Christ’s Earthshaking Death

It’s Memorial Day weekend. We remember with gratitude those who have given their lives for their country. As Matthew 27:45–56 describes the death of Jesus, the text does not simply move us to gratitude for someone willing to die for a noble cause. Rather, he presents the death of Christ as an earthshaking event — literally and figuratively.

Christ’s death means the Day of the Lord has come. Jesus is forsaken. Matthew quotes only one of the seven last words of Jesus, and he reproduces the Aramaic that Jesus used before translating, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” In the Apostles’ Creed we confess, “he descended into hell.” That is not a contradiction of what Luke tells us, that Jesus assured the repentant thief. “today you will be with me in paradise,” nor of the fact that as he died he commended his spirit into the hands of the Father. The essence of hell is separation from the favor and blessing of God, and that is what Jesus endured as the sin-bearer. Some lightly use expressions such as “war is hell.” They may be using figurative language, but I suspect that if they had ever experienced even a little of hell, those expressions would be much less frequent. That afternoon very literally, Golgotha was hell. Jesus takes up Psalm 22:1 to express that pain. Yet, something in that cry keeps it from being utter despair. In all the pain of abandonment, Jesus still addresses the Father as “My God.” Jesus died as the sin-bearer. Because he did, you never need to fear that God has or will abandon you.

God defeats his enemies and saves his people. Matthew is the only Gospel which records the earthquake, rocks splitting, tombs breaking open, and the resurrection of dead saints. The darkness and earthquake were signs of the Lord’s presence, as at Mt. Sinai. They also accompanied the prophesied Day of the Lord: Psalm 18:7–15; Joel 2:1, 2, 10, 11; Zephaniah 1:14. God has opened the way to his presence. The curtain of the temple was torn in two. This curtain separated the Most Holy Place from the rest of the temple. In that room was the Ark of the Covenant, the symbolic throne of the Lord, with cherubim shadowing the mercy seat. The sprinkling of blood on the mercy seat symbolized and anticipated the forgiveness the Lord would give his people in the Messiah. Now the barrier to God’s presence has been breached. The completed work of Christ means that access to the presence of the Lord has been opened, Hebrews 9:1–10, 24; 4:14–16. In your Christian life you have the confidence that you can come directly to his throne of grace in the Lord Jesus Christ. A torn barrier allows movement in both directions. Not only was the barrier to the presence of God removed, but God was removing himself from a nation that had rejected his Son. The ripping of the curtain pictured the Lord’s judgment on the ceremonial system which had rejected the Messiah whom the Lord had sent. Ezekiel 10 describes the glory of the Lord leaving the temple, but in Ezekiel 43 it returns to the ideal, heavenly temple that Ezekiel has seen in a vision. With the death of Christ, the old is ending, and the new has begun. The Old Testament and Judaism graphically describe both curtains of the temple, the inner and outer veils, as small-scale portrayals of the entire universe, particularly the visible and invisible heavenly dimensions. Therefore, the rending of the the veil in Matthew 27:51–52 symbolizes the beginning destruction of the temple and the cosmos. The destruction of the old age commences with his death, while the new heavens and earth dawn at his resurrection (27:53).” (G. K. Beale and Benjamin L. Gladd, The Story Retold: A Biblical-theological Introduction to the New Testament, p. 66)

See what God does—and confess that Jesus is the Son of God. Observe what the women witness and wait for God to act. These women had followed Jesus to provide for his needs. These women remained faithful to their Lord. The last that Matthew has described Jesus’ male disciples (apart from Peter’s denial and Judas’ suicide) was in the Garden of Gethsemane, where “all his disciples deserted him and fled,” Matthew 26:56. But these women remained with him through his crucifixion, witnessing his suffering and death. Having followed him all the way from Galilee, the two Marys and the mother of Zebedee’s sons will not abandon their Lord. Whether it was reasons of propriety or orders from the soldiers, they seem to have been required to watch from a distance. These women had served their Lord. But now they are reduced to watching. No longer is there any service they can render. Matthew will describe Jesus’ burial, and mentions them sitting opposite the tomb, v. 61. They will be the first to visit the tomb (Matthew 28:1) but apparently they go with the expectation of seeing their dead Lord.

See what the centurion sees, and share his confession. The earthquake revealed God’s power and presence. The soldiers had experienced the darkness that covered the earth as they carried out their assignment of crucifying this condemned man. They had endured the strange loss of light that continued while he suffered on the cross. They had felt the ground shake under their feet as he died. It seemed as though a different verdict than Pilate’s condemnation was being proclaimed. But it wasn’t just the earthquake. They (and Matthew emphasizes the centurion) had seen “all that had happened.” They had seen Jesus die. As used as they must have been to this grisly duty, something was different this time. This prisoner had refused the sedating drink of wine mixed with gall. He had suffered the agony of crucifixion and the mocking of the people and their leaders without screaming curses, without complaining. They had heard him cry out to his Father in heaven. Their reaction was one of fear, even terror. Theirs is a religious fear. They said, “Truly, he was the Son of God.” There is a certain ambiguity in the statement. The centurion, possibly a Roman, but certainly not Jewish, could be echoing the language of paganism, which often called important rulers, “son of god,” attributing some kind of divinity to them. Or, it is possible, that having witnessed all he did, he had come to believe that Jesus truly is the Son of God. (Matthew’s original writing did not distinguish upper and lower case letters as we do.) How significant is the past tense, “was the Son of God”? But Matthew does not introduce the centurion and his statement for us to speculate about whether or not he exercised true faith. (Tradition has him becoming a believer, and assigns the name Longinus to him. But that is extra-Biblical.) Instead, Matthew is using the confession of the centurion and his men to help you focus on who Jesus really is. This verdict contrasts with the legal verdict which had condemned Jesus.

Although the centurion would not have witnessed the trial before the Sanhedrin, Matthew has recorded that there Jesus had been condemned on grounds of blasphemy, precisely because he affirmed under oath that he was the Christ, the Son of God, Matthew 26:63,64. Conviction on that charge had led to the trial before Pilate, which the centurion may well have witnessed, and which clearly involved the condemnation of an innocent man. To the warning of Pilate’s wife (27:19), to Pilate’s vain washing of his hands (27:24), is added the testimony of this Roman soldier. This man was just, and he was the Son of God. The confession of the centurion specifically counters the blasphemous mocking of the crucified Lord, “Let God rescue him now if he wants him, for he said, ‘I am the Son of God.'” Matthew 27:43. The confession of the soldiers echo’s Peter’s great confession, though not as clearly and unambiguously, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God,” Matthew 16:16. Matthew records this so that his original hearers and you can confess with the centurion (however well or poorly he may have known what he said) that truly this is the Son of God.

Christ’s death brings life. Holy people come to life. Matthew describes an event complex. His words are tightly and carefully structured. Most of the verbs are passive, emphasizing the activity of God. The splitting of the rocks parallels the splitting of the curtain. The breaking up extends to the tombs. The saints (lit., “holy ones”) enter what is still described as the holy city. Even the realm of the dead cannot remain unaffected by the death and resurrection of Christ. The question of timing has been discussed. (Were the saints raised at Christ’s death, only to remain, either in the tombs or someplace outside the city, until after his resurrection, when they were shown to many?) To focus on timing this way may be to ask the wrong question. The Gospel writers are more concerned to record the events, giving their significance, than to focus on the temporal order. (Note that Luke mentions the tearing of the curtain before he record’s the death of Jesus, Luke 23:45.) “They who are here, however, arise from the dead when Christ dies, and may remain here until after His glad pas­sover day. Thus they es­tablish a relationship between Christ’s death and resurrection, preaching the unity which exists between His state of humiliation and His state of glorifica­tion.” (K. Schilder, Christ Cru­cified, p. 525)

Trust your risen Savior. Note the distinction Matthew draws between the tombs (a general term) and the bodies of the holy ones being raised. This is not the final resurrection of the righteous and the wicked at the end of the age. Rather, it is an anticipation of what the death-resurrection of Christ accomplishes. Matthew may put the reference to the resurrection where he does to emphasize that you cannot separate the death and resurrection of Christ. Neither can be understood without the other. It is one event complex. The resurrection of Old Testament saints flows out of Christ’s death/ resurrection, and in no way comes before his resurrection. Your Lord has triumphed for you. As Barry Hofstetter puts it, “In the death of Christ the power and presence of God is present in judgment and salvation as the earth itself moves and the tombs are opened in witness to the work of Christ. And in his death victory over death itself is made plain by the resurrection of the OT saints, although Matthew makes clear that their resurrection in no way precedes Christ’s but rather is indissolubly linked with it.” The Old Testament prophecies hint at the powerful working of the Lord which would destroy the power of death: Ezekiel 37; Isaiah 26:19; Zechariah 14:3–6; and Daniel 12:2. What was hinted at and prophesied in the Old Testament has come about in the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Jesus’ death and resurrection involve you. This is not a solo event. The death/resurrection of Jesus brings about the resurrection of old covenant saints. Jesus, as Paul puts it, is the firstfruits of the resurrection. The death of the Lord Jesus Christ means the presence and power of God for your salvation as you trust in the Messiah.