How many supernatural events can you name that occurred the day of Christ’s crucifixion? Listen to this message to learn about these events, including complete darkness in the area and dead people leaving tombs and walking in the streets. Learn the meaning of Christ’s propitiation on the Cross and how it satisfied God’s Righteousness and Justice. See how the Mercy Seat on the Ark of the Covenant spoke of this and of unlimited atonement for all mankind. Learn that the issue at salvation is now belief in Christ’s work alone.
The combined reading for today's class is available on the Notes link below.
The Accomplishments of Christ’s Death: Propitiation; Stages of the Cross 26–30
1 John 2:2; Matthew 27:50–56; Mark 15:37–41; Luke 23:47–49
Matthew Lesson #193
March 25, 2018
“Father, You have revealed Your Word to us. It is referred to many times as the Light: it illumines our thinking. It provides us with the framework for understanding who we are, who You are, who all mankind is, what is going on in history.
“It helps us to evaluate the personal problems and issues in our own lives, as well as the trends in the things that are happening in the world around us. It teaches us to focus on You and not on the details of life, to walk with You, to walk by means of the Holy Spirit, to walk in truth.
“Father, it is Your Word that is truth, absolute truth. As our Lord said, “Sanctify them in truth. Thy word is truth.” When we study Your Word and our souls are shaped by the absolute truth of Your Word, then that gives us a solid objective foundation for understanding the world around us.
“Father, as we continue our study on what took place at the Cross and its significance for us, we pray that You will open the eyes of our soul to a clear understanding of the text and enlighten us as to its application in our lives.
“We pray in Christ’s name, amen.”
In the tradition of Christianity, today is the start of what is called Holy Week. It is that week that precedes the Cross. It is that week that precedes the resurrection of Christ that is celebrated on Resurrection Day, that is often wrongly referred to as Easter, which has a pagan derivation. But it is a celebration of that which gives us true life, and that life comes from the Cross. There Jesus died for our sins in our place as our sacrifice.
This day is called Palm Sunday. It commemorates that time that is often referred to as the triumphal entry of Christ into Jerusalem. I don’t know if anybody here remembers when we studied that in our study of Matthew. That was almost 2 years ago; it was in May 2016.
You think, “Wow, that took so long just to cover one week!” But if you think about what the Scripture teaches, this began at Matthew 21, and we’re now towards the end of Matthew 27. That’s almost seven full chapters, and these are not short chapters; these are long chapters.
I went back to the study I did on the Gospel of John in 1998 through 2000 and discovered that as I went through John, which is a totally different approach to that same period of time—it starts at the beginning of John 12 and goes through John 20.
In those chapters you have one of the lengthiest discourses of the Lord called the Upper Room Discourse—John 13, 14, 15, 16, and then concludes with the Lord’s high priestly prayer in John 17.
If you were to combine the year it took to go through that and the two years to go through this, you can understand the importance that Scripture puts on this. If you put all that together, you take a harmony of the Gospels, and you look at how much is there that comes from just this last week alone, you realize from the proportion.
In Bible study there’s this law of proportionality, that if God gives 50 percent of His attention to one issue, then you know that’s an important issue. In this case about 1/3 of the Gospels, 1/3 of what is revealed about our Lord’s life on this earth, comes from that last week that He is in Jerusalem.
A lot of that is related to His trials, the events leading up to the crucifixion, His crucifixion, and then, of course, the resurrection.
On Sunday morning as we’ve been working our way verse by verse through the Gospel of Matthew, once we hit these last events and the trials of Jesus, then we moved from the end of the trials of Jesus, when He is found to be guilty and condemned by Pilate, He is going to be sent to the Cross. From that instant to the sealing of the tomb, there are 36 distinct events that take place.
We’ve been working our way through that. Three or four weeks ago we came to the 25th stage, which was His physical death, and at that point we had a bit of a pause where we were dealing with the accomplishments of Christ’s death on the Cross.
Today we will come to the fifth one [of those accomplishments], the last one of those; and that is propitiation, which is not a user-friendly word in today’s society. A more user-friendly word is the word “satisfaction” because it is the righteousness and justice of God that is satisfied at the Cross.
We will look at that, which wraps up that interlude, then we will go from there into the next five stages in the crucifixion leading up to the preparation for the burial. That will conclude it, and then, of course, that’s timely because next Sunday is Resurrection Day, and we will conclude with His resurrection next Sunday.
