The day Jesus died was not a dark night but a dark day. At noon the sun disappeared and the sky grew dark in Jerusalem. This strange darkness is mentioned by secular historians like Thallus, Phlegon, Africanus and Tertullian.
Just as the night skies were lit up by a bright star and choirs of angels on the night of Jesus’ birth, God turned off the sun’s light on the day His Son died. Without a doubt, the darkness was an ‘act of God’ in the truest sense.
The darkness was real and not a metaphor. It was the ominous sign of God’s curse on Jesus as He bore all human sin and rebellion as our substitute. Then came Jesus’s anguished cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” It silenced the mockery of the priests and hushed the insults of the passers-by and the criminals being crucified alongside Jesus. Then came another divine intervention. The temple curtain was ripped in two from top to bottom.
What was so striking about those three hours that caused a hardened Roman centurion to confess, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” What did the soldier see in Jesus that changed him so radically to make this stunning confession?
And it was the third hour when they crucified him. 26 And the inscription of the charge against him read, “The King of the Jews.” 27 And with him they crucified two robbers, one on his right and one on his left. 29 And those who passed by derided him, wagging their heads and saying, “Aha! You who would destroy the temple and rebuild it in three days, 30 save yourself, and come down from the cross!” 31 So also the chief priests with the scribes mocked him to one another, saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself. 32 Let the Christ, the King of Israel, come down now from the cross that we may see and believe.” Those who were crucified with him also reviled him.
33 And when the sixth hour had come, there was darkness over the whole land until the ninth hour. 34 And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 35 And some of the bystanders hearing it said, “Behold, he is calling Elijah.”36 And someone ran and filled a sponge with sour wine, put it on a reed and gave it to him to drink, saying, “Wait, let us see whether Elijah will come to take him down.” 37 And Jesus uttered a loud cry and breathed his last. 38 And the curtain of the temple was torn in two, from top to bottom. 39 And when the centurion, who stood facing him, saw that in this way he breathed his last, he said, “Truly this man was the Son of God!”
The day the sun went down
There is no naturalistic explanation for the three hours of midday darkness recorded by Matthew, Mark and Luke (Mark 15:33). Even secular historians agree that it happened. For example, Phelgon, a Greek historian in 137AD wrote:
“In the fourth year of the 202nd Olympiad (ie, AD 33) there was the greatest eclipse of the sun and it became night in the sixth hour of the day so that star even appeared in the heavens. There was a great earthquake in Bithynia and many things were overturned in Nicaea.”
The problem with Phelgon’s naturalistic explanation is that an eclipse could not have caused the darkness. Jesus was crucified the day before Passover and eclipses do not occur during the full moon. The fact of the darkness is not in doubt from a historical point of view, just its cause.
The three hour darkness on the day of Christ’s crucifixion reminds us of the ninth plague when an ominous darkness settled over Egypt for three days preceding the death of the Egyptian firstborn sons. It was a sign of divine judgment to come.
Exodus 10:22 “So Moses stretched out his hand toward heaven, and there was pitch darkness in all the land of Egypt for three days.”
Yahweh himself entered the darkness of Egypt to liberate his people who were sheltered by the blood of the lambs they had sacrificed and eaten the previous night. That was the first Passover when the angel of death passed over the Israelite homes.
The curse of the cross
As darkness hung over the cross on the Friday before Passover in 33AD, the religious Jewish leaders must have felt an eerie nudge from the prophet Amos who, in 750BC, had foretold God’s judgment on Israel for their rejection of Him. Darkness was the portending sign:
“And on that day,” declares the Lord God,
“I will make the sun go down at noon
and darken the earth in broad daylight.
10 I will turn your feasts into mourning
and all your songs into lamentation;
I will bring sackcloth on every waist
and baldness on every head;
I will make it like the mourning for an only son
and the end of it like a bitter day.” Amos 8:9-10
Was this first Easter Friday not a ‘bitter day’ when God the Father made the sun go down at noon in mourning for His only beloved Son?
The curse reversed
Even the Roman centurion realized that the crucifixion was no ordinary death. On the cross, God’s beloved Son died as the perfect Passover sacrifice. Through his death, Jesus reversed the curse that Adam and Eve brought upon creation when they refused to live under God’s rule (Gen 3:10; 17-19). Paul reminds us that only Jesus is qualified to redeem us from the curse of God’s judgment.
