go somewhere other than the event itself, because that’s just the history of it, and we have to wait for apostolic writings to give its meaning to us. But that’s not really true. In fact, the meaning of the cross is made absolutely clear in the very narrative of the event itself.
God Himself, not a prophet, not a priest through typical means, not an apostle, not a New Testament writer, but God Himself gives His own commentary on the meaning of the cross while the event was happening. And He does it in a series of miracles that surrounded the death of Christ. Those miracles give us the theological and spiritual meaning of His death, and they are profound. Let’s look at Matthew chapter 27 verses 45 and following for this series of miracles, miracles which interpret the meaning of the cross.
Miracle number one, we will call supernatural darkness.” verse 45, “Now from the sixth hour, darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour.” The sixth hour, that’s noon. The Jews always started their day at 6:00 a.m. and so six hours later, it is noon. The ninth hour, 3:00 in the afternoon. Mark tells us in his Gospel, that Jesus was crucified at the third hour, at nine. So three hours on the cross have already passed. The soldiers had nailed Him. They had placed a sign over His head. And He had already been suspended there, naked before the passersby, the soldiers, the religious leaders, and the crowd, all of whom continued to mock Him and cast insults at Him in His humiliation. And during that three hours, from nine to noon, He had uttered three things. He had spoken three times. First He said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” Then He said, “Verily this day you will be with Me in paradise,” to a penitent thief hanging beside Him. Then He said, “Woman, behold thy Son and behold thy mother,” speaking to Mary and the apostle John. In three hours, only those three statements broke the silence. And in each case, He directed what He said to someone particular: soldiers and people who cried for His blood, a penitent dying criminal, and Mary and John. And in each case, He demonstrated grace. “Forgive my crucifiers. Bring this criminal to paradise. I’m concerned about My mother and My beloved John.” Grace from the cross.
As the second three hours began at noon, when the sun – believe me, I’ve been there – in that land in the spring reaches its zenith in the height of the Mideastern sky and blazes down upon the land below, an astounding thing takes place. Verse 45 says, “Darkness fell upon all the land.” Dark at noon over all the land, is the term gē in the Greek. It can be translated earth. Perhaps the whole earth was engulfed in darkness. Certainly half of it was in darkness anyway, perhaps the rest. Origin, an early church father, alludes to a statement by the Roman historian Phlegon, who mentioned the darkness in one of his writings. Tertullian also wrote to some pagans mentioning this darkness and saying, “Which wonder is related in your own annals and is preserved in your own archives to this day.” So it may well have been that historians all over the world wrote about this darkness.
There is an ancient writing that says, and I quote, “Many went about with lamps, supposing it was night and fell down.” In the so-called report of Pilate to Tiberius the governor, it assumes that the emperor is aware that in all the world, they lighted lamps from noon until 3:00. Supernatural darkness. God had interfered with the sun on other occasions. You read in Joshua chapter 10 that He caused it to appear as if the sun stood still. And you read as well in Exodus chapter 10 that God blackened the sun in a very limited place. So God at times has interrupted the sunlight in supernatural ways. And here He does it. It wasn’t just a sirocco, an east wind blowing up dust and dirt. It wasn’t heavy clouds. Luke says the sun was darkened, and he uses this verb, ekleipō – an eclipse. It literally means to fail utterly.
But this was not an eclipse in the technical scientific sense, since that would have been impossible. Why? It was Passover season. And Passover was in the middle of the month, and the month always began with a new moon, so that by now, the new moon was full and the moon was completely on the opposite side of the earth from the sun, and the sun could not be eclipsed by the moon. What was certain then is that this was supernatural darkness. And there is no natural explanation. God made it night in the middle of the day. Why? This was God’s first comment on the cross. And all you have to know is that the Bible uses darkness as a symbol of judgment to understand what God was saying.
Isaiah speaks of darkness as a sign of judgment a number of times, chapter 5, chapter 13, and again in chapter 60. Joel spoke of darkness as a sign of judgment. The prophet Amos, the prophet Zephaniah both spoke of darkness as signs of judgment. We find also Matthew, Mark, Luke, and in the Book of Acts, darkness is associated with judgment. We find it again in Hebrews chapter 12, 2 Peter chapter 2, and mostly notably in the Book of Revelation. Darkness is a sign of judgment. And God was saying, by the darkness, that the cross was a place of judgment. And this was not a judgment to come at a future time, but a judgment right there and right then. While certainly it depicts the kind of darkness that’ll come upon the world in the day of the Lord, it was its own judgment and not just previews of coming attractions.
