The centurion keeping watch over Jesus’ death, would have seen many people die as part of his job. Yet when he saw the way Jesus died, and the events surrounding his death he was filled with awe and said ‘Surely he was the Son of God’. What was it about Jesus death, that provoked such a response? What is it about Jesus’ death that has made such an impact on people through history and continues to do so today? Let’s look at three ‘supernatural events’ Matthew 27:45-54 tells us occurred at the time of Jesus death that help us see the meaning of the cross:
1. Darkness -> Judgement of God
V45 From the sixth hour (12 midday) until the ninth hour (3pm) darkness came over the land.
It seems unlikely this darkness was a solar eclipse since they require a new moon, and Jesus was killed during the Passover (during the full moon). Nor was it likely to be the result of a sirocco (dust storm) since Passover was during the wet season in Palestine. It seems clear this darkness is a supernatural act of God.
God had brought a supernatural darkness as the eleventh plague against the Egyptians when they had enslaved the Israelites. A darkness so thick it could be felt (Exodus 10:21-23) over the whole land. As Jesus dies, the land is covered in darkness. God’s judgement is again obvious, but this time it is falling on Jesus. We see that in the words he cries out in v46 My God my God, why have you forsaken me?
By this stage Jesus has been through a lot physically and emotionally. He’d been betrayed by one of his disciples, and abandoned by the others. He’s been whipped, beaten, had a crown of thorns placed on him, and nailed to a cross where he’d been hanging. Yet what he cries out is not: My friends, my friends why have you abandoned me? It’s not my hands, my hands, or my back my back, or my head, my head. He cries out – My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.
Jesus, God the Son, is enduring the unimaginable agony of being separated from God the Father whom he has always known and loved. This is not some unplanned falling out between God the Father and God the Son, it is what God has planned as the way for sin to be forgiven. 700 years before this event, Isaiah prophesied about it saying: It was the Lord’s will to crush him (Isaiah 53:10)
These words show the lengths God was willing to go to, to make a way for sinners to be saved.
But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all. (Isaiah 53:5-6)
Jesus is crying out My God, my God, why have you forsaken me, because God is laying on him, the sins of all his people.
Our sin against God is so serious that only the sacrifice of Jesus can save us. None of us live for God’s glory, we live for created things, rather than the creator. Our hearts are self-centred, rather than God centred. We turn from God’s ways and do whatever suits us best.
When I look into my own heart with the help of the Bible, I see what the Bible calls pride – a tendency to think of myself more highly than I should, in all sorts of blatant and subtle ways. I see what the Bible calls greed – a desire to have more than I need, to look to things for my security or significance, rather than God. I see selfishness, caring more about myself than others. I see things that I’m ashamed of, that I wished I’d never said and done, things that have hurt others, but most of all things that are against God. Things God would be right to judge me for, and punish me by banishing me forever from his holy presence.
My only hope is that the Lord has laid on Jesus my iniquity, my sin. Jesus came under the judgement of God taking on himself my sin. Jesus was forsaken by God, so that I don’t have to be. He lived the perfectly obedient life, that I could never live, and died the death that I should have. What do you see when you look into your heart? Is it possible the same self-centred rebellion in my heart is there in your life as well? If so, your only hope, like mine is trusting that Jesus has taken your sin and God’s judgment against you on himself.
2. Torn Curtain -> Access to God
V50-51a And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The temple had two veils or curtains. The first formed the entrance to the Holy Place, the second to the Most Holy Place. Matthew doesn’t mention which of these was torn in two when Jesus died, but for a number of reasons it seems it was the second curtain. The Most Holy Place was where God said his presence would be. Only one person could go into that section, the high priest, on one day of a year, the Day of Atonement. The curtain that separated of the most Holy Place was 18 m (60 ft) high and 9m (30ft) wide. It was said to be about 1m (3ft) thick, not something that could be torn in two by human beings.
This curtain and all the regulations around the temple were showing that God is holy. He is separate and different to us, he is morally pure in a way that we are not. Human beings cannot just walk into the presence of God and expect to live, we cannot gain access to him. Yet at the moment Jesus died, the veil tore in two from top to bottom, showing that through Jesus’ death human beings can have access to God in a way that was never previously possible.
… since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith… (Hebrews 10:19-22)
Do you know anything of this experience of drawing near to God with confidence and assurance? Most people pray at some time in their life. Most of us have an urge to call out to a God who is greater than us. Yet few do it with a sense of confidence. You may wonder whether God is there, or whether he’s too busy for you, or you’ve done too many wrong things. Jesus death and resurrection show us God is there, he is interested in people, even sinful people like us. It’s possible for sinful rebels like us to come to God, with a clear conscience, with confidence, not because of our goodness, but through Jesus. We can now have access to God, through Jesus death on the cross.
3. Earthquake/Tomb Opening -> New life
V51b-52a The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
Of the three supernatural events here, you may find this the hardest to believe: holy people coming out of their graves, can modern people really believe that? Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell us the centurion is amazed at Jesus death and the events surrounding it, they all tell us about the darkness for three hours, they all tell us about the temple curtain being torn, but only Matthew mentions the earth shaking with the tombs opening.
Earthquakes in Palestine are not uncommon. Rocks splitting, and rock tombs being opened may be what you’d expect with an earthquake, yet the timing of this event like the other two seems to be pointing to something. It is linked here with the bodies of holy people being raised to life. An event Matthew says there were many witnesses to.
Commentators debate where the full stop should go in these sentences. It is obvious that Matthew moves from what happens at the cross, to what happens when Jesus is raised. It’s clear the earth shaking and the rocks splitting and the tombs opening all happen when Jesus died. It’s clear that these raised holy people appear to people after Jesus resurrection, but commentators debate whether they were raised when Jesus was, or when Jesus was crucified. It’s not easy to be certain about that. Yet it’s not vital – what is clear is that Matthew is making a connection between Jesus death and Jesus resurrection. Both events are important and belong together. Both point us to the new life that only Jesus can bring: a new spiritual life that can begin now, as God begins to change us on the inside by his spirit, and a new physical body that all those who trust in Jesus will one day receive. A body that won’t have all the problems your present body does. It won’t sin, it won’t feel pain, it won’t get sick, it won’t die.
A man I’ve spoken to a couple of times, told me how he used to dismiss the Bible as not true, because he did not believe supernatural events could happen. Then one day he asked himself: what if there really was a God? If there were, he could do miracles, he could raise people from the dead because he created the world and could do what he liked with it. He began to read the Bible with that thought in mind, and the Bible began to make sense to him, it was coherent. He realised the problem had been his presuppositions, his assumptions. He’d presumed supernatural events cannot happen, but he realised he did not have a solid basis for that assumption. As he began to read the Bible without that presumption, he became convinced the Bible was true and he came to put his trust in Jesus death and resurrection as being for him.
Jesus’ death and his resurrection are continuing to impact people all over the world, even today. Jesus invites all of us to be repenting –changing our wrong thinking and actions and trusting in him. He invites us to put our trust in his death as being for us, that we may know the joy of being free from God’s judgement, having access to God the Father through him, and having the new life which begins now, and will only get better.
(Summary of sermon on Matthew 27:45-54 preached at EHBC on Good Friday -2 April 2010)