Dying, He Triumphs: Six Signs at Calvary
By Neil Earle
Some time back an alert pastor-theologian named William Nicolson wrote a short book about this very subject. We’re still close enough to Easter season to render it relevant on a churchy website so… here are the six points that Christian preachers see as very significant to the old old story of Jesus on the cross working out the critical part of our salvation.
First, the preternatural darkness. That’s in Luke 23:44. There could not have been an eclipse since Passover brings a full moon. The time was 12-3 PM as Jesus hung on the cross. The unexpected blackness probably meant to remind the hate-filled religious leaders and the onlooking spectators of the darkness in Egypt at the time of the Exodus.
The same God was very much alive and answering the cruel taunts of “show us a sign.” The darkness paradoxically threw a spotlight on Jesus’ sacrificial ministry and no doubt mirrored his own feelings of God-forsakenness. As the bleeding Lamb of God suffered in a way few have ever suffered, His heavenly Father drew a curtain of darkness to conceal the worst of those awful hours.
The darkness also foretold judgment in Old Testament terms – the coming destruction of Jerusalem in 70AD. Amos cried out, “I will make the sun go down at noon, and I will darken the earth in broad daylight” (8:9).
Was it worldwide? Hard to say. Church writer Tertullian about 200AD challenged his Roman audiences to “consult their own annals” about this event and pagan writer named Celsus later alluded to it. The point is darkness hides nothing from God and he was aware of events on that awful day as he has promised to be with us in our dark periods of doubt and despondency. A lesson well emphasized by the heavenly signs.
Second, the veil split in the temple from top to bottom (Matthew 27:50-51). The veil was a thick, 2½-storey curtain of strong fabric that separated the ordinary worshippers and priests in the temple from the Holy of Holies which only the high priest could enter once a year.
This sign also emphasized trouble for Jerusalem’s temple which had less than 40 years to survive. Yet for Christians it has always meant that Jesus’ death tore the final barrier away between God and repentant sinners (Hebrews 10:19-25). God would be hidden from his people no longer. “Come and see,” Jesus had said at the beginning of his ministry and now he expires to the dramatic acompaniement of a torn barrier, a showing forth that we all have access to the Father in heaven – a profound piece of good news for those who feel cut off in sin (Ephesians 2:14).
Once again the miracle pointed to what was being transacted on the cross.
Third, the rocks splitting (Matthew 27:51). Jerusalem is in an earthquake zone but this time the rocks themselves split apart. It was that which terrified the Roman soldiers standing by on the grisly crucifixion detail. The shaking earth usually meant Israel’s God was on the job and in control and standing up for his people.
The truth is an earthquake humbles everyone. I well remember the Northridge Disaster in 1993 after just six months in California. This one provoked a tough Roman centurion to bow in fear and adoration and confess about the man they were executing, “This man was the Son of God” (Matthew 27:54).
The God of creation was displaying his authority over the things of this world, no matter how solid seeming, to remind Jews and Romans about who was really in charge.
Fourth, the tombs opened. Here was the spookiest sign of all. We’d like to know more about it and only Matthew notes it (27:50-52). The open tombs of some dearly departed must have caused jaws to drop all over Jerusalem as the devout went about their preparations to take the sacred Passover.
Jesus had already raised his friend Lazarus and now…what else was going to happen? Not long later the answer would come as God the Father demonstrated that life and death were in the hands of the Godhead (John 5:21). Ezekiel had promised, “I will open your graves O Israel,” and here was an initial fulfillment, a down-payment of that glorious promise yet to be fulfilled at the resurrection of the just. And there was more to come…
Five, the state of Jesus’ grave clothes. As the Holy Day Sabbath and Passover drew on Jesus’ friends and allies went into high gear. Joseph begged the body of Jesus and the women from Galilee spent a hurried hour or so preparing the corpse for burial. At least one hundred pounds of spices and ointments were hastily poured in between the wide wraps and bandages according to the Jewish custom (John 19:38-42). It was a rush job and they knew it, and intended to return Sunday.
Or so they thought. The main point here was that those grave wrappings resembled a form of mummification – spices and ointments prevented decay of the body overly quickly and it made a kind of body cast for the deceased. On Sunday morning the apostle John was to peer in where Jesus’ body had been and saw no body but the linen wrappings “lying,” still in the shape of a human body, as if…as if…the resurrected body of Jesus had passed through the bandages and left them intact. The linen veil covering the face was left by itself separated from the body cast.
John saw…and believed! As should all of us!
Six, dead men walking. Jesus’ burst of resurrection power was given some kind of special escort, you might say, attended by the bodies of certain saints in the Jerusalem area walking out of their newly opened tombs.What a surprising turn of events! Here was an extra astonishing sign that Jesus was who he claimed to be, the conqueror of death! After all, in the mouth of two or three witnesses facts are proven. It was the legal custom then and now.
Even so it was a local, one-time event.
Christian thinkers have concluded that these “dead saints walking” were resuscitated to a normal physical life – such as Lazarus, Jairus' daughter and the son of the widow in Nain. Note: Jesus’ resurrection was and always will be in a class by itself – the first fruits of all who sleep, passing from a physical body to a recognizable but transformed body no longer bound by earthly limitations of time and space. “A spiritual body,” St. Paul called it (1 Corinthians 15:44).
These truly were stupendous events. Who else had such amazing signs and wonders accompanying their death and burial? Not Mohammed. Not Buddha. Not Krishna. Not Moses.
Jesus life and ministry was unique and attended with signs and wonders that only God himself could execute. It is obvious that the Father and Son were involved in these colossal events and the Holy Spirit saw that they were written down for our learning. As John wrote, these are written that we may believe. Let’s follow John’s counsel and live up to our beliefs and reap the rewards both now and in the world to come. “He is risen!”