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Jesus is forsaken by the Father
Matthew chapter 27, verses 45-49
From the sixth hour until the ninth hour darkness came over all the land. About the ninth hour Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lama, sabachthani?”—which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a stick, and offered it to Jesus to drink. The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
On the night of Jesus’ birth, the sky above Bethlehem was lit up by the heavenly host who appeared to the shepherds. But on the day of his death, the sky was darkened. The angels’ hymn, “Glory to God in the highest!” was replaced by the cry, “Crucify him!” No Magi came on Good Friday to worship the King of the Jews. Only Pilate’s notice that was posted over his head and the plea of the penitent thief who died beside him proclaimed him to be the King of the Jews. No gifts of gold or frankincense were presented to him. He was offered only wine mixed with myrrh to deaden his pain, and he refused to drink it.
The sixth hour of the day was the sixth hour after sunrise. So from about noon until about 3 P.M. there was an eerie darkness over the land. It is impossible to offer any natural explanation for this. It could not have been an eclipse of the sun because an eclipse of the sun cannot occur when the moon is full. And we know that the Jews observed the Passover during the full moon in the month of Nisan. The Father was providing a covering for his Son. It was something like paramedics spreading a blanket over an accident victim before they can get him onto a stretcher and load him into an ambulance.
According to the testimony of antiquity, this darkness was observed in Egypt, in Greece, in Rome, and even in China. It was not confined to the immediate vicinity of Jerusalem.
This recalled the plague of darkness, the ninth of the ten plagues that came upon the land of Egypt during the time of Moses (see Exodus chapter 10, verses 21-29). The tenth plague, of course, was the death of the firstborn, which was the occasion for the slaughtering of the first Passover lambs. History was repeating itself as three hours of darkness preceded the death of Jesus, our Passover Lamb (see 1st Corinthians chapter 5, verses 6-8).
We are reminded of Jesus’ sermon on the signs of the end, “The sun will be darkened” (Matthew chapter 24, verse 29). Since God’s judgment on sin was poured out upon his Son as he hung on the cross, many of the signs of the end appeared on Good Friday: persecution, an earthquake, and the resurrection of the dead.
After three hours on the cross, we might expect the Man who could not even carry his cross all the way to Golgotha to show greater fatigue. If it was hot, it would not take too long for him to become dehydrated. Jesus’ thirst was somewhat alleviated at this time when he was offered a sponge soaked in wine vinegar to drink. This is not to be confused with the wine mixed with gall Jesus was offered at the beginning of his crucifixion, which he did not accept (see John chapter 19, verses 28-30).
With his lips and throat moistened from the drink of wine vinegar, Jesus was able to cry out in a loud voice at the end of his ordeal on the cross.
Three of the seven words from the cross were prayers. The first was, “Father, forgive them . . .” The middle one was, “My God, my God, why . . .” And the final one was, “Father, into your hands . . .” It may be helpful to diagram them in a v-shape with the middle prayer at the bottom. Then we can visualize how Jesus had hit rock bottom when he cried out in a loud voice, “My God, my God, why . . .” Instead of calling on his Father, Jesus calls him “My God.” But even though the tenderness and intimacy of the first and last prayers is missing, the important thing for us to notice is that Jesus is still praying. Even when his Father leaves him utterly alone, Jesus does not stop praying.
“Why have you forsaken me?” This question is very different from everything else Jesus said from the cross. Before this he showed great confidence in spite of all that he was suffering. He promised the dying thief, “I tell you the truth, today you will be with me in paradise.” But now Jesus asks a question: “Why, God?” He speaks it aloud so that everyone at Calvary may hear it, and it is recorded by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit so that all people may hear it until the end of time. But the question is addressed to God, not to us. We are not asked to supply an answer for this agonizing question. We rather need to listen to how God answers this question for us.
There is no answer to this question recorded in the 27th chapter of Matthew. There was no voice from heaven as there had been at Jesus’ baptism and at his transfiguration. Why was the Father silent? Was Jesus no longer his beloved Son? Was the Father no longer well pleased with him?
