Before we come to the Lord’s Table tonight I want to draw your attention back to Matthew 27, and this will be a kind of meditation to prepare us for our time together in the Lord’s Table. I want to look in particular at just one brief section and that starts down in verse 45. Matthew 27:45. Let me read these verses to you.
“Now from the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’ And some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’ 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. But the rest of them said, ‘Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.’ And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit. And behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth shook and the rocks were split. 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.”
We are all familiar with the account of the gospel writers about the death of our Lord, and all four writers give us an account of it. We know about the experience of our Lord on the cross and things leading up to the cross. That is to say, we know the narrative and we know the history. And even though there were, according to historians, about thirty thousand people crucified in the same era in the land of Israel only Jesus is known. Thirty thousand people were crucified by the Romans, we only know one name.
Why is it that the crucifixion of Jesus is singled out for worldwide importance? Why is that? Well, most people know the answer, at least superficially they know the answer. They say because He died to save sinners from eternal wrath and punishment in hell. He died to save sinners from their sin and divine punishment. Most people know that, most people are aware of that.
And certainly there are many passages in the Bible that tell us that, explaining the significance of His death. These familiar words from the Old Testament, Isaiah 53, “Surely our griefs He Himself bore, our sorrows He carried; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted. But He was pierced through for our transgressions, He was crushed for our iniquities; the chastening for our well-being fell upon Him, and by His scourging we are healed. All of us like sheep have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; but the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on Him.” We understand what Isaiah’s saying: He died in our place.
Romans chapter 5, the apostle Paul says that, “He demonstrated, God demonstrated His love toward us, in that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” Paul says in 2 Corinthians 5 that, “He, the Lord, was made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” These are all explanations of the theology of His death, that it was substitutionary, that it was a sacrifice for sin, that He was God’s chosen sacrifice, and that God was satisfied.
Hebrews 10, for example, says that, “In His death He perfected forever those who are sanctified.” So in His death, on behalf of sinners, He brought them to eternal perfection. First Peter 1 says, “We were not redeemed with silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, a lamb without blemish and without spot.” First Peter 2:24, “He bore in His own body our sins on the cross.” Or 1 Peter 3:18, “He died, the just for the unjust.” Revelation even tells us in the fifth chapter, when we get a glimpse of heaven that this Lord Jesus was the sacrifice for sin that purchased our salvation. So whether we go to Isaiah, or whether we go to the Epistles written by Paul, or whether we go to those written by Peter, or even were we to go to John, we would find explanations of the meaning of the death of Christ.
But it fascinates me that we don’t have to wait to get to the Epistles to understand the meaning of the cross. Though that’s where we usually go, and that is certainly why they were written, the historical narrative that I just read to you by itself provides the meaning of the event. In fact, the historical narrative is full of revelation from God as to the meaning of the cross, so that even the people there at that hour before the Epistles were ever written could see exactly what was happening in the plan of God’s redemption; and I want us to look at the features in the account that I just read that reveal God’s own commentary on the cross while it was happening.
There are a number of things that explain the significance of the cross. Let’s go back to verse 45 and see the first one. And this is God giving us at the very time of the narrative the meaning of it. Verse 45, very simple statement: “From the sixth hour darkness fell upon all the land until the ninth hour.” Now this is the first divine act, supernatural darkness, supernatural darkness. This is not natural, there is no human explanation for this, this is a divine miracle, and as such, is a divine commentary on what is happening there.
Now remember, the Son of God claimed rightly to be the Light of the world, John chapter 8, verse 12, “I and the Light of the world; whoever walks in Me will not walk in darkness.” He is the Light that comes into the world, John begins his gospel that way, and all who are in Him are in the Light. We have fellowship with Him in the Light, John says in his Epistle.
So our Lord was identified as light, the light of knowledge, divine knowledge, and the light of virtue, divine virtue. But from the sixth hour to the ninth hour, darkness. That would be twelve noon to three o’clock in the afternoon Jewish time. Mark 15:25 says He was actually crucified the third hour, that’s 9:00 AM in the morning. So for three hours, He has been hanging on the cross, suffering physically, suffering physically, and certainly emotionally.
