[March 25, 2012] In this text we now approach very sacred ground and need to give it our best attention and reverence. In Matthew 27:27-44 we saw how Jesus was mistreated and humiliated by men, showing up both the human condition and the persistent obedience of Jesus. He has stood up to the trial through which He has been subjected and did not back down (for He could have). But everything until now has led up to this moment, the three hours that we now read about, beginning in verse 45. For here, in history’s most awful moment, God takes over the treatment of His Son, and Jesus is subjected to the full weight of God’s judgment against God’s creature the human being, that is, against you and me.
The Darkness at Noon (Matthew 27:45)
In verse 45 we read that “from the sixth hour darkness fell over all the land until the ninth hour.” The land (or the earth; the word gē means both) became dark from noon until three o’clock in the afternoon. Anyone witnessing the scene would have had an awful sense of foreboding. What did this mean? The prophet Amos was speaking of a day of judgment when he said, “In that day, declares the Lord YHWH, I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the land in the light of day. And I will turn your feasts into mourning and all your songs into lamentation; and I will bring up sackcloth upon all your loins and baldness upon every head; and I will make it like the mourning for an only child and the end of it like a bitter day” (Amos 8:9-10; see Zechariah 12:10). Israel was celebrating the first day of the Feast of Unleavened Bread when Jesus was crucified. For Israel, then, this darkness signified God’s judgment.
The darkness at noon evokes an image of the reversal of the first day of creation when God spoke that light should shine out of darkness. Here the opposite occurs, as if there were a reversion back to the chaos—the “waste and emptiness”—of Genesis 1:2, when “darkness was on the surface of the deep.” Thus the darkness at noon speaks of the withdrawal of God. The three hours of darkness might also remind us of the three days of darkness in Exodus 10:21-23. It was the eleventh of the twelve plagues, the one immediately preceding the death of the firstborn; as here it precedes the death of the only begotten Son who in resurrection will become God’s and creation’s Firstborn (Romans 8:29; Colossians 1:15, 18). Darkness represents God’s disapproval and judgment (recall also the “outer darkness” during the manifestation of God’s Kingdom).
“Surely He has borne our sicknesses, and carried our sorrows; yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken, smitten of God and afflicted. But He was wounded because of our transgressions; He was crushed because of our iniquities; the chastening for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we have been healed”—the prophet Isaiah tells us (Isaiah 53:4-5). By the darkness at noon the creation was expressing God’s absolute rejection of those who reject Him. The holiness of God issues in the righteousness of God against sinners. Here, upon the cross, the whole wrath of God against the evil of the human soul, and the evil of all the actions of humanity that have issued from the rebellious souls of human beings—here it descends upon the Son of God who willingly, in love to the Father, for love of us, offers Himself up to it, to take it upon Himself. The goodness of God overpowers the wickedness of human beings and the righteousness of God justifies the sinner who believes in Jesus.
The Abandonment by God (Matthew 27:46)
If we understand the darkness that descended at noon correctly, then the meaning of Jesus’ loud cry from the cross at the end of the three hours becomes clear: “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” These words shock us. If Jesus is the Son of God, how can He be forsaken of God? If Jesus is the incarnation of God, ought not this separation to be impossible? It shocks us and hearing these words we might think that Jesus failed. Was Jesus concurring with what the chief priests with the scribes and elders said when they mocked Him, “He trusts in God, let Him rescue Him now if He wants Him.” What else can these words mean, “Why have You forsaken Me?” if Jesus has not given up His trust in God. God does not in fact want Him and has now forsaken Him. Jesus thus was crucified in weakness, and apparently—in the eyes of the world—in defeat. This is the power of God of which Jesus spoke? Where is the love of the Father on whom He relied and exhorted us to rely?
Matthew gives us the Hebrew-Aramaic words first to explain how it was that the soldiers were able to misunderstand Jesus’ words the way they did. It is not the first time Matthew gives us the Hebrew-Aramaic word and explains the meaning (Emmanuel, 1:23; Golgotha, 27:33). Doing so here, also has the affect of bringing us closer to the eyewitness source, here where it is vitally important. It is important for Matthew’s interpretation of Jesus’ death. Luke and John do not record these words for they are giving other (compatible and for the believer also true) perspectives on what happened.
Well, how are we to understand this? For Matthew and the believing community (the church), of course, these cannot be an expression of defeat, an admission of failure, or a denial of Jesus’ claims. Jesus, in fact, was quoting the first verse of Psalm 22 and by doing so intended the cry as an expression of trust in God, trust, in fact, in God’s judgment of Him (see how the Psalm turns in verse 24: “For He has not despised nor detested the affliction of Him who is afflicted; and He has not hidden His face from Him; but when He cried out to Him, He heard”). The cry of Jesus comes at the end of the three hours, moments before His death, and it is answered—the Son’s righteousness is vindicated—in His resurrection. The righteous God does not disappoint Him.
