The Death Of Christ
1. As of today we are going into Passion week. What we are given on the first day of it, which is called "Palm Sunday," is the passage of scripture that tells forth the death of Christ. We read from chapter twenty-seven from verse forty-five to fifty-six of Matthew's Gospel. It tells us here about several odd things that happened. First, though it was twelve o'clock in the afternoon, the whole earth turned dark, and it lasted until three o'clock. Second, when Christ drew his last breath, the temple curtain ripped in two. Third, an earthquake took place, the rocks split, the tombs opened, the dead came back to life.
2. So, accepting these details as a simple register of events, they all become bizarre occurrences. In that case, this passage looks just like a scene from a spooky horror movie. Of course, Matthew wasn't writing it that way. We need to make a studied response to the message itself which Matthew was deliberately trying to tell us by his writing down these things.
The Whole Earth Turned Dark
3. Let's start by trying to think about what it says in the text with "At twelve o'clock in the afternoon, the whole earth turned dark and it continued until three." The important thing in understanding this passage is believed to be its Old Testament background. There is a statement from the Old Testament that announces during some midday when it is supposed to be very bright as the nature of the midday is, it will turn almost pitch black. Look at Amos chapter eight and verse nine. "Thus says the Lord, that day is coming. I will cause the sun to sink at midday, and at full daylight I will put the earth into darkness. I will turn your festivals into sorrows and each of your songs of joy into songs of lament, and I will make you to put on sackcloth and shave off any of the hair on your heads, and give you the sorrow of having lost your first born child, and I will make the end of your life [to be] days filled with agony," (Amos 8:9-10).
4. "That day" refers to the day of God's judgment. Amos from the Old Testament announced that "That day is coming." Then, Matthew from the New Testament announces that "That day is come." He said, "At twelve o'clock in the afternoon, the whole earth turned dark and it continued until three." That day, when the cross was erected in Jerusalem, the day of God's judgment had truly arrived. That day had finally arrived, the day when God had made the earth black during full daylight, the day when God changed each song of joy into songs of lament, the day filled with agony.
5. But, even though the day of the Lord when the judgment of God is put into effect on earth has arrived, what actually took place was not just as the prophecy in Amos. The people on earth did not utter songs of lament -- except for one person. As that one person was forsaken by God, he uttered a song of lament and that person was Christ upon the cross. Only Christ shout out loud, "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?," which is explained in the text to mean, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?" This then is how only Christ was judged by God and had raised his cry of agony as a forsaken man.
6. None of the others in their dreams thought anything like the day of the Lord had arrived or that the judgment of God was in effect upon the earth. Somebody said, "He is calling Elijah." Somebody else said, "Let's see if Elijah will come to save him or not." Thus then, all those on the earth, who should have received God's judgment because of their natures, didn't even realize it at all. Among these persons sinful as they were, there was one who was sinless and undeserving of judgment by his nature, but as if a lightening rod he took God's judgment upon his person instead of [it going to] them. By himself Christ drank it down as the cup of God's wrath.
7. Thus it was that Jesus underwent the agony by himself and at the end he shouted out loud and took his last breath. Being crucified, he gradually weakened [until] he died. Therefore, the way Christ was at the finish point was not a natural death situation. The figure he had shows something unique took place. What did the Lord shout out loud at the end? It is not recorded in this gospel, but in The Gospel Of Luke the text has it as follows: "Jesus shouted with a loud voice, "Father, I turn my spirit over to your hands." After saying that, he expired," (Luke 23:46). That was the instant when Christ totally fulfilled the purpose of his whole life and he turned his spirit over to God the Father. Then, since the savior had fulfilled his purpose on earth, it was also the instant that some decisive turning point began on earth.
8. What really happened there? What started [at that moment]? The Bible begins to speak on two things with the phrase "at that time" (verse fifty-one). To translate "at that time" literally would be "Whereupon, behold!" It presses for our attention to what happened there. Two strange things taking place are being pointed to by the phrase "Behold!" Of course, Matthew isn't just trying to make us notice the oddity of the situation. As I said before, the main thing is about what it might mean.
The Temple Curtain Split
9. The first thing the scripture says is that "the temple veil tore in two from top to bottom."
10. During Moses' period of the tabernacle, during the temple that Solomon built, and during Jesus' period of the temple, there was a place in interior of the holy chamber called the Holy of Holies. The veil is the curtain that separated the holy chamber from the Holy of Holies. Usually nobody could go on the inside of the veil. The high priest alone was permitted to go on in [but] just once per year. Furthermore, unless he was carrying the blood of a sacrifice to atone for sin, he could not go on the inside of the veil of the Holy of Holies.
11. This symbolizes the relationship between God and human. God is a holy Being. But, humans have sin [on them]. Sinful humanity cannot come to God that way. As long as their sins are not atoned for and removed, humans cannot approach God.
12. We must have a clear understanding of this. Sins just don't disappear in time. They don't vanish just because humans forget them. Sin never just vanishes off by itself. It remains in the sight of God. Unless sin is paid for and redeemed by a life, it cannot be removed. That's why sacrifices for atonement are slaughtered over and over, which means that in stead of the [sinner] by nature who should be judged by God and should die, an animal receives the judgment and dies. That's what sin being atoned for with a life means. That's why as long as sin is not redeemed, a person cannot come to God. The curtain veil in the temple was this thing that solemnly expressed the separation that exists between God and human.
13. But, that veil tore in two. The text says "it tore." but to be accurate, it says "it was torn." Who tore it? God tore it apart. That's why the scripture says it was "from top to bottom." Were a human to tear it, it would probably have said, "from bottom to top." Thus, in that instant, the instant when Christ breathed his last, God himself tore the veil apart. Why did [he do that]? Because the separation was no longer necessary. Because the last sacrifice had been slain on this earth. Because a full sacrifice to redeem the sins of the world completely had been slain. This sacrifice is the Christ, who by himself had received the judgment of God upon the cross and had died. Because of this sacrifice, the veil that separated God and human was torn apart, and a way was opened for humans to come to God. That way was opened by God's own hands. This is the first thing that happened on earth at that instant.
14. Then, the scripture goes on further to say, "An earthquake took place, rocks split, graves opened, the bodies of many of the holy who were asleep came back to life. Then, after the resurrection of Jesus, they left their graves, went into the holy capital city, and appeared to many," (verses fifty-one and fifty-two).
15. The earth to our eyes appears to be immobile and unshakeable. Upon that certainty, people build homes and construct cities. Yet, the earth is not unshakeable at all. When an earthquake hits, it does shake. The rocks, which we thought would never break, do break. What began at the death of Christ were these very kinds of occurrences. This kind of stuff is shown by this picture. When the hand of God is at work, everything that looked most sure of all is shaken and falls apart.
16. What is quite certain [to happen] to a person? Isn't it that humans "die?" Nothing is as sure as death's gripping control. No one can escape it. There is no one who cannot be confined in [the cage of] death. Those who have gone into the grave do not come out again. [You can be] dead sure of that. Indeed, [we've] come to be sure of that. But, even a certainty such as that has been shaken and broken apart. The grip of death is broken apart. That's what's being expressed in the picture that "the graves opened, the bodies of many holy people who were asleep came back to life." Death can no longer encage humans. Death no longer always has to have a meaning of finality for a person. The stinging thorn of death is removed. This gospel is telling us this happened in an instant, the instant when Christ fulfilled his purpose on earth and died.
17. Also, it is important that the fact that the graves were opened is written along side the fact that the temple veil was torn. These two facts cannot be split off from each other. Christ alone received the judgment of God and became the atoning sacrifice for sin. The veil that was between humans and God was split apart, the separation was taken away. Death lost its gripping control "with that occurrence." When a person is with God, death no longer has control over that person. Where does the final solution for death lie for humanity? It is at the cross that pays for [one's] sin.
18. So, we have seen what was fulfilled by the death of Christ on the cross. As of today we enter Passion week. What really ever happened during that time? Let's spend this week until Easter as a time for going over in our minds each detailed situation which Matthew gives to us as weird phenomena and as a time for deep reflection upon the blessings of salvation which Christ accomplished upon the cross.