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.”
Before we come to any word of explanation of what is happening here in the darkness we have to remember who it is who is hanging on that central cross. There is nothing extraordinary about crucifixions. Two other men were being crucified that day. Tens of thousands of men were crucified by the Romans. Neither is there anything unique about a darkness covering the land by a total eclipse of the sun – though this is not what we have here. Eclipses come with predictability all over the world. What is extraordinary about this cross and this darkness is the identity of this crucified man. On the cross is not merely a man, not only a good man, not simply a great man, but upon that cross there is dying the Messiah, the Son of the living God, the one who is the power and the wisdom of God. So that before we have any word of explanation, or word of indication, or even a word of apology we must first of all peer into this darkness and see this particular cross on which the Prince of Glory died in all its intensity and all its paradox. Who is he? Who is the one that has submitted to the scourging, and the mockery, and the crown of thorns, and the nails, and all the agonies of hanging on this cross?
Peter’s great answer is that this is our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Paul’s great answer is that this is the one who is in the form of God. John’s great answer is that this is the Word who was in the beginning with God and was God. In other words they all bring together the atonement and the incarnation. On the cross there is the Lord of glory and the Son of God. In the words of one of Jesus’ disciples, “They have crucified my Lord.” Supposing we take that fact, then how do we turn this darkness into a gospel, one that the church is determined to preach as its central theme, utterly incessantly, world without end, “Jesus Christ and him crucified”? What is he doing in that darkness so that it can be good news for us today?
1. HE WAS LOVING US AND PAYING THE PENALTY FOR OUR GUILT.
Christ, having loved his own that were in the world, he loved them to the end. He never stopped loving them. He put up with their quarrels and their ignorance and the ambitions of their mothers for them because he loved them. He washed the feet of all of them because of his love for them. He restored Peter because he loved him. Now he is laying down his life for them, and again it is because he loved them. He is saving his people from their sins, as the angel announced to Mary and Joseph at his incarnation. Paul says that Christ loved the church – all the people of God – and he gave himself for them in particular, not for some big featureless lump. They were not one monolithic, undiversified, characterless, faceless, monotonous, standardized entity. No mass production here like a vast sheet of postage stamps. These people for whom he was hanging in the darkness were his own people, given to him by the Father before the foundation of the world, individuals with names and identities. Paul said, “He loved me and he gave himself for me,” and every Christian can say that. It was a very personal and affectionate work that Jesus was doing in that darkness, taking responsibility for the salvation of people he was in love with, and he stuck to the task of redeeming them, every one of them, for all the hours of his arrest and dying and lying in the tomb dead. He never stopped loving us, and he never will. Even this moment he is concerned about us and intercedes for us until he’s got us where he wants us, in his presence for evermore.
It was because Jesus loved us that in the darkness he is paying the penalty for our guilt. In that darkness a penalty is being paid, a pardon is being bought, and a punishment is being endured. Now it may be that that is profound, but I do not think it is complicated. I ask you whether you know what a penalty is, you soccer lovers? Do you know what penalty points are, you car drivers? It is the result of wrong doing. It is the consequence of misdeeds. In our daily lives we see the fit and the sick, the old and young alike experiencing a penalty for breaking the rules. You failed to return the book you borrowed from the library on time and you had to pay a penalty for that misdemeanor. You parked where you should not have and you have to pay a penalty fine. You students were two days late in handing in a project and you were penalized. We see these things every day, and the New Testament takes that fundamental category, that very familiar idea, and it uses it to cast light on the darkness of Golgotha, on what is happening for three hours to the Son of God on that central cross.
There is a man on Calvary but he is more than a man, he is the God-man, Christ the Son of the living God. Why is he dying there like that? Death is the wages of sin. Why should this innocent man be dying the death of a criminal? Why isn’t he ending his sufferings and giving up his spirit to God? Why does the darkness last hour after hour? What is Jesus Christ, Mary’s boy child, who began his life sleeping in a manger, who was born in a stable in Bethlehem, who started off so very humbly, with all the beauty of a little baby – you can fill your mind with that endearing picture, infant holy, infant lowly for his bed a cattle stall . . . the little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head – but then move on, we have to move on because his life having begun was going somewhere just like your life, and every life, but his life ended on a cross. He was betrayed; he was arrested; he was scourged; he was punched and spat on. He was immolated and soon he will cry in agony of spirit that God has forsaken him. And you must recall that he didn’t only die there but that he was dead there. He tasted death and lay in a tomb for some days. That is not a theory. It is a historical fact that God’s holy child Jesus endured the wages of sin. The moment we say that Christ died then we are saying that he endured the penalty and punishment due to wickedness.
You see, where in the last analysis does Christ’s suffering come from? It comes from God. It pleased the Lord to bruise him. God spared not his own Son. He delivered him up for us all. God the Father is causing the darkness surrounding God the Son. Have you ever considered the appalling problem this creates? The blameless Son of God is dying and he is dying by the determinate counsel and foreknowledge of God. God is bruising God. God is forsaking God.
It is not the weakness of God doing this – that he would love to have delivered his Son but did not have the ability or power to do so. Then what is it? Is it God’s capriciousness that he is fickle and in a whim this unpredictable God is toying with his only begotten Son because of a mood that takes him? It is not that, then is it the malice of God, sadistically tormenting his Son? Impossible! He was always Heaven’s beloved one! Not the weakness of God, and not the capriciousness of God, and not his malice. Then it has to be the rectitude of God, in other words, the justice of God, the holy integrity of the Almighty, the absolute inability of God to condone sin. So the Son of man must go to Jerusalem, and he must die on the cross. He is bearing the punishment for us.
People have the curious idea that if you speak of Calvary in terms of a penalty and of punishment that somehow you are increasing the agony of our Lord. Now our theories of what is happening in the darkness, and our doctrine of the cross, and our explanation of why Jehovah Jesus is hanging there – whatever words we use to analyse the dying of the Son of God, they do not add one iota to the sufferings of Jesus Christ. If you should say that all the cross means is that Jesus stuck to his beliefs to the very end, then that doesn’t reduce the sufferings one atom! It only leaves it inexplicable why God allowed Jesus to suffer when the same God delivered lesser men, for example, Daniel from the lions and the three men from the burning fiery furnace and Paul from being stoned. The Father did not deliver his own holy Son. Why?
I am saying that in the darkness the Son of God on Calvary is experiencing the punishment of sin. I am explaining to you the content of his experience, what he is going through. He is enduring the punishment and shame of a criminal’s end. He is experiencing the penalty due to crimes done, compounded uniquely in his case by being forsaken by God. Jesus accepted that, that he stayed there on Golgotha, that he would not end the enfleshment, that his Father did not send legions of angels swooping down to deliver him, and Jesus did not ask for them. He endured all that for one unbelievable reason that he was loving trash like us and he was delivering us nerds and hypocrites from being punished for the guilt of our sins. He was taking our punishment there. That is why he was in the darkness.
You will never understand the darkness unless you see the absurdity of it, that in one place on this earth, where a degree of latitude crosses a degree of longitude, in historical calendar time, God bruised God, and why did he bruise him – of all men – the sinless one? Because the Father loved us, and the Spirit loved us, and the Son loved us and was bearing the punishment that we deserve for our sins.
2. HE WAS LOVING US AS OUR SUBSTITUTE.
What can justify such a darkness, covering such suffering, of such a person? It is the most monstrous anomaly apart from the Bible’s interpretation. What can justify God not sparing his Son but inflicting this upon him? The answer lies in one tremendous word, ‘for.’ He died for many. He died for the church. He died for sinners. He was made a curse for them. He paid the ransom for them. What does this word ‘for’ mean?
Would it be the ‘for’ of representation, that he is acting on their behalf? Well, Jesus is certainly doing that. He is our mediator and advocate and counsel with God. He pleads our cause; he speaks up for us. But an advocate does not bear the punishment of the accused and guilty man. He does not become the victim for the innocent; he does not suffer for him. He does everything to save his client, he uses all his gifts to spare him from judgment but it impossible for him to go on to bear the condemned one’s punishment. So it is not the ‘for’ of representation. Neither is it the ‘for’ of solidarity. Of course he identifies himself with us, sharing in our sorrows, standing alongside us in the miseries of life. There is solidarity, but there is limitation to that concept. You look at the words, “Christ was made a curse for us” and is the concept of solidarity enough to explain those fearful words, because solidarity would mean that he experienced the curse and we also experience the curse, and I am saying to you that the work of Christ in the darkness is such that he is accursed there in a way that we will not be accursed. He exhaustively bore the anathema. He has borne it so that we shall never bear it. We shall never taste the darkness that he tasted. It is not solidarity at all because solidarity is sharing and our Lord took the darkness of the curse comprehensively and exhaustively and so for us there is therefore no condemnation whatsoever.
So I say, if this ‘for’ is not the ‘for’ of representation, and not the ‘for’ of solidarity what can it be? It is the ‘for’ of substitution. Christ endured the penalty and he did so as a substitute. That is why he is in the darkness. It is Christ in our place, Christ bearing all that our sin deserved, Christ standing in the reputation of his people, hanging under the condemnation that his people merit and enduring exhaustively the wages due to his people for their kind of reputation
A substitute is someone who stands in the place of another. We are all familiar with it, even in modern sport, there are those whom the manager will send off the bench and onto the field to replace another player. He is the sub. There are unbelieving theologians who say that they can’t understand substitution, that someone could replace another. But the small boys in the congregation can understand this, and this is what is happening on Calvary. “Instead of the nation rising up under the leadership of Jesus and taking on the Roman Empire Jesus of Nazareth has to die for the nation, for its peace,” so said Caiaphas the chief priest. So in Christ the substitute there is an extraordinary change of place; there is a transference of guilt; there is a movement of responsibility from the sinner’s shoulders to the sinner’s Saviour. Christ lovingly takes the condemnation in the sinner’s place. He is there for guilt, and he is there for sin. He has identified with the sinner and effectively replaced him in the judgment of God.
Jesus is in the darkness between the two criminals as if he were also a thief, or a murderer, or a criminal. There must be some connection between the Lord Jesus and wickedness or else his hanging there is purposeless. He hung there because of God, and so if it is not because of the helplessness of Omnipotence, or the malevolence of God or the capriciousness of God – of God? The God who is love? – then I ask again what can be the moral basis of holy Jesus the Son of God dying there by the will of God! And my answer is in the word, ‘substitute’ because then and only then does the cross make sense, and the justice and integrity of God preserved. Jesus Christ is hanging there in the darkness in the guilt of his people; he is taking responsibility for their blame and shame; he has taken their obligation to answer to the God (in whose creation they live, and move and have their being in him. We all have to answer to God; we must be judged by him) and he is enduring the wrath that their sins deserve. That is what is going on in the darkness of Golgotha. It is penal sin-bearing; it is substitutionary sin-bearing.
In other words you go back to that great and marvelous concept of the apostle Paul, of Christ himself married to his church, and he himself taking responsibility for all her debts and wrong-doing. He is one with her. He stands in her reputation. He answers for her crimes because he is moved by his love for her. He unites all his people in all their liabilities to himself. This substitutionary relationship is one of love. It is not one of theology; it is not one of solidarity, it is his warm longing and desire for his people’s forgiveness, and that is the foundation of substitution.
