Three Hours of Darkness
“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour. And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias. And straightway one of them ran, and took a spunge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him. Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost. And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God. And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him: Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.”
“Yonder, amazing sight! I see
Th’ incarnate Son of God
Expiring on th’ cursed tree,
And weltering in His blood.
Behold, a purple torrent run
Down from His hands and head,
The crimson tide puts out the sun;
His groans awake the dead.
The trembling earth, the darken’d sky,
Proclaim the truth aloud;
And with th’ amazed centurion, cry,
‘This is the Son of God!’
So great, so vast a sacrifice
May well my hope revive:
If God’s own Son thus bleeds and dies,
The sinner sure may live.
Oh that these cords of love divine
Might draw me, Lord, to Thee!
Thou hast my heart, it shall be Thine!
Thine it shall ever be!”
In the verses before us we have Matthew’s account of our Savior’s last three hours of agony upon the cursed tree, the last three hours of torture he endured for us as our Substitute, because he was made sin for us. This inspired narrative should always be read with reverence, with hearts broken over sin, and yet rejoicing at the forgiveness of sin obtained at such a price. May God the Holy Spirit sanctify our eyes, our hearts, and our minds as we attempt to meditate upon our Lord’s sufferings and to worship him who suffered all the hell of God’s holy wrath for us. After suffering the wrath of God as our Substitute, in his body, in his soul, and in his spirit, the Lord Jesus Christ became obedient unto death and “yielded up the ghost.” Everything in these verses is simply remarkable, utterly amazing!
“Now from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land unto the ninth hour” (v. 45). First, Matthew calls our attention to a remarkable darkness that covered the land. This was not a natural solar eclipse, but a supernatural one, an eclipse specifically performed by God on this occasion. It was an eclipse that the prophet Amos prophesied. “It shall come to pass in that day, saith the Lord God, that I will cause the sun to go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in the clear day” (Amos 8:9). It lasted for three hours. And it was attested to by men in other parts of the world who had no idea what was going on in Jerusalem. One Dionysius, living in Egypt at the time, said, “Either the Divine Being suffers, or suffers with him that suffers, or the frame of the world is dissolving.” This was a remarkable eclipse, lasting three hours. From high noon until three o’clock, the sun refused to shine. Thus, the Lord God gives a vivid, symbolic display of four things.
1st. The darkness covering the land indicates the heinousness of the crime being committed. Wicked men were murdering the Lord of Glory! Though our Savior died and was slaughtered by the hands of wicked men exactly according to the purpose, will, and decree of God for the salvation of his elect, God’s decrees did in no way excuse their sin in crucifying him.
2nd. The darkness indicated the blackness, darkness, and blindness of men’s hearts by nature. No impression was made upon these men, though God performed miracles, unheard of before or since, all around them. The fact is, man’s heart by nature is so blind that no acts of providence, either in goodness or in judgment, can be seen by him, unless God takes the scales off his eyes.
3rd. Surely, this darkness was designed to declare the emptiness and darkness of Christless religion. Judaism had become mere ritualism. As such it was altogether darkness. Religion without Christ, without life, without faith is darkness, no matter how orthodox it appears.
4th. The darkness covering the earth was reflective of the darkness that passed upon and engulfed our Savior’s holy soul, when he was made to be sin for us. When the Light of the world was made sin, darkness flooded the world as darkness flooded his soul.
“And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” (v. 46). Second, the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to record the fact that the Lord Jesus Christ was forsaken by his Father.
“And about the ninth hour,” about three o’clock in the afternoon, which was about the time of the slaying and offering of the daily sacrifice, which was an eminent type of Christ, “Jesus cried with a loud voice,” as one in great distress. In great darkness for three hours he had been silent, patiently bearing all the torment of his Father’s furious wrath in utter abandonment, and all the assaults of hell. Who can imagine the anguish of his soul? At last, he breaks out in a cry of terrible agony, “saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, my God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Here our Savior speaks as a man, the man chosen, made, ordained, and anointed by God with the oil of gladness above his fellows. As a man, our Lord was upheld and strengthened by the Father, just as we are. As a man, he trusted God, loved him, and prayed to him, just as we do; only he did so perfectly, without sin! Though now the Father hid his face from him, still he expresses strong faith in him and love for him.
When he is said to be, “forsaken” of God, the meaning is not that he was separated from the love of God, or did not know the reason for his abandonment. Our Surety now stood in our place, bearing our sins. He, therefore, had to endure abandonment by God the Father to satisfy justice.
This cry, “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” expresses the very soul of his sufferings as our Substitute. Indeed, all the wails and howls of the damned in hell to all eternity will fall infinitely short of expressing the evil and bitterness of sin. But here we see how vile a thing sin is. When God found our sin upon his darling Son, he forsook him in wrath! Whenever we read these words, hear them, or think about them “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” ¾ we ought to be immediately reminded of the fact that the Lord our God is infinitely holy and just. As such, he must and will punish all sin. Our souls should be flooded with a deep appreciation of God’s infinite love, indescribable, everlasting, saving love for us! And we ought to be assured that God’s elect shall never be forsaken, not in this world or in the world to come.
“My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” These are the words of our blessed Savior when he hung upon the cursed tree as our Substitute, when he who knew no sin was made sin for us that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. At the apex of his obedience, at the time of his greatest sorrow, in the hour of his greatest need, the Lord Jesus cried out to his Father, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” If we look at Psalm 22, where the Holy Spirit gives us the agonizing cries of our Redeemer in greater detail prophetically, we will find him answering his own heart-rending cry.
“My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent. But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel” (vv. 1-3).
How utterly forsaken he was! So utterly forsaken that the Father refused to hear the cries of his own darling Son in the hour of his greatest need. “Why art thou so far from helping me, and from the words of my roaring? O my God, I cry in the daytime, but thou hearest not; and in the night season, and am not silent.” I read those words with utter astonishment. I will not attempt to explain what I cannot imagine. But these things are written here for our learning that we might through patience and consolation of the Scriptures have hope. And I hang all the hope of my immortal soul upon this fact. When the Lord Jesus Christ was made sin for me, he was utterly forsaken of God and put to death as my Substitute; and by his one great, sin-atoning Sacrifice he has forever put away my sins. He not only bore our sins in his body on the tree, he bore them away!
In Psalm 22:3 our holy Savior, when he was made sin for us, answers the cry of his own soul’s agony. He cried, “My God, my God, Why hast thou forsaken me?” “But thou art holy, O thou that inhabitest the praises of Israel.” Why was the Lord Jesus forsaken by his Father when he was made sin for us? Because the holy Lord God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity. Our Savior was forsaken by the Father when he was made sin for us, because justice demanded it. “Thou art of purer eyes than to behold evil, and canst not look on iniquity” (Hab. 1:13).
Here, as he was dying under the wrath of God, our great Substitute justified God in his own condemnation, because he was made sin for us. He proclaims the holiness of God in the midst of his agony. He is so pure, so holy, so righteous, so just that he will by no means clear the guilty (Ex. 34:7), even when the guilty One is his own darling Son! Rather than that his holy character be slighted, our Surety must suffer and die, because he was made sin for us.
Our Savior had no sin of his own. He was born without original sin, being even from birth “that Holy One” (Luke 1:35). Throughout his life, he “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21), “did no sin” (1 Pet. 2:22), “and in him is no sin” (1 John 3:5). But on Calvary the holy Lord God “made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). Just as in the incarnation “the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14), in substitution he who was made flesh “was made sin for us.”
I do not know how God could be made flesh and never cease to be God; but he was. I do not know how God could die and yet never die; but he did (Acts 20:28). And I do not know how Christ who knew no sin could be made sin and yet never have sinned; but he was. These things are mysteries beyond the reach of human comprehension. But they are facts of divine revelation to which we bow with adoration.
“Some of them that stood there, when they heard that, said, This man calleth for Elias” (v. 47). While darkness covered them, they were apparently terrified and silent; but as soon as it was light again, their fear abated and they resumed their derision of the Son of God.
Christ our Passover was now being roasted in the fire of his Father’s holy wrath. When he cried, “I thirst,” they gave vinegar to drink. We read in verses 48 and 49, “And straightway one of them ran, and took a sponge, and filled it with vinegar, and put it on a reed, and gave him to drink. The rest said, Let be, let us see whether Elias will come to save him.” He thirsted and drank the bitter vinegar of divine justice, that we might drink of the water of life and never thirst; as John Trapp put it, “that we might drink of the water of life, and be sweetly inebriated in that torrent of pleasure that runs at God’s right hand for evermore.”
