The death of Jesus – part 2
Darkness comes and the whole atmosphere changes. Through the four statements Jesus makes, we can understand the physical, emotional and relational cost to Jesus and what the cross achieved for us.
Darkness comes and the whole atmosphere changes. Through the four statements Jesus makes, we can understand the physical, emotional and relational cost to Jesus and what the cross achieved for us.
Hello. Welcome to Series 13 and Episode 7. We are going to look at 'the death of Jesus' for the second time. This is part two of our study of the story in the account of the death of Jesus. I hope you had the opportunity to listen to the previous episode because the two fit together very closely.
Introduction and Recap
I also hope that many of us will have had the opportunity to listen to Series 11, and 12, and the early part of Series 13, because it is important, in every aspect of this narrative of the end of Jesus' life, to see everything in context and to realise that a big story lies behind the immediate events. At the beginning of Series 11, we began to tell the story of the things that happened when Jesus came into Jerusalem, on that final Sunday, five days before he was ultimately executed and every single day has been significant. The Sunday was a huge crowd gathering to welcome Jesus with rapturous excitement. On the Monday confrontation with the religious authorities became very public, when Jesus went to the Temple compound and challenged their market trading and overturned the tables of the traders, causing great offence. Tuesday was a day of stand-off in the Temple compound, as the religious leaders asked hostile questions of Jesus to try and trip him up. Wednesday was a day of destiny, in the village of Bethany just outside Jerusalem, where Jesus and his disciples were probably staying. During a meal and hospitality event, Judas Iscariot made the fateful decision to go back into the city quietly, secretly, on his own and to meet up with the religious leaders and agreed that he would be the betrayer of Jesus, and bring him safely into their hands. They promised to pay him good money. Things moved on very quickly after that.
The underlying theme, as we have stressed all the way through this teaching, is the conflict between Jesus and the religious leaders. Although Jesus was widely popular with the people, the religious establishment - represented by the priesthood, the Sanhedrin and other groups like the Pharisees - were solidly against him, and determined to get rid of him. They were deeply fearful of him, threatened that he would undermine their privileged position in their society. Once Judas Iscariot had been to the authorities, it was only a matter of time before Jesus was betrayed and arrested. It only took just over 24 hours, because on Thursday of that week, in the evening, Jesus had the Last Supper together with his disciples, which we discussed in a series of episodes, because a lot of things happened on that occasion. Halfway through that supper, Judas Iscariot left and told the authorities that he anticipated Jesus would end up, later that evening, in a place called the Garden of Gethsemane, just outside the city walls, in the Kidron Valley. That is exactly what happened, as we saw. Jesus went to Gethsemane. He prayed. The disciples fell asleep and then suddenly, Judas Iscariot and an armed gang of Temple guards, and others, burst into the garden. Jesus was arrested, after Judas betrayed him with a kiss.
Jesus went to the Sanhedrin, who were convened at night at the High Priest's house. He was condemned as a blasphemer and then handed over to the Roman authorities, in the early morning of Friday. The intention of the authorities is to get rid of Jesus as quickly as possible, before the crowds can mobilise in support of him. In order to do that, they need the collaboration of Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor, who alone has the authority to issue a decision - a legal judgement of execution - upon a member of their society. He is very reluctant, as we saw when we looked at the trial before Pontius Pilate. We saw he was trying to escape from this responsibility and pass it back to the Jews but they pressurised him so much, with the crowd gathering and charting outside his headquarters, so that eventually he gave in.
We saw in the last episode, the Roman soldiers leading Jesus to the place of execution called Golgotha, just outside the city gates. We discussed, using the help of Luke's account principally, the first three hours that Jesus spent on the cross, out of a total of six hours before he died. This was approximately 9 am to midday on Good Friday morning. We saw that the suffering of Jesus was tremendously great at this time. Let me remind you of one key aspect of that narrative which is the three statements that Jesus made from the cross, that are recorded during those first three hours. There are a total of seven statements that are recorded of Jesus whilst he spent those six hours on the cross. The first three statements are all directed towards the needs of other people. He said, ‘Father forgive them for they do not know what they're doing’, Luke 23: 34, speaking of the perpetrators of his execution - the Jewish authorities, the Roman authorities and the Roman soldiers. He spoke compassionately and with power to the criminal on the cross, who pleaded with him for mercy. ‘Truly I tell you today you'll be with me in Paradise’ he said, as recorded in Luke 23:43. Salvation came to that man at the very last moment of his life. Then his final statement is directed towards the needs of his mother, who bravely and courageously stood at the foot of the cross, while her firstborn son was being brutally murdered. Seeing John the Apostle there, Jesus said ‘Woman, here is your son’ and to John, ‘Here is your mother.’ John 19: 23 - 27. In this way, he cared for the needs of his mother by ensuring that John looked after her, after he had died and risen and left this earth.