During those first three hours He said three things. First thing He said is to those who had crucified Him and were standing around the cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do,” Luke 23:34. And then He said to the thief who said, “Would You remember me when You come into Your kingdom?” He said, “Truly this day you will be with Me in Paradise.” Also Luke 23, verse 43. And then the third thing He said in the opening three hours was to Mary and to John. He said, “Woman, behold your son; son, behold your mother,” and He was giving His mother into the care of the apostle John, as recorded in John 19:26 and 27. So the only thing that broke the silence in the first three hours were those three statements. Each of them is a statement of grace, grace to offer forgiveness for His executors, grace offered to a thief to bring Him to heaven, and grace offered to His mother and His disciple John. Only words of grace broke the silence.
Then comes the second three hours, and it begins at noon when essentially is at its zenith, and it is a shock, because that second three hours begins with darkness falling on the land. The word gē in the Greek could mean the earth. It could mean simply darkness covered the planet. It was already dark on half the planet; perhaps darkness covered the rest as well.
Roman historians Phlegon and Tertullian actually wrote about this strange darkness that came over the earth. There’s a document called “The Report of Pilate to Tiberius,” and in that report it notes that the emperor was aware that in all the world on a certain day, from noon to three o’clock everyone had to light a lamp. God just may have turned out the lights.
Now God had interfered with the sun on other occasions. Joshua 10, the sun stood still, which wasn’t the sun standing still, it was actually the earth ceasing to rotate. In 2 Kings 20, the sun on the dial moved backward. And in Exodus 10:22 and 23, the plague of darkness swept across Egypt. So there were times when God took control miraculously of light and darkness.
There is no explanation for this on a human level or a physical level. Luke 23:45 describes it this way: “The sun was darkened.” Here it simply says, “Darkness fell.” But the definition that Luke gives us is this: “The sun was darkened.” Actually, the term is ekleipō from which we get eclipse.
Now this wouldn’t be a natural kind of phenomenon because Passover was in the middle of the month, and the month was always a new moon, and by this time, the moon was full. This was supernatural darkness. Why? Somebody suggests, “Well, God was throwing a veil over the suffering of the Lord Jesus.” It’s been also suggested that this is an act of divine sympathy, as if God is weeping and it’s the darkness of sorrow. Others have said it’s a divine protest. What was God saying by the darkness? Darkness in the Scripture is a symbol of judgment. It is a symbol of judgment.
Again, going back to Isaiah chapter 13, I’ll just give you a few illustrations, there are many. We read this in Isaiah 13:9, “Behold, the day of the Lord is coming, cruel, with fury and burning anger, to make the land a desolation; and He will exterminate its sinners from it. For the stars of heaven and their constellations will not flash forth their light; the sun will be dark when it rises and the moon will not shed its light. Thus I will punish the world for its evil and the wicked for their iniquity.” Clearly, darkness is associated with judgment, and that judgment is the final judgment on the final day of the Lord.
Just a couple of other illustrations. In Joel, again, looking at the future day of the Lord, Joel chapter 2, verses 30 and 31, “I will display wonders in the sky and on the earth, blood, fire, columns of smoke. The sun will be turned into darkness and the moon into blood before the great and awesome day of the Lord comes.” Next chapter and final chapter of Joel, verses 14 and 15, “Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon grow dark and the stars lose their brightness.”
The next prophet is the prophet Amos who speaks similarly. Amos chapter 5, verse 18, “Alas, you who are longing for the day of the Lord, for what purpose will the day of the Lord be to you? It will be darkness and not light. And then again in verse 20, “Will not the day of the Lord be darkness instead of light, even gloom with no brightness in it?”
And then just the same kind of horrific judgment is spoken of by Zephaniah the prophet, chapter, verse 14, “Near is the great day of the Lord, near and coming very quickly; listen, the day of the Lord! In it the warrior cries out bitterly. A day of wrath is that day, a day of trouble and distress, a day of destruction and desolation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” Verse 17, “I’ll bring distress on men so that they will walk like the blind, because they have sinned against the Lord.” Goes on to say He will make a complete end, a terrifying end of sinners. Now what we learn from those passages is that judgment is accompanied by darkness, by darkness.
God’s salvation is light, God’s judgment is darkness. And it’s not just an Old Testament concept, listen to the words of Hebrews chapter 12 and verse – let’s see, we’ll pick it up at verse 18. “For you have not come to a mountain that can be touched and to a blazing fire, and to darkness and gloom and whirlwind.” That was describing Mount Sinai as you remember from back in the book of Exodus, that the mount of judgment was a mount of darkness. So terrible was it that Moses said, “I am full of fear and trembling.”
