(Continued from Sep-Oct 2013 issue)

We finish our study of Jesus’ crucifixion looking at the last words He spoke from the cross and the events which occurred immediately after His death.

#7  “Father, Into Your Hands I Commit My Spirit”

Jesus’ triumphant cry of “It is finished!” signaled the end of His sufferings for our sins. The time had come for Him to enter into His rest, so, “bowing His head, He gave up His spirit” (John 19:30) uttering these words, “Father, into Your hands I commit My spirit” (Luke 23:46).

Jesus’ head did not sag or drop with His death; He bowed His head, letting it recline upon His breast, and then “gave up His spirit.” Thayer’s Greek Lexicon says that the expression “gave up” means “to give into the hands of another” or “to give over into one’s power.” Just before He died, Jesus delivered His spirit into the hands of His Father, committing it to His keeping, and then “breathed His last” (Luke 23:46).

The use of the expression “breathed His last” to describe Jesus’ death is particularly significant. When God created man, He “breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” (Gen. 2:7). Death occurs when we breathe our last breath of the life God gives us. A person can choose to die by committing suicide; or by sacrificing his life to save another person, a noble act a soldier might do in times of war. Jesus did neither; He did not commit suicide, and though He sacrificed His life to save us, He did not step in front of a bullet or throw Himself on a grenade. Jesus did something we cannot do—He simply stopped breathing; He chose the moment He would take His final breath.

Some would argue that crucifixion took Jesus’ life, but the Scriptures do not bear this out. When Pilate heard that Jesus was dead after only six hours on the cross, he marveled and summoned the centurion in charge of His crucifixion to verify this (Mark 15:44). Crucifixion did not take Jesus’ life; He laid it down.

In His discourse on the Good Shepherd, Jesus declared that He would “give” (John 10:11) or “lay down” (John 10:15) His life for His sheep. Both verses use the same Greek word. Jesus clarified the meaning when He went on to say, “No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again” (John 10:18). No one took Jesus’ life from Him; He willingly laid it down, the way a person might “lay aside” his garments (John 13:4). Then, in resurrection, He took up His life again, as a person might “take up” his garments (John 13:12). Jesus had the power, or literally “the authority,” to do both, a power He received by the command of His Father.

In Jesus’ first statement from the cross, He addressed God as “Father,” but during His last three hours on the cross, as He bore the sins of the world, He called Him “My God.” As He neared death and the burden of the world’s sins was lifted, Jesus once again referred to God as “Father,” their relationship being restored.

The Veil Torn in Two

The moment Jesus died, the veil of the temple leading into the holy of holies “was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51). From top to bottom indicates it was torn by God, not by man. In Jesus’ day, the veil of the temple was 40 cubits high, about 60 feet. It would have been impossible for any man to tear it from top to bottom. In addition, according to Jewish tradition, the veil was as thick as the palm of a man’s hand, making it highly unlikely a man could it tear at all.

The veil separated the holy place, where the Jewish priests would minister daily, from the holy of holies, God’s dwelling place in the midst of His people. The veil was the one way of access to God’s presence, but it was not open to everyone. The high priest alone could pass through the veil and enter the holy of holies, but only once a year on the day of atonement, and “not without blood, which he offered for himself and for the people’s sins” (Heb. 9:7).

The Holy Spirit used these restrictions to indicate that, under the Mosaic Law, entrance into God’s presence was not yet available (Heb. 9:8), but when Christ shed His blood as a sacrifice for our sins, He opened the way for fallen men to have access to a holy God. Believers now have “boldness to enter the Holiest by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way which He consecrated for us, through the veil, that is, His flesh” (Heb. 10:19-20). When Christ’s flesh was torn on the cross and His precious blood was shed, He opened the way “to bring us to God” (1 Pet. 3:18). Because of what Christ Jesus our Lord accomplished at Calvary, “we have boldness and access (to God) with confidence through faith in Him” (Eph. 3:11-12).

