- Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour.
- And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
- Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias.
- And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink.
- The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.
- Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.
- And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent;
- And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose,
- And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many.
- Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God.
The Lord Jesus had been crucified. He had been betrayed by Judas, tried, mocked, scourged, and led out to Golgotha to die. He had been nailed to a cross and lifted up between two thieves who were crucified with Him. This was the event up to which His whole life had been leading. This was the culmination of His three and half years of public ministry. This moment of His greatest weakness was the display of His greatest strength. It was the fulfilment of so many prophesies, the antitype of so many types, the sacrifice to which all the sacrifices of the Old Testament bore witness.
It was the most important event in the history of the world.
He had been preparing for this moment all His life. “Behold the Lamb of God,” said John the Baptist, “which taketh away the sins of the world” (Jn. 1:29). As a young boy of twelve Jesus had said to His mother, “wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business?” (Lk. 2:49). And He knew that the Father’s business would lead Him to Golgotha one day. Many times He told His disciples that He must suffer at the hands of the priests and be killed. Luke 9:51 says, “And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem.” He turned His face toward the great city and set out in that direction, and He did not deviate from it. He did not turn aside from the path He knew He had to tread. He had received a commission from His Father and He was faithful to it to the end, carrying it out to the minutest degree. He did not head off in the opposite direction as Jonah had done some centuries before (Jonah 1:1-3). No, a greater than Jonah had come (Matt. 12:41) and it was prophesied of Him in the Psalms, “Lo, I come: in the volume of the book it is written of me, I delight to do thy will, O my God” (Psa. 40:7,8; Heb. 10:7,9).
The death the Lord Jesus died was not just any death. It was death by crucifixion, one of the cruellest, grisliest and most agonising methods ever invented for putting a man to death. We find Him on the cross, nailed to it in unspeakable agony, forsaken by His friends, humiliated and mocked and cursed by the wicked mob gathered at its foot. And for three hours – from noon till three in the afternoon – the world became dark (Matt. 27:45). Picture this in your mind. The sun could not be seen. It was pitch dark during what was normally the brightest time of the day.
Some scholars, men puffed up with their own importance but ignorant of God’s truth – liberal, rationalistic, humanistic, Christ-denying infidels – attempt to deny all the miracles recorded in the Bible; and some professing Evangelicals have fallen for such lies. When these scholars come to this miracle, they assert that it was merely a natural eclipse of the sun. Horrible perversion of the truth! This was not a natural eclipse. It was a miraculous, divinely-caused darkness that overspread the earth at that time.
What was happening, that God the Father miraculously blanketed the world in such darkness? Jesus Christ, the Son of the living God, the Beloved of the Father, was hanging on that cross, and He was dying. He who is the Light of the world (Jn. 8:12) was (as to His human nature) being extinguished. Men of darkness, lovers of darkness (Jn. 3:19), had crucified the true and only Light of the world. No wonder the land was covered in darkness by the Father. This great darkness was experienced far away in Egypt: it is recorded that a pagan philosopher there noted it with trembling and said, “Either the divine being is suffering, or He is causing one to suffer”. Others put the words thus: “either the divine being suffers, or suffers with him that suffers, or the frame of the world is dissolving.” From the lips of heathens the sovereign Lord draws forth some statements of truth.
God’s beloved Son was dying. Should wicked men be permitted to see such a sight? No, and God did not permit them to see it. They had mocked Jesus, reviled Him, blasphemed Him – but now God miraculously hid the rays of the sun, and they could see no more.
Furthermore, this miracle was silently witnessing to them that their dark deeds deserved the punishment of eternal darkness. Remember that one of the plagues with which the Lord smote Egypt was great, horrifying darkness (Exod. 10:21-29). What lessons that blackness must have taught many of the Egyptians at the time. Now what those who organised and carried out the crucifixion of Jesus had just done was a sin which cried out to heaven for divine vengeance, a crime for which the perpetrators deserved eternal damnation and darkness in hell; and indeed, this is precisely what the majority of them began to experience the moment their eyes closed in death. But they were so dead in their sins as they watched Israel’s Messiah being crucified and as they derided Him as He hung in agony there that His death made no impression on them at all. You may say, “Well, if I had been there it would have made an impression on me!” But I reply that the Lord would have had to open your eyes for it to do so. Even if men were to rise from the dead it would make no impression on those dead in their sins (Lk. 16:27-31).
