June 13th 2021: Alun Johnson

Matthew 27:27-56

I wonder if you can think of a time that left you completely in awe? It could be something like seeing the Northern Lights crossing the sky or the Canadian Rocky Mountains stretching out into the distance, or maybe hearing about random act of kindness by a stranger. There are many things that make us feel good about the world around us. We want to sing with Louis Armstrong, ‘What a wonderful world.’

To read Matthew chapter 27 of these events is also an awe-inspiring experience but in a completely different kind of way.  It surely cannot make us feel good about the world around us when you read about such depraved inhumanity towards an innocent man. For some, it is an historical account that should leave us feeling very much like Moses before that burning bush, that we’re standing on holy ground.

It’s probably the most well-known passage in all the gospels. With well-known passages there is a temptation to come to them and think to yourself, ‘But I have heard this all before.’ But have we really heard it all before? Le u’s be clear, there are things going on in these events that are completely beyond the realms of human understanding. There are things going on in these events that show us that we’ve hardly begun to understand the dreadful position of humankind.

When you read Matthew 27, when you consider the events of Good Friday, we should not come easily to these things. We should, like Moses, take off our sandals and tread carefully. This morning I want us to consider first of all, what is the reality of what is going on.

In 2004 Mel Gibson released a well-known film called ‘The Passion of the Christ.’ I’ve never seen it but I can remember, as a youngster, going down to cinemas in Cardiff and giving tracts to those coming out of the cinemas after watching the film. I remember very clearly the looks on people’s faces as they came out; they looked shocked, devastated. They were shaken. It made me realise that just like the Nativity, the history of Golgotha has been sanitised and sentimentalised. It’s been made into something it is not. What Mel Gibson did very well was to shove people’s faces into the horrors of the crucifixion of Jesus. It shocked them out of that sanitised version that perhaps they had been presented with in Sunday School or in primary schools. As you read these events, the on the surface facts of the death of Jesus Christ are absolutely horrifying.

Any crucifixion was absolutely horrifying. The Roman statesman Cicero describes torture like this, “The mere name of the cross should be far removed from not only the bodies of Roman citizens but even from their thoughts, their eyes, and their ears. The results and suffering from these doings as well as the situation, even anticipation, of their enablement, and, in the end, the mere mention of them are unworthy of a Roman citizen and a free man.”

What is he saying? Well, he’s saying this: ‘Don’t even talk about crucifixion, don’t even mention it in polite company, it is that bad.’ But when you come to the gospels, they make a great deal of the Crucifixion of Jesus, they talk a lot about it. John devotes over half of his gospel to events surrounding the death of Jesus, Matthew 2/5, Mark 3/5 and Luke 1/3. Clearly the death of Jesus, to the gospel writers, was the most significant thing.

One critic of The Passion of the Christ spoke some truth when he said, “This movie is the prayer of a gifted film-maker, but it is also a narrow and harrowing perspective on a story that, no matter what your faith, is bigger than any attempt to portray it on film.”

Jesus suffered appalling tortures before and on the cross. Soldiers beat Him. Soldiers spat in His face. They mocked Him over and over again. They forced a crown of thorns on His head. The Roman whipping that He received was absolutely awful. It didn’t have the leniency of the Jewish forty lashes minus one. The took Jesus around the city on the longest journey that they could have, trying to prolong the sufferings of Jesus.

As you come to the gospel writings there is no great emphasis on the physicality of tortuous death. That is where Mel Gibson got it wrong and where that film critic got it right. The events of Good Friday are just bigger than any event to portray it on film.

What does Matthew say pertaining to the death of Christ? Actually, not a lot about the Crucifixion. He says, in verse 35, ‘When they had crucified Him.’ That’s it. Mark 15:24, ‘And the crucified Him.’ Luke 23:33, ‘When they came to the place called the Skull, there they crucified Him.’ John 19:17-18, “He went out, bearing his own cross, to the place called The Place of a Skull, which in Aramaic is called Golgotha.There they crucified him.” 

 For the gospel writers, therefore for the Holy Spirit, the brutality of the death of Christ was not the main thing. The main thing was the significance of that death – the spiritual realities of that death were the important ones. They want us to focus on the spiritual realities. This was no ordinary death. There was something massively supernatural and miraculous going on here and you cannot avoid it. You cannot avoid it because, first of all, you have got darkness and dereliction. Secondly, you’ve got what one preacher calls, ‘divine vandalism,’ – the tearing of the temple curtain from top to bottom. You have also got death reversed (v.52), the mass resurrection of many holy people.

Let’s consider darkness and dereliction for a moment (v. 45). In World War II the blackout, despite its eeriness, kept people safe. On Good Friday there was a massive blackout from the sixth to the ninth hour, darkness was all over the land. Evidently, it was an extensive darkness that covered the whole land. This three hour blackout was when the Middle Eastern sun should have been at the highest in the sky. It must have been terribly unsettling to witness it.  Why the darkness? Darkness is connected with God’s judgement. Peter prophesied against false teachers and prophets (2 Peter 2:17). Jesus says in Matthew 24:29, talking about the end of the world, “Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken.”

In Matthew 27:46 Jesus gives us some insight as to what is going on. It is called the cry of dereliction, which comes towards the end of that darkness. “And about the ninth hour Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” that is, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This is where, I suggest, we need to take off our sandals and tread very carefully. We realise the person who is crying out is none other than the eternal Son of God, the only begotten Son. He was in the beginning with God. There is no relationship in the whole universe that was closer than the Father and Son.

Yet here, at this moment, God the Son is forsaken. In that three hours of darkness, God the Father’s judgement fell on His Son. The judgement that was so awful that the bond between God the Father and God the Son, for some time was broken. The Father never ceased to love His Son because Jesus says, For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again,” (John 10:17). 

There is no voice from heaven to comfort His Son. There is no angel to strengthen Him, He is forsaken. What is going on? “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God,” (2 Corinthians 5:21).

We realise our sin is absolutely awful, so awful it nailed the Son of God to a Roman cross. It is so awful that the Son of God, who enjoyed the closest relationship with His Father throughout eternity, had to be utterly forsaken by His Father as He endured hell. He had no sin and yet He was made sin for us. God the Father, because He is just, cannot just sweep sin under the carpet. But, by pouring out His wrath on His own Son, against our sin during that massive judgement blackout, He can remember our sins no more.

“My sin—oh, the bliss of this glorious thought!
My sin, not in part but the whole,
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more,
Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

When peace like a river

Jesus, in enduring the wrath of God during that cosmic blackout, was pierced, Isaiah says, for our transgressions. He was crushed for our iniquities. The judgement that brought us peace was upon Him. By His wounds we are healed.

Are you a Christian here this morning? If so, what we have read means that you are as free as a bird. Your sin, not in part, but all of it, is nailed to the cross and you bear it no more. You have peace with God. You are completely healed. Praise the Lord.

If you are not a Christian, or you may think you are a Christian but haven’t thought too much about sin, Jesus’ cry of dereliction, when you hear it, doesn’t make much difference, it doesn’t bother you too much. Perhaps you haven’t realised what sin is about? In our society people don’t accept the idea of sin, it seems outdated. People aren’t held responsible for their own actions, ‘Being who you are’ is the slogan of our society.

But Jesus’ cry of dereliction teaches us one thing – we are sinners. Our sin is real to God and it has to be punished. Only the death of His Son can sort it out. The fact is, we are responsible creatures and one day God is going to hold us to account.

As a Christian, when we hear the cry of dereliction doesn’t it make you hate your sin all the more? Does it not make you cry, “O Lord, help me to live a holy life!” Does it not help you go to places like Titus and echo with Paul, not just to want knowledge of the truth but knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness? In other words, that we don’t just stand there at the foot of the cross, gazing in horror, then just walk away and carry on flirting with sin as if it is no big deal, that we carry on harbouring a few pet sins of our own.

We should come to the foot of the cross and break our hearts over our sin. It was our sin that caused Jesus to suffer such unthinkable agonies. We should throw ourselves on Him to keep us from sin.

At Calvary, God was doing something that He is an absolute expert at – He was bringing the greatest good out of the greatest evil. You see it in the signs that immediately follow the death of Jesus. Between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, God’s wrath had been poured out on His Son, Jesus is forsaken by His Father, Jesus dies (Matthew 27:15 / John 19:13). What effect does all that have? Is the work of Jesus finished? Yes, it is! Because then you get the curtain of the temple being torn in two, from top to bottom (v 51-52). This is no accident, it is hugely significant and important. At three o’clock in the afternoon the priests would have bene busy preparing for the evening sacrifice. Then, all of a sudden, all of the mysteries of the Old Testament are opened, revealed and unfolded to all. The curtain would have concealed the most holy place, the place where only the high priest could go, once a year. Now, it is open to all. The partitioning wall, which would have divided Jew and non-Jew, the ceremonial law, was now removed (Hebrew 10). Now, through Jesus’ sacrificial death, we can all approach the Shekinah Glory. Let me tell you, that is huge.

“There’s a way back to God from the dark paths of sin,
there’s a door that is open and you may go in.
At Calvary’s cross is where you begin,
when you come as a sinner to Jesus.”