In other words he died with such effect that we shall never die, and so we try to penetrate the darkness of the cross hour after hour, and we say that he died with such effect that we shall never die in that way. In that innermost shrine of the sufferings of Christ, in the darkness, in the cry of dereliction, “My God, my God why hast Thou forsaken me” we shall never know that, and we must rejoice in that. In other words you don’t think of your own Calvary because he died in that darkness with such anguish that his people shall never, never know. And in our days of utter despair we have to learn that in all things we have to give thanks that we have never been where Christ was nor will we ever be there. We will never be under the condemnation of the law because Christ has been there in our place
Let me use this illustration, that Paul was the church planter and the pastor of the Galatian congregation. By Paul the joyful news of salvation came to those people, of sins forgiven, hell subdued and peace with heaven. Those Galatian believers were no longer without God and without hope. They no longer feared the grave. They knew God and they knew themselves as forgiven sinners. They loved Paul who had brought this message to them. He says, “you did not treat me with contempt or scorn. Instead, you welcomed me as if I were an angel of God, as if I were Christ Jesus himself . . . I can testify that, if you could have done so, you would have torn out your eyes and given them to me” (Gals. 4:14&15). Do you see the depth of their love for him? They would have made any sacrifice to display to him how they loved him. They would have torn out their eyes and given them to him. They would have plunged themselves into lifelong darkness for his sake because of their love, and that is exactly what the Lord Jesus Christ did. He chose to enter into our darkness because of his love for us; he came from the brightness of glory and lived here in the kingdom of darkness. He pitched his tent in our darkness for thirty years and at the end, as it was concentrated on the hill of Calvary, he endured it and suffered there under God’s judgment in our stead. He is there in the darkness as our substitute in order that we may never know the outer darkness of which Jesus spoke.
The Lamb of God, says John, takes away the sins of the world. It is not just Israel’s sin. Here is cosmic redemption. Men and women, will you listen eagerly to this message of substitutionary atonement, of Christ hanging there for our sins? You may have heard it 2,000 times; will you hear it again? It came freshly to me as I was speaking to my friend Ian Hamilton of the Presbyterian Church in Cambridge. BBC Radio 2 had invited Ian to take part in a 30 minutes’ discussion with a Rastafarian and a Daoist (a branch of the Confucian religion.). They were both lecturers in London colleges. As the programme came to a close the producer asked them to share a spiritual experience they each had had. The Daoist was caught off guard and she asked that the tape be stopped for a minute. She had not been prepared for that, but then she composed herself. Her response was that the previous week she had dreamed she had seen an owl and then in the dream she’d also become an owl. The Rastafarian said he didn’t believe in spiritual experiences and was happy to live a day at a time. Ian Hamilton said that one day he heard that God had become a man and Christ had died in his place for his sins on the cross and ever since seeing that his whole life had been changed. He told me he had a large post-bag of grateful letters from Christians humbly thankful to hear the gospel spoken of on Radio 2.
There on Golgotha Christ entered this outer darkness where sin is condemned and he did it in our place, in order that we might enter the kingdom of light. He has submitted himself to the pain of it all that we might be given the joy of the kingdom of heaven. The Son of God suffered abandonment that we might see the Lamb in all his glory in Immanuel’s Land. My friend Jonathan Wood spent some summer months in Kenya near Kerachi, and one afternoon the pastor took him to a Christian orphanage where there were many children orphaned through their parents dying of AIDS. Jonathan spoke to them, and then with their bright eyes these little children gathered together and they sang to him this children’s chorus, which brought a lump to his throat,
“Soon and very soon – we’re going to see the King.
No more crying there – we’re going to see the King.
Maybe it will be today – we’re going to see the King.”
How do we know that bright hope? Because of the great accomplishment of Jesus Christ. What was that accomplishment? His preaching the Sermon on the Mount? No, it was that he became the Lamb of God and took away the sin of the world. You will remember how Paul is talking of the great humbling of God the Son, the one who was in the form of God and didn’t consider it robbery to be thought equal with God. Equal with God! Yes! Yet he humbled himself to death even . . . says Paul . . . even the death of the cross. How did Jesus die? “Oh, he died on a cross,” we say as we go on to other things. Even . . . says Paul, the atrocious and unspeakable death of the cross – that was how he died. Think of it! The one who said, “I am the light of the world,” is at the centre of gross darkness, and he is hanging there for this incredible reason, because he loves a sinner like me. What he is doing is delivering me from outer darkness where the worm doesn’t die and the fires are not quenched. He is delivering me by absorbing all that darkness into his own life and triumphing over it by his light. The light shone in the darkness and the darkness could not extinguish it. How do we know? Because on the third day he rose from the dead.
3. HE WAS LOVING US AS HE PROPITIATED THE WRATH OF GOD AGAINST OUR SINS.
That is what he was doing in the darkness. This word ‘propitiation’ is simply trying to impress upon us that the effect of the cross is to deal with the anger and with the wrath of God towards our sin. There was a famous pagan word that meant appeasement, and that word was always used to describe the effect of the pagan sacrifices. They were deemed to be sacrifices that placated the anger of their gods because of the people’s sin. And the New Testament chooses to use that word, quite deliberately. Not the apostle Paul alone (Romans 3:25 A.V.) but the apostle John too (I Jn.2:2 A.V.) uses that word because they both want to explain what was the effect of Christ enduring the punishment of sin in that darkness. What did the cross do for man? What service did it render? What blessing did the sufferings of Christ secure? We are told that the blessing it obtained was the blessing of appeasement. In the darkness by his death he was placating the wrath of a sin-hating God.
Again we are familiar with that. We have the 1930s policy of appeasement in the British response to the rise of Hitler and German rearmament. We had gone through a world war with a million young men from the British Empire dead. That was less than twenty years earlier and so Neville Chamberlain sought to appease Germany so that there would not be another World War. It was an understandable policy seeking first to appease a man like the Fuhrer who set on course of arming his country for war.
We also use the word ‘placate’ to express our response to someone who is angry with us. We want to avert that anger. We have forgotten to do something for our wives. We were asked to do it, and we promised to do it, but we forgot, and it was important. So we buy a bunch of flowers to take back to the house to help change our wife’s anger and frustration to understanding and forgiveness. We were there propitiating her anger and appeasing it with our expression of regret and our gift of flowers, trying to make her well-disposed towards us.
What I am saying is that our sin has come between God and ourselves, between fellowship with him and the enjoyment of his smile and love. There are problems, not only on man’s side, our misunderstanding and suspicion and coldness, but that there is on God’s side great realities. On his side there is a flaming sword. It is not simply our enmity but the vast reality of his wrath. It is spelled out in Romans 1 in great detail, that God’s wrath is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and all unrighteousness of man, that he is angry with the wicked every day. There is God’s condemnation of all that is cruel and mean and hateful, that God will not condone. He cannot look upon it. This condemnation is not a feeling on our part. It is certainly not a delusion on the part of fundamentalists. It is the splendid solemnity of the living, holy, loving God that he is not like the Sphinx, impassive whatever the cruelty he might witness. The Sphinx may be quite unmoved, but God is not.
There are two ways in which righteous anger can be appeased. The first is that it expresses itself in wrath and justice on the perpetrators of the wickedness. At the Nuremberg trials the just indignation towards and judgment of Nazi war criminals was placated in the capital punishment of its principal leaders. They were tried; their evil was exposed and they were condemned to death. Justice was done. That is very important. We have known the horror of a little girl abducted and presumably murdered, and the trial of the one accused of this crime is beginning tomorrow. The parents of the little girl want justice; the whole town where they live wants justice; Wales wants justice in the judgment of the one who did this unspeakable crime, whoever he is. No one wants indifference! Then, with the expression of our revulsion in his condemnation and punishment, to a measure our rage will be appeased.
You see propitiation in Jesus’ anger at the sharks and cheats and thieves working in the Temple precincts, the house of God, changing money and selling animals at highly inflated prices. Jesus made a whip and drove them all out of the Temple and overturned their tables releasing the doves and animals. “My house is a house of prayer,” said God. “You have made it a den of thieves,” said Jesus. He expressed his wrath towards them in word and in deed. We see it in that explosion of Jesus’ righteous justice in the Temple. Then, do you know what happened next? Jesus’ wrath towards them has been appeased, and he sits, and the people shyly and quietly gather round him coming from behind the pillars and from the other courts. They stand and listen after the awful wrong has been condemned and the Lord is in a state calmly to teach them and preach to them all because the wicked ness has been punished and he loves them. So I am saying that one way of appeasing wrath is to express it in a just and righteous way. That is why we have law courts and magistrates and prisons.
But there is another way and that is for God the Son to propitiate the divine wrath towards men and women in their place. He stands in the official place of execution, in their room and in their stead. He hangs in the naked flame of the divine hatred of sin. He will exhaust God’s anger towards their sin by taking the guilt of it, and accepting its punishment until God’s anger is appeased. He will take it into the lake of fire and utterly annihilate it. God demands judgment; God provides judgment; God becomes the judgment. God is appeased by God. God the holy Son is the condemned one. He is taking his identity from their sin, he is made sin and he bears all it deserves. He becomes the sin of his people; he is identified with their guilt and makes himself liable to their punishment and so satisfies God’s wrath towards them and their crimes. There was no mitigation, and no sparing. There was only the absolute recoil of God from the sin for which the Son now hung in that darkness.
If the wrath of God revealed from heaven against all the unrighteousness and ungodliness of man could be dealt with by incarnation then the life of Jesus would have stopped in Bethlehem, and he’d have returned to glory from the stable. If God’s wrath could have been dealt with by intercession then his life would have ended in the Garden of Gethsemane with God’s Amen and away to his throne he would have returned. But sin was such, the depravity was such, the guilt was such and the judgment upon it – all was such that salvation could not have been completed until the three hours of darkness were endured when he made propitiation for us sacrificing himself on Golgotha. For the pains that he endured our salvation has secured by appeasing all of God’s wrath against us. He became the holocaust, the burnt offering, ever so vulnerable to all the exactions of God’s righteousness, not spared though so loved. So believers can sing Toplady’s words, “The wrath of a sin-hating God, with me can have nothing to do. My Saviour’s obedience and blood hide all my transgressions from view.” There has been a complete propitiation for our sin in the cross.
In the darkness was a penalty paid, a substitution endured and a propitiation made, but you must believe. It is not enough that the event has occurred. In any isolation from it, in any absence of trust, in any absence of repentance for my sin, in any absence of commitment then even that darkness around that cross is of no avail. God is not reconciled to every single human being by the cross alone, but only by the confession and faith of those who come and plead it saying, “Jesus has died, so God be merciful to me a sinner.” The word from the great and famous text is that “whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” Not every soul here stands under the atonement of Jesus, only those who know a propitiation through faith in his blood. The benefits of Jesus’ time in the darkness only avail to faith. Its benefits are reaped only by believers, men and women who have nothing to commend them, who have none other hope in heaven or earth or sea, none beside Thee!
I would hope today that none of us is so misunderstanding Calvary that we imagine for a moment that simply because there was a green hill far away outside a city wall, that even in the absence of faith in the Lamb of God the event itself is somehow going to save us. And I must challenge every soul and ask if our faith is in it. Is our faith upon that blood? Is my faith in the crucified Saviour, what he did in the hours of darkness, going to be my covering for sin? God is love, and yet men may perish. Christ has died, and yet people go to hell, because although the offer is to you and to every Aberystwyth sinner, yet the promise of peace with God is only to those who have faith in Christ.
But I would also say that if we have faith today, then let us not look for more. Let us not seek better qualification. Let us not seek a higher, a more personal, a more praiseworthy platform to stand before God. Let us not say to God, “I trusted in you, but I also witnessed for you, and I did some good works, and I spoke in tongues, and I went to church every Sunday, so your sacrifice is now perfect.” The platform of forgiveness is the blood of the crucified Son, and that alone! That is the only demand, and that is the only requirement that God makes. He is my only argument and my only logic and my only plea. I the chief of sinners am, but Jesus died for me.
24th February 2013. GEOFF THOMAS