This however does not mean that God, the Judge of all, did not forsake Him, even if it was only for the three hours. For this is just what happened. Jesus cried out in anguish for He was forsaken, not by His Father—for He was always the Beloved of the Father, He was still the Father’s Son with whom the Father was always delighted (see Luke 23:46)—but by God, that is, the impersonal divine nature reacting against human sin. Can I make this distinction? I think so. For those three hours, God made Jesus, “who did not know sin,” to be sin on our behalf (2 Corinthians 5:21); He became a curse on our behalf (Galatians 3:13). Jesus in His human nature felt, as no one ever felt and hopefully never shall feel, the forsaking of God. No one else has ever been forsaken by God to this extent. Every one of us as sinners is maintained in life by the mercy of God and granted the gift of death by the mercy of God. Though we will not apart from God’s grace, at any moment we can turn to God and God would receive us. We live under God’s provisional wrath; we experience His wrath as a token of what we deserve. But we are never abandoned by God the way we have abandoned Him. Only on the cross is “the wrath of God revealed from heaven upon all [the] ungodliness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18), for there God really does forsake the sinless One, who yet, even in that ultimate suffering, continues to love and trust God, never withdrawing or turning away from God. Jesus continues to be the sinless and righteous and faithful One even when He is forsaken by God, acknowledging the rightness of God’s judgment against Him, and thus He alone offers the only true repentance. God’s judgment against Him is righteous because He willingly—as the supreme and true Intercessor—and in obedience to the Father, takes on the judgment of God against others.
The Scriptures teach us that the Three Persons of the Trinity all share the divine nature in equal measure, that is, absolutely and completely. Each Person is the face of God in the entirety of God. All the qualities of divinity they share without distinction or difference. But each Person differs in their relationship to the others (for example, the Father eternally begets the Son and is the eternal source of the Holy Spirit. the Son is eternally being begotten and the Spirit eternally proceeds; etc.). Moreover, each Person co-inheres in the Others (they dwell in the Others); their dynamic coinherence is called the perichoresis. Their mutual sharing is a sharing of the divine nature. None of this changed on the cross. What changed was the experience of the Son in His humanity, an experience that was shared by the Father and the Spirit, for they dwell in Him. The humanity of the Son is not separable from the divine Person of the Son, for the humanity is the human nature of the divine Son. But the humanity did not experience all the properties, attributes, or better, perfections of the divine nature of the Son—not yet. It will in the resurrection. In His humanity, the Son of God emptied Himself of His divine glory so that the glory was hidden, and His humanity did not yet experience it (Philippians 2:6-8). Jesus was aware of it in His spirit by revelation, but it was hidden from His human experience (though the temptation was always there to seize it, for His self-emptying was voluntary). In His humanity what He experienced was an open heaven with complete access to the Father in His spirit, and the anointing (the christening) of the Holy Spirit who empowered Him for His ministry, making Him the Christ (the Anointed One). On the cross, however, this experience ended. His self-emptying became complete. At any point He could have “quit” and filled Himself up, as it were, but He resisted. He allowed the wrath of God, as it deserves to descend on every human being but is restrained by mercy, to come upon His humanity and He experienced complete forsakenness, abandonment by God. No more was there an open heaven; no more was there the anointing of the Holy Spirit. The Son of God in His humanity endured this, and the Father and Holy Spirit endured this with Him—a suffering that no one else has ever endured.
All human suffering is experienced as God’s judgment, even if that judgment is not personal but is something that falls upon us in our human condition, for humanity without sin can transcend suffering. The suffering of complete abandonment therefore is the most painful and direct suffering a person can endure. After enduring the wrath of God, Jesus cried out in loving trust and praise to God the first verse of Psalm 22, knowing that the Father would vindicate His suffering.
What happened on the cross demonstrates two perfections of God: the freedom and the love of God. For in becoming human the Trinity exercised freedom with respect to natures. The personhood of the Persons of God take ontological (logical) priority to the divine nature of God. The nature of God is what the Persons of God take on and share with each other. It is in a way what they are as they are Persons in relationship with and in co-inherence in each other, and what that is is love, for the mode of their relationship to each other is love. Because the Triune God has this freedom with respect to nature, God can assume another nature without ceasing to be the divine nature. Insofar as it is the Person who assumes the nature, the Person is completely this nature (in the case of the Son, human nature), and yet as the Person who is this nature, He is nevertheless His own divine nature, completely and perfectly. In taking on our human nature, He veils to us His divine nature which He nevertheless is. He “empties” Himself for our sake, in order to redeem us through His death on the cross, and He does this out of His unending and unlimited love for us, for that love is His very nature and expresses what He is.
All this is to say (and to some extent explain) that on the cross God abandoned Himself out of love for us that we might never again abandon Him. This was not coercion on His part but rather the supreme gift of freedom, the freedom of irresistible attraction (i.e., irresistible grace). Certainly as long as we are in this flesh, we do not yet know this perfect freedom, or rather we only know it in part. But already we have a taste of it in the life of discipleship, the life of holiness to whatever extent we may now know it. To the extent that we know it, we know the cross’ saving power.
