************ Sermon on Matthew 27:54 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 2, 1999
Topic: Cross of ChristToday is Good Friday. In the "Good Hunter" of the Eskimos we see an image of the Christ upon the cross. Did you know, the early missionaries to the Eskimos proclaimed to attentive ears that Jesus Christ is the "Good Hunter" Who lays down His life for the world? Or, as Jesus Himself puts it,
Title: The Good Hunter
In long, hard winters it used to be that many in an Alaskan Eskimo village would go hungry and slowly starve to death. Only one thing could save the village: a young man of unequaled courage, armed only with a pointed stick, would volunteer to go out into the bitter cold until a hungry polar bear would find and attack him. In the attack the Eskimo hunter would wave his hands and spear to anger the bear and make it rise up on its hind legs to over ten feet in height; and then, with the spear braced to his foot, the hunter would aim for the heart as the weight of the bear came down upon his spear. With heart pierced, the bear often lived long enough to severely maim or kill the hunter; and if it died instantly, often its full weight of some 1500-1600 pounds would come crashing down upon the hunter, either crushing him or pinning him to the ground. Loving family and friends would then follow the hunter's tracks out of the village. Of course they would weep when they found his maimed, broken, or crushed body. But they would also rejoice over the young man's brave and willing sacrifice--for in the carcass of the dead bear they had the food needed for survival.
(Mt 20:28) "... the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many."
Today, Good Friday, we put ourselves into the shoes or the sandals of the centurion, the Roman soldier, standing guard over the cross. Like him we have gone through the three hours of terrifying darkness at midday. Like him we have heard our Lord's cries from the cross. And like him we observe the two things that happened the moment Christ breathed His last: the tearing of the temple curtain, and the resurrection of the Old Testament saints.
I First Sign: The Ripped Curtain
A At the moment Christ died, at the moment He gave up His spirit, at the moment His soul separated from His body, "the curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom" (vs 51).
Before we can understand the significance of the torn curtain we have to have some knowledge of the temple. The temple itself, as I told you last week, was composed of a series of courts or rooms. Gentiles could come as far as the Court of the Gentiles. Women could come a little closer, to the Court of Women. Jewish men could enter as far as the Court of Israel. Priests were allowed to advance a little further; they were granted access to the Court of the Priests. But the inner sanctuary of the temple, divided into the Holy Place and the Holy of Holies, was off limits even for priests except for specifically stated times and carefully proscribed purposes.
Within the Holy Place stood the altar of incense, the golden lampstand, and the table with the showbread. Only priests chosen by lot – such as Zechariah in Luke 1 – could enter the Holy Place to offer incense. And, as there were so many priests, it was a once-in-a-lifetime privilege – no priest was granted entrance into it more than once.
As for the Holy of Holies, in Jesus' day it contained no furniture. But this room – measuring 30 feet wide by 30 feet long by 90 feet high – was God's dwelling-place on earth; it was the place of God's purest holiness, august power, glorious brilliance, absolute righteousness, and untarnished faithfulness. Into this most special room no common priest was ever allowed to enter.
Now, back to the torn curtain. This was no lacy little thing, this curtain. It was a massive barrier, 90 feet high and 30 feet wide. It was woven of the finest linen, and exquisitely embroidered. It hung from wooden pillars plated with gold. This curtain divided the Holy of Holies from the Holy Place. It was actually a set of double curtains, 18 inches apart, space enough for a man to walk between.
The outer curtain faced the Holy Place and was opened on the left. The inner curtain faced the Holy of Holies and could be opened only from the right. The reason they opened from opposite ends?: to prevent the Holy of Holies from ever being accidentally exposed to public view. You see, God's dwelling place on earth, like God Himself, is so holy and awesome that no mere, sinful man can ever see its glory and live. To go beyond the curtain was the privilege of the high priest alone. And even the high priest entered this inner sanctuary only once a year, on the Day of Atonement. The high priest would pass through the double curtain into that special room. But he had to be washed and dressed in spotless white, carrying blood. He would sprinkle the blood around to cover the sins of the people as well as his own sins. When he was finished the heavy curtain would seal off the Holy of Holies until the following year.