We have seen in this interlude is that there are five areas of what Christ accomplished; five, what we call doctrines, what the Scripture teaches about what was accomplished by Jesus on the Cross.
First, there is substitution. He died in our place. He died for us. There is redemption. The key word there was the payment of a price, so that substitution was designed to pay a price. What the payment of that price accomplished was the cancellation of the debt against us which was our sin. That is known by the theological term “expiation.”
That results in God’s forgiveness of all mankind at the Cross. That doesn’t mean we’re going to go to Heaven automatically. What it means is the sin penalty has been paid for by Christ on the Cross, and what is left is for man to accept that, because only when he accepts it is the problem of his own spiritual condition—his spiritual death and his lack of righteousness—solved.
At the instant we trust in Christ, then at that point, God makes us alive in Him. That is referred to as being born again or regenerate. God imputes to us or credits to us His perfect righteousness, which is the basis for God declaring us to be righteous.
Not because we are more moral, or we’ve done better things, but because we now have the righteousness of Christ, so that we are, as it were, clothed with Christ’s righteousness. And God doesn’t look on our sin, which we continue to produce; He looks on Christ’s righteousness.
Because of Christ’s work, that leads to this fifth area: the satisfaction of God’s righteousness and justice known as propitiation.
We looked at what the Bible teaches about substitutionary atonement, but that lies underneath and behind everything.
When a sacrifice in the Old Testament was brought to God, the sinner would place his hand on that innocent animal and would recite their sins to God, then there was the transference of those sins to the animal. And then the animal would be slaughtered, killed, in order to be that visual picture of the horrific consequences of sin.
Thinking that every time you sinned that it had to be paid for by the life of an animal that had done nothing wrong. And that was probably going to cost you something because it was one of your animals or one you bought.
It’s an object lesson for understanding the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death.
That is also what underlies the teaching on propitiation. The study of propitiation focuses on that aspect of God’s saving work on the Cross, whereby God’s justice and righteousness are satisfied concerning the payment of sin. He accepts that payment for us.
As we’ve looked at each one of these, there’s a keyword. The keyword to understand propitiation is the word “satisfaction,” that God’s righteous demand that a legal penalty is paid for is satisfied because when man sinned, he immediately incurred a legal penalty, spiritual death.
The instant Adam ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, he died spiritually, and all of his descendants would die. Scripture teaches that in Adam all died: because of Adam’s original sin, we all have died spiritually.
We’re born spiritually dead as Paul says in Ephesians 2:1, which we talked about last time in reference to Colossians 2:13–14. That penalty has to be paid in a way that God’s justice and righteousness is fully and totally satisfied.
The problem that man has is that the sin of Adam created a barrier between God and man. This is a chart that basically breaks down the different aspects of that barrier and the God solution.
On this chart we’re just looking at those bottom three. The problem of sin was solved by unlimited substitutionary atonement, the penalty is paid for by redemption, and then the character of God is dealt with through propitiation.
I have expiation up there because there is a close connection in the meaning of the words that are used for propitiation and expiation. I’ll get into that as we go forward.
Now the keyword was what? Satisfaction.
There are many verses, but the key one is 1 John 2:2, “and He Himself—meaning the Lord Jesus Christ—is the propitiation for our sins; and not for ours only …” That “ours,” first person plural, refers to believers in Jesus Christ, to Christians. This is a verse that emphasizes the universality of the payment of the sin penalty—“… not for ours only but also for those of the whole world.”
That is a term that emphasizes the unlimited nature of Christ’s payment as directed toward God. I’ve pointed out that, as part of these different aspects that we’re talking about all “God-ward.” The “man-ward” issue relates to our faith in Christ, our regeneration, and our justification.
In the Old Testament we have a great object lesson. If we go back about four lessons, I talked about the promises and prophecies, the way in which Christ’s death is foreshadowed from the Old Testament.
We talked about the ark of the covenant. And this is a description of the ark of the covenant. And the top of the ark of the covenant was called the mercy seat. So “ark” is just another word for a box. This was a wooden box made of acacia wood, which is an extremely dense wood and one that doesn’t rot or get corrupted easily; insects can’t penetrate it very easily.
It’s a picture of the humanity of our Lord Jesus Christ, that in His humanity He was without sin. He was not corrupted; He was sinless. That’s the core of it. It was covered in gold: that represents the Deity of Christ. This is the picture of the ark.
The mercy seat itself is solid gold; the mercy seat is where the action takes place, as it were.
Inside the box there were the 10 Commandments, the broken tablets that represented Israel’s breaking of the Law and their sinfulness. What takes place on that top—which is the mercy seat—has to do with dealing with the sin that is inside the box.
It’s described there, “You shall make a mercy seat of pure gold, 2½ cubits long and 1½ cubits wide.” A cubit is about 18 inches, so 2 cubits would be 3 feet, so it’s about 4 feet long and about a little over 2 feet wide.
“You shall make two cherubim—the IM is just plural in Hebrew, so—you shall make two cherubs of gold …”, Exodus 25:17.
The cherub is not a little baby that has wings, that’s fat and happy. A cherub would be pictured as a mighty warrior. They had four faces: a lion, an ox, an eagle, and a human. They were guardians of the throne of God; so they’re mighty warriors.
“You will make two cherubs of gold, make them of hammered work at the two ends of the mercy seat.” Exodus 25:18
The word for mercy seat is the word kapporeth, which means mercy seat, from the root of kaphar, which is the verb which relates to atonement.
I have pointed out many times in this study, that atonement is a made-up English word to try to describe the work of Christ on the Cross: “at-one-ment” atonement. It sort of summarized all that Christ did.
But this root verb kaphar is frequently translated in the Septuagint—that’s the Greek translation of the Old Testament that was done by Jewish rabbis around 200 BC—they translated it with the verb KATHARIZO, which means to cleanse. That’s the basic core idea that we are cleansed of sin by what happens at the Cross.
This mercy seat is going to portray cleansing of sin. The Greek word that I have up there, when this is translated into the Septuagint, they translated it with the Greek word HILASTERION.
It’s important to understand that because that word shows up several times in the New Testament, and that connects the dots for us between the Old Testament picture in the ritual of the Day of Atonement and what happens at the Cross.
Exodus 25:19 says you have “… one cherub at one end and one cherub at the other end; you shall make the cherubim of one piece with the mercy seat at its two ends.”
Exodus 25:20, “The cherubim shall have their wings spread upward, covering the mercy seat with the wings and facing one another, the faces of the cherubim are to be turned toward the mercy seat.”
The idea is they’re looking at what’s going to happen between them on the mercy seat. This is the place where God is said to be enthroned in many passages in the Old Testament, and on the Day of Atonement, the high priest is going to come in and put blood on the mercy seat.
That blood comes from a goat that he has just sacrificed. This is going to be important when we get to something a little later on in the stages of the Cross. On the Day of Atonement two goats were taken; they were without spot or blemish.
The high priest would then draw lots to determine which one would die, which one would be God’s, and he would take that one goat and sacrifice that goat. Then he would take the blood from that goat into the mercy seat, and place that on the mercy seat.
A death was necessary to cover sin or to pay for sin; that’s the picture that’s there. It has elements that remind us of redemption, that remind us of the cancellation of sin and of forgiveness, and of course, all is based on substitution. The same words, kapporeth and HILASTERION, are used there.
This is a picture of the ark of the covenant. This leads into where were going to be in 2 Samuel on Tuesday. It was not to be carried directly. There were poles that ran through the rings on the side, so that the priests, and only priests could carry it. Inside the box were the broken 10 Commandments. On the top you have the lid and the cover, then you have the gold cherubs.
Here is another picture of the ark of the covenant depicting how the cherubs look down on the mercy seat.
The New Testament picks up on this, as Paul is explaining our salvation in Romans 3:25, “Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation by His blood—that should be instrumental—by His blood—or by His death because blood always stands for death—through faith.”
God is publicly displaying Him as a sacrifice on the Cross, that God is doing something significant at Golgotha, and that He is displaying the Son of God as that propitiatory sacrifice that was pictured in the Old Testament.
“Whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation by His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed.”
Even though He did not enact direct payment for sin in the Old Testament, the sacrifices look forward to the Cross, and it was at the Cross then that all the sins of mankind were paid for.
The word “propitiation” is the Greek word HILASTERION. In the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, which is an extended dictionary of Greek terms and their usage, it defines the word as not only propitiation and the place of forgiveness, but also expiation. It relates to expiation.
That is that technical term that refers to canceling a debt that we talked about last time in Colossians 2:13–14.
It begins to tie all those five things together here in this last one. We have substitution, we have redemption, we have the canceling of the sin or expiation; we have forgiveness. Now we have propitiation: God’s justice accepts that payment for sin, and He is satisfied.
Hebrews 2:17, “Therefore, He had to be made like His brethren in all things …” That is Jesus: He had to be fully human like every one of us to be our substitute. Only like can substitute for like. “… so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God.”
These five things I’ve talked about are all “God-ward.” Christ is paying the penalty for sin to God in terms of His righteousness and justice in order to be able, on the basis of faith alone in Christ alone, to provide regeneration and righteousness.
He became “a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.”
How far does this extend? We go back to our key verse 1 John 2:2, “and He Himself is the propitiation for our sins—that is believers—but also for the whole world.”
It is unlimited. These aspects that are directed toward God are unlimited. That doesn’t mean everybody is saved. You don’t have universal salvation because the limiting factor is volition.
Those who believe in Jesus Christ, trust in Him for their salvation, receive the imputation of righteousness, they are justified, they receive eternal life, they are new creatures in Christ; and therefore, they have eternal salvation.
Those who reject the Gospel do not. They remain under condemnation according to John 3:18, because they have not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.
1 John 4:10, “In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation—the satisfaction—for our sins.” The satisfactory payment for sins, connecting all of those.
We have these five things completed here:
1. Substitution, where Christ takes our place.
2. Redemption, He pays our price for us; that results in the
3. Cancellation of the debt: that’s expiation. Because the debt is canceled, we can be
In fact, everybody is forgiven. Every human being is forgiven of sin because Christ paid for their sin. That doesn’t mean they go to Heaven because they are still spiritually dead and unrighteous. But that means that sin isn’t the issue in the Gospel presentation. We’re not there to beat people over the head with all their failures. Christ paid for that.
They need to understand that they’re spiritually dead; they need to understand why they’re spiritually dead—it’s not their sin; it’s Adam’s original sin—so that they can understand why Christ had to pay the penalty, why they are forgiven, and so that the issue now is only belief in Him.
The forgiveness blots out the debt, and because that payment was perfect, God’s righteousness and justice are satisfied, and we have a complete salvation.
That’s why Jesus says, “TETELESTAI,” a financial term indicating the payment has been completed in full. What a tremendous image that gives us of this transaction on the Cross and the suffering that our Lord went through on the Cross.
That completes our study of this interlude: what was accomplished by Christ on the Cross. Now we’re going to go back to our 36 stages of the crucifixion: what took place.
This is a review of what we’ve looked at. In the beginning there was the procession to Golgotha from the praetorium to the execution site where Jesus would be crucified. Those were the first five stages.
Part of that was that Jesus had been so tortured, so whipped and flagellated and beaten that He was so physically weakened by this point that someone else had to carry His cross—the patibulum, the cross piece not the whole cross—to the execution site. That was Simon of Cyrene.
When they arrived, they began to nail Jesus to the cross. First they nailed His wrists—not the hand, the Hebrew and Greek words define the whole forearm to the fingers. They’re nailed to the cross so that that nail comes in just at the wrist, and then they nailed His feet together.
You remember the pictures I had. It wasn’t that they cross the feet and put a nail through them, but that the ankles are placed on each side of that vertical piece called the stipes, and the ankles are put there, and then a metal stake was driven through that ankle bone.
How do you think that felt? How do you think it felt when the nail is driven through His hands on top of all this other suffering? Scripture says that He was like a lamb before its shearers, and He uttered not a sound.
This was such a contrast because in typical executions there would be a tremendous amount of noise coming from the criminal. They were yelling insults at the Roman guards, they were protesting their innocence, they were screaming, they were crying, all sorts of dramatics were going on.
And yet we have this non-verbal testimony of a Man who is in complete control. He is relaxed. He’s calm. He doesn’t scream. He doesn’t insult His captors. In fact, when He begins to speak, as we get to that second stage in the wrath of man where four different groups are ridiculing Him and making fun of Him and blaspheming Him, His statements, the first three statements, all reflect His grace.
He says first, “Father, forgive them because they don’t know what they’re doing.” He is calm and relaxed. He is going to tell the thief on the cross that “… today you will see Me in Paradise.” All of the things that He says up to where He tells John to take care of His mother Mary, indicate that He’s in control, He is relaxed; He’s taking care of responsibilities.
Then He goes into that dark period: the wrath of God, when darkness came on the face of the earth and the sins of the world were imputed to Him.