But there was more, far more, to this darkness than even what we have considered so far, when God’s Son hung dying on the cross. Isa. 53:6 says, “All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD hath laid on him the iniquity of us all.” This prophecy about the Lord Jesus Christ was spoken by the prophet seven centuries before God the Son was incarnated. Jehovah laid on the Lord Jesus Christ the iniquity of all the elect of all ages. “For he [God] hath made him [Christ] to be sin for us [the elect], who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21).
The crucifixion of the Son of God was the focal point of all history, and of all time. O awful hours! I am unable to read these verses without deep emotion. I read them and tremble. The dark deeds, words and thoughts of all the elect were laid on Christ the Lord during those three terrible hours. All my sins and all yours, if you are one of His people – He was paying the price for all whom He had come to save (Matt. 1:21): for Abel and Enoch; for Noah; for Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; for Rahab and Ruth; for David and Solomon; for Isaiah and Jeremiah; for Paul and Peter; for John and Mary; and for a vast multitude from the beginning of the world to its end. Jesus suffered the punishment that all the elect would have suffered for their sins, if they had been left to die in them. He paid the price of their redemption. The spotless Lamb of God took their place.
No wonder there was darkness! Being dead in sin (Eph. 2:1), we are in darkness before the Lord regenerates us. Absolute spiritual blackness is the only way to describe the soul of man before the Lord brings light. The darkness over the land was an emblem of the darkness of the unregenerated soul. And to deliver us from such darkness, the Lord Jesus had to endure it. He experienced the wrath of God His Father on behalf of those whom He came to save. His soul was made an offering for sin (Isa. 53:10). Never before in all the world’s history was there an event like this, and never would there be again. Three hours such as the world had never known before, nor has ever known since.
Meditate on this, and wonder. Are you one of those who have been washed clean from your sins in His blood (1 Cor. 6:11; Rev. 1:5)? If so, then your sins were laid on Him there, and contributed to the terrible sufferings He endured. He left the glories of heaven (Phil. 2:5-8) and willingly set His face towards that place of suffering so that His chosen people could be pardoned. We were bought with a great price (1 Cor. 6:2; 1 Pet. 1:18,19). Are we fully able to comprehend, even to some extent, just how great that price was?
The First Cry
In Matt. 27:46 we hear Him, after hanging on the cross and enduring that darkness for three hours, crying out. It was a loud cry, an anguished cry, a cry which has echoed down the centuries, causing men in all ages to stop and marvel at what was said in that cry: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If we had a thousand years we would not fathom the depths of it.
Had God His Father really forsaken Him? Yes, indeed He had. Jesus was not lying, nor was He imagining it. He was made to be sin for us, who knew no sin Himself (2 Cor. 5:21) – the sins of God’s people of all the ages were laid upon Him. He who had enjoyed perfect communion with His Father from eternity (Jn. 1:18; Jn. 17:5; Prov. 8:22-31) now cried out in anguish. Can you even begin to plumb the depths of this great and mysterious truth? At that point He was experiencing all the wrath of God the Father, for all the sins of the elect through all the ages, from world’s beginning to world’s end. He experienced what all His beloved people, chosen in Him from eternity, would have experienced themselves if they had suffered for their own sins; for truly “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Heb. 10:31). Jesus, having been made sin for His people, had fallen into those hands.
For that period of time as He hung there, He was forsaken by His Father. But this does not mean that His Father no longer loved Him! That is impossible, for as He had loved Him from eternity, so He loved Him during those terrible hours as well. But the Father hid His face, as it were, from His Son for that time. He became a stranger to Him, and withheld those divine consolations which He had always enjoyed, at the time when of all the times in His life on this earth He longed for them and (as a Man) needed them most.
But so it had to be. For if the Father had given Him that which He so longed for during those awful hours, not one man, woman or child of the human race would ever have been saved, down through all the ages. The Father hid His face and poured out His wrath on Him in the place of sinners. By the divine permission the powers of darkness raged against the Lord Jesus Christ at that time (Lk. 22:53). Of all His manifold sufferings this was the worst, that He was forsaken by His Father. He had suffered so much: He had been betrayed; His friends had deserted Him; He had been terribly scourged; a crown of thorns had been jammed down on His head; He had been mocked; spat upon; His beard had been pulled off His face which had been stuck repeatedly. He had been made to carry a heavy cross, and His hands and feet had had long nails driven through them. Yet not a word was heard from Him. As the prophet had foretold of Him centuries before, “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth: he is brought as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers is dumb, so he openeth not his mouth” (Isa. 53:7).
He patiently endured it all. But the greatest of all His sufferings, the only one which made Him cry out, was that, as He hung between heaven and earth, He was forsaken by His Father. And yet even in the midst of such suffering He was able to say, “My God.” Not merely “God”, but, “My God.” This He knew with certainty, that although He was for a time forsaken God was still His God.