Now, we come to the second three hours which are very different - there's a different feel to the narrative; there is a different atmosphere and there is a different focus. We begin to use Matthew's account, as the primary means of telling the story. Matthew 27: 45 - 56 is our primary text and we are going to look at that now.
45From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land. 46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). 47When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He's calling Elijah.” 48Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let's see if Elijah comes to save him.” 50And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook, the rocks split 52and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53They came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. 54When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!” 55Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. 56Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of Zebedee's sons.Matthew 27:45-56, NIV
The Change in Atmosphere
The fundamental change that takes place at noon, halfway through this six-hour period, is clearly described in the first verse here. ‘From noon until three, darkness came over all the land’ Luke 23: 45 adds ‘for the sun stopped shining’. This darkness is mentioned in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but what is this darkness? How can we explain it? Lots of explanations have been suggested: some people suggest maybe it was a natural phenomenon like an eclipse of the sun; maybe it was some worldwide darkness, related to such an eclipse. These explanations don't have any real foundation scientifically, or historically. We don't have any evidence for this. The best explanation is to say that this is actually a miraculous, divine phenomenon that affected the local area. God intervened in the natural world, in the local area around Jerusalem, to produce what we might describe as a murky greyness, rather than total darkness - as if a huge cloud cover had come and the light from the sun had been restricted hugely. All of us have had that experience - of a massive difference of light that comes from cloud cover. This was something like that - perhaps even more extreme than that - where the local area just felt heavy in the atmosphere and the light was restricted. We don't know any other possible explanation for this but divine interventions in the natural world are a commonplace reality in the Gospels. We see it time and time again, in the miracles of Jesus, and some of these are divine interventions in the natural world, as well as in the human body, to bring healing and restoration. So this is a perfectly reasonable explanation and it seemed natural for the Gospel writers just to tell the story without even any explanation, as if it was common knowledge that this was the case. No one who had been an eyewitness would have disputed that something strange happened during those three hours.
The significance of it almost certainly is that it is in these second three hours that the focus of Jesus' suffering moves from suffering at the hands of men - the Romans and the Jews who brought about his death - to suffering in his role as Saviour, and bringing about salvation for us. He was fulfilling the role of a sacrificial, substitutionary, atoning sacrifice on the cross. We are going to describe that in a little more detail in a moment.
‘I Am Thirsty’
There are four things that Jesus says on the cross during the very last moments of his life - during the very last minutes of those six hours. I am going to go through those now because they are the main things that we're told about in these last three hours. We don't see many significant human interactions going on, as we do in the first three hours, and that is a significant difference. We have got four statements from Jesus at the very end, as his physical life is just ebbing away, which help us to understand what is actually going on in his death on the cross, and give us some insight into the atonement that is being accomplished through Jesus' death on the cross. The first of these sayings is mainly about his physical suffering, John 19: 28 - 29,
28Later, knowing that everything had now been finished, and so that Scripture would be fulfilled, Jesus said, “I am thirsty.” 29A jar of wine vinegar was there, so they soaked a sponge in it, put the sponge on a stalk of the hyssop plant, and lifted it to Jesus' lips.John 19:28-29, NIV
That statement speaks of the extremity of the physical suffering. Thirst was a common symptom, or outcome, of the process of crucifixion.
