We have here, at length, an account of the death of Christ, and several remarkable passages that attended it.
I. The manner how he breathed his last (Matt. 27:50); between the third and the sixth hour, that is, between nine and twelve o’clock, as we reckon, he was nailed to the cross, and soon after the ninth hour, that is, between three and four o’clock in the afternoon, he died. That was the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, and the time when the paschal lamb was killed; and Christ our Passover was sacrificed for us and offered himself in the evening of the world a sacrifice to God of a sweet–smelling savour. It was at that time of the day, that the angel Gabriel delivered to Daniel that glorious prediction of the Messiah, Dan. 9:21, 24, etc. And some think that from that very time when the angel spoke it, to this time when Christ died, was just seventy weeks, that is, four hundred and ninety years to a day, to an hour; as the departure of Israel out of Egypt was at the end of the four hundred and thirty years, even the self–same day, Exod. 12:41.
Two things are here noted concerning the manner of Christ’s dying.
1. That he cried with a loud voice, as before, Matt. 27:46. Now,
(1.) This was a sign, that, after all his pains and fatigues, his life was whole in him, and nature strong. The voice of dying men is one of the first things that fails; with a panting breath and a faltering tongue, a few broken words are hardly spoken, and more hardly heard. But Christ, just before he expired, spoke like a man in his full strength, to show that his life was not forced from him, but was freely delivered by him into his Father’s hands, as his own act and deed. He that had strength to cry thus when he died, could have got loose from the arrest he was under, and have bid defiance to the powers of death; but to show that by the eternal Spirit he offered himself, being the Priest as well as the Sacrifice, he cried with a loud voice.
(2.) It was significant. This loud voice shows that he attacked our spiritual enemies with an undaunted courage, and such a bravery of resolution as bespeaks him hearty in the cause and daring in the encounter. He was now spoiling principalities and powers, and in this loud voice he did, as it were, shout for mastery, as one mighty to save, Isa. 63:1. Compare with this, Isa. 7:2, 14. He now bowed himself with all his might, as Samson did, when he said, Let me die with the Philistines, Judg. 16:30. Animamque in vulnere ponit—And lays down his life. His crying with a loud voice when he died, signified that his death should be published and proclaimed to all the world; all mankind being concerned in it, and obliged to take notice of it. Christ’s loud cry was like a trumpet blown over the sacrifices.
2. That then he yielded up the ghost. This is the usual periphrasis of dying; to show that the Son of God upon the cross did truly and properly die by the violence of the pain he was put to. His soul was separated from his body, and so his body was left really and truly dead. It was certain that he did die, for it was requisite that he should die; thus it was written, both in the close rolls of the divine counsels, and in the letters patent of the divine predictions, and therefore thus it behoved him to suffer. Death being the penalty for the breach of the first covenant (Thou shalt surely die), the Mediator of the new covenant must make atonement by means of death, otherwise no remission, Heb. 9:15. He had undertaken to make his soul an offering for sin; and he did it, when he yielded up the ghost, and voluntarily resigned it.
II. The miracles that attended his death. So many miracles being wrought by him in his life, we might well expect some to be wrought concerning him at his death, for his name was called Wonderful. Had he been fetched away as Elijah in a fiery chariot, that had itself been miracle enough; but, being sent for away by an ignominious cross, it was requisite that his humiliation should be attended with some signal emanations of the divine glory.
1. Behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain. This relation is ushered in with Behold; “Turn aside, and see this great sight, and be astonished at it.” Just as our Lord Jesus expired, at the time of the offering of the evening–sacrifice, and upon a solemn day, when the priests were officiating in the temple, and might themselves be eyewitnesses of it, the veil of the temple was rent by an invisible power; that veil which parted between the holy place and the most holy. They had condemned him for saying, I will destroy this temple, understanding it literally; now by this specimen of his power he let them know that, if he had pleased, he could have made his words good. In this, as in others of Christ’s miracles, there was a mystery.