And God only judges one thing, sin. He doesn’t judge anything else, just sin. This then must have been a divine judgment on sin, and indeed it was. Indeed it was. You say, well, wait a minute. The Bible says, Hebrew 4:15, that Jesus Christ was without sin. This is true. Personally, He never committed a sin, never a sinner. But this was still a judgment on sin. If not His sins, whose? First Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins.” Romans 4:25, “He was delivered for our offenses against God.” First Peter 2:24, “Who, in His own self, bore our sins in His body.” First Peter 3:18, “Christ suffered, the just for the unjust.” First John 4:10, “God sent His Son to be the atonement for our sins.” Galatians 3:13, “He was made a curse for us.” It was a judgment on sin, not His, ours. Jesus was judged because He was bearing our sins. Hebrews 2:9 puts it this way, “He tasted death for every man.” Punishment was borne by Jesus Christ, as God unleashed His fury on Him. And the darkness is clearly a supernatural confirmation that this is indeed a judgment of God on sin. And the judgment of God was unleashed on Christ in behalf of every person who would ever believe. So the first miracle, darkness, speaks of the fact that Christ was being judged for sin. And since He didn’t have any sin of His own for which to be judged, the Bible makes it clear He was judged as if He had committed our sins. He took our place and bore our judgment.
There was a second miracle that tells us the meaning of the cross, supernatural darkness, secondly sovereign departure – sovereign departure. Here is another miracle that has no human explanation and frankly no human comprehension, a reality of truth beyond our realm. Verse 46, “And about the ninth hour when it was still dark, Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama Sabachthani?’ That is, ‘My God, My God. Why hast thou forsaken me?’” The last moment of the darkness, at 3:00, the fury of God is almost spent, judgment almost over as death comes. And as His life comes to its close, it says, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice.” We would say, “Jesus screamed.” For six hours, He had been enduring immeasurable agony, not only in the physical dimension but much more so in the spiritual dimension, as He felt the full fury of God’s anger over sin placed on Him. Sin bearing is about to finally bring about His death, a merciful ending to the suffering. But as the sin-bearing judgment comes to a climax, He gathers His strength to cry the cry of His heart. And He expresses profound separation, too deep for us to ever understand. “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?” Eli, Eli is Hebrew for My God, My God, and the rest, “For why have You forsaken Me,” from the Aramaic language.
Matthew preserves it as Jesus said it, part in Hebrew, part in Aramaic. The statement is what the Psalmists predicted back in Psalm 22:1. David by the very inspiration of the Holy Spirit, said the Messiah on the cross would say, “My God, My God. Why have You forsaken Me?” And what the cry demonstrates is the spiritual separation that Jesus was enduring from God. That’s a miracle, folks, in a sense, a reverse miracle, a supernatural separation that is basically impossible. It can’t happen because the Trinity cannot be divided. Because the first member and the second member share the same essence. They are unique individuals and yet they are one and they can’t be separated. And yet Christ experiences what can’t happen. We can’t know the mystery of the separation. We can’t understand it. Obviously, Jesus didn’t cease to exist. He didn’t cease to be God. And He could only exist as God, yet He was cut off from fellowship with the Father, though never ceasing to bear the same nature as the Father. I suppose a simple illustration would be a sinful child does not cease to be the essence of his own father when he sins, but he certainly loses intimate fellowship.
So Christ was separated by sin from the intimacy enjoyed with the Father. But it has to be even more than that because He was separated from the Father, in some sense, in His carnation or He wouldn’t have prayed, “Father, restore to Me the glory that I had with You when We were face to face.” So there’s something more profound than we can ever comprehend here. And it is somehow miraculous. That is to say, it is humanly inexplicable. Sin had literally separated Him from One from whom He couldn’t be separated.
