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  • Writer's pictureTim Hemingway

Signs of the Cross


"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!”"

Matthew 27:54

Let me share with you the various scenes we have in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ death.

The first scene looks like this: At the point when the sun is the highestin the sky, and the light of the day is at its brightest, at that very time: darkness.

Darkness over the whole land. Darkness in every household. Darkness in the streets. Darkness at the foot of the cross, where Jesus now hangs.

And, not darkness for a few eclipsifying minutes. Darkness for hours. Three hours. And then, at 3 in the afternoon the cry of Jesus, ‘My God, my God, why have your forsaken me’.

Hearing his words – in Aramaic - Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani and wronglythinking that he is calling for Elijah – Eli sounds like Elijah - some of the onlooking Jews raise a sponge soaked in wine vinegar and offer it to his lips to prolong his agony, saying, ‘now leave him and let’s see if Elijah comes to save him’.

At the beginning of the second scene, another cry from Jesus. Luke and John tell us the words, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit and it is finished’. And then, death.

Death, accompanied by an event at a location removed from Calvary. An event that manifests itself in the temple of God. The priests serving in the Holy place between the first and second curtains witness this scene unfolding.

What they see would have terrified them, for more than one reason. In the temple, the curtain - separating the holy place - with the lampstand and the table for the bread of presence –

from the most Holy place - with the ark of the covenant and the altar of incense - they witness, suddenly and violently, tearing down the middle.

This curtain was 60ft high, 20ft wide, and 4inches thick, and they see it tearing from the top down, of its own accord.

They watch with their own eyes, the veil - behind which no one can enter, where the holy God presences himself – flung open. That place that is meant to be off limits all year round except for one day - and on that one day, only the high priest can enter, and even then, only with a blood sacrifice – suddenly exposed.

The third scene unfolds simultaneously with the second but not in the temple where we’ve just been with the priests, but where Jesus is, hanging, outside the city walls.

Here, death is also accompanied by: earth-shaking, rock-splitting, tomb-opening, power. Prompting the response of a centurion at the scene, and some of those who witness these things first hand: ‘surely this was the son of God!

The fourth, and final scene, opens with the bodies of people who had died, coming back to life. The tombs broken open by the earthquake, ready themselves to yield their dead. Matthew says that after Jesus was resurrected they came out of their tombs and appeared to manypeople.

These are the extra-ordinary events that attended the death of Jesus. They are not the main event, they are testament to the main event. They are not the most amazing things that happened that day, they happened because of the most amazing event that happened that day.

3 hours of darkness happen because of Jesus on the cross. An earth-shattering quake and an impossible tear in the largest curtain you’ve ever seen, happen because Jesus dies. And tombs break open becauseJesus’ work is finished.

Next month, when you watch our new king being coronated, you will witness all the wheels of state turning in their most impressivemotions.

But you will not for one moment fail to recognise that the splendour of them is not the main event. Because, they are all serving the main event – the coronation of the King of England.

And, not one of the spectacles that serve the main event will be superfluous. They will all have their place as insignia; as emblems of, or commentary on, the significance of that occasion.

And so, it is here. None of these events are superfluous. They are all telling the gravity and relevance of the main event – the death of Jesus; the Saviour of the World.

And I want us to hear their testimony about Jesus this morning.

This is not a normal death – what do these events mean?

We want to know, why the darkness? We want to know, why an earthquake? And why the tearing of the temple curtain? And why the raising of the dead?

Let’s find out.

Scene 1, darkness is over the land. That was not the first time something like that happened on the earth. 1,500 years before, Moseshad stretched out his hand toward the sky and darkness had spread over the land of Egypt for 3 whole days. Darkness that could be ‘felt’ Exodus 10:21 says.

Moses was the one holding out his hand to the sky, but God was the one bringing the darkness. The darkness was a plague from God and it was a judgment from God on Pharaoh king of Egypt because of his proud heart, that would not let the people of God depart to worship him. So, God brought judgments on him and on his land, to humble him.

That’s a pointer to God. God was the source of the darkness in Egypt. And, here also at Calvary. Luke says, ‘the sun stopped shining’. Whatever happened that day, it wasn’t a natural phenomenon, it was a supernatural darkness. A darkness from God.

And that’s not surprising given what the psalmist says about God himself.

The kindled anger of God Almighty is in view in Psalm 18 when David writes, that God ‘parted the heavens and came down; dark clouds were under his feet’.

And, ‘he made darkness his covering, his canopy around him – the dark rain clouds of the sky. Out of his presence clouds advanced’.

Abraham’s experience of God’s covenant-making drama was accompanied by ‘thick and dreadful darkness’.

And when God decided to make a binding agreement with the people of Israel, they remained at a distance while Moses approached the ‘thick darkness where God was’.

And later, the prophets warned Israel with words like these: Isaiah, ‘In that day…if one looks at the land, there is only darkness and distress; even the sun will be darkened by clouds’.

