The Unforgettable Things of the Day Jesus Died – Luke 23:44-49

By: Northern Seminary

Anyone who lived through the Y2K trauma will never forget the world waiting in anxiety for planes to fall out of the sky, banking systems to fail, hospitals to suddenly shut down and all manner of other disasters to happen.

Y2K, of course, was the short way of describing the millennium software bug. What was that? Those who wrote some of the earliest computer programs believed those programs would be used for only a few years. So, when the code needed a year date, they used just the last two numerals. So eight zero stood for 1980, or nine one for 1991. But, their code in fact did last, and as the century neared its end technology experts realized that the computers would not distinguish between 1980 and 2080, or 1991 and 2091. Date confusion would cause programs to malfunction significantly. Failure on a personal computer would be serious only for an individual user but the same kind of failure in big networks would be catastrophic for energy supply or transport and financial infrastructures. If the computer systems of major electrical companies all failed, the world might literally be plunged into darkness.

In the years leading up to 2000, many firms brought in expensive engineers to millennium-proof their computer systems. But some didn’t. All over the world people were nervous. No one knew for sure what would happen. Many refused to travel near to the end of December 1999. As the clock ticked down to midnight, the world waited in anxious anticipation of serious global consequences when computers went wrong.

Like many others, I watched live news programs which were monitoring the world for signs of millennium-bug induced disasters. They never happened. There were tiny incidents here and there, but it would be hard to describe slot machines failing at race tracks in Delaware as a catastrophe. Those news programs turned into a test of their presenters’ ability to say a lot about very little, because there was virtually no news to report. Y2K was never a disaster.

The whole world watched to see what would happen, and it was nothing.

When Jesus died on Calvary, only a handful watched, but it was everything. This was the moment when the trajectory of human history changed. There could be a future worth having for every person in the world.

Luke 23:44-49
44 It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, 45 for the sun stopped shining. And the curtain of the temple was torn in two. 46 Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

47 The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” 48 When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away. 49 But all those who knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things.

Almost everyone who was alive at the time of President Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 remembers where they were and what time it was when they heard of the shooting and his death. Major events imprint themselves firmly in the mind.

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all stipulate the time when Jesus died. Darkness began about noon, and Jesus died at three in the afternoon. No one who was there would ever forget what happened.

  1. What could never be forgotten were the signs from God.

Something momentous was taking place, and no one must think the death of God’s Son was just another prophet suffering for his faith. This was different.

First, the sun stopped shining and there was darkness. Luke says the whole land went dark, which could mean everywhere in Israel or just the land near Jerusalem. The blackness certainly centered on the events happening on Calvary.

Some years ago my wife and I sat in our back yard looking to the sky because we knew from news reports that an eclipse was about to happen. Near the time, birds became disturbed, and the wind increased. Then suddenly there was darkness. It wasn’t night-time darkness, but the light was only faint, colors were subdued, and the air was cold. Ten minutes later, there was light again, the wind diminished, the birds began to chirp, and all was normal.

What happened around Calvary was that but much more than that. For one thing the darkness could not have been an eclipse, because this happened at the time of Passover, and Passover took place at full moon when an eclipse could not occur.

And this darkness was no ordinary phenomenon. It was deeper. It lasted for hours. It was sent by God.

The second sign was that the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Luke doesn’t give more detail than that, but both Matthew and Mark say it was torn from top to bottom.[1] Those close by could see through the curtain and go through the curtain. The barrier was gone.

There were thirteen different curtains at the temple, so which curtain was torn? It might have been the curtain at the entrance to the inner temple, because that was on public view. But it’s far more likely the curtain that was split apart was the one which separated off the most sacred place, the Holy of Holies.[2] It was pulled back just once a year on the Day of Atonement when the high priest would go in and offer a sacrifice for the sins of the people.

What did the signs of darkness and the tearing of the curtain mean? They meant two things.