In verse 47, “Some of those who were standing there, when they hear it, began saying, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’” Why’d they say that? It’s not like, “Ali, Ali.” His voice was loud. He screamed it. His voice must have been crystal clear and penetrating, and they knew what He meant. They knew Hebrew and they knew Aramaic. What are they saying, “This man calls for Elijah”? They’re mocking Him. This is malicious. This is sarcasm. You see, the Old Testament said that before the Messiah sets up His kingdom, Elijah will come, Malachi 4:5 and 6. That’s how the Old Testament ends, that the Messiah will come and the kingdom will come, and before the Messiah will come, Elijah. And mockingly they’re saying, “Oh yes, He’s the king. And He must be calling for Elijah because it’s now time to set up His kingdom.” Oh how frighteningly, mockingly did they exercise their wickedness against the lovely Son of God dying on the cross.
It was at this very point that Jesus said, “I thirst.” And John tells us of that in John 19:28 and 29. Matthew tells us the reaction to the statement, “I thirst.” Notice verse 48, “And 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.” Sour wine, oxos in the Greek. It was for the purpose of quenching thirst. It was mixed heavily with water. Reeds probably were taken from the hyssop plant, the stems of which only grew about 18 inches long. And so maybe an 18-inch long reed and a sponge on the end soaked in this sour wine. The cross, by the way, would be somewhat low to the ground, and someone with that 18-inch extension could bring it to His mouth as He slumped, hanging from the nails. This is a cheap, common wine workers drank and soldiers drank.
And while they gave it to Him, verse 49 says, “The rest of the crowd said, ‘Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.’” They kept up their joke. He’s a king. He’s about to bring the kingdom. How about that? He must be calling for Elijah. And so here is the Son of God, mocked in the world. And that’s bad enough. Far worse, separated from God. And so we have this incredible departure, and He’s left to be mocked and to die. The holiness of God is the issue. God has to separate Himself because He’s of purer eyes than to behold evil and cannot look upon inequity. And so with one hand, God pours out His wrath in judgment, as symbolized by the darkness. And He does it while, as it were, turning His back to the inequity that Jesus Christ Himself is bearing. Pouring out judgment on the one hand, and protecting His holiness on the other. He had to turn away because Christ, who knew no sin, had been made sin for us.
What is the lesson here? What is God teaching us in this? What is intended to be learned from this? Very simply, this: Guilty sinners are separated from God. God had to forsake – literally to abandon – Jesus, because He was made sin. He was not a sinner. He did not sin. But He was treated as if He did. And all the sins of all who would ever believe were placed upon Him. God did not stop loving Jesus, but fellowship was broken with a great severance, and a gulf came between Father and Son. Covered as He was with the sins of others, He was not fit for fellowship with God. And what is God showing us here? That a holy God has to turn away from sin. The cross teaches us that sin will be judged and that God will turn His back on sinners. The first miracle of supernatural darkness shows God’s judgment. The second, on sovereign departure, shows how God must turn His back on sin.
Then there’s a third miracle here. Let’s call it self-giving death – self-giving death. Verse 50, “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up His spirit.” My friend, here’s another miracle. Here’s another miracle. Jesus had enough strength to scream, “My God, My God. Why have You forsaken Me?” And He has enough strength left again – and it’s very important – to cry again with a loud voice, still strong enough to do that. This is no fading whimper. And by the way, it was not uncommon for those who were crucified to linger for days before death mercifully came. It was utterly uncommon that someone would die in six hours. Even the giving of a drink would have to have been calculated by those around the cross as a momentary relief, which in the end would only prolong the inevitable death, thus adding to the torture. And maybe that’s why they were so eager to do it.
But our Lord was not going to slowly fade away. It wasn’t going to take a day or two days or three days for Him to die. He was not going to just hang there while His life ebbed out. He was still strong enough to cry out – krazas, to literally shout. He will not die of exhaustion. What does He cry? “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice” – what did He say? John tells us, chapter 19 verse 30. He said one word in Greek, tetelestai. “It is finished.” And then Luke says He said this, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My spirit.” And our text in Matthew 27:50 says, “And He yielded up His spirit.” That’s a unique phrase in the Greek, by the way. It’s used here and in John 19:30. It’s unique in the New Testament. He yielded up His spirit. He gave up His own life. He gave it up. He Himself said, “No man takes My life from Me. I lay it down of Myself.” When it says there in verse 50 He yielded up His spirit, it uses a Greek verb aphiēmi, which means to send away. He literally sent away His own life. He dismissed His own spirit as an act of His own will, voluntary death. That’s miraculous. Nobody controls his own death. In fact He had died so soon, they couldn’t believe it, absolutely couldn’t believe it.