It is in the strength of Jesus’ dying to self so completely as He gave Himself to God’s judgment against the sin of our soul in His love to God that He absolutely conquers the power of the world in Himself—for He rises again—and conquers it for all who are in Him; and He conquers the deceiving and alluring and sticky and painful power of the soul itself, and the root of sin within us (for He defeats it in Himself in the place where it would have arisen if it had, though it had not); and so He conquers the devil, the organizing principle of the world’s gestalt, the tempter. Moreover, it is by the intercession of His passion that the Father receives us as forgiven, and as more than forgiven, as redeemed, and made fit for the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in Him, justified in Christ and sanctified by the Holy Spirit.
The Mockery of the Guards (27:47-49)
When Jesus cried out “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani!” the soldiers who had cast lots for His clothing, not understanding Hebrew or Aramaic, thought that He had call called for Elijah. They had probably picked up on some common Jewish beliefs. Elijah had not died but ascended directly to heaven, and some believed that he had become like an angel (or had become one, a belief developed in Gnosticism and the Kabala) and was available to help when called upon, perhaps similar to the “saints” in popular Catholicism. The words, “This [man],” placed at the end of the sentence in Greek is contemptuous.
The prophet Malachi foretold that Elijah would come before the great and terrible Day of the Lord, and many considered that he would be one of the three messiahs they were expecting (some emphasizing one or the other): he was the prophet, another would be a priest, and another would be the son of David. Jesus taught that this prophecy had a fulfillment in John the Baptist (see Matthew 11:14 and 17:12-13; though also consider that there may still be a future fulfillment: Revelation 11:3-12).
One of the soldiers offers Jesus some sour wine on a sponge at the end of a reed so that they could hear Him speak more clearly. It might have been done in mercy, to assuage the awful thirst of crucifixion, but probably not. The wine this time was not drugged as was what they had offered Him at first in 27:34, and so Jesus allowed it. But the cruelty of the other soldiers told him to stop. In mockery they demanded, “Leave Him alone! Let’s see if Elijah comes.” They said this sarcastically. “No help will come for Him!” But after Jesus moistens His tongue, He does not call for deliverance, though He could have and it would have come.
The King’s Death (27:50)
Jesus cries out not for deliverance but to dismiss His spirit. The little bit of sour wine cleared His throat so He could cry out for the last time. The word that Matthew uses for this cry of agony (krazō) is stronger that the cry of verse 46 (anaboaō), though the word “again” connects them, as if to say that the trial of abandonment had come to an end (see John 19:30). In Luke’s gospel in the cry with which He expires He utters, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46). He dismisses His spirit—it is not wrenched from Him—and His spirit returns to the Father from which it came as His body and soul are destroyed in death. The King James Version says that Jesus “gave up the ghost,” but this misrepresents the Greek, as if Jesus could not hold out any longer and gave up. No; He lets go, yields up, releases, or better, sends away or dismisses (aphiēmi) His spirit. Death does not conquer Him but He voluntarily and deliberately, and knowingly, gives His soul and body over to death, with strength. The expression is peculiar to Matthew and expresses Jesus’ control of the moment of His death. In John 10:17-18 Jesus had said, “I lay down My soul that I may take it again. No one takes it away from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it again.” When He said this, the “I” of which He was speaking was His divine hypostasis, yet it is His human soul that renounces itself and by dismissing the spirit dies. His humanity is the humanity of His divine hypostasis. The Person is one, but the wills are two. In any case, Jesus exercised His kingship—signified at last by nature’s crown of thorns and with nature’s reed as His scepter—by laying down His soul in death, as one fully in control of the moment, and, by this final assertion of His human will, accomplishing our redemption according to His divine will.
The Rending of the Veil (27:51a)
At the moment of His death, “the veil of the Temple was split in two from top to bottom.” (The early believers probably learned of this from the priests who were converted, for example in Acts 6:7.) The Temple was desecrated at that moment, just as Jesus’ broken body was desecrated by His death. The Temple and its priesthood and sacrificial system foreshadowed the image of Jesus Himself (in Hebrews 10:1 shadow is compared to image, implying that there is also an eschatological reality of which Jesus’ first coming is only the image); Jesus fulfilled that which they signified and thus brought them to their end. Their end in God’s judgment He signified by cleansing the Temple and cursing the fig tree. The shadow (or type) ends in judgment because, since they are only types of what is to come and not the reality that they signify, they exist under the conditions of sin and ultimately the sin becomes manifest. This was true of wealth in the Old Testament. It signified the spiritual wealth of the Kingdom, but its sinfulness eventually became clear. This was even more true of violence in the Old Testament. It signified God’s judgment, but ultimately no bearer of violence could evade the judgment of God upon himself. That Jesus’ body was ultimately desecrated was reflected in the desecration of its type and shadow, the Temple itself. This desecration of the body of Jesus as the archetype of the Temple of God, and the desecration of the physical veil of the Temple’s Holy of Holies, foreshadowed the Jerusalem Temple’s total destruction by the Romans.