I talked about four different things that were accomplished by that darkness, mostly to shroud what was going on: the pain, everything that was happening, as the Lamb of God was made sin for us.
One thing occurred to me when I was teaching on this this last week: another reason that there was darkness is because the Light of the World was being extinguished on the Cross. So there is this darkness, which demonstrates God’s justice. It’s a picture of God’s justice throughout the Old Testament for their rejection of the Light of the World.
Then God imputes our sins to Jesus; Jesus is the One who bears our sins on the Cross. When that was completed—we have one word used twice for emphasis in John 19, when it was TETELESTAI; when it was completed. When it was all over with, Jesus said, “TETELESTAI,” it’s completed.
Before He died, physically, everything necessary to pay the penalty for sin was completed. It was that spiritual transaction, where Christ died spiritually by bearing our sins on the Cross, that He paid the penalty. It’s not His physical death, but His spiritual death.
We concluded that with the 25th stage, which was His physical death, and then I stopped for the interlude to talk about what was accomplished on the Cross.
This morning we’re looking at the confirming signs, Stages 26 to 30. There are some fascinating things to learn and to understand about what is happening here, especially in Stages 26, 27, and 28.
In Stage 25 we saw that Jesus died, that He screamed out so all could hear, “It is finished TELESTAI,” bowed His head, and gave up His spirit. His immaterial nature is separated from His physical body, and He is face-to-face with God the Father.
This leads to the next section, the attesting signs that are described in Matthew 27:51–56; if you have your Bible in front of you, this first part is primarily revealed in that section.
“Then, behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom; and the earth quaked and the rocks were split, and the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many.”
This is a passage that has created a measure of controversy because this is all that is said about it. We’re not told who exactly these saints were, we’re not told how long this happened, we’re not told what happened to them subsequent to this, we’re not even told very much about what they said or what they did. We need to probe it just a little bit, to at least understand the parameters of what took place.
At the Cross there are six phenomena—natural phenomena we might say, creation phenomena—that occur at the time of the Cross.
That’s distinct from what we’re reading in verse 51 and following. This began at 12 noon. There is darkness that covers the face of the earth.
2. Then at the time of Jesus’ physical death, when it is completed, the veil in the temple is torn from top to bottom.
3. An earthquake takes place.
4. The rocks split.
5. The graves opened or certain tombs opened.
6. Saints who are resurrected, who on Sunday will come out from the tomb.
A note should be made here, a couple of things: that in recent years this is been the focus of a lot of controversy. There is a Southern Baptist scholar by the name of Michael Licona, who now teaches at Houston Baptist who denies the historicity and the truthfulness of this passage.
This has made us aware that we are in a second battle for the Bible. The first battle for the Bible was in the ’70s, the second battle for the Bible is going on now. Most evangelicals aren’t even aware of this because people aren’t taught anymore. They are not made aware of what’s going on. Back in the ’70s it was quite well known among churches that inerrancy was under assault in many evangelical schools.
Last year, if you want to come to understand this, we (2017 Chafer Pastor’s Conference) had a speaker named David Farnell, who has his PhD from Dallas Seminary; he teaches New Testament at The Master’s Seminary. He gave an outstanding explanation of the importance of inerrancy and infallibility and what’s going on today; you can listen to that.
Michael Licona wrote about a 600-page book a couple of years ago that was designed to affirm the veracity of Christ’s resurrection. But in the middle of all of that when He came to this passage, he says this didn’t actually happen, that this is what is known as sort of martyrdom rhetoric: when someone great, a hero died, then the legendary literature of Rome and Greece would have these kinds of supernatural things going on, so we don’t have to believe that this actually happened.
That is a direct assault on the inerrancy and infallibility of Scripture, and what we have here is a description of something that happened that, when Christ died, when He paid for our sins, that it is a cosmic event. It doesn’t just affect our sins. It affected all of God’s creation, such that there is darkness and there is an earthquake, and then there is a foretaste of what will come in this resurrection of some saints from the grave.
This is brought out by Matthew. Remember, he’s writing to the Jews, and so he is using illustrations that will resonate from the Old Testament talking about the kinds of things that will take place or predicted to take place at the beginning of the kingdom. This isn’t the beginning of the kingdom. It doesn’t begin until Jesus returns, but these signs indicate, and they confirm, who Jesus is and what He has accomplished on the Cross.
The first thing that happens, which is Stage 26, is that the veil of the temple is torn.
