Supernatural signs which accompany Jesus’ death
Note: The audio file for this service was too large to upload on our current platform. The audio file available is the Bible reading only.
Sermon: Sunday, 28th March, 2021 Luke 23:44-49
Almost exactly 6 years ago, on the 20th March 2015, there was a near-total eclipse of the sun in Scotland. I remember going and buying 6 copies of the Daily Record that day, just so I could get the free solar viewing glasses needed to avoid damaging our eyes. The next total eclipse will be in Sept 2090, so I’ve not much chance at seeing that one! It’s quite something when the land darkens for a short time in the middle of the day. Imagine what it must have been like living in Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ death. How dramatic it must have been. Workers must have put down their tools. Children must have whispered to their parents, ‘What’s happening, Mum?’ There was probably an eerie silence. What did it mean? ‘It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, for the sun stopped shining.’ (Luke 23:44-45)
We know that this was no ordinary solar eclipse, because it was Passover time when there would be a full moon, and eclipses cannot happen then. This was a darkness from the hand of God, a supernatural darkness. At noon, when the sun ought to have been at its strongest, there is darkness for three hours. Luke doesn’t tell us the exact significance of the darkness; we have to work that out.
This is one of many supernatural signs which takes place at the death of Jesus. ‘And the curtain of the temple was torn in two.’ (Luke 22:45) Torn by whom? This is the divine passive: God is doing the tearing. And there were other signs Luke doesn’t record, but Matthew does; there is an earthquake and graves split open and some are raised from the dead. These are extraordinary, supernatural things. Seismic things are happening because Jesus’ death is the most important event in all of history. God is grabbing our attention and causing us to think, who is this who is dying? And why is his death so important?
1. The darkness and what it means
It’s hard to know all that this darkness signified. However, when we turn to the Bible often darkness speaks of the judgment of God. We think of the second last plague on Egypt, the plague of darkness, judging Egypt. We think of the darkness when the angel of death appeared at midnight, the last of the plagues. We think of the thick darkness which came over Abraham in Genesis 15, when the Lord made a covenant with him: ‘When the sun had set and darkness had fallen, a smoking brazier with a blazing torch appeared and passed between the pieces.’ (Genesis 15:17)
Here, at the cross, it’s not a wicked king such as Pharaoh who is being judged but Jesus. ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.’ (2 Corinthians 5:21) Jesus dies in our place, as our substitute. He bears the sin of his people. Our sin is placed on his shoulders, and so he receives the judgment of God. Surely, this is a key part of the significance of the darkness. This is no ordinary death, but the death of one who dies in order to pay our debts.
The darkness also reminds us of Jesus’ titanic struggle with the forces of evil. When Jesus is being arrested, he says, ‘Every day I was with you in the temple courts, and you did not lay a hand on me. But this is your hour — when darkness reigns.’ (Luke 22:53) Just as David goes out to fight Goliath as a representative, so at the cross Jesus goes on our behalf to fight Satan and all who are his.
Think of the words which the ascended Lord Jesus speaks to Paul on the Damascus Road: ‘I will rescue you from your own people and from the Gentiles. I am sending you to them 18 to open their eyes and turn them from darkness to light, and from the power of Satan to God, so that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.’ (Acts 26:17-18)
Jesus experiences darkness in his own soul, so that we do not have to. It is the darkness of being brutally attacked by the soldiers, mocked by the religious leaders and the crowd, and the darkness of being forsaken by his Father. Ironically, it is God’s plan that this darkness will be our light: ‘For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.’ (Colossians 1:13-14)
What, then, does the darkness signify? It’s a sign of Jesus’ covenant love for us, as he dies for our sins, and in so doing, rescues us from the grip of darkness. And it’s a sign of all the forces of evil, seeking to devour the Lord Jesus, but being unable to do so. Christ takes them on and is the victor. ‘When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your flesh, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having cancelled the charge of our legal indebtedness, which stood against us and condemned us; he has taken it away, nailing it to the cross. And having disarmed the powers and authorities, he made a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.’ (Colossians 2:13-15)
2. The ripped curtain and what it means
Jesus dies and the temple curtain is torn in two and immediately there is, for the first time, access into the very presence of God.
It’s easy to miss the significance of this sign, so let’s take some time to remind ourselves on why God had had a curtain in the temple for hundreds and hundreds of years. This was the curtain which was in the temple and separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. The Most Holy Place was where God dwelt in a special way. The curtain was a ‘no entry sign’ which blocked all people from entering the Most Holy Place, saying, ‘Sinful human beings (and we all are) must not come into the presence of a Holy God.’ There was only one person who was permitted to come into the Most Holy Place, and only on one day. The High Priest was able to enter, only on the Day of Atonement, and only with the blood of a sacrifice which he would sprinkle on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. We read about the Day of Atonement in Leviticus chapter 16. It was an annual reminder of the chasm which exists between a holy God and sinful people like you and me.