(1.) It was in correspondence with the temple of Christ’s body, which was now in the dissolving. This was the true temple, in which dwelt the fulness of the Godhead; when Christ cried with a loud voice, and gave up the ghost, and so dissolved that temple, the literal temple did, as it were, echo to that cry, and answer the stroke, by rending its veil. Note, Death is the rending of the veil of flesh which interposes between us and the holy of holies; the death of Christ was so, the death of true Christians is so.
(2.) It signified the revealing and unfolding of the mysteries of the Old Testament. The veil of the temple was for concealment, as was that on the face of Moses, therefore it was called the veil of the covering; for it was highly penal for any person to see the furniture of the most holy place, except the High–Priest, and he but once a year, with great ceremony and through a cloud of smoke; all which signified the darkness of that dispensation; 2Cor. 3:13. But now, at the death of Christ, all was laid open, the mysteries were unveiled, so that now he that runs may read the meaning of them. Now we see that the mercy–seat signified Christ the great Propitiation; the pot of manna signified Christ the Bread of life. Thus we all with open face behold, as in a glass (which helps the sight, as the veil hindered it), the glory of the Lord. Our eyes see the salvation.
(3.) It signified the uniting of Jew and Gentile, by the removing of the partition wall between them, which was the ceremonial law, by which the Jews were distinguished from all other people (as a garden enclosed), were brought near to God, while others were made to keep their distance. Christ, in his death, repealed the ceremonial law, cancelled that hand–writing of ordinances, took it out of the way, nailed it to his cross, and so broke down the middle wall of partition; and by abolishing those institutions abolished the enmity, and made in himself of twain one new man (as two rooms are made one, and that large and lightsome, by taking down the partition), so making peace, Eph. 2:14-16. Christ died, to rend all dividing veils, and to make all his one, John 17:21.
(4.) It signified the consecrating and laying open of a new and living way to God. The veil kept people off from drawing near to the most holy place, where the Shechinah was. But the rending of it signified that Christ by his death opened a way to God, [1.] For himself. This was the great day of atonement, when our Lord Jesus, as the great High–Priest, not by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood, entered once for all into the holy place; in token of which the veil was rent, Heb. 9:7, etc. Having offered his sacrifice in the outer court, the blood of it was now to be sprinkled upon the mercy–seat within the veil; wherefore lift up your heads, O ye gates, and be ye lift up, ye everlasting doors; for the King of glory, the Priest of glory, shall come in. Now was he caused to draw near, and made to approach, Jer. 30:21. Though he did not personally ascend into the holy place not made with hands till above forty days after, yet he immediately acquired a right to enter, and had a virtual admission. [2.] For us in him: so the apostle applies it, Heb. 10:19, 20. We have boldness to enter into the holiest, by that new and living way which he has consecrated for us through the veil. He died, to bring us to God, and, in order thereunto, to rend that veil of guilt and wrath which interposed between us and him, to take away the cherubim and flaming sword, and to open the way to the tree of life. We have free access through Christ to the throne of grace, or mercy–seat, now, and to the throne of glory hereafter, Heb. 4:16; Heb. 6:20. The rending of the veil signified (as that ancient hymn excellently expresses it), that, when Christ had overcome the sharpness of death, he opened the kingdom of heaven to all believers. Nothing can obstruct or discourage our access to heaven, for the veil is rent; a door is opened in heaven, Rev. 4:1.
2. The earth did quake; not only mount Calvary, where Christ was crucified, but the whole land, and the adjacent countries. This earthquake signified two things.
(1.) The horrible wickedness of Christ’s crucifiers. The earth, by trembling under such a load, bore its testimony to the innocency of him that was persecuted, and against the impiety of those that persecuted him. Never did the whole creation, before, groan under such a burthen as the Son of God crucified, and the guilty wretches that crucified him. The earth quaked, as if it feared to open its mouth to receive the blood of Christ, so much more precious than that of Abel, which it had received, and was cursed for it (Gen. 4:11, 12); and as if it fain would open its mouth, to swallow up those rebels that put him to death, as it had swallowed up Dathan and Abiram for a much less crime. When the prophet would express God’s great displeasure against the wickedness of the wicked, he asks, Shall not the land tremble for this? Amos 8:8.
