Jesus was nailed to the cross at nine in the morning. He died at three in the afternoon. The first three of his dying statements were spoken during his first three hours on the cross. The last four were spoken in quick succession just before he died at three.
From noon until three Jesus said nothing. These were the hours when darkness fell over the land, the hours the sun normally shines its brightest. These hours were, in the words of William Hendriksen, ‘intense and unforgettable’.
Thomas Manton says, ‘The sun seemed to be struck blind with astonishment, and the frame of nature to put itself into a funeral garb and habit, as if the creatures durst not show their glory while … Christ was suffering.’
Perhaps Charles Spurgeon put it best: ‘It was midnight at midday. ‘Never has there been such darkness. When Jesus was born a great burst of light bathed the fields around Bethlehem (Luke 2:9), but at his death there was no light but only the deepest darkness.
After those three long hours of darkness, Jesus spoke again: ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’
A central word
This is the fourth word from the cross with the three words on each side of it. It is, therefore, the centre word, and that is singularly appropriate because it brings us to the very centre of what Jesus’ death was all about. This was Jesus’ own explanation of those hours of darkness. They were hours in which God withdrew from him and turned his back on him. During these hours Jesus was deprived of fellowship and communion with God.
Now we can understand why a thick veil of darkness was drawn around the land at the time of the crucifixion. It was a visible and outward manifestation of God’s withdrawal from Jesus. The Bible says: ‘God is light’ (1 John 1:5). So as God withdraws from Jesus, darkness is fitting.
But why would God withdraw from Jesus? That is a great question. If we are to understand this amazing thing, we must address the problem the cross was designed to deal with.
There are two parts to this problem. One part is man’s sin. The other is God’s holiness. There should be no debate about the first of these. Its truth is written too large across our society to dispute.
Many are quick to acknowledge the fact of sin, but they do not understand the seriousness of it. Sin would not be so serious if we simply had to answer to each other. One sinner would be inclined to overlook another sinner. But we do not have to answer to each other. We have to answer to God. The Bible says we must all stand before him and give account of ourselves (Romans 14:12).
Can you now see how serious sin is? The One before whom we must stand and give account is holy. That means he simply cannot ignore our sin or pretend that it never took place. If he did that he would be denying and compromising his holy nature. The prophet Habakkuk states it graphically when he says to God: ‘You are of purer eyes than to behold evil, and cannot look on wickedness’ (Habakkuk 1: 13).
Sin and separation
God’s nature requires him, therefore, to judge sin. And he has already pronounced judgement upon it. What is the penalty God has pronounced upon sin? It is eternal separation from him and from everything that is good. This penalty comes out clearly in a couple of verses. In Matthew 25:41 we find that God will say to all those who appear before him in their sins: ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.’
The apostle Paul has this to say about those who appear before God with their sins unforgiven: ‘These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his power’ (2 Thessalonians 1:9).
Note the link between sin and separation in these verses. One says God will send the wicked away with the solemn word ‘depart’. The other speaks of being away ‘from the presence of the Lord’. Sin separates us from fellowship and communion with God in this life, and it finally culminates in eternal separation. If something is not done about your sin, eternal separation from God will be your lot. Separation from God is what hell is all about.
God forgives sinners
What we have just seen can all be placed in the category of bad news, but, thank God, there is also good news. This holy God who has pronounced the penalty of eternal separation upon sin has done what was necessary for our sins to be forgiven and its penalty to be lifted.
What did he do? He sent his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, into this world to take the penalty for sinners upon himself. Jesus was qualified to do this in two ways. First, he lived a perfect life and had, therefore, no sin of his own to pay for. This means he could pay for the sins of someone else. In addition to that, he was God in human flesh and, as an infinite person, he could pay for the sins of more than one.
Are you beginning to see how the cross deals with the problem of sin? Sin has to be punished. God’s holiness demands that. And yet God’s love demands that the sinner go free. Through the death of Jesus on the cross, God satisfied both the demands of his justice and love. Justice was satisfied in that sin was punished in Jesus, and love was satisfied because since Jesus took the penalty for sin, there is no penalty left for the sinner to pay.
Jesus bore our sin
The meaning of the cross is this-Jesus took the penalty for sinners so they do not have to pay that penalty themselves. Is the penalty for sin separation from God? What then did Jesus have to do in order to pay it? He had to be separated from God. Is separation from God the same as hell? Then when Jesus was separated from God on the cross, he was enduring the very pangs of hell itself.
This is what his cry was all about. During those three hours of darkness, Jesus was experiencing in his soul the penalty for sin on behalf of sinners. He was enduring the very essence of hell itself for those who in time would call on him for forgiveness. In so doing the Lord Jesus Christ took our sin upon himself, on to his shoulders, in his own body. At that point, when Christ became sin for us, the holy God turned away from his beloved Son. William Hendriksen puts it in these memorable words: ‘Hell came to Calvary that day, and the Saviour descended into it and bore its horrors in our stead.’
As far as the Christian is concerned, three statements perfectly capture what the cross of Jesus was all about. I deserve hell. Jesus took my hell. There is nothing left now for me except heaven.
If thou hast my discharge procured,
And freely in my room endured
The whole of wrath divine; Payment God cannot twice demand
First at my bleeding Surety’s hand,
And then again at mine.
Think about it!
In light of what Jesus did on the cross, I would make two appeals. First, I would appeal to all who have received his salvation to think afresh and anew on how much you owe him.
The physical aspects of the crucifixion are too horrific and terrible for words: the crown of thorns; the scourging; the nails in his hands and feet; the humiliation of it all. These things are beyond our ability to describe. But the hardest part of the whole experience for Jesus was not the physical sufferings, terrible as they were. The hardest part of the whole experience for Jesus, the part from which he shrank in the Garden of Gethsemane and prayed it might pass from him, was those hours in which he was rejected by both heaven and earth, those hours in which he became sin for us and was separated from God.
Jesus had lived his whole life in communion with the Father, but on the cross he was separated from him. And the thing that continually amazes and astounds me is that he bore it all for undeserving sinners like you and me. Because Jesus cried, ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ I will not have to cry it in eternity.
Yes, I am amazed as I reflect upon the penalty he endured that he could love me, a guilty sinner, so much, and I am also amazed that I do not love him more and serve him better.
I would also appeal to all of you who have not yet received the salvation provided by the Lord Jesus Christ. I appeal to you to think deeply and seriously about what awaits you apart from Christ. Look at the cross for a small glimmer of what hell is like. Look at the Garden of Gethsemane for another small glimmer. There the Lord Jesus, as I noted, contemplated drinking the cup of God’s wrath on the cross and shrank from it. Mark describes that experience by saying Jesus was ‘sore amazed’ in the Garden (Mark 14:33). A. W. Pink says this signifies ‘the greatest extremity of amazement, such as makes one’s hair stand on end and their flesh to creep’.
Mark goes on to say that there in Gethsemane Jesus began to be ‘very heavy’. Pink says this means ‘an utter sinking of spirit’ and he suggests that the thought of enduring the wrath of God melted the heart of Jesus ‘like wax’.
If the thought of enduring the wrath of God had such a profound effect on the Lord Jesus, how much more effect it should have upon all those whose feet are hastening towards the wrath of God.
The good news is that you do not have to experience God’s wrath. You do not have to endure the penalty of eternal separation from him. The Lord Jesus Christ paid the penalty in full for all those who turn from their sins and receive him as their Lord and Saviour. Turn to him now. Turn to him and you will be able to sing those glorious words:
Jesus paid it all,
All to him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.