When Jesus spoke of being forsaken by God, he did not mean to say that he only felt as though he was forsaken by God. He actually was forsaken by God. It is impossible for us to grasp what this actually means. Jesus is God, but he was forsaken by God. The first person of the Holy Trinity forsook the second person, and yet we know that the unity of the Trinity cannot be undone. It is a mystery, the mystery of the God-man, and only because of the incarnation was it possible. In the deepest depths of his humiliation, Jesus endured the Godforsakenness of hell for us. This was a necessary part of his work of redemption. “Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us” (Galatians chapter 3, verse 13). “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2nd Corinthians chapter 5, verse 21).
The question Jesus asks is one we all want to know the answer to: Why? Jesus shows us that there is no sin in asking the question. But as we listen for God’s answer, it is helpful to distinguish between getting an explanation and receiving comfort. God does not owe us an explanation. He seldom provides explanations. But he is always ready and willing to comfort us. He reminds us of his love for us. He repeats his gracious promises to us. And he says, “Trust me; I have everything under control.” We do not know what the future holds, but we do know who holds the future.
Jesus’ prayer, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” is actually from the first verse of Psalm 22. As he was dying, Jesus was praying this psalm. Although Matthew describes Jesus as saying only the first part of the first verse of this psalm out loud, it seems likely that Jesus would have recited the whole psalm in his mind. If so, by the time he had prayed through to the end, Jesus would have found the answer to his own question. “You who fear the LORD, praise him! All you descendants of Jacob, honor him! Revere him, all you descendants of Israel! For he has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help” (Psalm 22, verses 23 and 24).
After praying Psalm 22, it would be easy to continue by praying Psalm 23: “The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want. . . .” And if that is what Jesus was doing, we might ask the question, Did he start with Psalm 1 at noon and pray through the psalms in order until he came to Psalm 22 at about 3 o’clock? Of course, this is only pious speculation, but it would make sense that Jesus was able to ignore most of the mockery that was aimed at him because his mind was occupied with the psalms he had been praying all his life. In this way Jesus would be setting the pattern that many Christians have followed on their own deathbeds. As life is ebbing away, it can be calming and comforting to sing the hymns and liturgical songs that have become embedded in your memory. If family and friends are gathered around your bed, they can sing or recite them to you when you can no longer sing them yourself. And that will help them to work through their own grief.
Why did Matthew record Jesus’ Aramaic words, rather than giving us only the translation? Because he wanted us to make the connection with the reaction of those who were standing there listening. When Jesus said, “Eloi, Eloi . . .” they thought he was calling Elijah. Maybe they thought he was starting to hallucinate. But a more likely reason they would have jumped to the conclusion that he was calling for Elijah was that it was commonly believed that Elijah would come in times of critical need to protect the innocent and to rescue the righteous.
Matthew chapter 27, verse 50
And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
Stricken, smitten, and afflicted,
See him dying on the tree!
’Tis the Christ, by man rejected;
Yes, my soul, ’tis he, ’tis he.
’Tis the long-expected Prophet,
David’s Son, yet David’s Lord;
Proofs I see sufficient of it:
’Tis the true and faithful Word.
If you think of sin but lightly
Nor suppose the evil great,
Here you see its nature rightly,
Here its guilt may estimate.
Mark the sacrifice appointed;
See who bears the awful load—
’Tis the Word, the Lord’s Anointed,
Son of Man and Son of God.
(Christian Worship Hymn 127, stanzas 1 and 3)
Supernatural events at the moment of Jesus’ death
Matthew chapter 27, verses 51-53
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
All the miracles Jesus performed during the three years of his public ministry proved that he is the Christ, the Son of God. He healed all kinds of diseases and infirmities, cast out demons, calmed the wind and the waves, fed thousands, and even raised the dead. None of his miracles, however, was performed only for the purpose of proving he was the promised Messiah. When his enemies demanded a sign to demonstrate his authority, Jesus flatly refused. Each of the miracles he performed was a gracious response to the specific needs of others. Jesus did not use his divine power to make his own work easier. He never did a miracle only to awe and impress an audience. He was not a magician. His miracles were acts of mercy, and they were designed to teach us some important lessons.
Likewise, the miracles that occurred at the moment of Jesus’ death were not intended only to amaze people. God had very specific purposes in mind, and he does not leave us in the dark as to what his purposes were.