The darkness was a sign of judgment. The sin of the whole world was laid on Jesus, and God’s displeasure at human rebellion and failure was displayed by the removal of the sun’s light.

When Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost, he spoke of the great day of the Lord and quoted the prophet Joel’s words that that day would be preceded by the sun turning to darkness. (Acts 2:20; Joel 2:2) Other prophets like Amos and Zephaniah had the same idea. (Amos 8:9-10; Zeph. 1:15) God’s power was shown by shutting down the light. God’s wrath was shown like the blackness of the sky before a storm strikes.

As Jesus was crucified, God plunged the land into darkness as a sign of his anger against a sinful world.

The tearing of the curtain was a sign of hope. The Holy of Holies was barred to almost everyone, but now a door through the curtain was being created by the death of God’s Son. Sinful men and women would no longer be barred from God’s presence. Jesus was bearing their sin and the way back to God was open to all who followed him.[3]

With both these signs God was sending a powerful message. One part of the message is that sin matters. Sin is never ignored or set aside as if it was of no consequence. The penalty for sin had to be paid, and it was being paid on the cross by Jesus. The other part of the message is that God declares ‘access open.’ All those who would trust in his Son would once more be in fellowship with him. No one with faith, no one for whom Jesus is Lord, will be shut out. God welcomes us to be where he is.

  1. What could never be forgotten is that Jesus died.

Luke’s description is concise:

“Jesus called out with a loud voice, ‘Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.’ When he had said this, he breathed his last.” (v. 46)

Jesus died quoting words from Psalm 31:5, used by Jews as an evening prayer:

“Into your hands I commit my spirit;
deliver me, Lord, my faithful God.”

Interestingly, that seems a quiet prayer, and quietness would be appropriate for someone about to die from crucifixion because he would hardly be able to say anything. But Jesus wasn’t quiet! Luke says “Jesus called out with a loud voice” (v.46).[4] His words committing his spirit to God were no final groan, but a shout of exaltation and triumph.

That done, Luke says, “he breathed his last.” Jesus died.

The record made by Luke (and all the gospel writers) shows one thing clearly, that Jesus was in control until the end. Yes, he was in great agony. Yes, he sensed God distance himself (Mark 15:34). But no one stole his life away. No one cut short his days. Jesus voluntarily surrendered his spirit to God and breathed his last.

The movie industry usually makes heroes look like they are always in control. James Bond never seems anxious, never looks disheveled, never appears lost for the next thing to do. Even if he’s taken prisoner or caught by surprise, he has a gadget or a plan to get out of trouble and defeat his enemy.

But that’s fiction. That’s not a real world experience. The rest of us often wonder what to do next, or we’re completely confused by our circumstances, or we’re the victim of a storm or a con artist or bad circumstances. Sometimes we bounce back but sometimes we don’t. None of us can say we’ve lived life always in control.

But Jesus did. Jesus lived to a plan laid out by his Father. Several times he made that clear. He told his disciples he’d come “to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

 Another time he said this:

“Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does.” (John 5:19-20)

The supreme moment when Jesus deliberately chose the will of his Father came in the Garden of Gethsemane:

“Going a little farther, he fell with his face to the ground and prayed, ‘My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me. Yet not as I will, but as you will.’” (Matt. 26:39)

He would do only what he heard from his Father to do.

I enjoy watching ice dancers perform at the highest level. But I’ve often wondered how they remember all their complicated moves. Part of the answer is that they’re listening to music while they dance. They know the tempo, and every beat, every pause, in that music, and all they have to do is match their movements to the music in their ears.

Jesus knew his Father’s will to the last detail. Nothing would ever happen except the Father had already planned for it. He listened for his Father’s voice and at every moment chose his will. It brought him to the cross. It brought him to his death. And in the end Jesus willingly and deliberately surrendered his spirit to his Father and took his final breath.

