Teaching series from Matthew

The Events Accompanying Jesus' Crucifixion

Matthew 27:45-54

Teaching t05640


Last week, we examined the meaning of Jesus' crucifixion by studying his statements from the cross. This week, we will examine the same thing by studying the miraculous events accompanying his crucifixion. Just as Jesus explained the meaning of his death by his words from the cross, God the Father explained the meaning of his death by the miraculous events he performs around the cross.

It is fitting that the One whose birth was miraculous, and whose ministry was characterized by so many miracles, had miraculous attestation at his death.

John does not record these events. (He evidently left the scene after being commissioned to take care of Mary--Jn. 19:27.) The synoptic authors do record them, especially Matthew . . . 

The Darkness (Matt. 27:45)

Jesus was crucified April 3, 33 AD, beginning around 9am (Mk. 15:25). His words to the onlookers, the penitent thief, and John evidently were spoken during the three hour period from 9am to noon. Read Mt. 27:45. For the next three hours (noon to 3pm), "darkness fell upon all the land." What caused this darkness?

It was evidently not a solar eclipse, because they don't last more than a few minutes. Furthermore, Passover occurred during a full moon, when the moon was at its farthest from the sun(??). It was, therefore, probably a supernaturally-caused darkness.

Matthew says it fell "upon all the land"--evidently referring to the area including and even beyond Palestine. It is striking that Diogenes, a contemporary writing from Egypt, noted the unique darkness with these words: "Either the Deity Himself suffers at this moment, or sympathizes with one who does." [1] The Christian apologist Tertullian, writing in the second century, 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] Early church leader Origen alludes to a statement by the Greek historian Phlegon, who supposedly mentioned this darkness and the earthquake that accompanied it. [3]

What did it mean?

The darkness, often an Old Testament symbol for God's judgment (Amos 8:9,10) [4] , signified the Father's judgment of Jesus. The fact that this darkness occurs immediately before Jesus' words "My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" confirms this as the reason for this darkness. In a real sense, the "outer darkness" (hell) descended upon him at this time. During this time (as we saw last week), Jesus was identified with our sins (Gal. 3:13). Because of this identification with our sins, God the Father broke his perfect communion with Jesus and poured out on him the "cup" of his infinite wrath. He experienced the unspeakable horror of being utterly forsaken by God.

"How can God be separated from God?" This physical phenomenon, along with Jesus' words, reveals to us the tremendous power of sin to separate. The Bible tells us that sin separates people from God, from each other, from our own selves, and even from nature. The only way the separating power of sin could be conquered was by God the Father being separated from God the Son! In this act, the chasm was bridged--and the separation caused by sin began to be reversed. Through Christ we can be reconciled to God, to ourselves, to one another, and ultimately to nature.

The Temple Veil Torn (Matthew 27:51a)

But this was only the first supernatural event. . . Read Matt. 27:51a. Immediately after Jesus shouted tetelestai and chose to die physically, the veil of the Temple was "torn in two from top to bottom."

There is extra-biblical evidence for this event also. Roman historian Tacitus (Hist. V. 13), Jewish historian Josephus (Wars of the Jews VI, 5, 3) and the Jewish Talmud (Jer. Yoma 43c; Yoma 39b) all make reference to some "great catastrophe, betokening the impending destruction of the Temple, (that) had occurred in the Sanctuary about this very time." [5] What was this veil, and how did its tearing signify the end of the Temple?

The veil of the Temple was a huge 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) that formed the barrier between the Shekinah presence of God and all human beings.

This veil (along with all of the Temple details) represented the separation between God and humanity because of our sins. No one was permitted to pass through the veil into God's presence except for the High Priest, once a year (Day of Atonement), with the blood of an unblemished goat for the sins of the people (NADAB & ABIHU: "I want to relate to God my own way").

Through this symbolism, God was teaching that we are not acceptable to him because of our sins. He was also teaching our need for a blameless Substitute whose death would pay for our true moral guilt and open the way for us to draw near to God

The decisive tearing of this veil (not gradual fraying from the bottom up) at the exact moment of Jesus' death communicated a clear message from God. The author of Hebrews explains it.

The way into God's personal presence is now open for all--as long as we come through the death of Jesus. Jesus' death fulfilled what the animal atonement sacrifices could only symbolize. He actually paid the penalty for our sins against God and removed this barrier.

