You may have seen in the news that this year the National Trust dropped the word 'Easter' from its chocolate egg hunts. And there was an outcry against "airbrushing" out the Christian faith. So the National Trust duly put the word 'Easter' back in, on its website. That's something. But it still leaves the problem of people thinking that Easter is just about chocolate, rather than about Jesus' death and resurrection.
And I guess that's not the problem for most of us here tonight – most of us know that Easter is about Jesus' death and resurrection; and that the cross is at the centre of the Christian faith. Instead, I guess there might be two main problems among us, tonight.
For some of us, the problem is that we still don't see why Jesus' death is so important. We can see that, if he came from God, his teaching is important for telling us why we're here, and how to live; and his healings are important for showing God cares for us in our suffering. But why does the Bible say the most important thing about his life was his death? That may be your problem.
But for others here, our problem is that we're just so familiar with the truth that Jesus died for us. I was reading a book on marriage the other day, and one line jumped out at me. It said: "The easiest thing for us to do to those who love us the most is…" And I wonder how you would finish that sentence? Here's how my book finished it: "The easiest thing for us to do to those who love us the most is… to take them for granted." And I thought, 'How true. And how true, above all, when it comes to the Lord Jesus and his love for us.' So before we go any further, let's pray.
Father God, whether we need to understand Jesus' death for the very first time, or whether we need to appreciate it afresh, more deeply, we pray that you would help us to take in what happened on the cross. In Jesus' name we pray. Amen.
Last week in this Easter mini-series, we saw the chain of people responsible for putting Jesus to death. And this week we come to the crucifixion itself. So let's start at Matthew 27.35-38:
"And when they had crucified him, they divided his garments among them by casting lots. Then they sat down and kept watch over him there. And over his head they put the charge against him, which read, "This is Jesus, the King of the Jews." Then two robbers were crucified with him, one on the right and one on the left."
Crucifixion was the Roman Empire's death penalty. People were tied or, like Jesus, nailed to a wooden cross – and left to die. And the number 1 candidates for crucifixion were people who led resistance movements against Roman rule - because crucifixion wasn't just a way of putting people to death; it was a way of destroying their credibility completely. So it was done in the most public way possible (in Jesus' case, by one of the main roads into Jerusalem), and it was done in the most degrading and brutal way imaginable – so that everyone would get the message: 'This is what happens to people who oppose Rome. Here's someone who claimed to be your great new leader… and look at him now!'
But of course Jesus didn't claim to be a new leader against Rome. He claimed to be the Son of God, come to earth as a man. And he claimed to be the Saviour-King God had promised throughout the Old Testament. And that he'd come to rescue us from living as if God wasn't there, to being back under God's rule, where we were always meant to be. The Jewish leaders heard those claims, but like us by nature they didn't want them to be true. Because like us by nature, consciously or subconsciously, they were saying to God, 'I don't want you to be King of my life – I want to live it my own way.'
So they rejected Jesus' claims as blasphemy, and sentenced hin to death. Only under Roman occupation, they weren't allowed to carry out the death penalty themselves. They had to persuade the Roman governor, Pilate to do it, which they did by taking the truth – that Jesus claimed to be our rightful King – and twisting it into the charge that he was a king who opposed Rome, a king that Rome should get rid of. That, humanly speaking, is how Jesus came to be on the cross, which brings us to my first heading for this passage:
1. The Saviour-King who didn't look like one, on the cross
Look down to verses 39-44:
"And those who passed by derided [Jesus], wagging their heads and saying, "You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, save yourself! If you are the Son of God, come down from the cross." So also the chief priests, with the scribes and elders, mocked him, saying, "He saved others; he cannot save himself. He is the King of Israel; let him come down now from the cross, and we will believe in him. He trusts in God; let God deliver him now, if he desires him. For he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" And the robbers who were crucified with him also reviled him in the same way."
I said that crucifixion was a way of destroying someone's credibility. And these people mocking Jesus certainly thought they'd done that. They were basically saying, ''King of Israel'?! But Jesus, kings are supposed to be powerful and in control. And you don't look very powerful or in control up there on the cross. And 'Son of God'?! But Jesus, if you did have this unique relationship with God, would your Father ever have let this happen to you? Wouldn't he have stepped in to vindicate you? Wouldn't he step in even now? You really don't look like anybody's idea of a Saviour-King up there on the cross.' But there's that saying, "Many a true word is spoken in jest." And the same goes for words spoken in mockery. The irony here is that those mocking Jesus actually get very close to the truth of why he was on the cross. Look at verse 42 again:
"He saved others; he cannot save himself."
They knew he'd saved others from all sorts of things through his miraculous healing ministry. For example, the paralysed man back in Matthew 9.2:
"And… some people brought to [Jesus] a paralytic, lying on a bed. And when Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, "Take heart, my son; your sins are forgiven.""
