Luke 23:44&45 “It was now about the sixth hour, and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, for the sun stopped shining.”
For the first three hours, from 9 a.m. until noon, Christ hung on Golgotha in the bright sunlight. Charles Haddon Spurgeon comments, “There could be no mistake about the fact of who was really nailed to the cross, for he was crucified in broad daylight. We are fully assured that it was Jesus of Nazareth, for both friends and foes were eyewitnesses of his agonies. For three long hours the Jews sat down and watched him on the cross, making jest of his miseries. I feel thankful for those three hours of light or else the enemies of our faith would have questioned whether in very deed the blessed body of our Master was nailed to the tree” (preached on April 18th, 1886 at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, London). In other words, the Lord Jesus wasn’t stabbed in a dark alley in a secluded village and his body buried by unknown men in an unmarked grave in the wilderness. These things were not done in a corner but on the outskirts of a city with hundreds of witnesses in a dying that lasted for hours.
You know that the Koran rejects that it was Jesus of Nazareth hanging on the cross. It teaches that Jesus had been replaced by Barabbas, because it claims God wouldn’t allow so great a prophet to die in such a way. So Mohammed invented this fable and his followers believe it yet. Thus the central message of Christianity, of atonement by the sacrifice of the Lord Jesus Christ, is rejected by Muslims. There is total ignorance of the meaning of the cross. Now I am saying that this whole Islamic misinformation is rendered null and void by those three hours of light. The dying man was not Barabbas. It was indeed Jesus of Nazareth. The bright sunlight on the scene of hours gave opportunity for prolonged inspection by friends and family (his own mother was there – people who longed that it was not Jesus hanging there) and enemies determined that it was Jesus of Nazareth), all watching and listening to what was done and said on Calvary. It was indeed the Lord Jesus who was crucified there. But then, suddenly, at noon, the light went out.
The annual date of the Passover was always set by a lunar calendar; Passover was at the time of a full moon. Solar eclipses cannot occur when the moon is full, so an eclipse cannot be the explanation of the darkness settling over the whole land from noon until three o’clock. And who has ever heard of a solar eclipse lasting for three hours? Also you must understand that the Passover is in the spring wet season and so it is almost impossible that an especially dense dust storm could be the explanation of the three hours of darkness. No naturalistic explanation is adequate for these hours of darkness.
As the miracle of redemption by the Lamb of God taking away our sin was being accomplished on the middle cross another miracle was taking place in the surrounding creation. Christ’s power over the earth was often shown during his life. When he gave the order the winds did what he told them to do. Waves were stilled, and a tree withered and died – all at Jesus’ word. A herd of pigs threw themselves into the sea. One fish picked up a coin in its mouth and swam into a net and whole shoals of fish filled Peter’s nets. Rocks cracked and an earthquake took place as Christ died. There is no explanation for those events nor for this darkness other than it was an act of God. It was as if God put his hands around the sun.
At Bethlehem at the birth of Jesus night had been turned into day as the glory of God shone around the shepherds. Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts praising God and saying, “Glory to God.” At Golgotha day was turned to night. Creation was walking in step with redemption. As our Lord Jesus entered further and further into the damnation – as he sank deeper into the pit of dereliction – so a fearful deepening darkness fell on the creation around.
At Bethlehem all the angels from heaven stood erect on the fields and lanes that led from the flocks of sheep to the stable. Bethlehem was carpeted with angels, as far as the eye could see; in every direction that the amazed shepherds looked there were tens of thousands and thousands upon thousands of angels who had come from heaven to greet their Lord and worship him. How different it was at Golgotha. Tens of thousands of demonic spirits had come from the pit and were there tormenting and torturing their hated Master, urging him to end his enfleshment and curse God, tempting him to despair. All the battalions of the Prince of darkness had come from hell and were settling on Christ like a swarm of bees would settle on a man and sting him to death. Jesus was at his weakest, utterly alone, bearing the onslaught of the pit, standing in an evil day – but having done all that then our brave young Saviour remained resolute. We, alas, have not yet resisted unto blood as we strive against sin. He was in this darkness but he never wavered nor faltered. He was continually saying, “Nevertheless not my will but thine be done.” In the darkness he didn’t say, “Well I can’t be expected to be thinking of my mother and of my friends now.” There he loved his suffering neighbours as his suffering self.