Pilate wondered that He was dead by this time and summoned the centurion. He questioned him as to whether He was already dead. And ascertaining this from the centurion, he granted the body to Joseph, so says the fifteenth chapter of Mark. Pilate couldn’t believe He was already dead. Isaiah 53:12, the prophet said, “He hath poured out His soul unto death.” He gave up His own life. So the miracle here He performed was the willful, voluntary offering of Himself in death. No one really killed Jesus. He gave up His life. The Jews, with all their hatred and animosity, couldn’t kill Him by themselves. The Romans, with all of their tortuous means, couldn’t kill Him by themselves. Satan and all his demons couldn’t kill Him by themselves. He gave His life.
So what do we see in the cross? That this miracle, the greatest act of love the world will ever know. While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us. Sometimes somebody might die for a good man. But nobody ever dies for wicked people. But Jesus did. What do you see in the miracles around the cross? You see God’s judgment unleashed. You see God’s holiness manifest. And you see the immensity of the love of a dying Savior.
Fourthly, there’s another miracle. Let’s call it sanctuary devastation – sanctuary devastation. Verse 51, “And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” Stop there. Here is a miracle that took place at the moment of the Savior’s death. And in this miracle, there is some profound truth revealed by God. Jesus dies, the darkness ends. The light is back. Jesus’ lips are silent in death, but God speaks loudly. And He proclaims the significance of the death of His Son immediately, “Behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” We’re talking now about a curtain that was hanging between the holy place and the Holy of Holies in the temple, a curtain behind which the high priest could go only once a year on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle blood for the sins of the people. The inner curtain that hung in the temple which Herod had built between the holy place and the Holy of Holies, kept everybody out of the presence of God. It symbolized the fact that there was no access. It separated the people from the presence of God. God dwelled in the Holy of Holies between the wings of the cherubim on the top of the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant. And only on the Day of Atonement could the priest go in and sprinkle blood. It shut men out of God’s presence. No one could ever enter. Full access to God was impossible until Christ died. And at that moment, God Himself ripped the curtain.
Historians tell us that it was very, very high; very, very ornate. Nobody started tearing it at the bottom. It came from the top down. And God was saying, the way is now open into My presence. All men have as much access to Me as a high priest ever had. All fear is gone. The high priest went in there in fear and trembling, believe me. And he had to have little bells on the bottom of his robe so the people could hear the little bells tinkling. They would know if he had been killed by God, because he wasn’t appropriately cleansed before he went in, if the bells stopped ringing. And by the way, since it was 3:00 in the afternoon on Passover day, the temple would be jammed with people, jammed with priests busy slaying Passover lambs. And all of a sudden, in one moment – listen to this – in one moment, no more priesthood, no more sacrifices, no more curtain, no more Holy of Holies, no more barrier. Because out on that hillside where Jesus died, the way to God was opened. The old covenant was over. The temple had no place, and it would be trampled by the Gentiles in a few years, and to his very hour, never rebuilt. The devastation of that place, which had been the temple of God but had been turned into a den of robbers, was begun. And God ripped the way open so that all sinners who will, can come. The final sacrifice of Christ ended all the sacrificial system. No more lambs need to be slain. No more priests. Sin was finally and fully judged. And the way to God was open for every sinner to come.
So the lesson in that miracle is that redemption is accomplished, and for all there is immediate access to God. What does the cross mean? It’s clear. God Himself is doing the commentary. The darkness shows us it is judgment on sin. The separation shows us that He must turn His holiness away from those who bear sin. The ripping of the temple curtain means the way was open. And the wonderful, wonderful willing yielding up of the life of Jesus shows us the profound love that He has for unworthy sinners.
There’s a fifth miracle. Just to keep our little letters going, let’s call it soil disturbance. We’ve seen supernatural darkness and sovereign departure and self-giving death and sanctuary devastation. How about soil disturbance? The end of verse 51, “The earth shook and the rocks were split.” God, by the way, had often moved in cataclysmic fashion when He was present. You can go back into the Old Testament and find that on numerous occasions. When God starts to move in the world, things often shake. And this particular shaking, at the death of Christ, was a taste – just another taste of what is going to come in the final fury of judgment against a Christ-rejecting world when God shakes the world into total disintegration. In fact, there will be such a shaking on the day of the Lord – prior to the day of the Lord, the heavens will be shaken. The stars will fall. The moon will not give its light. The sun will go black. In the day of the Lord, the earth will shake. The islands will flee away. The earth will be completely changed. And finally, at the end of the millennial kingdom, where you have a changed universe, you have a whole uncreation of the universe as we know it, and a new heaven and a new Earth. This is but a taste of that.