Ultimately, however, the veil was split in two “from top to bottom.” The rending of Jesus’ body was not merely the act of men; it was the act of God’s judgment, and so likewise was the rending of the veil in the Temple.
The veil of the Temple that separated the two chambers of the Temple building, the Holy Place from the Holy of Holies (the innermost shrine which—at least would have—housed the Ark of the Covenant) is deeply symbolic. Exodus 26:31 says that the tapestry was to be made by a skillful workman of blue and purple and scarlet strands and fine twined linen, with cherubim—among the highest of heavenly creatures (yet themselves a fiery composite of representative living creatures on the earth) —depicted on it. Leviticus 16:2 tells us that should even the high priest enter inside the veil “at just any time” he would die; only on the Day of Atonement with the proper preparation could he enter and survive (16:11-14). The cherubim depicted on the curtain remind us of “the cherubim and a flaming sword which turned in every direction” which God placed “at the east of the garden of Eden” “to guard the way to the Tree of Life,” of which Adam and Eve had not yet partaken (Genesis 3:24; they had eaten of the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, a different tree; see 3:9). The veil depicted the separation between God and human beings, because of the latter’s sin. Humanity’s relationship with God ruptured because of sin, the veil is a reminder that apart from an atonement human beings have no access to God. They are without the light of God’s presence, the glory of the Shekinah, and “sit in darkness and in the shadow of death” (Matthew 4:16). In the Temple, the Holy Place was lit only by the oil lamps on the seven-branched candelabras and the glow of the altar of incense. The Shekinah was hidden from view. When Jesus was on the cross suffering the judgment of God from the third hour, “darkness fell over all the land (or earth) until the ninth hour” (Matthew 27:45). It was not until the judgment of God had done its work and Jesus laid down His soul in death and dismissed His spirit back to the Father that the darkness that had descended upon the creation because of humanity’s sin was lifted. At that moment the veil of the Temple was rent, symbolically opening the way into the Holy of Holies.
The Epistle to the Hebrews depicts the believers in Jesus as those “who have fled for refuge to lay hold of the hope set before us, which we have as an anchor of the soul, both secure and firm and which enters within the veil, where the Forerunner, Jesus, has entered for us, having become forever a High Priest according to the order of Melchisedec” (6:18-20). In other words, at the moment when Jesus died—that is, when His work of atonement was done—He entered through the veil into the Holy of Holies as the High Priest, making atonement for those who believe in Him with the shed blood of His own sacrificial body (see Leviticus 16). The high priest in the Jerusalem Temple who entered the Holy of Holies on the Day of Atonement with the blood of a bull was only the shadow of which Jesus’ offering was the reality (see Hebrews 9:7-12). The veil which symbolizes the separation of God and humanity is torn when Jesus’ body-and-soul is “torn” by the judgment of God against humanity; at that moment His body-and-soul embodied that separation, becoming the veil in the abandonment that He experienced. He embodied that separation through the incense of His intercession for us (see Leviticus 16:12-13—“[Aaron] shall take a censer full of coals of fire from the altar before YHWH, with his hands full of finely ground sweet incense, and bring it inside the veil. And he shall put the incense upon the fire before YHWH, that the cloud of the incense may cover the expiation cover that is over the Testimony”). The opening of the veil thus becomes the opening of the inner sanctum of heaven for those who believe. “Having therefore, siblings, boldness for entering the Holy of Holies in the blood of Jesus, which entrance He initiated for us as a new and living way through the veil, that is, His flesh, and having a great Priest over the house of God, let us come forward to the Holy of Holies with a true heart in full assurance of faith, having our hearts sprinkled from an evil conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water” (Hebrews 10:19-22). Thus Paul can say, “having been justified by [His] faithfulness, we have peace through God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand and boast because of the hope of the glory of God” (Romans 5:1-2).
Since this is the meaning of the rending of the veil, it means that those outside of Israel, the pagan Gentiles, can approach and come near to God through the sacrifice of Christ—by virtue of their consequently being in Him—apart from fulfilling the Halakah, the legal requirements of the Torah. “Remember that once you, the Gentiles … were … apart from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of the promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have become near in the blood of Christ. For He Himself is our peace, He who has made both [Jew and Gentile] one and has broken down the middle wall of partition [separating the Court of the Gentiles in the Jerusalem Temple], the enmity, abolishing in His flesh the law of commandments in ordinances, that He might create the two in Himself into one new Man, so making peace, and might reconcile both in one Body to God through the cross, having slain the enmity by it. And coming, He evangelized peace to you who were far off, and peace to those who were near, for through Him we both have access in one Spirit unto the Father” (Ephesians 2:11-18).
