Monday, April 18, 2011

With Christ at the Cross (Matthew 27:33-54)

Do you ever wonder why miracles do not happen as often today as it would seem they once did? Of course, there are many who believe that miracles do not happen at all, not now, not then. And there are some who resort to sentimentality and believe that everything is a miracle. But in actuality, Christians live in a different category. We believe that there are miracles. Throughout history, God has intervened in the universe at specific times and in specific ways that can only be called miraculous. But, this does not mean that everything is a miracle. Every flower that blooms and every sunrise are not miracles, they are the normal ordinary workings of the world that God created. Miracles, by definition, are rare. They are rare today, and they have always been rare. There have been periods in history in which miracles occurred with increased frequency and intensity, but those have been relatively short windows of time. The Bible records four of those periods of time: creation, the redemption of Israel from Egypt, the beginnings of the prophetic ministry in Israel (with Elijah, Elisha, and Jonah), and the earthly ministry of Jesus Christ and His apostles. In each of these periods, God was revealing Himself in new, specific, and unique ways. At creation, God was revealing Himself through the things that He made. During the Exodus, God was revealing Himself to Israel through the Law and the establishment of His covenant with the nation. During the ministry of the earliest prophets, God was revealing Himself through human agents who would speak for Him. During the life of Jesus, God was revealing Himself through His Son, the incarnate God-Man. And during the apostolic era, God was revealing Himself through those whom Jesus chose, who taught and wrote the words and works of Jesus which we now possess in the New Testament. In these four periods of time, God’s new revelation of Himself was confirmed or validated through signs and wonders. Outside of these four epochs of time, miracles still occurred, even as they do now, but they are rare and isolated events. God has revealed Himself fully and finally to the world in the person of Jesus Christ and in the pages of His Word, the Bible. There is no new revelation to validate, nor will there be until the end when Christ returns.

We are focusing in these weeks on the final episodes in the earthly life of Jesus Christ, and today we come to His death on the cross. And we should not be surprised, in light of the eternal significance of this moment, to find that it is punctuated throughout by the miraculous, just as His birth was. At Christmas we often discuss the annunciation to Mary, the virginal conception, the star that leads the Magi to Jesus, the angels that appear to the shepherds, and other miracles that heralded His coming into the world. And at Easter, we of course have the most significant miracle of all – the resurrection of Jesus. But the resurrection is not the only miracle that occurred surrounding the death of Jesus. In the account we have read from the Gospel According to Matthew, we read no less than five divine miracles that occurred as Jesus Christ hung on the cross at Golgotha. And just as every miracle points to a divine truth beyond itself, so these both signify and validate divine truth that God has revealed to us through Jesus Christ. When we come with Christ to the cross, our eyes are opened to spiritual truth about who He is and what He has come to accomplish. So, as we examine these five miracles that are recorded in Matthew 27, we want to observe the phenomena that occurred, but we also want to see the truths to which these signs and wonders point.

I. The Miracle of the Sun (v45)

Earlier this year, on January 4, there was a solar eclipse. If you don’t recall it, don’t feel bad. It was only a partial eclipse, and wasn’t significantly visible here in America. Eclipses happen somewhat frequently. Four of them will occur in 2011, but all of these will be partial. Total eclipses are rarer. Of the 21 solar eclipses that have occurred in this century thus far, only 7 have been total. And when they occur, they are so brief as to be rather unspectacular. A few years ago, on July 22, 2009, the longest total eclipse of the twenty-first century occurred. It lasted all of six and a half minutes.[1]

Now when Jesus died, the sky grew dark, and the Bible tells us that it was dark for three hours, from the sixth to ninth hours (that is, from noon until 3 PM). Many have speculated that this darkness was the result of a total solar eclipse. Some twenty years after the death of Jesus, a historian named Thallus was writing about the Passover season in which Jesus died, and mentions that there was darkness that covered the whole world. [2] Apparently, it was written about far and wide. Writing around 200 AD, Tertullian discussed this darkness with a pagan audience and said that the “wonder is related in your own annals and is preserved in your archives to this day.”[3] Thallus, who was alive when it happened, said that this was an eclipse. But the darkness of that day could not have been a total solar eclipse for a number of reasons. First, solar eclipses do not last three hours. Second, solar eclipses do not darken the whole earth. And third, solar eclipses cannot occur during a full moon, and we know that this was a time of full moon for it occurred during Passover, which always fell on a full moon. Therefore, this darkness was no eclipse. So what was it? It was a miracle. But what did it signify?