What does this miracle mean? What is it saying? It’s saying that though redemption has been provided, there will still be judgment. There will still be a final judgment. There will still be a final devastation. And that tells us immediately that not everyone is going to accept the marvelous gift of salvation. Yes, salvation is offered. The veil is ripped. The Holy of Holies is opened. Sinners can come. And God immediately reminds us they won’t all come. The earthquake was a taste of the fact that Christ had just bruises Satan’s head and someday would come in devastating cataclysmic judgment and shake the earth and make it His own, and in that shaking, all sinners would perish. God will keep His promise of a kingdom after the shaking and someday a new Heaven and a new Earth.
Finally, one more miracle. One more miracle by which the Father fills out the meaning of the cross. Verse 52, “And the tombs were opened, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. And coming out of the tombs after His resurrection, they entered the holy city and appeared to many.”
This is a final astonishing comment on the death of Christ by God Himself. He just opened the graves. God just opened them. I’ll tell you what, you say, well maybe the earthquake did it. Well yeah, the earthquake could open the graves, but it couldn’t raise the people who were in them. God did this. Stones rolled away, caves cracked open, and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised. Literally, many bodies of the saints that slept were raised and came out of the graves. That’s the proper translation. A specific number of old covenant believers, selected by God, just came back from the dead.
You say, well how did all that work? I mean, their spirits had already been with God and they had to come back here for another term? Apparently. This was a real resurrection. Bodies, it says. I mean, can you imagine the impact, graves opened and people coming out? The immediate effect of the death of Christ, immediately, was a miniature resurrection, actual bodily resurrection of saints who received their eternal, immortal, glorified form. I believe they were in resurrection glory. Saints came down from heaven and got their new bodies in a special dispensation. It’s a reenactment – a pre-enactment, rather. It is a pre-enactment of the final resurrection, of the rapture of the saints. And after His resurrection, these resurrected people went into the holy city and appeared to many. Boy, that must have been interesting. They didn’t appear for three days, until after the resurrection of Christ. Why? He was the first fruit.
What is the meaning of the cross? This is God’s own commentary. What does the cross mean? God does these miracles to tell us. First, at the cross, the wrath of God against sin was poured out and demonstrated in a supernatural darkness. Secondly, the holiness of God in turning away from a sinner is depicted in the sovereign departure. Thirdly, the loving grace and mercy of God is seen in the self-giving death of God incarnate who gives up His life for those who don’t deserve it. And then the open arms of God who calls the sinner to Himself, is seen by the sanctuary devastation as the veil is torn and the way is opened and all sacrificial systems end and all priesthoods are expanded to embrace any who come. The coming promised new universe with its blessing and its joy, the coming kingdom is indicated in the soil disturbance that shakes the earth. And the eternal hope of resurrection is guaranteed in the little mini resurrection. We could call it the subduing of death as the saints are raised in glory. There’s the message of the cross. That’s what it’s all about. And that’s God’s commentary on it. Do you hear it? Do you see it? Greater question: Do you believe it? Let’s bow in prayer.
It’s no wonder, our Father, that the hymn writer has said, “In the cross of Christ I glory.” As we see the crucified Christ in this marvelous, marvelous passage in Matthew, it all becomes clear. You were pouring out Your fury against sin on Him. You are too holy to accept a sinner. Your love is absolutely sacrificial. You have opened the way into Your presence. But for those who refuse, there is terrifying judgment to come. For those who receive Christ, there is the glory of a new heaven and a new earth when this old one is shaken, and a resurrection to eternal glory.
Yes Father, many people may have died on crosses in that era. None, none but Jesus Christ died this kind of death. We thank You that when we believe and acknowledge Christ as Savior and Lord and turn from our sin to receive His forgiveness, we pass out of darkness to light, out of death to life, out of fear to hope, out of sorrow to joy, out of destruction to glory. That is the meaning of the cross and we thank You for it. In our Savior’s glorious name. Amen.
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