At which point maybe the paralysed man was thinking, 'That's not actually what I came for. Haven't you noticed my legs?' But Jesus knew his legs were not his biggest need – however much they felt like it. And the same could be said of every felt need among us here tonight. So Matthew 9.3-7 goes on:
"And… some of the [Jewish leaders] said to themselves, "This man [Jesus] is blaspheming." [In other words, he is talking as if he is God – because sin is wrongdoing against God, which only God has the right to forgive.] But Jesus, knowing their thoughts, said, "Why do you think evil in your hearts? For which is easier, to say, 'Your sins are forgiven,' or to say, 'Rise and walk'? But that you may know that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins"—he then said to the paralytic—"Rise, pick up your bed and go home." And he rose and went home."
So, they knew he'd 'saved others' – for example, saved that man from years more of paralysis. But imagine we could interview that man in heaven today. He wasn't just physically healed; Matthew says he put his faith in Jesus, and so was forgiven back into relationship with God – which begins in this life, and lasts through death into heaven forever. So if we could interview that man he'd say something like this: 'Well, of course it was amazing to be saved from my paralysis and to walk again. But that only lasted 20 years – and in old age I was crippled all over again. But I've been here in heaven for 2,000 years by your reckoning – free of pain, free of sin, free of everything that spoils life in the fallen world. And that's because Jesus saved me from living as if God wasn't there, and forgave me back into relationship with him. And being saved in that way was infinitely more important.' And the Bible says that to save us in that way, Jesus had to die on the cross to pay for the forgiveness of our sins. So look at verse 42 again:
"He saved others; he cannot save himself."
And ironically, they were so very close to the truth. Because the truth was that if Jesus had saved himself – and not gone through with the cross – he wouldn't have been able to save others. He wouldn't have been able to forgive sins. So he wouldn't have been able to bring people back into relationship with God – starting now and lasting into heaven (where we'll ultimately be saved from all the effects and consequences of sin, and of which his healing miracles were just a foretaste).
So that's the first thing we see here: the Saviour-King who didn't look like one, on the cross. And that begs the question: how exactly did he save us, by dying? Which brings us to my second heading for this passage:
2. The signs of what was really happening on the cross
As Jesus was dying, there were two great signs as to what was really happening. The first was the supernatural darkness. Look on to verse 45:
"Now from the sixth hour [that is, midday] there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour [in other words, 3pm]."
To which I guess a lot of people would say, 'How did that happen? I can't believe that!' Well, we can fairly certainly say it wasn't an eclipse of the sun – partly because the moon was in the wrong place at that time of year; and partly because they don't last that long. But beyond that, we can't really say how it happened. And that used to niggle me a bit – until the great storm here in Newcastle in the summer of 2012. Were you here for that? I remember working at my desk over in Eslington House with sun streaming in through the window. And suddenly it was as if someone had pulled the curtains. And I looked up and saw this vast blackness rolling in. The birds went quiet. The automatic sensors on the street lights began switching them on. And the quote from a local woman on the cover of the paper next day was, 'I thought it was the end of the world.' So verse 45 has never troubled me since: it's a classic example of how just because I've not experienced something-or-other doesn't mean that something-or-other can't happen or didn't happen. We mustn't make our limited experience the measure of reality. So,
"…from the sixth hour there was darkness over all the land until the ninth hour."
Throughout the Bible, God uses darkness as a symbol of his judgement – his holy reaction against sin. So you might think the darkness was God expressing his judgement on the Jewish leaders and Pilate and the others who'd got Jesus crucified. But the other sign of what was really happening here shows that the darkness was actually God expressing his judgement on Jesus himself. Because the other sign was Jesus' cry from the cross. Look on to verse 46:
"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?""
The four Gospels record seven things Jesus said from the cross. This is the only one of them which Matthew records, so he must have seen it as supremely important in understanding what was really happening. And it's a quotation from that Psalm we had read earlier – Psalm 22. It's a Psalm that describes God's King apparently forsaken by God and given up to die. And Jesus deliberately quoted its opening verse – as if to say, 'That's me. I'm fulfilling what that Psalm was describing. I am being God-forsaken – going under the judgement of God – in order to save you from ending up under it yourselves.'
Let me explain it like this. We were made to live in relationship with God, looking up to him and letting him tell us what life is for, and how to live it. But like I said earlier, consciously or subconsciously, we've all turned away from that and said to God, 'I don't want you to be King of my life – I want to live my own way.' And that attitude is what the Bible calls sin. And it brings us under God's judgement. And the judgement my sin deserves is that I should be given what I want – life outside relationship with God, cut off from God – both now and beyond death.
