“They crucified him” (John 19:1). He wasn’t the first to die on a cross—it’s been estimated that by the time of Christ the Romans had crucified 30,000 men in Palestine alone. Nor would He be the last. Jesus was, however, the only One who could and did die on a cross for the sins of a lost world, “the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring you to God” (1 Pet. 3:18).
To attest to the uniqueness of Jesus’ death, Matthew records four phenomenal events that took place when Jesus died. The Gospel writer doesn’t explain their meaning; he simply records them. John MacArthur has called these events God’s own commentary on the cross.
Jesus was placed on the cross at 9 a.m. (Mark 15:25), then “from noon until three in the afternoon darkness came over the whole land” (Matt. 27:45).
In the Old Testament, darkness is frequently a sign of judgment (see Amos 5:18; 8:9). Recall that the ninth plague of the exodus event was darkness over the land of Egypt for a period of three days—a darkness that could be felt (Ex. 10:21-22). After the plague of darkness came the death of the firstborn sons (Ex. 11:4-5). Darkness preceded death.
Likewise, on the cross darkness preceded the death of God’s Son. The significance? On the cross, our sins were placed vicariously on the sinless Son and God poured out His judgment on Christ, our Substitute. Darkness as a sign of divine judgment highlights the substitutionary nature of Christ’s death. On the cross, Jesus endured the judgment of God upon our sin (see Gal. 3:13; 2 Cor. 5:21; 1 Pet. 2:24).
“The curtain of the sanctuary was torn in two from top to bottom” (Matt. 27:51).
Some Bible scholars have suggested this was the curtain that separated the court of the Jews from the court of the Gentiles. This would make sense in light of Ephesians 2:14, where Paul said Christ has torn down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile. Other Bible scholars, however, believe this was the curtain that separated the holy of holies from the other parts of the temple. The holy of holies was associated with God’s presence. Worshipers could never enter the holy of holies—only the high priest once a year (Lev. 16).
The tearing of the temple curtain signifies that the way to God has been opened for all people through Christ. That the curtain was torn from top to bottom signifies this was the work of God, not of human effort (see Heb. 9:12; 10:19-20).
“The earth quaked, and the rocks were split” (Matt. 27:51).
Earthquakes were common in Palestine, though there was nothing common about this one. The timing and accompanying events suggest this was a supernatural event.
Earthquakes in the Bible often accompanied divine revelation or a unique act of God. When God appeared to Moses on Sinai to give His law, “the whole mountain shook violently” (Ex. 19:18). Warren Wiersbe connects the earthquake at Jesus’ death to the Sinai event, suggesting that the earthquake at Calvary signified that the demands of the law were fulfilled in Christ.
Other scholars have noted the connection between the rock-splitting earthquake at Jesus’ death and the splitting of the temple curtain. Stuart Weber wrote, the earthquake reflected “the immensity of the ‘earth-shaking’ revolution that had just taken place with the splitting of the curtain.” (Holman New Testament Commentary)
The Dead Raised
“The tombs were also opened and many bodies of the saints who had fallen asleep were raised” (Matt. 27:52).
The opening of the tombs would likely have occurred as a result of the earthquake. The miracle was the raising of many saints from the dead. These would have been Old Testament saints.
These resurrections demonstrate Jesus’ victory over death. They are a foretaste of what will come at the end of time, the final resurrection of which Paul wrote in 1 Thessalonians 4:16: “the dead in Christ will rise” (see also 1 Cor. 15:20-23). Thus, they symbolize the hope all believers have because of the death and resurrection of Christ.
How do these four phenomenal events at the cross rule out the possibility of a works-based salvation?
Mike Livingstone is a content editor at Lifeway for Explore the Bible resources.