People die everyday and all the time. In fact, according to the statistics I could find, there are nearly two (2) deaths every second worldwide. That’s right; in the time it took to read to this point, somewhere in the neighborhood of 20-30 people died. By the time you finish, depending upon your reading speed, between 500-1000 people will have died. So a Jewish rabbi is crucified and dies nearly 2,000 years ago and the whole world shifts, as it were. Nothing is ever the same. Lives change. As we turn our attention to Luke 23.44-49, we find the death of Jesus of Nazareth.
There was darkness for three hours. All three synoptics record this event (See Matt 26.45; Mark 15.33). For three hours (noon-3PM) the “sun’s light failed” (ESV). This historical fact is ungettaroundable: there was darkness at the death of Jesus. Some have tried to explain it away. In fact, Tertullian in his Apology (ch.21), makes reference to the fact that even by his time (2nd-3rd cent.) this erroneous rumor was circulating. Further, Julius Africanus (3rd cent.) in the extant fragments we have of his five books of chronography, talks about Thallus who explained the darkness at the death of Jesus away as an eclipse which Africanus refutes (impossible because of the season in which Jesus was crucified). Others have merely scoffed at the idea. Origen (early 3rd cent.) in Against Celsus (ch.33) refutes the scoffing of Celsus who refuses to believe in the Gospel because of the miraculous signs present in Jesus’ life and death.
The sun’s failure to shine is often present in prophecy when God is pictured as bringing judgment upon a people (cf. Exo 10.21-23; Isa 24.23; Joel 2.31; etc.). Here, at the death of Jesus, it would seem we have the sun’s refusal to shine as a testimony to the fact that in Christ God is judging the sins of the world and through His sacrifice, Jesus is satisfying the justice of God. Also, note the connection here between what happens at the death and what Jesus has already said in Luke 22.53: “But this is your hour, and the power of darkness.” One commentator writes: “The narrative does not oblige us to think of anything more than an indescribable and oppresive darkness” (Pulpit Commentary).
Elsewhere in the gospels, we know there were earthquake and rocks splitting (Matt 26.51), dead bodies coming back to life (Matt 26.52b-53). Why Luke does not include these details is uncertain. Some would argue that it is because he knew that Matthew and Mark already covered these events. But why include the darkness? The answer to this would be only speculation. Perhaps there is some message in the darkness so profound that Luke felt compelled (by the Holy Spirit) to include it in his gospel narrative.
Luke also records the tearing of the temple curtain. This was the curtain or veil that separated the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. It was 60 feet long and 30 feet wide and was very costly and very heavy. Luke tells us it was “torn in two.” Matthew gives a bit more detail, saying that it was torn “from top to bottom” (Matt 27.51). Most commentators say this is emblematic. Clarke says that it points to the end of the separation between Jew and Gentile and the privilege of the high priest is communicated to all mankind. Most speak about how this symbolized freer access to God for all men who come to God through faith in Christ. Surely it was also a sign to the priests, many of whom had just a few hours earlier condemned Jesus to death. And now, as Jesus gives up His spirit, the temple is rent in two. Since this was a high day, one commentator imagines that Caiaphas the high priest is offering incense before the veil when this event takes place.
During this darkness, there are no more mocking cries or shouts of derision. Only silence, so it would seem, as Christ suffers the full force of the justice and wrath of God upon the cross. The other synoptists each record another saying of Jesus from the cross left out by Luke. At the ninth hour, He cries out, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” (Matt 27.46; Mark 15.34) Then, as His time draws short, the silence is broken by the final cry of Jesus from the cross: “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit” (v.46). One source says this was a bedtime prayer said by Jewish children (Bible Exposition Commentary).
Jesus had said during His ministry that no one took His life from Him; rather, he laid it down of His own accord (see John 10.18). Here is Jesus, at the end of His salvific mission, even expressing that very idea. In other words, Jesus is dying right on time, even following the timetable of God. And it’s a “loud” cry, not the feeble murmur we would expect of a dying man. Some would say this indicates the strength and life yet in the the body of Jesus when He decides the justice of God has been satisfied. Whatever the case, Jesus was on the cross for the exact amount of time He needed to be and “breathed his last” at the precise moment ordained for Him.
In this final act, Jesus seems to capture the attitude every Christian should possess when they face death. Less than 24 hours before this, Jesus had to steel Himself as a man through prayer so that He could finish the mission of Messiah. Now we see Him fulfill the purposes of God and He faces His death with a last prayer, committing Himself to the care of the Supreme Sovereign who is at the same time the Faithful Father. Christians do not face death as the world does. Let us unite our attitude with our Lord so that when we leave this world, we can likewise cry out, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”
As is true today so was it true then: not everyone responds to the death of Jesus the same way. There are three groups of onlookers who each have very different reactions when Jesus dies.
First, the centurion who seems to be near the cross responds with praise to God (v.47). This man no doubt had stood on watch in command of the scene where three men were slowly dying. He had no doubt seen the darkness, felt the earthquake, and seen the rocks split. He had heard the seven sayings of Jesus from the cross, heard Him pray and face death triumphantly. All of this seems to impress this centurion so much so that he praises and gives honor to God. This is captured further in his words, “This man was innocent.”
Second, we see the crowds who go home beating their breasts (v.48). It would seem these people, perhaps some of them guilty of condemning an innocent man and crying out “Crucify Him”, are convicted, pricked in their own hearts and minds after witnessing this public spectacle. They “saw what had taken place” the same as the centurion; the earthquake, darkness, rocks splitting. However, unlike the centurion, there is no praise to God and it would seem there is no repentance. They regret the act, but their sorrow does not produce repentance. It should be noted, though, some believe that this sorrow will soon lead to repentance. Their hearts are prepared for the gospel sermon of Peter on the Day of Pentecost some 50 days in the near future (Acts 2).
Third, we have the friends of Jesus standing at a distance (v.49). As Jehovah of the Old Testament, Jesus has “tred the winepress alone and from the peoples no one was with me” (Isa 63.3). But indeed, He is the only one who could fulfill redemption’s plan. They, too, have been “watching these things” take place, eyewitnesses to this seemingly final act of Jesus, the man from Nazareth who claimed to be Messiah. There are women present, too. They had accompanied and supported the work of Jesus (see Luke 8.1-3). Some of them have had their life touched by the Master. They “stood at a distance.” None courageous enough to be by the Lord’s side during this darkest hour. We must careful not to be too hard on these friends; would we have been any different?