(2.) The glorious achievements of Christ’s cross. This earthquake signified the mighty shock, nay, the fatal blow, now given to the devil’s kingdom. So vigorous was the assault Christ now made upon the infernal powers, that (as of old, when he went out of Seir, when he marched through the field of Edom) the earth trembled, Judg. 5:4; Ps. 68:7, 8. God shakes all nations, when the Desire of all nations is to come; and there is a yet once more, which perhaps refers to this shaking, Hag. 2:6, 21.
3. The rocks rent; the hardest and firmest part of the earth was made to feel this mighty shock. Christ had said, that if the children should cease to cry Hosanna, the stones would immediately cry out; and now, in effect, they did so, proclaiming the glory of the suffering Jesus, and themselves more sensible of the wrong done him than the hard–hearted Jews were, who yet will shortly be glad to find a hole in the rocks, and a cleft in the ragged rocks, to hide them from the face of him that sitteth on the throne. See Rev. 6:16; Isa. 2:21. But when God’s fury is poured out like fire, the rocks are thrown down by him, Nah. 1:6. Jesus Christ is the Rock; and the rending of these rocks, signified the rending of that rock, (1.) That in the clefts of it was may be hid, as Moses in the cleft of the rock at Horeb, that there we may behold the glory of the Lord, as he did, Exod. 33:22. Christ’s dove is said to be hid in the clefts of the rock (Song 2:14), that is, as some make the allusion, sheltered in the wounds of our Lord Jesus, the Rock rent. (2.) That from the cleft of it rivers of living water may flow, and follow us in this wilderness, as from the rock which Moses smote (Exod. 17:6), and which God clave (Ps. 78:15); and that rock was Christ, 1Cor. 10:4. When we celebrate the memorial of Christ’s death, our hard and rocky hearts must be rent—the heart, and not the garments. That heart is harder than a rock, that will not yield, that will not melt, where Jesus Christ is evidently set forth crucified.
4. The graves were opened. This matter is not related so fully as our curiosity would wish; for the scripture was not intended to gratify that; it should seem, that same earthquake that rent the rocks, opened the graves, and many bodies of saints which slept, arose. Death to the saints is but the sleep of the body, and the grave the bed it sleeps in; they awoke by the power of the Lord Jesus, and (Matt. 27:53) came out of the graves after his resurrection, and went into Jerusalem, the holy city, and appeared unto many. Now here,
(1.) We may raise many enquiries concerning it, which we cannot resolve: as, [1.] Who these saints were, that did arise. Some think, the ancient patriarchs, that were in such care to be buried in the land of Canaan, perhaps in the believing foresight of the advantage of this early resurrection. Christ had lately proved the doctrine of the resurrection from the instance of the patriarchs (Matt. 22:32), and here was a speedy confirmation of his argument. Others think, these that arose were modern saints, such as had been Christ in the flesh, but died before him; as his father Joseph, Zecharias, Simeon, John Baptist, and others, that had been known to the disciples, while they lived, and therefore were the fitter to be witnesses to them in an apparition after. What if we should suppose that they were the martyrs, who in the Old–Testament times had sealed the truths of God with their blood, that were thus dignified and distinguished? Christ particularly points at them as his forerunners, Matt. 23:35. And we find (Rev. 20:4, 5), that those who were beheaded for the testimony of Jesus, arose before the rest of the dead. Sufferers with Christ shall first reign with him. [2.] It is uncertain whether (as some think) they arose to life, now at the death of Christ, and disposed of themselves elsewhere, but did not go into the city till after his resurrection; or whether (as others think), though their sepulchres (which the Pharisees had built and varnished, Matt. 23:29), and so made remarkable, were shattered now by the earthquake (so little did God regard that hypocritical respect), yet they did not revive and rise till after the resurrection; only, for brevity–sake, it is mentioned here, upon the mention of the opening of the graves, which seems more probable. [3.] Some think that they arose only to bear witness of Christ’s resurrection to those to whom they appeared, and, having finished their testimony, retired to their graves again. But it is more agreeable, both to Christ’s honour and theirs, to suppose, though we cannot prove, that they arose as Christ did, to die no more, and therefore ascended with him to glory. Surely on them who did partake of his first resurrection, a second death had no power. [4.] To whom they appeared (not to all the people it is certain, but to many), whether enemies or friends, in what manner they appeared, how often, what they said and did, and how they disappeared, are secret things which belong not to us; we must not covet to be wise above what is written. The relating of this matter so briefly, is a plain intimation to us, that we must not look that way for a confirmation of our faith; we have a more sure word of prophecy. See Luke 16:31.