The Earthquake

Not only was the veil torn in two at Christ’s death, “the earth quaked, and the rocks split” as well (Matt. 27:51). This powerful physical phenomenon was a picture of the spiritual impact our Savior’s death would have upon the world.

The Scriptures often associate earthquakes with judgment (Isa. 29:6). The death of Christ brought judgment from God: His judgment upon our sins (Rom. 8:3), His judgment of the world (John 12:31), and His judgment of Satan (Heb. 2:14), judgments which made it possible for all who trust in Christ to find victory over sin and death forever.

While the death of Christ shook the world more than any other event in history, it also split the world. During His earthly ministry, Jesus spoke of the effect His impending death would have upon the world: “Do you suppose that I came to give peace on earth? I tell you, not at all, but rather division,” even between family members (Luke 12:51-52).

Christ’s death divided the world into two groups: those who believe in Jesus Christ as Savior and those who do not. John’s gospel describes the consequences for both: “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God” (John 3:18).

If you have never believed the gospel of Jesus Christ, you are still in your sins and remain under the condemnation of God. However, the moment you believe the Lord Jesus died for you and rose again, your sins are forgiven and you are made the righteousness of God “in Christ Jesus” where there is “no condemnation” (Rom. 8:1).

The Graves Opened

The death of Christ also caused the graves near Jerusalem to open “and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised; and coming out of the graves after His resurrection, they went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:52-53). This is a difficult passage to interpret, one which raises many questions. Were there two groups raised; some at Jesus’ death and some at Jesus’ resurrection? With what type of body did these saints come forth from their graves? If they did come forth in spiritual bodies, what happened to these saints? Did they ascend with Jesus?

It’s hard to give dogmatic answers to these questions since there is little information in this passage about what happened. Because Matthew is the only gospel writer who mentions this event, some question whether it happened at all, but we cannot simply discard part of God’s Word because we don’t have all the answers.

Some think that an earthquake powerful enough to split the rocks is what caused the graves to open. That is possible; God could have used a natural disaster to open the graves, but the resurrection that followed was a supernatural event, something only God could do.

This resurrection of the saints illustrates that the finished work of Christ, His death on Calvary for our sins and His resurrection, is the means by which believers will be raised to a new life. Therefore, it doesn’t seem likely that the saints would have been raised at the time of Jesus’ death. Their graves were opened at that time, because the death of Christ opened up the way to life, but the bodies of the saints did not come out of their graves until “after His resurrection” and then “went into the holy city and appeared to many” (Matt. 27:53). Christ, being raised from the dead, became “the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20).

We do not know in what type of bodies these saints arose. If in physical bodies, as Lazarus did, then they eventually died again. If in spiritual bodies, as Jesus did, then they must have ascended to heaven at some point, but we don’t know how or when.

The prophet Daniel foretold two future resurrections: “And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, some to shame and everlasting contempt” (Dan. 12:2). Jesus confirmed this prophecy, saying, “All who are in the graves will hear His voice and come forth—those who have done good, to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil, to the resurrection of condemnation” (John 5:28-29).

Both resurrections will result in eternal conditions. John describes them in the book of the Revelation: the “first resurrection” of the saints, who will be raised unto eternal life just before the millennial kingdom (Rev. 20:4-6), and “the rest of the dead” who will be raised “after the thousand years are finished” to stand before God and be eternally condemned for their sins (Rev. 20:11-15).

There is no prophecy of an eternal resurrection at the time of Jesus’ resurrection, therefore, it seems more reasonable to assume these saints arose in physical bodies and then died again.

The Scriptures Fulfilled

The Romans crucified Jesus on the Preparation Day, the day before a high Sabbath. The Jews, not wanting the bodies of those being crucified to remain on the cross into the Sabbath day, asked Pilate that the legs of the victims might be broken (John 19:31). This would keep them from being able to push themselves up with their feet to breathe, thus speeding up the process of death. The soldiers broke the legs of the two thieves who were crucified with Jesus, but “when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs. But one of the soldiers, pierced Jesus’ side with a spear, and immediately blood and water came out” (John 19:32-34).

Why would this soldier pierce Jesus’ side this way? It’s possible he wanted to make sure Jesus was dead. The spear must have pierced both His heart and lungs, the blood pouring forth from the heart, and the watery fluid from where it had collected around the heart and lungs.

It’s also possible this soldier was just a vicious, cruel man who intended to strike a painful blow to break Jesus’ legs, but when he found He was already dead, the soldier lashed out in frustration and anger and pierced His side with a spear.

Regardless of what motivated these soldiers, “These things were done that the Scripture should be fulfilled” (John 19:36). By not breaking Jesus’ legs, the soldiers fulfilled the prophecy of Psalm 34:20: “Not one of His bones shall be broken.” When the soldier pierced Jesus’ side, he fulfilled the prophecy of Zechariah 12:10: “they (Israel) shall look on Him whom they pierced” (John 19:36-37). The fulfillment of such detailed prophecies is a testimony to the accuracy and inspiration of the Scriptures.

The Centurion

The death of Christ had a powerful effect upon the centurion in charge of the crucifixion. No doubt the unusual physical phenomena astonished him: the darkness that covered the land for three hours, as well as the powerful earthquake that split the rocks in two. However, something else had an even greater impact on this hardened soldier—Jesus Himself!

The centurion was likely present during Jesus’ trials. He saw the courage of Jesus as He calmly stood before both Pilate and Herod while the Jewish rulers brought accusations against Him. He must have marveled that Jesus refused to say a word in His own defense. He watched as Jesus was scourged for crimes He did not commit, yet never uttered one word of complaint. The centurion was there when Jesus was mocked and beaten by his own soldiers, but “when He was reviled, He did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threaten” (1 Pet. 2:23).

The centurion saw the soldiers nail Jesus to the cross, then stood watch as He endured the terrible sufferings of crucifixion. He listened as the crowds insulted and taunted Jesus, and then heard Jesus pray for their forgiveness. When one of the two thieves repented, the centurion heard Jesus speak confidently to assure this man about his future. During this time of intense sufferings, when most men would think only of themselves, Jesus showed His selfless character and compassion by ensuring His widowed mother would be cared for after His death.

As Jesus neared death, the centurion heard Him cry out in agony at being forsaken by God, then, moments later, heard Him declare with absolute power and authority, “It is finished!” Finally, he observed Jesus calmly and peacefully bow His head in death.

The centurion had supervised numerous crucifixions; he had seen many men die—no one ever responded like this Man did.

Having seen everything that happened, two things were clear to this centurion. When Jesus died, the centurion affirmed, “Certainly this was a righteous Man!” (Luke 23:47). He didn’t simply declare Jesus was innocent, though this was true; when tried before Pilate and Herod, neither found any fault in Him. The centurion saw in Jesus a righteousness, an inherent goodness he had never seen in any other man.

However, the centurion understood that Jesus was more than just a righteous Man, thus he further declared: “Truly this was the Son of God!” (Matt. 27:54).

Some believe this Roman centurion, being a heathen, would not have acknowledged Jesus as the Son of God, but only as “a son of the gods.” This is possible, but, if so, why do we find his response to Jesus recorded in all three synoptic gospels? Several things point to this centurion becoming a man of genuine faith.

The Scriptures speak about several Roman centurions who put their faith in Jesus Christ as the Son of God: the centurion whose sick servant Jesus healed (Matt. 8:5-13) and later, Cornelius, the centurion to whom Peter preached the Word (Acts 10:34-44).

How could this Roman centurion come to faith in God? “Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God” (Rom. 10:17). Being stationed in Jerusalem and Judea, the centurion may have learned about the one true God from the Jews, as Cornelius did (Acts 10:1-2). We do know that he heard the words Jesus spoke from the cross and saw the character of the living Word of God, the Lord Jesus Christ, as He died on that cross. As a result, the centurion “feared greatly” (Matt. 27:54) and “glorified God” (Luke 23:47) and came to believe that Jesus “truly was the Son of God!” (Mark 15:39).