Therefore, when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper, the bread and the cup symbolize and in doing so present the reality of His crucified body and shed blood and of our access to the Father and thus into the grace in which we stand. In doing so they also present to us the reality of the oneness of Gentile believers with Jewish believers apart from the works of the Torah (the requirements of Halakah). For Jewish believers to keep the Halakah becomes a privilege, signifying their election by grace. It never was nor ever can be a means of justification. The Gentiles signify their election precisely by remaining Gentiles—Gentiles who give up idolatry and uphold God’s covenant with Noah, the father of the Gentiles.
The Desecration of the Earth and the Resurrection of the Dead (27:51b-53)
When the veil of the Temple was split in two, “the earth was shaken and the rocks were split, and the tombs were opened.” Just as the Temple was desecrated by the rending of the veil of the Holy of Holies, so the earth was desecrated by the earthquakes and the opening of the tombs. And just as the rending of the veil opened the way into the Holy of Holies, so the opening of the tombs prepared the way for the resurrection of the dead. When the Son of God became incarnate in a human body, human nature became His own, that is, His divine hypostasis took part in it as Its own nature, in addition to Its native divine nature. However, in assuming human nature as His own (by participation), He assumed createdness itself as His own. It was not just human nature that He assumed, but also animal nature, organic nature and even createdness itself. He tasted death “on behalf of everything” (Hebrews 2:9) for “in Him all the fullness was pleased to dwell and through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, having made peace through the blood of His cross—through Him, whether the things on the earth or the things in the heavens” (Colossians 1:19-20). As the Firstborn from the dead, He became the Firstborn of all creation, not in the sense that He preceded the creation of the universe (which He did) but in the sense that He is heir to the whole creation and leads the creation in its ultimate divinization with His own resurrected body; He is the Firstborn of the new creation. But this is getting ahead of ourselves. He is the One through whom all things exist; “in Him all things were created … all things have been created through Him and unto Him. And He is before all things, and all things cohere in Him” (Colossians 1:16-17). When He was broken under the judgment of God against humanity, the desecration of His incarnate body was reflected in the (token) shattering and desecration of the earth’s own wholeness. Even the earth’s role as a resting place for the bodies of the dead saints was violated: the tombs were opened and their remains were left vulnerable to being disturbed. The wholeness of the body of the Lord Jesus and the wholeness of the creation were inseparable, as the center is inseparable from its periphery.
This is the negative aspect of the shaking of the earth and the rocks splitting and the graves opening (they too represent the judgment of God; see Joel 2:10; Revelation 6:12; 11:13; 16:18; but see 2 Samuel 22:7-8 where the earthquake is in response to the cry of the anointed one, David—Jesus too had cried out to God on the cross, and God vindicated Him in resurrection). However, the negative is but the prelude to a positive outcome. When YHWH appeared on Mount Sinai “the whole mountain shook greatly” (Exodus 19:18; see Psalm 68:8), and in Revelation 11:19 we hear that “the Temple of God which is in heaven was opened, and the Ark of His Covenant was seen in His Temple; and there were lightnings and voices and thunders and an earthquake and great hail.” In other words, with the completion of the revelation of the wrath of God on Jesus, when the heavenly veil that hid the heavenly Ark of the Covenant (reflected in what happened to the earthly veil) was opened, and this was reflected on earth. The heavenly archetype of the earthly Ark of the Covenant is, of course, Jesus Himself, who’s reality is hid from our eyes unless His Father reveals Him to our spirits by the Holy Spirit, which He cannot do apart from His accomplished atonement (or its promise; see Romans 3:25). Nevertheless, the opening of the veil is the opening of our access to the One whose presence on Sinai was signified by ascending smoke as He descended in fire, and by the shaking of the earth. The shaking of the earth at the ninth hour (three o’clock) on Good Friday accompanied the tearing of the veil, signifying the opening of the heaven Holy of Holies for those who believe.
Likewise, the desecration of the graves was put the prelude to what was to follow in a few days. After Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday morning as the first-fruits of the resurrection (see Acts 26:23), “many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised and came out of the tombs and entered into the holy City and appeared to many.” (The expression “holy City” also appears in 4:3; elsewhere in the New Testament it only in Revelation 11:2 with respect to the old Jerusalem and in Revelation 21—22 with respect to the New Jerusalem.) This account of the resurrection of many of the saints is peculiar to Matthew.