During these three hours of darkness, the narrative of Scripture falls silent. Before this, we were told about what the soldiers were doing, what the crowds were saying, what Jesus was saying to those around Him, but now there is only silence. But we are told that at the ninth hour, as the darkness was breaking so was the silence. Jesus “cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli Lama Sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken Me?’” And that statement is enough to tell us that during those dark and silent hours, the Son of God was bearing our sins and the wrath of God was being poured out on Him for all the iniquity of the human race. Jesus was dying there as our substitute, in our place, an innocent sacrifice for our sins. Out of His great love for us, God became one of us in the person of Jesus – fully God and fully man. And in that body that He bore, He bore our sins and the curse of sin for us. In that moment, the Father turned His face away from His only begotten Son as the Son bore our sin and the wrath that we deserve to bear. And the severity of that judgment was enough to blot out the sun for three hours in the middle of the day. Darkness is frequently indicative of judgment in Scripture, as Jesus says even of hell that it will be a place of outer darkness. During these three dark hours, hell on earth had broken out literally as human sin was being punished in the person of Jesus Christ, who became our substitute on the cross. And the darkness signified that Christ was bearing our wrath.

II. The Miracle of the Sanctuary (v51a)

The temple of Jerusalem was one of the grandest buildings in the ancient world. It had been under construction for nearly 50 years and wasn’t finished yet. It was the place where the faithful Jews believed that the presence of God was most evident. Outside the temple, sacrifices were made for sins, and offerings of thanksgiving were given. Inside the walls of that temple there was a holy place where burning candles represented the light of God shining in the darkness and where incense burned to demonstrate the rising of the prayers of the people. But beyond this was the Holy of Holies, where no common man could ever enter. Only the high priest could go in, and he only once a year, and only carrying the blood of a sacrifice for the atonement of the sins of the nation. To protect the holiness of that place, a magnificent veil was suspended from the rafters of the temple. It measured 60 feet in height by 30 feet wide. It was said to be as thick as the palm of a man’s hand and so heavy that it took a multitude of priests to manipulate it. This veil was a loud and clear declaration that God is holy and set apart from sinful humanity. It announced to everyone near and far, “STAY OUT OF MY PRESENCE.” It said, “When you approach God, you can come this far but no further.” If you enter beyond that veil, you better be the foremost priest of all, and you better come on the holiest day of all, and you better bring the blood with you, and you better not stay long. The whole sacrificial system of that Temple revolved around that understanding. But when Jesus died, that old system met its expiration date. No longer would any man, woman or child come to God by that way again.

When Jesus died, a miracle happened in that sanctuary. When Jesus died, it was the exact moment of the evening sacrifice at the temple, the ninth hour, 3 PM. The officiating priest, entering into burn the incense at the time of the evening sacrifice, would have beheld that veil ripped in half. No man could have torn it. A yoke of oxen couldn’t have torn that thing. With the sharpest of implements, you probably couldn’t make a dent in the bottom of it, but if you did, it would have never reached the top. And yet, when Jesus died, this veil was completely torn asunder from the top to the bottom. It had been torn by God Himself. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for sprinkling the blood of bulls and goats. Every one of them that had died had been an advance preview of what Christ would do in the ultimate sacrifice. His own blood had been shed once and for all. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for an annual day of atonement. This day would become the full and final day of atoning sacrifice for all people and for all time. Because of the death of Jesus, there is no more need for a priesthood because He has become our High Priest, representing us before God and representing God before us. Because of the death of Jesus, that veil that says “KEEP OUT!” has been rendered totally unnecessary. God’s presence is no longer cordoned off by an impenetrable veil but rather is freely entered into through an open door. And the door is Jesus Christ. In the shredded fragments of that veil, God was saying to all who might see or hear of it, “COME IN!” The price of redemption from sin has been paid in full, forgiveness and reconciliation are made possible, and Christ (!) has become the door by which we enter through into God’s holy presence. Because of Jesus’ death, there was a miracle in the sanctuary that signified that access to God’s presence had been granted to sinful men who come by the way of the cross of Jesus.

III. The Miracle of the Stones (v51b)

There is a vast area of the earth around the Pacific Ocean known as the “Ring of Fire.” Around this 25,000 mile “horseshoe” 90% of the world’s earthquakes occur and 75% of the world’s volcanoes are located. When we hear news of a devastating natural disaster, we are not surprised to hear of it coming from that part of the world. Israel, however, is nowhere near that part of the world. It would be wrong to say that earthquakes are rare in Israel. The Jordan Rift Valley that runs through the middle of Israel is active seismically. But most of the earthquakes that occur in Israel would be undetectable if not for sophisticated technology. But on the day that Jesus died, “the earth shook” with such force that “the rocks were split.”

Not all earthquakes are miracles. Of the ones recorded in the Bible, only a small number of them can be called “miraculous.” Earthquakes are a result of sin’s effects in the world. We do not know when the first earthquake occurred, but we know why they began to happen. When God brought judgment on the whole world in the days of Noah, rain fell for forty days and forty nights. But the Bible says in Genesis 9:11 that in addition to “the floodgates of the sky” being opened, “all the fountains of the great deep burst open.” This is most likely the origin of the earth’s tectonic plates and fault lines. And the combination of the atmospheric changes and geological changes that occurred in the flood is the cause of most of the natural disasters that still occur in the world today. So, every time this happens, we are reminded that human sin has not only affected humanity. Sin has affected the entire world. So Paul says in Romans 8:19-22,

19 For the anxious longing of the creation waits eagerly for the revealing of the sons of God. 20 For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of Him who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself also will be set free from its slavery to corruption into the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 For we know that the whole creation groans and suffers the pains of childbirth together until now.

Every earthquake, volcano, tsunami, hurricane, and other natural disaster is a reminder that this world has been broken by our sin, and will be renewed when God brings about the new heaven and the new earth. And that process of redemption is being carried about by God through Jesus Christ, as a result of His victory over sin at the cross and in His resurrection. It will be completed in His perfect time according to His perfect will, and these things will no longer occur.

The earthquake on the day that Christ died and the one that occurred on the day He arose are reminders of this truth, but they also point us to another significant spiritual truth. As miracles, these earthquakes reinforce God’s revealed truth. When God instituted His covenant with Israel at Mount Sinai, when He gave His Law to Moses, there was an earthquake. Exodus 19:18 says, “Mount Sinai was all in smoke because the LORD descended upon it in fire; and its smoke ascended like the smoke of a furnace, and the whole mountain quaked violently.” And here as Jesus dies on the cross, God is instituting a New Covenant with humanity, giving His Son to the whole world as a sacrificial substitute for our sins. And the whole earth shook and the rocks were split to reinforce that great truth that is written in the Gospel According to John: “The law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ” (John 1:17).

IV. The Miracle of the Sepulcher (vv52-53)

In the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, 75 percent of the monuments in the Holy Cross Cemetery were either thrown down or twisted off their bases.[4] However, as far as we know, in that 1906 earthquake in San Francisco, no dead people came out of their graves and walked around the city. Nor has this happened in any other earthquake that has ever occurred, except for one. Matthew tells us that this happened in Jerusalem when Jesus died. Matthew is the only Gospel-writer who records this detail, and he does it in a rather matter-of-fact kind of way. There is no theologizing or explaining, just a straightforward report of what happened. “Many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the tombs after His resurrection they entered the holy city and appeared to many.” So, when Jesus died, the tombs were broken open and death’s grip on these corpses began to lose its power as they were brought to life as if being awakened from sleep. Then, following Jesus’ resurrection, while He was making appearances of His own to His disciples, these saints were also making appearances around Jerusalem.

There are far more details that we do not know than those that we know. All we know is what is said here in these two verses. We do not know how many of the dead were raised to life. We do not know if they were well known (David, Abraham, Isaiah, and people like that), or if they were “Average Joe” kind of folks. We do not know if they were people who had recently died or if they had died long ago. We do not know if their “resurrection” was like that of Lazarus, who was raised to life, but certainly died again later; or was this a final resurrection, after which they ascended into heaven. We don’t know who they saw in Jerusalem, or what they did, or what they said. We want to know all of those things, but alas we have to say we do not, and cannot, know. The Bible doesn’t tell us all we want to know. It does tell us all we need to know. And what this miracle tells us is that the death of Jesus has brought unconquerable life to those who believe on Him.

Jesus had told His disciples, “Because I live, you will live also.” But here is Jesus dying, so what kind of hope is that? It is a great hope, because death can neither hold Christ nor those who are His in its grasp. His death and resurrection infuses those who hope in Him with life abundant and eternal. Paul said it this way in 1 Corinthians 15:

20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive. 23 But each in his own order: Christ the first fruits, after that those who are Christ's at His coming, 24 then comes the end, when He hands over the kingdom to the God and Father, when He has abolished all rule and all authority and power. 1 Cor 15:20-24 (NASB)

51 Behold, I tell you a mystery; we will not all sleep, but we will all be changed, 52 in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet; for the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable , and we will be changed. 53 For this perishable must put on the imperishable, and this mortal must put on immortality. 54 But when this perishable will have put on the imperishable, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then will come about the saying that is written, "DEATH IS SWALLOWED UP in victory. 55 "O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR VICTORY? O DEATH, WHERE IS YOUR STING?" 56 The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; 57 but thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 Cor 15:51-57 (NASB)

Some, for whatever reason God intended, and according to His sovereign choice, had the opportunity to experience the power of His resurrection in advance of the rest of us. And the partial resurrection which occurred on that day as Jesus died “was a foretaste and a pledge of the final resurrection of all who believe on Jesus.” God was indicating through this miracle that “this is the destiny of all who believe on Jesus Christ as their Savior.”[5] Their appearance in the holy city was proof that Christ had conquered death, not merely for Himself but for all who belong to Him. Jesus said that “an hour is coming in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth” (John 5:28-29a). When Jesus raised Lazarus from death, He told Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” (John 11:25-26). And that really is one of the most important questions we can ask today. Do you believe this? Do you believe that the death of Christ has brought life to those who are dead already in their trespasses and sins? The Bible tells us that we are all sinners by nature and by choice, that sin has made us spiritually dead, and that the wages of sin is death, and that to die separated from God in sin is to spend eternity under His just condemnation. But God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him would not perish but have everlasting LIFE. Do you believe this? As we look at the final miracle that occurred when Jesus died on the cross, we will find some who did believe it.