The Holy of Holies – it could never be exposed to public view. That's why the heavy curtain hung there. Legend has it that for years the high priest entered the Holy of Holies that one day of the year with a long rope tied to one of his legs, so that if he (God forbid!) should suddenly die while in there his body could be dragged out by means of the rope without exposing anyone to the terrifying presence of the Lord!
B Do you know what that curtain really was? It was a barrier. It was placed in the temple to separate God from the people. It was hanging to separate the Holy of Holies from the rest of the temple. It is true that the temple was a meeting place for God and His people. The temple brought God and people together. In the temple the people found forgiveness and new strength from God. Yet, there was always that curtain. And the curtain did not say, "Communion," "Fellowship," "Togetherness." It said, "Separation," "No Admission," "Keep Out," "No Trespassing." The holy God was telling the common people to keep their distance from Him.
The curtain not only separated people from God, it also separated people from people. Only the high priest could enter God's holy presence in the Holy of Holies. Priests could come closer than Jewish men. Jewish men could come closer than Jewish women. And Jewish women could come closer than the Gentiles. The curtain was part of a system that kept up barriers between Jew and Gentile, male and female, clergy and laity.
C But on Good Friday the curtain was torn by the finger of God. We know it was torn by the finger of God because it was torn from top to bottom. God tore that curtain just when Jesus died. God tore that curtain just when the loving heart of Jesus stopped its beating.
And that torn curtain, do you know what it symbolizes? It symbolizes the abolishment of barriers between God and man, between priest and people, between Jew and Gentile, between male and female.
The closed curtain said, "No Admission," "Keep Out," "No Trespassing." But the torn curtain said, "ADMISSION TO ALL THOSE WHO BELIEVE IN JESUS."
Thanks be to Jesus. Because of Him the curtain has been torn. Because of Him the way is open for everyone to come to God: not just the Jews, not just the priests, but men and women, young and old, rich and poor, from every race and nationality; all are now welcome to walk into the presence of the Father.
Saint and sinner, I say, "Come on in! Come on in to the presence of God. Come where you may speak to God face-to-face. Come without fear, for Christ has paid the way. Come with thankful hearts, for Christ has opened the way. Come in faith, for it is only by faith that you can enter in."
At the moment Christ died, at the moment He gave up His Spirit, at the moment His soul separated from His body, a new and living way was opened for us to come into the presence of God (cf Heb 10:19-22). For that praise and thank God.
II Second Sign: A Resurrection of the Dead
A When Jesus cried out and gave up His spirit there was also an earthquake. The second thing that happened at His death involves this earthquake:
(Mt 27:51-53) The earth shook and the rocks split. (52) The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life. (53) They came out of the tombs, and after Jesus' resurrection they went into the holy city and appeared to many people.
At the moment Christ died, at the moment He gave up His spirit, at the moment His soul separated from His body, at that moment the earth shook. The earth shuddered when the Christ died. The Spirit wants us to realize that even the earth mourned when the Prince of Glory died.
Understood here, but not mentioned, is that the creation knew Who it was hanging upon the cross: the second person of the triune Godhead, He Who was with God in the beginning, He through Whom all things were made. Of everything in creation only man did not seem to realize Who was hanging there on the cross. The creation shuddered when the human form of its Maker died.
This means, of course, that the earthquake cannot be dismissed simply as a "natural phenomena." Rather, it was a sign from God. But, then, all of the wonders surrounding the cross – the 3 hours of darkness, the torn curtain, the earthquake, the resurrection of the dead – are miracles wrought by God.
B At the moment Christ died, at the moment He gave up His spirit, at the moment His soul separated from His body,
(Mt 27:52) The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
We see people rising from their graves. This is a statement that death has been conquered or vanquished. In the presence of Christ it is no longer able to keep the souls of its dead.
The Old Testament saints arise for the sake of Christ. We understand that at once. Death is not able to hold sway in the presence of Christ. The same thing happened when Christ ministered on this earth. Did you know that Christ broke up every funeral He attended? Whether it was the funeral of the widow of Nain's son, or the funeral of Lazarus, or the funeral of the daughter of Jairus – Jesus broke up the funeral by doing a resurrection, by raising their bodies from the dead. Death, you see, cannot stay in the presence of Christ. And, the same thing happened when Christ died – the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life because death cannot stay in the presence of Jesus.