What a striking contrast between the response of this Roman soldier, a cruel, hardened man from a culture steeped in idolatry, who came to believe Jesus truly was the Son of God; and that of the chief priests, scribes, and elders, the appointed spiritual leaders of God’s chosen people, who refused to believe Jesus was their Messiah and Lord.

The Burial of Jesus

The crowd of Jews who watched Jesus die returned to the city, but a small group of Jesus’ disciples, all women from Galilee, remained behind, watching from afar to see what would happen to His body. The group included “Mary Magdalene, Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s sons” (Matt. 27:55-56). They must have wondered who would come and claim Jesus’ body. His family was quite poor; His father, a simple carpenter, was likely already dead, leaving His mother a widow; His brothers did not even believe in Him (John 7:5); and His disciples, except for John, were all in hiding for fear of the Jews (John 20:19).

As the women waited, someone totally unexpected stepped forward to ask for Jesus’ body—a prominent member of the Jewish Sanhedrin, Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43). Unlike the other council members, the chief priests, scribes, and Pharisees, Joseph was “a good and just man” and “had not consented to their decision and deed” to put Jesus to death (Luke 23:50-51). He himself “was also waiting for the kingdom of God” (Luke 23:51) and, therefore, “had also become a disciple of Jesus” (Matt. 27:57), albeit “secretly, for fear of the Jews” (Luke 23:51). After Jesus died, Joseph, “taking courage, went to Pilate and asked for the body of Jesus” (Mark 15:43).

Pilate was initially amazed to hear that Jesus was already dead, but after verifying it, he released the body to Joseph. As he came and took the body of Jesus, another member of the Sanhedrin accompanied Joseph. Nicodemus, the Jewish ruler “who at first came to Jesus by night, also came, bringing a mixture of myrrh and aloes, about a hundred pounds” (John 19:39).

These two Jewish rulers, who had kept their faith in Jesus a secret “for fear of the Jews” (John 7:13), now boldly stepped forward to declare it. In contrast, the eleven apostles, who had boldly followed and served Jesus, now huddled together in hiding “for fear of the Jews” (John 20:19).

Joseph and Nicodemus tightly wrapped Jesus’ body in strips of clean linen cloth along with the spices, “as the custom of the Jews is to bury” (John 19:40). There was a garden in the place where Jesus was crucified containing a new tomb that Joseph had hewn out of the rock, a tomb “where no one had ever lain before” (Matt. 27:60; John 19:41). The two men laid Jesus’ body in the tomb, rolled a massive stone against the door, and departed (Matt. 27:60).

The women “observed the tomb and how His body was laid,” then went home to observe the Sabbath and to prepare spices and fragrant oils, intending to return a few days later and anoint the body of Jesus (Luke 23:55-56).

Guards for Jesus’ Tomb

The next day, the chief priests and Pharisees went to Pilate and said, “Sir, we remember, while He was still alive, how that deceiver said, ‘After three days I will rise.’ Therefore command that the tomb be made secure until the third day, lest His disciples come by night and steal Him away, and say to the people, ‘He has risen from the dead.’ So the last deception will be worse than the first” (Matt. 27:62-64). It’s not that these Jewish rulers thought Jesus would actually rise from the dead, only that His disciples might steal His body and claim He was risen from the dead—a deception they felt would be worse than their claim that He was Israel’s Messiah.

Pilate must have thought this was a ridiculous request, a detail of soldiers to guard the tomb of a dead man, but, as procurator in Judea, he was charged with keeping the peace. He hated the Jewish rulers and must have been weary from dealing with them, but the easiest way to be rid of this situation was to grant their request. Pilate told them, “You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how” (Matt. 27:65).

The Jewish leaders went to the tomb and secured it, placing a Roman seal on the tomb and stationing the guards to keep watch for the next few days (Matt. 27:66). With these added precautions in place, the Jewish rulers must have thought they had taken care of every detail, that they were finally rid of this Man, Jesus of Nazareth—they were wrong!

Next Issue: “The Resurrection of Christ”