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The death that gives us life

March 2005 | by Gordon Keddie

‘Now it was about the sixth hour, and there was darkness over all the earth until the ninth hour. Then the sun was darkened, and the veil of the temple was torn in two. And when Jesus had cried out with a loud voice, he said, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit”. Having said this, he breathed his last. So when the centurion saw what had happened, he glorified God, saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!” And the whole crowd who came together to that sight, seeing what had been done, beat their breasts and returned. But all his acquaintances, and the women who followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things’ (Luke 23:44-49).

The two most powerful events in the natural course of life are surely birth and death. Birth is always a wondrous miracle and death a dark outrage.

Jesus, too, was born and died — but both events were unique in their character and consequences. His birth was nothing less than the enfleshment of God the Son, in which the divine and human natures were united in the one person.

His death was the means by which he would ‘take away the sin of the world’ (John 1:29). Others have laid down their lives for their friends and so give them life for a season. But Jesus’ death is the only death that gives new life — securing salvation now and for all eternity.

In his account of the crucifixion, Luke lays this out in terms of a three-fold witness — the works of God, the words of Jesus and the wonder of the people.

The works of God

The ‘sixth hour’ means noon, when the sun was highest. Jesus was nailed to the cross at 9.00am (‘the third hour’, Mark 15:25) and died at 3.00pm. This sets the context for two miraculous works of God.

The first was darkness at noon (v. 44). Darkness at the brightest time of the day demonstrates God’s sovereign power over the elements. ‘Then the moon will be disgraced and the sun ashamed: for the Lord of Hosts will reign on Mount Zion in Jerusalem’ (Isaiah 24:23). This is a miracle involving creation — ‘a sign for the unbelieving world’, says J. C. Ryle, ‘to compel men to think’.

The second miracle was the rending of the veil in the temple as Jesus died (v. 45). This curtain separated the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. The High Priest entered the former only on the Day of Atonement — when he offered sacrifices for sin and sprinkled their blood on the mercy seat of the Ark.

This miracle, therefore, signified that atonement for sins had been made once and for ever by the sacrifice of Christ — the final and complete substitutionary sacrifice for sinners. This is a miracle of salvation — it declares that Jesus is the true atonement, the true High Priest and the only way of salvation (see Hebrews 10:19ff.).

He is the fulfilment of all that the temple and its sacrifices had represented concerning the redemption of lost people and their reconciliation to God.

The words of Jesus

Jesus died with Scripture on his lips: ‘Father into your hands I commit my spirit’ (Psalm 31:5). David penned these words when he was faced by wicked enemies. But Jesus also faced a just and holy God.

David commits his spirit to God, but Jesus cries to the Father who forsakes him. David, for all his distress, was not dying, but Jesus was dying under the weight of the sin of the world.

Notice three elements in Jesus’ dying words to his Father:

Confiding love for his Father.

Earlier, forsaken under God’s wrath against sin, he had cried, ‘My God, my God’ (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1). Now he cries ‘Father’. Why the sudden change?

Jesus had just declared, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30). ‘The dreadful agony of his soul was now over’ (Matthew Henry). Having paid sin’s penalty to his God, he casts himself upon his Father’s love.

‘The Father loves the Son’, he had declared, ‘and has given all things into his hand’ (John 3:35). Jesus reaffirms his unwavering confidence in the Father, even as he bears the Father’s wrath in the place of sinners.

Complete submission to his Father’s will.

Jesus says ‘into your hands’. He accepts his Father’s holy justice against sin and sinners.

He submits as the substitute for sinners who cannot possibly atone for their own sins; that is, he submits to the expiation (wiping clean) of that sin and the propitiation (appeasing satisfaction) of God’s justified anger. And he does it all for others, not at all for himself!

The Old Testament testifies: ‘Yet it pleased the Lord to bruise him; he has put him to grief. When you make his soul an offering for sin, he shall see his seed, he shall prolong his days, and the pleasure of the Lord shall prosper in his hand’ (Isaiah 53:10).

Jesus confirms the prophecy: ‘The Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (Matthew 20:28). Hebrews reiterates the point: ‘how much more shall the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without spot to God, cleanse your conscience from dead works to serve the living God’ (Hebrews 9:14).

Certain expectation of his Father’s favour.

Jesus says, ‘I commit my spirit’. He commits his ‘spirit’ into the Father’s safe-keeping because his body is headed for the grave: ‘Having said this, he breathed his last’. He looks forward with confidence to his resurrection — his total victory over death and the grave.

Furthermore, Jesus expects his Father’s blessing not merely for himself but for others. Matthew Henry comments, ‘It was not in reference to himself alone that Christ committed his soul to the Father … but he included … in one bundle all the souls of those who believe in him, that they may be preserved along with his own’.

The wonder of the people

You never know how people will respond to an event. Jesus’ death on the cross is no exception. Luke mentions a centurion, the curious crowd and Jesus’ followers.

The centurion (presumably supervising the executions) responded in faith. He ‘glorified God saying, “Certainly this was a righteous Man”’ (v. 47).

The crowd went awaydisturbed. People who attended public executions were generally there for macabre entertainment. Such folk are not usually stricken with grief; but on this occasion they ‘beat their breasts’ — strangely aware that an innocent man had died (v. 48).

Those who loved Jesus were filled with numbed bewilderment. They ‘stood at a distance, watching these things’ (v. 49). Jesus knew the truth of Psalm 88:18: ‘Loved one and friend you have put far from me, and my acquaintances into darkness’. They grieved and wondered. Their hopes seemingly died on that cross with Jesus.

The challenge of the cross

When the infant Jesus was presented at the temple, Simeon prophesied, ‘Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against … that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’ (Luke 2:25, 34-35).

The cross is the crux of the matter. Christ crucified is the hinge of history. Only at the cross can we recognise our personal sin and need of a Saviour.

The babe in the manger sweetly heralds salvation, and the resurrection is the seal of salvation accomplished and applied. But it is only at the cross that Christ bears our sin and secures ‘redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins’ (Ephesians 1:7).

What, then, is our proper response to Christ’s suffering and death?

Grace and supplication

Surely it should be to exercise ‘repentance toward God and faith in the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Acts 20:21).

Many centuries before Christ, the only way of salvation was proclaimed: ‘I will pour on the house of David and on the inhabitants of Jerusalem the Spirit of grace and supplication; then they will look on me whom they pierced. Yes, they will mourn for him as one mourns for his only son, and grieve for him as one grieves for a firstborn’ (Zechariah 12:10). And believing in the crucified Jesus as their substitute, they would not perish, but receive everlasting life.

For those who know Jesus as the Saviour who died in their place, the cross reveals God’s glory and compassion in ever greater brightness and fulness. Their joy should be to praise him by a life surrendered to his Son, declaring, ‘I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that he is able to keep that which I have committed to him until that day’ (2 Timothy 1:12).

For Christ died and was raised from death so that all who believe in him might have life and have it abundantly (John 10:10).

The author is Minister of Southside RPC, Indianapolis, USA.