The Second Cry
And then He died. Matt. 27:50 says, “Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost.” It says He cried again. The first cry is mentioned in verse 46: “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabacthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Now in v. 50 we are told He cried again, and that this also was a loud cry. But this cry was very different from the agonising cry of v. 46. It showed that He was still strong. He did not die with a whimper, but with a loud victorious cry.
In John 10:17, 18 Jesus had said something very wonderful: “Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.” These words of His show that He died of His own will. Not one of us are ever able to say such a thing. We die when it is the Lord’s appointed time for us to die (Heb. 9:27). The moment of our death is in the hands of the sovereign Lord, and there is nothing we can do to either hasten it or to put it off. But Jesus laid down His own life in His own perfect time! No man took it from Him, not even the men who nailed Him to the cross. He Himself said that if He had wanted to, He could have asked the Father to send twelve legions of angels to come to His help (Matt. 26:53). But He did not do so, for the time had come for Him to yield up His spirit.
Yes, this cry of His was a different cry. A victorious, triumphant cry. What did He actually say? Matthew does not tell us – but Luke and John do. Luke wrote, “And when Jesus had cried with a loud voice, he said, Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit: and having said thus, he gave up the ghost” (Luke 23:46). And John wrote, “When Jesus therefore had received the vinegar, he said, It is finished: and he bowed his head, and gave up the ghost” (John 19:30).
“It is finished!” It was over. His suffering was over, yes – but He meant more than that. The work was done. The great work that His Father had given Him to do was now completed. He was the only Man, of all the men who have ever lived on this earth or who will ever live, who fulfilled the will of God down to the last tiny jot and tittle. He had broken the power of sin over His chosen people, defeated Satan and all his works, and procured complete pardon and absolute salvation for all His people. Yes, He still had to die, for He spoke these words just before He did so; and He still had to rise from the dead – but the work was as good as done. There would be nothing to prevent it.
And so He died. At this point He laid down His life – not a moment before (John 19:30). His bowing the head and dying means that He was in full control of everything right up to the very last moment, and He laid down His life when the time was exactly right. No man took His life from Him. Now was the time, He bowed His head, and dismissed His spirit into the hands of His Father. He was the great sacrifice, the offering for sin, the Lamb of God.
And as He died some astonishing things happened.
The Tearing of the Temple Veil
The first thing which happened was that the veil in the temple was ripped in half from top to bottom (Mat 27:51). Understand the wonderful significance of this. Read Heb. 9:1-10 for a brief summary of the tabernacle, and later the temple which replaced it. There was a section which was separated from the rest by a curtain. This place was called the Holiest of all (Heb. 9:3), or the Holy of holies. Only the high priest could enter this section, and only once a year on the great Day of Atonement. And he could only go in there with blood (v.7).
What was the Holy Spirit teaching by this (v.8)? The answer is given in the same verse: “The Holy Ghost this signifying, that the way into the holiest of all was not yet made manifest, while as the first tabernacle was yet standing”. The glory of God was in that most holy place. The mercy seat was there, with two cherubim over it (v.5). The glory of God came down into that place when God was in His temple. He could not simply be approached! No man could just walk in through that veil and stand there in front of the mercy seat. He would be struck dead. But when Jesus died, that great and heavy veil was split in half down the middle. Torn in two from top to bottom. The Holy Ghost was signifying this, that the way into the Holiest of all (heaven, typified by the Holy of holies) was now made manifest. It was open. It is by Christ, and only by Christ, that we may approach unto God. The way to God by Jesus Christ was open! As Heb. 10:19-22 puts it so beautifully: “Having therefore, brethren, boldness to enter into the holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way, which he hath consecrated for us, through the veil, that is to say, his flesh; and having an high priest [Christ Himself] over the house of God; let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience, and our bodies washed with pure water.”
It is no longer the type of one man going into that holy place once a year with blood and trembling. The antitype has come! We have access to God by the blood of Jesus. We may now boldly enter the holiest. Not the Old Testament temple, but heaven itself, where God dwells – which was typified by the Holy of holies. God is no longer hidden. The veil was very thick and very high. But now – miraculously – it hung in two pieces.
Very importantly, the Lord died around 3.00pm. This was the time of the beginning of the daily evening sacrifices, which meant there were priests busy in the temple right then, who would have witnessed the tearing of the great veil. They had been going about their business there, even while their fellow-priests had been instigating the crucifixion of the Son of God outside Jerusalem; and as Jesus died that veil was ripped right down the middle. It must have been a terrible shock to them! Jehovah was demonstrating, in a most graphic way, that the Old Testament ceremonial law had served its purpose and was over, finished, never to be repeated. No more types and shadows and figures: the Messiah had come, He had died, and He is the only way to God.