These dead were not raised to mortal life again like the daughter of Jairus or the son of the widow of Nain or Lazarus of Bethany were (see Matthew 9; Luke 7; John 11). In the Old Testament Elijah raised a widow’s son and Elisha raised the Shunammite’s son in, and a man was raised to life after being thrown into Elisha’s grave (1 Kings 17; 2 Kings 4; 2 Kings 13). These were all raised back to mortal life and they died again. These saints who were raised to life after Jesus’ resurrection took part in the coming resurrection by participation in the resurrection of Jesus. They will never die again. We can only assume that they ascended into the heavens like Jesus, and Elijah and Enoch (and perhaps Moses) before Him—the rest of the dead, unless there have been other exceptions (though remember not even King David has ascended into the heavens; see Acts 2:34), are not in heaven but in Paradise. This “little” resurrection is rather mysterious. Perhaps it is related to the descent of Jesus when He died into “the lower parts of the earth,” that is, Sheol or Hades, where Paradise is located. Did He at that time release a few of the redeemed from Paradise? He did not release all of them, for in the Book of the Revelation we are told of the souls of those who had been slain being underneath the altar (where they spilled their blood), and hence under the earth. (I doubt these descriptions of “under the earth,” etc., are geographical locations; they are probably metaphorical of something too hard to describe plainly.)
Daniel 12:2 describes a time in the distant future when “many of those who are sleeping in the dust of the ground will awake, some to life eternal and some to reproach, to eternal contempt.” This will take place after “a time of great distress, such as never occurred since there came to be a nation until that time.” Jesus also speaks of such a time in Matthew 24:21. (We will leave Ezekiel 37 aside.) Echoing Daniel but speaking of His own role, Jesus says, “An hour is coming in which all in the tombs will hear the voice [of the Son of Man] and will come forth: those who have done good, to the resurrection of life; and those who have practiced evil, to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:28-29). All the dead will be raised—either for life or for judgment—and all are raised on the basis of Christ’s death on the cross. The work of Jesus on the cross on behalf of the creation (see above) raised the bodies even of those who will be condemned. Ultimately His once-and-for-all death will swallow up death for the entire creation. His resurrection then is the first-fruits of the entire resurrection, which we can also call the glorification of the creation (its participation in the divine nature, or its divinization). After His resurrection on Easter, others began to take part in His resurrection (“IN Christ all will be made alive”) on the basis of His atoning work (the rending of the heavenly veil): first these few saints who rose from their graves and appeared to many, not as images or in visions, but in their bodies; then those who are Christ’s at His coming (first the overcoming saints, then all the other believers, in whatever stages: the church, those before the coming of Christ, the faithful of Israel to this day); and then, after the age(s) of the manifested Kingdom, all the dead, after which death will be no more (1 Corinthians 15:20-28; Revelation 20:12-14). This is a more complex picture than some would prefer, and it may be even more complex than the Scriptures reveal, but this is the gist of it, as the Scriptures tell it (as I understand them). In fact, the transfiguration of the creation will probably be unimaginable and these descriptions may be metaphorical at best. The resurrection of Jesus’ body and its divinization are nonetheless real (literal and not metaphorical) and are revealed to us. The concrete createdness of which He partook became divinized in His resurrection, and this divinization is the promise of the transfiguration that will just as concretely happen to the entire creation. The resurrection of the “many bodies of the saints who came out of the tombs and entered into the holy City and appeared to many” was a sign of the apocalypse that is happening now in a spiritual way in the church (see John 5:24-25) and will begin to happen universally when Jesus (and the Kingdom of the Heavens in Him) is manifested at His return in glory.
The Sign of the Soldier’s Confession (27:54)
“The centurion and those with him guarding Jesus” from those who might try to rescue Him or who might want to interfere out of malicious motives (and perhaps from dogs who could reach the victims), “when they saw the earthquake” (after the sun came out again) “and the things that happened, became greatly frightened, saying, ‘Truly this was the Son of God.” What is interesting about this is the confession of these soldiers and the fact that these soldiers are pagan Gentiles.
What they said was put in the past tense, yet even so, it echoed the words of the disciples in 14:33 when Jesus came to them walking on the water. Peter also stepped on the water for a moment, and when he sank, Jesus grabbed him. When they both got into the boat the strong wind that was blowing stopped. The disciples then worshipped Jesus and said, “Truly You are the Son of God.” Neither this nor the centurion’s utterance were the confession of faith that Peter uttered in 16:16, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” They did not even understand what “Son of God” might mean; for to understand the words in a pagan way is to misunderstand them. They probably overheard the expression in the words of those who tormented Jesus (27:40, 43), some of which might have been spoken in Greek. The centurion and those with him were afraid of the supernatural. Jesus was not just one who claimed to be “the King of the Jews,” but one favored by the gods (perhaps Jupiter himself), for the signs that frightened them seemed supernatural (they were actually the natural expression of creation’s true nature); the ominous events indicated that Jesus was truly what the mockers had ridiculed: “the Son of God.” Yet the centurion’s utterance—uninformed as it probably was—was, like the other events, a sign. It was a sign of the conversion of Gentiles to faith in Jesus, foreshadowing the discipling of people from all the nations which Jesus commissioned in 28:19.