Second Peter chapter 2, verse 4, “For God did not spare angels when they sinned, but cast them into hell and committed them to pits of darkness, reserved for judgment.” And one final text from Revelation just to make the picture complete, chapter 6, verse 12: “I looked when He broke the sixth seal, and there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth made of hair, and the whole moon became blood; and the stars of the sky fell to the earth, as a fig tree casts its unripe figs when shaken by a great wind.” Verse 17, “The great day of the wrath of the Lamb has come. Who is able to stand?”
The darkness shows us God’s wrath is operating in the death of Christ. God is saying by the darkness – you can go back to the chapter in Matthew 27. God is saying by the darkness that the cross is a place of divine judgment, and that divine judgment is falling on that very person hanging on that cross. And to make it very simple, God only judges one thing and that is sin. So this is divine wrath unleashed against sin. And what makes this so unique is the one hanging on the cross is sinless. But God has imputed the sins of His people through all of redemptive history to His Son.
First Corinthians 15:3, “Christ died for our sins.” He was made sin for us, as I quoted earlier. First John 4:10, “The Son was sent to be the atonement for our sins.” So what you have in the darkness is essentially a massive expression of divine wrath and fury as God pours out the same kind of wrath promised in the day of the Lord, only He pours it out on His Son. The moon goes dark, the sun goes dark, the stars are put out; so the first commentary by God on the cross is supernatural darkness; and what it tells us is the Lord Jesus is being punished by God in a massive way for sin. And because He had no sin, He had to be punished for someone else’s sin.
A second thing that is an amazing commentary by God is in verse 46: “About the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” This is another act by God. First, He makes the earth dark. Second, He separates Himself from the Son of God. This happens in the ninth hour right at the end of the darkness.
As the darkness ended, so did the life of our Lord. The fury of God is almost spent, but the horror of the experience was not just the wrath of God, it was the absence of God. And Jesus cries with a loud voice; actually the word means He screamed. Six hours of agony, three of those hours in the darkness as He was bearing the fury of God against all the sins of all who would ever believe through human history. But as the sin-bearing judgment comes to its conclusion, He gathers all His strength and screams the deepest agony of His holy heart, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” And He quotes in saying that Psalm 22:1, messianic psalm.
The cry reveals the separation from the Father that He was experiencing. He was not separated from the nature of the Father, but He was separated from fellowship with the Father. When He said that, the mockery that had already been going on at Calvary reached a new level. Verse 47, “Some of those who were standing there, when they heard it, began saying, ‘This man is calling for Elijah.’” Look, they knew Psalm 22. They knew the messianic promise, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is just malicious sarcasm. The people knew that the Old Testament promised Elijah also was to come before Messiah, according to Malachi 4, so they mock Him on the notion of the joke that He thinks He’s the Messiah. And at this point Jesus says, “I thirst.” That fulfills Psalm 69:21.
In response to that cry, verse 48 says, “One of them ran, took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, put it on a reed, and gave Him to drink.” Gave Him a drink of cheap wine, probably the kind the soldiers had. But the rest of them said, “Let us see whether Elijah will come to save Him.” This is sarcasm, this is mockery, this is scorn. And here you have the second profound, divine commentary by God on the death of His Son, and it is this: God must separate Himself. He must forsake Jesus, because God is holy, and Jesus is carrying all the sins of His people to the cross.
This is what hell is, just as hell is the separation of the sinner from God, Jesus is experiencing hell, bearing our sins, separated from God, fellowship broken; and Jesus longs for that fellowship to be restored. The point of the separation is to prove that Jesus was bearing sin. God would never have separated from Him if He hadn’t borne our guilt. Separation proves that our sins were placed on Him. Even as He bears the curse for His people, He longs for it to end and fellowship to be restored to the Father.
So by the supernatural darkness, God tells us this is judgment; and by the separation He tells us that Christ is actually bearing sins and is being punished. Then there’s a third commentary from God in verse 50: “And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice, and yielded up His spirit.” The darkness is dispelled and light begins to be restored, and Jesus screams out again, kraxas is the word. He screams with a loud voice, still strong, still strong. People lingered on crosses for days before they were basically asphyxiated by the inability to push themselves up and breathe. Jesus still has plenty of air, air enough to scream with a loud voice. He was not going to slowly die like other victims, He was not going to die by exhaustion or blood loss or asphyxiation.
And what did He cry? “It is finished!” He cried with a loud voice, “It is finished!” in John 19. And then said, “Father, into Your hands I commend My spirit,” and yielded up His breath. He dismisses His own spirit. He sent His own life away into the presence of God by His own will. John 10:18, “No one takes My life from Me, I lay it down by Myself.”
