Presented at Trinity Fellowship on 05/05/1996
Luke 23:44 And it was now about the sixth hour, and darkness fell over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 the sun being obscured. And the veil of the temple was torn in two. 46 And Jesus, crying out with a loud voice, said, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” And having said this, he breathed his last. 47 Now when the centurion saw what had happened, he began praising God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent.” 48 And all the multitudes who came together for this spectacle, when they observed what had happened, began to return, beating their breasts. 49 And all his acquaintances and the women who accompanied him from Galilee were standing at a distance, seeing these things. 50 And behold, a man named Joseph, who was a member of the Council, a good and righteous man 51 (he had not consented to their plan and action), a man from Arimathea, a city of the Jews, who was waiting for the kingdom of God, 52 this man went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus. 53 And he took it down and wrapped it in a linen cloth and laid him in a tomb cut into the rock, where no one had ever lain. 54 And it was the preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin. 55 Now the women who had come with him out of Galilee followed after, and saw the tomb and how his body was laid. 56 And they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.
Considered by bulk, the center of Scripture is Psalm 80:13. Considered by time (counting only datable events), it is somewhere in I Kings. Considered by significance, it has to be the passage we have before us today. It is no exaggeration to say that every word of Scripture either prepares for or reflects on the meaning of this event, the hinge or fulcrum on which all of history and the fulfillment of God’s purposes for mankind depends: the voluntary sacrifice for sin of God the Son, the death of Christ. Here we see three witnesses who testify to the meaning of that death, with three ways in which our response to those witnesses relates us to it.
The first witness that testifies to the meaning of this death is the Sun, which simply refused to shine on the scene unfolding below it. It appears that this darkness was a local phenomenon. A regular eclipse of the sun would not produce “darkness” for a full three hours, and if the phenomenon had been worldwide, no doubt the astrologers of the time would have reported it. No meteorological phenomenon is mentioned as accompanying this darkness. So it was not just a coincidence of weather; it’s not just that it was a cloudy day. No, for three hours from noon to 3:00 PM, during the time when the light of the sun should have been the brightest, darkness fell over this hillside as a sign to those present.
A sign of what? Surely any Jew who noticed the phenomenon and tried to understand its significance would do so in the light of the use of light and darkness in the Old Testament; and we may add to it for our understanding the New Testament, as it records the fulfillment of the Old and then reflects upon it. For light comes from God and is always associated with him. It first appeared when God said, “Let there be light!” And there was light (Gen. 1:3). “The Lord is my light and my salvation” (Psalm 27:1). So light is associated not just with God but with God and with salvation. “Arise! Shine! For your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you” (Isaiah 60:1). Light also figures in Messianic prophecy. And so when those prophecies were ready to be fulfilled, Zacharias had prophesied that “The sunrise from on high shall visit us, to shine upon those who sit in darkness and the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-9). And then the glory of the Lord shone round about the shepherds, and they were sore afraid; and in the temple Simeon had taken the baby Jesus from his mother’s arms and called him “a light of revelation to the Gentiles” (Luke 2:32, quoting Isaiah 49:6). And John would therefore conclude, “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).
So what is the meaning of this darkness? Not that God was not at work on that hillside, not that his purposes were not being fulfilled. But the Jewish nation had rejected their Messiah, and in so doing they had rejected God and they had rejected light. They were being given a symbolic taste of the darkness they had chosen. Have you ever visited a great cavern like Mammoth Cave in Kentucky? Once the guide had taken you deep into the cave, many miles underground and away from the light of the sun, did he turn off the artificial lights just for a moment so you could “see” the cave the way it appears naturally? And then perhaps, before turning the electric lights back on, he lit a single match. And how it shone in that darkness! Before it was lit, that was a darkness so deep you literally could not see your hand in front of your face; it made no difference at all whether your eyes were open or shut. Without Jesus Christ, you are in darkness that deep, spiritually. The purpose of life, the meaning of life, the intentions of your Maker and Judge toward you: all these things are that dark to you apart from Christ! And such darkness is not just around fallen men and women; it is in them. If the light in you is darkness, how deep is that darkness? But the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it. But we are anticipating the Resurrection to say that, and that is not until next week!
The second witness to the meaning of what is happening here is the Veil of the Temple. It was the great curtain that separated the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies, that last inner sanctum into which the High Priest came but once a year, bearing blood, on the day of Atonement. Why was this great curtain hung? Because our sins have separated us from our God, and therefore to come into his presence is death. It is why the children of Israel were forbidden to touch the Mountain in Exodus 19 when the glory of God descended on it. That is why there was a veil before the Holy of Holies, where dwelt the presence of God. You can read about its construction in Exodus 26:31-33. And Josephus tells us that forty years before the destruction of the temple—which would put us right about the time of the crucifixion—the doors of the temple flew open and the menorah went out! In that same disturbance, perhaps one of the earthquakes that accompanied the death of Christ, the Veil was ripped in two, and for the first time since it was hung the Holy of Holies stood open. What could this mean?
The significance of this event is explained by the book of Hebrews: The old high priest had entered the Holy of Holies once a year on the day of atonement bearing blood to atone for the sins of the people. But now, “when Christ appeared as a great high priest of the good things to come, he entered through the greater and more perfect tabernacle not made with hands, that is to say, not of this creation; and not through the blood of goats and calves, but through his own blood, he entered the Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption. For if the blood of goats and bulls and the ashes of a heifer sprinkling those who have been defiled sanctify for the cleansing of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God?” (Heb. 9: 11-14). The Day of Atonement has been fulfilled! Because Christ has died as a vicarious, substitutionary sacrifice in atonement for our sins, the way to God has been opened to all men by faith. What only the high priest could do once a year, every believer can now do at any time: enter into the direct presence of God without fear, because our sins have been taken out of the way forever, having been nailed to the Cross. And therefore “we have confidence to enter the holy place by the blood of Jesus” (Heb. 10:19). And there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus (Rom. 8:1). Hallelujah!
