In his account of the death of Jesus Christ, Matthew chooses to report more about the supernatural events surrounding Jesus’s death than about the crucifixion itself. In particular in our text, he describes five signs directly linked to the death of Christ – darkness (v. 45), the split veil (v. 51a), an earthquake (v. 51b), open tombs and resurrected bodies (v. 52-53), and the salvation of a pagan soldier (v. 54). Much time is wasted trying to discover how these things occurred; instead we ought to occupy ourselves seeking to understand why they happened. The importance of the three hours of darkness, for instance, is not whether this was the result of an historical First Century eclipse, but that darkness was a sign of the presence of great evil resulting in the judgment of God.
Of Christ’s seven sayings from the cross, Matthew records just one – chronologically, the fourth of seven. Shortly before his death, Jesus desperately cries out, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?”(v. 46). Matthew joins the Hebrew “Eli” (meaning, “my God”) with the Aramaic, “lema sabachthani” (meaning, “why have you forsaken me?”). The crowd of mockers mistakenly interpret His words as calling for the prophet Elijah (v. 49); but make no mistake, Jesus was genuinely experiencing the loss of communion with His Father. As human beings, we cannot fathom the agony of the feeling of abandonment by the One with whom He knew eternal intimacy. Christian theology developed the belief that it was at this moment that Christ bore the sins of all humanity, thus spiritually separating Him from His Father. One might ask, how is it possible for the eternal Son to be divided from the Father with whom He is in eternal Unity? We will not find the ontological nature of this division addressed in Scripture, and delving too much into this has led to much error. All we know for sure is that Jesus’s words, along with the testimony of the surrounding darkness, point to the absence of God at this significant point of human history. It must suffice for us to accept that while Jesus was forsaken, He was never separated from God.
Our text leaves us with great hope, as darkness is not the final sign. After Christ bows His head and yields up His spirit, tombs are miraculously opened and a pagan man is saved. This points to the fact that, in Christ, not only was atonement made and the wrath of God fully satisfied, but that His sacrifice was accepted and leads to new life – from death come resurrection to those who are in Christ!