Wisconsin Lutheran Chapel logo

God’s Word for You

Luke 23:44-46 the curtain of the temple was torn down the middle

by Pastor Timothy Smith on Monday, June 24, 2019

44 It was now about the sixth hour,  and darkness came over the whole land until the ninth hour, 45 because the sun’s light failed.

The Gospels tell us that darkness fell from the sixth until the ninth hour. Since the hours were reckoned from dawn, this corresponds to darkness from noon until 3:00 pm. Luke’s remarkable phrase is, “because of the sun’s eclipse (ἐκλιπόντος),” but we know that an actual eclipse was not possible. Passover takes place at the full moon, the fourteenth day of the month (Exodus 12:6,18). Therefore this was a supernatural event, a miraculous darkening, and it took place all over “the land,” which might be Israel alone, or all of the Middle East, or all of the Roman Empire. The latter seems likely from other statements outside the Bible.

Tertullian (Apol. 21) wrote to the magistrates of Carthage and of the Roman Empire, saying, “At the moment of Christ’s death the light departed from the sun and the land was darkened until noon, a wonder which is related in your own annals and is preserved in your archives to this day.” No one has ever questioned Tertullian’s statement except the atheist Gibbon (Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire), but since Gibbon wrote in 1776 (long after Rome’s fall) and Tertullian wrote in 197 while Rome was still at its height, Tertullian’s knowledge of recent history and of Rome’s records is a far better witness. Even the Greek philosopher Celsus, who was an opponent of Christianity, recognized the darkness of Good Friday as a fact. And the apocryphal Acts of Pilate (Chapter 11) also mentions this.

How could the sun, one of God’s most remarkable creations, which was brought into being by the Son of God, saying, “Let there be” (Genesis 1:14-16), continue to shine on the horrors of those hours? God had made the sun to be the greater light, to govern the day (Genesis 1:16,18), and now another of God’s creations was telling God, “Cease to be!” Man can imagine that he has killed God, but the Lord is “King eternal, immortal, invisible, the only God” (1 Timothy 1:17). God said through Jeremiah, “Be appalled at this, heavens, be horrified. Be utterly desolate, declares the LORD” (Jeremiah 2:12 EHV). And Job said, as if prophetically, “Darkness comes upon them in the daytime, at noon they grope as in the night. He saves the needy from the sword in their mouth; he saves them from the clutches of the powerful” (Job 5:14-15).

In truth, no one was shining in these hours, no one but the Son of God, “the light that shines in the darkness” (John 1:5); “the sun of righteousness” (Malachi 4:2). He was carrying out the will of God to absolute perfection.

Then the curtain of the temple was torn down the middle.

Matthew and Mark tell us that the curtain was torn “in two” (Matthew 27:51; Mark 15:38). Luke puts it another way, that it was torn “in the middle” (μέσον). Luke’s word choice is instructive. The tearing was not just along one side, it was down the middle. These witnesses come from two Jews, one a resident of Jerusalem and evidently a member of the priestly family (Mark), and from one Gentile who investigated everything carefully (Luke 1:3).

How did it tear? It would have been impossible for the apostles to have gone into the holy place, let alone to have vandalized it, in the middle of the day on the day following the Passover just before a sabbath. The place would have been full of priests and Levites. It was not the mere age of the fragile old curtain, somehow coming unraveled. No, the curtain was destroyed either by God himself or by his angels, and this was accompanied by a violent earthquake. Matthew says that “the earth shook and the rocks split” (Matthew 27:51).

The symbolism of this historical event is clear: the function of the temple was no longer necessary. The curtain separating God and man, even the curtain of the Holy of Holies, was no longer required, for Christ has atoned for all mankind for all time. Now “we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain” (Hebrews 10:19). That “new and living way” is the body of Jesus. We have been sprinkled with his blood, and we have a fresh and permanent way to God

46 Jesus cried out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”  When he had said this, he breathed his last.

“Crying out with a great cry” (ϕωνήσας ϕωνῇ μεγάλῃ), Luke says. Ordinarily, death robs men of speech. Jesus was not robbed. He laid down his life willingly, voluntarily. He did not set aside his voice, however. He had said, “I lay down my life, only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down and authority to take it up again. This command I received from my Father” (John 10:17-18). He prayed, and in doing so he taught us an excellent dying prayer. Committing his spirit to his Father, he “expired” (ἐξέπνευσεν), letting out his final breath as he died.

What does it mean, that Christ died? “He was cut off from the land of the living, for the transgression of my people he was stricken” (Isaiah 53:8). He truly and really died, which is beyond our understanding. However, it is attested to by Scripture: “Christ has been raised from the dead” (1 Corinthians 15:12, 15). We are not yet talking about his resurrection, but without his death, his resurrection is impossible, as is our own. Just as Jesus was subject to other things as the result of the fall, such as the hatred of the Jews and the persecution and torture of the cross, so also he was subject to death, and he endured it with his body. His death was a real death because his spirit was separated from his body. The body—the dead body of the Son of God—was buried, as we shall soon see. The soul—the living spirit of the Son of God—was with God the Father; but God the Son was dead.

His death assures us that he entered the realm of the dead just as we will. But the glorious gospel comfort for us is that his death was the atoning sacrifice for all our sins. “For he must reign,” Paul says, “until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death” (1 Corinthians 15:25). In the act of dying, the prophecy of Eden was fulfilled. He had been hurt by Satan, but he had at the same time crushed Satan’s head, which is to say, he had defeated Satan and destroyed his power, including his power over death. In giving himself up to death, Jesus Christ gave himself as a ransom for all men.

In Christ,
Pastor Timothy Smith

Pastor Tim SmithAbout Pastor Timothy Smith
Pastor Smith serves St. Paul’s Lutheran Church in New Ulm, Minnesota. His wife, Kathryn, attended the Chapel from 1987-1990 while studying Secondary Education (Theater and Math) at UW-Madison. Kathryn’s father, John Meyer, was also the first man to serve as a Vicar at Chapel.

To receive God’s Word for You via e-mail, please contact Pastor Smith.

Browse Devotion Archive