“For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: “Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law”…13 Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: “Cursed is everyone who is hung on a pole.” 14 He redeemed us in order that the blessing given to Abraham might come to the Gentiles through Christ Jesus, so that by faith we might receive the promise of the Spirit. (Gal 3:10;13-14)
Jesus became cursed in our place, so that every sinner may receive the blessing given to Abraham, through faith in Him. His willing death reversed the curse.
A cry and a curtain
The centurion at the cross must have often heard the agonized shouts of condemned men, but Jesus’s cry was different. Mark records his actual words in Aramaic to heighten the intensity of Christ’s anguish as He was separated from His Father for the first time in all eternity. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” This was a precise echo of David’s divine abandonment a thousand years before (Ps 22:1).
Jesus’s God-forsaken cry and the ripped curtain go to the heart of why Jesus died:
The essence of sin is that we forsake God. We reject His rule over our lives and disbelieve his word, just as Adam and Eve did. As a result of our sin, we are God-forsaken and alienated from Him, just as Adam and Eve were banished from the Garden. The temple curtain was the symbol of that separation. The curtain blocked sinful people from approaching God’s presence in the Holy of Holies. But when Jesus died and took the punishment for sin instead of us, God ripped this curtain from top to bottom to make a bold statement.
Jesus is the rip in the curtain!
This is how Hebrews explains it:
“…we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, 20 by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body” (Heb 10:19-20).
“But when Christ came as high priest of the good things that are now already here, he went through the greater and more perfect tabernacle that is not made with human hands, that is to say, is not a part of this creation. 12 He did not enter by means of the blood of goats and calves; but he entered the Most Holy Place once for all by his own blood, thus obtaining eternal redemption” (Heb 9:11-12).
The last word
God had the last word to the chief priests and Pharisees by tearing the curtain and opening up the way to the Holy of Holies.
The Jewish leaders had refused the offer of God’s Son and were desperate to see Him dead and buried before their Passover celebrations began. By ripping the curtain in half, God put an end to that Passover in 33AD, and also to their temple rituals forever. God’s message was loud and clear:
“My Son is the pure, perfect Passover Lamb who laid down his life for sinners. He is the final High Priest–the only sinless mediator between me and all who trust Him as Saviour. His broken body and blood is the ‘tabernacle’ not made with human hands. His death buys eternal redemption for sinners dressed in his perfect robes of righteousness. My Son has ripped open the barrier, so that anyone who believes in Him can approach me boldly. My Son has finished His work and fulfilled everything the temple and prophets pointed to. I forsook my Son on the cross so that believing sinners may never be God-forsaken again! The time for temple rituals and sacrifices is now over! The old has passed and the new has come (2 Cor 5:17). All I want is you—your whole life– for that is how you worship me (Rom 12:1-2). Put your faith in the Messiah I have provided and you will never be separated from me again. You will be my Temple (1 Cor 6:19), I will be your Father, and you will live with me forever!” *
The centurion who stood vigil at the cross somehow caught a glimpse of its stunning significance and confessed his belief out loud:
“Surely this man was the Son of God!”
Who knows what happened to this centurion, but his conversion is as remarkable as the thief who hung on the cross beside Jesus (Luke 23:40; 41; 42; 43). By recording the centurion’s confession of faith, Mark sends us a powerful message:
Jesus is the Saviour of every undeserving sinner who calls to Him, no matter what you have done or where you have been. The only condition is that you look to the perfect Passover Lamb as your own Saviour and Lord.
Easter is good news for every sinner who has repented and believed in Jesus, the Son of God. Otherwise, Easter is nothing more than a season of empty rituals, just as the Passover was to the religious leaders of Jesus’s time. They trusted in their own righteousness and did not think they needed God’s Passover Lamb. They refused to walk through the torn curtain into the embrace of God the Father.
Without personal faith in Jesus, Easter will give you false comfort. If you have not received Him as your own atoning sacrifice, you will go to your death alone and alienated from God. Only Jesus can cover for us as we walk into eternity. Jesus is the gap in the curtain that invites us to fellowship with God today, tomorrow and after the grave. I will end our devotion with Jesus’s own question to Martha at the death of his friend, Lazarus. He speaks to each of us too:
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die; 26 and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. Do you believe this?” John 11:25-26
Do you live today with full assurance that you will live forever?
*Roydon Frost explains how Jesus is better in every way than what went before: