Of the four accounts of the Lord’s death, in the four gospels, we would invite the reader’s attention for a few moments to that given us by the inspired Apostle Matthew, as far as he recites the events which took place from the arrest in the garden to the death on the cross. It is in his narrative that we have the most complete exhibition of what man is, beginning with the disciples and ending with the thieves; and there also we have detailed how God acted after the Lord had died.
The chief priests and scribes and elders of the people were holding a council in the palace of the high priest. What was the purport of their deliberations? Were they desirous to stir up the populous to demand the just execution of Barabbas? Were they making arrangements for a due observance of the approaching feast, or framing regulations for the more effectual putting away of leaven from the midst of the people? Neither righteousness nor holiness prompted their conference. They were taking counsel together how they might capture and have put to death the Lord Jesus. True children of their father the devil, they hesitated not to commit murder and, following the example of the serpent, would effect their purpose by subtlety.
While their plans were as yet unformed, and uncertainty prevailed in the palace, Satan was preparing an instrument in the company of the disciples. Judas, rebuked by the Lord about the ointment six days before the Passover, became the ready tool for His betrayal (John. 12:1-6). Satan entered his heart, and he repaired to the chief priests. And, to show the real character of the rulers in Israel, this agent of Satan finds his natural place to be in their midst, volunteering his services, yet bargaining for his price. The betrayal effected by the defection of one disciple, resulted in the desertion of all, and the subsequent denial of acquaintanceship even with the Lord by Peter, confirmed by curses and oaths. Such is the picture, at this juncture, of that company selected by the Lord to be His attendants on earth, as drawn by one of themselves. They were weighed and found wanting. For, though John was subsequently found at the cross, he, with the rest, had first forsaken Him.
What of the chief priests and scribes, versed professedly in the law of God? The Lord stood before the council presided over by the high priest himself. There surely justice would be administered, and the forms of law be duly observed. But the spirit of justice had fled from the hall of judgment, for the judges became advocates to ensure His condemnation. They sought for false witnesses to put Him to death. To have listened to such knowingly would have been a crime. To seek for them was a heinous crime. Failing to find two witnesses that agreed, they condemned Him for speaking the truth; and, professing a zeal for God, they forgot the decency and decorum which judges should exhibit; they spat in His face, and buffeted Him, and allowed the servants to smite Him.
From Caiaphas He was taken to Pilate who had the power of life and death in his hands; while declaring His innocence, to pander the popular will, he pronounced the sentence of death. He knew He was innocent—he affirmed it again and again—yet set free a notorious robber and murderer, and gave over the Lord to be crucified. Not content with this, he had Him scourged, whom he had most solemnly pronounced to be righteous.
From the hall of judgment to the common hall was another step, which the Lord in His condescension was willing to take. Here fresh indignities were offered Him. Stripped of His own clothes, and arrayed in the mock emblems of royalty, the Roman soldiers, the whole band of them, bowed the knee before Him, and hailed Him as King of the Jews. With a reed for a scepter, thorns for a crown, and a scarlet robe covering Him, they mocked Him, spat on Him, and smote Him on the head. As King they deridingly hailed Him, yet as King they will one day see Him. With a vesture dipped in blood, a rod of iron where they placed a reed, and with many crowns on that head they wounded with the crown of thorns, will He appear, followed by the armies of heaven.
From the common hall to Golgotha was the next change, Simon of Cyrene being compelled to bear His cross. Nailed to the cross, He endured the railings of those who passed by. Who stopped to revile the thieves? None! Yet the passers-by reviled him. The chief priests too mocked Him, with the scribes and elders. Industrious in procuring His condemnation, eager too for His death, their enmity pursued Him even to the cross where they taunted Him with being forsaken of God. It was true He was for a time forsaken, and we can give thanks for it. But which of \those who said, “He trusted in God; let Him deliver Him now, if He will have Him: for He said, I am the Son of God” (Matt. 27:43), knew the value of their words? It was the bitterest taunt that was 1evelled at him, and suggested surely by the devil. Matthew alone records it. If any who joined in these words discovered afterward why He had been forsaken, what must their sorrow have been as they remembered what they had said. He was forsaken that we might know evermore the joy of being in the Father’s favor. Low indeed had He come down, but He would go lower, for “The thieves also, which were crucified with Him, cast the same in His teeth.”
Such was man, as Matthew sets him forth. We read in Luke of the confession of the repentant thief. Matthew tells of the boldness of Joseph of Arimathea, and John of the devotion of Nicodemus, but testified after His death. Of man, before the Lord died, Matthew has nothing good to relate, whether of the disciples, the Jews, the Romans, or the thieves. Till He died, God allowed man to act as he would. During the three hours of supernatural darkness, man seemed overawed, for we read of nothing done to the Lord till, at the close, when He cried out, the sponge full of vinegar was given Him to drink. Before that darkness supervened, man’s enmity was fully displayed. The vinegar tasted—this was the last act of indignity submitted to—the last scripture to be fulfilled while He lived received its elucidation and accomplishment, and He died. Beyond this world, man could not pursue the Lord.
Jesus yielded up the ghost, and God immediately began to work; but—let it be pondered over as it deserves—to work in grace. “Behold, the veil of the temple was rent in twain from the top to the bottom; and the earth did quake, and the rocks rent; and the graves were opened.” No house that we read of was destroyed by that earthquake; no one of that guilty company was killed;
Jerusalem was not engulfed; not an animal, not a dog was hurt. All must have felt the earthquake, but in the temple a wonder was to be seen—the veil was rent. Who witnessed it? It took place at the ninth hour, the hour of prayer, when the incense should have been offered up on the golden altar in front of it. Mysterious it must have seemed as the holy of holies was disclosed to one who had never seen it. From the top to the bottom, from heaven downward, the veil was divided, betokening a divine act, and that immediately on the death of Christ.
From the days of the sojourn at Sinai to the hour of the Lord’s crucifixion, a veil dividing the sanctuary into two parts proclaimed man’s inability to enter into the holy presence of his God. Adam in the garden after the fall felt this; God at Sinai confirmed it, though teaching by the ceremonial He Himself had appointed that a way might some day be opened. The Lord died, His body was broken, and the veil was rent. God, with His own hand, as it were, tore down what He had commanded Moses to put up, and that while the Lord was still hanging on the cross—a witness to the universe of man’s guilt. This was the first act of God after the death of His Son.
One sin was enough, had no sacrifice been found, to shut out man forever from the presence of God. That one sacrifice, when offered up, was enough to open a way into His presence for the vilest of the vile, and even for the perpetrators of that terrible crime. Had God then come forth from the thick darkness and vindicated His Son by the destruction of His murderers, who could have accused Him of injustice or of haste? Instead of that, He then opened a way for the sinner to enter the holiest. None at that moment could have understood the significance of a rent veil. None in the present day should stand for one moment in ignorance or in doubt about its meaning; for the Holy Spirit has declared it, and Heb. 9 and 10 are divine comments and explanations about it.
But further, the rocks were rent. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all speak of the rending of the veil. Matthew alone tells of the earthquake, the riven rocks, and open graves. And this is in keeping; for as we have in this Gospel the darkest picture of man’s sinfulness, in connection with the cross, we have also the fullest details of the actings of God in grace after the death of Christ. The rocks were rent-no unnatural accompaniment of an earthquake. But on this occasion there was something unusual, for the graves were opened, and from them (but after His resurrection, as the Evangelist is careful to relate) many bodies of the saints which slept arose and entered the holy city. As first-begotten from the dead, He rose first; but the graves were opened before the stone had covered the mouth of that new tomb, and had been sealed with the seal of authority. The graves were opened, but only bodies of the saints arose. The general result consequent on His death was shown in the opened graves; the special result for God’s saints was manifested when saints arose from the dead.
But why this seeming haste? Why was no interval allowed between the giving up of His spirit into the hands of His Father, and these manifestations of what His death had effected? Because the work was a finished work, and God would have sinners believe this. It is true, if Christ had not risen, we should be yet in our sins. Had the grave retained His body, it would have been because He was not spotless and able to make atonement. We have likewise been quickened with Him, and raised up with Him. But ere the sun sank that day beneath the horizon, some fruits of His death were made apparent. God’s own hand, we may say, rent the veil; God’s own power opened the graves. The sacrifice of His Son offered up, He waited for nothing more. No prayer of man was needed ere He could act. No supplication arose from earth to heaven, praying that the results of a finished work should be announced. Before the Lord was taken down from the cross, before the Roman governor knew He was dead, God by His acts declared some of the blessed consequences of Christ’s sacrifice; for what took place inside the city, within the temple, and what was seen in the rocky chambers of the tombs outside Jerusalem, spoke clearly and loudly of the finished character of that work.