The utterance of the centurion was a sign also of the end of soldiering, for it was as a soldier that he spoke. The prophets spoke of how the Messiah, or the Messianic Age, would put an end to war and fighting between nations and the need for weapons. Christians are called to nonviolence as a sign of the age to come, perhaps not in an absolute way, but nevertheless in an adamant way, as a sign. They probably ought not to participate in the wars of the Gentiles, for if they do they cannot remain blameless or avoid coming under the mighty hand of God’s judgment (let them humble themselves that God might exult them in due time). The overcoming kingship of Christ puts an end to all other claims of authority, and therefore to the entitlement of military might. When Christ comes in glory, all soldiers will have to lay down their arms. Life in the church already foreshadows that day.
In Africa and Asia where Muslims and Hindus often instigate violence against Christians, Christians need to be very careful to limit their violence to self-defense. They must not instigate violence or take revenge. Instead, they should love their enemies and, when opportunity affords, do their enemies good.
The Witnesses (27:55-56)
“And many women were there looking on from a distance, who had followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering to Him.” These many women were eyewitnesses of Jesus’ death. They became witnesses to the Gospel for the church as they gathered to remember Jesus and break bread. Until the Gospel was set in written form, their witness, and of course the witness of the Twelve, was the equivalent of the New Testament gospels. Through their words the believers recognized Jesus in their spirits and “remembered” Him and He became actually present in His resurrection in their midst. As they partook of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Table in remembrance of Him, they partook of His real presence, identifying with Him and taking Him into themselves, and “metabolizing” His real presence.
As those who “followed Jesus” and “ministered to Him” they were ideal disciples, at least in a metaphorical sense. Though they witness His death from a distance, they nevertheless “were there.” Their faithful adherence to Jesus even in these most trying circumstances, was steadfast, abiding and persistent to the end, and contrasts with the timidity and shame of the male disciples (though the danger for them might have been more acute). By their faithfulness the women might embody a bridal metaphor—for Christ is our Bridegroom and we His beloved. In relation to the world, they would be from then on widows, for the world took their Lover away (though they would of course not be widows with respect to their fellow believers). By their eyewitness testimony the women might also embody a birthing metaphor—for the Father has regenerated us by the seed of the word which has been evangelized to us (1 Peter 1:25; see James 1:18)—and as conveyors of the word that brings us to birth, they would also cherish us as nursing mothers (1 Thessalonians 2:7), ministering to the Lord’s people now in a spiritual way as they had ministered to Him in a physical way.
Three women are named in particular: “Mary the Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, and the mother of the sons of Zebedee.” Mary the mother of James and Joseph is also called the wife of Cleopas (John 19:25). The wife of Zebedee is probably Salome (Mark 15:40). Either Mary the wife of Cleopas or Salome the wife of Zebedee was Jesus’ aunt. Mary the Magdalene and Mary the wife of Cleopas continue to be eyewitnesses of the key events of our salvation: in verse 61 (when Jesus is buried) and in 28:1 (also at the tomb). Their names are mentioned because they were eyewitnesses whose testimony could have been confirmed. They are also examples to the church.
Salome the mother of James and John had asked Jesus for her sons to sit on His right and left in His Kingdom. If Jesus was reigning from the cross, were the insurrectionists crucified on His right and left those for whom that place was reserved? Only in a very literal sense, perhaps. Jesus asked James and John if they were able to drink the cup which He was about to drink. Their reply was, “We are able,” and He said, “My cup you shall indeed drink.” Did Salome or her sons have any idea for what they were asking? Did this thought occur to Salome as she watched the scene of the crucifixion?
The Burial (27:57-61)
Next we listen to the account of the burial of Jesus. Joseph was a rich man (see Isaiah 53:9) and a disciple of Jesus, Matthew tells us. Is it possible for a man to be materially wealthy and to also be a disciple of Jesus? See Jesus’ interaction with the rich young man in 19:16-22 and the words He said to His disciples in 19:23-30. Despite this, apparently it is, but in the examples that we have in the New Testament, rich disciples use their wealth to serve Jesus (as Joseph did here) and the church (as did the examples in the Acts of the Apostles). Luke and Mark also tell us that Joseph was an honorable member of the Sanhedrin and a good and righteous man (he had not consented to their counsel and action), who was himself awaiting the Kingdom of God (Luke 23:50-51; Mark 15:43).
Actually, this man when he approached Pilate put himself at considerable risk for Jesus, for Jesus was executed as an insurrection. In this way Joseph is similar to Jesus’ father, who rescued Jesus from Herod the Great. The magi informed King Herod that the King of the Jews had been born and Herod sought to kill Him. Jesus’ father Joseph evaded Herod by taking Him to Egypt. Pilate was informed that Jesus was being hailed as the King of the Jews and crucified Him on that charge. Joseph of Arimathea did what He could and rescued Jesus’ body from the vultures and dogs, and honored it by burial.
When Joseph went to Pilate, it was evening, which means that the Sabbath had already begun, but Matthew does not draw our attention to this.