Read Heb. 10:19,20. Now we can draw near to God with confidence that we are acceptable to him--not because of our works for God, but because of Jesus' perfect work for us.

With Jesus' death, the whole Old Covenant system of relating to God through priests and their ritual sacrifices, has been fulfilled and set aside (Heb. 10:1-14). Heb. 10:9 says that through the death of Jesus, God "takes away the first in order to establish the second." Since this system only foreshadowed the true way by which God would deal with our sins "once for all" (Heb. 10:10), it is invalid now that the fulfillment has come. To continue to relate to God in this way implies that Jesus' death was inadequate to forgive our sins.

The Levitical priests continued their service for another forty years, but they were really out of business from this moment on. Perhaps this event explains why so many priests came to Christ in the days immediately following (Acts 6:7).

Roman Catholic teaching that we must continue to receive forgiveness through their performance of communion is Old Covenant and therefore defunct.  Likewise any system which doles out forgiveness week by week versus offering it through Christ's death once for all.

The Earthquake & Tombs Opened (Matthew 27:51b-53)

There was a final complex of supernatural events that followed immediately after the Temple veil was torn. Read Matthew 27:51b-53.

This earthquake was no ordinary earthquake. It occurred immediately after Jesus' death, and it opened specific rock tombs--the tombs of believers.

The language indicates that the tombs were opened at the time of the earthquake--at Jesus' death. But the people who were buried in them arose and appeared to others "after his (Jesus') resurrection."

It is not clear from the text whether these believers were Old Testament believing Jews or those who believed in Jesus but died before his crucifixion. Neither is it clear whether they were merely revived (like Lazarus) to die again, or raised to be taken to heaven with Jesus (probably the latter).

What is the significance of these events?

Jesus' death provided the basis for taking Old Testament believers into God's presence. Prior to Christ's death, believers evidently went to a conscious waiting-place. Jesus called it "Abraham's bosom" (Lk. 16:22). They could not go into God's presence because their sins had not yet been paid for in history. 1 Pet. 4:6 seems to indicate that Jesus, immediately after his death, proclaimed his work of forgiveness to dead believers and took them into the presence of God. This appearance was another way God communicated this.

Jesus' resurrection is the basis for the resurrection of all believers at his return. Their resurrection, shortly after Jesus' resurrection three days later, was the fulfillment of the Old Testament feast of the first-fruits (Lev. 23:10-14). As evidence of the coming full harvest, the people would bring a handful of grain to the priest. The resurrection of this "handful" of believers, occurring after Jesus was raised, was evidence of the coming harvest when all believers in Jesus will be raised (1 Cor. 15:20,23).

The Centurion's Response (Matthew 27:54)

Read Matt. 27:54. Perhaps Luke interviewed this soldier (see Lk. 1:2). This would explain his extra information in Lk. 23:27-43.

The centurion saw the intense darkness and the earthquake. He evidently realized that they were a testimony to the greatness of Jesus. He was also struck by the way Jesus died (Mk. 15:39), including what he said from the cross ("My God . . . ," tetelestai, " . . . into your hands . . . "). But he knew more than this. He may well have heard the trial before Pilate and understood Jesus' claim to be the Son of God. He heard the religious leaders mocking him for claiming to be God's Son. These events convinced him that Jesus was indeed the Messiah, and he evidently placed his faith in him at this moment. He was the beginning of the fulfillment of Jesus' prediction: "I, if I be lifted up, will draw all people to myself." Here was a Gentile coming to faith in Christ crucified!

You've heard this claim, you've seen some evidence (changed lives; whole Bible; apologetical material, etc.)--probably far more than this centurion. What's your verdict? It will be the most important verdict you ever render . . . 


[1] Cited in Oswald Sanders, The Incomparable Christ (Chicago: Moody Press, 1971), p. 203. Documentation not provided.

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

[3] Origen, Against Celsus II.33. Cited in William Hendriksen, New Testament Commentary: Exposition of the Gospel According to Matthew (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1979), p. 970. See also Lee Strobel, The Case for Christ (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), p. 85.

[4] See Isa. 5:30; 60:2; Joel 2:30,31; Amos 5:18,20; Zeph. 1:14-18.

[5] Alfred Edersheim, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1973), Part 2, p. 610.