And when Jesus had cried out again in a loud voice, he gave up his spirit.
At that moment the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom. The earth shook and the rocks split. The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus’ resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
When the centurion and those with him who were guarding Jesus saw the earthquake and all that had happened, they were terrified, and exclaimed, “Surely he was the Son of God.” (verses 50-57)
Jesus’ death is a powerfully decisive moment in all human history. The One who is “the Lord saves” and “God with us,” lays down his life as a ransom for many (Matthew 20:28), and the moment is not to be missed.
Already, the sky had turned black, and darkness hung over the land. Certainly the Roman soldiers attending the crucifixion would not have missed it. But there was more.
Jesus “cried out again in a loud voice,” seemingly with more strength and power than should have attended a man who had been mercilessly flogged and then crucified. Again, the power of his cry (John reports the words: “It is finished!”) would have caused these hardened Roman soldiers to sit up and take notice. Further, when Matthew says “he gave up his spirit,” he indicates that Jesus was fully in control, sovereign still over his own life. Whether the Centurion and company caught the significance, Matthew means for us to do so.
An earthquake rocked the scene at that very moment, shaking the earth, splitting rocks, and opening tombs. As unsettling as it would have been in its own right, the precise timing of its occurrence, jolted and terrified. Meanwhile, off-site, in the heart of the Jerusalem Temple, the thick curtain separating off the Holy of Holies was torn in two, from top to bottom, symbolically opening the way into the very presence of Almighty God. News of such a dramatic event would have spread quickly. And within several days, after Jesus’ own resurrection, the former residents of those opened tombs (described by Matthew as “holy people”) were seen by many – living and breathing and walking the streets of Jerusalem.
The violent shaking of the ground, together with these other happenings – some experienced immediately, others only processed later – was enough to terrify the battle-hardened hearts of these military men. Spontaneously, they gave expression to the awe and wonder. Likely they didn’t fully grasp the significance of their words, but the magnitude of the events called for extreme and weighty declarations. They cried out: “Surely he was the Son of God!”
They nailed it. God’s own Son, come to rescue, come as a ransom, come for us.
Praise you, Lord Jesus – the cumulative events of that day pointed to the weight of its significance. A sacrifice was being made for all humanity, a sacrifice that only the Son of God could make. You went to that cross willingly – purposefully – to accomplish the ransom for me. With a full heart I say, Thank you.
Picture: Léon Bonnat, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons