Friday, March 29, 2013

The Death of Jesus

Isenheim Altarpiece Detail
Matthias Gruenewald
It was now about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour, while the sun’s light failed. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, calling out with a loud voice, said, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit!” And having said this he breathed his last. Now when the centurion saw what had taken place, he praised God, saying, “Certainly this man was innocent!” And all the crowds that had assembled for this spectacle, when they saw what had taken place, returned home beating their breasts. And all his acquaintances and the women who had followed him from Galilee stood at a distance watching these things (Luke 23:44-49).
People love a show. More accurately, people love to gawk at a spectacle and, the gorier the better. I don’t know why this is, but we know it to be true. Think about the times you have been driving down the highway and traffic slows to a crawl. There has been an accident, and a particularly gruesome one at that. In the distance you can see the smoke, and perhaps even the flashing lights of the emergency vehicles that have responded to the scene. As you get nearer, though, you realize that the crash happened, not on your side of the expressway, but on the opposite side. Traffic on your side had been free to travel all the while you were delayed, but people slowed down just to get a look at what had happened. Traffic reporters even have a name for this phenomenon. They call these “gapers delays”. It was always frustrating to me, when I had experienced a so-called gaper’s delay on the expressway, to find that there was no good reason for the hold-up. My first thought was, “Wouldn’t people rather get to where they were going faster, than slow down to look at a traffic crash?” Apparently not. People will go out of their way to gape at a spectacle.
This is what happened on Calvary the day Jesus was executed. Scripture tells us that crowds had assembled to watch the spectacle. There was plenty of “spectacle” for the people to gape at. At least three men were being put to death in a most gruesome fashion. Certainly the Roman government wanted the people over whom they ruled to come out and watch the crucifixion. That is the whole point of a public execution. Not only do they appeal to that grisly thing inside of us that makes even modern-day motorists stop to look at an accident on the road, but they are intended also to keep people in line. Public executions, like those administered by the Romans, showed people the consequences of breaking the law, and that they could not escape the government’s justice. These displays of the government’s power were intended to show that the arm of the Law was, indeed, long, and that one could not escape its reach.
The crowds, however, seem to get more than just the show. A number of other happenings are recorded by Luke, and the writers of the other gospels, which seem to cause the people watching to understand that something momentous was taking place. Luke writes that it was about the sixth hour, which would be 12:00 noon. He says that, “…there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour (3:00 PM).[1]” For Luke to note this darkness in such a manner indicates that it was something more than the result of a cloudy day. The darkness could also not have been the result of a solar eclipse, as some have suggested. The Passover, which would begin at sundown, occurs during a full moon, and this would prevent a solar eclipse (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). This darkness is supernatural. As the death of Jesus approaches, darkness over the land indicates God’s judgment, just as the sight of the crosses on the hill indicated Roman judgment. Kretzmann describes the meaning of the darkness recorded by Luke this way:
“Suddenly, not only in Judea, but over the whole earth that was just then enjoying the blessing of sunlight, an abnormal, inexplicable darkness fell, one that was mentioned even by heathen writers[2]. The sun simply failed the people of the world; his light was shut off. All nature was mourning at the climax of the suffering of Jesus. This darkness was a picture of the greater, deeper darkness that had fallen into the soul of the Redeemer. He was literally forsaken by God, given over into the power of the spirits of darkness, to suffer the indescribable agonies of hell. Christ, in these three hours, had to bear and feel the full strength, the full terror of the divine wrath over the sins of the world” (Kretzmann, 1921).

Luke records also that, upon Jesus’ death, the curtain of the temple in Jerusalem was torn in two, from top to bottom. Matthew writes that there was also an earthquake that accompanied this event[3]. If the abnormal darkness had not gotten the people’s attention, these two things surely would have. The curtain mentioned here was the curtain of the Most Holy Place. This was the part of the temple where God’s presence resided. No one except the high priest was allowed to enter the Most Holy Place, and he could only go into it once a year on the Day of Atonement to sprinkle the blood of the sacrifice and make atonement for the sins of Israel as God had commanded in the Old Testament. The curtain of the temple, sometimes referred to as the veil, separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. It separated the people from God and could only be circumvented by the high priest, and only according to God’s prescription. It wasn’t a curtain such as modern minds might conceive. This curtain was tall and thick, not simply piece of fabric. The curtain of the temple was described in Talmudic sources in the following manner:
“Three hundred priests were told off [sic; the idea is that they were designated] to draw the veil (of the Temple) aside; for it is taught that Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel declared in the name of Rabbi Shimon the Sagan (or high priest’s substitute), that the thickness of the veil was a handbreadth. It was woven of seventy-two cords, and each cord consisted of twenty-four strands. It was forty cubits long and twenty wide. Eighty-two myriads of damsels worked at it, and two such veils were made every year. When it became soiled, it took three hundred priests to immerse and cleanse it” (Harris, 1901).