But the Jews did not accept this. They did not learn what God was teaching them. They refused it, for they had refused His Son. They refused to acknowledge that Jesus of Nazareth was the Messiah. They therefore continued with the now-abrogated, no-longer-acceptable Old Testament ceremonial worship – until just a few decades later in AD 70 the Roman legions under their general, Titus, sacked Jerusalem and destroyed the temple.
Believer, does not the reading of these things fill your heart with praise? Here we see the fulfilment, and the end, of all to which the Old Testament worship was pointing. By Christ we have access to God! The veil has been removed.
The second thing which happened as Jesus died was that there was an earthquake (Matt. 27:51). The earth actually trembled at the terrible deed which had been done! It trembled and quaked because the Creator had been so treated by men. The One who had created the very earth now lay dead. The sun had been covered; now the earth trembled. Thus did both heaven and earth testify to the wickedness of men, and to the spotless, sinless purity and perfection of the Christ, the Son of God. God by this sign displayed His anger at the crucifying of the One who is the Prince of glory.
The Rending of the Rocks
The third thing which happened was that the rocks rent (Matt. 27:51). Christ Jesus is called in Scripture the Rock (e.g. in 1 Cor. 10:4, among other places). That glorious Rock was rent on the cross. This is what the rending of the physical rocks signified. Jesus Himself is the cleft Rock into which sinners must flee for refuge (Exod. 33:19-23). To hide in the shadow of this Rock, in the cleft of this Rock, is the only place of refuge for any sinner.
And those rent rocks not only symbolised Christ the Rock being cleft for His people, but also condemned the hardened hearts of sinners! The rocks – inanimate, hard, lifeless objects though they were – testified to who He was; but the hearts of men remained as rock-hard as ever. The very stones cried out in testimony!
The Opening of the Graves
And then a fourth thing happened: the graves were opened, and many bodies of dead saints arose, came out of their graves, went into Jerusalem, and appeared to many people there (vv.52,53)! It should be noted that they came out of the graves after His resurrection, not when He died (v.53); but when He died their graves were opened. They were opened when He died, and stayed open until His resurrection, after which the bodies of these saints came out of their graves and appeared to many in Jerusalem.
Who were these saints who rose? Some have thought they were the saints of very ancient times, such as Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, David, etc.; others have thought they were saints who had died within the living memory of the people to whom they appeared in Jerusalem, so that they would have been recognised – saints such as John the Baptist, or perhaps Joseph the husband of Mary, and old Simeon, and Anna the prophetess. We cannot be dogmatic about it, nor do we need to be. The Bible does not specifically tell us who they were. However, this much we may say: although it would appear likely that the resurrected ones would have been saints who had died within the memory of those still alive, so that they would be easily recognised, there is the fact that as far as many of the ancient patriarchs and prophets were concerned, the Jews knew exactly where their graves were (see Acts 2:29; Matt. 23:29,30; Lk. 11:47,48)! Therefore, if those graves were opened, and men saw them opening, they did not have to know what those saints of old looked like to know that they had really risen from the dead.
Why this particular miraculous sign?
What infallible proof it was of His victory over death, that when He died the graves were opened, and when He rose others came to life! Truly, truly, our Saviour Jesus Christ “hath abolished death, and hath brought life and immortality to light through the gospel” (2 Tim. 1:10)! How true His words: “I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive for evermore, Amen; and have the keys of hell and of death” (Rev. 1:18)! This miracle of the graves opening and the bodies of dead saints being raised was a powerful demonstration of the truth that by His death, His people have life – spiritual life first, and one day their bodies will be resurrected as well, just as the bodies of those saints were raised.
Not every saint who had ever lived was raised to life at this time. But the raising of some was a pledge of the resurrection of all which is still to occur on the last day. The graves were opened, and after His resurrection – and it had to be after it, because Christ is the firstfruits from the dead (1 Cor. 15:20,23) – many dead saints rose from their graves, went into Jerusalem and appeared to many.
How mightily did God testify by this miracle that this was His beloved Son in whom He was well pleased! Some of the Lord’s departed saints suddenly rose and appeared to many. It was a pledge to all those who are the Lord’s saints of their coming resurrection: “But now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that slept. For since by man came death, by man came also the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ shall all be made alive. But every man in his own order: Christ the firstfruits; afterward they that are Christ’s at his coming” (1 Cor 15:20-23).
