Matthew 27:35-50 ; Mark 15:24-37 ; Luke 23:33-46 ; John 19:18-30
Jesus travailed on the cross for six hours, bearing the punishment for the sins of humanity. It is impossible for us to imagine what it was like. The wretchedness of our every shameful thought, word, and deed was presented to God through the Person of Jesus. All the hatred and malice, the horrors of genocide, the viciousness of rape, the subtle manipulations of selfishness, gossip, and greed…the perverse, distorted sins committed in the dark, the hatred in theft and the chaos of lies and vanity, sloth, and wasteful gluttony. Jesus took the dark and dirty filth of our pollution and put it on Himself, so that the full measure of God’s wrath could fall upon Him instead. “He became sin, who knew no sin, so we might become His righteousness.” (See 2 Cor. 5:21)
The world sat in dark, oppressive gloom for three hours as Jesus suffered. The Father expressed His displeasure at the great evil committed in Jerusalem that day. He watched the horrific actions of the Jewish leaders and the cowardly injustice of the Romans against His Son. These actors had become tools in His hands. God turned the worst crime in the history of humanity into the greatest good ever seen. But that did not diminish the gravity of the sin committed by those who sent Jesus to the cross. The disfavor of God hovered over the world in a darkness they could feel to their bones. As God’s Son completed His work of magnificent grace, God the Father showed His grace through His somber warning in the skies.
And when God’s holy fury was exhausted, the Lord knew. “It is finished,” He said. And then…
“Father, into Your hands I commit my Spirit.’”
Immediately, the ground began to shake in a mighty, violent earthquake. Rocks were broken in two as the city of Jerusalem swayed and shook.
Imagine it. The moment must have been stunningly terrifying! A Roman centurion was keeping guard over Jesus when it happened. When the world shook at His death, the centurion was filled with holy fear. He declared, “‘Truly this man was the Son of God!’” in awestruck praise.
When a Jewish person read this story about the death of Christ, they would have been shocked by this last sentence. A Gentile was the first to proclaim the Messiah after His great sacrifice? And not only a Gentile, a Roman centurion? The Jews would have been stunned…shocked! How could this be?
Until, of course, they came to accept the glorious truth of God’s grace. The Son of God had come to bring salvation, but it was not only for the Jews. The redemption of Christ was for the people of every nation, language, tribe, and tongue. He is Lord of all!
A large crowd had gathered at Golgotha that day. They had come to watch the spectacle. What would become of the Preacher who had so enlivened and infuriated the nation? Would God come and intervene? Would He send Elijah? Hour after hour they waited. Then Jesus cried out, the earth shook…and all was quiet. It was over.
Could this really be the end? The people began to turn back toward their homes, beating their chests as a symbol of their deep repentance and grief. Surely a terrible thing had come to pass.
Many of the women who loved and served Jesus stood off in the distance. Some of them had followed Him all the way from Galilee. The mother of James and John, Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph all stood keeping watch, along with many of Christ’s followers and friends. What a silent shock they must have felt. What deep loss and horror.
How could this have happened? How could this be? How could He be gone? In the gloom of that dark day, they were not able to see the radiant hope on the other side.
How word must have spread out quickly through Jerusalem that Jesus had died.
How everyone must have wondered about the great earthquake. How strange that it seemed to happen at the exact moment that Jesus breathed His last breath. Every Jew in Jerusalem would have known that the coming of God was often marked by an earthquake in the Old Testament. The darkness of the day would have reminded them of the stories of God’s stormy presence on Mount Sinai.
As if this wasn’t enough, some astonishing rumors began to spread. Tombs around Jerusalem had opened, and the bodies of saints long dead had come to life. They were appearing to people all over the city in the days after Christ’s resurrection. What did it all mean?
Then word began to leak out about something that had happened in the Temple. At the very moment of Jesus’ death, the veil that separated the Holy of Holies was torn in two from top to bottom. This veil was not a thin segment of fabric. It was a massive curtain, sixty feet high and four inches thick. What hand could tear such a great tapestry in the blink of an eye? It was impossible, yet it was true. The religious leaders could not deny it.
It is hard for you and I to imagine the stunning impact this news would have had on the Jews of Christ’s day. The veil in the Temple had been a powerful symbol in the life of God’s people since the days of Moses. The Temple was God’s palace, and the Holy of Holies was the sacred chamber of God’s throne room on earth. He came down in His glory to reside there in a special, intensified way. It was the great privilege of His holy nation to have the Most High God draw near. The deep blue richness of the veil enclosed the throne room of God, bringing the necessary separation between the high holiness of the Lord and His people.
For you see, God longed to be with His people. They were His treasured possession…and it is the nature of His love to draw near. But the immense purity of God’s holiness would not withstand the presence of sin. Just as a moth cannot fly into a burning flame without being utterly consumed, a person contaminated by sin cannot draw near to God’s holiness without being utterly destroyed.
But the Most High God is full of powerful, pursuing love, so He made a way for the nation to come into His holy presence. He gave them His Law, teaching them how to live righteously. Then, knowing that weakened humanity would never be able to honor the Law perfectly, He gave them a way to come to Him in repentance. He taught them a system of sacrifices where they could bring Him their grain and the blood of their animals as offerings of confessed guilt and gratefulness. The blood was thought to act like a cleansing agent from the pollution brought by sin. Each person was responsible to keep his own life right before God through constant, ongoing self-evaluation.
And once a year, on the highest holy day of the Jewish faith, the high priest would perform a ritual of national repentance. On behalf of all the people, he would step behind the veil and enter the Holy of Holies. He would bring with him the blood of a special animal sacrifice and sprinkle it on the Mercy Seat of God’s throne room. Somehow, God ordained that this would cleanse the sacred space of God from the toxic pollution that His people brought through their sin as a nation. Somehow, the nation’s repentant obedience to this ritual satisfied God’s holy wrath so that He could remain with His children. God had made a way.
These rituals and this way of understanding the world was so deeply embedded in the Jewish culture that it was how they organized their entire national life. Their everyday life was pinned to the hope of God’s calling on their nation. Godly Jews felt responsible every day to consider their lives in the light of God’s holy Law, and they took great care to remember to bring their sacrifices to His holy Temple in Jerusalem. They were confident that God was the One who gave instructions to Moses for the building of His Holy Palace, and they were right! The Law and the rituals were His idea, too. They crafted the veil exactly as God had instructed. What could it mean that it was torn?
It would take the disciples and followers of Christ many years to realize all of the powerful and mysterious things that happened on that Friday when Jesus died. As God revealed the many wondrous things that Christ accomplished, one of the magnificent new gifts to the world was the New Covenant. The Lord had given the nation of Israel the Old Covenant with all its Laws and rituals for a very specific time. It had a high and holy purpose: to prepare the nation for the coming of the Messiah. The sacrifices of Israel throughout the centuries were pointing to Jesus, giving the people of God an image of how He was going to destroy sin and death forever. Now God’s Son had come and had offered Himself up as the great sacrifice, and with it He made a whole New Covenant. Under this Covenant, no more sacrifices were necessary. There was no need for separation from God. There was no more need for a thick, impenetrable veil to hang between the holiness of God and His beloved children! Jesus had made a way so that everyone who believes in Him can enter the Holy of Holies with freedom and confidence. A new era of faith had begun.