Jeremiah, ‘Give glory to God before he brings the darkness…You hope for light, but he will turn it to utter darkness and change it to deep gloom’.

Joel, ‘Before [the armies that are coming against Jerusalem]…the sun and moon are darkened, and the stars no longer shine’.

And Amos, ‘”In that day”, declares the Sovereign Lord, “I will make the sun go down at noon and darken the earth in broad daylight”’.

So, what’s the point? The point is that God is Holy. His holiness will notcontend with rebellion. It will not contend with sin. And so, when God encounters the unholy sin of rebellious people, or when he makes a solemn agreement where his own character is at stake, his countenance is one of felt darkness.

The reason scene 1 is covered in darkness is the holiness of God in the presence of thick sin and rebellion.

But where is the sin in scene 1? I’ll show you some astonishing sin in scene 1 shortly, but that’s not the main reason for the darkness. The sin that causes the darkness is on the cross, not at the foot of the cross.

How can that be, when Isaiah 53 - speaking of Jesus in his death - says that, ‘he had done no violence nor was any deceit in his mouth’? And Peter, under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit interprets those words for us saying, ‘He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth’. So how can you say ‘thick sin is on Jesus on the cross and that’s the reason for the holy darkness that features in scene 1’?

The answer is, because God tells us that is the case. 2 Corinthians 5:21, ‘God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God’.

I take this verse to mean, that as Jesus hung on the cross all the sins of his people – which are immeasurable – were placed - like sticks upon Isaac - on Jesus. And with that awesome weight of sin in one place, God’s darkness descends over the whole land for the duration of the cross.

What that means for you and me is that our dreadful, unholy sin against God is enough to darken the sun. Is enough to cause the midday light to fade to darkest night. Is enough to cause God to wrap himself in darkrain clouds. And for him to make darkness his covering.

You do not want to encounter this God!

It was this God that made the people tremble at the foot of mount Sinai, in Moses’ day. This is not unholy darkness, this is holy darkness and it is fearsome, and thick, and felt and it will be satisfied – or else God is not God.

The second scene is the antidote to the first. If the first was deep gloom, the second is glorious light. The scene takes place in the temple.

From the time of Moses, God had made his presence known to the Israelites by descending on the mercy seat of the ark of the covenant. That seat of mercy was behind the curtain in a space called the ‘holy of holies’. God was present there and no unholy thing could enter.

Even when the high priest entered once a year, a cleansing sacrifice of blood was required.

In Jesus’ day the average Jewish man could access the courtyard of Israel – which was about as close as any non-priest could get to the holy of holies. A Jewish woman’s closest contact with the presence of God was further back than that. And the gentiles were restricted to the outermost limits.

The book of Hebrews helps us here. Chapter 9 says, ‘The priests entered regularly into the outer room to carry on their ministry. But only the high priest entered the inner room, and that only once a year, and never without blood, which he offered for himself and the sins the people had committed in ignorance. The Holy Spirit was showing by this that the way into the Most Holy Place had not yet been disclosed’.

Let me paraphrase, ‘the temple design was set up to keep separate the worshipper from the worshipped. The sinner from the holy. The unclean from the clean.

Which makes sense if you think about it. How can an unholy person share the same space as the holy God? They can’t. Not without dying. Uzzah reminds us of that – he died for touching the ark when it was about to topple off the cart. So, the way into the presence of God, Hebrews is telling us, was barred’.

Now let’s flip over to Hebrews 10. Watch the shift here. ‘Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place’. How?

By a new and living way opened for us through the curtain’.

So, the design of the temple signified no access. Then, as Jesus cries out and breathes his last, radical redesign – in the temple. Curtaintorn down and a way opened up, into the Holy presence of God.

But what about sin? What about Holy spaces - where unholiness can’t mingle with Holiness. What about that?

I missed some bits out of the quote from Hebrews 10. Let’s hear them. ‘We have confidence to enter the most holy place by a new a living way opened for us through the curtain’ – what is it? What is the way? ‘That is his body’ and, that is ‘by the blood of Jesus’.

Radical temple renovation is in the shed blood of Jesus and by his body. That’s the body hanging on the cross at the moment the curtain tears in two, and that’s the blood from his wounds.

So, scene 1 was blighted by thick darkness owing to thick sin. Scene 2, the dark and holy space where God dwells, is open, for us to enter in, because Jesus - in dying on the cross - made himself sin for us, so that we might be counted holy, and thereby have access into the presenceof the holy God, forever!

But it’s not over, scene 3 is concurrent with scene 2. We’re back at the cross now and there’s a rock-shattering, earth-splitting, tomb-opening earthquake. What does that signify about the main event?

Back at the mountain of Sinai, we find the whole mountain tremblingviolently. Fast forward to Amos, writing two years before the earthquake of King Uzziah’s day. I already quoted Amos 8:9, here is 8:8, ‘The Lord has sworn by himself, the Pride of Jacob: “I will never forget anything they have done. “Will not the land tremble for this and all who live in it mourn”’. That earthquake was still being talked about 2 centuries later. Zechariah speaks of it.

