SynopsisThis account gives a fairly straightforward telling of Jesus’ death on the cross. It starts with a period of darkness that comes over the land, from noon until three in the afternoon. At that point Jesus calls out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which Matthew tells us means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” The ESV Study Bible notes point out that the last two words were Aramaic (the language Jesus would have spoken normally), but they don’t know the language of the first two words; evidently some of the people around don’t know the language, either, because they assume that Jesus is calling Elijah.
One of them gets some “sour wine,” fills a sponge with it, and uses a stick to hand it to Jesus to drink. (Don’t worry about the name “sour wine,” it’s not as bad as it sounds. The ESV Study Bible notes indicate that sour wine was simply cheaper than “regular” wine, and quenched thirst better.) The bystanders then stand by to see if Elijah will come to save Jesus—which is what they’re assuming Jesus would have called Elijah for—but Jesus cries out one last time and then dies, and the whole earth seems to feel that death:
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. 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!” (verses 51–54 (ESV))We are told that there are also some women at the scene, looking on from a distance, who had been following Jesus.
ThoughtsThe ESV Study Bible notes point out that the darkness which fell over the land during Jesus’ crucifixion could not have been a solar eclipse, since Passover took place during a full moon and a solar eclipse only takes place during a new moon, so this must have been a supernatural event.
One of the mysteries of the Bible which we can’t fully or properly understand is how Jesus could be fully God but also fully man. We’ve already seen instances where God knew information that Jesus didn’t have (such as in Chapter 24 when Jesus says that the Father knows when the end will be but that He, the Son, does not), which always blows me away—the idea of Jesus not knowing something is a mind-bender—and now we see something happen to Jesus that has never happened to anyone else: God forsakes Him. A lot of people forsake God, and a lot of people say that they don’t sense or feel Him being close, but whether they sense it or not God is always there, always with us, always present. Nobody has ever lived this life, or even part of it, outside the presence of God, whether they recognize it or not. But for these three hours, Jesus did. While the Father poured His wrath out on the Son, He turned His back on Jesus, and was absent from Jesus in a way that He has never been absent from anyone else. (In this life; I don’t pretend to know what it’s like when someone who is not saved dies.)
The simple absence of God would have been enough to make Jesus suffer, but unfortunately that wasn’t the extent of his suffering on the cross; the main torture for Jesus was the suffering of being punished for untold sins for untold Christians, the Father’s wrath being poured out on Him instead of the people who deserved them.
When Jesus dies a number of dramatic things happen—earthquakes and the dead rising—but one is very interesting: the curtain in the temple tears in two. Some background:
Within the temple there is a section called the Holy Place, which has some rules on who is allowed to enter and under what conditions, and within that is a section called the Most Holy Place, which is even more restrictive: nobody is ever allowed to enter the Most Holy Place except for the high priest, and even he is only allowed to enter on one particular day of the year—the Day of Atonement—to offer a specific sacrifice. It is, quite literally, the most holy place: It represents the actual dwelling place of God. If the temple is God’s house, then the Most Holy Place is where He is actually sitting; it’s where you would go to see Him face to face. We know that God isn’t physically restricted to that physical place, He is everywhere, but in a symbolic sense that place is where God is.
At least… that’s how it was in the Old Covenant world, but the curtain which tears in two in this passage is the curtain which separates the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. This is symbolic, and very important, for the Christian: it signifies that we no longer have separation from God. Jesus’ death on the cross hasn’t just saved us from punishment, it’s done even more than that: it’s made it possible for us to enter into God’s presence in a way that Old Testament Israelites never could have. (The ESV Study Bible suggests that we look at Hebrews 9:11–10:22 (ESV) for an in-depth explanation of what is happening here.)
After this passage Jesus is going to be dead for three days, and is then going to rise. I do not even pretend to know what’s going on during that three days while Jesus is dead, what is happening or what its significance is. (It’s details like this that made me hesitate before starting a Bible blog in the first place; I’m sure someone who’s been to preacher school would know things like this…)