A handbreadth is four inches. That means the curtain was four inches thick. A cubit is approximately the length of a person’s forearm, typically about 18 inches. That makes the curtain 60 feet long and 30 feet wide. The word myriad comes from classical Greek and means 10,000. That would mean that, according to this source, 820,000 young women worked on its fabrication. The point is, this was a big, thick curtain. It would not have been easily cut or torn.
The people witnessing the crucifixion would not have immediately known that the temple curtain had been torn, though, as they were outside the city. Matthew, however, writes that there was an earthquake:
And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. And the earth shook, and the rocks were split (Matthew 27:51).
This earthquake sort of puts God’s stamp on the events of Good Friday. Earthquakes were often associated with manifestations of God, and considered a sign of the end and the final judgment (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). Though they may not have realized it at that moment, this was the end and final judgment of sin, death, and Satan.
Luke writes that, after witnessing Jesus’ death and the other strange happenings at the site of the crucifixion, the people returned to their homes “beating their breasts”. This action would be considered a sign of repentance or mourning. Luke differentiates between the people, and the people who knew Jesus (his acquaintances). This indicates that, rather than repenting of their sin and unbelief and becoming followers of Jesus, the people who were beating their breasts were mourning because of the appalling nature of what they had seen. Kretzmann describes it this way:
“And likewise all those that had come together near the place of the crucifixion and had remained to see this climax of the work of Christ, beat upon their breasts and turned to go back home, moved in a way which they could hardly explain to themselves. God had spoken, and men were filled with dread” (Kretzmann, 1921).

We living today should be filled with dread at this scene as well. We are guilty of breaking God’s law. We, like criminals under the sentence of death, cannot escape the long arm of the Law. Because of our sin we deserve what Jesus endured on the cross. All human beings have inherited from Adam a nature that is inclined in every way against God. We are infected with a “horrible, dreadful hereditary sickness” that causes us to flee from God and commit all manner of actual sins[4] (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005). Left in this natural state we are all in God’s displeasure and are, as St. Paul writes, children of wrath:
And you were dead in the trespasses and sins in which you once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work in the sons of disobedience – among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind (Ephesians 2:1-3).
No one wants to hear or believe this about themselves. We like to think that we are basically good people. Scripture paints a far bleaker picture of mankind and human nature, however. God’s word teaches us that our human nature, created perfect by God in the beginning, has been so deeply and utterly corrupted by sin that nothing good remains in us, nor are we capable of doing any good to please God:
For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. Against you, you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight, so that you may be justified in your words and blameless in your judgment. Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me...None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one. Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive. The venom of asps is under their lips. Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness. Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes (Psalm 51:3-5; Romans 3:10-18).
Left on our own, we could not make up for our total lack of fear, love, and trust in God. God, however, has not left us alone. He has come after us. He has done the work that needed to be done for us. The author of life was executed in our place. Before we were even able to do anything good – while we were still dead in our transgressions, enemies of God – Jesus, true God, took on human flesh and became man[5]. He reconciled the whole world to God by living a perfect, sinless life under the law. And, after fulfilling the law, the sinless Son of God bore the guilt and punishment that rightly belonged to mankind as he hung on the cross. Jesus was declared guilty of all sin and evil in the world (Engelbrecht, et al., 2009). He was made to be sin[6]. Scripture says:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil...For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly (Hebrews 2:14; Romans 5:6).
As our sins were credited to him, so is his righteousness credited to we who believe. As God’s law reveals your sin and shows your good works to be nothing but filthy rags, look at Jesus on the cross, and repent. Christ himself calls us all to repentance; to faith in the Gospel. That is, to become different, act differently, and believe his promise[7] (McCain, Baker, Veith, & Engelbrecht, 2005). Through Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, and the hope of eternal life with God.
End Notes
[1] Luke 23:44
[2] Thallus wrote a history of the eastern Mediterranean world since the Trojan War. Thallus wrote his regional history in about AD 52.6 Although his original writings have been lost, he is specifically quoted by Julius Africanus, a renowned third century historian. Africanus states, ‘Thallus, in the third book of his histories, explains away the darkness as an eclipse of the sun—unreasonably as it seems to me.’ Apparently, Thallus attempted to ascribe a naturalistic explanation to the darkness during the crucifixion (Anderson, 2007).
[3] Matthew 27:51
[4] FC SD I 5, 12
[5] Galatians 4:4-5
[6] 2 Corinthians 5:21
[7] SA III III 4
Works Cited
Anderson, D. (2007, April 06). Darkness at the crucifixion: metaphor or real history? Retrieved March 16, 2013, from
Engelbrecht, E. A., Deterding, P. E., Ehlke, R. C., Joersz, J. C., Love, M. W., Mueller, S. P., et al. (Eds.). (2009). The Lutheran Study Bible. Saint Louis, Missouri, USA: Concordia Publishing House.
Harris, M. H. (1901). Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala. Washington: M. Walter Dunne.
Kretzmann, P. E. (1921). Popular Commentary of the Bible (Vol. 1). St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.
McCain, P. T., Baker, R. C., Veith, G. E., & Engelbrecht, E. A. (Eds.). (2005). Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions. (W. H. Dau, & G. F. Bente, Trans.) St. Louis, MO, USA: Concordia Publishing House.