It sounds like we’re heading back to the darkness of scene 1, but I don’t think we are. Hebrews 12 can help us understand better. Verses 18-21 take us back to the mountain of fear – of darkness, gloom and storm at Sinai. Verses 22-24 take us to a new mountain – Mount Zionwhere we can come to God with confidence because of our righteous standing in Jesus.

So, we’re tracking with the scenes at Calvary here, in Hebrews 12. And then, verses 25-29 introduce the earthquake of scene 3. These verses look back to Sinai when God shook the earth with his voice. Then they look forward to the end of the world when the heavens will be shaken too – a kind of cosmic quake – all encompassing; the whole universe gripped with star-shattering, galaxy-splitting power because of the great and glorious day of the Lord.

Why is he telling us this? The answer is to warn us!

Verse 25, ‘See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks. If they did not escape when they refused him who warned them on earth, how much less will we, if we turn away from him who warns us from heaven?

Everything is going to be shaken and only what can’t be shaken will remain according to verse 27 of Hebrews 12.

So, if we want to pass through the cosmic quake that is coming, we need an unshakable life. We need a 10.0 magnitude quake-proof life.

And that’s only coming from one place – from the cross of Jesus!

Hebrews 7 says, that Jesus has become a priest forever, not on the basis of regulation - he wasn’t from the tribe of Levi - but on the basis of an indestructible life.

If our lives are meshed with Jesus, then we have indestructible lives also. Lives that cannot be shaken!

So, the warning is: don’t go into the cosmic end-quake with a destructible life. That would be eternal suicide. Rather cling to Jesus, by faith. And allow him to give you his indestructible life. That’s what the earthquake is for and what scene 3 is for.

We can see for ourselves the impact of that warning on some people. And we can see the staggering immovability of others, as they observe all this going on at the foot of the cross.

Matthew tells us that the centurion who was guarding Jesus and some of those with him, who saw what had happened ‘were terrified and exclaimed, “Surely, he was the Son of God”’.

That’s remarkable for a few reasons. The first is he’s not one of Jesus’ people – he’s a gentile. He has no history for any of what’s going on. No plagues of Egypt. No Sinai. No prophets. All he has is false idols and deified emperors. Yet his conclusion is ‘he was the Son of God’.

The second is that he may well have been a part of the gang that only hours earlier, had mocked Jesus, spat on him, beaten him with sticks and crowned him with thorns.

What a transformation in this heathen man!

The very words Jesus uses, on the cross, before he dies, are the words of Psalm 22. Perhaps this centurion and his friends are the first-fruits of the prophetic words in that same Psalm when David says, ‘All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord’.

That’s one response. And it’s the right response. It’s a saving response.

The other response is remarkable for its staggering disregard for the awe-inspiring signs right there.

This response elicits from some of the Jews. We can tell that because they are the ones who think that Jesus is calling on Elijah – no gentile would have thought that.

And what is their response? It is to fill a sponge with wine-vinegar in an attempt to prolong the agony of Jesus on the cross.

All the thick darkness makes zero impact on them. They refuse this man who calls himself the ‘Son of God’ and mock him with a fabricateddependence on the long-dead Elijah, when he has demonstrated to them, by his miracles, that he is indeed, the Son of God in power.

What hardness of heart is displayed here! Pray God, that none of us fall foul of the same response. Let us be like the centurion!

The last scene, is for next week really, but since it begins at the cross, we can make mention of it this morning.

One of the results of the earthquake is strategic tomb openings - which is not normal.

The tombs open for a reason – evidently it is so that they may yield their dead. Certain chosen people appointed to receive a resurrection aheadof the resurrection.

But not with glorified bodies like Jesus’ body will be in a few days’ time – never to die again. No these bodies serve a different purpose. These are a testimony to the power of Jesus’ death to conquer death.

Hebrews once again shows us the way. Chapter 2, verse 14, ‘Since the children [that’s us] have flesh and blood, he too [that’s Jesus] shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death – that is the devil’.

Death is owing to sin, and it is Satan’s power over us. But Jesus has smashed that power – he has broken open the tomb. He has conquered death, by his own death, because death couldn’t hold him (Acts 2:24).

The tombs breaking open testify to the power of Jesus’ death over death. So that we who are in him, might not be kept under the power of death, but will be raised from the dead.

Scene 4 is the promise of life, through the death of Jesus.

To wrap up: the signs speak to the main event. The main event bears the mark of the thick anger of God against the sins of people like us.

The main event makes a new way into the presence of a holy and righteous God.

The main event must not be rejected.

And the main event conquers death forever.

All of those realities are ours by faith when we take hold of Jesus.

Our sin is monstrous – let’s get that in right view.

Our relationship with God is so needed – let’s be attentive to that.

Our life is destructible – let’s own that.

And, our enemy is death – let’s not forget that.

Jesus deals with it all at Calvary, once and for all.

Let’s not reject him!


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