Matthew 27:51 says, “Then behold, the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
Mark 15:38 confirms that, just simply says, “Then the veil of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.”
Luke 23:45 says just “the veil of the temple was torn.”
So, Matthew is the best passage for looking at this.
Now as to the veil in the temple: actually there were two. There’s some debate among scholars as to which veil was torn, the outer veil going into the holy place or the inner veil that separated the holy place from the Holy of Holies. I’ve run across this several times recently as there are some scholars who make a statement that because of what is said about the centurion: that when he saw these things, he then said that this must be the Son of God.
The problem with that is if you understand the geography of Jerusalem, is that the temple on the Temple Mount is facing east. There is a wall around the Temple Mount. There is another wall around the Old City of Jerusalem, which was Josephus’ second wall, and Jesus was crucified outside that wall to the west. He’s due west of the temple here and the temple is facing east.
Do you get it? If you’re standing at the base of the wall where the execution took place, you can see through that wall? You can’t see through the wall that surrounded the Temple Mount, and you certainly can’t see through the temple to see what’s happening inside the temple or the outer veil that was facing east, the opposite direction.
I don’t understand what’s going on here, but the centurion could not have seen that take place. Very few people would’ve seen it or even known about it, other than other than the priest.
Here is an artist’s depiction. It’s a picture that shows the veil being ripped from top to bottom, and then you see the priests at the bottom.
They must have been somewhat panicky as out of nowhere that the veil is ripped from top to bottom.
This symbolizes that the way to God is now open because of the sacrifice of Christ.
This is somewhat affirmed. We get some information about the size of the veil from the Mishna. Rabban Simeon, the son of Gamaliel says in the name of Rabbi Simeon the son of the chief that the veil was a handbreadth in thickness. That is 4-inches thick.
It’s 60 feet high and it is 30 feet wide, and it’s woven together very tightly, so that it would be impossible for human beings just to grab it and tear it, and if they did, it would be from the bottom. So, this is a supernatural event of God ripping the veil from top to bottom.
Hebrews talks about this as a symbol of the fact that our way to God is now open because the veil split, which is analogous to Christ’s flesh; He has opened the door, opened the way for us, as He has now become our High Priest.
At the same time that this happens there’s an earthquake. Some people try to make a connection, the earthquake and the veil rent, that these are cause-and-effect, but Matthew really doesn’t present it that way.
Some people try to combine these as if it’s all one event. This was what A.T. Robertson does in his Harmony of the Gospels. Arnold Fruchtenbaum follows that.
The grammar of the text is interesting. There are four independent clauses here, and in each clause you have a KAI or the word “and,” and then you have the subject “… the veil was rent,” then you have the next phrase, “and the earth quaked,” and then the third phrase, “and the rocks were split.”
Each has a conjunction, an article, and a noun, so it’s very clear that Matthew is presenting these as four distinct events, even though they happen somewhat simultaneously. And there may be some correlation. For example, when the rocks are split, of course, that would open up some of the tombs. So, the earth quakes, and this would’ve been felt all through Jerusalem.
Dr. Steve Austin, who I’ve been corresponding with this last week because, as you who know him know he loves seismic events. He’s a geologist for those of you who don’t know. He has his Ph.D. in geology from—I believe it’s—Penn State.
He has been working for several years on projects in Israel where he is digging around in the layers of mud—they’re solid now—by the Dead Sea, because seismic activity would leave evidence in the strata along the Dead Sea.
He’s confirmed there’s evidence of an earthquake that occurred in AD 31. You can tell where that’s centered by looking at the data, and it’s centered down by the Dead Sea. But there is another one that occurs after that, probably AD 33, that shows this great seismic activity, but it wasn’t centered at the Dead Sea, it’s centered in Jerusalem. This is this quake at the crucifixion that Matthew describes.
As a result of that earthquake, the rocks are split. This term is a word from which we get our word “schism,” and it indicates a violent tearing apart or fracturing. This was a well-felt earthquake. All of Jerusalem shook. It got everybody’s attention, including the guards.
The guards are there at the cross, and they’re seeing the fact that this guy hasn’t said anything. He doesn’t scream out; He is not vitriolic in His insults to the guards. He doesn’t revile those who were reviling Him, as Peter tells us. When He does speak, He’s calm, He’s relaxed, He’s very gracious and kind. Now they have seen the darkness that occurred—they haven’t seen that before—and these are experienced executioners. Now there’s this earthquake. They know something is radically different at this event from any other crucifixion that they been involved in.