When Jesus rose, others rose. God has given us a token of what He will do for all those who are His true people on that great resurrection day: “So when this corruptible shall have put on incorruption, and this mortal shall have put on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written, Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 15:54-57). The grave is not victorious. Some graves have been opened before, and all will be opened one day.
This is one of the infallible proofs of His resurrection, because there were eyewitnesses to it – men and women alive at the time who saw those amazing things, and who, when Matthew wrote his Gospel, were able to refute what he was saying if he was lying. But he was able to confidently write about an event which people still alive at the time could confirm as true, because they witnessed it with their own eyes. Something so astounding that it would have been spoken about for the rest of their lives. And not just a few, but many (Matt. 27:53)!
“Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation” (Jn. 5:28-29). Those in the graves shall hear His voice! What a day that will be. The grave will not hold us, for Christ has conquered death.
The Testimony of the Centurion and Others
Now for the final thing which happened when Jesus died: a Roman centurion, and those with him, who were watching Jesus and who saw the earthquake and the other things that were done, were full of great fear and gave this astounding testimony: “Truly this was the Son of God” (Matt. 27:54)! It is easy enough to read this verse and pass over it without too much thought, for the account is brief; and yet in it great and deep things are revealed.
Consider this man. Here was a pagan, idol-worshipping Roman, a hardened soldier, a centurion. The soldiers under him had just a few short hours before crucified Jesus. They had hammered the nails into His feet and hands, and cast lots for His garment. They would not have expected this crucifixion to be any different from the many others they had witnessed or participated in before. Crucifixion was a common method of putting people to death with the Romans. Just another Jew who had to die, they would no doubt have thought. Sure, this Jew had a following and was called by some the King of the Jews, and there was a sign over His head, which Pilate had ordered them to put there, which said exactly that. But so what? Just another death.
But the centurion and those who were with him watched Jesus. And watching Him, they must have observed His conduct on the cross. They must have heard His gracious words to the dying thief next to Him, when He said, “To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Lk. 23:43). They must have heard the words which He spoke to His mother and to His disciple John: “Woman, behold thy son!” and, “Behold thy mother!” (Jn. 19:26,27). They must have heard His prayer to God when He prayed loudly, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). They must have heard Him when He loudly commended His spirit into His Father’s hands (Lk. 23:46). They experienced that awful darkness cover the face of the earth for three hours, and the earthquake and the rending of the rocks. And all of these things brought those heathen soldiers to the point where they were forced to cry out, in concert with their superior, “Truly this was the Son of God”! They did not cry out, “Truly this was a son of the gods”, which would have been far more instinctive and natural for a Roman pagan to utter. No! – They were forced to cry out in fear, “Truly this man was the Son of God”! Out of heathen lips God extracted this testimony to the truth.
Not many hours before the Lord had been tried by the high priest of the Jews. Jesus stood in front of him and he was questioning Him, but He did not answer. The high priest then said to Him, “I adjure thee by the living God, that thou tell us whether thou be the Christ, the Son of God”; and Jesus answered and said, “Thou hast said”, i.e. “I am” (Matt. 26:63,64; Mk. 14:61,62). Then the high priest rent his clothes and accused Him of blasphemy. But when an idolatrous Gentile soldier saw the things he did at the foot of the cross of Christ, he could not keep silent. Out of his mouth came forth the statement that the self-righteous high priest would never have said: “Truly this was the Son of God.”
Thus did God by many infallible proofs set His seal of approval to the life and death of His Son Jesus Christ. He is our Lord and our God. He died to save His chosen people, those given to Him by the Father to save from sin and from death (Matt. 1:21). I know that He died to save me from my sins. Do you know this for yourself, dear reader? Then let us bow before Him together, and praise Him, adore Him, love Him, serve Him, and live for Him. For we have truly been bought with a great price (1 Cor. 6:20; 1 Pet. 1:18,19).
“Unto him that loved us, and washed us from our sins in his own blood, and hath made us kings and priests unto God and his Father; to him be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen” (Rev 1: 5,6).
(This is the substance of a sermon preached by Shaun Willcock, entitled When Jesus Died. It is available as a free MP3 on the Bible Based Ministries website.)
Shaun Willcock is a minister, author and researcher. He runs Bible Based Ministries. This sermon was preached in 1991, and the pamphlet was published in 2021. For other pamphlets (which may be downloaded and printed), as well as details about his books, audio messages, articles, etc., please visit the Bible Based Ministries website; or write to the address below. If you would like to be on Bible Based Ministries’ email list, please send your details.