45 Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 46 And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 47 And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 48 And one of them at once ran and took a sponge, filled it with sour wine, and put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink. 49 But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” 50 And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.
51 And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. 52 The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, 53 and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. 54 When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place, they were filled with awe and said, “Truly this was the Son of God!” – Matthew 27:45-54 ESV
Jesus hung on the cross, a battered and bruised man, struggling desperately and agonizingly for His next breath. His body was racked with pain. His eyes were filled with blood from His thorn-pierced brow and the salt from His own sweat. And He was surrounded by hostile bystanders who relentlessly mocked Him. Even the chief priest and his fellow members of the religious high council cast insults at Jesus, shouting, “He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him” (Matthew 27:42 ESV). They found great delight in disparaging Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God, saying, “He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, ‘I am the Son of God’” (Matthew 27:43 ESV). Even one of the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus got into the act, demanding of Jesus, “Are you not the Christ? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39 ESV).
But at Noon, the shouting stopped. The sky grew dark. Luke described it this way: “the sun’s light failed” (Luke 23:45 ESV). And that darkness would pervade the whole land for three full hours. It is reminiscent of the darkness that God brought on the land of Egypt by the hand of Moses during the days before the Exodus.
“Stretch out your hand toward heaven, that there may be darkness over the land of Egypt, a darkness to be felt.” So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt three days. They did not see one another, nor did anyone rise from his place for three days. – Exodus 10:21-23 ESV
This darkness that accompanied the death of Jesus was palpable and supernatural. It was out of the ordinary and inexplicable. And no one could ignore it or avoid it. The Light was gone.
One can’t help but think of these words found in the gospel of John, written long after the death of Jesus.
In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. – John 1:4-5 ESV
But at that moment, on a hill outside the walls of Jerusalem, it appears as if the darkness did overcome the Light. Certainly, the disciples and all those who had followed Jesus and placed their hope in His claim to be the Messiah, would have seen the darkness as a sign of defeat. The end had come. But John went on to record what was really taking place.
The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. – John 1:9-11 ESV
Jesus was being rejected by His own. And the darkness was like a physical manifestation of that rejection, revealing the true spiritual condition of the nation of Israel. John goes on to describe how the Jews had developed a love affair with darkness, the visible manifestation of sin.
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. – John 3:19-20 ESV
Matthew goes on to record that after the three hours of stifling darkness had passed, Jesus broke the silence by shouting, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 ESV). Jesus was taking on the sins of mankind, bearing the full brunt of God’s righteous indignation and just judgment. And in doing so, He found Himself separated from His heavenly Father for the first time in all eternity. Jesus bore God’s indictment against the sins of the world and the wrath of a holy God was poured out on Him. As Paul so eloquently put it: “For our sake he [God] made him [Jesus] to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21 ESV).
At that moment, as He hung on the cross, Jesus found Himself alone. He had been forsaken and abandoned by all. Even His heavenly and holy Father had to turn away His divine countenance as His Son took on the sin burden of humanity. God was obligated by His holiness and righteousness to render a just judgment against sin. The wages of sin His wrath on sinHis own Son the righteous wrath He was obligated by His holiness to dispense. The wages of sin is death (John 6:23), and “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22 ESV). God was offering His own Son as payment for the sins of men.
Luke records that Jesus made one final statement from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!” (Luke 23:46 ESV). Then He took one last breath and died.
At that moment, when all appeared lost and it looked like the forces of the enemy had won the day, some incredible things took place. Jesus had died, but the action was far from over. Matthew records:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split. The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised, and coming out of the tombs after his resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many. – Matthew 27:51-53 ESV
The death of Jesus was accompanied by incredible, inexplicable phenomena. There was an earthquake. The thick curtain in the temple that barred entrance into the Holy of Holies, was split in two from top to bottom. And the most bizarre of all the events accompanying Jesus’ death was the opening of the tombs and the resurrection of the dead saints. As can be imagined, there is much debate and speculation about this particular event. But it is interesting that Matthew provides us with little or no details.
It would seem that the earthquake was responsible for the opening up of the tombs. But the text seems to indicate that the bodies contained within those tombs did not come back to life until Jesus did three days later. And, just as Jesus appeared to His disciples in His resurrected form, so did these individuals. We are not told who they were or whether they remained alive. Was their resurrection temporary or permanent? Matthew doesn’t tell us. But it seems likely that they miraculously resuscitated or reanimated, just as Lazarus had been. They did not receive resurrected, glorified bodies. And, like Lazarus, they would die a second time. But you can imagine the shock and surprise for all those who ran into these formerly deceased individuals on the streets of Jerusalem.
The death of Jesus, while marking the end of His earthly life, was far from the end of His ministry. By dying and resurrecting, Jesus defeated death. And the apostle Paul reminds us:
You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross. In this way, he disarmed the spiritual rulers and authorities. He shamed them publicly by his victory over them on the cross. – Colossians 2:13-15 NLT
The people mocked. The soldiers cast their insults. The religious leaders sneered and gloated over their defeat of Jesus. But even in death, Jesus had the last laugh. He publicly shamed them by his victory over them on the cross. And Matthew records the words of a solitary Roman centurion who had witnessed all that had happened that fateful day: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matthew 27:54 ESV).
Even in death, Jesus made an impression. This hardened Roman soldier was moved by what He saw and expressed a recognition of the deity of Jesus. His statement is not necessarily an expression of faith or belief in Jesus as his Savior. But it is interesting that the very first person to clearly articulate the deity of Jesus after His death was a Gentile and a Roman. The religious leaders were probably long gone. We hear no words spoken from Jesus’ disciples. But whether he realized the import of his words, this Roman centurion was the first to declare Jesus to be exactly who He had always claimed to be: The Son of God.
English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.
New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.