Think of the contrast with the Mount of Transfiguration when the glory of God the Son shone out of Jesus like the sun shining in its noonday brightness. His very clothes were transfigured; the sight was absolutely dazzling. But on Mount Calvary the glory of God the Son was veiled by darkness. The cross, the nails, and the body – so distorted by pain so that he became increasingly inhuman in his appearance – could not be seen. This is what the darkness was covering. These miracles were all the insignia of his Godhead.
At creation God said, “Let there be light.” Until that moment darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the deep itself was black. Then God spoke and light filled the universe, across the heavens from north to south, and east to west, and on the earth from pole to pole, eastern and western hemispheres, northern and southern hemispheres, light was omnipresent. At redemption the darkness replaced the light and covered the whole land. You understand it was not simply over Golgotha, not just over Jerusalem, and probably not only over the land of Israel from Dan to Beersheba. The Greek gé means the land and also the ‘earth.’ Now there exists an apocryphal ‘Gospel of Peter’ written five hundred years later where it says that the darkness covered Judea, but Mark says that the whole earth suffered, in other words, all the globe where at that moment it was being lit by the sun – there was sudden prolonged darkness. We know that North and South American would have been in darkness during the hours of our Lord’s crucifixion in Jerusalem. But here in Aberystwyth on that day almost 2000 years ago there was a darkness that hid the light of the sun; the primitive Welsh were gold miners, fishermen, hunters and farmers, some of whom lived in the old earthworks on Pen Dinas. They would have been deeply troubled by this lengthy period of darkness. They had never experienced anything like it, and they would have cried to their gods for mercy, and maybe they sacrificed an animal, praying that the sun would shine again. Thus, all over the world, the Eskimos, the Hottentots, the millions of peasants in a great Chinese civilization, the Indians, the Incas of Peru and the Aborigines of Australia were all still and fearful as for three hours their lands was in darkness. Men put down their axes, the ploughmen ceased from ploughing the fields, navigators in mid-ocean didn’t know how to steer their ships as no stars shone at that time, men sitting in officrs, banks and at the receipt of custom called hurriedly for lights. Soldiers at war laid down their swords. Candles were lit all over Jerusalem. Children wept, birds roosted in the trees, the cattle and sheep were silent; nocturnal animals appeared that dark afternoon, and all creation was awry, not knowing why the sun was refusing to shine.
Is there any evidence for this cosmic phenomenon? Writing around the year 200 Tertullian informed his Roman readers that this “wonder is related in your own annals and is preserved in your archives to this day.” A little later some of the other church fathers, Origen and Eusebius, quoted an account from the historian Phlegon who described an extraordinary cosmic darkness that occurred at the time of the crucifixion of our Lord. I know that there are other accounts of it that are clearly forgeries. There are the so-called “Letters of Herod and Pilate” which were written 600 years later in Syrian, and the so-called “Gospel according to Peter”, discovered only 150 years ago
It’s another forgery which refers to this darkness. The so-called “Acts of Pilate” is another forgery. But there is that evidence referred to by Tertullian and Origen which is sobering.
Darkness At Noon is the title of Arthur Koestler’s best book, a novel describing the arrest of a communist official, his long trial where he is accused of some mismanagement of a Russian scheme, and his ultimate execution. This incident was typical of the cruel betrayal of those Russian workmen who hoped for better days and really believed in socialism. 20 million such men died in the Gulag through the bleakness of Stalinism. I read the Penguin paperback at school in the 1950s; it marvelously captured the darkness that men themselves had made not only in Russia, but everywhere in human history. Koestler had no explanation for Marxist tyranny. He could offer no hope, save, “Endure it.” What is suffering in darkness and death but the ‘shrug of eternity.’ That’s all. No meaning.
Christ’s darkness at noon is chilling, and it was so all over the world when he, without whom was nothing made that was made, was killed in his own creation. But it is an interpreted darkness, a darkness with meaning, not a capricious darkness. Let me highlight the darkness for you. Here is the epicentre of it all, just outside Jerusalem, Golgotha and darkness you could touch and feel. The condemned man hanging by the nails through his hands and feet was utterly blameless. He had walked in the light, in fellowship with his Father, all his life. Every day when he arose he appropriated his Father’s presence and rested in his Father through all its hours. His own soul had been filled with the light of God; his life was lit up by the love of God day by day.
Here is a man as sinless as God himself; as holy as an angel. His whole life has been spent in enriching other men and women whose lives had been spent in darkness; one man lived in chains, among the tombs of the graveyard in Gadara, a feared outcast, possessed by a legion of demons. Jesus came to him with light and love and truth, delivering him from his self-destructive despair and the Satanic kingdom of darkness. Our Lord had done this to thousands of people. “Come to me, you who labour and are heavy-laden and I will give you rest,” and five hundred had come to him for over three years and their burdens were lifted. They knew their sins were forgiven. They knew God and they knew themselves for the first time in their lives. Jesus had given sight to those who were born in darkness, yet this great Physician and Saviour was the one nailed to the cross and dying in the darkness. Upon him the darkness fell. Why?
My eyes find it hard to penetrate all this darkness. There is much to my Redeemer’s death that I cannot perceive. God alone can know the price of redemption. Christ alone knows what he accomplished when he hung for six hours on the cross. We need to take the shoes off our feet when we come to Calvary. This is the holiest ground this world has ever seen. It was God who veiled the cross in darkness, and in darkness much of its deepest meaning lies. None of us has the capacity to receive more than God has told us. There is much we all should know and our failure to meditate on the death of Christ leaves us in darkness. Yet we are sure that God was manifest in the flesh, and in that human flesh, under the cover of those hours of darkness he put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. So much we are certain of. How can we approach this?
1. THE DARKNESS SHOWED THE SYMPATHY OF THE CREATION WITH ITS LORD.
We sing the words of Isaac Watts,
“Well might the sun in darkness hide
And shut its glories in
When God the mighty Maker died
For man the creature’s sin.” (Isaac Watts)
When we undress for bed we draw the curtains. When we sit with our dying loved ones the nurses draw the curtains around the hospital bed and we have a quiet time with them to the end. But in Jerusalem it is high noon; the sun is shining brightly and the Son of God hangs naked dying on a cross, gawked at and mocked by the mob who hated him. Then suddenly, when a clock might strike the sixth hour, darkness falls. The sun is refusing to cooperate with sinners in their fiendish sport. It’s not so much fun shouting in the dark at someone you can barely see. The whole creation is groaning and travailing in pain as its Maker is being murdered, yet Christ is reigning in that darkness from that tree; “Let there be darkness, and lo there is darkness.” By Christ all things consist. In him all things live and move and have their being. The sun shines at his behest; the comet moves in its path by his decree; the sparrow falls because he determines it to fall. Christ controls the cosmos from the cross, and now it is from the heart of darkness. On Sinai we’re told that, “Moses approached the thick darkness where God was” (Ex. 20:21). Christ was present in the jail at Philippi when in the deepest dungeon Paul and Silas lay with their backs bloodied and their feet fast in the stocks. And he is present today in the deepest darkest prison cell in the world. In Syria today I have read of the small prison cells where twenty women are locked up in that Middle Eastern heat. The food is wretched. There is no room for them all to sleep at the same time, and they have a rota for those who may lie down while others stand. They are taken out one by one and assaulted, returning bruised, clothes torn, in tears, broken defiled women. With the Christian women Christ is there in a special way, enabling them to be salt and light in those abysmal places. The Lord who worked in gas-lit chapels in Wales in 1904 during a time of awakening also met with miners at the blackness of the pit bottoms.
We were sitting in a prayer meeting one week in Swanwick at the Reformation and Revival Conference, all of us gathered in a circle and one by one praying in turn, with Christ in our midst, and suddenly the lights all went out; it was pitch black. There was that trigger mechanism – a kind of sensor on the lighting – in that room, a power saving device, by which, when it detected there had been no movement for ten minutes or so, it judged the room to be empty and so the lights were automatically extinguished. We dozen men and women prayed on in the gloom, but Christ was still in our midst in the darkness as in the light, and when our praying was over and we arose standing up then the light returned.
2. THIS DARKNESS SPOKE OF MAN’S OPPOSITION TO GOD.
“God is light and in him is no darkness at all” (1 Jn. 1:5) but men love darkness rather than light, because their deeds are evil (Jn. 3:20). Those who continue in sin and refuse to submit to Christ are the children of darkness (I Thess. 5:5). They have no inward illumination. They are full of darkness, and they dwell in darkness. Our Lord had spoken sternly to the apostate leaders of Israel when they came to arrest him, “This is your hour, and the power of darkness” (Lk. 22:53). Here at the cross we see it, quite suddenly; it is as if God had pushed a cosmic switch and the light of the world went out. While Jesus was hanging on the cross the day was turned to night. The greatest evil ever committed on this earth was continued in the darkness. The demons and the enemies of God had seemed to have gained an apparent triumph. The utter gloom in which they live appeared for a time to have gained the upper hand over the Light of the World. They’d broght it with them.The prince of this world, and his forces, the rulers of the darkness of this world, were soon to be cast out, to be spoiled and vanquished, but it is this way of his crucifixion. The Lord’s Sabaoth’s Son has come. He has mounted a raid on the kingdom of darkness. He has entered it, the One that is stronger that the strong king of darkness who rules there, and by making sacrifice for sin he has delivered every sinner who trusts in him. He has overcome Satan by absorbing to himself all our sin and guilt, by his entering their darkness and overcoming the devil who had us in bondage. In other words, the Lord Jesus fought them on their own ground; he gave them all the advantages they could have, and yet he baffled them and becomes more than their conqueror. He established a kingdom of light and glory which shall endure for ever. I am saying that the Saviour came entering the outer darkness to vanquish the forces of darkness. He took it all in and extinguished its power.
3. THE DARKNESS SPOKE OF GOD’S JUDGMENT ON ISRAEL.
This period of amazing darkness sobered the nation of Israel. Their great symbol was the menorah, the seven-branch lampstand. It was there in the Holy Place and its light never went out. The priests’ duty was to keep replenishing it with fresh olive oil of the purest quality. This standard lamp became the sign of Zion and Israel, the emblem on the coat of arms of the modern state of Israel, their claim to have light to offer the world, because it had the light of Jehovah’s glory and truth. I am saying that the darkness that covered Jerusalem and Israel was a sign of God’s displeasure and wrath with the old covenant people for murdering the Prince of Life. Where was their universal enlightenment? Jehovah was preaching to the leaders of the apostate nation that they had extinguished the light he had sent them like all the little lights he had sent before our Lord in the medium of the prophets. They had also killed the prophets before Jesus, and so Jehovah would finally utterly destroy Israel. They were on a long day’s journey into night and in forty years’ time, in A.D. 70 it would all be over, and the nation of Israel became fearful and silent. So for a time the blasphemers shut their mouths.
This miracle of judgment was soon to be followed by another, the veil of the Temple torn in two from top to bottom. Then another miracle in Jerusalem, there was the raising of some dead and their appearance in the holy city. And another when the Gentile centurion saw it and said, “Surely this was a righteous man” (v.47). You don’t think that death could end the influence of the Son of Man! God attended the crucifixion and death of Jesus with these special signs so that the Jews would weigh up the meaning and importance of the death of Jesus Christ. Wasn’t it right that the attention of the whole nation from Dan to Beersheba should be arrested in this marked way? Shouldn’t Jews everywhere ask, “What’s this? What’s happening in our land?” and hear that it was while Jesus of Nazareth hung on the cross that darkness fell on the land. These were signs and wonders for all Israel and the whole unbelieving world, a sign of fearful judgment to come, an encounter with eternal darkness.