‘My God, My God Why Have You Forsaken Me’
The second statement is the one recorded in Matthew that we've read already. We should imagine these as happening very close to each other, in the last few minutes of Jesus' life, because that's the implication of the chronology and the expression and the context for each one of the four of them. Matthew 27:46
46About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).Matthew 27:46, NIV
This is a quotation from Psalm 22: 1, which goes on:
‘Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish? 2My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest’.Psalm 22:1-2, NIV
Jesus, in quoting this psalm, is quoting one of the few psalms that were understood to be messianic. It was a Psalm of David but many Jews understood this to be prophetically indicating the suffering of the Messiah. This is a much quoted psalm in the New Testament. So what is this? What does this cry mean? It's sometimes called the cry of dereliction. ‘My God my God why have you forsaken me.’ How can it be true that his Father had forsaken Jesus? What had actually happened at this particular point? We can explain this in the following way. Jesus is experiencing at this time - in these dark hours - a sense of separation from the experience of intimate fellowship with his Father caused by the process of bringing about atonement. This was a unique experience that had never happened in the eternal relationship of Father and Son but at this point, Jesus is receiving the punishment for all of human sin, in an atoning sacrifice. He is the substitute for human sin. In some mysterious way, the wrath of God - the judgement of God - is being poured out on the Son of God, in these three dark hours particularly, and on the cross generally. This darkness is symbolic of that process of achieving atonement. At the experiential level, that sin being poured upon him, means that he doesn't experience the intimate fellowship with his Father for those moments, and those times. This is a very mysterious reality, about which we can only speak in very general terms. We can't say that we fully understand what this means, but there's no other way of meaningfully explaining Jesus' words, and it does fit well with the theological explanation of the atonement that is given elsewhere in the New Testament.
Let me just take two examples: Romans 3 : 25 in a very critical passage about Jesus' death on the cross. Romans 3:21 - 26.
‘God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood, to be received by faith.’Romans 3:25, NIV
This is a statement of what happened on the cross. God, that's God the Father, presented his son, Christ, as a sacrifice of atonement. The Father saw Jesus' death on the cross as an atoning sacrifice, where the penalty and punishment of sin of others was falling upon him, according to the substitutionary atonement principle which is fundamental to the whole Bible, which is expressed in the Old Testament, in the sacrificial system and articulated clearly in Leviticus 17: 11. God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement through the shedding of his blood, to be received by faith. Paul, on another occasion, expresses it this way 2 Corinthians 5: 21:
‘God made him who had no sin, to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV
God the Father actually made his Son, in the words of Paul, ‘to be sin’ on the cross, to be so identified with the sin of the world that it is literally connected to him in that atoning moment. It is poured out on him. He is taking that penalty and that price of judgement, for the sin of mankind. No wonder Jesus cried out, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me?’ at the experiential level. He could not feel the fellowship with his Father because the wrath of God was being poured out on him, at that moment. But it was only a brief moment within the timescale of the cross, and particularly within those three hours, and perhaps most acutely felt at the very end of that time, when Jesus uttered those words.
‘It Is Finished’
Then, in John 19: 30, we have the wonderful statement
‘When he finished the drink Jesus said, “It is finished”, and with that he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.’John 19:30, NIV
This statement, ‘It is finished’ means it is paid in full. That statement sheds light on the previous statement. Jesus experiences that tremendous unthinkable suffering and feels forsaken in an experiential way because judgement has fallen on him. But then he knows the moment when it is finished; it is paid in full; the work is complete; the atonement is achieved.
Father into Your hands
Therefore a few moments later, according to Luke 23: 46, Jesus can say,
‘He called out with a loud voice, “Father into your hands, I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.’Luke 23:46, NIV
The Seven Statements
The seven statements of Jesus from the cross tell us a great deal. The first three tell us about his compassion and mercy towards the people around him and the last four speak specifically of the suffering, of paying the price of atonement, taking the wrath of God, and the judgement of God upon himself, being made to be sin even though he had no sin - for us. These statements tell us about different aspects of that process. ‘I'm thirsty,’ - the human cost. ‘My God my God why do you forsaken me?’ - the relational and emotional components of suffering. ‘It's finished.’ speaking of the moment when he knew the burden was lifting from him, and ‘Father into your hands, I commit my spirit.’ speaking of his trust and his relationship with God. This statement indicates to us that the fifth statement, ‘My God, my God why have you forsaken me’, was just a temporary experience - the fundamental reality of being in close fellowship with his Father is right there in the last statement: ‘Father into your hands, I commit my spirit’.