We read that “the graves were opened,” in Stage 29, “and many saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
Now this is interesting. First of all, we need to recognize that when we look at Matthew 27:52, when it talks about graves, these would’ve been the tombs.
Now there’s a difference in Israel. Usually poor people are buried in a grave, which is what we’re familiar with, where they’re buried underground. If you are brought back to life and you’re in a grave, whether you’re wrapped in cloth or whether you’re in a coffin, there is not a whole lot of air to breathe. According to the grammar of the text, it appears that they are resurrected on Friday afternoon at 3 PM, and they don’t come out until Sunday morning.
But if you’re in a tomb: tombs are aboveground, they are usually in caves. Usually there were two or three rooms where they had different shelves where the bodies were stored because for the first year there would be decomposition, so that there would be nothing left of the flesh or the organs or any of that. Then the bones would be collected, and put in an ossuary, which is a bone box, where they were kept.
If you are resurrected in a tomb, then you can move around, you can do a few stretching exercises, you have plenty of oxygen to breathe, and you can just relax for a couple of days until you are permitted by God to leave the tomb. We have to understand the picture of what is being presented here in terms of the graves.
The tombs are opened. The stones would be rolled back so that air could get in. Matthew 27:52, “and the graves are opened; and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised.”
“The saints” here describe Old Testament believers in a broad sense. These aren’t Abraham and David, these aren’t the prophets, because of why? Because their bodies were well beyond decomposition, and if they had been collected, their bones had been put in an ossuary, that doesn’t apply to them. This would apply to believers who had died physically in the previous year. Probably those who had not been dead that long, maybe two or three months.
We think of Jairus’ daughter whom Jesus raised from the dead; we think of Lazarus whom Jesus raised from the dead. They were resuscitated into a mortal body. They weren’t brought back in a resurrection body. Why? How do we know that? Because that would’ve happened before the resurrection of Christ on Sunday, and Christ is the first fruits. He’s the first One to receive a resurrection body.
So, they are resuscitated back to life, and they would’ve gone on to live a normal life, although they would’ve been something of a celebrity.
I don’t think this was a huge number, but it was a significant number who gave testimony to the grace and the power of God’s Savior and resurrection after the resurrection of Christ had taken place. We’re told they went “… out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the Holy City and appeared to many.”
I also think about the fact that if your dear departed husband had gone to the grave five years ago, and since then you remarried, this might cause some problems. Since the period of mourning was a year, that’s the same period that you have the body in the tomb waiting for decomposition to take place, so that the bones could be put into the ossuary. This would not cause a lot of social problems by their resurrection from the dead. I think that if we think through the customs and the issues, then this makes a lot more sense now.
What’s interesting, as we look at this, we realize that there were a lot of things that happened as a result of this. You would think there would be some sort of historical record: somebody would write about the darkness, somebody would write about the veil being torn.
However, that’s not true. There are some who have suggested that there was a darkness, but when it comes to these other events, there are some legends of some things that happened that are recorded in rabbinical literature.
The reason I call them legends is because we really don’t have any surviving eyewitness accounts, but these are recorded in the Mishnah, they’re recorded in the Talmud as things that happened. They are believed by the rabbis to have happened. They are treated as historical fact, and I believe that they were accurate, that these things did happen, even though the Bible doesn’t talk about them.
The first legend is mentioned in the Jerusalem Talmud, in tractate Yoma 6:3, “It has been taught: 40 years before the destruction of the Temple, the western light went out.”
That’s the light in the temple. That’s darkness. It could refer to darkness in the temple that the menorah went out—which is how it’s usually understood—that the menorah went out in the temple.
That’s recorded 40 years before the destruction of the temple. The temple is destroyed in AD 70. This light goes out in the early 30s. Christ died on April 3 of AD 33. I think we have more documentation for that today than we did maybe 40 years ago.
A second legend is recorded by both Josephus and the Talmud. Later he became a historian, but Josephus was a Jewish general who surrendered to the Romans during the Jewish revolt from AD 66 to 70.
He says “A second legend is recorded by both Josephus and the Talmud. The heavy temple doors usually took several men to open, but they swung open of their own accord.”
This happened 40 years earlier.