In order to appreciate the significance of the rending of the temple curtain, it helps to be familiar with the arrangement of the Sanctuary. The temple had two rooms, the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies (also known as the Most Holy Place). The two rooms were separated by a heavy curtain that stretched from ceiling to floor. It is variously described as being between 60 and 80 feet wide and between 20 and 30 feet high. It was supposedly made of 72 squares joined together, and it was as thick as the palm of a man’s hand. This is the curtain that was torn in two from top to bottom when Christ died.
The Holy Place contained three pieces of furniture: the seven-branched candlestick, the table on which the consecrated bread was set, and the altar of incense. Only priests were allowed to enter the Holy Place.
The ark of the covenant had originally rested in the Most Holy Place, but it had disappeared at the time of the Babylonian captivity. So at the time of Christ, the Most Holy Place was empty. Only the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place, and that only once a year, on the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur). At that time he sprinkled a sacrifice of blood to make atonement for his own sins and for the sins of the people (see Hebrews chapter 9, verse 7).
Jesus died at about 3 P.M., the time of day when the priests would have been offering the evening sacrifice in the Holy Place. So there probably were a number of witnesses to the rending of the temple curtain.
Two understandings of the rending of the temple curtain have been suggested. The one most commonly heard is that the death of Christ opened up free access to God for all believers. The Old Testament sacrificial system was declared obsolete. It is no longer necessary to have one of the sons of Aaron act as mediator because in the New Testament all believers are members of the royal priesthood. A second possibility is that God was breaking out of his temple in judgment on the people who had rejected his Son The two understandings need not be mutually exclusive.
The Old Testament contains numerous references to earthquakes as demonstrations of the power of God. The wicked men who had been directly responsible for putting Jesus to death thought they had everything under control now. They had gotten what they wanted: Jesus was dead. But this earthquake was a powerful reminder that God was still in control. It is as though God were tapping them all on the shoulders and reminding them, “I am still here.” Not only was this true for Jesus’ enemies; this demonstration of God’s power was at the same time a source of comfort and reassurance for those who believed in Jesus.
Since Matthew tells us that the darkness lasted for three hours, it apparently ended at the moment of Jesus’ death or shortly thereafter. Can you imagine the sun suddenly returning to the sky at the same moment as the earthquake?
Matthew is the only one who mentions the opening of the tombs and the resurrection of the saints that accompanied Jesus’ death. In this connection our curiosity asks many questions that we must leave unanswered. The earthquake that accompanied this miracle of resurrection seems to point ahead to the earthquake that shook Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb when the angel came down from heaven to roll the stone away from the entrance on Easter Sunday morning.
We naturally wonder who these resurrected saints were. Could they have been some of the ancient patriarchs, prophets, or kings? Or were they people who had died much more recently? People who had seen Jesus and trusted him as their Savior? We simply are not told. But whoever they were, the people who saw them recognized them as holy people, saints of God. And people knew that they had previously been dead.
Although Matthew does not say so, it seems likely that they were raised with glorified bodies. That would mean that their resurrected bodies were now immortal, and that soon afterward they were taken bodily to heaven. That would be the most complete and effective demonstration of what Christ had accomplished by his suffering and death. One little detail that hints at this is that Matthew says, “They went into the holy city.” This is an unusual way of referring to Jerusalem, which appears only one other time in Matthew’s gospel, in chapter 4, verse 5. But if we look ahead into the book of Revelation, we find this: “I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband” (Revelation chapter 21, verse 2).
What did these resurrected saints do between Good Friday and Easter Sunday? It says they came out of their tombs at the moment of Jesus’ death but did not enter the holy city until after Jesus’ resurrection. Apparently, the people of Jerusalem saw their empty graves already on Friday afternoon but did not see the saints until Sunday.
For us, the resurrection of these saints at the moment of Jesus’ death is further testimony that at the end of time there will be a resurrection of all flesh. And so we can say with increased confidence and conviction, “I believe that . . . the Holy Spirit . . . will at the last day raise up me and all the dead and give to me and all believers in Christ eternal life. This is most certainly true.”
The centurion acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God
Matthew chapter 27, verse 54
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God!”
There were many eyewitnesses of Jesus’ trial and crucifixion. They were affected in one of two different ways by what they saw and heard. Some of them became more and more bloodthirsty and blasphemous. Others gradually came to recognize the dying Jesus as the Son of God.
The centurion at the cross was in charge of at least 12 soldiers and probably many more. They were hardened veterans who were accustomed to violence and enjoyed it. As Roman soldiers, they despised the Jews and this man who claimed to be the King of the Jews. They were the very men who drove nails through Jesus’ wrists and feet and then joined in mocking and ridiculing the dying Christ. Although there were three men whom they were responsible for crucifying that day, the man in the middle was obviously the center of everyone’s attention.
From the cross Jesus spoke seven times, and we may be sure that the centurion and his men heard every word. Jesus prayed for the forgiveness of his executioners, and that certainly included them. He provided for the care of his mother. He promised a place in paradise to the penitent thief. After the terrible anguish of being forsaken by God, he said he was thirsty. Then he loudly and solemnly declared that his work was finished, and he confidently commended his spirit into the hands of his heavenly Father. These Roman soldiers had seen many men die, but no one ever died such a death as Jesus did. Death did not come to him and overcome him; he came to death and overcame it.
The earthquake did it for the soldiers. The impression that had been growing on them during those three dark hours suddenly came sharply into focus: “Surely he was the Son of God!” They realized that they were responsible for the death, not just of an innocent man, but of the Son of God. They were terrified. What punishment might they expect God to inflict upon them? They remembered how they had mocked and ridiculed him. Perhaps they also recalled other terrible sins they had committed. If they did not yet fully understand that Jesus had died as their Savior, they surely had powerful reasons to find out more about him. They could not simply go their way and forget about everything they had seen and heard that afternoon. As they returned to their barracks in Jerusalem, they carried with them the clothes they had inherited from Jesus. Soon there were many people in Jerusalem who were eager and able to tell them more about Jesus. Perhaps some of these soldiers were included among the “more than five hundred” to whom Jesus appeared after his resurrection (see 1st Corinthians chapter 15, verse 6).
Certain women witness Jesus’ death
Matthew chapter 27, verses 55 and 56
Many women were there, watching from a distance. They had followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs. Among them were Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons.
Matthew mentions three women who were eyewitnesses of the crucifixion. They must have been part of a larger group of women who “followed Jesus from Galilee to care for his needs,” because Luke chapter 8, verses 1-3 names Joanna and Susanna as women who also helped to support Jesus and his disciples.
Mary Magdalene had been possessed by seven demons before she met Jesus, but after he cast them out, she followed him faithfully. She was one of the last to leave the cross on Good Friday, and she was the first to see Jesus on Easter Sunday (see Mark chapter 16, verse 9). Mary the mother of James and Joses was also present both at the cross and at the empty tomb on Easter Sunday (see Mark chapter 16, verse 1). Her son James the younger was probably one of the Twelve.
In Mark’s gospel the two Marys are accompanied by Salome. It is generally assumed that Salome was Zebedee’s wife and the mother of the apostles James and John. She was the one who asked Jesus to reserve the places of honor in his kingdom for her two sons (Matthew chapter 20, verses 20-23).
John was the only one of the Twelve who was present at the cross. The women were the ones who remained faithful to Jesus even in his hour of deepest anguish and humiliation. Although Matthew does not mention it, we know that Jesus’ mother was also among the women at the cross (John chapter 19, verses 26 and 27). As she watched her son suffer and die, Simeon’s prophecy was fulfilled, “A sword will pierce your own soul too” (Luke chapter 2, verse 35).
Jesus is buried
Matthew chapter 27, verses 57-61
As evening approached, there came a rich man from Arimathea, named Joseph, who had himself become a disciple of Jesus. Going to Pilate, he asked for Jesus’ body, and Pilate ordered that it be given to him. Joseph took the body, wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, and placed it in his own new tomb that he had cut out of the rock. He rolled a big stone in front of the entrance to the tomb and went away. Mary Magdalene and the other Mary were sitting there opposite the tomb.
Since the Sabbath began at sunset on Friday, there was no time to waste. Preparing a dead body for proper burial was work that a conscientious Jew would not perform on the Sabbath. And Joseph could not wait until Sunday to take Jesus down from the cross, because the Law of Moses stipulated that the body was not to be left overnight (see Deuteronomy chapter 21, verses 22 and 23).