V. The Miracle of the Soldier (v54)

The centurion and the soldiers under his command were not passers-by. They were on duty, “keeping guard over Jesus.” Mark tells us that the centurion was “standing right in front of” Jesus as He died. He had been the supervisor of all that had been done to Jesus that day. He had been present, and maybe even gave the orders, earlier in the morning when Jesus had been beaten, scourged and mocked. These soldiers had gambled for Jesus’ garments. They were there and heard Pilate say that he found no fault in Jesus. They heard the accusations and they heard Jesus affirm that He claimed to be the King of the Jews, the Messiah, the divine Son of God. These soldiers had accompanied Jesus as He was marched toward Golgotha. And they were the ones nailing Jesus to the cross and raising Him up to die this cruel, agonizing and humiliating death. Undoubtedly, these men had witnessed more than their share of crucifixions. Hard as it may seem to fathom, they may have become numb to the sights and sounds of watching men die in this way. The entire ordeal had probably become routine. When this day began, Jesus was just another hoodlum being taken out to die. But something happened in the heart of this centurion and his soldiers as the day went on. They saw in Jesus a man who did not fight or resist or protest. He prayed for those who were putting Him to death. He did not rail against those who harassed Him, and He promised a dying thief on a cross beside of Him an eternity in Paradise. They saw Him die like no other person had ever died on the cross. The death could take days of agony. Jesus didn’t linger long. Within hours, almost as if Jesus had command over His very last breath, the centurion and his men watched Jesus cry out to His Father and give up His life with the words, “Father, into Thy hands I commit My Spirit. It is finished.” And then He was dead. Others had to have their legs broken to speed the process along. This was not necessary for Jesus. He had clearly laid His life down.

Mark says that when this centurion saw the way that Jesus had breathed His last, something happened inside of him. He’d seen many die upon crosses, but this one was different. When this man died, darkness covered the whole land. When this man died, the earth shook. When this man died, the temple was put into upheaval. When this man died, tombs were opened across the city. And Matthew says that when these soldiers saw these things happen, they became very frightened. But what happened next was the greatest miracle of all. The Holy Spirit of God began to move upon these soldiers’ hearts to reveal spiritual truth to them, and in that moment they confessed, “Truly this was the Son of God!” These men were every bit as dead as those in the tombs. Though physically they were alive, spiritually they were dead in sin, just as every human being is. But they were gloriously made alive by their response of faith toward Jesus on that very day.

And this miracle continues to happen every time the blinded eyes of a human being are opened to the glory of Christ. Every time someone comes to understand the significance of His death for their sins, they receive life in Him. The death Christ died was every bit as much for you as it was for the centurion. He died for their sins, and He died for your sins. What hope do we have apart from Jesus dying on the cross for us? We have no other hope. What can wash away my sins? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus. This is all my righteousness – Nothing but the blood of Jesus. O precious is the flow that makes me white as snow. No other fount I know, nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Have you come to Him and called on Him to save you from your sin? He has taken the condemnation that you and I deserve for our sins, and He has conquered death through His cross and resurrection. The life He died to give you can be yours if you turn from sin and self to trust in Him. He proclaimed that He was going to give His life as a ransom for many. Are you among those many who have received new life as a result of His death? Jesus said, “Believe Me that I am in the Father and the Father is in Me.”[6] In other words, believe that He is God in the flesh, and that He has come and done what He promised to do. He has come to save us from our sin through His death and resurrection. Jesus said, “Believe Me … otherwise believe because of the works,”[7] the miracles, the signs and wonders that were accomplished as He came into the world, as He walked through this world, and as He left this world through His sacrificial death. How can you believe that He is who He said and that He has provided the salvation He has promised? He has verified it through these signs and wonders, many of which occurred even as He breathed His last on the cross. And every one of these miracles is pointing your attention to this Man on the Cross, and crying out to you, “Believe in Him. Find life for yourself here in His precious death for you.”

[2] Josh McDowell, New Evidence that Demands a Verdict (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1999), p. 58.
[3] James Montgomery Boice, The Gospel of Matthew: Volume 2, The Triumph of the King, Matthew 18-28 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), p. 623.
[5] Boice, pp. 626-627.
[6] John 14:11
[7] John 14:11

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