Watercolor painting by E. J. Kirsch

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Nov 26, 2017

“The Death of Jesus, Part II: Witnesses” 11-26-17

Matthew 27:46-56
November 26, 2017

I guess it is a little unusual to divide the account of the death of Jesus into two parts, but I really wanted to do justice to the texts in my sermons, keeping in mind that sermons in America have become standardized at 20 to 25 minutes.  And, if you look at the texts of the gospel passages on this subject, they, too, seem to have a division at the halfway point.
Since the gospels tell us that Jesus was nailed to the cross at about 9:00 AM and died at about 3:00 PM, that halfway point was at noon, and that is where we begin this morning. 
But as we begin, we need to remember what occurred between 9 and noon.  During that time, the gospel writers tell us of the ridicule that was aimed at Jesus by passers-by and his enemies.  They challenged him to come down from the cross if he was the Anointed one of God and if he was the Son of God.
Matthew tells us that even the two criminals who were crucified with Jesus insulted him.  Luke tells us that one of those later changed his mind and asked Jesus to take him into his kingdom, but Matthew does not record that.
Matthew tells us that there were strange happenings during and after the death of Jesus.
At noon, the halfway point of Jesus’ crucifixion, a severe darkness came over the vicinity and the darkness lasted until Jesus died at 3:00.
I have always believed that this darkness in the city of God’s choice, Jerusalem, was to display God’s grief at the death of his son and to help people understand that something horrible was happening.  It was God testifying to his sorrow over the death of Jesus.
Near the end of that time of darkness, Jesus cried out quoting the first verse of Psalm 22 “My God, My God, Why have you forsaken me?”
I think there were two reasons for this.  First of all, Jesus wanted all who would hear or read these words to understand that at the time of his death, He for the first time in his life felt abandoned by God the father and even alienated from Him.
Theologians and preachers have rightly declared that this reflects the fact that Jesus was on the cross dying for our sins, that our sins were hanging on him on that cross, and that Jesus, being the holy son of God had never experienced the presence of sin in his life, and the alienation from God that it brings.
But I think it is also important to remember that when a Jewish rabbi quoted an Old Testament verse, he was often using it as shorthand for the sentiments of the entire passage. 
Psalm 22 not only expresses an alienation from God, it expresses having ones clothing won by others by casting lots, and it expresses being betrayed by one who had previously eaten with the one he betrayed.  In other words, Psalm 22, written hundreds of years before Jesus, prophesied about the sufferings and death of the Messiah.
But more importantly, Psalm 22 ends on a victorious note.  The last two verses read “posterity will serve him; future generations will be told about the Lord, and proclaim his deliverance to a people yet unborn, saying that he has done it.”
The 22nd Psalm in its entirety is about the one who suffers to achieve the deliverance of many others.  And it was that suffering and the coming great deliverance that Jesus had on his mind as he died on the cross.
Matthew tells us when Jesus said “My God, My God, why has thou forsaken me?” he was misunderstood. 
The Hebrew Word for My God is Eloi, So some thought that Jesus was calling the OT prophet Elijah.  There may have been some confusing noise at the time, but it is also not unusual for Jesus to be misunderstood.  Throughout his ministry, things he said were often misunderstood. But they needed to be said and heard.
We need to remember that.  When we speak of our faith of Jesus, we are sometimes misunderstood.  In fact it can be said that Christians are often misunderstood, but it is still important to speak up for our Lord.  We do run the risk of being misunderstood, but we still need to stand up and speak up for Jesus.
Later, Jesus shouted out something else and died.  And at that moment all sorts of things happened in the city of Jerusalem. 
First of all, there was an earthquake which split rocks.  Some of those rocks enclosed tombs, so some tombs were opened.  Now that would be scary in any community, but in first century Jerusalem with their being forbidden to touch dead bodies and their fear of evil spirits, it would be especially scary.
But it would also make a statement.  The death of Jesus invaded the stronghold of death.  This would be reinforced later when Jesus rose from the dead.  In some way, the bodies of those whose tombs had been opened on Friday also came out and were seen in Jerusalem.
The earthquake seems to have also affected the Temple, and the curtain in the temple was torn in two.  Now, as we read the passage about the construction of the tabernacle in Exodus 26:31-37 it opens the possibility that there were two curtains in the Temple.  One was in the temple separating the Holy of Holies from the Holy place, and the other was at the entrance of the temple, separating the men of Israel from the place restricted to the priests.  The Temple was a larger, more permanent structure based on the Tabernacle.  Papers and books have been written about the significance of this tearing of the curtain and telling which curtain was torn. 
Today, in this place, I tend to think it was the curtain at the entrance, but which ever curtain was torn, it basically has the same significance.  The barriers between God and his people were being removed by the death of Jesus.  And the priesthood as those who mediated between God and people was no longer necessary.  Nor was the temple itself for that matter.
When the Roman Centurion and his squad saw the earthquake and its related events, they proclaimed that Jesus was God’s son.  Now, we must remember that 2 other men died that day, but Jesus is specified because they had observed his demeanor on the cross and understood that the earthquake was for him.  And, the other 2 may have still been alive when the quake occurred.
We ought not to read too much into the declaration of the soldiers.  Their statement reflects an understanding of a connection between Jesus and God.  They did not necessarily understand all that we know about Jesus as the son of God.
There were others there who saw the death of Jesus and its related events.  They were women who had traveled with Jesus from Galilee.  They included mothers of 3 of the apostles.  While the apostles had fled from Jesus at his arrest and only a few had returned to observe the crucifixion from a distance, these women stayed and observed the death of the one they loved.  The presence of the moms of some of the apostles makes me wonder if they followed Jesus because their sons were apostles, or if their sons were apostles because they were their sons.  Mothers should never forget the impressions they make on their children.
So, what we have seen in this passage can be the records of the witnesses to the death of Jesus.  The darkness, the earthquake, the torn veil, the open tombs were all witnesses to the person and power and mission of Jesus, as were also the human witnesses.
I thought it was appropriate to look at the death of Jesus just before we begin to look at his birth for the next four Sundays, because we celebrate the birthdays of people long after their deaths because of what they accomplished later in their lives and perhaps even in their deaths.  We remember and honor the birth of Jesus because he is the Son of God and because he died for us.  He died so our sins could be forgiven, erased, and eradicated.  He died so we can have access to God and all of his blessings.  He died so we can have eternal life if we believe in Him.
Jesus still needs witnesses that will attest to his power and his ability to save and give eternal life.  Will you be one?

Pastor David Horner
Faith Presbyterian Church
West Lafayette, IN 47906