  1. What could never be forgotten were the reactions of those who watched.

The observers at Calvary can be divided into three:

  • The Centurion

This was an experienced Roman soldier who had seen many men die. But he’d never watched anyone die like Jesus. Luke writes:

The centurion, seeing what had happened, praised God and said, “Surely this was a righteous man.” (v. 47)

He’d watched and heard everything that happened in the lead up to this crucifixion. Maybe he was there when Jesus stood before Pilate. He’d seen how Jesus responded to his accusers, how he reacted to flogging and taunting, how he spoke to a criminal and promised him paradise, heard his prayer to his Father, and then how he had confidently handed over his life into God’s hands. No one died like this. Until Jesus.

And a hardened soldier of the Roman Empire said loud enough for many to hear: “Surely this was a righteous man.”

His words don’t prove he’d become a believer. But they do validate something important for Luke, who was writing his gospel as a record for people who had not been there. Those words showed that Jesus really was innocent. The Roman soldier saw nothing in Jesus that warranted a death sentence. Jesus was a good man and a godly man.

  • The Crowd

The reaction of those gathered around the cross was almost as dramatic as the centurion’s.

“When all the people who had gathered to witness this sight saw what took place, they beat their breasts and went away.” (v. 48)

Their actions indicated deep sadness. But as well as grief, there was probably real guilt and regret. These were the people who had shouted “Crucify him!” and called for Barabbas to be pardoned instead of Jesus. If, now, they shared even a little of what the centurion realized, that they had just crucified an innocent man, they’d not be just grief-struck but riddled with guilt.

That would not be true for literally “all” of them of course. There were Jewish rulers in that crowd, and nothing then and nothing later showed that they felt regret or remorse. Jesus disturbed their privilege and power, and if he could be removed by having the Romans crucify him, so be it.

  • The Followers

Standing at some distance away from Jesus on the cross were those who “knew him, including the women who had followed him from Galilee,” and they were “watching these things” (v. 49).

At least they were there. Jesus’ closest disciples had fled when Jesus was arrested, and most stayed hidden (Matt. 26:56). But women who had supported Jesus for some time and a few others were at a distance. To be a follower of a person being crucified was to risk arrest and the same death. Most of us would also have stayed in the background.

Yet they saw it all, and perhaps they are the ones who passed on the accounts which the gospel writers were able to set down later.

It’s hard to imagine their sorrow. Their dreams died with Jesus on Calvary. Most of them had given up everything to follow him, and they’d believed he was the Messiah, the one God would use to transform Israel. Such catastrophic disappointment easily leads to disillusionment and depression. It was Friday but Sunday was coming,[5] but as yet they did not know what a Sunday it would be.

This bad Friday was really Good Friday, but there is one final sad point to note. The followers of Jesus had always known that the one being crucified was a good, innocent man. The vast majority of the crowd eventually realized what a terrible thing they had done. And a Roman centurion praised God and told everyone that Jesus was a “righteous man.” They all saw it. They all knew it.

All, that is, except the Jewish leaders. It took a Roman – wearied by war and tragically familiar with crucifying his enemies – to declare what everyone should have known. This Jesus was a good man. This was God’s man. But out of self-interest or spiritually darkened minds, those who should have been leaders of faith and leaders of their nation couldn’t grasp it. They couldn’t let themselves believe they were wrong and that Jesus had always been right. They could not or would not bear the magnitude of that recognition. So Jesus died.

But he gave his life for a great purpose, for God’s plan, for the salvation of so many, including us today. Nothing that happened on Calvary was ever outside of God’s control, and even the blindness and wickedness of the enemies of God ultimately helped his purpose be fulfilled.


[1] Matt. 27:51; Mark 15:38.

[2] Exodus 26:31-33 gives background.

[3] A strong message in Heb. 10:19-22.

[4] Matthew and Mark also stress that Jesus spoke loudly: Matt. 27:50; Mark 15:37.

[5] It’s Friday but Sunday’s Comin’ is the title of a sermon and book by Tony Campolo.


March 24, 2015

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