You understand that this was not a symbol of darkness but it was a fearful real darkness. God was dealing with the Jewish and Gentiles worlds that had crucified his Son. God knows the desperate enmity, stupidity and unbelief of human nature and condemned it. You want a phenomenon in this world that shows the reality of God? There has been such phenomenon, three hours of total darkness. Please think again! Don’t say, “Oh, that is religion,” and dismiss it. God was present in the living and in the dying of Jesus and you would expect the supernatural to burst into time and that our mouths would be stopped. God showed a sneering, unbelieving world that he can suspend the laws of nature at his pleasure, and alter the framework of creation just as easily as he called the earth into being by his word in the beginning.
4. THE DARKNESS SPOKE OF DELIVERANCE FROM OUR CHAOS.
You consider how the world began; initially the earth was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. It was formless at first. It was in a state of chaos. It needed the systematic reordering of the stuff God initially had made. The record of Genesis chapter one is a delineation of how God transformed it and imposed order upon it until he could pronounce it to be ‘very good.’ From the chaos of darkness to ordered light. There was morning and there was evening, day by day.
It is the same picture you have of divine redemption on Golgotha. The first impression is one of chaos. The chief priests of Israel have condemned Israel’s Messiah to die on a cross. The religious leaders of the people are mocking the promised Christ sent to them by Jehovah. The Roman occupying forces and the Jewish conquered people have bonded in their hatred for Jesus of Nazareth. Pilate the Roman governor, and Herod the Jewish king have become friends because of their mutual contempt for our Lord. They have joined together in condemning Jesus; Jew and Gentile are both rejoicing in his death. Even the underclass, represented by two convicted felons, were also expressing their hatred of him. Here is a scene of terrible inhumanity, a world united to torture Jesus to death, while all the people mock the dying men especially Jesus. It is a picture of dark confusion. What’s all this about?
A few weeks later on the Day of Pentecost what a glorious change has taken place. Thousands of Jews and Gentiles alike are broken hearted concerning what they did to Jesus. Jew and Roman are united in their love for God the Son. Some months later a Roman centurion named Cornelius sends for Peter the Jew inviting him to come to his home for a meal with a message. Peter is the speaker. There in that Gentile home Peter the Jew and Cornelius become brothers; they’ve both been baptized by the Spirit into Christ. Soon Paul is writing to a church in what today we know as Turkey and he is saying to them, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gals. 3:28). All of them alike could have sung
“Long my imprisoned spirit lay
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night.
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray
I rose, the dungeon blazed with light.
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.” (Charles Wesley)
He who is the Light of the World has done one glorious work which has become the only way that anyone – slaves and slave owners, Roman citizens and barbarians, literate and illiterate, millionaires and paupers, old folk and children – may be released from their dark captivity to sin, and all be taught how to live and love one another, and all be given divine energy and grace to live as God requires. So because of his cross there is unity and brotherhood flowing today and uniting the nations of the world. The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. Jesus may have appeared to be a smoking flax on Golgotha but he was not extinguished. He came blazing forth on the third day and today he illuminates the nations of the world. The back of the tapestry looks utterly chaotic. The scene at the top of Golgotha’s hill seems without meaning. The loveliest and best is being tortured to death by moral morons, but turn that scene around and there we see that King Jesus who is hanging on the cross is reigning over the nations, bringing together all kinds and classes of men and women making them brothers and sisters in the family of God. “And I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me.” It is touching all of us simple men and women and all the world today. Let me close with one simple example.
A woman I know often goes to Nairobi and works there in a school. It is on the opposite side of the city from Keith Underhill and Trinity Baptist Church. She has been helping in an orphanage which her husband generously supports. There she met a little girl who was in the process of being adopted by a local preacher. He has been going to see her every week for a long time, bonding with her, and she loves him, so looking forward to his every visit. He came one Saturday to take her to his home permanently. Was she excited! He arrived and came into the room and she ran up to him and put her arms around him and hugged him and said, “You’re going to be my Daddy for ever and ever.” She had been an orphan, alone in the darkness of bereavement, but now through the bonds of Calvary grace which has given this man love for others in need, she has been united to a Christian family of which she is a part today.
17th February 2012 GEOFF THOMAS