As you drive into Kirkcaldy from the Edinburgh direction on the A921, you see the work already underway on 1,100 new homes, and a village called Kingslaw. Imagine Murray-estates presenting a scale model of this development to Fife Council as they sought planning permission. The model is really useful to help the committee imagine what it will look like in the future. But once the houses are built, you don’t need the model any more. Likewise, the sacrificial system was only temporary as the blood of animals could not really atone for our sins. The Day of Atonement was like a scale model of what Jesus would do on Good Friday. It happened year after year, and was a signpost pointing forward to the day when the one perfect sacrifice would be offered (Jesus giving his life) which alone had the power to deal with our sin, once and for all.
But when Jesus dies this ‘no entry sign’ is torn in two – from top to bottom (i.e. by the invisible hand of God). What is God saying through this? He is saying that through the death of Jesus there is now access into the presence of God. That’s why Jesus said,‘I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life.’ You and I now have access to God (in Jesus) in a way Old Testament saints did not have.
‘Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.’ (Hebrews ch 10:19-22)
Do you realise the privilege of prayer? Do you make use of this privilege often? Daily? It’s an extraordinary privilege. Access to the presence of God. Not once a year, through a priest, but anytime, and anywhere. This privilege has been bought for us as a gift and paid for in blood – the blood of Jesus. ‘Let us then approach God’s throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help us in our time of need.’ (Hebrews 4:16)
This truth should transform our personal devotion, worship in church, and everyday lives, as we live them in the presence of Almighty God. In human relationships, there are so many barriers we put up as we wrong one another, especially where there’s a lack of forgiveness. What a beautiful thing it is when fractured human relationships move on in forgiveness and love and healing takes place. How much more wonderful it is when there is healing and reconciliation in our relationship with God!
The tearing of the curtain is also crucially important as it marks the end of the sacrificial system. The end of the priesthood. The end of Old Testament worship. It has all been fulfilled in Jesus’ death – the true sacrifice, and the true temple.
‘Jesus called out with a loud voice, Father, into your hands I commit my spirit. When he had said this, he breathed his last.’ (Luke 22:46) These are probably the last of Jesus’ seven words from the cross. Notice Jesus, though dying, cries out not in a weak voice but a loud one, signalling that he is laying down his life voluntarily. ‘I lay it down of my own accord’, says Jesus. Jesus takes the words from Psalm 31 and says: ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit’. The word ‘Father’ is not in Psalm 31 – there it is ‘the Lord’. Perhaps there is much more in the word ‘Father’ than we might think. It seems to suggest that the Hell Christ has experienced, his forsakenness, where he cried out ‘My God, my God’, this is now over, and Jesus dies with the consciousness of God as his Father.
Jesus commits his spirit into the hands of his Father with confidence; he is confident in his resurrection, and in his victory. Death is not the end. Jesus dies calmly and triumphantly.
3. The conversion of the centurion
‘The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, Surely this was a righteous man.’ (Luke 22:47)
The pagan soldier in charge of Jesus’ crucifixion has witnessed the integrity, love and forgiveness of Jesus as he is crucified. He too had seen the darkness and felt the earthquake. What is his assessment of this man Jesus, who was tried and found to be guilty? He says Jesus is righteous. He recognises the goodness of Jesus.
So, if Jesus was not dying for his own sins, then whose sins was he dying for? Did the centurion grasp that Jesus was dying for our sins? We know that he did not have much theological knowledge about Jesus, but we are told that he praises God. And the kind of worship which the Father accepts, is that which magnifies King Jesus.
‘Whoever does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.’ (John 5:23)
It is as if the presence of Jesus pricks the conscience of this centurion, and the Spirit of God works and the centurion makes such a marvellous statement of faith- that Jesus is righteous. Matthew tells us the centurion calls Jesus the Son of God. Despite Jesus’ battered appearance, being bruised and bloodied, naked, cut, spat upon, the centurion now looks and sees with the eyes of faith.
Make no mistake, the transformation of this Roman soldier is a supernatural sign, speaking to us of what the cross of Christ is all about- the salvation of lost sinners. No one is too far from God to be saved. The friend or family member we think will never come to faith, we mustn’t think that way.
‘For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile.’ (Romans 1:16)
Today, the cross of Christ is just as powerful. His blood is just as powerful. It can make the worst clean.