Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour. 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?” And some of the bystanders, hearing it, said, “This man is calling Elijah.” 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. But the others said, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to save him.” And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit.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!”There were also many women there, looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to him, among whom were Mary Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.
We are coming to the end of Matthew, and this means that we are finding ourselves face-to-face with the core doctrines of Christianity. That is particularly the case in this and the next two studies, which cover Matthew 27:45-28:15.
In 1 Corinthians 15, where Paul is summing up the gospel which he says had been given to him and which he is passing on to others, the apostle writes, “For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Peter, and then to the Twelve” (vv. 3-5). There are three core doctrines in those verses: 1) Christ’s death, 2) Christ’s burial, and 3) Christ’s resurrection, attested to by Peter and the others who saw him. This is what we come to now and must deal with carefully.
We begin with Jesus’ death. All the gospels report it, but the striking thing about Matthew’s handling of this doctrine, which is different from that of the other writers, is that he surrounds it with reports of the miracles that took place when Jesus died. It is not surprising that miracles should have accompanied the death of Jesus since they also accompanied his birth. But most of us don’t think about them very often. We talk about the birth miracles: the virgin birth itself, the angel visitations, the star that guided the wise men. But we do not pay much attention to the miracles that took place at the crucifixion.
There is probably a good reason for that, Jesus’ resurrection is the most important miracle of all, and we focus on that. But it is striking that the first three gospels all record miraculous events that took place at the time Jesus was on the cross and when he died. The gospel of Matthew tells of five miracles: 1) the darkening of the sky between noon and three in the afternoon, when Jesus was on the cross; 2) the tearing of the veil of the temple from top to bottom, when Jesus died; 3) the earthquake which opened many of the tombs near the place of the crucifixion; followed by 4) the resurrection to life of many holy people who had died; and 5) the cry of the centurion who said of Jesus, when he saw these things, “Surely he was the Son of God” The last was the greatest miracle of all.
That the sky should grow dark for a time is not in itself miraculous. A severe storm can cause darkness. The sky grew dark over Pompeii in 79 A.D. when Vesuvius erupted. An eclipse can cause darkness. But there are no volcanoes in Israel, it seldom rains, and this was certainly not an eclipse. An eclipse lasts only a few minutes. This darkness lasted for three hours. Besides, the crucifixion took place during Passover week, and Passover was always observed at the time of a full moon. You cannot have an eclipse at the time of the month when the moon is full. The sun and moon must be on the same side of the earth for an eclipse.
No, this was a divine intervention in the workings of nature by which the sky grew dark at the sixth hour which is twelve o’clock, and continued dark until three in the afternoon when Jesus cried with a loud voice and gave up his spirit.
This must have been a striking, sober, and well-observed phenomenon. Tertullian, the early Christian apologist, referred to the darkness when he reminded his heathen readers that the “wonder is related in your own annals and is preserved in your archives to this day.” But notice how restrained Matthew and the other gospel writers are as they report it (Matthew 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). They do not embellish their story or speculate about the nature or source of the darkness. In a manner that only enhances their credibility as historians they report only that “from the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land” (Matthew 27:45).
These are utterly silent hours. They represent a gap in the narrative, a time about which we know absolutely nothing. There was much going on before the darkness descended. Jesus had prayed for the soldiers who were crucifying him. He had words of promise for the believing criminal who was beside him on his cross. He commended his mother to the care of the beloved disciple. The chief priests, the teachers of the law, and the elders were taunting him. But with the descent of the darkness all narrative ends, as if a veil had been drawn over the unspeakable suffering of God’s Son.
What happened in those hours of darkness? We know the answer. It was in those hours that the Son of God took the burden of our sins upon himself, was punished for them in our place, and experienced such terrible alienation from his Father that he cried out at the end of that dark period, “Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me” (v. 47). The darkness veiled the anguish of the Son of God while he was bearing the punishment for our sins, because it was not right for human eyes to look upon him in his suffering, while at the same time the darkness cried out against the blackness of our sin and testified to the tremendous cost to God of our redemption.