Matthew has no doubt about the death of Jesus yet he uses the word “body” (soma) to refer to Jesus, avoiding the word for corpse (nekros), even though he uses the word elsewhere (in 8:22; 22:32; 23:27; 28:4). Jesus’ broken body slept in death until the moment of resurrection. Even though Joseph may not have understood this, Matthew did. When Pilate ordered the body of the criminal Jesus to be given to Joseph, Joseph took the body and wrapped it in a clean and unused, fine linen cloth, and laid it “in his own new tomb,” a tomb meant for himself. As Mary cared for Jesus’ helpless infant body, Joseph now cared for Jesus’ helpless dead body. He treated Jesus with the utmost reverence. In his hands, the humiliation of Jesus was over; no longer was He “numbered with the transgressors (Isaiah 53:12). He was assisted by Nicodemus (John 19:39-40), also a member of the Sanhedrin.
In poignant baptismal symbolism, Joseph buried himself when he laid Jesus in his tomb (Romans 6:4).
He rolled a great stone in front of the door of the tomb to secure the grave against robbers and dogs.
Two women witnessed the burial, Mary the Magdalene and Mary the mother of James and Joseph, who also witnessed the crucifixion. Two of course is the number of witnesses required in a Jewish judicial proceeding. They remained after Joseph left, keeping a Sabbath vigil at the tomb, witnessing against the accusation that the body had been stolen by the disciples.
His Enemies (27:62—28:1)
“The next day, which is the day after the preparation,” was the Sabbath, during which Jesus’ body was resting in the tomb. Matthew does not draw attention to this fact, but the chief priests and the Pharisees who gathered before Pilate were not at rest. This is the first time we hear about the Pharisees in the passion account. The chief priests and Sadducees did the dirty work of handing Jesus over to the governor at his secret behest; the Pharisees had no involvement. Yet they are mentioned here because they were the ones who heard Jesus in Galilee allude to His resurrection, in 12:40 (“just as Jonah was in the belly of the great fish … so will the Son of Man be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights”). They said, “Sir, we have remembered that while He was still living, that Deceiver said, ‘After three days I will arise.’” The expression, “after three days,” can only go back to this, for when Jesus spoke to His disciples He always said, “on the third day” (16:21; 17:23; and 20:19; in 26:2 He did not speak of His resurrection).
When they approached Pilate, calling him kyrie (lord, or sir) in acknowledgement of his authority, they began with: “We have remembered.” It has the sound of an apology for an oversight that they only just now realized. This is perhaps because it was only after the fact of the crucifixion that the Pharisees brought this to the chief priests’ attention. They call Jesus a deceiver or imposter (planos), which means someone who leads others into error, a seducer. The Pharisees suspected that Jesus planned for his disciples to steal His body and thus prove His resurrection. If the disciples convince the people that He has been raised from the dead, this will be a worse deception that the thief of the body itself. If they can prevent the theft, they can take away the basis for this false proclamation. They think that if the tomb is secured until the third day, that that would be enough. It turns out that they were right to worry, for sure enough on the third day that tomb was empty.
Pilate begrudgingly gave in to them. Why are you bothering me? “You have a guard” (he said), referring to their own Temple guard—use them! “Go,” meaning, “Get out!” When he said, “Make the tomb as secure as you know how,” it was not without some contempt and scorn. He did not see this as his concern (so Augustine Stock in The Method and Message of Matthew, on page 433).
They seal the tomb with a cord and wax or clay so that tampering could be detected and set up a guard. Of course, they were not counting on the power of God. God had already shaken the earth and split the rocks yesterday; a stone covering the tomb was not going to be an obstacle for the risen Jesus tomorrow.
It is usually assumed that 28:1 refers to Sunday morning, and sometimes commentators assure us of this. But “late on the Sabbath” can only refer to Saturday. When Matthew writes, “As it began to dawn toward the first day of the week,” the word for “dawn” is used in Luke 23:54 to refer to the time when Joseph laid Jesus’ body in the tomb. In other words, it refers to the evening twilight, when the Sabbath day was over. As soon as the Sabbath was over and they had rested as commanded, the two witnesses, Mary the Magdalene and the other Mary, came to look at the tomb. They saw the guard and that the stone had been sealed. They came to keep watch at the tomb, perhaps well into the whole night. The word for “look” (theōreō) is also used in 27:55 when Matthew says that many women were there (at the cross) looking on from a distance. They were there at the cross; they were there at the burial; and now they are here keeping vigil; believing in Jesus, though not sure what His promise can mean.
When He seems so absent from our world, from the dormant Christianities of Europe and America, and in the sufferings of the church in South America, Africa and Asia, can we like the women keep vigil with Him, waiting in patience for His manifestation in glory? Just like them, we also do not know what to expect on daybreak. But can we cling to Him in our ignorance, trusting His word, trusting Him, and remain faithful to Him in hope?