Arimathea was a village in the hill country of Ephraim, about 20 miles northwest of Jerusalem. Mark chapter 15, verse 43 informs us that Joseph was a member of the Sanhedrin, and Luke chapter 23, verse 51 tells us that he had not consented to the decision to put Jesus to death. John chapter 19, verse 39 tells us that Nicodemus, who was also a member of the Sanhedrin (see John chapter 3, verse 1), helped Joseph prepare Jesus’ body for burial. The myrrh with which they anointed Jesus’ body recalls the gift of the Magi (Matthew chapter 2, verse 11).
It is interesting that before Jesus was born, he was entrusted to a man named Joseph, about whom we know very little. And at the end of his life, another man named Joseph took care of his dead body. Both of them demonstrated uncommon courage. When the first Joseph took the pregnant Mary home to be his wife, tongues must have wagged in Nazareth. When the second Joseph boldly went to Pilate and asked for Jesus’ body, you may be sure the other members of the Sanhedrin found out about it.
The corpses of criminals who had been crucified were often left unburied, or they were tossed into a mass grave, without any ceremony or respect. Occasionally, the dead man’s mother or some other near relative might ask permission to bury the body, but it was highly unusual for a member of the Sanhedrin to do what Joseph did. It may well have been completely unprecedented. But it was necessary to obtain Pilate’s permission, because one of the reasons the Roman soldiers were sent to guard the cross was to prevent friends or relatives from carrying the victims away before they died in order to revive them and nurse them back to health. Thus, the Roman soldiers were only doing their duty when they broke the legs of the two thieves and thrust the spear into Jesus’ side (see John chapter 19, verses 32-34).
The tomb Joseph had prepared for himself and his family was cut out of the rock like a cave. Evidently it was ready to use, but no one had yet been buried there (see Luke chapter 23, verse 53). After placing Jesus inside, they rolled a disc-shaped stone into a sloped or v-shaped channel to close the entrance to the tomb. Gravity would, of course, make it easier to roll the stone into place than to remove it.
The two Marys watched everything Joseph and Nicodemus did. They could not tear themselves away. As soon as the Sabbath was over, they would be back. It was not likely to be a very restful Sabbath for them. But for Jesus, all the agony and humiliation were now over. He had entered into the true Sabbath-rest that remains for all the children of God (see Hebrews chapter 4, verse 9).
Jesus’ tomb is sealed and guarded
Matthew chapter 27, verses 62-66
The next day, the one after Preparation Day, the chief priests and the Pharisees went to Pilate. “Sir,” they said, “we remember that while he was still alive that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise again.’ So give the order for the tomb to be made secure until the third day. Otherwise, his disciples may come and steal the body and tell the people that he has been raised from the dead. This last deception will be worse than the first.” “Take a guard,” Pilate answered. “Go, make the tomb as secure as you know how.” So they went and made the tomb secure by putting a seal on the stone and posting the guard.
The day after Preparation Day was the Sabbath. It is characteristic of the chief priests that they were not going to let the Sabbath regulations prevent them from working overtime. It is ironic that they remembered what the disciples forgot. In a sense they were giving the disciples too much credit. The shock of Jesus’ death had paralyzed them. They were just beginning the grieving process. They were physically and emotionally incapable of carrying out the plot the Pharisees feared.
The fears of Jesus’ enemies were very powerful. It is telling that they could not simply forget about Jesus now that he was dead and buried. They were obsessed with the man they hated.
Pilate’s reaction must have been one of disgust and frustration. “I gave you what you wanted. Jesus is dead. Just go away and leave me alone.” It is easy to get the impression from the NIV that Pilate granted their request and sent some of his Roman soldiers to guard the tomb. But here the KJV is a more accurate translation of the Greek: “Ye have a watch.” In other words, you have your own men who can do this. Tell some of your temple guards to go and make the tomb as secure as they know how. A further indication that this is what actually happened is provided in the next chapter of Matthew’s gospel. After the resurrection, when the guards went into the city to report what had happened, to whom did they go? They went straight to the chief priests (chapter 28, verse 11). Why would Pilate’s Roman soldiers report directly to the chief priests?
By sealing the stone and posting a guard, the chief priests did all they could to make themselves look ridiculous on Easter Sunday. The very thing they tried so hard to prevent was the possibility that Jesus’ disciples might come and steal his body. So when it was clear to all that the tomb was empty, what did the chief priests bribe their guards to say? That Jesus’ disciples came during the night and stole the body while the guards were sleeping! How could anyone take such nonsense seriously?