Such a quick death. Mark 15 says Pilate was shocked; people didn’t die that soon, and particularly someone like Jesus who would have been the epitome of what manhood would be – sinless, therefore strong physically in a way we wouldn’t even be able to comprehend. A divine miracle here is that cross didn’t kill Him, the Romans didn’t kill Him, the Jews didn’t kill Him; He willingly gave up His life. So what you have at the cross is divine judgment on sin, and you have sacrifice that is willing. He bore our judgment, took our guilt, and died willingly out of love for us.
There’s a fourth commentary: “And behold,” – verse 51 – “the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” In the darkness, you see judgment; in the separation, you see sin and guilt; in the willingness to give up His own life and yielding it up by His own will, you see divine love and sacrifice. Here in verse 51 you see satisfaction. Was God satisfied, is the question, with the sacrifice of Christ? Did He accomplish what the Father wanted Him to accomplish? Did He successfully accomplish a substitutionary death in which He took on our guilt, and God judged Him for our sins. Did He do it?
Verse 51 is the answer: “The veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.” Thirty feet wide and thirty feet high, four inches thick, and Josephus says horses pulling against each other couldn’t tear that curtain. That curtain barred people from God, right? Who could go behind the curtain, the Holy of Holies? Only the high priest once a year. And before he went in there, he had to make sure that he offered a sacrifice for his own sins. The way to God was barred. But when Christ died, God ripped the curtain top to bottom to show it wasn’t done by any human being. God ripped it from top to bottom because Christ’s death satisfied God’s requirement and opened the way into His eternal presence for all who come through Christ. And there’s no more Holy of Holies, and there’s no more barrier, and there are no more sacrifices, and there’s no more priesthood.
Imagine this happens at 3:00 on Passover in a crowded temple. The curtain rips from top to bottom and the Holy of Holies is exposed, the very symbol of the abode of God. No more temple, no more Holy Place, no more Holy of Holies, no more sacrifice, no more priesthood. Why? The way to God was thrown wide open by the sacrifice of Christ; and that robber’s den, that temple, would soon be reduced to rubble. And that is why the writer of Hebrews in chapter 10, verse 19 says, and these are welcoming words, “Therefore, brethren, since we have confidence to enter the Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He inaugurated for us through the veil, that is, His flesh, and since we have a great high priest over the house of God,” – listen to this – “let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience, our body washed with pure water.” If we have been cleansed, not by a laver or some kind of animal sacrifice, but if we have been cleansed by Christ we can walk right into the presence of God. God then at the cross by ripping the curtain declares that Jesus has provided full access into His presence.
And there’s a fifth part of this scene that gives divine commentary on the event, verse 51, “The earth shook, the rocks were split. 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.” Final astonishing, divine act at the cross, the final interpretation of the death of Christ by God is that it made possible our what? Resurrection. Physical, bodily resurrection came through the cross, and God gave a preview of it by raising the dead who didn’t show up publicly until Christ was raised, because He was to be the firstfruits.
I’m glad we have Isaiah, I’m glad we have Paul, I’m glad we have Peter and John to explain the cross. But God explained the cross while it was happening. The wrath of God against sin is seen in the darkness. The holiness of God in turning away from sinners is seen in the separation. The love of God is seen in the self-sacrificial death of God incarnate. The satisfaction of God is seen in that the Holy of Holies is thrown wide open, and no priest is ever needed again. And finally, the hope of eternal resurrection is seen in the sudden raising of the saints. This is God’s commentary on the cross; what an incredible scene it was. Let’s bow in prayer.
Father, we are again amazed and stunned by the wonder of Your divine revelation. We are so enriched by these realities. Your word literally overwhelms us with its truth and its power. Now Lord, as we think about the cross together, we know You have said that we are to remember this. We are to do this little ceremony in remembrance of You. We are to take the cup to be reminded of the blood that was shed for us, the bread to remind us that the body of Christ was given in our place. We have been instructed to not only look at the cross and consider its meaning, but to look at our own lives, our own hearts, and examine ourselves so that we don’t come in an unworthy way to this Table.
There were some people who did that in Corinth and You actually took their lives. There was mockery at the cross; there can be no mockery at Your Table. We can’t come in a hypocritical fashion, we have to come soberly; thankfully, yes; grateful, yes; joyful, yes; but also honest by saying to You, “If there’s anything in our lives that dishonors You, Lord, take it out. Forgive it and remove it.” That’s our prayer as we share in this Table.