How ironic that at the moment of Christ's death already, death loses its sting and is swallowed up in victory. This anticipates and foreshadows the resurrection of Christ on the first Easter. This also anticipates and foreshadows the general resurrection of all believers on the day of Christ's return. This becomes a message, then, that even at the moment of death there is no need for despair but every reason for hope.
C At the moment Christ died, at the moment He gave up His spirit, at the moment His soul separated from His body,
(Mt 27:52) The tombs broke open and the bodies of many holy people who had died were raised to life.
The resurrection and appearance of the Old Testament saints was expected as one of the great events of the Messianic Age. In this light, the incident in front of us marks the start or the inauguration of the Messianic Age.
One week earlier, the crowds thought the Messianic Age had finally arrived. They greeted Jesus as Messiah with shouts of hosanna, by waving palm branches, and by spreading cloaks on the road. When Jesus failed to live up to their expectations they yelled for His blood: "Crucify him! Crucify Him." Little did they realize what their demands would lead to; little did they realize that His death would usher in the Messianic Kingdom. How ironic that the suffering the crowds rejected or despised Jesus for led to the very thing they most wanted from Him.
III The Son of God
A Who is Jesus? Who is it that was crucified, dead, and buried? Was He just a man like you and me?
The Roman centurion and those with him, they were terrified when they observed the two things that happened the moment Christ breathed His last – the tearing of the temple curtain, and the resurrection of the Old Testament saints – and they exclaimed, "Surely he was the Son of God!" (Mt 27:54).
"The Son of God." Matthew's Jewish audience knew what this title meant. It meant that Jesus was not just an ordinary man. It meant He was and is God the Son, the second person of the triune Godhead. It meant Jesus stands in a special relationship to God the Father.
B The events surrounding Christ's death led the Roman centurion to confess and believe that Jesus was the Son of God. The Son of God, you see, is supposed to have supernatural power; His is supposed to be the ability to do miraculous signs and wonders.
Remember how Satan tempted Jesus at the start of His ministry? Jesus was very hungry after 40 days of fasting. And the tempter came to Him and said,
(Mt 4:3) "If you are the Son of God, tell these stones to become bread."Then he brought Jesus to the highest point of the temple,
(Mt 4:6) "If you are the Son of God," he said, "throw yourself down. For it is written: "'He will command his angels concerning you, and they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.'"Do you know what is Satan's temptation here? He was telling Jesus to use His power, as the Son of God, to save Himself.
At the end of Christ's ministry Satan comes with the same temptation again. The crowds, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, the elders, and even the robbers crucified with Him, mocked Him saying,
(Mt 27:40) "You who are going to destroy the temple and build it in three days, save yourself! Come down from the cross, if you are the Son of God!"
What a temptation this must have been, this taunt while He hung there upon the cross: "Save yourself and we will believe in you." But Jesus remains on the cross. Jesus refused to use His miraculous powers to save Himself. Why? Jesus knew this: to save others He could not save Himself. "Away from me, Satan. Since I must save others, I shall not save myself."
C At the moment Christ died, at the moment He gave up His spirit, at the moment His soul separated from His body, at the moment He finished His Work as our Savior, at that moment Christ used His power to show that He is the Son of God: the temple curtain was torn in two, the earth shook, and Old Testament saints were raised from the dead
In His death Jesus proved Himself to be the Son of God. The Roman centurion realizes this and, in faith, he bows down before Jesus.
You and I, we too are to confess our faith in Jesus. He is the Son of God Who opens for us a new and living way to the Father. He is the Son of God Who ushers in the glories of the Messianic Kingdom in which there is no more death, crying, or pain. He is the Savior Who refused to use His power, as Son of God, for Himself. Rather, He used it to save us.
Jesus, He is the Son of God, our Savior. His is kingdom, power, and glory. We owe Him our life, our love, our service, our obedience.
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