The Essential Jesus: His Life & Teaching

Three Events During Jesus' Crucifixion

Matthew 27:39-53

Teaching t10180

Introduction

This morning, I want to look at Jesus’ crucifixion. You all know the story--especially since “The Passion” came out. While Jesus’ crucifixion was terrifically gruesome, it wasn’t very dramatic. By that, I mean that it went off without a hitch. People who expected Jesus to prove he was the Messiah by coming down from the cross were disappointed. He stayed on the cross, and died even sooner than most crucifixion victims.

But there was drama at Jesus’ crucifixion. Three uniquely dramatic events occurred--and (understood in light of the Old Testament and Jesus’ own words from the cross) they help us to understand the meaning of Jesus’ death. Matthew recorded all three of these events in Matt. 27. He wrote his gospel (in part) to prove to his Jewish countrymen that Jesus was the Messiah, and these dramatic events were part of his proof.

Darkness at mid-day

Jesus’ crucifixion began around 9 am (Mk. 15:25). For the next three hours, Jesus’ enemies mocked him (read Matt. 27:39-44). And then at noon, something remarkable happened (read Mt. 27:45). For three hours (noon to 3 pm), “darkness fell upon all the land.”

What was this mid-day darkness? It was evidently not a solar eclipse, because they don't last more than a few minutes. Astronomical calculations also rule out a solar eclipse for the 30 & 33 AD crucifixion dates. Matthew says it fell “upon all the land”--evidently referring to the area including and even beyond Palestine.

Strikingly, there is abundant extra-biblical evidence for this event. The Christian apologist Tertullian, writing in the second century, called it a “cosmic” or “world event”--evidently visible in Rome, Athens, and other Mediterranean cities,1 and challenged his non-Christian adversaries with these words: “At the moment of Christ's death, the light departed from the sun, and the land was darkened at noonday, which wonder is related in your own annals, and is preserved in your archives to this day.”2 The Greek writer Phlegon, writing in 137 AD, reported that in the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (33 AD) there was “the greatest eclipse of the sun . . . it became night in the sixth hour of the day (noon) so that stars even appeared in the heavens.”3

So both the gospel authors and other historical sources agree that this unprecedented mid-day darkness occurred during Jesus’ crucifixion. What does it mean? The answer is very clear if we read in context and in light of the Old Testament--Jesus was under God’s judgment.

Darkness in the Old Testament often signified God’s judgment (see Amos 5:18,20; 8:9,10; Zeph. 1:14-18). Furthermore, the Old Testament law declared that “Anyone who is hung from a tree is under God’s curse” (Deut. 21:23). Such a remarkable darkness during Jesus’ death seemed to confirm the mocking verdict of the passers-by, the chief priests, and the robbers--that he was lying when he claimed to be Messiah, and was getting the judgment of God that he deserved.

Even Jesus confirms that he is under God’s judgment (read 27:46). But this statement gives a stunning twist to what this means about Jesus. It is the first verse of Ps. 22, which goes on to describe the Messiah’s crucifixion in vivid detail (key details in Ps. 22:1-18)--1000 years beforehand and several hundred years before crucifixion was invented!

In other words, Jesus is disagreeing with his mockers. He is indeed under God’s judgment--but far from proving that he is violating God’s will as a Messiah imposter, his crucifixion proves that he is the Messiah, and that he is being crucified because he is obeying God’s will.

But why would it be God’s will to execute his own Messiah? To answer this question, we need to look at the next dramatic event . . .

The torn temple curtain

Read Matt. 27:50,51a. Immediately after Jesus died, the curtain of the temple was “torn in two from top to bottom.”

The temple curtain was no ordinary curtain (60 feet long, 30 feet high, and about 4 inches thick; composed of 72 squares sewn together; so heavy that it required 300 men to lift it). For it to be torn suddenly from top to bottom (rather than gradually fraying from bottom to top) would indeed be a noteworthy event--especially for Jewish people.

There is extra-biblical evidence for this event also. 3 non-Christian 1st-century sources make reference to some "great catastrophe, betokening the impending destruction of the temple, (that) had occurred in the Sanctuary about this very time."4

So it happened--but what does it mean? And why would the Jews conclude that it meant that the temple would be destroyed? Once again, the Old Testament is the context.

This curtain denied access of Jewish worshippers to the innermost room of the Temple--the “Holy of Holies,” where God’s Shekinah dwelt over the “Ark of the Covenant.” But this wasn’t in order to keep God’s living room clean. The curtain symbolized the separation that exists between God and us because of our sins. Because God is holy and we are sinful, we are disqualified from coming into his presence to commune with him. Worshippers could only commune with God indirectly through a ritual system devised by God. Once each year, the High Priest came into the Holy of Holies with the blood of an unblemished goat whose death symbolically paid for their sins for that year.