So powerful, so complete is the sacrifice offered by Jesus that the miracles don’t stop with that divine vandalism of the curtain being torn. You now have death reversed. There is an earthquake that is so violent it splits rocks, it opens tombs, and even before Easter Sunday, Resurrection is already on the cards (v 52). What is all this showing? Clearly, that Jesus’ sacrifice not only pays for sin, it not only opens up the way for sinful people to come back to a holy God. But also, don’t we want to leap for joy at this – it means death is defeated! It will be an inheritance of a marvellously rejuvenated universe and life without end in a mind-blowingly fantastic resurrection. Wow! Good Friday and Easter Sunday prove that this life is just a drop in the bottomless ocean of eternity. And that changes everything!

Let us briefly consider some of the reactions to what we’ve seen. We’ve had the realities, now let’s see the reactions. Before we finish, we’ve got to bring it a little closer to home. Why do we need to bring it closer to home? Because, as I read these gospel accounts, as I think about the crucifixion, I find that there were people who were actually there. There were eyewitnesses of these things and they respond in vastly different ways. I am bothered by this because if you think that even eyewitnesses could be so terrifyingly ignorant of the implications of what was going on, how much more we, living 2,000 years later, can also be terrifyingly ignorant of the most important event in all of history.

What eyewitnesses am I talking about? First of all you have the mockers, those who hurled insults at a man who was being horribly tortured to death. You have the robbers and the passers by (v.40). They use the second person, using the pronoun ‘you.’ Then you have the chief priests, the teachers of the law and the elders who use the third person, he and him. In other words, they don’t even say it to His face (v 42-43). These were the great teachers of the law. They should have been familiar with the teachings of the Old Testament about the Christ. Yet, they are staggeringly ignorant about it all. It’s a scary thought that those people who possessed all the prophetic writings, the teachings of the Old Testament, observations of Jesus at close hand, had heard His teaching, were now ridiculing this man in such a cowardly way – that God-Man who was dying so that they could have life. It’s horrendous.

Haven’t we been doing something similar ever since? Perhaps years and years of going to church, years and years of listening to the Bible being preached, years and years of listening to our Christian friends and family telling us about the love of Jesus and perhaps, not outwardly, but inwardly mocking the very idea that Jesus was dying for my sins. Don’t let the darkness that so blinded teachers of the law and the chief priests so blind you to your desperate need of to repent of your sin, and your desperate need of a Saviour. Jesus died for you. Believe now. Repent now. Do it while there is still some light emanating from the pages of Matthew chapter 27.

Now less shocking, but no less unsettling, are the reactions of those we read about in Luke 23:48. The people ‘beat their breasts and went away.’ Up to this point, there was Jesus breathing His last. Those onlookers maintained some interest but now they begin to drift away to carry on with the rest of their lives. But ‘they beat their breasts.’ This was an ancient way of showing grief. Somewhere, in the depths of their souls, they realised that in some way which they haven’t quite understood, they were responsible for the death of this innocent man. I wonder if there are any like that here, today? Perhaps there have been many times where you have felt sorrow for your sins. Perhaps you’ve started to realise that your sins nailed Jesus to the cross. But many times you’ve just drifted away; you’ve left church just to carry on with your life, just as before. The Bible, in 2 Corinthians chapter 7, talks about a godly sorrow that leads to repentance. Let me tell you, don’t drift away again. Pray for that godly sorrow that leads somewhere, that leads to repentance.

Luke 23:49. Here are brave women. The Bible was ahead of its time. Brave women and not so brave men who knew Jesus and who are watching from a distance. Disciples would follow Jesus for three years, they had given up everything to follow Him. What are they doing now? They are playing it safe. Are we a little like that – not so brave Christians? Are we playing it safe as we live our lives, keeping our distance from this wonderful Jesus? Today, let us really, really endeavour to go right up to the foot of the cross and declare to anyone who will listen, our allegiance to the One who loved us and gave Himself for us.

Last, but definitely not least, is the centurion that we read of (v.54). Here was a man, an extremely hard man, who had witnessed and taken part in scores of crucifixions, and yet realises that this particular crucifixion was like no other. He saw the convulsions of nature in the earthquake, he saw the dignified conduct of Jesus in the way He was put on that cross, the way that He dies, and with the little understanding that he does have, he comes to the conclusion, as Luke reports, ‘Surely this was a righteous man.’ Perhaps you have very little understanding of what is going on here, you have very little knowledge of Jesus, and of Christianity and of the Bible. Perhaps Jesus has only been recently introduced to you. But look today, look now, really look at the evidence before you. Be amazed at what is before you and believe.

As we close, let’s just focus on one person, the wonderful person of the Lord Jesus Christ. You would think that the glorious dignity of the second person of the Trinity, being beaten, being whipped, being spat upon, being mocked and scorned, being deserted by His friends, being crucified, you think of the absolute control that He showed throughout it all. He, being the One who gave up His spirit, not having it taken from Him. He, being the One crying out in a loud voice, and going out in full possession of His faculties. It reminds us of that hymn, ‘Man of Sorrows.’ Hallelujah! What a Saviour! Amen.