What could possibly add to the testimony of the Veil without anticlimax? Only one thing: the third witness to the meaning of this death is the Savior himself. “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” He has already said, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” He has already said, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” He has already said, “It is finished.” And now he says, “Father, into thy hands I commit my spirit.” Jesus was on that Cross so that we could be forgiven. He bore our sins in his body on the tree, and experienced the very separation from God that is the essence of the death which is the wages of sin, an experience that was so excruciating that it tore from his lips that horrible cry of dereliction. And he had finished his work of sin bearing and propitiation and atonement. And now, his own relationship with the Father restored, he commits his life into the Father’s hands and gives up the ghost. Despite the necessary cry of agony in the middle as he bore the full penalty for our sin, there is no conflict here between the Father and the Son. They are at one in their love of us poor sinners. And that love has caused Christ to submit to the Cross voluntarily. And now he is received back into the favor of the Father. Do you see what this means? His sacrifice for us has been accepted! And therefore his Resurrection—and ours—becomes inevitable. From that moment he will be our Mediator and Advocate. From that moment he who humbled himself even to death on the Cross will be exalted to the very right hand of the Father’s throne on high.
Some modern thinkers reject the biblical view of the atonement as an example of “divine child abuse.” How little they understand of human sin, of divine justice, and most of all of divine love! It was the Son’s love as much as the Father’s that led him to that Cross for us. And the last word we hear from him is no longer agony; it is back to the characteristic note of trust that has been the essence of his relationship to the Father from the beginning. Do you understand? It is because he died for our sins—it is because he said this to the Father right as he was doing so—that we too can have hope. If Christ at such a moment as this could commit his spirit in complete trust into the Father’s hands—then so can we. So can we—at this moment and at the moment of our own deaths. For this death has taken away the sting.
There are three witnesses to the meaning of this death, and there are also three responses recorded by those who heard and saw their testimony. The first one is that of the Centurion. We must not exaggerate the understanding of which he was capable at this point, but something about the death of Christ impressed this battle-hardened soldier, this veteran of so many executions. Luke records that he was impressed that Jesus must have been an innocent man. Matthew adds that he was very afraid (for, after all, he had just executed a man who was innocent in his own judgment), and that he also proclaimed him a son of God. He need not have had a very sophisticated understanding at that moment of what that meant. But he was impressed by Jesus as by one who told the truth, and those were Jesus’ own words. Unlike most of the people here, he actually stopped to think about what was happening. According to tradition he went on to become a believer. If indeed he went on to faith and commitment, it was because he was paying attention here. Don’t just give a conventional response to Christ defined by what other people are doing, whether it be uninformed respect or condemnation. Look at him! Listen to him! Pay attention! And deal honestly with what you see, as this Centurion obviously did. Then you may indeed be led to faith in Christ.
If the response of the Centurion is encouraging, that of the crowds is sobering. These are the same people who had been shouting “Crucify him!” Well, they have gotten what they wanted. And it has left an empty taste in their mouths—indeed, worse than empty. They began to return, beating their breasts. This is sorrow of a kind, but there is no indication that it is a godly sorrow leading to repentance. They got what they wanted. Why aren’t they happy?
There is a very basic principle that these people illustrate. Jesus is the Way, the Truth, and the Life. He came to bring us life, and to bring it more abundantly. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. This is life eternal, that we may know the Father as the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom he has sent (John 17:3). To reject Christ is to reject life. There is a pleasure in sin for a season, but the end thereof is death. There is a pleasure in sin for a season, but it has an aftertaste. The taste it leaves in your mouth is emptiness, ashes, bitterness. It may seem sweet now, but the day is coming when you will choke on it. And you will walk away beating your breast and wondering what happened.
I find the response of some of Jesus’ disciples—not the Twelve, except maybe for John, but Joseph and the women—very intriguing indeed. Remember that none of them yet really understands the purpose of the Cross or the hope of the Resurrection. Therefore, they should conclude that Jesus’ death is proof that he was a false Messiah and forsake him. But they just couldn’t do that! They could not bring themselves to forsake him, for reasons they did not yet understand. But faith always finds a way to show itself, as we saw with the Thief on the Cross. Here it does so in loving service even when all is lost, service performed anyway even when everything seems hopeless and futile. They had no idea that the Resurrection was coming. But unlike Peter and the rest, they did not care if people realized they loved Jesus. They did not care if they were tarred by the brush of his guilt and his failure and his shame. They were going to see that he got a decent burial, they were going to anoint him, and if the soldiers came for them as a result, so be it! They loved their Master, and that was all they needed to understand. They loved him, and that was that.
We have the advantage of the Resurrection, the whole New Testament to explain it, and the Holy Spirit to apply it to our hearts. But do we have the loyalty and commitment and love for Jesus that they had without any of that? How faithful are we when things are discouraging—but never anywhere near so discouraging as this? How faithful are we when we are just not in the mood? Maybe that is actually the measure of the depth of the hold that Jesus really has on us. Maybe that is really the measure of our faith.
The Veil of the Temple has been torn! The way to peace with God, forgiveness, eternal life, meaning, purpose, and love is now open because Christ died. So how do we respond to this situation? We can be like the crowd and choke on dust and ashes. Or we can be like the centurion and actually pay attention and respond honestly to what we see. And we can be like the disciples and commit ourselves to Jesus and love him and serve him, and in that love and that service find life. What is your choice today?
Here endeth the lesson.
Dr. Donald T. Williams