Of course, God doesn’t really dwell in a cubicle, sinful priests can’t really act as our mediator, and animal blood doesn’t really pay for human sin. The entire Temple system was only a prophetic picture explaining our dilemma with God and providing a picture of God’s ultimate solution to this dilemma. That’s why they had to keep doing this ritual over and over again.

The Old Testament prophet Isaiah predicted that one day God’s Servant would come and fulfill this symbolism by laying his perfect life down for our sins (Isa. 53).

Now we’re in a position to understand the meaning of the temple curtain being torn--and why Jesus was being judged by God (the darkness). Since it was torn at the moment of Jesus’ death, it meant that Jesus was the Servant, that his death paid for humanity’s sins, and that everyone could now have personal access to God through faith in Jesus. The old way of relating to God was out of business!

John’s gospel records the content of Jesus’ shout just before he died (Matt. 27:50)--read Jn. 19:28,20. Tetelestai means “paid in full” or “it has been fulfilled.” Jesus knew that his death paid in full for our sins and fulfilled the Old Testament sacrificial system. God confirmed Jesus’ shout by tearing the temple curtain.

SO WHAT? If you have put your faith in Jesus’ death, you can come confidently into God’s presence at any time (read Heb. 10:19,20). Jesus’ death has forever removed the barrier that separated you from God. His death took God’s judgment so you wouldn’t ever have to face it. His death has freed you forever from having to relate to God through priests and rituals. His death means that you never have to be afraid of relating to God because of your moral failures.

The earthquake & emptied tombs

But Jesus’ death accomplished even more for us--and this is indicated by the final dramatic event. Read Matthew 27:51b-53.

This earthquake was no ordinary earthquake. It occurred immediately after Jesus' death, and it opened certain rock tombs near Golgotha--the tombs of believers (probably people came to faith in Jesus as the Messiah during his public ministry). 36 hours later, after Jesus had been resurrected, they emerged from the cemetery and appeared to people in Jerusalem who had known them--not as zombies (“Night of the Living Dead” & “Thriller”), but as people who had been delivered from death!

Unlike the first two events, there is no extra-biblical attestation of this event. But since Matthew wrote when people who had witnessed these events were still alive, he would never have included this report unless it could be confirmed. Matthew was an eye-witness of these events, and his gospel has been proven to be historically reliable.

What does this strange event mean?

Once again, the Old Testament gives the answer. According to it, only the Messiah had the authority to call people forth from their graves (read Dan. 12:1,2a). Jesus announced that, as the Messiah, he would one day do just this (Jn. 5:28,29a). This event was evidently (like Lazarus’ resuscitation) a preview of the end of the age. It powerfully demonstrated that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and that his death has broken the power of death. It is our sins that bring us under death’s power. And since Jesus’ death has paid for our sins, he delivers from death’s power all who entrust themselves to him.

SO WHAT? So you can be freed from the crippling fear of death, if you put your trust in Jesus. As you grow older and feel your body wearing down and as loved ones die, you can live with confidence that you also will come forth from the cemetery when Jesus returns. I’ve seen this with believers who were facing their deaths, and I’m experiencing it increasingly myself.

Here’s how it works. When I put my trust in Jesus’ death to forgive me, I began a personal relationship with God. The more I experienced the reality of God’s love in my life, the easier it became to believe that Jesus’ death will also conquer my physical death.

So why not start by putting your trust in Jesus? The sooner you receive forgiveness from him, the sooner you can start experiencing God’s love. And the sooner you experience a love-relationship with God, the sooner you can experience the deepening confidence that not even death can overcome God’s love.

Footnotes

1 Cited in Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p. 85. .

2 Cited in Oswald Sanders, The Incomparable Christ, p. 203. Documentation not provided.

3 Paul Maier, Pontius Pilate (Wheaton, Ill.: Tyndale House, 1968), p. 366. Phelgon’s citation is a fragment from Olympiades he Chronika 13, ed. Otto Keller, Rerum Naturalium Scriptores Graeci Minores, 1 (Leipzig Teurber, 1877), p. 101. Translation by Maier.

4 Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), Part 2, p. 610. The sources are Tacitus (Hist. V. 13), Josephus (Wars of the Jews VI, 5, 3) and the Talmud (Jer. Yoma 43c; Yoma 39b).

Copyright 2005 Gary DeLashmutt

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