But that isn't how God wants the story to end for any of us. So in his love, he made a way for us to be forgiven back into relationship with him. And that way was Jesus dying on the cross. Because Jesus was God's sinless Son, become human on this earth, who lived the only perfect life ever lived. So he never sinned and never deserved the judgement of being cut off from his Father. But on the cross, out of love for us, he took responsibility for our sin, and took the judgement we deserve, so that on the one hand we could be forgiven, and on the other hand, justice would be done. And that's why he cried out, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"
So we've seen: 1) the Saviour-King who didn't look like one, on the cross, and 2) the two signs of what was really happening on the cross – the darkness and the cry. And my last heading for this passage is:
3. The signs of what Jesus achieved on the cross
Look down to verse 50:
"And Jesus cried out again with a loud voice and yielded up his spirit."
John's Gospel (John 19.30) tells us that Jesus cried, "It is finished." And it was the word they used back then for when you'd finished paying off a debt or a bill. Jesus was saying that his work in paying off our moral debt to God was finished – so that if we put our faith in him, we will find that on every page of the record of our sins – past and future – is written the word 'Paid.' And to show that's what Jesus had just achieved, God the Father gave two more great signs. The first was a sign that we have access to him now, if our faith is in Jesus. Look down to verse 51:
"And behold, the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom."
So the temple was a gigantic visual aid of how we can only approach God if our sins are dealt with. And at the heart of it was a room called 'the most holy place', which represented God's presence. And it was sealed off by this huge, inner curtain. Then the bigger room which all that was in was also sealed off by a curtain. And we're not told which one was torn, so we can't be sure – but for maximum symbolism, my guess is that God would have chosen the inner one.
But either way, the symbolism is the same. Because those curtains were like gigantic 'No entry' signs, saying, 'You can't come into God's presence unless your sin is dealt with. And the moment Jesus finished paying for our forgiveness, "the curtain… was torn in two, from top to bottom" – as if to say, 'If you trust in Jesus and his death for you, your sins are forgiven, and you have access to God – permanent, unchanging access.' And that access doesn't depend on anything about you, but on what happened on that cross outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
So you may still need to come into relationship with God for the first time. And you may be wondering whether he could really forgive and accept you as the person you are, with the track record you've got. And that torn curtain says, 'Yes.' Because your access to him doesn't depend on anything about you, but on what what happened on that cross outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
Or you may be a Christian, often conscious of your sin, often conscious when you're praying that God really shouldn't listen to you, given the way you've lived today, or this past week, or this past year, or whatever. And you need to trust again that your access to him doesn't ever depend on anything about you, but on what happened on that cross outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.
So God gives this sign of access to him now. But lastly he gives a sign that we will also be raised into heaven with him, if our faith is in Jesus. So look at halfway through verse 51:
"And the earth shook, and the rocks were split."
And that also happened on Good Friday, as soon as Jesus had died – because verse 54 (below) says that the soldiers at the crucifixion witnessed it. Verse 52:
"The tombs also were opened. And many bodies of the saints [in other words, old covenant believers before Jesus] who had fallen asleep [in other words, died] were raised…"
And Matthew doesn't tell us exactly when that happened – it's not clear from verse 52. But verse 53 is clearly about what happened as a result on Easter Sunday:
"…and coming out of the tombs after [Jesus'] resurrection [in other words, on Easter Sunday] they went into the holy city [Jeruslaem] and appeared to many."
Then verse 54 brings us back to Good Friday:
"When the centurion and those who were with him, keeping watch over Jesus, saw the earthquake and what took place [which doesn't include the appearances of the risen saints], they were filled with awe and said, "Truly this was the Son of God!""
And I guess most of us find that the strangest, and hardest-to-believe thing which Matthew tells us. Compared to the darkness and the torn curtain it just sounds more far-fetched.
But why does it strike us that way – if it does? After all, Jesus had already brought dead people back to life, to show his power over death – like Jairus' daughter (in Mark 5) and Lazarus (in John 11). So doesn't it make sense that, once Jesus' death had taken away the judgement that makes our death something to fear, there would be a sign that our death is no longer something to fear but simply the doorway to going to be with him in heaven? Because if through Jesus the judgement I deserve is no longer hanging over me, then death isn't something to fear. As verse 52 puts it, it's simply falling asleep before being woken up the other side, in the presence of Jesus and his Father.
I've had the privilege recently of visiting one of our church family who is very near to death. And last time I visited she said this: 'I have regrets, because obviously I'm a sinner. But I have no fear, because I know my sins are forgiven. And every night now I say to the Lord, 'Please take me tonight, so that instead of having to wake up here tomorrow, I can wake up there with you.''
And that's what the cross achieved for everyone who will ever put their faith in Jesus: a forgiven relationship with God – which lasts through death into heaven forever. So the question tonight is: does that yet include you?