A Self-inflicted Death
“Jesus, when he had cried again with a loud voice, yielded up the ghost” (v. 50). Third, the Spirit of God reminds us that our blessed Savior died a remarkable, self-inflicted death. His strength was not abated. His last word was not the gasping breath of a failing life, but the triumphant shout of a conquering King. The Son of God voluntarily laid down his life for his sheep. He did not lose his spirit; he dismissed it! His work was finished. His life was complete. Therefore, he laid it down as a voluntary Surety, vicarious Sufferer, and our victorious Savior. That is exactly how he said he would die (John 10:14-18).
“I am the good shepherd, and know my sheep, and am known of mine. As the Father knoweth me, even so know I the Father: and I lay down my life for the sheep. And other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring, and they shall hear my voice; and there shall be one fold, and one shepherd. Therefore doth my Father love me, because I lay down my life, that I might take it again. No man taketh it from me, but I lay it down of myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This commandment have I received of my Father.”
The Spirit of God emphasizes the fact that our Savior cried “with a loud voice.” He did not speak as an exhausted, beaten man, but as a conqueror in the field of battle, carrying away the spoils of his conquests (Col. 2:15). He cried aloud, that all on earth, all in heaven, and all in hell might hear, “It is finished!” What was finished? Redemption’s work was finished. The law’s curse was finished. Death, hell, and the grave were vanquished. Robert Hawker wrote, “The most glorious views of that life and immortality, which Christ first brought to light by his gospel, were seen from the hill of Calvary, brighter than Moses saw on the heights of Pisgah, of the promised land. And that song was sung in heaven, which the beloved apostle heard in vision. “Thou wast slain, and hast redeemed us to God by thy blood” (Rev. 5:9).
Fourth, the Lord God performed several startling, divine testimonies, declaring that this One who died at Calvary more than two thousand years ago is indeed the Christ of God. “ And, behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; And the graves were opened; and many bodies of the saints which slept arose, And came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into the holy city, and appeared unto many” (vv. 51-53). Anyone who considers the miracles that were performed by God’s providence at this time must recognize as the centurion did, that “This man was the Son of God!”
The miracles wrought by God as his Son laid down his life for us seem to say, “These are my witnesses, testifying who I am and what I have accomplished.” The veil of the temple rent into two pieces, from the top to the bottom, because the Son of God had now opened a way of access to God by his blood (Heb. 9:6-12; 10:19-25). The earthquake and the rending of the rocks were celebrations of this glorious event. And the opening of the graves and the resurrected bodies of the saints were unmistakable displays of wonders of redemption and salvation by the death of Christ. These resurrected saints were visible demonstrations of Christ’s quickening power, whereby he shall soon raise our vile bodies, and make them like his glorified body, spiritual, immortal, and glorious. Truly, by the death of Christ for us, “death is swallowed up in victory!”
The Centurion’s Confession
Fifth, Matthew records a remarkable confession made by one of our Savior’s tormentors. “Now when the centurion, and they that were with him, watching Jesus, saw the earthquake, and those things that were done, they feared greatly, saying, Truly this was the Son of God” (v. 54). As the centurion was compelled to confess, by all the things he saw and heard on that infamous, glorious day, “This man was the Son of God,” soon, in the great day of wrath, all shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God (Phil. 2:8-11).
Sixth, we see many, faithful, loyal, exemplary women beholding their Savior. “And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him. Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children” (v. 55-56). Let us find our place with these women, beholding Christ crucified for us. Behold him afflicted in his body, in his soul, and in his heart, that he might undo our affliction. Behold him wounded for us, that we might never be wounded. Behold him made sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him. Behold him put to shame for us, that we might never be put to shame. Behold him dying for us, that we might never die. Behold how he loved us!
“Sons of peace redeem’d by blood,
Raise your songs to Zion’s God;
Made from condemnation free,
Grace triumphant sing with me.
Calvary’s wonders let us trace,
Justice magnified in grace;
Mark the purple streams, and say,
Thus my sins were wash’d away.
Wrath divine no more we dread,
Vengeance smote our Surety’s head;
Legal claims are fully met,
Jesus paid the dreadful debt.
Sin is lost beneath the flood,
Drown’d in the Redeemer’s blood,
Zion, oh! how blest art thou,
Justified from all things now.”