(2.) Yet we may learn many good lessons from it. [1.] That even those who lived and died before the death and resurrection of Christ, had saving benefit thereby, as well as those who have lived since; for he was the same yesterday that he is to–day, and will be for ever, Heb. 13:8. [2.] That Jesus Christ, by dying, conquered, disarmed, and disabled, death. These saints that arose, were the present trophies of the victory of Christ’s cross over the powers of death, which he thus made a show of openly. Having by death destroyed him that had the power of death, he thus led captivity captive, and gloried in these re–taken prizes, in them fulfilling that scripture, I will ransom them from the power of the grave. [3.] That, in virtue of Christ’s resurrection, the bodies of all the saints shall, in the fulness of time, rise again. This was an earnest of the general resurrection at the last day, when all that are in the graves shall hear the voice of the Son of God. And perhaps Jerusalem is therefore called here the holy city, because the saints, at the general resurrection, shall enter into the new Jerusalem; which will be indeed what the other was in name and type only, the holy city, Rev. 21:2. [4.] That all the saints do, by the influence of Christ’s death, and in conformity to it, rise from the death of sin to the life of righteousness. They are raised up with him to a divine and spiritual life; they go into the holy city, become citizens of it, have their conversation in it, and appear to many, as persons not of this world.
III. The conviction of his enemies that were employed in the execution (Matt. 27:54), which some make no less than another miracle, all things considered. Observe,
1. The persons convinced; the centurion, and they that were with him watching Jesus; a captain and his company, that were set on the guard on this occasion. (1.) They were soldiers, whose profession is commonly hardening, and whose breasts are commonly not so susceptible as some others of the impressions either of fear or pity. But there is no spirit too big, too bold, for the power of Christ to break and humble. (2.) They ware Romans, Gentiles, who knew not the scriptures which were now fulfilled; yet they only were convinced. A sad presage of the blindness that should happen to Israel, when the gospel should be sent to the Gentiles, to open their eyes. Here were the Gentiles softened, and the Jews hardened. (3.) They were the persecutors of Christ, and those that but just before had reviled him, as appears Luke 23:36. How soon can God, by the power he has over men’s consciences, alter their language, and fetch confessions of his truths, to his own glory, out of the mouths of those that have breathed nothing but threatenings, and slaughter, and blasphemies!
2. The means of their conviction; they perceived the earthquake, which frightened them, and saw the other things that were done. These were designed to assert the honour of Christ in his sufferings, and had their end on these soldiers, whatever they had on others. Note, The dreadful appearances of God in his providence sometimes work strangely for the conviction and awakening of sinners.
3. The expressions of this conviction, in two things.
(1.) The terror that was struck upon them; they feared greatly; feared lest they should have been buried in the darkness, or swallowed up in the earthquake. Note, God can easily frighten the most daring of his adversaries, and make them know themselves to be but men. Guilt puts men into fear. He that, when iniquity abounds, doth not fear always, with a fear of caution, when judgments are abroad, cannot but fear greatly, with a fear of amazement; whereas there are those who will not fear, though the earth be removed, Ps. 46:1, 2.
(2.) The testimony that was extorted from them; they said, Truly this was the Son of God; a noble confession; Peter was blessed for it, Matt. 16:16, 17. It was the great matter now in dispute, the point upon which he and his enemies had joined issue, Matt. 26:63, 64. His disciples believed it, but at this time durst not confess it; our Saviour himself was tempted to question it, when he said, Why hast thou forsaken me? The Jews, now that he was dying upon the cross, looked upon it as plainly determined against him, that he was not the Son of God, because he did not come down from the cross. And yet now this centurion and the soldiers make this voluntary confession of the Christian faith, Truly this was the Son of God. The best of his disciples could not have said more at any time, and at this time they had not faith and courage enough to say thus much. Note, God can maintain and assert the honour of a truth then when it seems to be crushed, and run down; for great is the truth, and will prevail.
IV. The attendance of his friends, that were witnesses of his death, Matt. 27:55, 56. Observe,
1. Who they were; many women who followed him from Galilee. Not his apostles (only elsewhere we find John by the cross, John 19:26), their hearts failed them, they durst not appear, for fear of coming under the same condemnation. But here were a company of women, some would have called them silly women, that boldly stuck to Christ, when the rest of his disciples had basely deserted him. Note, Even those of the weaker sex are often, by the grace of God, made strong in faith, that Christ’s strength may be made perfect in weakness. There have been women martyrs, famous for courage and resolution in Christ’s cause. Now of these women it is said, (1.) That they had followed Jesus from Galilee, out of the great love they had to him, and a desire to hear him preach; otherwise, the males only were obliged to come up, to worship at the feast. Now having followed him such a long journey as from Galilee to Jerusalem, eighty or a hundred miles, they resolved not to forsake him now. Note, Our former services and sufferings for Christ should be an argument with us, faithfully to persevere to the end in our attendance on him. Have we followed him so far and so long, done so much, and laid out so much for him, and shall we forsake him now? Gal. 3:3, 4. (2.) That they ministered to him of their substance, for his necessary subsistence. How gladly would they have ministered to him now, if they might have been admitted! But, being forbidden that, they resolved to follow him. Note, When we are restrained from doing what we would, we must do what we can, in the service of Christ. Now that he is in heaven, though he is out of the reach of our ministration, he is not out of the reach of our believing views. (3.) Some of them are particularly named; for God will honour those that honour Christ. They were such as we have several times met with before, and it was their praise, that we meet with them to the last.
2. What they did; they were beholding afar off.
(1.) They stood afar off. Whether their own fear or their enemies’ fury kept them at a distance, is not certain; however, it was an aggravation of the sufferings of Christ, that his lovers and friends stood aloof from his sore, Ps. 38:11; Job 19:13. Perhaps they might have come nearer, if they would; but good people, when they are in sufferings, must not think it strange, if some of their best friends be shy of them. When Paul’s danger was imminent, no man stood by him, 2Tim. 4:16. If we be thus looked strangely upon, remember, our Master was so before us.
(2.) They were there beholding, in which they showed a concern and kindness for Christ; when they were debarred from doing any other office of love to him, they looked a look of love toward him. [1.] It was a sorrowful look; they looked unto him who was now pierced, and mourned; and no doubt, were in bitterness for him. We may well imagine how it cut them to the heart, to see him in this torment; and what floods of tears it fetched from their eyes. Let us with an eye of faith behold Christ and him crucified, and be affected with that great love wherewith he loved us. But, [2.] It was no more than a look; they beheld him, but they could not help him. Note, When Christ was in his sufferings, the best of his friends were but spectators and lookers on, even the angelic guards stood trembling by, saith Mr. Norris, for he trod the wine–press alone, and of the people there was none with him; so his own arm wrought salvation.