The human responses to the death of Jesus are, according to John, that a soldier pierced his side with the sword to confirm the death, and in Matthew's account, which we read, the soldiers are very shaken by this experience and say, ‘Surely he was the son of God’. (Matthew 27:54) Meanwhile Matthew 27 also tells us that the women who had supported Jesus, were watching at a distance. They watched everything that happened. This will become very important in the next episode, and the next few episodes.
I want to conclude, by reflecting for a moment on the statements that Matthew makes in chapter 27: 51 - 53 about the physical things that happened at the time of Jesus's death. At that moment, the curtain of the Temple was torn in two - from top to bottom; the earth shook; the rocks split; and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life and they came out of the tombs after Jesus' resurrection and went into the holy city, and appeared to many people - three prophetic signs that something fundamental and important had happened. The curtain of the Temple being torn - this is almost certainly the very large curtain that divides the holy of holies from the holy place. It is almost certainly this curtain that is being spoken of. No one was allowed into the most holy place - the inner sanctuary of the Temple - except the High Priest, once a year on the day of atonement because God's very presence was understood to be there. Suddenly, this amazingly large curtain is torn in two and any onlooker - the priest and anyone else - could look through from the other courts into this area; would be able to see right into the most holy place - right into what the Jews understood to be the place of the presence of God. This is a symbol of access to the presence of God that was now being achieved by Jesus, for all people - not just the Jews - and not just through the Law of Moses, which was now going to fade away. It was the Law of Moses which set up that system and that was going to fade away because Jesus was bringing a new covenant.
Matthew also mentions a local earthquake. The earth shook, and the rocks split. Earthquakes - another sign in the natural world of something fundamental changing. We have had three hours of darkness and now we have a sudden earthquake. Then we have the tombs breaking open: the seals breaking; the stones in the front of the tombs cracking and falling away, all over the city of Jerusalem. After Jesus' resurrection, some people appeared in a resurrected form, presumably a temporary resurrected form, in Jerusalem for a few days. This is a prophetic sign about Jesus' power over death and the certainty of the resurrection. So it is that in these two last episodes, we have described some of the key features of the story of Jesus' death on the cross.
Some final reflections. Jesus showed immense courage in these dreadful hours: this awful humiliation; this piercing physical pain; and the terrible spiritual anguish of bringing about the new covenant by being a sacrifice substitute for our sin; by bringing about atonement - being made to be sin for that short time. Someone who knew no sin, taking upon himself the sin of the world. This remains something of a mystery but we can understand the basic reality very simply. He is actually achieved that for us, so that enables us to have confidence that we can come into the Christian faith, knowing that Christ has literally taken our sins on the cross. Knowing the story helps to make it more real to us. Therefore, we can find forgiveness and know that our sins have been taken from us and transferred elsewhere.
These powerful prophetic events - the Temple curtain being torn, the earthquake, tombs shaken and opened, the resurrection appearances of godly people in Jerusalem, are all indications that something absolutely fundamental is taking place. However, the disciples are confused and scattered. We only have a record of John, the disciple whom Jesus loved, at the cross according to John's account, in the statement where Jesus gives the care of his mother to that disciple. We think it is John from all the available evidence but we don't know where the other ten disciples are. Are they there? Have they scattered? It appears they scattered. They are confused, fearful, afraid they would be arrested and executed themselves. But the women are there; they are watching everything very carefully and are going to be particularly interested in Jesus' burial, which we will discuss in the next episode. This story leaves us with some lingering uncertainties. Something incredible has been achieved but what happens next? The story can't be fulfilled, can't reach its conclusion until Jesus was raised from the dead. We will be discussing that in Series 14. Meanwhile, the final episode of this series will describe the burial of Jesus and the significance of the things that surround that event.
The following questions have been provided to facilitate discussion or further reflection. Please feel free to answer any, or all the questions. Each question has been assigned a category to help guide you.
- What would you say about the physical signs (the darkness, earthquake)? Were they just a coincidence?
- It is easy to take bits of this story for granted so take time to dwell on the cost for Jesus, the extreme suffering he underwent on our behalf. He was the only one who could do this and deserves our worship. Spend time doing this.
- What is the significance of the curtain in the Temple being torn in two for us 2000 years later?