There’s a third legend that I think connects to that, and that is the lintel of the temple doorway. So, at the entry to the temple you have these two pillars on each side, you have this huge heavy door. Across the top of the doorway there’s a lintel. There’s this earthquake. The lintel breaks in half, the doors fly open, and the lintel comes crashing to the ground. This is recorded in the Talmud and in the Mishnah.
What really intrigues me is the fourth one. We talked about the Day of Atonement. On the Day of Atonement, there were the two goats. We talked about the one goat that is sacrificed, his blood is put on the mercy seat. The other goat is called azazel and that refers to the fact of departure. He is the one who carries the sins of the people out into the wilderness, picturing the fact that God removes our sins far from us.
According to rabbinic legend; this is what they wrote: that they would tie a scarlet ribbon to, some say to the horns of the scapegoat, some say to the entry to the temple. When the goat went out into the wilderness and was released, then the scarlet ribbon turned white. In Isaiah we’re told that though your sins be as scarlet, they will be turned white.
What’s fascinating is approximately 40 years before the destruction of the temple, the ribbon no longer turned white. Why would that be?
They never answered it. They didn’t know the answer. The answer is because the final payment for sin was accomplished and the ritual was no longer necessary.
I can’t say for sure that that happened. Rabbis who didn’t believe in Jesus recorded that as what had transpired 40 years before the temple. I just find that fascinating.
Rabbi Ishmael in the Mishnah says, “they had another sign, too: A thread of crimson wool was tied to the door of the temple, and when the he goat reached the wilderness, the thread turned white as it is written, “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”
“For forty years before the destruction of the temple the thread of scarlet never turned white, but it remained red.” Isn’t that interesting?
The 30th stage, we see the bystanders’ reaction. First, there’s the centurion, Matthew 27:54, “when the centurion and those with him—this is the guard that is there, the executioners, who have seen so many executions, but never one like this—who were guarding Jesus when they saw the earthquake and the things that had happened …” How many people, think they saw the things that happened: they saw the veil split; but you can’t do it, physically impossible—“… they feared greatly saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God!’ ”
Luke 23:47, “So when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, ‘Certainly this was a righteous man!’ ”
He said both He was impressed. He realizes Jesus must be who He has claimed to be. He’s heard it all, he’s watched it, and at this point the centurion becomes a believer in Jesus Christ.
The people who have witnessed all of this are now struck with guilt. They know they caused the execution of a man who is guiltless. Luke 23:48, “And the whole crowd who came together to that sight, seeing what had been done, beat their breasts and returned.”
They were remorseful, but not repentant yet.
There’s a third group, those who knew Jesus.
Luke 23:49, “But all His friends—I think the New King James says acquaintances, but literally in the Greek it says those who knew Him—all His friends and the women who followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.”
You have three responses here:
This tells us that the issue at salvation is Christ. It’s not what you’ve done, it’s not what I’ve done; it’s not what ever has happened to us that may embarrass us or shame us. All sin has been paid for objectively by Christ on the Cross.
The only thing that remains is if you have never trusted in Christ is to believe on Him. That’s a mental act, the instant you listen to this message and you say, “That’s true,” that’s belief. You have believed. You don’t have to say, “I believe it.” You don’t have to think, “I believe it.” You just say, “That’s true,” you’ve believed it. You don’t have to do anything else.
God the Father in His omniscience knows exactly what you believe and in that instant that you believe, He will regenerate you, give you eternal life and give you Christ’s righteousness and declare you righteous, and that can never be taken away.
That is the good news of our forgiveness of sin and our gift of eternal life.
“Father, we thank You for this opportunity to reflect again upon all that we have in Christ, what He did for us on the Cross, as He provided that objective payment for sin, paying the penalty as our Substitute, paying the price that canceled the debt against us, so that Your righteousness and justice is satisfied, and that we are forgiven of sin.
“As we read in the Acts of the Apostles, the gospel of the remission of sins; that was a focal point of their gospel. We are forgiven, we are cleansed, we are made right with You by grace.
“Father, we pray that if there is anyone who is listening to this message, who is here today and they’ve never trusted Christ, it would be their opportunity to do so, and they would just recognize this is true. Jesus died for you, He paid your sin penalty. By believing on Him, by accepting this as truth, you have eternal life. That’s all that is necessary.
“For those of us who are already saved, we have the responsibility of carrying forward in our spiritual life, to grow in the grace and the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ that we may glorify You in everything we think, in everything we say, and everything we do. We pray that You would challenge us with the truth of the studies.
“In Christ’s name, amen.”