We continue our reading notes on Matthew’s Passion narrative, in the weeks leading up to Easter.
Today we read of the death of Jesus.
Matt 27:4545 From noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over all the land.
The cluster of signs and portents surrounding the moment of Jesus’ death mark it off as the climax of the narrative. (Astrological and meteorological events were thought to occur at significant historical events on earth.) The signs offer cryptic indications of the redemptive significance of the moment: Jesus’ death is portrayed as a decisive moment of judgement on the nation of Israel, and at the same time a saving death for the whole world.
Darkness at noon echoes the language used to describe the plagues on Egypt at the time of the original Exodus (Ex 10:21-23), though now it is the land of Israel that is in darkness. It also recalls the imagery of judgement in the prophets’ description of the day of the Lord (Amos 8:9; cf. also Joel 2:1-2, Amos 5:18-20, Zeph 1:15).
Matt 27:4646 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).
Jesus’ prayer is in the words of Ps 22:1, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Did the Father actually forsake the Son at this point? Is it this particular line that Jesus is crying out (God has forsaken me), or is he referring to the psalm as a whole (the entire experience of the psalmist)? The latter is more likely: without our modern system of numbering the psalms, the first line was the usual way of referring to a psalm, like using a song title. Indeed, Jesus’ experience of mockery and desertion has many connections with the psalm as a whole; as does his subsequent resurrection and vindication. Nevertheless it is still significant that this is the line Jesus quotes. Given the anguish of Jesus and the imagery of the “cup” in ch26, we should give full weight to the experience of “God-forsakenness” that Jesus endured on the cross, while resisting any definite theological conclusions.
Matt 27:47-4947 When some of those standing there heard this, they said, “He’s calling Elijah.” 48 Immediately one of them ran and got a sponge. He filled it with wine vinegar, put it on a staff, and offered it to Jesus to drink. 49 The rest said, “Now leave him alone. Let’s see if Elijah comes to save him.”
There is a kind of tragi-comedy about the reaction of the bystanders, who are so completely in the dark as to the real nature of Jesus’ agony. Some Jews believed that Elijah, who had been a miracle worker on earth and was received into heaven without dying, might come and lend aid to those who are oppressed. The sour wine is another echo of Ps 69:21.
Matt 27:50-51a50 And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit. 51 At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.
The loud voice of Jesus as he gave up his spirit may imply that his death is to be viewed as a voluntary act of submission, not that he finally ran out of strength to hold it off.
There’s debate about which curtain is being referred to – the door of the cockpit or just the curtain to the first class section. If it’s the innermost curtain at the entrance to the holy of holies, then its primary symbolism is of direct access into God’s presence because of Jesus’ death. If it’s the curtain that separated the main temple court from the holy place into which only the priests could go, it may be more a public sign of the coming destruction of the temple – that it’s been made obsolete, as no longer do people have to come to God through the priests. This second curtain may also symbolise the inclusion of the Gentiles, having direct access to God without having to go through Israel, the “kingdom of priests.”
Matt 27:51b-54The earth shook, the rocks split 52 and the tombs broke open. The bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. 53 They came out of the tombs after Jesus’ resurrection and went into the holy city and appeared to many people. 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!”
What’s going on here? This is still Good Friday, right? The miraculous resurrection of Easter Sunday is still a couple of days away. And yet at the moment of Jesus’ death, we get some spectacular events. The temple curtain is torn. An earthquake happens, it breaks open tombs and dead people come back to life! Sure, they only head on into Jerusalem on Sunday, but they are resurrected on Good Friday! And it’s all spectacular enough that some of those looking on are frightened out of their wits, and realise that Jesus was no mere mortal: that he is indeed the Son of God. What’s going on here? Isn’t this all a bit premature?
Well, yes it is. But that’s precisely the point. What we’re getting here is a little flash-forward. A hint of what’s to come. A sneak peek at a few scenes from Easter Sunday. Some hope that this isn’t where the story ends.
In fact, these sneak peeks are enormously significant. They give us three signs that point to the future. Three great truths of what Jesus’ resurrection has in store for us:
(1) As we just mentioned, we now have direct access to God through Jesus, rather than going through the priesthood and sacrificial system. This in itself is a flash-forward to the time when we will see God face-to-face; in the new creation there will be no temple (Rev 21:22), because God will forever dwell with us.
(2) We have a glimpse of the death of death itself. This mini-resurrection is a sign that God was bringing life to those who were spiritually dead, echoing the prophecy of Ezekiel:Ezek 37:11-14a “these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, ‘Our bones are dried up and our hope is gone; we are cut off.’ Therefore prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign LORD says: O my people, I am going to open your graves and bring you up from them; I will bring you back to the land of Israel. Then you, my people, will know that I am the LORD, when I open your graves and bring you up from them. I will put my Spirit in you and you will live”
This is a flash-forward of the resurrection to which we look forward, where, though we might die physically, we will be raised to life for eternity.
(3) Good news for all the nations. Who is it that sees all this and acknowledges Jesus as the Son of God? The Roman Centurion. A Gentile. One of a small but significant number of characters in Matthew’s Gospel who prefigure the inclusion of the Gentiles made explicit by the Great Commission in chapter 28. This is a sneak peek at the coming age in which people from every tribe, nation, and language will worship God through Jesus.
To think about
We continue our devotional reading of Matthew 27 in parallel with Psalm 22: